Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
At one point, this was my favorite movie, as it's exactly the type of comedy we need more of. The movie's protagonists are painfully stupid and at no point ever seem like anything more than an exaggeration of the hair-metal worshipping teenagers of the 80's. The plot practically concedes the fact that it's going to be nonsensical and keen towards large leaps of logic right from the beginning. And yet, it delivers a thoroughly entertaining comedy that never lapses into the boundaries of bad taste or tired humor - even the recurring gags (i.e. the random fits of air guitar) get funnier every time. At least it's consistent - I get the feeling one heartfelt moment or display of 'real' emotion would ruin everything, but don't worry, as even when Bill and Ted get sentenced to death in medieval England their only reaction is "Bogus!" The other refreshing thing about the movie is how despite being essentially a satire on dumb teenagers, it's never once mean-spirited towards them (in fact, it downright paints them as heroes), and doesn't try to make any sort of unwelcome political or social point or any labored point of irony to mock these characters - it knows that it has no business being anything other than a straight comedy. Most of the humor is drawn from the downright hilarious performances from Bill Winter and Keanu Reeves (I know it's said a lot as a joke, but I seriously don't think he ever nailed a role the way he did this one) and their reactions to the issues that face them (and the reactions the 'straight' characters have to Bill and Ted), not to mention their ignorance towards all the important historical figures they encounter throughout time.
The plot is charming if ridiculous, exaggerated in the same way the main characters are (they have to pass their history class not just because Ted doesn't want to go to military school, but because it turns out the fate of the universe depends on it), and it's just bizarre enough throughout to allow a wealth of truly funny moments. Perhaps one of the greatest things about the movie is how it manages to be a hilarious comedy without ever using a single joke meant for gross out humor or shock value or even so much as a swear word - don't get me wrong, I'm never offended by that sort of thing, but many times it comes off as just lazy writing and a substitute for real humor. Instead, the film's humor is character-driven and sometimes remarkably subtle, realizing that it's much funnier to make jokes about the nonsensical things the characters say rather than just show them tripping over each other and getting hurt, as most movies with these types of characters do. This is why Excellent Adventure manages to still be funny by the 10th time you see it while something like American Pie certainly won't be. And that's why such a strange comedy as this gathered a big enough following that it was imitated heavily in the movies the following years (with Wayne's World being the only real good one). But sadly, I doubt there will ever be another movie quite like this. Grade: A
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)
Of course it's not going to be as good as the original, but after watching this for the second time I have come to the conclusion that this was more than a cash-in, but those who had their doubts about the original are probably going to hate this. The plot this time is even more ridiculous than travelling back in time to pick up Abe Lincoln - this time it involves evil robot Bill and Ted's, getting killed, meeting Death, going to Hell and back, then going to Heaven, and meeting a few space aliens all in the name of winning a "Battle of the Bands" contest. All this gives the film something of a needlessly convoluted plot, including a pretty boring and dragged out scene where Bill and Ted have to confront their fears in Hell. But even that has a few hilarious moments (Ted, of course, fears being sent to military school, so he is confronted by the drill instructor who tells him to "drop and give me....infinity"). The best scenes come from the evil robotic Bill and Ted, who are just as bluntly evil as the real Bill and Ted are bluntly dumb, and the interplay between the two pairs is sometimes brilliant. There's also a great performance by William Sadler as Death - yeah, there's a lot of humor derived from having a humorless character do funny things, but he plays the character in such a stern way that it kind of works. So it's hit-and-miss, but the better scenes are fantastic - the scene where Ted possesses his Dad and tries to convince the police to chase down the robot Bill and Ted is just fantastic and a perfect example of the bizarre and unique sense of humor this series excels at. But it can only carry this seemingly purposely hackneyed plot so far - the beginning drags on so long it pretty much grinds the movie to a halt before it even begins. So it sort of works - the idea of putting characters this simple into such an epic and complex story is a bold move, and at times almost feels like a brilliant satire of the types of bizarre twists some comedies will take in order to bring a weird premise full circle. I guess if you loved the first movie like I did, this is definitely worth at least a rental (although the DVD costs like three bucks anyway, so why bother) - there's still plenty of quotable lines, and again the characters' lack of depth makes them that much funnier ("How do we get back at these guys? They're smarter than us and stronger than us, and besides, they've already killed us once"). Grade: B
