TV Reality

Are you surprised by the news from Fox last night that they’d cancelled all of their bubble shows? Because I’m surprised by all the surprise.

The people who ran Fox in the late 90′s and early 2000′s earned it a permanent place on the shitlists of everyone who loves TV. They mishandled and axed Firefly. They mishandled and axed Wonderfalls. They loaded their airwaves with specials about killer bees and car chases and Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire.

But what was the last really awful thing Fox did? They canceled Lone Star after two airings, but the show was a miserable flop that didn’t connect with the public despite a very visible ad campaign and tons of critical buzz. They canceled Arrested Development, but they gave it three seasons despite the fact that nobody was watching. They canceled Dollhouse, but it was a flop from the very first episode, and they gave it an entire second season out of charity! Yes, the constant time slot shifting hurt AD, and Firefly, and Fringe. But that happens on every network.

In a lot of ways, the networks are actually becoming much more merciful than they used to be. In past years, low- to middle-rated shows with lots of critical acclaim like Community, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Parenthood and especially Fringe would’ve never made it this far. Fringe, in particular, is an extremely expensive show with very, very low ratings. Granted, Fox wounded it horribly by moving it last year from Tuesdays to Thursdays in the most competitive timeslot on TV, but the numbers weren’t exactly through the roof on Tuesdays, either.  Having the prestige factor of critical attention and a small but devoted audience actually pays dividends these days.

So let’s look at the shows Fox canceled last night. Breaking In and Traffic Light? Generic, disposable sitcoms that no one cared about. Lie To Me and Human Target? Both shows with great casts but creative misfires from the start. And if you were a fan of either show, guess what? You got multiple seasons, with 48 and 25 episodes respectively! Feel lucky! The only show I personally felt sad to see go was The Chicago Code, a show with a great cast created by Shawn Ryan, one of the true geniuses working in television. But it had bad ratings and frankly never fulfilled its potential. Fox gave it wall to wall coverage during the Super Bowl and a full season to find its footing creatively and commercially, which never happened.

This is how TV works. If a show doesn’t get good ratings, or barring that, a lot of critical attention, it won’t be around for 10 years.

If you’re upset today, expect the same disappointment when NBC, CBS and ABC releases their new schedules. This was a really strong pilot season after 2-3 years of very weak pilot seasons, and networks won’t — and shouldn’t — miss out on great new shows in favor of keeping stagnant old ones.

Back To Norm

It’s been said that the Golden Age of Entertainment is whenever you were 13 years old. I’m inclined to believe that’s true, and when I was 13 years old, the funniest guy in the world was Norm Macdonald. Everyone agrees that Saturday Night Live was largely in the doldrums at the time – this was the 1994-1995 season where Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler left or were in the process of leaving – but Norm was the sole bright spot, turning in legendary performances week after week. I still quote his material from this period almost daily; his Burt Reynolds on Celebrity Jeopardy insisting he be addressed as “Turd Ferguson” and choosing “Swords for $48,000″ (the category was “S Words”), his Larry King shouting out non sequiturs like “If you only see one movie for the rest of your life, make sure that it’s Gattaca” and “An underrated chef in my opinion: Chef Boyardee”, his Charles Kuralt signing off on CBS News Sunday Morning with tales of depraved sexual encounters over the decades.

But obviously, he’s most remembered for being the best Weekend Update anchor of all time, a fact that even those who don’t understand or enjoy Macdonald’s delightful strangeness now concede. A few years ago, I read Steve Martin’s comedy memoir Born Standing Up, along with several tributes to him written by people who were in their teens and early 20′s when Martin was at his peak. I’d always thought he was funny, but when I was growing up he was already in the phase of his career when he’d left his influential stand-up behind and was playing middle aged dads in safe family comedies like Father of the Bride and Parenthood. Reading those tributes, though, I came to realize that what people 15 to 20 years older than me saw in Martin I saw in Macdonald. Both were young absurdists who came from TV writing gigs (Martin from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Macdonald from The Dennis Miller Show and Roseanne), both used a straight-laced appearance to subvert the deep weirdness of their material, both confused and alienated older audiences, both used Saturday Night Live as a springboard for success.

To an impressionable young man whose only experience with comedy was crappy sitcoms and Nickelodeon, Norm was an absolute revelation. He seemed dangerous, unafraid to piss the crowd off… in fact, he loved pissing the crowd off. When his extended delivery finally culminated in a punch line, if the crowd didn’t laugh, he’d just stare in the camera, smirking, knowing that the only thing funnier than his joke was the audience being dared to laugh. What made him seem so edgy was how safe and old-fashioned he was 99% of the time. He was a normal guy, which upped the shock value considerably when he would do things like telling Will Ferrell’s James Lipton that he hopes the first thing he hears in Heaven is, “James Lipton’s in hell right now, being raped by the Devil.”

After being fired from SNL, Macdonald has struggled to find a second act to his career aside from some classic appearances on Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern and an Andy Kaufman-esque appearance on the Bob Saget Roast. There were a couple of failed sitcoms, movies that never took off, etc. He’s never been a traditional stand up, and there aren’t a lot of venues for hurling one liners at a camera like he did on Update. So finally, he’s created his own: Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which premiered last night on Comedy Central. Sports Show doesn’t even attempt to shy away from Norm’s Weekend Update glory days in appearance or delivery; in fact, for a second I thought I’d been put in a cryogenic chamber for 15 years and woke up on a random Saturday night at midnight. The pilot felt a tad dated as it was cobbled together from test episodes shot over the past few months, but it was funny as hell, and one joke at the end of the first segment reminded me of why he’ll always be a comedy icon to me: “UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting have announced they’ll be joining forces to create a new league. The new sport will be known as ‘Murder’.” It feels so good to have you back, Norm.

The Lovely and Legendary Liz

When Ray came out in 2004, I and most people in my generation were shocked to discover that Ray Charles, a man we knew only as Pepsi’s “uh huh… you got the right one baby” pitchman, was actually a peerless musical innovator who all but created R&B.

I had the same thought this morning when I read the sad news that Elizabeth Taylor had passed away after years of health problems. A fixture of the tabloids for 60 years, she probably sold far more gossip rags than she ever did movie tickets. Like Marlon Brando — another incredibly beautiful, immensely talented and scandal prone icon of the same era — Taylor pretty much retired from serious acting in the 70′s and spent the rest of her years regarded as a kook. That’s how I thought of her growing up, until I saw Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on cable one afternoon during summer vacation and realized she was one of the most electrifying and exciting actresses of all time.

It’s impossible to think of Liz Taylor as the weird creature the media spent decades painting her as once you see her work. From the mid 50′s to the late 60′s, Taylor used her considerable stardom to expand the definition of what actresses could do, lending her name to progressive projects like Giant and Virginia Woolf, helping jumpstart women’s lib with sexually frank roles in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Butterfield 8, and redefining Hollywood glamour with her movie star demeanor and stunning beauty. She was always light years ahead of what you expected. A live wire performer onscreen, laying bare her insecurities, messy private life and difficult childhood. A fierce intelligence, with a dark, razor-sharp wit with a twinkle in her famously violet eyes. And speaking of those eyes, she was one of the most unbelievably gorgeous women who ever lived, even more beautiful in her prime than you remember.

So what will Taylor’s legacy be? Unfortunately, I doubt she’ll only be remembered for her work, specifically that great dozen or so years before the business of making movies simultaneously wore her down and bored her. That work is so strong and so memorable, though, that it’s just as unlikely that the media circus that hounded her from the Eisenhower to Obama administrations will define her. So let’s split the difference and hope that she’s remembered as a true movie star, a woman who captured the attention of an (often) adoring public and will be a part of Hollywood history forever.

In Which We Adjust The Adjustment Bureau

Four men in grey suits and long grey coats walk on a roof. All are wearing hats.

Ellen and I wanted to get away from the rom coms so we decided to hit up March’s big action flick, only to find it was trying to be a rom com. just when you think you’re out…

Ellen: Starring Hat Damon! Sorry, had to get that out there right away.

Zoe: Haaaaaaaaaaats! Angels with haaaaaats! I have to say: less disappointing than Legion, which was supposed to be angels with guns and failed on that regard entirely. At least there were a lot of hats in this movie! Also, a 15 year old’s viewpoint on free will.

Ellen: I had to look up what Legion was. Must have missed that one in theatres!

I feel sort of bad that human free will caused everything bad to happen in the world. On the other hand, there’s always (spoiler?) the powwwwwwer of looooooove, or at least the power of two attractive people with decent on-screen chemistry, one of whom is incredibly pushy and stubborn.

