In Which We Ditch Our Dates For “Date Night”

Note: Here be spoilers! But by now if you wanted to see this movie, you probably did already.

Ellen: I had high hopes for this thing, because Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two of my favorite funny people. And as the reviews leaked out I frantically calibrated those to medium hopes, remembering other movies featuring Fey and Carell that didn’t necessarily play to their strengths. But even after doing that, I was pretty disappointed in this movie. It seemed to be having an identity crisis about whether it wanted to be an action movie with a little funny business, or a comedy with some improbable action. But mostly, I didn’t laugh enough, and when a movie is sold as a comedy that’s a major malfunction. How about you — did you laugh enough?

Zoe: I did! I mean, I went in with wildly low expectations, having never seen a trailer or read a review. In fact, I didn’t even know the movie was about a married couple. I would call myself “entertained above my expectations” which ultimately translates to “this movie was delightfully mediocre”. Though I’m surprised to hear you didn’t think you laughed enough, since that Kindle bit cracked you up for easily five minutes. But I totally agree about the action/comedy axis being wildly missed. Action comedy is a hard genre to nail (just ask Bruce Willis about Hudson Hawk…) and ultimately this film did not nail it. Maybe because they neglected to have even a single action movie actor in it? I mean, come on! The Rock could have been in here somewhere.

Ellen: I am a sucker for a good Kindle joke, and this one was a great one. But my point is, that was one of the only jokes that I remembered enough to tell people “Okay, it was really funny when…” That’s one of my barometers for a great comedy — I think I remember more of the gags from “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which I had seen the week before “Date Night.” I mean, Kristen Wiig is in this movie, and she’s not funny! How do you do that?

Mark Wahlberg has been in some action movies, but his function in “Date Night” is to sit there and look pretty. Not only am I okay with that, I appreciated the neat inversion of the classic “husband drooling after hot chick” scenario — Steve Carell becomes increasingly uncomfortable that his wife is attracted to and making conversation with a buff shirtless guy, yet they need him in order to protect themselves.

I don’t think the movie needed more action actors, although it might have helped. I’m going to toss in a word often used by one of my favorite movie podcasts, Filmspotting, to denote whether a movie works or not: Their ex-host especially emphasized how a movie has to have “stakes” in order to work. I think we’re supposed to believe that the married couple in “Date Night” are in real danger, but I never fully bought it even when they were being chased in super grainy footage around Central Park — and I definitely didn’t buy it when we knew that they were up against Awful Plastic Surgery Ray Liotta and Goofy William Fichtner. But by that point, even if those roles had been taken by Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris, I still wouldn’t have felt like everything wasn’t going to end up okay. What “Date Night” needed to do for me was either to lower the stakes or raise them substantially.

Also, I have heard tell of the amazing crapitude of “Hudson Hawk.” Worth seeing, in your opinion?

Zoe: This is true! I did not even realize that was Kristen Wiig, that is how unfunny they made her. And I will agree that the Kindle joke and the terribly unfunny stripper dancing scene were the only two I really remember, which is a depressing barometer.

You know what it comes down to, ultimately? I really enjoyed the movie when it was just about Tina Fey and Steve Carell being a boring, but sort of adorable, married couple. When they goofed around at the restaurant, it was charming and relatable. When they were boringly going through the motions it was nice. Moreover, I was pleased that there was a movie that didn’t try to make clearly middle-aged actors on the prowl for dates and not a shrill married couple. So why couldn’t they have just created a reasonable, minor problem (preferably one that still involved Mark Wahlberg and James Franco) without trying to get us to believe that Common (Common!) is a total scary badass.

I mean, I love Jimmi Simpson with all my heart, but he’s not a threatening bad guy and they didn’t even let him be that funny. It was frustrating the way they kept wasting their comedy cast in favor of bad action.

There were some OK bits in this movie, but they were mostly about (to me) things that I like when movies address: I like when Tina/Steve (we’re on a first name basis, you know, and God knows I don’t remember their character names) talked about their marriage issues. I mean, the actual scene was bo-ring, but I liked that it wasn’t some HUGE CONFLICT RAH and that she wanted alone time and he wanted to feel like a grown up. I liked your previously mentioned Wahlberg reversal. I liked that Will.i.am mercifully had no lines. But all of that stuff is an intellectual like, whereas my actual opinion of this as a movie is: it’s worth a rental, probably! Watch it on your next flight!