Don Chedale puts in a somewhat generic but never less enticing performance as the American-born Samir Horn, a character whose real allegiance is so vague that you find yourself just waiting for the double-cross plot twists. It's a drama/action movie, with a plotline that deals with Middle East terrorism and the cops working to stop it. You can imagine this means a lot of cat-and-mouse games between the cops and Samir, and that as the protagonist Samir will get the best of them. This movie also falls into the trap many action movies do - there is a point in which Samir finds himself in a terrible situation, who must either assist in doing something he is strongly against or face death - at which point he gains superhuman strength and the ability to knock out people with one punch, meaning that he is allowed to do pretty much everything he wants. Yeah, that's disappointing, and for a movie that spends this much time on the side of the terrorists, there just isn't enough time spent on their twisted political and religious views. So it's half a serious look at what motivates a man to commit terrible acts, half a generic thriller where people are predictably double-crossed, and it doesn't quite pass well as either, but it's well-done enough that I never really got bored. Apparently the screenplay was written by Steve Martin (yep, that Steve Martin) and it's plenty decent, portraying the terrorists as evil but somewhat rational without even making the theoretically-insightful parallels about America that many of these films do. Grade: B-
American Gangster (2007)
The fact my girlfriend didn't fall asleep during this movie was a testament to it's greatness. Both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe put in stellar performances as a drug kingpin and the man assigned to stop him, respectively. In a way it reminded me of the Godfather movies, featuring gangsters as protagonists, and painting policemen as sometimes being just as corrupt but unwilling to admit it. That is one of the central themes of the movie - yes, the gangsters do kill people, but never innocents, and they do sell enough cocaine to ruin a community, but at the same time offer to help the poor and disadvantaged. In a way, they run their own version of government, whereas the real government workers, the policemen, simply exist to look the other way and profit because they can. The conclusion is made, however, that without the gangsters, the police would be out of jobs, and that in a way, the gangs provide just as much "community service" as the cops do. It's silly, but thought provoking, and the fact that this actually happened makes it all the more compelling. But in the end, it's the amazing performances and great filmmaking that make it's 2 1/2 hours seem all too short. This has got to be the movie of the year. Grade: A
I have a weird relationship with Adam Sandler - I feel compelled to see his movies based on a handful of good performances I remembered as a kid (that, as an adult, don't seem nearly as great), and no matter how much his recent movies suck I always figure I can give him another chance. This was a pretty big blockbuster about a man who gains the ability to control time and his surroundings with the click of a button, all the while ignoring "what's really important", just so that we can get a long, drawn out scene where he realizes the error of his ways. Actually this is longer than you'd think - the entire last 30 minutes of the movie is nearly devoid of humor. Which doesn't mean there aren't attempts - for example, a character who shows up to swim meets in a Speedo is found to wear a Speedo even when he's in formal clothes, even though it's 20 years later. The strange thing is that for the 'serious' turn it takes, much of the humor from the rest of the movie is drawn from things like dogs humping stuffed animals or unwarranted cruelty to children, Adam Sandler style. I mean, this is almost in worse taste than the humor in Happy Gilmore - there's a scene where Sandler goes into the past to see his birth, whereupon his parents remark on how small his wiener is; prompting him, back in the present, to tell his parents that "it got bigger". When they make fun of how small it was, saying "it looked like a Tic-Tac!", Sandler responds with "well let me freshen your breath for you". Clever? Maybe, until you realize that he told his parents to suck his dick, which is pretty (unintentional) bad taste. But that's the order of the day here - the only truly bizarre and funny parts come from Christopher Walken as Morty, with the rest of the humor as blunt and tasteless as you've come to expect from Sandler. Even worse is that sometimes the movie does make a few neat gags that really ARE clever, until a character points out what the joke is, thereby making it much less funny. Anyways, there's a story here - Michael Newman (Sandler) is a guy with a nice job and a family, being married to the incredibly hot Kate Beckensale, but never finding enough time for them because he's always just this close to getting a promotion. He goes to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to find a remote control (for no reason other than the random product placement that you'd expect in an Adam Sandler movie) and ends up finding one that lets him perform its functions in real life. So, when he pitches an idea for a hotel to Japanese businessmen, he can translate all their dialogue when they tear it apart in their native tongue, allowing him to repeat their ideas back to them in English, making the Japanese men willing to accept his business despite having no original ideas. This causes Michael to work harder and ignore his family because he's sure he'll get promoted, and slowly realizes that he hates his job, his parents, and having sex with Kate Beckensale. Of course, he now has the ability to skip it all, only to find that in the meantime he lived his life as a husk, and somehow nobody noticed, and now he's fat, his family hates him, and he doesn't have the option to stop skipping parts of his life for some reason, so whatever, you know where it's going from here. So it's more heavyhanded than your typical Sandler comedy, all the while remaining in even worse taste, and once again the ending is just too clean and tidy - of COURSE he gets his second chance. Either way this a bad combination - this could have been a passable comedy or an interesting drama, but a drama with Adam Sandler-style comedy just is not going to work. Grade: C-
