Friday, September 28, 2012

Small Roles...Big Performances Blog-a-Thon: Barry Pepper, "Saving Private Ryan"

Ruth over at FlixChatter is hosting a blog-a-thon next week entitled "Small Roles...Big Performances." The title is fairly self-explanatory but the idea is to highlight a supporting performance (or performances) in a movie that you find particularly appealing. Make sure you check out FlixChatter for the full list of participants and their entries. Should make for some awesome reading!

When Ruth opened up the floor on this topic, my mind immediately went to the work of Barry Pepper in Steven Spielberg's war masterpiece Saving Private Ryan and while there are any number of outstanding performances that fall into this category, Pepper's is the one that I appreciate above all. A talented actor who always seems to be overlooked in Hollywood, Pepper has had a few starring roles (most notably Knockaround Guys and my favorite sports movie of all-time, 61*) and a handful of superb supporting roles through the years (his work in 25th Hour is exquisite, not to mention The Green Mile, We Were Soldiers, etc.). But 14 years after Saving Private Ryan debuted, it is Private Jackson that still stands out among the rest.

I was 15 when Saving Private Ryan was released and I can still remember everything about my viewing from who I went with right on down the mood as we exited the theater behind a group of WWII veterans. It's a movie that has the power to change you as a person, a gift that so few films have. There are quite a few outstanding characters within Saving Private Ryan; Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), even Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) whose cowardice I cursed and hated even though I knew that deep down, I'd probably fall right in line with him. But as the film progressed, I became more and more enthralled with Jackson, the left-handed, Bible quoting sniper whose precision was impeccable and whose persona was irresistible.

To be honest, I don't think Pepper had a lot to work with in terms of strength of character or quality screen time. Hanks, Davies, Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, etc. all were handed more well-rounded characters than Private Jackson. That's not meant as an attack on Spielberg or the film (which is one of my 10 favorites), it's just the reality of making a movie. There are only so many pages to go around in a script; someone is bound to get squeezed. Pepper, though, handled Jackson like the seasoned pro he wasn't given that, for all intents and purposes, Saving Private Ryan was his major motion picture debut (if you don't count the Howie Long action movie Firestorm which I certainly don't). There's a subtlety and quietness to Jackson and Pepper used this to suck the audience in. He displayed an uncanny ability to draw attention to his character even when he's not doing much. As such, he became memorable when I'm not sure he would have been in other hands.

Moreover, Pepper brought a downhome authenticity to the role and mixed it perfectly with just the right amount of arrogance, resulting in a character who was believably cool even though he most certainly was not trying to be cool. He has a natural swagger about him that stems from honesty, not braggadocio. When he tells his squad that, "...If you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir...pack your bags, fellas, war's over. Amen." you believe him. It's an incredible performance and one that made me a lifelong fan of one of the industry's most underrated actors.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: "Dredd 3D"

Remakes are a tense subject in movie fan circles. There are those who see no problem with the growing trend and those people are usually drowned out by a crazed horde of violent remake haters. Personally I think remakes are acceptable under one or all of the following circumstances:

1.) The original film was made in a foreign language (The Departed is a good example);
2.) The original film is over 25 years old and is NOT considered to be a true classic (RoboCop should be remade, Jaws should not);
3.) The original film was based on another source (book, comic, play, etc.) but was poorly adapted.

Dredd falls into the latter category as the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film, Judge Dredd, didn’t exactly hit home with fanboys of the graphic novels, mostly due to the presence of Rob Schneider, one of the world’s great cinematic ruiners. This is one remake that people, even if it is a vocal minority, have been clamoring for and I imagine it fits the bill for the fans, though it’s certainly not for everyone.

The future of America is bleak indeed. With the remaining 800 million residents of the country jammed into one megacity that stretches from Boston to D.C., the world has become a dirty, grimy place. Only one symbol of the law remains: the Judges, who operate out of the Hall of Justice. Assigned the task of training a newbie (Olivia Thirlby), one of the most fearsome judges, aptly named Dredd (Karl Urban), begins the investigation of a triple homicide at Peach Trees, a 200 story apartment complex. Soon, though, he runs up against a ferocious opponent in the drug kingpin known as Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) who will stop at nothing to prevent the judges from leaving Peach Trees alive.

It’s been years since I saw the Stallone version of Judge Dredd but I remember it being a hot, cheesy, mess of a movie. This time around, director Pete Travis takes all the cheesy foolishness of that film and replaces it with blood…mass amounts of blood. The best quote I’ve seen about this film pegged it as, “the comic book version of a British independent film.” (I tried to find the author of this quote but failed; I apologize for the inadvertent plagiarism.) That’s quite fitting as Dredd has an indisputable British/European sensibility that comes out to play in the stark and often gruesome depiction of action and violence.  This is a serious affair the likes of which we don’t usually see in comic book films, though Travis does take the time to allow for a few VERY American one-liners which are all knee-slapping good. Personally I found the brutal nature of this blood and guts approach to be gratuitous and distracting from what turns out to be a much better plot than I would have expected going in. Dredd isn’t so much gritty as it is viscerally and mercilessly savage. If you’re a horror movie fan, this approach shouldn’t be a problem but I could have used a slightly softer edge in this department. That’s not to say it isn’t fitting or doesn’t necessarily work, I’m just saying it’s not for everyone and the rough, hard edge will eliminate a large portion of the film’s potential audience (as illustrated by the miserable box office total).

Brutal violence aside, Dredd is an extremely well-made film filled to the brim with slick, sophisticated shots and some excellent effects. Travis’ world is small and contained and that leads to a feeling of claustrophobia that adds to the film’s frenetic intensity. In addition, Urban should be commended for a strong performance under very difficult circumstances. Acting with a mask on one’s face is tough and it becomes even more difficult when the mask never, ever comes off. Urban is basically asked to “act” and emote with only the bottom third of his face and he does it very well. He is sufficiently menacing when he needs to be and Urban’s robotic approach to the character hits just the right tone. Thirlby and Headey are both strong as well though, like Dredd, there’s not much in the way of character development with which to work.

All in all, I thought Dredd achieved what it set out to and did its job quite effectively. It could stand for a bit of character development and I feel like Dredd’s reputation should have been built up better within the context of the film itself rather than relying on the audience’s prior knowledge of the character. But the artistry of the post production effects and the overall tone that carries from beginning to end makes Dredd a solid, if imperfect, action flick.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review: "End of Watch"

The next time you find yourself sitting at home alone on a random weekday evening, flip on your cable provider’s guide and count the number of cop-related programs you have to choose from. My guess is that number will be somewhere around 338 options, most of them pertaining to the Law & Order universe. As a society, we are obsessed with cops and police procedurals seem to dominate the TV landscape. But despite our preoccupation with this particular field, Hollywood hasn’t done a particularly great job of late when it comes to cinematizing the police officer experience. End of Watch, then, stands as a reminder of how good a mainstream cop movie can be.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) have been inseparable since the academy and have now become patrol partners in one of the more dangerous divisions of the LAPD. A film student in his downtime, Taylor uses lapel cameras to capture footage for his documentary project, a lens through which the majority of the film is told. After a high speed chase turns into a shootout, the pair become local celebrities, a status that leads to the inflation of their already large egos. But before long, Taylor and Zavala get themselves involved in a case way above their pay grades, making them a prime target for a drug cartel.

