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Love Monkey (2006)
Boring, Derivative, and Boring
I thought that the new CBS hour Love Monkey could be interesting, but I am sorry to report that it has all the earmarks of an old-fashioned mid-season replacement. It's derivative, somewhat unformed, and lacking any real inspiration. I mean, it's not terrible. In fact, it would be more interesting if it were terrible. What's so depressing about the show is the way you can smell the network committee craft of it. You can clearly imagine the pitch meeting.
"OK, so it's a male version of Sex and the City, but the plot is like High Fidelity meets Jerry Maguire." Which is a 100% accurate description, by the way.
--POSSIBLE PILOT SPOILER ALERT-- The show is about Tom (Ed's Tom Cavanaugh), a recently-fired record company A&R man attempting to figure out life and love in New York City. He has a quirky band of male friends, including the wasted Larenz Tate and the wasted-looking Jason Priestley. He has a wise/smartass best friend who could be a love interest, and he is attempting to parlay his sacking into a new, more morally clear career as the head of his own independent label.
Yawn. The writing is intermittently good, and there are a few funny moments in the pilot episode. But the material is stale, stale, stale. Worst of all, the actors know it, and it shows. Even Priestley looks a little worried, and you'd think he'd just be relieved to have a paying gig. The camaraderie of the guy friends is obviously modeled on the pack of professional New York women from Sex and the City, which is one thing, but the fact that their dialogue and behavior also seems wholly lifted is another thing entirely. Men don't really talk like this, and they're certainly not this outwardly supporting and kind. The dialogue makes some awkward nods to this fact, but most of the circle-of-friends business seems extremely unbelievable.
In one aspect in particular, Love Monkey really stinks: Tom is supposed to be The True Believer, a hip music geek with flawless taste who attempts to apply his earnest creative outlook to his A&R job. He's a guy who has racks upon racks of vinyl at his place, and gives Bob Dylan CDs as baby shower gifts. (Since he's also unlucky in love, he's basically an uninspired clone of the protagonist in High Fidelity.) The show makes a huge deal of this, costuming Tom in a porkpie hat and vintage rock tees, highlighting his attempt to launch his indie label, taking us inside CBGB's, and cutting in lots of ample performance scenes in small venues around the country.
So it's shocking that the writers and producers make so many obvious mistakes: In a big corporate meeting, Tom disses Hanson, calls them a "boy band," and equates them with Ashlee Simpson. Any halfway-serious music geek knows that Hanson write and perform all their own material, have produced several of their own albums, worked with hipster gods The Dust Brothers, and created "MMMBop," one of the most widely accepted half-ironic pop gems of the past few decades. Tom's Dylan gift is also all wrong: It's clearly shown to be The Essential Bob Dylan, part of CBS Records' mass-produced discount "Essential" series. It's basically a 2-CD greatest hits collection, and an uninspired one at that. Tom refers to it as containing "everything he ever recorded"--hardly--and as "less accessible" than a greatest hits CD, which is, in fact, exactly what it is. A real music hipster wouldn't be caught dead with an Essential collection, much less giving one as a gift.
But if, unlike me, you're a mere civilian when it comes to music, you may dismiss these as insignificant blips. Fine. Hardly insignificant is the entire plot about Tom's golden-boy discovery, a teenaged singer-songwriter whom he repeatedly describes as "the real thing," and whom he plans to craft his whole label around. We get lovingly filmed, faux-profound performances by this kid, Wayne Jensen, whose songs both work into the plot and act as a soundtrack to Tom's emotional journeys. Too bad the songs, actual songs by Teddy Geiger, the singer-songwriter-actor playing the role, SUCK. They are exactly the kind of overly-serious, touchy-feely, adult-contemporary travesties that sell millions of records and make real music fans cringe. In other words, they sound exactly like John Mayer. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if John Mayer sued these people.
Honestly, I'm struggling to even find anything to praise about the show. Past a criminally short cameo by Eric Bogosian, I'm hard-pressed. This is one of those times when actually writing down my thoughts on a show, I've come to realize just how bad it is.
Moonlight Mile (2002)
Some Truly Interesting Moments in a Conventional Hollywood Drama
This movie is a highly conventional Hollywood drama, complete with carefully placed beauty shots and touchy-feely Mark Isham music. But writer/director Silberling consistently overcomes the cliches of his own picture by finding truly original moments through the subtle glances and gestures of his fine actors, and nice small touches of the world around them.
Jake Gyllenhaal is quietly brilliant, inhabiting the space of his grieving and frustrated character with an assurance and maturity that wasn't guaranteed from his earlier performances--a big step forward for him as an actor. And Susan Sarandon is sharp as hell in her best role in years--Hoffman has the most difficult task, portraying a man who is completely submerged in denial, but he serves the film well and handles the inevitable Big Moments late in the narrative with the class and skill you'd expect.