Dr. Strangelove (or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb) (1964)
If there's one thing I found profound about this comedy, it's that originally it was a drama, but the actual situation of the Cold War was so absurd that Kubrick couldn't make the movie straight-faced. It's the blackest of black comedies, given the subject is the annihilation of the human race in a nuclear holocaust, but it's the grimness of the situation that makes this movie work so well. The story is based on a crazy general who orders a surprise attack on Russia (who comes to the conclusion that this is necessary based on his troubles in the bedroom), designed in a way that even the President's Cabinet is useless to stop it. Even as they try to infiltrate the base that called the attack they are stopped because the base's soldiers are told that the Russians were invading, disguised as Americans. The humor is derived from just how hell-bent many of the army personnel and political figures are on war - Major Kong, who is delivering the airstrike, is downright giddy to be a part of it. The figures in the War Room come to the conclusion that Russia should be allowed retaliation, but it is discovered that they also have an unstoppable reaction plan set that's going to destroy the entire world if the plane's strike hits. Perhaps the darkest part of the movie is that the people in the War Room seem to accept this as a 'fair' compromise. But enough about the plot - there's an abundance of classic scenes, hilarious lines, and downright compelling storytelling, and both George C. Scott and Peter Sellers put on the performance (or in Sellers' case, three performances) of a lifetime. It's the best movie about nuclear war ever made, and maybe the best black comedy too - I certainly can't think of any example of this sort of thing done better. Of course, it's deeply political, and just believable enough to make us wonder if something like this could have really happened, but also offers some pointed psychological commentary as well. Let's just say, if you saw the bomb that Major Kong rides to the ground in the movie's most famous scene as not just a bomb but the ultimate extension of one's manhood, well, you're on the right track. Highly recommended. Grade: A+
This is essentially one of the greatest home videos ever made – the filming is cheap, the actors can’t really act, the storyline isn’t very coherent, and yet it remains pointed and entertaining. The film is more or less a collection of skits involving 20-something slackers Dante and Randal, a couple of clerks who play tricks on their customers as a way to elevate themselves from their mundane working status. They’re clever and arrogant, rattling away endless pop culture references offhandedly and having the kind of fast paced conversations that nobody actually has. It’s these offhand comments and witty remarks that really form the basis of this film, and as unrealistic as some of the scenes can be, the film reminds those of us who are in the same age range as our heroes of ourselves in some uncanny ways, and if not ourselves at least somebody we know. People who don’t like the hand life dealt them but don’t bother drawing a new one; people who talk about bizarrely sexual acts so matter-of-factly that they might as well be talking about arranging furniture; people who mess up their love lives in ways that only they are oblivious to. It’s this sense of familiarity with these guys that makes the film hit home, but in the end it’s still just a collection of gags, some of which never quite get there. I don’t think director/writer Kevin Smith is exactly a master of subtlety, and some of the gross things that happen in the film don’t really induce a lot of laughs – plus, the movie’s plot is hackneyed, and it can be argued that there really isn’t one. But much of the dialogue really is brilliant, even if a good chunk of it is only about the tiny details of the Star Wars movies - and that’s how this movie launched Smith into the big time despite not even having enough money to film it in color. Grade: B+
Clerks II (2006)
Kevin Smith was in the midst of a career low when he did two things he said he would never do – bring back Jay and Silent Bob (merely ONE film after he promised they were gone for good), and make a sequel to Clerks. Smith repeatedly said that it was not a cash-in and something he believed in, but I’ll be damned if the movie ever seems like anything but. I knew that when even Jeff Anderson (Randal Graves) said he had his doubts that the movie was going to be trouble, especially since you’d think he would need the work more than anyone. Regardless, I liked the first one (and the animated series) enough to see this one, hoping that it would at least have enough moments worthy of the first movie to prove entertaining. After all, this was not a sequel that needed to be made – I think most of us assumed Dante and Randal would move on with their lives, albeit slowly, and in the end I doubt anyone cared about what these characters are like now. The big mistake this film makes is assuming we can still care about them – when they’re in their 20’s, we can sympathize – after all, they have their whole lives ahead of them; besides, we all know what it’s like to be in a crappy job at a young age. Now that they’re in their 30’s, it’s a lot harder to sympathize – they have seemingly done nothing over the last ten years except become slightly more cynical.
