Monday, April 14, 2014

Californication Season Seven Premiere: "Levon"

Finding Its Way Home

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The final season of Californication premiered last night and after seven years of Hank's (David Duchovny) debauchery, the show appears to be getting back on track. The first season as a whole proved that Californication was something different, a comedy that pushed the limits even for cable television, but one that had a lot of heart and soul. Many wrote the show off as being just about sex, when in fact it was anything but. As the seasons progressed, however, it was clear that the writers were more interested in sexual situation comedy, rather than the story of Hank and Karen (Natasha McElhone).

I questioned how Californication could last past a season or two and the answer was it couldn't and shouldn't have. This always was a short term story, at least for me, and while I wish things could have ended much sooner, I'm glad that this first episode in the show's conclusion indicates a return to form. It begins moments after the ending of last season, with Hank knocking on Karen's door to tell her he wants to make it work. Things don't go as planned, so Hank decides to get a job working in television. Easier said than done.

Fans of the show will remember that season five revolved around the making of the movie "Santa Monica Cop", which has now been adapted into a television series and is being run by Rick Rath (Michael Imperioli). Hank convinces Rick that he's worth hiring because of his life experience and that his pain in the ass work ethic is beside the point. "I'm on a quest to reclaim the best parts of myself before it's too late", Hank says at one point. The same can be said about Californication.

The core of the show has always been Hank and Karen's relationship, and their scenes together, sparse though they may be, always remind me of why I fell in love with the show in the first place. Duchovny and McElhone are so good that when they're together, it no longer feels like I'm watching two characters on a screen, rather, I'm a witness to two very real people having arguments and conversations that actually matter. And when the show is firing on all cylinders, the comedy comes out of the characters, not the situations they're thrown into.

Take Charlie (Evan Handler) and Marcy (Pamela Adlon) for example. They're the most unlikely couple in the series. Their chemistry is just perfect on as their co-stars and the funniest moments in "Levon" occurred when they were arguing about Charlie's erectile dysfunction. While Charlie has been the focus of ridicule throughout Californication's run, he's best served when Marcy is with him. Keeping them apart for so long was one of many missteps in the show's prolonged run, but now that they're living not-so-happily ever after, all could be forgiven. And yes, watching Charlie flounder about is always amusing, but it's having Marcy by his side that makes those scenes work. That's a testament to Adlon's comedic timing, which makes Marcy's mixture of bitter and sweet spot on.

It's that dichotomy that always made Californication work, and for too long, Tom Kapinos - the show's creator and, now, only writer - went for the wacky comedy instead of comedic character study. But for the first time in several seasons, I was laughing again and happy to see these characters for at least twelve more episodes. Let's hope that Californication, much like Hank and Karen, can get it right a second time.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness ★★

Visually Exciting; Illogical on Almost Every Level

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Remember Kirk, Spock and Bones? Remember the Enterprise and its five year mission? In case you're rusty: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Star Trek was about a future in which different nations and other worlds worked together. The Federation had its enemies, sure, but for the most part it was about the wonder of space and its endless possibilities. It was ahead of its time, to say the least, and sadly, the latest entry in J.J. Abrams' version of the series hints that we may never see that vision of the future again.

Star Trek Into Darkness has not only a bad title, but one that completely undermines what Star Trek was always about. It's as if Mr. Abrams watched the series and understood none of it, or, if he did, simply didn't care. Into Darkness is a film in which the director forces himself on the material, rather than let the material speak for itself. I was a fan of the first film, which wisely created an alternate timeline and even included the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) so that the audience would know that the stories we all loved from that original series still existed. This also meant that Mr. Abrams was free to modify the characters, slightly, which made their introductions fresh and new, while still retaining what we always loved about them. In other words, he seemed to care when he made Star Trek. I'll say this for his directing of Into Darkness: he has a talent for creating breathtaking visuals during pulse-pounding action sequences, but when you strip that away you discover that this film is all style and no substance. You don't really have time to breathe when watching Into Darkness, and it's only after watching the film in its entirety that you begin to see its many flaws.

Into Darkness begins, promisingly enough, with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) racing through a red forest trying to distract a race of aliens while Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempts to neutralize an erupting volcano. When things don't go as planned, Kirk has to save Spock by violating the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet cannot interfere with the development of alien nations. As a result, Kirk is demoted to first officer by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Spock is assigned to another ship. At this point it seems that Mr. Abrams and his screenwriters (Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & Damon Lindelof) actually get Star Trek. Kirk could not allow a civilization to be destroyed and thus had to intervene, exposing the Enterprise when his friend was in danger.

