July 26, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson

Much to my surprise, the theater was not filled with hordes of middle-aged women, anxiously waiting for Alexander Skarsgård to take off his shirt. Instead, it was moderately full of couples on dates, families with small children, and one very awkward pair of men who put a seat between them as if that made it clear to everyone else that though they were attending the movie together, they were not together.

I, on the other hand, went with a girlfriend with the intention of giggling our way through and ogling Alexander Skarsgård's half naked body. So it was more than a little disappointing that the movie started off slowly, in England, with everyone fully clothed.

It was interesting in that this very familiar story was told in a way that was new and different. Instead of the usual chronology of watching Tarzan's parents die, seeing him grow up with the gorillas, then meet Jane, we are given his history in short flashbacks throughout the first half of the movie. It is a bit overdone and overdramatic at points, but at least it breaks up the slow pace before the action finally kicks in.

I also appreciated the attempt to change the inescapable narrative of the white savior that underlies the Tarzan story. It's tough to do, in a story set in the Congo that stars 3 white people, but the addition of Samuel L. Jackson's character helps. While every other black person in the movie is cast as a half naked warrior-type in some bush village, Jackson instead portrays a modern (for the times) black man who is an equal to Tarzan. The fact that he also provides some much-needed comic relief in an otherwise fairly slow movie doesn't hurt either. He does it without shouting a single time! Could this be a signal of things to come for Jackson?

As for Alexander Skarsgård's body--it doesn't disappoint. Though I much prefer him with shorter hair (and a beard), there is really no denying the appeal of his physique, no matter how unflattering the lighting in the jungle scenes are. It's so enjoyable to look at it almost keeps you from laughing at the scene where he fist fights an [amazingly real looking] 800 pound gorilla. Or the numerous times he's just literally standing there flexing while things happen around him. There is such commitment to the seriousness of it all.

The fact is, this movie was basically centered around the sex appeal of Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie (especially the two of them together), but they managed to make a decent movie anyway by casting people creating a full cast of people who can actually act--the main two just happen to be incredibly hot. And by coming up with some creative twists on the story line. So everyone wins. Especially Christoph Waltz, who saved himself a lot of embarrassment from lending his distinguished reputation to a movie that could have easily been a complete bomb.

Final word: If you really just want to drool over Alexander Skarsgård (and who doesn't?!?), watch this movie. If you really just want to watch Margot Robbie, you have 8,000 options because she is in absolutely everything right now.

July 20, 2016

Ranking the Characters from the West Wing from Worst to First

With the current clusterf*ck that is our political system, is it any wonder so many people are turning to reruns of The West Wing for refuge? The political masterpiece, which wrapped up ten years ago, is still exactly as relevant today as it was when it debuted. We are still dealing with the same issues tackled in the show: conflict in the Middle East, racial conflict, police shootings, school vouchers, tensions with China and Russia, and of course, a deadlocked Congress. Even the contested convention episode was almost a reality on the Republican side. (And I imagine it would have been even more chaotic and ridiculous in real life.)

So every night, I've been hiding from the news and immersing myself Aaron Sorkin's magical world where people actually care about what happens to this country. Over the course of 7 seasons (though let's be honest, there are a fair number of people who wish it would have just stopped at 5), I've started to realize I look forward to watching some characters more than others. Some I flat out dread seeing. So with the purpose of hiding out from real life just a bit longer, I decided to rank the major West Wing characters in the reverse order of my preference. (Caution: spoilers ahead)

26. Will Bailey I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say Joshua Molina is the Martin Skrelli of The West Wing. He has a smug face you just sort of want to punch. And I cannot get the sound of his very terribly faked astonishment at finding a goat in his office out of my head. Ugh. I cannot believe we lost Sam Seaborn as a character and were given this as a replacement. The fact that he leaves to work for the VP only solidifies this status.

25. Mandy Hampton I almost didn't bother listing her since she was only around one season, but the fact that she disappears without a mention and no one cares is proof that creating her character was a mistake in the first place.

24. Matthew Santos I don't want to talk too much about Seasons 6 & 7, mostly because they're difficult for me to watch. The writing quality takes a nosedive, the entire West Wing seems hobbled and sad, but mostly, I can't stand to listen to Matthew Santos talk. Look, I love accents. Adore them. They make almost any person automatically more attractive. But his accent is distinctly not Southern. It's fake Southern. And badly faked, at that. So combined with his stubborn attitude and equally irritating wife, watching him get sworn in isn't exactly my dream ending to one of the best TV series ever created.

23. Kate Harper She appears out of nowhere and is involved in seemingly every meeting, despite the fact that the administration managed to survive a number of years without ever having a deputy NSA at their beck and call. And then suddenly she's at the President's library opening years later? She's like the Tori (from Saved By The Bell) that leaves you wondering how she just came in and was suddenly part of the cool crowd.