Zoe: Ha. You know what annoys me the most about this movie is that it could have been so much better. For example, there’s the idea that in some ways it’s a reverse Adam and Eve story, which is sort of cool. And then there’s the idea that angels can be assholes, which is also sort of cool. There’s also a few twist endings the movie could have done, or stakes that could have been raised, or lots of cool things that the movie never, ever explores in favor of haaaaaaaaats and fast running! Because that makes it look like something is happening.

There’s also the unstated idea that god/Angels only care about Western culture (all positive things that the angels did: in the West. All negative things humans did: also in the West). Plus there are no lady angels, because we’d just get all our emotions over the cold, logical plan of “the Chariman”, I guess? Or maybe they just didn’t know what hat a lady angel would wear.

Ellen: May I suggest a pillbox?

This movie definitely wanted to be a thinking person’s action movie a la “Inception” and action won out in the end. What’s surprising about it was that I was surprised. Somehow it suspended my This Is Hollywood This Is What We Do Here programming for just long enough that I really believed it was going to pull something big off. Then it just became a running-everywhere-and-save-the-lady movie. If I had to pick a turning point, I’d say Matt Damon’s character running around South Street Seaport trying to find a phone to go to the dance studio.

And what was with that short film about a congressman’s viral video at the beginning? Oh wait… that was where all the humor in the movie was, aside from our endless parade of hat jokes.

Zoe: See, and what disappointed me is that it really wasn’t an action movie. I mean, yes, there was a lot of running around and yelling. And yes, a couple of times Hat Damon decked a guy. But mostly it was just running as if something was frantically happening. I mean, the major way Damon gets screwed by the guy who pulls out the stops is….sitting in an abandoned warehouse and then getting talked to logically. Bo-ring. But at least we know that free will sort of exists? Except when it doesn’t. Which is pretty much always. Not that the angels really know, because it seems like God is sort of a dick.

Ellen: God is the villain! Operating through Terence Stamp, of course, as he always does.

I have to disagree with you a little on the action bit. We know that the hatted ones are capable of doing very scary things like wrecking cabs and, implied, killing off Hat Damon’s dad and brother to make him the next President. That is an honest threat that the cab accident, which I admit made me jump a little, seems to pay out on. My charge would be not that there is no action, but that it is inefficient. The score swells, but nothing happens. The chase scenes are mostly interesting because it’s a bunch of dudes in suits and HATS! running up the stairs or trapping Matt Damon and Emily Blunt on a rooftop — again, somewhat threatening, but it’s not clear why they got up there in the first place.

(Side-note/ theological question: We’re told by Anthony Mackie, my latest favorite Hey It’s That Guy, that the God-figure “The Chairman” appears to everyone, but in a different form. Given that we know this, who in this movie is The Chairman to him? I’m voting for his eternally peeved friend. That’s the kind of God I could at least live with.)

Zoe: God is totally the villain until the love of Hatty D and Dancey B change his mind.

I mean, on the one had, there are implied threats, on the other hand, actually killing Damon would probably also be against the plan? And while the angels did off with his dad and his brother, there wasn’t really malice behind it, which is what I guess I want from a villain. The car accident was good, but even then, no one was hurt (except maybe their insurance premiums!) I’m not saying there was no action, but it wasn’t exactly a non-stop thriller, either. The angels are sort of just bored robots, totally uncaring about being really threatening. I mean, the movie tells us that God limits their power through hats (YES REALLY, THAT IS A THING IN THIS MOVIE), so maybe not really being able to do too much is part of that. That and the weird “water limits your power” rule. Maybe that’s just a jab at godless sailors?

But really I just think they could have done a better job scaring Damon. I mean, they tell him that (SPOILERS) hooking up with Blunt will keep him from being president, which they need him to be. But they never say why. I mean, there’s a big difference between “you will never be president” and “you will never be president, which means we get bombed by Canada and millions will die.”

Eternally peeved friend was my second favorite character after Mackie. Damon is just constantly messing up his plans, and his still cool with it! That’s the kind of God I want: the kind that sighs deeply when I mess up, but still wants to make jokes with me.

Even though we’re not singing the film’s praises, I do want to note that the movie was really awesome with the New Yorkness of it. The geography was actually laid out correctly and there was even a joke about how confused downtown is (damn you, non-grid!) In a film where the crux of the plot hangs on whether or not someone spills coffee on their shirt (YES, REALLY) it was nice attention to detail.

Ellen: I guess I should properly spoil the movie here: Hat Damon tries to figure out why this mysterious coterie of gentlemen with hats is keeping him from Emily Blunt, aka Dancey B. (She plays a modern dancer.) The most he finds out is that if they’re together, he will not achieve his dream of becoming President — which occasions a really nice “Macbeth”esque scene, but that seemed to be a throwaway — and instead of becoming the World’s Most Famous Choreographer she will end up “teaching dance to 6-year-olds.” (As usual, teachers get no respect; have you ever tried to teach anything to a 6-year-old?) As you point out, we’re not told why it’s so bad that he doesn’t become president apart from some fuzziness about not living up to his potential. And there’s a buried threat that if he doesn’t live up, he will get himself killed to fulfill someone else’s role, which I believe is what happened to William McKinley.

Also, how many famous choreographers do YOU know?

What distressed me about this message is that it’s buried in what I see as an attempt to make a four-quadrant picture, with Romance For The Ladies and Action For The Dudes. We’re bumping along quite nicely with some meet-cutes and a love scene, and suddenly You Must Be Forever Alone is dropped on our leads, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that information. Seeing as Zoe and I watched this together, I can only assume that Lady Bits will someday be broken up by a dude in a hat, in which case I request Jon Hamm please and thanks.

You know it’s getting dire when you start noticing the believability of the geography in a movie, but for what it’s worth, I agree with you. Since moving here I’ve become a pain in the ass about movies that cut corners on their NYC geography, and this one is fairly faithful with two exceptions: Jumping to a brunch restaurant in a park without explanation (probably Central, but they were in Madison Square just before?) and Hat Damon commuting by bus from Madison Square Park to Coffee Shop in Union Square — no more than 10 blocks. But that scene in Brooklyn Bridge Park! Good job, director who will probably still find work after this!

Zoe: You and I discussed this after the movie, but it also bothers me that there’s no recognition that First Ladies always have to give up their dreams, at least why their husbands in the Oval Office. It was telling that, of course, Dude Damon would never have considered this abou tany woman, and neither would the Angel Dudes.

But I think you’re right on the money that the movie, in trying to mix so many genres, failed all of them. Hatty and Dancey have great chemistry (something else the movie got right) but spend most of the film apart, and most of that time is spent seeing Damon angst about everything and/or run with hats. There’s no sense of the romantic comedy’s focus on the woman’s emotions and no sense of the action movie excitement you would want from one of those films. That, combined with the noted, overwhelming message that it’s in the world’s best interest for you to abandon your soulmate, probably makes this a pretty cruddy date movie.

Also, I took the time to Wikipedia the movie (research!) and laughed at this: “Moreover, it has been speculated that the Chairman is actually God, while his caseworkers are angels. The director of the film, George Nolfi, stated that the ‘intention of this film is to raise questions.’” Because if by “raise those questions” he means explicitly state that in my movie, then yes, I guess we can considered those issues raised. Before we saw the film, my mom mentioned that she had heard they were angels and I teased her about spoiling me, except that’s basically aid, oh, thirty minutes into the film. Even the director has no idea what he was trying to accomplish!

Ellen: I wonder how much of the speculation took place in the Philip K. Dick story on which the movie was based (alas, not available for free online as far as I can tell). I agree though that I would have preferred more ambiguity on that point.

Did you really think they had great chemistry? I read that elsewhere and I didn’t really see it, perhaps because Matt Damon is so Boy Scouty I don’t really feel a strong buzz of chemistry from him with any leading lady. I haven’t seen the Bourne movies, which I gather are a close analogue to these — no? — maybe? — but I think the last time I perceived him as having chemistry was in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” so I didn’t see it. If anything I think this movie could have used more Emily Blunt not in Manic Pixie Dream Girl Oops, I Broke Something Of Yours mode.

Zoe: I wondered what the story was like too! (And the Wikipedia page for it reads like nonsense). I imagine it’s more satirical of the “angels as a corporation” concept, which the movie wholly and unironically embraces.

Hmmmm. I thought they were cute together, I guess. I mean, they weren’t smoldering off the screen, but it didn’t feel dead and wooden. Let me give the movie some credit, Ellen! I can see how the Bourne movies are roughly analogous, but not quite–those are far more actiony, which less hats and lady business getting in the way.