David Ayer is no stranger to the cop film, having written Training Day, Dark Blue, and SWAT and directed Street Kings. For my money Training Day is the preeminent cop drama of the decade and Street Kings is seriously underrated in spite of Keanu Reeves’ involvement. (Dark Blue and SWAT are fairly awful but that’s beside the point.) His familiarity with the subject, however, was part of the reason I couldn’t muster up much anticipation for End of Watch. Everything about it, from the cinematography that looked exactly like Dark Blue, to the tone that seemed too close to Training Day, right on down to Gyllenhaal’s character who looked like a carbon copy of his Marine in Jarhead (a movie I loathe) seemed entirely too familiar and rehashed. How many times can one director go back to the same material and draw out something new?

Somewhat surprisingly, End of Watch turns out to be the fresh and significant entry into the genre that I didn’t think it would be and that the genre itself needed so badly. It is an effective, efficient, and at times thrilling film that wastes little time and somehow makes two dudes driving around in a car seem thoroughly interesting. Ayer uses the shaky handheld camera effect quite well, a rare example of how this technique can truly be used to play up a film’s realism. More importantly, though, he doesn’t rely on the camera effect to become a crutch or a gimmick to build tension. The action and drama would work without the shaky approach and are only enhanced a bit by the camera technique. And unlike a found footage film, Ayer doesn’t make any attempt to shoehorn the gimmick into situations where it doesn’t fit or create dumb reasons for the camera to always be there and always be in the perfect position to catch the right shot. When there’s a reason for the shot selection to be through the lens of a camera somewhere within the story, it is, but when there’s not, he doesn’t force it in, which I greatly appreciate.

End of Watch truly excels, however, because of the strength of its leads and their tremendous chemistry. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a fan of Gyllenhaal and I almost always find him somewhat off-putting. I guess I just don’t find him likeable or relatable and many of his career choices play into that. He is giving me reason to change, though, given his quality turn in last year’s Source Code and the work he puts in here. Taylor is an everyman and Gyllenhaal brings that to life beautifully at almost every turn. Pena does much of the same, creating a clear equality between the two that you don’t always get in a buddy-buddy relationship like this. They work together so well that despite a handful of the sort of great action sequences that I am prone to fall in love with, the best parts of End of Watch are often the exchanges between Taylor and Zavala as they cruise around their beat. It’s an advanced course in what the relationship should look like between partners of this nature.

There are a few dips in the momentum in the second act and I felt like the wedding scene could have been cut down significantly. The counter to that would be that this scene brings the humanity of the characters home for the audience but I would contend that by this point I was completely absorbed in the realism and didn’t need a lengthy look at life outside of the precinct. But for the most part, End of Watch displays nearly unending focus on the things that really matter between Taylor and Zavala, to the point that, with the exception of Anna Kendrick (as Taylor’s new girlfriend), most of the supporting actors are asked to do next to nothing. The approach works very well, though, and End of Watch builds impressively for a dramatic, pulse-pounding finale and at the end of the day, it very well might be the best straight cop movie since Training Day.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 9/24/12

The Primetime Emmys were last night. Here's a recap and here's a complete list of winners. Other than that, the only thing you need to know is that the Emmys are the worst. I'm not someone who relies on award shows to tell me what to watch but I don't entirely dismiss them either. The Oscars, the Grammys, the SAG Awards, etc. I think there's value in what they do. But the Emmys? Completely and inexplicably irrelevant most of the time. Even the production value was weak this year and I was thoroughly disappointed in Jimmy Kimmel mailing it in. I now live in a world where Jon Cryer has an Emmy and Jon Hamm doesn't. Ugh. 

James Gunn has confirmed that he will rewrite and direct Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the upcoming Marvel franchise features. I'm not a fan of Gunn's previous work (Slither, Super) but there's no denying his ability. Should be good in this setting.

Les Miserables has been bumped back a week and will now open on Christmas. Strong move by the studio as positive word builds for this movie and it fits well in the spot vacated by The Great Gatsby

Saturday Night Live cast off Jenny Slate has signed on to write a Looney Tunes reboot film. That is a sentence I did not expect to write this week. 

You can always count on The Soap Box Office to heap praise upon American Treasure Bill Murray. Please enjoy this New York Times article and then try to think of ten people you'd rather hang out with for a day than Murray. It's impossible. 

Weekend Box Office Report
The bad news is that no one went to the movies this weekend, a rough trend that has carried all the way through September. The good news is, for the first time all month, at least viewers were given a few options. Pretty much everything Hollywood gave us prior to this week was a horror movie or a bad misfire. Nothing that opened this week managed to grab a huge audience but End of Watch, House at the End of the Street, Trouble with the Curve, and Dredd provided viewers with a fairly wide ranging set of choices. The split at the top of the list displays that. Of all those films, I think Dredd is the only return that I’d call surprising. I didn’t expect a $30 million opening but there is a hardened fanbase for Dredd and the early reviews were very strong so I’m surprised it didn’t do better.

Having not been to the theater in a couple of weeks due to complete lack of interest, this weekend was like a field day for me. I gave my money to End of Watch, Dredd, ParaNorman, and Trouble with the Curve. Two of those movies were worth the money; the makers of the other two have some serious explaining to do. I attempted twice to get to The Master but fate continually intervened. But at least I got to see Clint Eastwood embarrass himself even further! *Sigh*

1. End of Watch - $13M
2. The House at the End of the Street - $13M
3. Trouble with the Curve - $12.72M
4. Finding Nemo 3D - $9.44M ($29.97M)
5. Resident Evil: Retribution - $6.7M ($33.46M)
6. Dredd - $6.3M
7. The Master - $5M ($6.05M)
8. The Possession - $2.63M ($45.65M)
9. Lawless - $2.32M ($34.51M)
10. ParaNorman - $2.29M ($52.56M)

New to DVD
Well friends, I hope you like procedurals! Because that’s what you’re getting this week whether you like it or not. The CSIs, the Law & Orders, the NCISes of the world all run together to me and I, along with most of the rest of the world, forgot Desperate Housewives was a show after about season two. That said, I can’t complain much about a week that brings us three quality home entertainment options.
                                                                 New Movies
The Samaritan – Samuel L. Jackson, Luke Kirby, Ruth Negga
Damsels in Distress – Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
The Tall Man – Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland
                                                                 New TV
American Horror Story: Season 1 – Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, Jessica Lange
Family Guy: Volume 10 – Seth McFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green
Desperate Housewives: Season 8 – Eva Longoria, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman
Gossip Girl: Season 5 – Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley
CSI: Season 12 – Ted Danson, Marg Helgenberger, Elisabeth Shue
CSI-Miami: Season 10 – David Caruso, Emily Procter, Adam Rodriguez
CSI-New York: Season 8 – Gary Sinise, Hill Harper, Eddie Cahill
Law and Order-SVU: Season 13 – Mariska Hargitay, Danny Pino, Ice-T
Portlandia: Season 2 – Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein
                                                                 New to Blu
The American President (1995) – Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Michael J. Fox
Dave (1993) – Kevin Klein, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella
Arachnophobia (1990) – Jeff Daniels, John Goodman

The Thing You Should See
The Avengers – Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Considering that it’s made more than $1.5 BILLION worldwide, I probably don’t need to tell you that you should see The Avengers. I’m not sure exactly where this movie is going to end up in my top films of the year but as of right now, it definitely stands as my favorite. Popcorn movies don’t get much better, or more fun, than this. I’m planning on buying this one though it may take some time to figure out which version I need to buy given that there are at least 27 choices.