22. Zoey & Ellie Bartlet That episode focusing on Ellie and her dad? Snore. Zoe's relationship with Pierre? Could not care less. Everyone constantly commenting on how good Zoey looks despite not actually looking that good? Their boring personalities? All these factors contribute to the two younger Bartlet daughters being so low on the list. The fact is, neither character is very interesting and I dread every time one of them appears on screen. (I excluded the eldest, Liz Bartlet, because she has a little more sizzle to her character, but also appears so infrequently she's not really worth ranking.)

21. Annabeth Schott Another late series addition, Kristin Chenoweth brings her usual perky charm to the role, but her character is a bit of a throwaway. Beyond filling the gap when CJ becomes Chief of Staff, there's not a lot of reason for her to stay on as a regular and certainly not as some weird Leo McGarry fangirl.

20. Bob Russell On one hand, he's as dull as a paper bag. On the other hand, that's exactly who he's supposed to be. Though I may never stop thinking of him as the boss in Office Space, this role is one Gary Cole is destined to play again and again.

19. Cathy, Carol, Ed & Larry, and every other minor regular Let's hear it for the non-black minorities, who are basically all encapsulated in this category! But seriously, it's sort of comforting to see the same faces pop in and out to remind us that the entire federal government isn't, in fact, run by Josh and Toby. Even with their minimal participation, I still enjoy the whole of the assistant staff more than the people listed above. Plus you know, Asians!

18. Leo McGarry Leo got dinged because after Season 4, he became a bit of an asshole. I dislike the fact that he frequently dismisses staffer's concerns and seems to have an inflated sense of his own power. Like when he was reassuring the Joint Chiefs that President Bartlet would give the order to bomb whomever in that episode where Toby's brother gets stuck in space? Or when he demands that Josh get "his candidate" to concede the election because "he'll never win," but ends up running on the ticket with him? His political shadiness is a little too real for a fictional show. I know he dies in real life, but I can't just throw him sympathy points for it.

17. John Hoynes I can't explain it. There is something I like about him. Maybe because he is familiar as a typical politician? Maybe it's because you expect to hate him, based on how President Bartlet talks about him, but he turns out to be a pretty decent guy? (Minus all the affairs, of course.)

16. Jed Bartlet Yeah, I know, he's the president. But he's also kind of a pain in the ass. Have you ever known someone who could actually quote long Bible passages or play entire chess games from memory? Did you actually like that person? He may make a good fictional president, but he's not a character I want to be coerced into sitting with while he lists every National Park in the country. No one likes a know-it-all. Plus, he looks like a chipmunk. It's distracting.

15. Ainsley Hayes I like that Ainsley serves as a counterpoint to the heavy left-wing rhetoric of the show. The fact that there is at least a minimal attempt to highlight some rational right-wing positions makes it more thought-provoking than if it just fed viewers exactly what they already believed. My one sticking point is that although Ainsley is a smart, competent woman, she is also made to be a bit of a ditz and I just don't think it was necessary. Also, like so many other non-main characters, she straight up disappears without an explanation. The West Wing must have some sort of black hole portal in the office.

14. Arnie Vinick I know everyone watching the show is supposed to be a hardcore Democrat, but I really preferred Vinick. At least as a person. I'm glad they at least had him lose the election through no fault of his own, but that speech he gives to the press about it being no one's business whether or not he goes to church is one of the best moments of an overall lackluster Season 6. DAMN IT PEOPLE, WE HAVE A SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!

13. Toby Ziegler I have a love/hate relationship with Toby. He represents the most pure Democratic ideology and the vocabulary to eloquently express his views. But he's also a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch. So much so that I find myself sometimes disliking him, even as I'm agreeing with every word he's saying. He's just such a downer. His ex-wife (who is not believable as someone who would marry Toby, btw) said it best when she told him, "you're too sad."

12. Oliver Babish He's a fairly minor character, but he gets a lot of screen time during the long and arduous MS saga that weighs down Season 2. To which I say, I wish the president had run into more legal trouble. Oliver Platt is such an excellent actor and his no-nonsense way of knocking one's ego down a notch or two is exactly what all of these staffers need. Because really, I'm pretty sure everyone in Washington thinks they are the smartest, most righteous person who ever existed. It's why everyone hates politics.

11. Sam Seaborn Sam is above Toby because, well, Rob Lowe. No matter how many bad things you read about him, no matter how many shows he quits mid-season, it's impossible not to love him on screen. The guy can act. He channels his most charming self as idealistic Sam Seaborn, who brings a tear to my eye when he deletes his State of the Union speech about curing cancer. I'm pretty sure he is  one of the only universally loved characters in all of television. If only he had stuck around longer.