You know, despite the fact that we have written a few thousands words bemoaning this movie, I’m surprised how little I care about it. I was neither impressed, nor so upset by it’s awfulness and/or potential that it annoyed me. It was just sort of…there. It’s basically the epitome of a March movie in my mind: something better than January/February, but too cotton candy to be a summer blockbuster. Sometimes it works out (I’m a Duplicity booster, myself), but mostly it’s just watching something and forgetting immediately. I could say I wanted this movie to be better–and I did–but I think by that I just meant “more explosions, especially if they involved hats.” I wasn’t actually expecting it to be good, but I was hoping for fun.

How about you: final thoughts?

Ellen: I can’t remember if I watched all of Duplicity or not, which speaks volumes in its own. But for people who have asked me whether they should watch it, I haven’t been saying “Don’t, ever,” but rather “Wait for the DVD, or watch it on TV.” I can envision coming across it on TBS and being mildly drawn in in the future.

I was hoping the hats’ function would be cooler, or conversely that they had no function other than making their owners look good. Props to Anthony Mackie, though. See you in every movie ever!

The 2011 SPJdemy Awards

As all of us at SPJ are obviously members of the Academy, we’re prohibited from revealing our Oscar ballots. But our dedication to you, dear readers, is so great that we’re throwing that rule to the wind and sharing our votes with you! Only Natalie Portman is a lock here, though David Fincher, Colin Firth and Toy Story 3 come pretty close, but most tellingly, current frontrunner The King’s Speech didn’t get a single vote from us for Best Picture. Also, Dennis is the only person in America who’s actually seen Animal Kingdom! Read our picks and share your own below!

Scott

Best Picture: Inception - Shouldn’t the film industry celebrate a ridiculously ambitious blockbuster that’s also brilliantly acted, masterfully directed, beautifully shot, skillfully written, tightly edited, sumptuously scored, and I’m guessing had a delicious craft services table?
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network - takes a viciously unlikable character and makes us root for him
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan - not even a contest
Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone – everybody nominated is fantastic, but Hawkes’ performance is a wild card that lifts Winter’s Bone to greatness whenever he’s onscreen
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit - a revelation who carries the whole movie with intelligence and heart
Best Screenplay, Original: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Best Screenplay, Adapted: Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3 – takes what could’ve been a heartless cash-in and infuses it with wit, beauty and crackling suspense
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, True Grit - for the love of Pete, give this incredible visionary an Oscar already! My #1 wish for an Oscar win.
Best Documentary: Exit Through The Gift Shop - free Banksy
Best Foreign Language Film: Dogtooth - a one of a kind creepfest from Greece with zero chance of winning; a must see for fans of Kubrick or Haneke, though it’s more weirdly optimistic than their work
Best Original Song: Abolition of the category entirely- Nothing against the nominees, but the rules of this category rob it of all relevance. How about “Best Use Of A Song” instead?
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer, Inception - I love Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work on Social Network and seeing my boyhood hero take home an Oscar would be fantastic, but Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception is a conceptual masterpiece that’s also stunningly effective; plus, it’s so influential that it’s already being ripped off left and right and will be for decades to come.

Ellen

Best Picture: The Fighter - Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if Inception… Oh wait, let me get my totem. Well, if I were in charge of the Academy it would go to the one movie I can’t stop thinking about and can’t wait to see again… The Fighter. I’m as surprised as you are.
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network - …But in return for my Best Picture pick I’m handing this one to David Fincher as a belated apology for Zodiac. As much as I like David O. Russell’s work there’s really no way to discern his hand in “The Fighter” save the marvelous opening credits.
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech - This is Colin Firth’s year and as a longtime fan I couldn’t be happier, even if in my heart of hearts I think he deserves it a little more for last year’s quiet turnout in A Single Man.
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan - Natalie Portman IS THE SWAN QUEEN! If I had two, though, I’d give the second one to Nicole Kidman for delivering her most nuanced performance in years in Rabbit Hole.
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter - …and on the base it shall be engraved, “But not because you lost all that weight, you adorable English nutjob.”
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Fighter - Not because my boyfriend is in love with her or anything, but because it’s just so different from the starry-eyed ingenue she normally plays.
Best Screenplay, Original: Mike Leigh, Another Year - He won’t win, but it would be difficult to get more natural than the way these Brits speak to each other.
Best Screenplay, Adapted: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours - James Franco talks to himself for 2 hours and nobody gets bored.
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3 – The Pixar juggernaut WILL NOT BE STOPPED (even though personally I cried more at Toy Story 2, shhh).
Best Original Song: Alan Menken & Glenn Slater, “I See The Light” from Tangled - I don’t understand how a number from “Country Strong” snuck in here, given that it was a January release. But let’s put this one where it belongs in Camp Traditional Disney.
Best Documentary: Exit Through The Gift Shop - Please, please, please…

Dennis

Best Picture: Black Swan – Part horror movie, part ballerina movie, a whole lotta Portman, and one amazing ride.
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan – I’d be OK if Annette Bening won, but thought Julianne Moore was the bigger, better performance in that movie, whereas Black Swan was all Portman, all the time. Give the girl her statue already.
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter - Yeah, Bale chews on a lot of scenery, and does the “I weigh 90 lbs” shtick for at least the third time in his career, but he’s the reason to watch this movie plain and simple. Rush was good too, but Bale’s better.
Best Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom - No, I’m not doing this just because Scott maintains no one in America has seen this movie. If it were down to the two Fighter females, I’d actually give it to Amy Adams’ slightly subtler role, but it’s not. There are other ladies in this category and I choose this film’s fascinating mother hen from hell.
Best Screenplay, Original: David Seidler, The King’s Speech - The Fighter mines the usual sports movie cliches, The Kids Are All Right is too impressed with itself, Another Year starts to fall apart in its fourth act, which means it’s down to King’s and Inception. And while Inception is original, yes, I have to throw my vote behind the Best Movie That Seems Like It Was Adapted from a Play that Wasn’t This Year.
Best Screenplay, Adapted: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network - Sorkin gives great script. Everyone else needs to step aside.
Best Animated Feature: How To Train Your Dragon - Not to be all contrarian with this one, but dammit if I didn’t enjoy this other animated blockbuster more. And while Pixar’s still all great and stuff, the fact that I can name 5 better Pixar movies (including Toy Story 1 and 2) means I’m going with Toothless and friends.

Robert

Best Picture: InceptionFilms with this sort of conceptual originality don’t come along often, and that it was expertly crafted by one of today’s most visionary filmmakers only makes it all the more special
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech – Before actually seeing The King’s Speech, I was at a genuine loss as to who most deserved this honor, but after, it’s seems clear to me that Colin Firth’s weary, tongue-tied Bertie is head and shoulders above every other nominated performance
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Screenplay, Original: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Best Screenplay, Adapted: Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Documentary: Restrepo - It’s not often we get this kind of uncompromising, close-quarters perspective of soldiers in today’s US military, and seeing their victories and defeats unfold with such intimacy—and without any overt politicizing—brings home the universal tragedy of war
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer, Inception - Even though I’d love to see current frontrunner Trent Reznor take this honor, Hans Zimmer’s immense, spellbinding work here rises above everything else in my book

Share your own votes below!

All Roads Lead West

He’s an artist we love (and some just love to hate) and he’s at it again. Kanye West has found himself dancing with the spotlight for months now as the November 22 release of his long-awaited album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, draws near, and in what seems like part redemptive comeback and part artistic evolution, his new approach to his fans and the public in general has been something to watch.

Whether it’s embracing technology and social media by creating one of the most-watched Twitter accounts of the year or paying a surprise visit to Facebook headquarters or giving away free downloads of remixes and collaborations with other artists on his own web site, West is taking his special blend of self-involved-yet-candid transparency to all new levels, and in the process, changing what it means to be a figure in pop culture. Other high-profile developments like his recent jaw-dropping Saturday Night Live appearance, his impromptu performance on a Delta flight, and even the current quagmire surrounding, of all things, George W. Bush’s current book tour have only increased the buzz about West and his upcoming album, and judging from initial reviews, with good reason.

But all that buzz is one thing. What West would rather we focus on most is his work, and what a year it’s been so far. In case you haven’t been keeping up, the first single “Power” debuted earlier this year accompanied by a rather inspired video—or “moving painting”, if you will—directed by artist Marco Brambilla. In the song, West reveals more than a few of the personal demons he’s been wrestling with lately, and the video is a daring, symbolic look into the mind of a man who has drawn the ire of so many over the last year or two.