I guess the big problem is that it just can’t capture the vibe of the old film – after all, the original was based somewhat in reality and had that unmistakable air of familiarity, no doubt because we knew that whoever wrote the film had worked this kind of job himself. But this film is even more out of touch then I expected – when I heard one of the characters was an internet nerd who loved Lord of the Rings, I figured Smith of all people could write him in a way that was convincing to those of us who know such people…well guess what, it’s a total exaggeration, and the character acts in the stereotypical nerdy way that they do in most bad comedies (totally inept, delusional, clumsy, completely oblivious to the outside world, borderline mentally challenged). And that’s the order of the day – characters acting in ways that no real person ever would in the name of selling bad jokes. It’s your typical Hollywood gross-out comedy, except that in the end it becomes your typical Hollywood ROMANTIC comedy, complete with theoretically-profound preaching near the end (isn’t it like, our RIGHT to be slackers?)
This is yet another comedy that substitutes vulgarity and attempts to shock where real humor should be – it even makes the original Clerks look like a masterpiece of subtlety. There’s maybe two or three good jokes out of a hundred, but even worse is how worn out everything is – Jay and Silent Bob have nothing to say, every plot device is thoroughly unoriginal and forced, and even at times nonsensical (Dante and Randal leave work to play Go-Karts?). Randal in particular turns from witty to plain obnoxious, and Dante is now whiny and intolerable. And the big-budget treatment only highlights the point that these guys just can’t act. Yet still, the movie can’t bring itself to separate from its precursor, and therefore forces trite observations about pop culture that fall flat on their faces (The Lord of the Rings movies were slow paced? How original!)
What are we left with? I guess Rosario Dawson put in a good performance. But even her scenes just made me angry – a dance scene set to “ABC”? That’s not interesting, and not even funny in an ironic way. What it is is a cliché, something that the movie has in spades (just surpassing the number of jokes that attempt to get by on vulgarity alone). So Smith took his best movie, took away everything original about it, made us hate the characters, and not laugh in the process. At least he doesn’t see it as a cash-in. Grade: D-
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
My mom had rented this movie based on its acclaim alone, and spent most of the first half thinking that it was a fictionalized tale shot documentary-style before realizing that these were actually real people. That really says a lot about how interesting this movie really is. Okay, so parts of it are embellished and some key facts left out, but in the end we have a story that actually is (mostly) true, dealing with two of the most complex characters to hit the silver screen all year. The protagonist is everyday family man Steve Wiebe, a 30-something science teacher with a wife and kids and a just a touch of OCD. He’s settled into his role despite the longing of his past – he had dreams of being a musician and an athlete, and the fact that he ended up pretty good at them only amplifies the disappointment of failing at both. The man’s clearly got talent and yearns to leave his mark on the world, but given his work and his family, fears he may never be given the chance. Nearly by accident, he discovers Twin Galaxies, a website devoted to celebrating and honoring high scores and realizes that he could probably get the highest ever score in a game of Donkey Kong. It is here that Wiebe sets on his quest, and indeed does destroy the current high score, only to be suddenly discredited by the previous record-holder, Billy Mitchell.
Mitchell is a more mysterious figure - long haired and bearded, he’s smug, but he’s earned it, achieving records in numerous games (such as being the first person to ever play a “perfect” game of Pac-Man), earning success in the hot sauce industry and spending his days with his trophy wife. He’s Wiebe’s enemy and he’ll seemingly do whatever it takes to discredit or even humiliate him, appearing to hold no respect for the man’s impressive feat – after all, it implies there’s someone better than him, something that Mitchell seems to be afraid of, to the point where even the lackeys he surrounds himself with seemed to have been picked because they shared his passion but wouldn’t stand a chance at beating him. He’s deservedly a legend in the gaming world and never turns down the opportunity to self-promote, even staging photo shoots with models in order to increase his status.
And thus the war is waged, as Wiebe attempts to prove that he’s the real deal and set the high score in front of a live audience. Now if this was a real Hollywood movie, we can see how the story might play out – Wiebe’s obsession causes his family to leave him, motivating him even further to set the record, which he eventually does, leading to a showdown between Mitchell and Wiebe in which Mitchell pulls at least one dirty trick before being sent to jail (or revealed to be secretly gay, whatever), after which Wiebe finally finds vindication and rejoins with his family a changed man. But this is real life – Wiebe’s wife doesn’t leave him, but she’s clearly not amused and seems to quietly wonder if her husband is losing it. Even his daughter wonders aloud if Steve is ruining his life for a small piece of fame (as the records were picked for inclusion in the Guinness book). They’re sympathetic for his failures, but not really excited for his successes. And the actual ending is about as unconventional as could be, as the promised climax never really happens.