Hudson Hawk is one of my oldest friends favorite movies. I watched it when I was sort of sleepy. It’s not as bad as it’s reputation deserves. It’s sort of charming at moments, to me. I would put it in the Southland Tales category of movies.

Ellen: I would probably also put this movie in the “watch on a plane” category, but that may say more about the distress of being on a plane than the quality. I mean, I even watched “Bride Wars” on a plane. (I couldn’t sleep. Cut me some slack.)

I completely agree with your point about Fey/Carell being watchable as a married couple. In fact, I would go several steps further and say if they made several co-starring movies together a la modern Hepburn and Tracy, I would gladly pay money to see all of them in theaters.  (NBC, I bet you would like this too?)

I thought Fey/Carell were very relatable; their problems in the relationship seemed to be pretty normal and they actually talked about them in a way that seemed like a very toned-down sitcom. If “The King Of Queens” covered the same territory, it would be all about her withholding sex from him and him being too lazy. Instead, it was “Why don’t you let me help you?” I thought that was a reasonable conflict, and having girded myself for Fey playing a Shrewish Mom type, I was pleasantly surprised.

So it’s not that I regret seeing it. It’s just that the material, in my opinion, wasn’t up to their usual. For one thing, the pacing of “Date Night” is unbearable — that last half-hour felt like an hour, when that should have been the most exciting part of the movie. When you’re looking fondly back at James Franco’s “Heat” joke in the middle of a car chase, the car chase is not riveting enough. It takes forever to get started, then it was fun for a while, then it started slipping.

I could have used more Franco, actually. His and Mila Kunis’ troubled-lovers-on-the-run bit was, now that I look back on it, pretty damn funny. More funny than watching Tina Fey abandon her inhibitions for 10 minutes.

Zoe: I once watched High School Musical 3 on a plane. But, in fairness, I might have eventually seen that movie anyways.

I am so with you on the Fey/Carell movie dream team. They were incredibly watchable, but I think, as we type it out, the inherent problem in the movie is that: they are really cute together, it would be hard to make a movie where they were not cute together and, in fact, they were shrill and horrible. Plus I feel like that both (OK, at least Fey) have a somewhat vested interest in deconstructing/changing the way marriage/women/the intersection of those two things is portrayed. Which ties back into the wonderful way they had a conflict but, man, that would be a dull film.

I guess what I am saying is, I am starting to see why this wacky, terrible action plot was foisted on this film. Because “adorable married couple deals reasonably with expected problems” just doesn’t have much bite to it.

The James Franco/Mila Kunis couple was so good that I would have rather watched a movie where they move in next door to the Fey’s (seriously, what were their characters’ names!?) and then wacky neighborly hijinks ensue. Which means I guess I would have rather watched a remake of Deck the Halls with this cast than deal with the stripper dance scene.

Which, since we’re on it, let’s discuss! Namely, I think it’s really indicative of a (in my view, valid) critique of Tina Fey. Namely that her brand of feminism is sort of the brand of feminism that dislikes some sorts of women. Namely, women we could call “Bombshell McGee” or who do something crazy like strip! But more importantly, the bit where Steve liked her boobs was endearing enough that I was willing to forgive the first fifteen seconds of some of the least funny “comedy” dancing I have ever seen. But not the next four minutes.

Ellen: I have read about this critique of Tina Fey (Tiger Beatdown’s “13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon” is required reading), but I think it’s important to separate criticism of Fey from her character on “30 Rock.” Even though Tina Fey stars in and produces the show, she’d be the first to say that Liz Lemon is not her in several respects. (For instance, I don’t think her rocky relationships with the other women in the office are necessarily meant to put down other women, but rather to refute the TV stereotype that women who work together are automatic BFFs. Buuut I digress.)

Anyway. For those of you who haven’t seen “Date Night,” Tina and Steve (you’re right, Zoe, their characters’ names have been completely wiped from my memory if they were ever there) have to infiltrate the Mafia-owned strip club where the squeaky-clean D.A. is known to party with strippers. Now that I write that out, is that an Eliot Spitzer reference, or do I just see Spitzer everywhere? In any case, the only way they can get to him in VIP is by catching his eye and dancing for him in the private room. This could be funny; instead, it’s endless. Tina Fey’s hotness is revealed and remarked upon, and the fact that Carell is pretty much uselessly distracted is a nice touch. Because she is! But the dancing isn’t funny, and the plot is advanced within 30 seconds because we have all seen this scene before, and Fichtner has to carry it in split-second reaction shots. At some point, the joke shifts into embarrassed-for-your-parents territory; I get the feeling that director Shawn Levy intended this scene as a centerpiece, but it is a disaster. Ironically, Levy is responsible for one of the best dance sequences of all time in the humorless mess that is the Steve Martin-Beyoncé “Pink Panther” — did he lose all his mojo?