This movie has some genuinely original points of view about the reality of losing a loved one, and the complexity of human emotion: especially how that complexity is usually at odds with how we're expected to behave in such situations.
There is a tortured romance with Gyllenhaal's character that is cliched to begin with, and nearly altogether bungled by the writing. Unfortunately, this part is central to the story, so you're stuck with scenes that seem like a cross between Adrian Lyne sex-drama and an episode of The Wonder Years. This story string also leads > to an ending that will likely be far too neatly tied for many discerning filmgoers, as it was for me.
But when the movie sticks to the messy yet electric triangle of the dead girl's parents and her fiancee, it's really something. Unless you simply can't abide by a movie that's unapologetic about its mainstream Hollywood nature, excellent performances, consistently interesting touches in the writing, striking photography, and more than a few original ideas make this movie worth a look.
Igby Goes Down (2002)
An Engaging and Unique First Film
This movie is a great first film for Burr Steers. The performances are uniformly excellent, and Kieran Culkin adeptly carries the film amidst large but enjoyable performances by an impressive roster of experienced older actors.
The NYC locations and vibe are great, and reminded me of cinematic love letters to the city like "Manhattan," without being too derivative of that, or other films.
The dialogue is snappy, the costume design is excellent, and the film navigates a mix of arch comedy, angst-filled coming-of-age stuff, and social satire well. The downtown NYC audience I saw the film with responded with more gusto than they might in Toledo, but I think most audiences that enjoy films that do not follow prescribed Hollywood formats will respond to this flick, one that veers unexpectedly from cynicism to soul-searching, satire to tragedy.
The ensemble cast is a huge draw, and they are all great. Big performances and some goofy risks from pros like Sarandon, Goldblum, and Pullman make for lots of fun, and actors who I've not much cared for in previous films (Amanda Peet, Ryan Phillippe) are at ease and doing good work here.
It's got flaws: the narrative wanders a bit, there's one scene of teen angst pushed, arguably, a bit too far into melodrama, and there are a few brief dances with cliche. But this is a small film that not many people are talking about, but that deserves support. It's funny, touching, intelligent, and well-made, with a wealth of quirks and nice touches for movie buffs.
A good performance from Johnny Depp fails to tie this uneven and derivative drug drama together.
I wanted to like "Blow" a lot more than I did, as I am a major devotee of the rise-and-fall drug movie subgenre. However, despite another effortlessly excellent performance from Johnny Depp, this film fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
The story told here spans decades, and chronicles the familiar story of the dizzying rise within the drug trade, the opulent excess, the unheeded warning signs of violence and loss, and the final fall, resulting in emotional devastation. Individual moments in the film are affecting, especially in the last third, when Depp's character attempts to go straight and win back his daughter. These scenes reveal a side to this oft-told story that are not always evident in other films. But unfortunately, the structure of the film is a mess, and the timing is all off. Somehow, I felt myself longing to see more depth of character, for the writers and directors to spend more time with each scene, while at the same time feeling boredom and restlessness due to my inability to become fully engaged by each new scene or character--the story being told is big and long, and the filmmakers clearly do not have a real handle on it.
Lack of focus and a clear sense of direction are the film's greatest flaws, and these overshadow more favorable elements, including a fresh visual take on the party-time 70s setting: This film eschews the glossy disco sheen of so many of the recent films about this era with a dingy, sun-baked vision. Glamour is noticeably missing from "Blow," a fact that I both admire and find refreshing.
Other bright moments include a subtly hilarious cameo from Bobcat Goldthwaite, as well as other strong supporting performances, and a calm, unhurried, and believable portrayal of the relationship between Depp and his father, played by the always-dependable Ray Liotta. However, the performance by Penelope Cruz is unbelievably shrill, manic, and off-putting. She comes off as a deranged harpie, a one-dimensional coke fiend. I wonder if there was far more meat to Cruz's performance before director Ted Demme began editing heavily to keep the film under 3 hours. Cruz's work has been promising so far, so I wonder if she is solely to blame for a truly awful performance.
A sign of a film that misses the mark in a fundamental way is its ability to constantly remind you of similar but far better films. "Blow" does this, and it only makes clear how unsuccessful the film is. This film owes a debt to "GoodFellas" and "Boogie Nights," as well as a number of other films, but suffers greatly by comparison. It lacks the vitality, originality, and skill of "Traffic," and the existence of these inevitable comparisons only makes it clearer that "Blow" is bluntly put together, deeply flawed, and an uninteresting take on an important and fascinating topic.