I was optimistic about where the film was going right up until the villain, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), is introduced, at which point the film truly veers into darkness. Kirk resumes command and pursues Harrison into Klingon territory which, if Kirk is careless in his quest, will cause a war with the Klingons. From here, Mr. Abrams commits the biggest sin when he attempts to remake The Wrath of Khan, easily the best entry of all the Star Trek films.

The Wrath of Khan worked for a variety of reasons: it dealt with questions of mortality, friendship and above all, sacrifice. Once again, it seems as though Mr. Abrams watched that film and understood none of it. His Kirk is much more cocky and somehow managed to forget everything he learned in the first film. His friendship with Spock feels forced, not earned (let's remember, they only became friends in the first film because the older Spock told Kirk they needed to be), and Bones is barely even a character this time around. (The three of them and their clashing personalities were what made the original series, as well as Wrath of Khan great.) Thus, everything that happens feels false and does not achieve the emotion Mr. Abrams was hoping for. During the screening I attended, people in the audience were actually laughing at what was supposed to be the most moving scene in the film.

A lot of imagination is missing from Star Trek Into Darkness, which is unfortunate given the admiration and excitement I had for the first one. What does work comes in small doses - namely the opening, some of the action sequences, and perhaps the two best scenes in the movie, which feature conversations between Kirk and Pike. Overall, Into Darkness feels lazy and, at times, disrespectful, not only to the fans of both the original and the new incarnation, but to Gene Roddenberry's original vision of the future. The first film had the marketing slogan "This is not your father's Star Trek", which was true, but still had the heart of the original series. Into Darkness, however, feels like it's no one's Star Trek.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3 ★★★★

Finally, The Third Time Is The Charm

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Providing a much needed breath of fresh air to the series, Iron Man 3 kicks off the summer movie season with a bang.

As a director, I must say I have never been a huge fan of Jon Favreau. As an actor, he's fine, but when the best movie he's directed is Elf (although I do love Elf), you know there's trouble. Thankfully, Favreau chose to leave the Iron Man series as a director to pursue other projects and was replaced by the prolific Shane Black. Black has only directed one other feature, the highly enjoyable Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but is clearly the man for the job, at least for this franchise.

There's a certain style that comes from a Shane Black script, most notably witty dialogue (perfect for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark); voiceover narration; a noirish, pulpy feel to the story; and Christmas as the juxtaposed backdrop. All of these elements are in place for Iron Man 3, which Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce, and it serves the story in a variety of unique ways. The voiceover narration is one of those elements associated with the film noir style and it's use here gives the film less of a superhero feel and more of a detective-recalling-his-biggest-case vibe. To that point, a large part of this movie is uncovering a mystery that's set up in its first act, and Tony plays the role of lead detective perfectly.

Iron Man 3 is also violent in the ways Black is famous for, even though it's somewhat muted given its PG-13 rating and the studio's desire for it to fit within the Marvel universe, but Black still manages to make this movie his own. As opposed to the previous entries in the series, this time around, the violence matters. These aren't just CGI characters created to be blown up, though for those who want it, there's still an impressive amount of CGI in play. We believe that any of the characters could die at any moment, largely because of the tone Black establishes and maintains throughout, as well as Downey's best performance in the series.

At the beginning of the film, we're told through voiceover that Tony has made many enemies, as he reflects back to a New Year's Eve party in 1999 where he had a one night stand with a scientist named Maya (Rebecca Hall) and managed to blow off a crippled scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who was a huge admirer of Tony's. In the present, Killian despises Tony (why wouldn't he?), has gotten his disabilities in check, and now resembles the Guy Pearce we all know and love. Apparently, he is also working with a terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who shares in Killian's desire for Tony's demise. When The Mandarin attacks Tony at his home in Malibu, Tony is left for dead with only one non-functioning suit at his disposal, setting up some interesting plot reveals along the way.

The movie has also the task of picking up the pieces left by the end of The Avengers, but manages it quite nicely by removing any Avenger-esque subplot (a fault of nearly every Marvel movie to be released after the first Iron Man) and instead (brace yourself, this is a novel concept) placing Tony front and center. He's suffering from anxiety attacks after his near death experience, can't sleep, and has become more paranoid than ever about attacks from other worlds and dimensions. Tony's desperate, scared, and a little unhinged. This isn't the Tony Stark we're used to. Sure, he's cocky at times, but more as a deflection than ever before. He's lost the confidence he once had. As a result, he's created 42 new suits, each one a supposed improvement over the previous. These suits are meant not only to protect himself, but Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well. At one point, Tony says, as if to put it mildly, "Nothing's been the same since New York."

All of this is to say that Iron Man 3 is precisely the summer blockbuster that I hope both critics and audiences can agree on. It's a lot of fun, it's intelligent, and it's one of those rare movies that I look forward to seeing again.