10. Debbie Fiderer & Margaret I know everyone mourns Mrs. Landingham's death like it was their own grandma and everything, but her replacement, Debbie, is pretty phenomenal. Just her mention of alpaca farming alone is enough for me like her. And while Mrs. Landingham was around for less than 2 seasons, Debbie ran the office for almost 5 seasons. And Margaret, whom everyone seems to think is weird, is so excellent as an awkward but well-intentioned assistant. And damn it, I would want to know the calorie content of that raisin muffin too.

9. Abbey Bartlet There are so many things I love about Abbey. I love that she has her own career. I love that she doesn't take crap from anyone. I love that she is age appropriate. And I love that every time I look at her, I still think of Rizzo from Grease. But seriously, she's not a First Lady who stands around as arm candy for her husband. I love that even in a household where her husband is supposedly the most powerful man in the world, she can hold her own.

8. Bruno Gianelli Though a temporary character, Bruno helps remind us that governing and campaigning are two very different things. I love his insight into the strategy of politicking and his wry sense of humor. His presence is just another reason I was cheering for Vinick to beat Santos in the election.

7. Donna Moss In some ways, I wanted to rank Donna higher. She's excellent at her job, she's funny, she's caring, and she serves as the voice of regular citizens who want to know what the hell Washington's problem is on a regular basis. But her infatuation with Josh is hard to watch, no matter how much you find yourself rooting for them to get together. He does not deserve her. Period. So the fact that he has some Jerry Maguire moment in his mind where he finally realizes he needs her does not make up for the fact that he never fully respects her. Donna lacks her own narrative apart from Josh, which makes her character both stronger and weaker at the same time.

6. Amy Gardner I'll admit, the first time I watched the series I didn't love Amy. Mostly because I saw her as impeding the romance between Josh and Donna. But the more I watch the show, the more I want to be her. She's smart, she's capable, and she's a freaking go-getter. I'm not a huge fan of the flat tones of Mary-Louise Parker's voice, but I'm channeling Amy Gardner's attitude in my next career. The woman makes me want to go into politics.

5. Charlie Young Aside from his love for Zoe Bartlet (which turns weird and slightly stalker-ish during the Jean-Paul phase), Charlie is one of the most steady and reliable characters. He is always there, always professional, and literally the only major character of color. I am continually impressed at his restraint from shouting down the idiocy around him on a regular basis. If I don't come back as Amy Gardner in my next life, I could settle for being Charlie Young (though I imagine it would be quite a large pay cut).

4. Danny Concanon To be honest, part of the reason I like Danny so much is because he likes my favorite character, CJ. Another part of it is because it finally erased my anger at his character in Field of Dreams that causes the daughter to choke on a hot dog and forces Doc to leave the field. He's a pretty understated villain in that movie and it took 4 long seasons of The West Wing to finally lobby me onto his side. Oh yeah, and the fact that he has journalistic integrity and all that.

3. Josh Lyman Josh, to me, is the main character. He's in almost every storyline and he's the character with the widest range. Sometimes he's a sympathetic, caring friend who flies to Germany to sit by Donna's bedside (swoon!); sometimes he's a pompous jerk who overestimates his own power and ends up converting Congressmen to the opposite party. But above all else, he is always in a suit that looks to be too big with a backpack slung over his shoulder like some frat boy going to a job interview. And that's what makes him so likable--he's like an overgrown man-child in a room full of stodgy adults and he brings the fun.

2. Joey Lucas Who would have thought that the funniest character on the entire show was someone who rarely even speaks? Joey Lucas sets her own rules and has people chasing after her for work instead of the other way around. She make something that is inherently boring (polling and the data that comes with it) and makes it exciting to hear about. I love almost every episode she is a part of.

1. CJ Cregg Really, can anyone disagree that CJ is the best character on the show? She is so utterly charming (which I suppose is the crux of her press job) and a nice change-up from the overflowing testosterone coursing through the rest of the West Wing. (Seriously, did Sorkin not realize he made every single assistant in the building female?) She says what we are all thinking at home. And she balances her passion for certain issues with a light-hearted demeanor, even as she gets hit with some of the heaviest story lines. The scene where she cries about the women of Qumar being stoned for adultery and has to go out and brief the press on the US' arms deal with the country immediately after gets me every time.

I'm sure there will be some fair amount of disagreement over the middle section, but can anyone really argue with my top and bottom choices?

July 14, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Margot Robbie

Did you ever watch Eat, Pray, Love? I did. In the theater. It wasn't good, and not just because I don't like Julia Roberts.

I mention it because one film critic likened this movie to Eat, Pray, Love. I'm not sure he's ever seen Eat, Pray, Love because this movie is nothing like it. I mean, other than it starring a woman in a country other than the US.