The Thing My Dad Will See
Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection – Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Daniel Craig
Confession: I’m not a HUGE fan of the Bond films. I think several of them are very good, I own the Daniel Craig entries, and I’m very excited for Skyfall. But as far as the entire 22 films go…honestly, many of them blend together for me. That said, I completely respect their place and importance in the film world and I know tons of people, including my dad, LOOOOVE these movies. If you’re in that boat, this Blu-Ray collection is pretty incredible.

New to Blu Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
The Game - Criterion Collection (1997) – Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger
I think The Game is one of the most sinfully underrated films of the last 20 years. For some reason I think it has been stamped with the “throw away thriller” label and even I was probably guilty of applying that tag. I rewatched it, though, a few years ago and was shocked at how well it holds up and how seriously chilling it really is. It gets lost in the shadow of David Fincher’s other films but at the end of the day, it really might be one of his best. The added Criterion content should make it even better.

Coming to a Theater Near You
This week’s Rotten Tomatoes scores serve as a reminder that this isn’t a science. I did fairly well on my predictions, picking Dredd at 83 percent (77% actual), End of Watch at 77 percent (85% actual), and Trouble with the Curve at 48 percent (53% actual). I overestimated House at the End of the Street with my 37 percent prediction (13% actual) but therein lies the problem: I didn’t see House at the End of the Street but it is fundamentally impossible that it could possibly be that much worse than Trouble with the Curve because Trouble with the Curve might be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I cannot believe that any film critic under the age of 85 could watch Trouble with the Curve and give it a Fresh rating. So, again, it goes to show that Rotten Tomatoes (and any other indicator) aren’t perfect.

Looper – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
An assassin (JGL) who disposes of the mob’s enemies after they’re sent back in time from 30 years in the future faces his toughest challenge when his older self (Willis) becomes his newest target. I’m really excited about this one. Like, really, really, REALLY excited. I love good sci-fi and Looper most definitely appears to be good sci-fi. This could be a legitimate genre game changer. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 88%

Hotel Transylvania – Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez
After discovering a retreat designed only for monsters, a mortal (Samberg) falls for the daughter (Gomez) of Dracula (Sandler). 2012 has been a seriously disappointing year for family films so you wouldn’t think a Happy Madison production would inspire much confidence. But while I certainly don’t expect a world beater here, Hotel Transylvania doesn’t look awful. If it could score a solid B- grade, it would be a step up from most of the other animated junk we’ve gotten this year. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 50%

Won’t Back Down – Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter
A pair of mothers (Davis, Gyllenhaal) takes on the system in order to improve the quality of their local school. I assume Won’t Back Down will be very faux-powerful and wholesome and manipulatively emotional. My experience with Trouble with the Curve has left me very jaded toward this sort of bad Oscar bait and I now expect this movie to be stinking awful. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 30%

Pitch Perfect – Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow (Opens limited, expands next week)
A goth-y freshman loner (Kendrick) reluctantly joins her college’s glee group and infuses some much needed attitude. Yeesh. I really dislike everything about this movie but more than anything else I dislike that Anna Kendrick is subjecting herself to it. You’re so, so much better than this, Anna. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 27%

The Other Dream Team – Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Donnie Nelson
I usually relegate limited release films to the “also new” portion of the column but I got a chance to see The Other Dream Team earlier this year and it is AMAZING. Browse through my review to get  a feel for it and seek it out if it’s playing in your area.

Also New: Take a documentarian look at a hospital that mostly cares for the uninsured in Waiting Room…and Solomon Kane, an action-horror flick set in the 16th century, comes off the shelf after three years of collecting dust. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Night Lights: A Retrospective on the Best Network TV Show Ever

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is long. Like, super, ridiculous, "should be in some sort of academic journal that no one reads unless they are forced to come up with another reference for a paper" long. Even still, there are a thousand things I love about Friday Night Lights that I didn't have time or space to write about. The incredible music, the gorgeous cinematography, the fact that it has made me a lifelong fan of a number of the performers, etc. I'm sure I've missed some important notes along the way. If you're a fan of the show I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you loved, what I missed, etc. Also, for those who haven't watched this show but still have nothing better to do than plow through this column, I did my best to avoid spoilers, with the exception of what happens in the pilot. So delve in at your own risk and go watch the show for yourself regardless. It's just the best. 

Right off the bat, I must confess I came very late to the Friday Night Lights party and my wife likes to give me grief for this. When this show popped up on our “Shows you might like” Netflix Instant interface, she immediately added it to the queue and started watching. She preached its virtues for months despite my protestations that I didn’t believe the show could be any good and made many FNL converts out of our group of friends. Still I resisted, digging my heels in even deeper and refusing to give it a chance. In my defense, it should be noted that my wife has horrible taste in movies and TV dramas. She balances this with excellent decision making when it comes to music and food, but we do not always see eye to eye on TV/movies. Our DVD shelf is littered with wretched programming that I tend to hide away when we have company and often I’ll find a new recording on our DVR that boggles my mind with its awfulness. If the CW has a new show, you can bet my wife will be tuning in. 

I, on the other hand, stayed away from FNL for three reasons:

1.) I hate high school dramas. HATE THEM. If there is a stronger word for hate that is invented in the future, I hope that someone from that time period will go into this post and insert that word in place of hate. My disdain for high school-related TV shows cannot be stressed enough.
2.) As an impassioned, obsessed, self-appointed sports expert, I had never seen a TV show that had done the sporting side of their sports-related drama correctly. A few have come close, but most of the time, when a TV show ventures into the world of sport, it’s an unmitigated disaster.
3.) Everything about FNL suggested that it would be off the air by the middle of the first season and man, it can be tough to buy into a show that you know isn’t going to last. (See: the serious ratings dip for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)

Eventually, though, I started hearing recommendations for FNL from other sources and decided I had to give it a chance. I started my FNL journey last year, after the show had already ended, and I have spent a fair amount of time over that period hating myself for not being a full-fledged member of the bandwagon from day one. I have a personal history of being ahead of the curve when it comes to great TV shows and to have missed on this one hurts my pride. What I found when I finally started digging into the show was that the drama contained within FNL was much more significant and REAL than any high school related show I’d ever seen, that the football scenes were incredibly well designed if not always realistic, and that, like Firefly, even if the show had been cancelled after 10 episodes, it still would have been incredibly worthwhile. Through a combination of the rabid support of a small following, a creative agreement between NBC and DIRECT TV, and the lack of ratings-grabbing content in the NBC stable, FNL made it through five seasons and 76 episodes and became what is, for my money, the best network drama ever. It felt wrong to love a show as much as I love this one and not write something about it.

