Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Onscreen and on my mind

Continuing my "Blogging Frenzy" this week, let's turn from sports to popular entertainment. (Warning: massive amount of text to follow).

Saw "Avatar" with the kids over the holidays, taking in the full 3-D IMAX experience and enjoyed it very much. Long at nearly 2 1/2 hours, but riveting enough that none of us were willing to take a bathroom break. James Cameron created a world of rich beauty and texture that you could almost smell on the screen, but that could have just been the patchouli wafting from the youngsters in front of me. Special effects is too small a concept to adequately describe the technical achievement, but I also enjoyed little nods and details like Sigourney Weaver as the scientist who smokes and curses but also mothers the Na'vi children and her fellow scientists, at one point forcing Jake Sully to eat something before he returns to his alternate reality. Also, the fighting equipment Weaver donned at the end of "Aliens" returns to a more nefarious purpose. And the almost drunken exhilaration Sully feels when he first inhabits his Na'vi body, freed from the bonds of paraplegia, brought chills and a smile.

I know there's been a lot of fuss about the politics of this movie, to which I would reply, "It's a movie." It's not a documentary, and I felt well entertained for the cost of the tickets. And if you find it so offensive, console yourself with the thought that Cameron might wait another 12 years to make a sequel.

"Imagine That" for the kids and "The Hangover" for the grownups. Not sure how we ended up with the former except that my 10-year old insisted on it, mainly to spite his 12-year old brother, who, shockingly, was not intrigued by the tale of a man whose job and relationship with his seven-year old daughter are rescued when he agrees to spend time in her imaginary world of princesses and dragons. Maybe the presence of Eddie Murphy in the lead role made it acceptable, based on the big laughs they got out of "Daddy Day Care" when it popped up on cable recently.

Far from the worst kids movie I've ever seen, "Imagine That" gets a charming and not just cute performance from Yara Shahidi as Murphy's daughter, Olivia. Thomas Haden Church does whatever it is that he does so well that it always makes for a bemused chuckle, this time as a Native-American shaman/fund manager. Throw in a great bit where Church tries to fuel his preteen son's "vision quest" with Red Bull and flat, awkward cameos from Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, and you've got a solid 90 minutes of family entertainment. Very earnest, lots of blue skies and rainbows, but when the temps haven't cracked 33 in two weeks and the snow patches still dot the lawn, this is tolerable.

About the only thing "The Hangover" shares with "Imagine That" is a cameo appearance from a sports superstar. This one is for immature audiences only, as long as they are at least 18 years old. We get about 15 minutes of setup as four guys go to Vegas for a bachelor party. They arrive, settle in and gather on the hotel rooftop to toast the groom and the night of bacchanalia that awaits. As our heroes raise their glasses, the camera pulls aways to the brilliant nighttime skyline of Las Vegas and the party music fades up. Cut to the next morning, where the missing items include the groom and a tooth and the found items include a baby and a full-grown Bengal tiger. None of the remaining three musketeers can remember anything from the night before and outrageous hilarity ensues as we piece it together with them. Having been to Vegas for a bachelor party where nothing like this happened, I can say that not one note is struck falsely. Las Vegas as a film locale has an appeal that's been captured brilliantly in "Swingers" and, of course, "Honeymoon in Vegas," and "The Hangover" pulls off the difficult task of making it work for an entire movie. For the darker side of this aspect, see "Casino," "The Godfather" (I and II), and when you're ready for a real downer, "Leaving Las Vegas." For mostly misdemeanor fun, property damage and injuries fixed with a quick trip to the ER or a good dentist, check out "The Hangover."

Still catching up with "Modern Family" episodes that I missed in the fall season. The only downside is that this usually leads me into "Cougar Town," which would be almost watchable without Courtney Cox in the lead and Josh Hopkins as the hunky(?) neighbor she seems destined to sleep with I'm guessing halfway thru Season 2, if the show makes it that far. Cox's annoying mania would work much better if they gave her some truly counterbalancing depression, but I'm guessing that would interfere with the concept of the show as a comedy, and I don't think she's got the acting chops to pull it off. A quick scan of the Hopkins resume reveals the source of my distaste: Ally McBeal, North Shore, Brothers and Sisters, Swingtown, Private Practice; and he's really boring. Almost a shame, because the rest of the cast (who doesn't love some Busy Phillips?) bring the funny.

More recent entries I have caught up with are "Men of a Certain Age" on TNT and "Blue Mountain State" on Spike. The former has been well received critically, and since I am a man approaching that titular era of my life, I thought I'd look in. Plus, it has Andre Braugher, who I'd watch on infomercials if, God forbid, he ever made any. Also Ray Romano, who I didn't hate on his big hit, and Scott Bakula, who I've never been able to convince myself didn't play Starbuck on the original "Battlestar Galactica." So, I've seen bits and pieces, and most of last night's episode, "Go With the Flow." For starters, really bad title for the episode, which invokes the terrible commercials for flomax, etc. Maybe that's the joke. What we get is Romano telling the guys about his reentry into the dating world, which includes a black eye. Having been happily married for almost 15 years, I can't really identify with this one, not even vicariously, and the eventual explanation of the black eye doesn't live up to the buildup, sort of a summation of my feelings about the show.

Romano's character has kids a little older than my own, and there have been some nice moments of his interaction with them that resonate with me, but his marriage fell apart because of his gambling problem and he also has a business to run. Not much there for me because if the gambling addiction doesn't destroy him utterly and completely, I might not find it believable. Braugher's character is also a family man whose main main issues stem from his relationship with his father and his health, but I'll echo something I read (New Yorker, I think) that said it's hard to swallow him as a struggling car salesman. Just too much Jesuit bleeding through. As patchy as my empathy for those characters is, I am in another universe from Bakula's struggling almost once-was actor with little ambition beyond bedhopping.

Ultimately, this is a show about guys who hit the diner once a week or so to keep themselves anchored through a connection that predates everything else that is taking priority in their lives. For that, it's well done, but I don't see myself making it a regular stop on the basic cable circuit, and I think it will be retired long before these characters do.

So if I give "Men of a Certain Age" high marks for its effort at thoughtful, intelligent rumination, I have to give "Blue Mountain State" the same for the exact opposite. From Spike TV, the home of Manswers, 1000 Ways to Die, and a steady dose of mixed martial arts programming, comes the sweet, soothing tale of a college football program where young men are mentored and nurtured physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as they journey into adulthood and become responsible members of society. Start with the opening credits, a fetishistic fanfare of muscleboys donning football equipment juxtaposed with comely co-eds removing various undergarments, both found in their natural environments of athletic fields, locker rooms and strip clubs. And beer. Also Ed Marinaro, the only Heisman runner-up currently working in television today. Although the noise from my treadmill obscured most of the dialogue, I think this is a show best watched with the sound off, or, better yet, dubbed in a foreign language. Think "American Pie" meets "Varsity Blues" without the funny parts or sympathetic characters. Sprinkle in all the euphemisms for sex, drugs, alcohol, and bodily functions basic cable will permit, and there's your show. "Seinfeld" dubbed itself a show about nothing, but I think that title truly belongs to "Blue Mountain State."

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