Let me back up: I had no idea what this movie was really about when I rented it on a whim. I knew it starred Tina Fey and I knew it was about war. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who had this vague knowledge of the movie. Considering its low box office draw, I think most people didn't know what to make of it.

This is where marketing comes into play. It was advertised as a comedy. It stars Tina Fey, so I get the inclination to do so. Except that it's not. The only people who would call it a comedy are the same people who labeled The Martian a comedy. It has a similar vibe--a serious topic, tackled with a semi-lighthearted look and a lot of jokes mixed in. So instead of correctly showing it as a dramedy (which is still somehow not an official genre even though there are tons of movies out there with this exact combination), it comes off as some lame puffball movie. Like Eat, Pray, Love. Except no one wants to watch a puffball movie about war.

So they really screwed themselves because this movie is good. It can be difficult for comedic actors to transition to more serious roles but I think Tina Fey did an excellent job, especially by bridging the difference with a fair amount of comedy within a more serious movie. I might be slightly biased, though, because I am currently reading Bossypants and it's making me like her more and more with each chapter I read. (It's actually so good I'm liking Amy Poehler more just by extension of Tina Fey saying good things about her.)

This movie has a number of complex narratives running through it and I'm bothered by the fact that so many reviews of it have boiled it down to a story of a woman's self-discovery. I'm not saying that isn't one of the narratives, but it seems like almost every female-led movie gets shoved into that category. Wild? Check. Trainwreck? Check. Fifty Shades of Grey? A different kind of "self-discovery", but check. It's not that self-discovery isn't important--hell, it's the main theme in most every movie, female or male-led--but that the labeling of it as such seems to weigh it down with the expectation of heaviness and eye rolling cliches. This is not that.

This is a movie that asks the viewer to take a hard look at our consumption of mass media and war coverage, and yes, it does it in a feel good way with some romance sprinkled in there. But to assume it is a throwaway movie about a woman finding herself (or a man) would mean you miss out on a lovely film that will hopefully launch Tina Fey into movies more sophisticated than Sisters.

Final word: Not Eat, Pray, Love. In a good way.

P.S. Obviously I can't let it pass without saying: what the hell were they thinking casting all the Afghan roles to white actors?!? It could not have been that difficult to find decent talent, especially considering one of the roles barely even speaks. It seems no ethnicity is immune the Hollywood whitewashing. And I honestly can't tell if Tina Fey's response to the controversy is a joke or not.

P.P.S. Kudos to Martin Freeman for his thick Scottish accent in the movie. It's almost indecipherable at times--just like a real Scottish accent! ;)

July 2, 2016

Deadpool (2016)

Ryan Reynolds

Every decade or so, a movie comes out and shocks its genre by taking it to the next level. In my adolescence, it was American Pie. Compared to beloved childhood classics like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, the unapologetic focus on sex was shocking. Then came Superbad--one of the only movies I have ever cried at from laughing so hard. (The other, however, was Magic Mike. So there's that.) It seemed to take that high school rom-com/slacker buddy comedy to a whole new place with the ridiculously stupid humor that was somehow both hilarious and unexpected.

This is like that.

With the superhero movie market reaching a level of saturation previously believed to be impossible, Deadpool is that new, shocking catalyst of change. It mixes off-beat humor and a heavy dose of sarcasm to shake the genre out of its often-boring PG-13 standard. Instead of the usual action sequences, it utilizes some pretty rad visual effects to freeze frame large swaths of motion, which also has the effect of varying the pace of the story. It's a mix of sweet, edgy, hilarious, and shocking, which, coincidentally, is probably also how most people who liked this movie would describe themselves.

In hindsight, the character of Deadpool is a lot like Van Wilder. And whoever he played in The Proposal. And The Change-Up. So Ryan Reynolds isn't the most versatile actor. Oh well. Neither is Kristen Stewart, but she keeps getting cast in stuff and she doesn't have even a fraction of the personality he does. So as long as he keeps playing someone I'd actually want to hang out with in real life, I'll keep watching his movies. Plus, he's from Canada, so it's impossible to actively dislike him. =D

I wish I hadn't known quite so much about the movie before I watched it, since knowing it skewed heavily toward adult sensibilities sort of robbed it of some of its charm. Also, knowing that the upcoming Suicide Squad movie actually went back and re-shot entire scenes to try and mimic Deadpool to cash in on its appeal just makes me groan. Deadpool was a fantastically entertaining movie, but I'm not looking forward to now seeing dozens of movies where people try to make jokes like Ryan Reynolds. Not everyone can pull it off.

Final word: This movie marks a turning point in the superhero genre. It's probably all downhill from here.