Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Joss Whedon, Neil Patrick Harris help "Glee" get its groove back

Tonight's "Glee" = epic awesomeness.

This week's episode arrived laden with high expectations, at least for Gleeks and TV nerds - Neil Patrick Harris guest-stars! Joss Whedon directs! - and I'm happy to report it did not disappoint. Any episode that gives substantial screen time to Artie and Tina, singing time to Mr. Shue, and dancing time to Mike "Other Asian" Chang is well on its way to earning my thumbs up. But "Dream On" offered so much more!

About time, too. Before tonight, the show hadn't really found its footing since returning from its long winter hiatus. After a very creaky start, it was gradually improving but hadn't reached the heights and giddy delights of, for example, "Single Ladies" on the football field - or the sublime combo of Kristen Chenoweth and Lea Michele on "Maybe This Time." Tonight, however, "Glee" got its mojo back in a big way.

My favorite things about the episode:

1. Artie's dream sequence: Flash mob dance. In a mall. To the song "Safety Dance." With Artie (Kevin McHale) front and center. Result: pure unadulterated joy. Nice to see McHale finally get a chance to bust out his boy-band moves.

2. Mr. Shue and Bryan Ryan's sing-off: My only beef is that while Neil Patrick Harris is obviously an accomplished singer and performer, as between him and Matthew Morrison, vocally there's no contest. True, I may be biased, considering Morrison's voice is like catnip to me. And there's no denying NPH was a delight to watch as the Shue-nemy, though he was a little more dialed down than I was expecting. You'd think "Glee" would be a perfect place for him to let his manic spirit really rip. Then again, maybe the show's so over the top he just seems restrained by comparison.

3. "I Dreamed a Dream": Susan Boyle, eat your heart out. Of *course* Idina Menzel's character - forgot her name - had to be Rachel's biological mother; what a waste of an uncanny resemblance otherwise! Their double-powerhouse duet was exquisitely lovely, even if Lea Michele's overly dramatic facial expressions were a bit distracting.

4. The return of Jesse: So he did have an ulterior motive, just not the one we all suspected! (Although maybe Rachel's mom wants to bring her daughter over to Vocal Adrenaline, and then for all practical purposes it's still sabotage of New Directions.) I have to admit I'm fascinated by his character, and whatever his motives, I like him with Rachel. Why did I not try to see those two together in Spring Awakening when it was still on Broadway? Damn. And I don't care if Jonathan Groff is gay; he's still delish.

5. Tina and Mike's tap dance I found quite charming, and Artie's expression throughout it surprisingly poignant. That said, I do wish the show would give Tina some character development that isn't related to being Artie's supportive & long-suffering love interest. What about *her* dreams? her demons? And while you're at it, why not give "Other Asian" a few lines, too?

Did the episode come together as a whole, apart from the strength of these individual set pieces? I'd say yes. Sure, Rachel's pining for her mother came out of left field (loved her attempt to persuade Jesse that Patti LuPone was her bio-ma, though), and the Artie plotline was a little after-school-specialish, and a little redundant (didn't we get that lesson in "Wheels," or for that matter, from Finn's paraplegic friend last week?). Still, the overall theme - don't give up on your dreams, but not all dreams are possible - was pretty coherently executed. For "Glee," anyway.

Let's hope this week signaled a return to form. Even if it didn't - and "Glee" is nothing if not erratic in quality, always has been - this is still one of its best eps so far. Bring on the rest of the season!

Monday, May 10, 2010

R.I.P. Lena Horne; and other, more trivial ramblings

The great Lena Horne passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Although she earned enduring and well-deserved fame as a singer and pathbreaker for African American entertainers, she never completely overcame - or forgot - the entrenched racism that stymied her movie career. Today, it's hard to imagine someone as lovely and talented as her not being able to get traction in Hollywood. Or maybe not so hard; in too many ways things haven't changed enough, or even all that much, since the '40s. At any rate, her small body of film work was Hollywood's loss - but also our own. Luckily we still have the legacy of her music.

I really can't improve on the Film Experience's beautiful tribute to Lena, so I won't try. Be sure to check out the well-chosen musical clips - including the song for which she's best known today, "Stormy Weather" (from the 1943 film of the same name).


Other odds and ends that have been rattling around in my brain today:

Ray Bradbury: Over at Slate there's a good piece on Bradbury, inspired by a new Everyman's Library edition of his stories. The author makes a persuasive case that that form - the short story - is where Bradbury's true literary genius lies. I wholeheartedly agree. What cracked me up, though, was this observation:

The irony in many of his stories is that the innocents are the adults, while the children are devious little homicidal maniacs.

It's funny because it's so true. (Exhibit A: "The Veldt".) I think it's one of the reasons I like Bradbury. Well, that and his writing style.

Movies: I saw two movies this past weekend that at first glance couldn't be more different - the first blockbuster sequel (but surely not the last) of the summer, IRON MAN 2, and the Argentinian film EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (The Secret in Their Eyes), which snagged the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. But on reflection, I found one striking similarity between the two, at least in my reactions to them: I was much more engaged by the relationships between the characters than the mechanics of the plot ostensibly driving them. It's not really a fair comparison, as the plot of "Secret" is a deal more carefully thought out, and integral to said character development, than that of "Iron Man" redux. Still, in both cases what stays with you is first, the soul-searching of the main character; second, his dynamic with - and unexpressed love for - the girl; and third, the not-as-fully-sketched but still-vividly-realized secondary characters. I'll develop all this more fully in due course once I've had more time to think about both films, especially "The Secret in Their Eyes."