So what follows is a somewhat haphazard look at what made Friday Night Lights such an incredible achievement to force those of you who haven’t watched it yet to get on board while simultaneously providing a feather for the proverbial hat for any longtime fan who had the good sense to embrace this show long before I did.

NOTE: For this piece, I drew extensively from an oral history of the show published on Grantland last year. You should really check this sucker out


How many times have you watched a show and thought to yourself, “I like this show but (this actor) drives me nuts” or “If (this actor) was replaced by someone else, this show would really be good?” I do it all the time and I tend to fixate on those flaws after a while. Even shows that I love and stay locked into for years often come along with a bad actor or maybe one who just doesn’t quite fit. Sometimes these situations work themselves out and the misfit finds an acting groove but regardless, it’s something many shows have to contend with. 24 is one of my favorite shows of all time and I will swear by its virtues until my dying day. But Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) is one of the biggest beatings in recent TV history. Her character is awful, sure, but it’s partly due to Cuthbert who, bless her heart, just cannot hang with the intensity of the narrative or Kiefer Sutherland himself. It happens.

Show creator  Peter Berg and casting director Linda Lowry had three serious issues to contend with in casting Friday Night Lights:

1.) The majority of the characters are kids, a death knell to many a movie or TV show. Sure, most of the important actors were in their early twenties when they were cast to play high-schoolers but still, young actors are about as big of a wildcard as you can get in the making of a hit show.
2.) FNL is essentially an ensemble and given the tight budget a show like this is handed, virtually ALL of the actors were completely unknown. Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor) was the lead in Early Edition but I think he and almost everyone else would like to strike that from the record. Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins) had one episode of Kyle XY under his belt. And Minka Kelly (Layla Garrity) was working as a scrub nurse, for goodness sake. It didn’t quite come down to taking people off the street but that’s not far from the truth.
3.) The cast almost completely turned over after three seasons. As with any high school-related show, the issue of what you do when the kids graduate was a big one and the decision to bring in a new class was as dangerous as it gets. How many high school shows have attempted this and failed? Answer: ALL OF THEM.

Considering all of these challenges, what Berg and Lowry did in putting the cast of Friday Night Lights together is almost unheard of. Needing to fill spots for a litany of important characters and armed only with the “name value” of the dude from Early Edition, they meticulously combed through thousands of audition tapes and selected the right person for EVERY. SINGLE. ROLE. I’m not sure that feat completely registered for me until season four when “the new class” rolled in. Having grown insanely attached to the characters from the original cast, I was wary of these new interlopers and their different school and their lack of proper respect for Coach Taylor. And by the end of the first episode I was once again hooked. That just doesn’t happen, guys. You don’t take a handful of characters that everyone loves deeply, phase them out, and the replace them with a new set that is possibly even more relatable. Those newbies, also a batch of complete unknowns, all hit their marks beautifully and immediately made the show their own. I feel good in saying that in casting the 50 or so characters that really mattered over the course of five seasons, the only misstep Berg and Lowry made was Gracie Bell and her seriously unfortunate forehead.


The first point for which FNL must be commended for is the pilot. More often than not, pilot episodes suck. There’s really no other way to put it. Many of my favorite shows have miserable pilots. (See: Community.) It’s just an expected thing in Hollywood. The pilot is designed to paint a picture about what the show will be in the broadest stroke possible, in the hopes that a wide ranging audience will come back for the subsequent episodes. Very few shows come out of the gate with a bang and those that do stick with you for a very long time. The pilots for Arrested Development, which set the stage for the many absurdities that were to come perfectly, and The Shield, in which we see the clash between good cop and bad illustrated with ruthless flair, are two examples that stand out as immense successes.

Friday Night Light’s pilot is the best I’ve ever seen and it is even better looking back at the whole of the show’s run. Berg (who directed the pilot) was able to do more with five minutes and perhaps 10 lines of dialogue than most dramas can cover in a half season in terms of laying character ground work. By the first commercial break, you feel as if you know exactly who all of the key players are and how their on screen lives will play out. You can play “High School Label Bingo” with this cast and in quick succession mark off all the important boxes. “You’re the drunk, you’re the jock, you’re the golden boy, you’re the whore…” and on down the list. This allows the viewer to immediately begin making connections to the character of his/her choice and moreover, each character is almost instantly tagged with the appropriate label that they carry with them and the baggage that comes along with it. Within five minutes and very limited exposition, you know all you need to know about Tim Riggins to understand his starting point.

Moreover, this sense of familiarity that you get from the pilot sets you up perfectly for the script to be flipped, which is exactly what Berg set out to do. In that Grantland article, Berg says he intended to set up Jason Street (Scott Porter) as some sort of all-American, golden boy… “and then demolish him.” In 40 minutes, Street goes from a small town hero on a sure path to the NFL to a vegetable. You can feel it coming and you know something is afoot but it’s still a shocking, sobering turn of events. In so many ways, what happens to Street is just an allegory for what will happen to the entire cast over the course of five seasons. Berg places each of his characters in these little cookie cutter boxes and then proceeds to break them out in a way that very few shows are capable of. But speaking specifically for the pilot, the drama that unfolds in the final five minutes is gripping, engrossing, and rife with a level of emotionalism that you just don’t feel in a pilot. The cuts from the game to Street’s surgery to the gathering of the players outside the room, all backed by one of the greatest voiceovers EVER…it’s an exquisite episode that immediately sucks you into the show whether you want to be or not.


This point is very personal for me. As I said before, the portrayal of sports in TV shows is usually a cringe-inducing experience for me. I grew up in sports, I work in sports, and if there is any worldly thing I love more than movies and TV, it is sports. Because of this, anytime a show ventures into the sporting world, I key in on every single flaw. I notice if the jerseys are the wrong color, if the equipment looks cheap, if the court has been shrunk, etc. I often (and perhaps unfairly) hold sports movies to a much higher standard than I do, say, a movie about journalism.

I cannot remember a TV show that handled its sporting content with as much respect as FNL does. The on-field action is consistently stellar and only slightly “moviefied.” That is to say, pretty much everything that happens on the field is within the realm of possibilities. The clock may not always run in real time and certainly, the Dillon Panthers lead the world in last second victories but it all looks real and I can’t really think of anything that happens that you would have to call completely bogus. It’s much more than the appearance of the game action, however. The true value of sport cannot be found in just the winning or the losing; it is found in the playing, in the work, in the preparation, and in the aftermath. That’s where most sport-related shows miss the mark: they’ll show the triumph of victory and the heartbreak of defeat, but they struggle in delving into the concept of growing through the process of playing a sport.