Not one to rest on his laurels, the follow-up single “Runaway” took things even further and made it clear that West was willing to put all of his shortcomings on display, haters be damned. A month later, West directed and released a 34-minute short film that includes the entire nine-minute version of the song and several other tracks from Fantasy. It’s surreal and mesmerizing, and ultimately, is above and beyond anything else on the music landscape right now. While the long-form music video has been around for decades, the full-length “Runaway” video is more ambitious than that. You could say it’s more akin to a rock opera (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy) for the Twitter generation.

Watch the full “Runaway” video:

It’s an impressive effort, and it perfectly illustrates of the grand concept behind My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On the surface, there’s mention of bling and dope skills and whatnot, but Fantasy goes deeper by traversing a minefield of emotional hazards—longing, infatuation, megalomania, arrogance, regret, desperation, loss—that just don’t find their way into enough popular music these days. It’s all a stark contrast to West’s earlier, lighter work in College Dropout and Graduation, but as always, it’s deeply personal and revealing. Combined with production that flexes with tenderness and bombast at all the right moments, West and his superstar collaborators (including RZA, Swizz Beats and Pete Rock) are about to send every other hip-hop artist and producer running back to the lab.

And still West keeps things moving by bolstering fellow artists on his G.O.O.D. Music label, including Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi, Big Sean and Consequence—all set for major releases this month. Add to that the dozen or so free “G.O.O.D. Fridays” tracks that he’s been releasing on a weekly basis (with guests like Jay-Z, John Legend, RZA, Raekwon, Mos Def and more) and it’s enough to make someone crazy, I’m sure. Enough to inspire a beautiful dark twisted fantasy, in fact, but whether he’s the most agreeable musical artist or not, props to West for holding on to his unique creative spark (we did name him one of our top 10 musical artists of the last decade) and pushing the bounds of hip-hop to serve up another work of genius.

Check out My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at Amazon.com

In Which We Give “Easy A” Full Marks

Emma Stone

Zoe: In effort to not make our trips to the movies horror-inducing, Ellen and I saw Easy A this weekend because, well, the trailer was nice. And fortunately not for nothing, because holy crap was this movie fun.

Ellen: This unseats Exit Through The Gift Shop as my biggest surprise of the movie-going year. I expected a funny teen comedy with some witty repartee, and I got a smart sex comedy hearkening back to the ’90s teen comedies I love (not so secretly anymore) that was both funny and, in an odd way, pretty deep.

Let’s start with Emma Stone and how rare it is, still, to see a female-top lined comedy that’s doing well at the box office. I liked Emma Stone from seeing her in a smaller role in The House Bunny (another female-top lined comedy, hooray) but she bowled me over here with her banter skills and physical comedy. There’s an early montage in the movie of her typical boring weekend, featuring her singing a Natasha Bedingfield song over and over in various settings  (including in the shower and painting her dog’s toenails) that set the tone perfectly. Best funny actress of our generation? Well, she’s definitely a contender.

Zoe: First off, because it is truly one of the funniest things I have seen this year, the Natasha Bedingfield scene.

I think Anna Faris and Emma Stone are comparable, in the sense that both are attractive, funny ladies who may have trouble finding a niche because Hollywood has no idea what to do with that. Case in point: this movie. Like you said, we went in assuming maybe something mediocre with a good zinger every now and then and got something funny and engaging in return. I compared it to Mean Girls at the time, but I think your Ten Things I Hate About You comparison might be better. Except that unlike the latter, which worked because of an amazing ensemble cast, Easy A works solely on the grace and funny of Emma Stone.

Sure, there are some good roles (like Patricia Clarkson as her “maybe a bit too quirky” mom) but Stone owns this thing. This is great because, really, it’s such a throwback it almost doesn’t make sense. The 90s were a time when we innocently pretended that teenagers having sex was a big, shocking deal. I don’t think that much as changed except with movies, the news, purity rings, and Facebook we’re all so much more aware of teenage sexuality. Which makes this movie almost quaint in its proposition that the uptight Christian is the popular girl and no one is really getting it on.

Ellen: You know, I hadn’t thought of it, but it is kind of a throwback. In embracing the rumors about her after lying to her friend about sleeping with a community-college student, Stone’s Olive Penderghast finds herself going up against Amanda Bynes’ clique of supersmug teen Bible-thumpers, themselves a little anachronistic (would they not be allowed a classroom to meet in here in 2010?). Their slut-shaming proceeds by text, but also in the form of picketing outside the school, something I have a hard time believing anyone would do when she could just flood the victim’s Facebook page. I don’t think they needed the religious gloss on their harassment, although it does allow Bynes a melodramatic speech about why it’s so hard to love people who are slutty and/or gay.

Bynes, by the way, is also pretty funny in this movie, but her constant mugging-via-eye-widening drove me up a wall. She is funnier in She’s The Man, a movie that wishes it was Easy A down to the token hunk and crazy principal.

It’s funny that you mention these women having trouble finding a niche — look at Julia Stiles post-Ten Things, never really getting another comedic role, or look at Lindsay Lohan post-Mean Girls. (Actually, don’t.) Then look at Jonah Hill or Michael Cera. Even though Emma Stone’s role did eventually lead her to wear corsets all the time and do a sexy dance in front of the whole school, it felt like a natural progression of her decision to embrace her rumored role as a slutty girl, not a bone thrown at male viewers.

Then again, as you point out, almost everyone in this movie is funny. Clarkson and Stanley Tucci ham it up as Stone’s parents, Alyson Michalka (unknown to me) has some memorable lines as the best friend and Thomas Haden Church is having the time of his life as a befuddled English teacher. One misfire for me: Lisa Kudrow. Her plot line, I thought, crossed the line from funny to actually creepy and I didn’t really want Olive to help her with her predicament.

Zoe: Yeah, the Kudrow character was a misstep. Without getting into OMG SPOILERS territory, it was definitely a character that didn’t add anything, even as I like to see Kudrow working.

Anyways, enough gushing: on to petty critiques! I think the overall messaging of this movie, expressed at the end as basically “who I have sex with is none of your goddamn business’ was good, but there are other elements that come across as…less awesome. For example, the advice to the gay kid basically being “pretend to be straight” and the associating of someone who has had sex even once as a slut who would love to wear corsets and dance suggestively at school rallies.

Now, of course, the movie is hyperbolic and I think overall very good. A chunk of that also fits with the throwback feel (a throwback to the quainter sex comedies of the 90s, I guess).  But with a little less aplomb on Miss Stone’s part, I think we’d be railing about how badly done the whole thing was. It treads a thin line is what I’m saying, and I know there was a message about outcasts that made you wince. Thoughts?

Ellen: Now that I’m thinking about it, I wish it were a little more “Yay, be yourself!” and less “Be really concerned about what other people think about you.” That’s sort of the journey (!) Olive Penderghast goes on, from hearing the rumor, to owning the rumor, to dealing with the backlash attached to the rumor, but one of her comments at the end of the movie is (and I’m paraphrasing), “It sucks to be an outcast.” Now, granted, she does get to a point where she feels very alone in her plight, but I’m not sure being included is worth the price of accepting that group opinion. And to have her go through that wringer and come out saying “conform!” felt very off-key.

I also think this movie walks a thin line between criticizing slut-shaming and, well, slut-shaming. To Olive’s point of view, as soon as everyone starts talking about her it’s as if she is the first girl in her high school to have sex, which seems… unlikely, even in this throwback world. (I’ll call this the “Hey, It Happened In Grease” Theory of Teen Sex Comedies.) On one hand, some people, even those who aren’t particularly religious, maintain that black-and-white of a value system.

On the other hand, Olive gets all her peers to walk into her trap: Dress in corsets, do suggestive dances with the mascot (Penn Badgley, I love you) and you must be a slut. And while many lesser movies have hammered in that idea of not judging a book by its costume-y cover, I think ultimately the movie comes down on the side of, Don’t shame people for their sexual behavior. Agree or disagree?

Zoe: Agree. I mean, is this the Most Feminist and Accurate Movie of All Time? Hell no. I certainly think the world it lives in (very Grease, good call) is not an accurate world. And, as a result, everyone in the movie (save for Olive’s parents) seem to have a naive view of sex and sexuality. One the other hand, the most nudity and sexual suggestion we saw was from the gay characters, so good job movie!