I also had some thoughts of doing a compare/contrast piece between "Iron Man 2" and the upcoming "Robin Hood" - something about the respective models and/or genres of movie heroism embodied by Russell Crowe (old school) and Robert Downey, Jr. (very new school, even though they're only a year apart in age) - which obviously depends on my seeing the not-yet-released RH, due in theaters this Friday. Of course the movie itself may well undermine my expectations, along with whatever inchoate ideas are currently percolating in my subconscious. I'll just have to wait and see.

My Must-See TV: I've also been mulling doing a spring TV roundup, focusing mainly on "Lost" (which I think finally "lost" me last week - pun fully intended), "Glee" (which has been uneven, but on the whole still more enjoyable than not, since its return), and the sublime "Friday Night Lights," which had its fourth season premiere on NBC last week. I may wait a little, however, for "Lost" to end (if I can bring myself to swallow my outrage and watch the last few episodes) and for FNL to get a little further along.

Anti-Stratfordians and trash humpers: And finally, on quite a different note, if you're looking for something funny and pop-culture-related to read, here are two pieces that made me laugh out loud, even though - or perhaps because - I have no desire to see either of the movies they describe: a Da Vinci Code-ish take on the "true" author of Shakespeare's plays, directed by - wait for it - Roland Emmerich, and a movie about - well, "Trash Humpers". The comments on the latter are pretty amusing as well.

Well, that's enough free association for today; more organized thoughts next time!

Monday, May 03, 2010

R.I.P. Lynn Redgrave

Who put a curse on the Redgraves? Lynn Redgrave (younger sister to Vanessa) passed away yesterday, just a month after her older brother, Corin, suffered a fatal heart attack, and a year after her niece, Natasha Richardson, died of a freak brain injury caused by a skiing accident. Her own death was less unexpected - she'd been fighting breast cancer for several years - but no less tragic. She was only 67.

I haven't a great deal to say about her career, as I'm not particularly familiar with her work. I recall her most vividly from "Shine," in which she played David Helfgott's wife and savior, but I haven't seen the films for which she'll likely be best remembered ("Georgy Girl," "Gods and Monsters" come most readily to mind). Nevertheless, she was by all accounts not only a fine actress but also a great lady who endured her last days of suffering with courage and grace. May she always be remembered thus.

Summer Movie Preview: My Ten Most Anticipated Releases

With "Iron Man 2" just around the corner, sumer is icumen in roughly on schedule. Absurdly early, that is. Remember when the summer movie season didn't start until Memorial Day weekend? That's nearly inconceivable now - there's far too much box office at stake. I can't rag on the studios too much, though, considering just how desperate I always am by the end of April for movies that don't seem headed straight for the $2 DVD bin. This year is no exception. In order of release date, here are the ten movies I'm most looking forward to over the next few months. Bring on the popcorn!

IRON MAN 2 (This Friday)
I'm skeptical it'll be as enjoyable as the first one - but I have faith that the combo of Robert Downey, Jr.'s droll charisma and Jon Favreau's direction will provide at least some degree of viewing pleasure.

I'm quite fond of the 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner's anemic accent and all) and I doubt Ridley Scott's latest take on the legendary outlaw will supplant it in my affections - especially if, as I suspect, the new RH just ends up being "Gladiator" refitted for medieval England. But still...it's Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, two of our finest living actors, playing Robin and Marian. How can I miss that?

ONDINE (June 4)
Who knew I'd be putting a Colin Farrell movie on this list? But I've been coming around to the actor I used to loathe, and this little Irish film - directed by Neil Jordan and inspired by the legend of the selkie, or seal-woman - sounds like a labor of love that could be quite charming and understated, a welcome counterpoint to the bang-and-boom blockbusters surrounding it.

THE A-TEAM (June 11)
When I first heard this '80s warhorse was being adapted for the big screen, my thought was "Seriously? Didn't we learn anything from Dukes of Hazzard?" Having seen the trailer, I now pity the fool who writes off this movie. No, it doesn't look like anything special as an action flick. No, I wasn't a big fan of the show. And yet something tells me it's going to be a riot to watch in a movie theater filled with other thirtysomethings. Also? Liam Neeson as cigar-chewing Hannibal? Hot.

TOY STORY 3 (June 18)
Unplanned third installments - i.e., those that weren't mapped out from the first movie's inception - are never necessary and very rarely justifiable, but this might be one of those rare occasions that can be justified. "Toy Story" is a bona fide classic, and "Toy Story 2" a sequel that actually strengthened the franchise. Pixar, I'm counting on you not to fuck it up with #3.

Tilda Swinton as a gorgeously dressed Russian émigré in a gorgeous villa in pre-Fascist Italy, having doomed affairs with younger men over gorgeous-looking food. I am so there, even though I know it has to end badly. This is no Eat Pray Love, even if it looks like aesthetes' porn. Actually it's like the anti-Eat Pray Love, which for me is a point in its favor.

A hit at Sundance, Lisa Cholodenko's comedy-drama spotlights a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who find their comfortable yuppie lives up-ended when their teenage children track down their biological father (Mark Ruffalo) and try to bring him into the family. This is one of my most anticipated films of the summer, not least because it features Ruffalo in a role that actually makes full use of his talents.

A cartoon villain plotting to steal the moon is flummoxed by the appearance of three little orphans in his life. I dig it. I also dig the retro stylized animation and the unplaceable Steve Carell voice-over.

This is by far the film I'm most excited to see this summer. Consider the premise: a noir-ish future (is there any other kind?) in which paid agents can enter and steal your dreams. Then consider it's directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "The Prestige") and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Marion Cotillard (oh yeah, and Ellen Page, if she's your thing). Sold! I just hope it doesn't crumble under the weight of expectations: the fanboys (Nolan also directed "The Dark Knight") are already out in full force.

A cop-buddy comedy that pairs Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg (and, as their foils, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). Directed by the guy behind "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." High potential for hilarity.

What movies are you looking forward to this summer?