FNL, on the other hand, thrives in this department. Football is used as a conduit to show the struggles, the victories, and the growth of a set of boys as they become men. This allows not only for character development and plot exposition, but it also gives FNL a sense of sporting authenticity that you very rarely see. Winning and losing is balanced by the concepts of brotherhood, responsibility, maturity, the facing of adversity, etc. that come along with sport. You get to see just how important a coach can be to a player and the difference one man/woman can make in the lives of dozens of others. And sure, we’ve undoubtedly romanticized the value of sport but regardless, it’s a feeling imbedded in each and every sports fan and no show puts that on display better than FNL.


I think all three of these topics fit together nicely in regards to FNL. In the aforementioned pilot, Tim Riggins raises his beer in toast and simply says, “Texas forever.” That’s a sentiment that I, as a born and raised Texan, can easily embrace and I’m definitely not alone in that. Very few states (or nations, for that matter) have as much pride as we do and while that’s got to be a total beating to the rest of you (which I completely and totally understand, by the way) it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. That said, so many Texas-related movies and shows fall into one of two camps: either they’re disparaging toward our state (I'm talking to you, Courtney Kerr) or they’re so Texas-centric that no one else can embrace them. The 2004 version of The Alamo is one of my favorite films but there’s no way anyone from outside the state of Texas could enjoy it. FNL paints an accurate picture of small town Texas without fervently (and annoyingly) preaching its merits to “outsiders” or treating its subjects as a bunch of backwater, goat roping hillbillies. That’s quite a rare combination.

One way in which this fair treatment of Texas culture is illustrated is in the presentation of faith within FNL. Whether you yourself hold any sort of spiritual beliefs or not, the majority of the humans in this state would count themselves as “Christians” or “believers” if you were to conduct a census. That percentage jumps up quite significantly when you venture into small town Texas. As such, most of the characters in FNL hold some sort of faith and many actively engage with that faith on some level. Minus a somewhat strange tangent for Layla Garrity, you can’t consider any of the characters Bible thumpers or people who express their faith in a Tebownian fashion, but the sentiment, the presence of faith and spirituality, runs through many aspects of the show. Church going is a way of life, the players frequently engage in the obligatory pre-game prayer, etc. and I think the showrunners did an excellent job of showing that without preaching for it or against it.

I’ve made no secret of my own faith, either in my personal life off the internet or in this space here. I’m a Christian and I work for a church. That said, I don’t need the overt expression of faith or spirituality in a movie or TV show in order to get on board. In fact, more often than not it makes me quite uncomfortable as it is usually displayed in a way that either demeans anyone of a different faith (or no faith) or, much more common, demeans the faithful themselves as dimwitted or foolish for being spiritual. Within the confines of FNL, Christianity simply IS. It’s a part of life on the show because in small town Texas it most certainly IS a part of life and FNL not only allows that to exist but casts it in a light that I would think even the most staunch Christian and the most staunch atheist could accept. I have no idea what Peter Berg’s personal faith is and frankly, I don’t care as it pertains to this show; what he (and everyone involved with the show) chose to do with FNL was to keep it genuine, and genuine calls for a fair, balanced approach to this topic. And as a real student of this subject, I'd say that's a rare feat.

FNL took this presence of Southern/Texas/Downhome sensibility to another level whenever it chose to tackle the concept of family. I am keenly aware that to this point in this column, I have described some aspect of this show as, “the best I’ve ever seen” or something similar. I know, but I’m going to do it again and this probably won’t be the last time. There have been any number of TV shows over the last 20 years that have focused in heavily on the family dynamic and many have done so quite well. But very, VERY few have ever taken it on with the fierce accuracy or balance the way FNL did. Good or bad, family plays into almost every ounce of our being in some way or another and FNL showed that brilliantly. Any number of difficult things happen throughout the course of the show’s five seasons: divorce, death, unplanned pregnancy, alcoholism, and on down the line. You name it and the show handled it at some point. And in almost every case, the role of family comes into play in the way each issue is tackled and that’s not always a good thing (and for many of the characters, it’s NEVER a good thing).

FNL takes the concept of family to a whole other level, though, when you start to look at the role of surrogate family within the walls of the show. I have always gravitated to characters (and the movies and shows in which they exist) that form surrogate families with those around them to replace the lack of relationships they have with their biological family. Boy Meets World contains one of the best examples of this as Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) literally became a part of the Matthews family over the course of the show’s seven seasons. As a teenager I became keenly aware that, for me at least, the concept of “family” is much more fluid than just blood and quite frankly, the bond of blood doesn’t hold a candle to the bond of experience. FNL plays directly into this on a consistent basis. Players form familial units with other players through the challenges of football; Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips) steps in as a caretaker for a teenage girl he doesn’t really even know; and at the forefront of it all, Eric and Tami Taylor become the parents for a host of kids who come through their programs, some of whom have no one at home to guide them and some who have great home lives but simply need that extra bond. It’s not as if this is a new concept to television, but it is handled with a subtlety and nuance that most shows do not have.


Recently I read a review of The Princess Bride and told the reviewer that for me, the best thing about the movie is that it’s difficult to choose my favorite character. “I think it’s probably Inigo but Fessik is glorious and oh, then there’s Miracle Max…” Watching all 76 episodes of FNL involved having that exact discussion with myself 76 times. Ask ten FNL fans who their favorite character is and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Contrast that with other great network TV dramas. Who’s your favorite character in 24? If it’s not Jack Bauer the only other acceptable answer is Chloe. What about The X-Files? Mulder or Scully, right? (And be honest, if someone answers Scully you judge them a little.) There’s no clear cut answer with FNL and that is a testament to the strength of every person who happens to pass through Dillon, Texas.

This is where FNL really separates itself from the pack. You could create a show with all of these other elements; you could cast perfectly, shoot a killer pilot, and handle all of your various subjects in uncanny fashion. But if your characters aren’t great, your show will eventually (or immediately) fall flat. And by great, of course I mean, “Otherworldly good in such a way that you will spend the rest of your life trying to decide which one is your favorite.” Tami Taylor is one of the strongest female characters you’ll ever see on screen. Few characters progress and mature the way Billy Riggins does. Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) perfectly personifies that kid that everyone knew growing up who just needed to catch one break in life. The desire to root for a given character has rarely been more universal than it is for Tim Riggins. And Coach Taylor…well, Coach Taylor might just be the best person in the world, fictional or otherwise. That doesn’t even take into account Layle, Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), and a literal host of others who might very well be the best character on any other program.

Finding a weak link amongst these characters is a tall order. For the sake of this piece, I spent quite a bit of time looking back on and sorting through all the characters looking for a miss, for a character that doesn’t measure up to the standards set by the rest of the field. I came up empty. If I had to pick a player from the original cast who doesn’t quite fit, I guess I would choose Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) who I consider to be a little shallower than the rest, but even still, Smash is a superb creation. With almost every other show that I love or have loved through the years I can go through and pick out at least one character that I could live without. The aforementioned Kim Bauer is a total wreck, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) whipped the fire out of me on Mad Men, and Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate) routinely destroyed any sort of momentum The Office managed to create for itself last season. But from both a quality and quantity standpoint, FNL is essentially flawless in this department across the board.