I guess what irks me slightly is that this movie is set in a small town (ostensibly) and movie portrayals of small towns always rub me a bit the wrong way/ Now, granted, I didn’t grow up in one, but I have enough friends who did to know it’s more complicated than “sluts are bad”. For one, what do you think kids in small towns do for fun? Hint: not Bible study! Of course, the Christian as a judging hypocrite is another trope the movie delves way into, but one that bothers me less.

But all in all, the movie, despite confusingly saying “don’t be outcast, but don’t conform either”, has a relatively positive message. Your business is your business. Point blank. And Emma Stone should sing in corsets at all high school pep rallies.

Final thoughts?

Ellen: I didn’t even think about whether it was a small town or not. (Supposedly, it is set in Ojai, California.) When do we even see the town? Also, I did grow up in a small town, and hmmm… the stereotype comes from somewhere. Besides, I know you meant that what kids do in small towns is extracurriculars, and it seemed a little weird that Olive Penderghast didn’t have any. Give the girl a Spanish club or something, right?

What have we learned: Emma Stone automatically gets my movie dollar; there is still a place for smart teen sex comedies at the multiplex; Natasha Bedingfield has a place in the universe.

Zoe: And that place is as the Christmas card everyone who knows me will be getting this year.

Why The Emmys Suck

Zoe: I don’t plan to watch the Emmys this Sunday and I honestly can’t remember the last time I did. It’s not that I hate the Emmys, by any means. It’s just that I’m so indifferent to them it hardly matters to me.

Part of that is inherent in award shows in general–they have no relevance to my daily life. They won’t affect what I watch and the effect they will have on what shows are available to me is pretty minimal. They’re a showcase of self-congratulation and faux-surprise and that doesn’t appeal to me. A good host, like a Neil Patrick Harris, can turn that around, but nothing about Jimmy Fallon makes me want to tune in Sunday.

Of course, the same can be said of the Oscars, which I will watch, which brings me to my second point: the predicability. Sure, the Oscars hardly go for surprises these days, but even they are more exciting or unusual than the Emmys. While I am usually a huge proponent of TV based off the longevity  depth it can bring, awards are the one area this can be detrimental. The Oscars, by definition, change every year. The Emmy’s can reward the same shows year after year, no matter how long they’ve been on the air or how past their prime they are.

So what do I hope for this year? I hope that Friday Night Lights scoops up as many awards as humanly possible and that Glee wins as little as possible. But, of course, the opposite will happen, just as Mad Men and 30 Rock will likely grab a bunch too. Because the Emmys are something you could almost set your clock to at this point which is why, with some of the best television being produced ever, I won’t care about the awards being handed out.

Scott: Yes, the Emmys definitely belong in the embarrassing Grammys realm as opposed to the shred-of-credibility Oscars realm. Like most useless awards shows, they’re voted on by old industry vets who could give a shit about whatever’s new and exciting in a medium they likely stopped actively working in decades ago. That’s an especially sad state of affairs when it comes to the Emmys, which happen to celebrate a medium that’s currently in a golden age. The voters are hopelessly and notoriously out of date. The peerless first season of The Sopranos roared into TV in 1999 and changed it forever… but Emmy voters gave Best Drama to a ho-hum season of The Practice instead. The Sopranos finally took home the gold five years later… when the show was past its prime and Deadwood deserved it. It’s pointless to list all the great shows that were completely ignored during their runs (ahem… The Shield).

That’s not to say that great actors and shows won’t win; Mad Men is a masterpiece that will probably win Best Drama again and Bryan Cranston is pure perfection in Breaking Bad. But even when good people win, it feels like a combination of trendiness and inevitability instead of Emmy voters spending time with hundreds of hours of great TV and finally coming to the hard-fought conclusion that, while Jon Hamm is masterful as Don Draper and Michael C. Hall brilliantly portrays one of the darkest characters ever on television in Dexter, Bryan Cranton simply cannot be denied, and the challenging decisions he made this season took his performance of Walter White to a whole new level! Instead it’s, “Oh, Glenn Close is in something. I’ll pick her.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that nearly every good show is now on cable and the Emmys are a very expensive event televised on the networks. Five of the seven Best Drama nominees are on cable, and one of the only network nominees won’t be back next year (Lost). As the gulf in quality widens year after year, it’s hard to imagine that the industry won’t start making this an issue.

So am I devoting entirely too much mental energy to something that doesn’t matter in any way, shape or form?

Zoe: You know, as much as we both agree that the Emmys are absolutely beyond pointless, I think at this point in time we are literally the only people devoting mental energy to the Emmys. I mean, sure, the voters probably care a little, but I think you are absolutely on point with your thesis that the few times they have recognized good shows has been more driven by trendiness than by quality (which is why I believe Glee and not the better Modern Family will sweep the thing).

But honestly, I can’t say that the winners even care. I mean, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report treat their Emmys like big jokes and while I’m sure Jon Hamm or Tina Fey or the guys behind Two and a Half Men are flattered to be nominated or win, I doubt it’s their driving force. Their awards might be on the mantle, but that’s about it. Likewise, I think shows can only care insofar as it gives them a gauge for potential renewal or cancellation. If the Emmys have any power, it’s getting to lambast networks for cancelling “Emmy award winners”, which they seem less inclined to do.

I think our wasted mental energy aside, the question that has to be asked of all bloated, pointless award shows is, Can the Emmys be saved or should they just be canned?

Scott: I think we have a natural desire for great stuff to get recognized with some kind of award. That’s why year-end lists are so addictive, and why the Oscars race seems like the most important thing in the world from December until until one minute after the show ends, at which point we all forget everything that just happened (seriously, Sandra Bullock won an Oscar this year?). The Oscars still retain a bit of gravitas despite the fact that Crash won Best Picture, and it’s a shame that there’s not a reputable TV equivalent since there’s currently so much better stuff on the small screen than there is on the big screen. There have only been a handful of notable movies this year — only Inception, Shutter Island (what up, Leo!) and Greenberg come to mind — while TV is churning out greatness every week. We’re only 2/3 through the year and heading into prestige movie season, but I seriously doubt I’ll see any performance that can top Zach Gilford’s on Friday Night Lights, or have my nerves frayed like they were by Breaking Bad‘s third season, or watch a villain as complex and compelling as Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder on Justified, or laugh harder than I do at Louie.

As to whether the Emmys can be saved, it seems doubtful. Most of the TV world revolves around routine CBS detective/lawyer/doctor shows, and the people who make those are unlikely to vote for or pay attention to all those series I just mentioned. I guess we’ll just have to start our own awards, Zoe. Let’s call ‘em the ZoSco’s. At least there, I can guarantee that Connie Britton won’t go home empty-handed.

Zoe: I agree whole-heartedly. I guess what gets me down about the Emmys, once I get past my vast indifference, is that I. Love. Television. I mean, as people on the site no doubt know, it’s most of what I write about. And while I see plenty of movies (though my tastes lean more towards stuff with guns than anything else) I don’t participate in them and criticize them the same way.

For me, part of this “Golden Era” of television is about people, through pay channels and increased recognition of television and increased leisure time or whatever, fulfilling this medium’s potential. Television is wonderful because even the shortest season gives you 13 hours with the characters, to grow and learn and explore them. A film–even a good film–is nothing at a mere two. Even procedurals are becoming more about continuity, though is subtler (and smaller) ways than the big gun shows. And that’s great.

What’s not great is that, ultimately, the one award show dedicated to something I love so much, and see so much value in, sucks. And I think only some of that can be attributed to the lackluster or undeserved nominees. I mean, as you noted, it’s not like the Oscars don’t have their share of head-scratching nominees. No, I think the biggest thing is that TV people still feel lesser. Like their chosen media is somehow less important than film or literature or anything else. It’s still OK to slag off on TV and the amount of time we spend watching it.

Is that entirely wrong? No, but it belittles something that has really gone above and beyond recently. I never thought I would be saying this, but if anything the Emmys maybe need to become a bigger deal. To have the sort of pomp and circumstance and breathless anticipation and petty fights that we expect from the Oscars. I don’t think this would make the nominees better, but maybe it would force people who aren’t me or you or other TV critics and fans, to begin to take the whole thing a bit more seriously. At least then we’ll have more people enraged over how robbed Connie Britton is.

The Sliding Scale of Celebrity

Controversy is a curious thing. The old adage that “any press is good press” seems to hold true most of the time, and when a public personality becomes embroiled in some seedy scandal, the added buzz around them only elevates their status even more. Whenever the chatter reaches a certain volume and a consensus begins to form, you’d think a coherent moral course of action would be just as apparent. So what happens when an actor like Mel Gibson is arrested and caught spewing hate, or when a filmmaker like Roman Polanski is finally arrested for fleeing the country? To date, apparently not much at all.