Perhaps the saving grace of the movie is that it’s not about video games – it’s about a couple of brilliant minds who decide to use their talent to capture a small slice of history, complete with all the local news interviews and small displays of recognition it comes with. It’s about a man desperate to find a way to use his talents, only to get shut down several times along the way. It’s about the seriousness in which subjects that 99% of the world’s population would find trivial are taken by the dedicated – and the sense of entitlement those who master it feel. Grade: A-
Jumper is about a guy (and then, two guys) with the ability to warp anywhere, but mostly it is about a director assigned with the task of showing off cool special effects at the cost of any believability the film could have had. Case in point: in one scene, the two jumpers are driving a car as fast and reckless as possible, while making the car warp all over the place in order to avoid crashing. For example, they show the car hurling wildly toward a mother and her baby, only to have it warp into the air and then back onto the road. Crisis averted, but an explanation as to why a mother is cluelessly walking her baby across the middle of a very busy street is not given. Why these two people feel the need to drive when they can teleport is another question entirely. Honestly, I was rooting for David to just teleport himself into a wall, as he has got to be one of the least likeable protagonists in some time. He’s not only abnormally arrogant and cocky (even for a 22-year old who gels his hair), but also has a very low moral standard, using his power to rob banks and trick women into sleeping with him. Plus, apparently he does not have to explain himself to anybody – he leaves his hometown and returns eight years later for his high school sweetheart, who barely as much as asks where he’s been, even once it’s explained that most residents assumed he died. Despite all this, the film asks for some sympathy, because, you know, his mother left him and his Dad’s a drunk.
Anyways, at one point, David runs into Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Samuel L. Jackson, a man who unthinkingly punches out police officers to serve his own ends. Jackson is trying to kill David because he thinks only God should be able to be “in all places at all times”, although David has never cloned himself. Apparently he’s just one of many “paladins” who want him dead, and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game, with David meeting another jumper with the incredibly stupid name of Griffin, getting thrown in jail, and having a pretty cool battle scene that takes place all over the world. I guess those fight scenes were neat, but in the end this is a movie without one even vaguely likeable character, or one with even a 5th graders’ understanding of cause-and-effect. Grade: D+
This was the movie that first brought Texas Hold’em to the public consciousness, back when the WPT and PartyPoker was just a gleam in Mike Sexton’s eye - it seemed that practically everyone whoever won a big Hold’em tournament during the poker boom cited this movie as their inspiration to play cards. There’s always talk about movies like American Pie or Judge Dredd being a bad influence on kids…well this is a movie that’s a bad influence on college students, causing many to drop out and lose their life savings in order to emulate Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), a law student who finds poker as his true calling. This movie takes a bit of a dramatic license on the nature of poker, ensuring us that there is not really a luck factor at all, and that the skilled players will always beat the tourists. That’s definitely not true (just look at some of our WSOP champions), and the movie does confuse skill and luck on a few occasions. I love Mike's inner dialogue during the famous hand that opens the movie, but let's face it, in a heads-up match, full house over full house is going to cause the lesser one to go broke regardless of how good he is. So there’s a lot of poker drama here, and yes, a number of groan-inducing moments where characters use poker terms in non-poker sentences, just to drive home the point that these guys play a lot of poker. So the movie is not very believable, even having a film-noir feel in spots (in particular, John Malkovich’s role as Teddy KGB is so over-the-top it has to be seen to be believed), but in the end it’s a drama with a fine sense of suspense and action, and even if it’s only about playing cards, it’s hard not to be engaged. And it’s wickedly funny in spots, especially whenever Worm (Edward Norton) makes an appearance. Plus, Mike McDermott, superhuman poker skills aside, does actually seem like a real person – he’s got some glaring flaws too, and you get the sense he’s going to overestimate his skills at a time when he can least afford it – Damon plays this part well. It’s all useful, because one of the decisions he makes at this film’s climax is so gratingly stupid that it nearly destroys his credibility as a character. But then again, few things in this film are very believable - now that internet poker is allowing people to have played millions of hands by the time they’re old enough to go to Vegas, the real 20-something poker prodigies have arrived, and they definitely do not look or act like Matt Damon. Despite all that, if you don’t play poker, this movie will make you want to start, and if you do…well, then you’ve probably seen this movie 100 times already. Grade: A- (as much as I hate to admit it)
21 is kind of like Rounders, except it’s about Blackjack, and instead of reveling in its own ridiculousness, it's oblivious to it. This is based off a true story, but it’s been twice bastardized, and it’s much less entertaining than the documentary. That’s probably because the powers that be they saw hit potential in the story (for some reason) and turned the story from counting cards and beating the system to a generic Hollywood flick. The conflict is that Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) needs $300,000 to go to Harvard to be a doctor (despite being a math genius), and decides he absolutely needs a scholarship to go. Luckily, there is one being offered, but while meeting with an advisor, he is informed that despite all his impressive academic achievements, the scholarship committee is looking for someone who stands out, and Ben is just a plain ol’ nerd. Now, given what we know about this movie at this point, we can just say, “I’d like to solve the puzzle”. My guess was this – Ben is discovered by the MIT Blackjack group, doesn’t want to join, but eventually sees it as his only option and reluctantly accepts and says he’ll quit once he gets the money for school, flocks to it immediately, makes a ton of money, gets caught up into the lifestyle, ignores his friends, keeps going despite reaching his initial goal, then has it all crashing down, gets forced to revert back to his normal lifestyle, has to convince his friends to hang out with him again despite ignoring them, and wins the scholarship by telling his story. The only thing I missed was how the love interest would play out, but as soon as she appears on screen as “the girl that’s too pretty for Ben or his friends to even make eye contact”, I was able to get most of that too.