These are rich, weighty characters that we’re dealing with here and that, combined with the aforementioned strength of the pilot, creates an atmosphere that almost forces you to buy in, to INVEST in the characters and by proxy, the show. And it only gets better from there. FNL does in one, maybe two, episodes what some shows that I love have struggled to do over the course of several seasons. The characters are meticulously and ingeniously crafted and perhaps even more ingeniously written from week to week. I (and everyone else I’ve ever spoken to about the show) care about the residents of Dillon, Texas in a manner that should probably be reserved only for close personal friends and immediate family members. I had trouble sleeping one night because in the episode I finished up with that night, Tim Riggins found himself in yet another batch of trouble and I couldn’t help but worry about him no matter how idiotic that may sound. That sense of family and brotherhood that FNL builds between its characters is extended lovingly toward the audience and after a few hours you feel as much as part of Coach Taylor’s team as anyone actually wearing that uniform.

Moreover, the relationships formed between the characters stand as some of the most compelling examples of human interaction that I’ve ever seen. Saracen cares for his challenging grandmother; Billy Riggins takes responsibility for Tim Riggins who in turn takes responsibility for Becky Sproles (Dora Madison Burge); and Tyra finds familial stability through her admittedly awkward relationship with Landry. At the forefront of it all is the relationship between Eric and Tami, a “marriage of equals” if ever there was one. Over and over these characters are put in tough, real-life situations and time and time again, they cling to each other, sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly, but always they come together. Through it all the characters are enriched both individually and cumulatively and as such, their relationship with the audience is deepened week by week.

It’s also important to note the “goodness” of essentially every character that exists in the FNL universe. To a man, and woman, the people of Dillon have incredibly good hearts and a serious streak of morality runs through the town. That’s not to say that every character makes the right decision every time or that everything that takes place in the show is "wholesome." In fact, when watching FNL you consistently find yourself begging one character or another to not screw up again. But you never question their hearts or their inherent goodness. (Except for JD McCoy, of course. I think we can all agree, that little turd can just die.) That’s a refreshing characteristic in a show of this depth when compared to the other high quality shows of the day. If you asked me to name the best show currently on TV, I would say it’s a toss-up between Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy. My admiration for both of those shows and the characters within them is unquestionable and I thoroughly appreciate their many merits. But the fact of the matter is, every character on those shows is a terrible person. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) might be the best character currently on television, and I love him, but he’s a miserable human being and that’s not up for debate.

Contrast that with Coach Taylor: he’s a hard man with an intensity akin to that of Draper and a man who is quite honestly an incredible pain to live with; he’s not a guy that you want to cross. And yet, over and over again, Coach Taylor comes to the aid of anyone who happens to come across his path. You need a place to crash when you get kicked out of your house? There’s a sleeping bag in the garage. Your dad was just killed in combat? Guess who’s there to provide comfort. You need someone to be a character witness at your trial? Boom, Coach Taylor in the house. He doesn’t always want to be the good guy; there are plenty of times when it is abundantly clear that he would like to do nothing but focus on the upcoming football game which will, you know, decide whether or not he has a job next year, and yet he goes to aid of his third string quarterback because, at the end of the day, he’s the world’s greatest man. And sure, that sort of morality would never fly in the dark and shady world of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce but in the world of FNL, Coach Taylor stands as the anchor for everyone else and his goodness often holds the whole thing together.


As far as heterosexual males who do not have hormonal imbalances go, I’m probably in the 99th percentile of “frequent movie criers.” There are any number of things that can tear me up: kid stuff, war stuff, sports stuff, especially dog stuff, you name it and it’s likely that at some point I’ve gotten choked up about it in the context of a movie. If my life was The Sting and the director of an emotionally impactful film was Johnny Hooker, I would be described as an easy mark. For a long time I fought this affliction but now I embrace the madness (or the sadness, as it were) and don’t shy away from that which makes me weep because more often than not, the payoff for emoting is worth it.

This weekend I finished making my way through the FNL series. I cried. No, that’s not the correct term. More like, I wept like a small girl whose puppy had just been run over by a garbage truck…on her birthday. That’s fitting, considering I’ve given more tears to FNL over the course of my viewing than any other TV show or movie I’ve ever had the pleasure of involving myself with. No network TV drama that I’ve ever seen has been as affecting, as personal, or quite simply, as GOOD as FNL is. Sure, there are some missteps along the way (*cough* Season Two shenanigans*cough*) but every show goes through some growing pains and the writers did an amazing job of getting themselves out of the various jams that come up over the course of five seasons. FNL stands out as special, as an example of just how much you can accomplish with something as dumb as a TV show.

There’s a distinct and lingering impact that FNL leaves on its viewers. At a wedding last year I mentioned it in passing to a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while and we were immediately swamped by a set of passerbys who desperately needed to join in the conversation and compare experiences. It’s like we’re all members of this little club that went through a serious ordeal, some of it great and some of it heartbreaking, and to pass up the opportunity to discuss it would be a crime. I now spend time thinking that if Coach Taylor had been my coach for literally anything I would a professional at whatever he was coaching me at right now. I have debated with other viewers whether, at heart, we should consider ourselves Panthers or Lions. And if and when my wife and I are blessed with a male child, there’s a better than zero chance that his middle name will be Riggins. From episode one to episode 76, FNL is as good as it gets, a show that I will undoubtedly watch over and over again, and one that I honestly feel has left me a slightly better person than I was when before I watched. (Now how’s that for hyperbole?)

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

In Home Viewings: "The Pirates! Band of Misfits"

The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) wants more than anything to be respected in the pirate community. A consistent underdog, the Captain once again enters the race for the Pirate of the Year award before being blown away by the stout competition. Determined to change his fortune, the Captain and his crew set out on a series of misadventures that fail to bring home the booty they had expected. Desperate and downtrodden, the crew comes across a lonely scientist who turns out to be none other than Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin informs the Captain that his parrot, Polly, is actually the last remaining dodo bird. Sensing an opportunity to make his fortune, the Captain enters Polly in a scientific contest, unwitting opening himself up to the ire of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Admittedly I am not in the target audience for The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I am not a child nor do I have children and more importantly, I’ve never been a big fan of the previous Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt collaborations. While I respect the Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run, I haven’t found a reason to fully buy into any of these movies and I’ve certainly never held much excitement for them. The style of animation is cool in a retro, simple sort of way but quite honestly, I’ve found all of the Lord-Newitt films to be boring and unfunny. Frankly, I’d given up on these collaborations entirely before The Pirates. The trailer piqued my interest though and I ended up being genuinely intrigued by the time I got around the seeing it.