You know who could have done this movie better? Team Apatow. I didn’t like “Funny People” but if this movie had taken after “Pineapple Express” a little more, I would have been much happier. And it’s definitely in line with the Apatow supposedly-retrogressive agenda — the married couple stays together throughout the adventure, and she even tells him she had never thought of leaving him.

Zoe: Thank you linking the critique when I forgot to! And yes, I think it’s important to separate the character from the writer, however based off her recent SNL stint (where “Bombshell McGee” comes from) and the character she was playing was…herself, it’s harder to say where the distinction is. I think it’s safe to say that Tina Fey’s flaws RE: some ladies are just part of feminism’s flaws, and that doesn’t make her a bad person or anything. It just makes for really, really, unfunny stripper dancing scenes.

(By the way, I looked up the names: Phil and Claire. Are Phil and Claire the new “pleasant, but generic” names for middle class white families? Is there some cultural thing I’m not getting here because I am not an aging Gen Xer?)

I agree that this seems up Team Apatow’s alley, except…too much ladyness! The woman isn’t a buzzkill, they’re both buzzkills (or equal levels of funny). Plus no one smokes pot. I agree that they probably would have ditched the not as good action stuff, but I feel like we would have had to have Jonah Hill has the maitre’d/wacky neighbor/instead of James Franco.

You know, thinking about it, what killed the movie for me more than anything is at the end when the Lady Cop is like “boy, you’ve had a long night, need a ride anywhere?” Because that is what cops do when people have been involved in 1) several crimes and as 2) witnesses to several more crimes. They totally let them go home without talking to anyone at all. Also, hooray warrantless wiretaps? I guess that is more accurate to how cops operate. I mean, I know this was an “action comedy” and expecting realism is, if this dialogue has shown anything, a ludicrous goal. But still. STILL. Make my disbelief less mid air, please.

That said, I did like that the end was just them making out. Whooo smooching!

Ellen: YES! It was a good ending. I don’t know that Carell and Fey had crazy chemistry so much as that they were believable as a couple who has been together a long time and is sticking it out for the long haul. And the extended take on the lawn was very funny.

I think James Franco may have still been able to squeeze into my imaginary Apatow “Date Night.” It could even have been his character from “Pineapple Express” in the apartment for a little Apatovian world-building. (Oh yeah, I went there.) He might not have cast Tina Fey, though, and putting a Katherine Heigl in there would be neither funny nor believable. I’m not saying there is a scarcity of funny ladies in Hollywood but I’m struggling with who would play the Fey role if not for Fey. My first thought is Amy Poehler, which only proves I’m not looking far enough outside the box.

I think the only thing that would have made the stripper sequence worse would be that Tina Fey was actually an excellent pole dancer and had been hiding that fact from her husband all these years. Look, you can have your Madonna/whore complex in one lady! (Although I did like that to goad her into the VIP area, Steve Carell reminds her that she is the mother of his children. Thought it was cute. I’m sure all the married people reading this have passed out by now at my naïveté.)

Finally, I’m tickled that you were focused enough on the plot by the end to be bothered by the Lady Cop. Isn’t that how every action comedy movie ends, with some slim justification for the heroes to go home and return to their normal lives? I don’t see many; so what was the last great action movie you saw? (Or action comedy, if you like.) I remember really enjoying “Tropic Thunder,” although that was much more comedy than action.

Zoe: I mean, I know that is how action movies are. I do! Because I mostly only watch action movies. But I guess that 1) it always annoys me and 2) in action movies I have explosions and shit to distract me and convince me this is Totally Normal and here I had nothing.

Also, because I don’t think we have mentioned it yet, the dance seen that we are going on and on about being unfunny? That was basically the funniest thing that the rest of the audience had ever seen ever. They laughed the entire way through. It was the highlight of the film for the rest of the theater. Meanwhile Ellen and I looked at each other and made “guh?” faces.

Anyways, to veer in a completely different direction: part of the reason we saw this movie for Lady Bits was because we wanted to discuss a Rom Com. And while Sex and the City 2 has clearly become the front runner for actually doing that, I’m going to posit something here. Date Night is not a romantic comedy, but it’s also girly enough. As in, it might actually, despite all the flaws noted above, be a good movie to see for an actual date.