For someone like Mel Gibson—once a box office king and now a talented filmmaker—to not only be arrested and unleash his tirade on police officers doing their job, but to then find himself at the center of a public dispute with his girlfriend in which he utters almost every sort of hateful thing a man can say to a woman (and everyone else) is not only shocking, but it’s disappointing. Other celebrities—especially those who ultimately mean well, like Tom Cruise or Sean Penn—might see themselves become the target of ridicule or parody, but nothing is quite as disgraceful as when someone who’s considered a “leading man” proves themselves to be downright unsavory.

As for Roman Polanski, the last thirty years might have been troubling, but you’d never know it by looking at his work. As a filmmaker, he’s made some of the most indelible films in the history of cinema, and while those will forever be treasured works, how does that reconcile with the horrible things he’s done as a man? When he was arrested in Switzerland in September of 2009, it almost seemed as if his thirty years of evading authorities had come to an end and that justice would finally be served. Almost.

With Swiss authorities announcing this past Monday that Polanski would not be extradited to the US and the case would not be pursued further—essentially making him a free man—any hope of bringing the case against Polanski to a close was lost. Instead, he’ll likely go on to continue making films without serving his full 90-day sentence (which, frankly, is nothing compared to most less-privileged folks might be held in custody for years, much less convicted) and will continue to live in the lap of luxury known as the Swiss Alps for the rest of his life.

To be clear, there are people in the world who do far worse things than Gibson has, and his personal life is really none of our business, but for whatever reason, it’s out in the open now. For the public at large, it’s easy to chalk it up to the pressures of fame and fortune because, if nothing else, we don’t really know Mel Gibson. And as horrible as what he did was, the same can even be said for Polanski. But do you really have to know someone to recognize that what they’ve done is wrong? Isn’t it enough to say that if a celebrity is caught or convicted that they should be subject to the same treatment as anyone else?

And yet, none of this is new. It’s happened time and time again with all sorts of public personalities in sports, business and politics, and through it all, the world goes on. Those who are famous and wealthy will get special treatment from authorities simply because they can afford it and because, especially in Hollywood, they’re simply too valuable to be treated as anything less.

However, for me, as a moviegoer and enthusiast, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to it. We can all feign disgust at what Mel Gibson said or at Roman Polanski’s release, but at what point do they ever face the consequences for what they’ve done? Aren’t we, the patron audience responsible for their ultimate success or failure, obligated to exercise our power as consumers?

With that in mind, I decided to take stock, and after a quick count, I noticed that I personally own several of Mel Gibson’s movies and none of Polanski’s. As of now, I can easily say that I’ll never own any more than that. I think Chinatown and The Pianist are among the best films I’ve ever seen, but I’ll never buy them. That’s my personal decision. Critics and pundits can rationalize and justify all they want, but I think for the majority of us, there are only a few simple questions at the heart of the matter. Does the power of art outshine the faults of the artist? Or does the trouble in their personal life make their work just as unfavorable? At what point do you separate the art from the artist when they themselves are so morally reprehensible?

Those are questions we should probably all ask ourselves before spending our money. Sure, these celebrities aren’t spilling oil into the ocean or stealing billions of dollars from our savings, but for the influence and power they hold over our culture and collective conscience, they should be held accountable just the same.

In Which We Don’t Want To Know Where That Hookah Has Been

The four stars of Sex and the City 2 sing karaoke while wearing ludicrous outfits

Sex and the City 2 is the sort of big Lady Event that most feminist/women bloggers feel the need to talk about, and Ellen and I are no exception. Below there are spoilers, rage, and the longest Lady Bits ever!

Zoe: So I thought I would kick us off! And I am going to do that by offering my background on Sex and the City, the TV show. Which is to say, I don’t really have one. It was never my sort of thing and I saw most all (maybe all) of the first season once in college, but it didn’t really grip me. I didn’t find it terrible, but it did annoy me how people would assume that, as a lady, I must love the show, because all ladies do, right!? That attitude probably turned me into a bit of a hater, but seriously I also don’t find the show that good.

Then Ellen dragged me to Sex and the City 2 and hoo-boy!

But before we discuss the film I wanted to talk about the previews, which were all for girly girl rom coms. Like the one where Jason Bateman accidentally knocks up Jennifer Aniston! Hilarious, apparently, instead of CREEPY! Also that movie where Tom Cruise just gives up and decides to Tom Cruise around the whole time. But most of all, the movie where Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl really hate each other. Like, really hate. But then their friends die and SURPRISE! Baby! Which, I don’t know about you, but if we’re talking about the guardianship of MY CHILD I think I would give them to a relative or a couple or people who didn’t hate each other because I feel like they might make a good team? But what do I know? I bet Heigl and Duhamel’s friends purposefully died in a car accident just to set them up, because that us the kind of pals they are! Anyways, Surprise, Baby! is in theaters soon and maybe I will drag Ellen to it as payback.

But what about you, fellow menhattanite?

Ellen: First, I would like to apologize to Zoe for dragging her to this racist, sexist, homophobic and deeply unentertaining film. Even as it was starting, I rashly promised her that she could pick whatever she wanted for us to view the next time around, including Twilight 3: I Haven’t Even Seen The Second One Yet. Or Surprise Baby! I probably deserve it.

I missed most of the previews, but the one that really stuck out for me was the Zac Efron-starring healed-by-my-dead-baby-brother drama. Normally I like to catch every minute, but I had a feeling that these would probably not be up my alley, and I would definitely put Surprise Baby! in that category. What Zoe isn’t telling you is that one of the friends that sticks the couple in that predicament is Christina Hendricks, who is cruelly killed off in the trailer so her two friends can finally hook up. What kind of barbaric world is it when Hendricks, shown briefly as a glowing bride, has to be sacrificed? I ask you. There was also a trailer for a movie about long-distance romance between Justin Long and Drew Barrymore with an amazing Jim Gaffigan sight gag that should have been saved for the film proper.

But I digress. My Sex credentials are as follows: I have seen the entire series on DVD,  some with my sister, some with my mom. We didn’t have HBO but on breaks we all bonded over the DVDs in college; even though I haven’t felt the need to go back and rewatch any of them, I had enough fondness for the characters to get me to the first big-screen outing in 2008. I have read Candace Bushnell’s original columns in the New York Observer, and they portend an engagement with their source much savvier than the show ever presented — but thus always to TV. (I have also seen two seasons of Entourage, enough to know that it is not up to the task of being the male SATC.)

What struck me about this movie that I think made it different from previous incarnations of the franchise (ha!) was how closely the concept had always teetered towards irrelevance. Carrie’s problems, even compared to other TV characters, are flimsy: She makes a great living without working that hard, good-looking guys pursue her, and she has the classic Unrealistic New York Apartment. Still, somehow the original series and to some extent the first movie found problems that she had, that anyone could have: She struggled between the urges to settle down and keep partying. She recognized mistakes made in her youth too late to correct them. She drove good people away with bad behavior. In other words, she was a human!

Even where there are problems in Sex and the City 2: The Fertiler Crescent, they feel either manufactured for the sake of giving one of the characters something to do, or (if they resemble normal human complaints) blown totally out of proportion. Carrie’s ongoing argument with her husband — she wants to go out, he wants to stay in — is reasonable until she demands that he accompany her to a red-carpet premiere, then blows up in his face when he flirts with Penelope Cruz there. How dare he go out and act like he’s having a good time! Just like she wanted! The only remedy is to go away and be alone for two days, thinking about whyyyy is life so unfaaaaair. She had no compassion, so I had no compassion for her or, with the exception of one scene, for any of her friends. Is that just my cold, black heart talking?

Zoe: As Ellen noted, I was basically dragged to this film well…not kicking and screaming, but defiantly. And the week prior we both read more and more reviews which basically fell in one or two categories: hilarious mockery or this sucks because it’s for ladies.

And while I can get behind mockery, I cannot get behind the idea that this movie inherently sucks because it’s about ladies for ladies. I mean, do not get me wrong. This movie is terrible. It is so bad that multiple times I smacked my head in frustration. It is also eighty bajillion hours long, but with no plot, really, so it just feels like the longest episode of a TV show that you hate ever. But none of that sucking has anything to do with the fact that it stars or focuses on women and everything to do with the aforementioned racist, sexist, homophobic, boringness.