The sad thing is, for a bunch of MIT whiz-kids, they are actually quite stupid. I don't even blame him for being oblivious to student loans, as he apparently also has no idea what a bank is. His rise to the top of the crew is only based on his ability to keep a running count (not that hard, I assure you – a 5th grader could do this). The signals they use to bring in the big-money players when the count is high are blatant, and they always sit near each other, leading me to believe that they desperately wanted to get caught all along. Luckily for them, the security chief (Lawrence Fishburne) is even stupider, as it takes him weeks to figure out what is going on. The movie handedly ignores the real difficulties of counting (the distractions), reducing it to a simple game of “+1/-1”, as well as the reality that counting cards only gives you a small advantage over the house, and that these MIT guys really only made around $80/hour doing it. Plus, they were predominately Asian. I guess I have to give credit where it’s due – it was watchable and well made, and I guess if you want a popcorn flick you could do worse. On the other hand, I did not like a single character in this movie. Draw your own conclusions. Grade: C-
High Roller – The Stu Ungar Story (2003)
To what extent can Hollywood ruin a perfectly fine story? Stu Ungar’s true story is so fascinating that the man sounds like more of a tall tale than a real person. He was something of a savant, a man who was not only a great poker player, but also perhaps the best backgammon and gin player in the world, devising a strategy that was so good that nobody would ever willingly play him. His skills were damn near legendary, able to count down a 6-deck shoe to its final card, able to call huge bets with nothing but 10-high in poker, and winning large sums of money by telling his opponents exactly which cards they held in gin. This movie does not really show much of that, instead focusing on the tragic parts of his life – his constant mismanagement of his money, his drug addiction (which was initially fueled by his desire to play more hours at the table), and the relationships in his life that fell apart. Yep, here is another Hollywood story about the man who grew up in an unstable environment, discovered his skill, had it all and lost it, only to get it together and take his final shot at glory. The sad thing is that it skips so many more aspects of his life, and bungles the angles it tries to play. Casting Michael Imperioli was a bad move – Stu Ungar was an awkward guy, known as “The Kid” because he looked many years younger than he was. Perhaps this manifests itself over the course of the movie, which spans 20 years but does not change Imperioli’s look one bit. I suppose the movie’s uplifting moment is the moment where Ungar comes back and wins his final WSOP, but it comes with a scene of his ex-wife meeting with him for the first time in years, and commenting “you look good”. In reality, Stu’s “looks” were so ravaged by his years of cocaine use that sunglasses and rhinoplasty could not hide it – everyone watching the broadcast knew that Stu exactly why “the kid” was off the circuit for so long just by looking at him. And I suppose if Hollywood could change history, they’d have him turning his life around, ending the movie on a scene of him watching his daughter graduate college as a totally clean and respectable man. I give props to the filmmakers for incorporating a few of the bizarre details of his life into the film, but they absolutely did not capture the essence of their subject – he’s just another good-looking guy who had it all and lost it. Grade: D+
House, Season 1 (2004-2005)
This is one of the most popular shows currently on TV, and although I usually don’t use popularity as a barometer, the public are definitely right – this is one of the most gripping, provocative, and downright entertaining shows of the decade. It centers around one of the most complex characters to ever hit the small screen, a brilliant doctor who has nothing but contempt for his patients. Granted, this kind of character has been done before on shows like Scrubs and (**shudder**) Becker, but Hugh Laurie portrays the character so well that he seems real despite being so unique. House isn’t just standard brilliant – he’s world-famous brilliant, but his mind is so geared toward the scientific and the rational that he is unable to form any real relationships and is unquestionably miserable in his life. He’s also pretty much a jerk to everybody, which is a tough trait to pull off in your main character, but given how funny the guy is (if it wasn’t also a good drama, House would make a great comedy) and how much the other guys deserve it, this really isn’t so bad. Rounding out the character is his addiction to Vicodin, a result of chronic leg pain, which probably explains part of the reason why he’s so bitter. To balance the character we have his team – Foreman is a stern and sometimes arrogant man who adapts many of House’s traits, regardless of how much he tries to fight it, Cameron the caring female doctor who tries to understand the personal side of the patients, and Chase who is kind of the suckup, who is kind of a rich pretty-boy doctor, brandishing obnoxious hair and a thick Australian accent. Rounding out the cast we have Dr. Wilson, head of the Oncology Department and his only real friend, who offers insight into his personal life, and Dr. Cuddy as House’s boss, who attempts to keep him in check.