By which I mean, of course, an actual date in Stereotype Land where women hate action movies and men hate kissing and never the twain shall meet. In that land…well, this movie doesn’t actually satisfy too much of either group. But it bridges the gap by being a goofy spring comedy. In the sense of: a movie that two people, with slightly differing taste, might see together romantically, this film works pretty well. Neither a chick flick, per se, nor a guy flick, per se, it sort of manages to be both? Because comedy! And yea, flawed, but that’s still a pretty good feat to pull off.

Ellen: I definitely have plans to drag you to “Sex and the City 2″ now, after discovering that you had not seen the first one and had really no desire to see the sequel. (Dear Robert, Scott and Paul, please do not kill yourselves. We’ll make it funny.)

But I don’t think this would be a good date movie. To clarify, Gentle Readers, Zoe and I saw this movie together, and celebrate the fact that when women go to the movies we can just say “we went to the movies” instead of “we’re having a bromance” or “we’re on a man-date.” We got nothing to fear! Except heteronormativity!

“Date Night” may look and sound from the title like a movie that will be good for our non-specific Man and Woman on Date to see together, and it’s probably a better option than a lot of movies out there. I am no expert at picking the targets of such outings (one word: Seabiscuit) but I think you could do better in Stereotype Land. Maybe Iron Man 2? Because I, woman, actually looked forward to that in a minor way.

The premise of Date Night is built around a couple whose relationship has slumped into mundanity to the extent that not only do they eat at the same place every time they go out, they order the same foods. I did not wish to know that your taste buds actually can be KILLED DEAD by monogamy! Even if this is true, it’s not something to go home and cuddle with.

Certainly, Fey and Carell share some tender moments, but those come after nearly an hour of “Oh ha ha, we are the most boring married couple ever, we never get out.” On a first date, that’s a cue to think “Do I ever want to be in a relationship, ever? Because there might be boring stuff happening in it.” On the other hand, maybe a couple who had been together for a while might appreciate the nod to realistic depiction — or feel superior because they aren’t as boring, as a couple, as these fictional characters. But if there’s a differential in humor between you at the end of the night, that could be awkward. I guess you run that risk with seeing any comedy in a romantic situation, though Lord knows it doesn’t stop us from trying.

Something else I wanted to bring up that has nothing to do with dates: Did you think it was odd that both of our protagonists are briefly depicted in jobs that seem rather realistic, and not at all exaggerated in the typical movie way? Fey is a real-estate agent biting her tongue over a potential lowball offer (and later, looking for former client Wahlberg), and Carell is an accountant vainly struggling to get his clients to make better choices. These are each brief scenes — maybe 2 minutes each — but it struck me that neither of them would have glamorous jobs, would they? That’s the kind of mundanity I actually like at the movies, proof that not everyone in the world is either a magazine editor or Jeremy Piven for a living.

Zoe: You make valid points. I mean, my threshold for a “date movie” is “do we both want to see it?” Because, frankly, if we don’t, why bother? We both have friends we could see non-desired movies with. This might seem like unwillingness to appreciate others tastes, but it is largely me protecting people from my own taste. Not everyone wants to see Step Up 3D and I respect that.

I actually thing the soul-crushing mundanity (this is a word that i am using, deal with it, spell-checker!) is actually one of the better and more subversive elements of the film, though it certainly makes it dull to watch. I mean, yea, after a while relationships get sleepy and apparently the only food you ever desire is the same steak every week. It’s, like the afore-mentioned dull jobs, is not glamorizing this not demonizing this–it’s just sort of matter of fact. And it ties back into something else we both liked about the film: that the problems weren’t OH MY GOD DRAMA I WANT TO SLEEP WITH THE POOL BOY, but rather, hey, being middle aged sometimes means you’re boring? Let’s try and have fun! It’s nice that the problem is understated, but I also think this understated element is what lead to them thinking they had to add car chases.

Ellen: Is Mark Wahlberg the pool boy in this analogy?

In Which We “Telephone” Beyoncé and Lady Gaga

As the first two women to join the SPJ line-up, Zoe and Ellen are conscious that their take on the cultural trends of the moment may be slightly different from that of their esteemed counterparts. (Just like Eve in the Ruff Ryders, only Midwestern and with slightly different tattoos.) Lady Bits is their collaborative pop culture soapbox and dissection theater.