Here’s the plot, in a nutshell: a bunch of rich ladies have rich ladies problems! And everyone is entitled to their problems, but it is hard to feel sympathy when the characters problem is “my husband wants to spend time away from our main Upper East Side apartment to hang out in our second, unrented, Upper East Side Apartment. Woe!” Or when the problem is that you are aging and apparently this drives you to take your underwear off in your ENTIRELY GLASS office? And…I cannot even begin to enumerate the atrocities, so I won’t.

But anyways, these rich ladies, they get like, an hour of screen time dedicated to their problems. Including a gay wedding that made me hurt inside, because nothing infuriates me more than the “gay best friend as pet” trope. Because what’s sad is this seems like progress. Because that is how much American sucks about gay people.

Anyways, after their many rich problems are enumerated they go The Middle East! Which is always called The Middle East! And rarely the name of the country it is (the United Arab Emirates) but also The Middle East. And, as far as I can tell, someone basically looked at Said’s Orientalism and thought “man, that sounds awesome!” And then worked very hard to recreate it. And then they run into problems with the law because ladies! In The Middle East! Are treated differently! Which was supposed to be the point, I guess, except the actual point I took away is that Samantha, she is sort of an asshole?

Here is what happens: Samantha is on a date and 1) decides to fellate her hookah. Which is a terribly idea because, um, hookahs are sort of gross? Anyways, this offends a nearby muslim couple (slash most people? Because dude!) And then 2) her and her dude decide to go have sex on the beach and the dude walks away with a giant BONER that the camera lingers on. Again, the couple is offended and calls hotel security over because, um, obviously these people are about to get it on. In public.

And I guess we’re supposed to see that as a reason that The Middle East is so uptight? But, um, I am kind of not for free-for-all public sex or waggling BONERS at people. And public sex is also illegal in America? I mean, if I saw people doing it outside or if some dude waggled his BONER at me, I don’t know if I would call over the BONER POLICE like that couple did? But I don’t think they escape the bounds of good taste by doing so. But then Samantha gets “arrested” (actually detained by security) for “kissing” and it’s supposed to highlight the oppressiveness that also comes with the sweet rich people delights of The Middle East. Instead of, you know, sometimes people want to eat meals without having to look at a dudes BONER and that is a-ok!

I could go on SO MUCH MORE (and will!) but I think Ellen deserves her say.

Ellen: You forgot the scene earlier when an entire Australian soccer team jumps into the hotel pool in Speedos and the camera zooms in on not one, but several boners in series. I assume these hip-level shots are meant to delight and titillate the primarily female audience of this movie, which indicates that the director (for the record, a gay man) misunderstands what it means to operate a camera catering to the female gaze. I appreciate the effort to reverse the Mulveian direction of cinema, but I don’t think most female moviegoers want to look at boners. (See also: the failure of Playgirl.)

During the public-sex sequence and arrest in which I never truly believed anyone was in any danger, my mind drifted back to a 2008 case in which two Britons vacationing in Dubai were arrested for indecent behavior on Jumeirah Beach. The female of the pair claimed they were “just kidding and hugging.” They were eventually found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison, followed by deportation — so not death or hard labor, but still not nothing.

However, media coverage at the time largely followed the same “cultural divide” script for which you are calling out this movie. Check out this MSNBC news story about the arrest, subtitled:  “Trial has exposed cultural divide between native Muslims, foreigners.” Yes, it highlighted it a bit, but a little respect for the place you’re in goes a long way — and what they were doing would probably have gotten them arrested in London, too.

Once the foursome heads off on their free trip to Abu Dhabi, they start behaving like Ugly Americans, in the Burdick and Lederer sense of the term. We are encouraged to buy them as cosmopolitan, educated women, yet they act like they’ve never been out of the country before — falling prey to street scams, speaking loudly in English everywhere, wearing ensembles that are not only inappropriate but hideous to boot. Then they’re shocked – shocked — to find that the people who are not paid to like them don’t really like them very much. Imagine, resenting the brash and entitled tourists throwing their money around. That’s never happened before. The gag of Miranda reading all the guidebooks, quoting from them and trying to speak Arabic (albeit badly, right?) was somewhat funny, but at least she tried.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering they behaved the same way at the wedding that opens Sex and the City 2: We Can’t Take Us Anywhere. I’m not sure if Emily Post has covered this area of etiquette, but I’m guessing her empire would say it is not good manners to stand in a knot with other straight people and talk about how gay the wedding is. Every time they said “gay wedding, gay wedding” I cringed. How about just calling it a wedding? As a supporter of the right of gay and lesbian couples to get married, I want to live in a world where no one has to qualify that ceremony. It doesn’t matter that the affair is completely tacky before Liza Minnelli even hits the stage — a lot of weddings are tacky. But as you say, America sucks about gay people.

However, I agree with you that we are not condemning this movie because it stars four women. These four women possess varying levels of acting skill — Cynthia Nixon is onstage quite a lot here in New York and I hear great things — but it’s nice to see an unapologetic two-quadrant movie in which the two quadrants are the ones with ladies in them. Now we need more that aren’t a complete waste of time.

Also, do you care to address the fact that most people in this movie aren’t having sex and their storylines don’t even address that they’re having any sex, good, bad or otherwise?

Zoe: The Austalian shows were crass, but I took them more as junk shots than BONER shots. The Dutch guy (did we ever learn his name? Do I care?) was definitely sporting wood, which made it…crass, really. I mean, I am all for the liberated woman, Out of all the terrible people that populate this movie, Samantha is probably my favorite terrible person (she wore a Koopa Troopa top and that takes guts), but, and maybe this is my Midwest/British speaking: isn’t there a way to be liberated without also shoving your genitals everywhere and demanding that people love it?

The same goes, I think, for the condom scene where the muslim guys are apparently horrified to see a lady with condoms. And I think you nailed it: this is really about a bunch of brash, loud, rich, ugly Americans going around and being shocked that other places are different. And I think, given the kind of tourism the UAE tends to encourage (i.e. that exact clientèle) that their shock and horror didn’t ring true to me. I’m not saying that all muslim guys are thumbs up condoms, but I would say that they 1) at least know what they are and 2) expect Westerners to have them (and to generally be more promiscuous, etc). In fact, fun fact! Many muslim feminists (of which there are so many guys, which is why so much of this movie was painful) that that Westerner woman are sadly pretty oppressed, running around in the clothes we do. It’s a classic second wave v. third wave battle, to some extent, and it’s interesting and culturally relevant and…not reflected in this film. Not that I expected it to be.

And I say the above not just speaking as someone with a desire to villify ‘Mericans, but as someone who lived in Cairo. Which, by no means makes me a Middle Easterner expert but I can tell you, that when you walk around the Westernized areas of town, people aren’t even scandalized by bare shoulders. It’s pretty much expected and, well, sort of seen as a mark of how brash and rude tourists can be. It’s not gold starred, but it’s not like people have never seen/heard/imagined it before. Which is to say: there are condoms in the Middle East. Really. Samantha throwing around condoms in the market is like if Samantha threw around condoms at the Vatican (oh, and Italy also has restrictive dress codes for ladies in churches). It’s not that people would be offended by their existence, but by how culturally tone deaf someone was being.

Which brings me nicely to your Arabic question! Yes, the Arabic in this movie was terrible, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. The biggest mistake is that Miranda says that “hanji” is Arabic for “yes” which…it’s not. So that was weird. The rest of her Arabic was technically correct, but pronounced very poorly. Which, I can’t tell if that’s because they were being accurate or just didn’t care, but it was grating. Like hearing someone mispronounce “burrito” as “barr-ito” for an entire movie. That said, many critics have noted how offensive their portrayal of Abu Dhabi is, noting that at one point Miranda goes off and says “la la la la”. Reviewers took this to mean that she was just saying stuff that sounded like Arabic, but no, “la” is actually the Arabic word for no. I mean, the rest was awful, but it turns out reviewers aren’t always right.

Along the same lines, there is a scene where Miranda and Charlotte talk about being mothers and how hard it is and end it with a toast to moms who (unlike them) don’t have help in the form of full-time nannies. Critics hated this scene and found the toast particularly cloying, but I think it’s the only scene in the movie I genuinely liked. Among other things, it was the only time in the movie I felt like two characters were conversing with each other, rather than talking at each other with terrible dialogue (which was the rest of the film). It’s a style of cinema I particularly dislike and it’s why I don’t really enjoy Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers (though they both have far, far, far superior dialogue). It was nice to see that done away with for a “real” moment and I found the toast nice, a recognition of the fact that no matter how hard they have it, others have it even harder.