So the episodes go like this – it opens with a scene featuring somebody getting hurt or falling over or something else that would get them taken to the hospital. House and his team attempt to figure out the diagnosis, with House usually shooting down each one and then figuring out a theory as to how to treat the patient. At this point House tries something invasive to get more information on the patient and Cuddy tries to shoot him down. House usually wins, but still they misdiagnose the patient several times before House sees or hears something that appears unrelated to the case but gives him a fundamental clue and cures the patient in the end. Usually the real diagnosis is something extremely rare and in some cases probably made up. Ah, and pretty much every episode follows some version of this plot. Repetition indeed, but that’s the format of the show, and the plots and the dialogue are often so good that you don’t really mind. The show got off a strong start – most of these episodes are very well done and attempt to provide some insight into the main character. There is one story arc, where House pisses off a man who donates millions to the hospital, and while it’s nice to see House have people that hate him, the ending was really pretty unrealistic. You do get the sense that the show is taking a lot of dramatic license, but in the end the over-the-top nature is a benefit – it’s all very enticing, and watching the split between House’s personality and the others on the show is always entertaining. This is probably the best show currently on TV. Grade: A
House, Season 2 (2005-2006)
The series premiere pretty much demonstrates what you need to know about House – the patients this time are an inmate on death row with unexplainable fits of rage and delusions, and a 30-something woman with deadly cancer. As the inmate’s case is more interesting and the woman’s case more cut-and-dry (it seems she will die no matter what is done), House decides to use all the hospital resources he needs in order to cure a person who is going to die anyway. Of course, you’d think the ever-logical House would realize how silly this is and not take the case – but it’s here we realize that House sees each case as a nagging riddle that takes precedence over every other aspect of his life. Having established the characters a bit, this season takes the time to develop them, particularly showing the lengths House will go to in order to get what he wants, and the fact that he DOES have some normal human emotions, despite his attempts to suppress them. Last season it was introduced that House had a girlfriend at one point – she is now married and works in the hospital’s legal department. Considering that House uses that department more than anyone, this is grounds for a lot of standoffish behavior from the two. But it’s found that House does still have feelings for her, and the series goes on a pretty dramatic story arc showing House actually acting selfless for once. Later in the season, we get a neat story about coincidence vs. religious intervention (you can guess which side House is on), and a great two-parter where the team must work against time to save one of their own. Very dramatic, but it’s very well-done – it’s rare to see a show hold this kind of consistency. Towards the end of the season the show goes into overdrive, and the final episode is hands-down the strangest and most thought-provoking yet – it really left me guessing until the final minute. Grade: A
House, Season 3 (2006-2007)
This season looks at House’s drug addiction as serious problem, as we learn that his Vicodin dependency is spiraling out of control. The series embarks on its longest story arc yet, starring a somewhat House-like police officer named Tritter (David Morse) who is determined to bring House down after he mistreated him in the clinic. This became the show’s most dramatic storyline (thus far), as it is made quite clear that House is an addict and refuses to rehab. After Tritter finds a huge amount of pills at House’s apartment, he brings on “intent to sell” charges. Later he’s charged with forgery and faces a 10 year sentence. This was definitely a great time to be a House fan, as all the episodes brought on new dramabombs – Tritter goes to House’s co-workers and makes life miserable for them until someone confesses. Thus the episode “Finding Judas” – we know someone is going to betray House, and they all have more than enough motive to do it. By the end of the storyline, there seems to be no way for House to avoid serious jail time, especially considering that he’s also rubbing the judge the wrong way. I almost found myself wondering if the show wasn’t about to be dramatically altered by the end of the plotline (one I did lose track of at points, thanks to Fox’s erratic schedule – if House is indeed their most popular show, why constantly put 2-4 week gaps between all the episodes in a long story arc?) But it all gets resolved in one episode in a much-too-convenient plot twist that never would have held water in a real court of law. That aside, I did really like those episodes, but the season meanders a bit from there, especially as the very next episode deals with a very obnoxious rape victim. Near the end, it becomes about House’s team, as Foreman realizes that if he spends more time with House, he will eventually become just like him. Now there is one episode towards the end that takes place on a plane where the writers seem to imply that House’s team really is a secondary part of the show, which seems to foreshadow the season finale, which I must admit is a pretty radical ending for a show that’s only on its 3rd season. Either way, this is nearly as enjoyable as the excellent first two seasons, but this time there was a few episodes I didn’t like, and the plotlines seem to get less realistic as the show goes on. Still one of the best shows on TV. Grade: A-