As is the case far too often, however, almost all of the parts I really enjoyed about The Pirates found its way into the blasted trailer and therefore fell flat in the context of the film. There are a few more laughs here and there but for the most part, if you saw the trailer (and how could you avoid it, honestly, given how fervently the studio pushed it) then you’ve already cashed in most of the movie’s bigger chips. The monkey who communicates through humorous cards, the misguided pirating shenanigans, the sea monster bit, etc. all of the funnier bits can be found in the three minute preview. On the flip side, much of the film’s plot is completely unexpected and the tone is significantly different than what I imagined going in. The Darwin component caught me off guard and the twist that he initially brings to the table is great. But those plot points are almost always swallowed up by the lack of interest that began brewing within me from very beginning.

The Pirates definitely has a British sensibility at its core and that comes in to play in terms of the unhurried, meticulous way in which Lord and Newitt take the audience through the narrative. I love British films and television shows and I thoroughly appreciate the detailed way that British filmmakers tend to tell their story. But good grief, that style just doesn’t work at all in a kid’s film. I cannot imagine any of the kids I work with even sitting through The Pirates let alone coming away impressed. I laughed a few times and I enjoyed the handful of obligatory adult-themed bits, but I had to work to get through this film more than I ever should when watching an 88 minute kid’s movie.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: "Premium Rush"

I confess, dear readers, that I am having quite a difficult time figuring out what to write about Premium Rush. I usually spend a couple of days after I see a movie planning out my thoughts, letting everything gestate, coming up with an opening paragraph/personal anecdote to tie it altogether and then bust that sucker out. Well I’ve tried this time around and have put off writing my review far too long as a result. And I just don’t have it. Premium Rush is a movie that involves absolutely no personal connection with the audience on any level and that is both the best and worst thing about it.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bit of a wild man and a free spirit, a guy who can’t imagine being locked away inside concrete walls. Despite having gone to law school, Wilee makes his living as a bike messenger in New York City and has earned a reputation for himself as the fastest rider and the guy who takes the most chances to get his packages delivered. Things get serious for Wilee, however, when he takes a package from Nima (Jamie Chung), an old friend whose envelope holds far more importance than Wilee could know. He is soon accosted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) who demands he hand over the package, leading to a chase through the city as Wilee attempts to make his delivery. But the plot thickens when Wilee discovers that Monday isn’t just a random nut job, but instead a corrupt cop on a desperate mission.

Show me the person who saw that trailer for Premium Rush when it started making the rounds last year and was excited for the movie and I’ll show you a liar. This movie looked downright terrible and every time I saw it I got a little more confused as to why Joseph Gordon-Levitt allowed himself to be sucked into it. Surely this was a movie that had been sitting on a shelf for years, waiting for the day when the studio could capitalize on Gordon-Levitt’s eventual star power. Regardless of your opinion of the movie, you have to admit this was a strange career choice for Gordon-Levitt. In the midst of a two year span in which he will play prominent roles in Inception, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, and Lincoln, there will forever be a space left for Premium Rush, or as it will surely come to be known as, “That Bike Movie.” This is odd to say the least, especially coming from an actor who has displayed incredible decision making abilities (I think we can all forgive him for G.I. Joe, right?). As such, I was thoroughly confused by this film as its release date approached and even more confused once the positive reviews started pouring in.

Once I finally got into the theater and the film began to roll, I went through three stages of experience with Premium Rush.

1.) I started out skeptically, looking at the film through what I’m sure were furrowed brows, trying to ascertain what in the name of Angels in the Outfield was going on. “How did this script ever get the green light?” is a question that came to mind more than once in the opening 15 minutes.
2.) After this initial bout of “I don’t believe this is good”, I came around to what director David Koepp was trying to do and half-enjoyed myself. Clearly no one involved with this production was taking himself too seriously and as a result, there’s a carefree atmosphere that inhabits the middle portion of the film. It is just this side of a B movie and there’s a lot of fun to be had when you embrace that mindset.
3.) After the B movie euphoria wore off, I became keenly aware that I was watching a movie about a group of people who ride bikes for a living and speak about it as if they had a societal value akin to doctors and then I wanted it all to be over.

There’s definitely some fun to be had with Premium Rush and it certainly isn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Gordon-Levitt is a favorite of mine and as such, I enjoyed his work here even if it was perhaps the most inconsequential thing he’s ever been a part of. Shannon, though, is without question the best part of the movie. His take on the cliché tough guy crooked cop is kind of genius and he seems to be having a good time. You know he’s in on the joke and that makes the seriousness with which he treats Detective Monday thoroughly enjoyable. Beyond the presence of these two stars, however, there’s really nothing about Premium Rush that makes it special or, much more disappointing to me, even rewatchable. The best niche this movie could have carved out for itself would have been in the guilty pleasure category but it never manages to scrape together enough enjoyability to allow it to inhabit such territory.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 9/17

The long-awaited Godzilla reboot will hit screens in May, 2014. To me, this is an example of when remakes are worthwhile. The last Godzilla was a mess that no one remembers so this is an opportunity to introduce a vaunted character to a new generation.

In other remake news, the rights to The Brave Little Toaster have been purchased and the reboot will be CGI and live-action and updated to include modern technology. Yes, you read correctly, The Brave Little Toaster is making a comeback.

Donald Glover, for my money the best part of Community, has a project in development at NBC, ostensibly to keep him with the network after Community is cancelled later this year (because we all know it's going to happen, sadly). Smart move for NBC. They inexplicably allowed Mindy Kaling to take her new project to FOX, thereby losing a claim on one of the more talented young comedians in the business. Locking up Glover makes a ton of sense.

There will NOT be a director's cut of The Dark Knight Rises released on Blu-Ray and that makes me grumpy.

Charlie Highmore will play Norman Bates in A&E's Psycho prequel series. So the kid from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will now play a legendary nutjob. This creeps me out perhaps more than it should.

Marshall at Marshall and the Movies saw Killer Joe so you didn't have to and rips it apart to boot. Good call, Marshall.

With summer now in the rear view mirror, Steven at MovieMuse gives us his 5 breakout stars of summer 2012. Excellent list worth checking out.

Weekend Box Office Report
I will say this about the people behind the Resident Evil franchise: they excel at picking the right time to release their films. Each of the last four installments have opened in mid-September, each of them won the box office that week, and none of them have faced much in the way of competition. Afterlife went head to head with the very un-American The American, Extinction had only to tangle with Good Luck Chuck, a bad film even by Dane Cook’s standards, and Apocalypse faced off against the insanely forgettable Cellular. In the case of Retribution, had it opened even a week later, there’s a good chance it would get lost in the shuffle. But with only a re-release to counter it, the newest Resident Evil took home a healthy if less than expected win despite probably being a terrible movie. There’s some definite skill involved in picking the right time to open.

Finding Nemo continued a bad trend for 3D re-releases, as each one that has come out of the Disney vault has fared worse than the one before it. I have to believe this will eventually kill the calendar of 3D re-releases. I’m conflicted on that point because I pretty much hate 3D and think the fad needs to end but at the same time, I’m in favor of studios re-releasing older films, even for limited engagements, to give people a chance to see their favorite movies on the big screen, many for the first time. Perhaps the key is to simply scrap the 3D element.