I guess I would have expected more sex talk, as that is the nature of the show. And I would have expected it to be on par with what I have seen, rather than the kind of sex talk us ladies really have. I sort of liked that the conflicts weren’t “oh my god, our sex life is terrible” as that’s rather done with, but it also would have been nice if the problems, uh, actually seemed like problems.

And now I will nudge you to address the karaoke scene. Because if there’s a critical niche we have, it’s not liking singing and or dancing scenes in movies. Apparently.

Ellen: But I really like singing and dancing in movies! In musicals, for instance, or when it adds something to the narrative that isn’t already there. This performance — in which the four women sing “I Am Woman” in a UAE karaoke bar — didn’t particularly move me, nor did it make me cringe as much as I had expected, but it was pretty pointless. It followed the filmic convention of naturally having everyone else in the room recognize the song and sing along in ways that don’t interrupt the performance (which constantly happens at karaoke bars, a product of people who like attention being closely held in the same room). And of course, the women know the song and don’t even seem to need the lyrics.

More importantly, though, it seemed like the director really wanted this to be an emotional high note or some symbol of friendship and triumph. I didn’t feel that. It’s oddly placed in the movie, which also gave me false hope that it was close to being over (LOL), and exactly what were they triumphing over? That they survived their 13-hour flight in ridiculous first class (tangent: Why would a sheik’s private plane have an open bar in it? Speaking of cultural convention…) and their day trip to the desert with four butlers carrying all their stuff?

And if that’s what he was going for, maybe he should have picked a different anthem. Way at the beginning of the movie, we see Carrie arriving in New York in 1986, so let’s say she was between 18 and 22 at the time — then she would have been between 4 and 8 when “I Am Woman” came out. She might have heard and liked it, but it’s hard to believe she would have adopted it as ‘her’ song so strongly as to remember it 38 years later. It felt very retro, and there have been other songs that have come out since then that could serve as feminist anthems, right?! (I think we just hit on a topic for our next column?)

Just to prove I’m not a total hater, one film that gets both a dancing sequence and karaoke right was last year’s (500) Days of Summer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s version of “Here Comes Your Man” will stay with me forever, as will his jaunty postcoital walk through L.A. I didn’t love that movie as much as a lot of other people I know, but at least I enjoyed those parts.

I appreciate that you called out the Miranda-Charlotte scene in which they admit to each other that being a mother is hard, that they feel like they’re failing and that no one understands that. One thing I noticed and appreciated was that even though Miranda was a working mom, for the most part (that is until quitting her job after 5 minutes of plot in this movie), while Charlotte stayed home, they did not divide along the ‘mommy wars’ lines I would have expected them to. I could go on for a long time here about the false image of the ‘mommy wars’ and how it exclusively applies to a small core of upper-middle and upper-class married (mostly) white women who have the option to stay home and can actually choose that instead of having it choose them. But I liked that they were both able to unite over that experience, which they shared (and not Samantha or Carrie). In that moment, it felt like old “Sex and the City,” in which problems were worked out over dinner or drinks and not resolved offscreen. Maybe this movie should have been talkier in this sense and not in the bad-one-liners sense. Seriously, interfriendtion?

On that note I’d like to sidestep and mention a conversation I had about this movie at work. I was complaining about how bad this movie was when one of my coworkers said something to the effect of, “Isn’t it interesting how everyone expected this movie to be more serious, instead of the light entertainment it was clearly going to be.” Are we being too hard on this movie, though? I don’t think so. I wasn’t expecting Hannah and her Sisters (suck it Zoe, I LOVE Woody Allen), but I think I can reasonably expect my light summer popcorn flick to be funny, well-paced and maybe a little moving. When I started reading bad reviews of Sex and the City 2: It’s Like The Crusades, I lowered my expectations even further, but at some point I have to bottom out. I’m not a professional critic, so no one would have made me see this movie; I was actually interested in it, so I feel my disappointment is warranted.

Zoe: Yeah the song scene, especially because everyone, from all over the world, seemed to know and appreciate the lyrics to “I Am Woman” even though, um, you and I did not know that song at all. I guess maybe, as young ladies, we are outside of the target demographic of this movie, but as you so rightly point out, so are the main characters. It’s sort of a bizarre set piece, a clear emotional high that would have been better done after the arrest? Or when their problems (so to speak) were solved? If only it had been the climax. I would have banged my head less.

But you bring us to another point that I found odd: the way Carrie met all her gal pals. As described in the beginning of the movie, Carrie moves to NYC at the age of 18-22 (and immediately starts living on the Upper East Side, I guess?). She makes friends with Charlotte on the subway, Miranda because she’s crying at the store Carrie works at, and Samantha because she’s the bartender at CBGB’s. Each one of those ways to make friends? is totally unrealistic, in my view. Well, no. Making friends with your bartender is totally realistic. And a requirement of being a regular. But it seems off that Samantha, who’s roughly ten years older than the rest of them, would still be working at a bar at the age of 32? But, in the intermittent 24 years becomes a powerful PR person? That’s a career jump that has surely happened to some people, but it does seem rare.

More importantly, though: you never make friends with people on the subway. It just. Doesn’t. Happen. You may talk to them. You may mutually roll your eyes at the weird person or laugh at something funny together. But subways are a weird public space, where you can converse, but everyone seems to agree silence is best. And even if you forge a bond, there’s hardly time to exchange numbers unless you’re getting off at the same stop. Ditto meeting someone because they are crying in the changing room. Unless Carrie is a kinder, better person than this movie portrays, she’s not exactly the time to reach out and form a life-long bond with someone who’s disrupting her job. It’s not totally implausible, but it’s definitely….off.

And the above may seem really nitpicky. It is really nitpicky. But the fact is, the movie is not so interesting that these nits didn’t immediately jump out at me, ready to be picked! And, even though I was somewhat of an anti-fan, I was expecting a boring, but serviceable movie. It’d lull at times, and be homophobic/racist/classist/etc, but at least there would be a plot? But instead it was a bunch of things thrown at the screen, almost at random, to lord riches over the audience or to Teach Us A Lesson About Foreigners or to dull us with some vague subtext of a romantic plot. Because we haven’t even touched the Aiden thing! Which was, for me, essentially: which dull guy will Carrie be dulling around with in this scene? And then she gets rewarded for making out with Aiden (spoiler!) with a big honking diamond. A plot about Carrie thinking about cheating on Big would have been dull and trite, but lord, at least it would have been something.

I guess my major point is, beyond all the truly offensive and just wrong elements of the film that make me dislike it, what annoys me is how it failed at even the very minimal goal of bad movies: to entertain. I can, and have, watched and enjoyed the National Treasures, because even though those films have many of the same issues SATC2 does, at least it’s fun to watch. I don’t feel like that’s asking too much of my movies. And while I hate to add to the critical pile-on of this film, because of a good chunk of it engages in slut-shaming or woman-shaming or just straight up misogyny, the fact is this film was not a good film. It wasn’t even a good bad film. And I wish I had seen Just Wright instead.

Ellen: I mean, Zoe, you and I met through Internets, so I don’t know if that is more or less random than the subway. I think it plays well into the show’s vision of New York, and is more interesting than the ways that most people make friends here, either through their other friends or roommates or through work. Maybe Carrie used to be kinder when she was younger, before she developed her sparkly tan shell.

You would understand Aiden better if you had seen him in the series. (Capsule summary: Carrie and Aiden dated for years, even got engaged, before she decided she couldn’t marry him and cheated on him with Mr. Big, who she eventually married. Most women who watch the series prefer one of these men over the other.) I realize their chance meeting was supposed to provide Temptation! and a callback to the series, and for that I didn’t mind it — except it was obvious that she was going to do something she would be ashamed of when she decided to go to dinner with him. News flash, some women can go to dinner with their exes and not feel compelled to revisit that relationship. Pity the man who leaves this movie convinced that every time his ladyfriend meets up with someone she once dated, or was once interested in, that Sexytimes are imminent.

And then for Big to slap a giant patriarchal shackle on her, oh sorry, a large expensive piece of jewelry… that was the point at which I officially gave up on Sex and the City, the concept. It probably should have happened sooner, but there is nothing romantic about a “Don’t ever cheat on me again” present. I realize I’m probably quoting from an abstinence-only middle-school curriculum when I say this, but fidelity should not be purchased.

To sum up this movie I can only repeat my disappointment, as a person who you would think would be the target audience for this film. I may go back and watch episodes of the show someday, even the first movie, but not this one. Also, Cosmopolitans are kind of horrifying as a regular drink. I just needed to get that out there.