House, Season 4 (2007-2008)
Foreman, Chase, and Cameron were all great, fully developed characters, but I suppose the show’s creators felt they were in a rut when they decided to have them all either quit or get fired from House’s team in last season’s finale. In order to find a new team, House decides to run something of a medical version of Survivor, in which he takes on a bunch of applicants and eliminates them one by one. This gives the show a neat sense of suspense, as each week one of the new doctors would never be seen again, and you always hope it’s one of the obnoxious ones. To be honest the whole thing makes me suspect the show has jumped the shark a bit, and one episode (“Mirror, Mirror”) is such a blatant attempt at developing the characters without ignoring the “patient of the day” that it abandons any thread of plausibility. But still, the show churns on – Hugh Laurie is still excellent throughout, as his character continues to grow (or amplify), and the show is simply too well-written to ever really go to seed – even when half the original cast is given significantly reduced roles. Anyways, this season took place during the writers’ strike, so there’s only 16 episodes instead of 24, and as a result there’s an even higher-than-normal drama quotient in the last few episodes. Grade: B+
Burn After Reading (2008)
There are really two types of movies in any genre – the opus, the Oscar-worthy (or attempted Oscar-worthy) movie that takes years and millions upon millions to produce, and the popcorn movie that’s meant to entertain and make money but not become a marquee movie for anyone involved. This is one of the latter – it was written by the Coen brothers less than a year after their opus No Country For Old Men, and starred Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and John Malkovich, all of whom were fairly busy at the time. So they gave us a pretty tame but still entertaining film dealing with paranoia and standard government stuff. The plot goes like this – Malkovich is a newly-fired CIA agent who writes a memoir that winds up in the hands of two personal trainers, a woman named Linda who desperately wants plastic surgery, and Brad Pitt, who plays an extraordinarily dim-witted version of himself. They realize the information could be privileged and believe they can blackmail the author. Oh, and everyone is having an affair with everyone else, which leads to a number of misunderstandings involving George Clooney, and the movie ends in true Coen brothers fashion, with no regard to which characters we liked and which we didn’t. It’s a short and fun dark comedy, but ultimately I found myself wishing the plot could have taken a few more turns – there really is no climax, and the ending of the movie is entirely unsatisfying. But these guys are just too talented to make the movie suck – the characters are all distinctive and quirky enough, there’s a lot of good dialogue, and at least one hilarious and outrageous moment (you’ll know when you see it). Plus, it’s got David Rasche in a bit part, and how can you go wrong with that? Grade: B-
A lot of people told me before I watched this movie that it's more violent than you'd ever expect. They're right; you expect it to be some sort of Judd Apatow-type movie about loserish superheroes, but it's quite a bit more than that. It starts off as a typical comedy film about high schoolers who obsess over comic books, until it suddenly becomes a comic book movie itself. The protagonist is a kid named Dave (Aaron Johnson) who sort of randomly decides to become a superhero to escape his troubles with his personal and family life. He can't really fight and doesn't have any superpowers, but he gets jacked up pretty hard by a few criminals, which gives him the ability to not feel pain. While he's not quite able to beat up any thugs and criminals, he at least gives it a good fight, and he soon becomes a viral sensation on YouTube. Soon after his life turns into a real comic book style fight between good and evil, including a pair of actual superheroes in Big Daddy (Nic Cage!) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz, only 11 at the time of this role). As it turns out, Nic Cage actually has a pretty big role in this movie, and the only real significant storyline has to do with him. But it's a spectacular one; the action scenes are filmed with great care, and the film never skimps on the violence. In fact, this may be one of the most violent movies I've ever seen. You really have to see it to believe it. Let me just say that Moretz is one of the best actors in the film despite being elementary school age, and that's not a knock on anyone else here. I don't know how they got her to hold up in all these scenes, but it's pretty amazing to think that it's a real kid in these action scenes. Suffice to say she does some pretty unbelievable things here. As for Kick-Ass himself, he does get the girl and save the day, but they don't really have to change his character much; he's still mostly a scared dork outside of a few key scenes. Also notable is now-famous dork Christopher Mintz-Plasse who plays the main villian's son, actually playing a pretty significant role in the film. You never really know which side he's going to be on until the end, and once again he plays a "king of dorks" type character quite well. All I can say is that this film is pretty damn long but I was still entertained the entire way. It's full of cliches, but fairly self-aware, and can switch from comedy to action to drama very quickly. The final scene with Nic Cage is moving in a way I never thought a film like this could pull off. There's a reason this movie is one of 2010's most talked about. Grade: A