1. Resident Evil: Retribution - $21.1M
2. Finding Nemo 3D - $17.5M
3. The Possession - $5.8M ($41.16M
4. Lawless - $4.21M ($30.14M)
5. ParaNorman - $3.03M ($49.33M)
6. The Expendables 2 - $3.03M ($80.29M)
7. The Words - $2.88M ($9.16M)
8. The Bourne Legacy - $2.87M ($107.81M)
9. The Odd Life of Timothy Green - $2.51M ($46.28M)
10. The Campaign - $2.4M ($82.85M)

New to DVD and Blu-Ray
During the doldrums of fall, when there are very few DVD releases of note, I’m always thankful that A.) Football has started and B.) I really enjoy watching TV on DVD. Otherwise, getting my entertainment fill from the DVD rack would be nearly impossible. Other than the titles highlighted below, most of this week’s new releases consist of TV crime procedurals, imperfect indie films, and a set of thoroughly lackluster Blu-Ray horror flicks.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkerson
Katy Perry The Movie: Part of Me – Katy Perry
Hysteria – Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce
The Woman in the Fifth – Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon Mark Kelly, Steve Zissis, Jennifer Lafleur
Supernatural: Season 7 – Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles
The Mentalist: Season 4 – Simon Baker, Robin Tunney
Body of Proof: Season 2 – Dana Delaney, Jeri Ryan
Hawaii 5-O: Season 2 – Alex O’Laughlin, Scott Caan
Halloween II (1981) – Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
The Devil’s Advocate (1997) – Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron
Ed Wood (1994) – Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker
Judge Dredd (1995) – Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Rob Schneider
Queen of the Damned (2002) – Aaliyah, Stuart Townsend

The Thing Everyone Loved…Except Me
Cabin in the WoodsKristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz
I respect the crap out of Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard, and everyone involved with Cabin in the Woods. They set out to make a moderately budgeted, smart horror-comedy and they absolutely succeeded. If I had to pick a horror-comedy to get behind, it would be this one but I really, really do not care for this genre. I also though the big twist ending was thoroughly unimpressive. If you like horror movies, though, this one is chock full of classic scary movie staples and has a definite air of Whedonistic fun. It’s just not for me.

The Thing You Should Watch
Suburgatory: Season 1 – Jane Levy, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines
Yes, the title of this freshman comedy is AWFUL. I thoroughly agree and in fact, the title alone kept me away for the first few weeks of its run last year. But when I did tune in, I found Suburgatory to be a consistently funny, at times special comedy headlined by a star in the making in Levy. Created by Emily Kapanek (who cut her teeth on Parks and Recreation) and centering on a New York City high schooler and her single father who move from the city to the suburbs, the show displayed some serious promise that I can only hope is realized in the upcoming second season.

The Thing That’s Overrated But Is Still Pretty Good
Modern Family: Season 3 – Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Sophia Vergara
The first season of Modern Family is exquisite and the second season is very, very good. But the third season, the year in which most sitcoms take it another level, was uneven and showed some signs of an identity crisis. There are so many quality parts of this ensemble and I felt like the third season struggled in keying in on the better parts. Personally, I think the strength of the show is in the male characters and yet too often they took a backseat to those belonging to Vergara and Julie Bowen. It’s still a very good show, though, and one that I enjoy week-to-week but not nearly as much as I enjoy Community, Parks and Rec, etc.

New to Blu Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (1981-1989) – Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, John Rhys-Davies
Let me tell you, I’ve been looking forward to this day for a while now. In the pantheon of my all-time favorite films, both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade each hold a prominent place. Temple of Doom also has extreme “It’s Saturday and it’s raining so I just want to lay here and half-pay attention to a fun movie” value. And as we all know that’s where it ends. There are only three Indiana Jones films, two great, one pretty good. There is no fourth film, no ill-conceived return from retirement, no scenes of Indy and his little buddy swinging through the trees with a horde of monkeys, no Area 51 nonsense, no weird room full of ancient aliens that makes no sense whatsoever in any context, etc. It all ended, wonderfully I might add, in 1989 and we never saw Indy again. (Lobotomy complete.)

 Coming to a Theater Near You
As noted previously, most of you didn’t get a chance to see The Master this weekend but the critics who did seemed to dig it as it finished with an 87 percent Fresh rating compared to my 91 percent prediction. Not too shabby. The newest Resident Evil, meanwhile, not only won the (lackluster) box office but also managed to earn itself the highest rating from the franchise, clocking in at 35 percent Rotten as opposed to the 22 percent prediction. Way to go, Alice! Now please stop.

I can’t say that I’m overly excited about any of the films headed our way this week but at least we’re being given some stinking options. I feel like the last two weeks have been a complete and utter waste of time in this department and I’m starting to get withdrawals for having not been in a theater in a while.

Dredd 3D – Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
In a post-apocalyptic America, a notorious peacekeeper known as Judge Dredd (Urban) and his trainee (Thirlby) are sent into a crime-riddled neighborhood to take down a drug lord (Headey). I was somewhat excited about Dredd when it was announced but the trailer convinced me it would be a more violent version of Lockout without Guy Pearce’s humor. That, of course, sounds awful. And yet, the early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, earning Dredd a Certified Fresh rating before it opens to audiences. So honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 83%

End of Watch – Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick
A pair of young police officers (Gyllenhaal, Pena) find themselves marked for death after running afoul of a powerful cartel. I’m not completely sure if End of Watch will employ the found footage technique or if it’s just going to go the route of the shaky camera effect but whichever it is, this is supposed to be a gritty police affair and it has impressed the first batch of critics. For my part, however, I can’t find much interest within myself, due in part to my dislike of Gyllenhaal and the fact that I feel like I’ve already seen this movie tucked away within a dozen other gritty police dramas. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 76%

House at the End of the Street – Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thieriot, Elisabeth Shue
After moving to a new town, a teenager (Lawrence) befriends a neighbor (Thieriot) whose sister killed their parents. Scary shenanigans ensue. I think this is a smart move on Jennifer Lawrence’s part as she continues to prevent herself from becoming pigeonholed into one character type or another. That said, House reeks of the sort of scary movie clichés that I just can’t stand. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 37%

Trouble with the Curve – Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake
A longtime baseball scout (Eastwood) takes his daughter (Adams) along for the ride on his final trip. On paper, you see this plot along with a cast that includes Eastwood, Adams, Timberlake, John Goodman, and others, and you immediately think “Oscar.” And then you see the trailer and you realize it’s going to be the sort of over-written, smash you over the head with emotion schlock that audiences sometimes buy but award committees HATE. I must tell you, dear readers, the trailer for Trouble is one of the more painful, embarrassing previews of the year. This looks HORRIBLE to me. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 48%

Also New: An introverted youngster (Logan Lerman) befriends two older youngsters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower…A woman’s (Lynn Collins) life is changed at just the right moment in the faith-based Unconditional…and How to Survive a Plague takes a documentarian look at two groups who work with AIDS sufferers.