In this premiere edition, Zoe and Ellen become the last people on the Internet to weigh in on the Lady Gaga-Beyoncé event video “Telephone.”

Zoe: I feel like I should mention something right off the bat, which is that while I adore pop music, I abhor the sort of thing that is meant to be read as “edgy” but that is actually sort of boring, at least to me. Like, I get that Gaga is all about shock! and fashion! and queers! but it just seems like, slow down lady, you might be trying to hard. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with the message. I’m not saying it doesn’t shock anyone, I am just saying those people are Midwestern parents and they don’t really use YouTube anyways.

But that’s who Gaga is, I suppose. Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel that Beyonce must have felt super awkward the whole time, because absolutely none of that is her bag.

Ellen: I have to say I agree with you about the shock value for shock value’s sake, and that’s probably the main reason I didn’t listen to much Gaga until this past fall when my gym started putting her songs on repeat. I think they’re catchy if not groundbreaking, and if you listen to several of them at once (say, at a bar that does that sort of thing) they tend to unspool into one long “We’re beautiful, dirty and rich at this club just dancing” single.

It’s funny that you mention Beyoncé because not only is she stranded in the World of Gaga, we don’t even get to see both of them dance together until several minutes into this clip. It’s like the diner scene in “Heat” for pop music fans! Then again, we have already seen Beyoncé’s world thanks to the video she and Gaga did for her song “Video Phone,” which reverses several characteristics of this one: There’s no plot, most of the running time is devoted to dancing and the lyrics stress the availability of the singer. (But they both owe royalties to Quentin Tarantino.)

“Telephone” the song isn’t catchy but I guess that is beside the point; there’s an unauthorized video edit going around of just the song and none of the plot around it, which can help your short attention span but emphasizes how much like every other Gaga song it is. But it’s been a while since an “event” music video, if my old brain is remembering properly. Is there even any point to a nearly-10-minute music video when hardly any channels show them and online viewers are unlikely to sit all the way through? My edit, for example, would consist solely of the “Let’s Make A Sandwich” sequence.

Zoe: See, I actually like the actual song because, well, I like pop music and my roommates play it and it’s fun to dance to and it’s catchy. I generally have no greater reasons than that for my musical taste, so that’s not the greatest defense in the world. I’m just saying, I have no qualms with the song as is. I have qualms with excessively long videos that make me not be able to listen to said song, and that also seem to be more about “shiny shiny scene cut shiny!” than even the vaguest of plots.

I mean, the majority of my music video watching happened in the mid 90s and the early 00s, which were very different eras. I mean, sure, Hype Williams style videos dominated the 90s scene, but people seem to forget that they were also plot heavy. There’s a Biggie video that’s about seven minutes long and includes a helicopter chase that—hand to God—was remixed at some point. But that’s the thing—they made a coherent product first and then made it extra long, tacking on plot as opposed to throwing ideas at the wall. What I am saying is: I could not agree with your “Let’s Make a Sandwich” idea more.

Of course, part of the reason people stopped making those videos is that they largely confirmed what we already knew: rappers and singers do not great actors make. And while I’ve seen a lot of heat on Beyonce for her (admittedly) terrible acting in this video, I see less on Gaga. Which: are we watching the same video? I know that Gaga’s style is inherently more mannered because we need to draw attention to the artifice because we’re artistes, but it’s still atrocious and at least Beyonce brings it with the dancing which…Gaga does less so.

As to your point about what channel would show this: none, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be shown anywhere but the internet. Which is why the world premiere happened on YouTube and not…whatever show MTV uses to show 30 seconds of videos these days. The internet is far more important and Gaga is nothing is not an excellent marketer.

Ellen: It’s funny that you mention Hype Williams because he directed the “Video Phone” video, although it doesn’t have a story beyond “Beyonce and Lady Gaga are hot and like to dance!” I vaguely remember that helicopter moment, though, from back when (not to beat this drum any harder) we all watched music videos on TV because there wasn’t any other way to see them.

You are correct that Gaga can’t act, and the idea of her “playing” a character is not so much artifice is that she appears to be widening her eyes in Drew Barrymore-style emoting and it’s not a great look. For more in substandard Gaga acting, I suggest the very early-’90s-looking video for “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say).” I found her much more watchable in “Bad Romance,” and just to cut into your defense of pop music, I have to say I don’t hate all of it, but find that song much catchier than “Telephone.” The dancing in its video is also not the greatest, very knock-off Britney at best, but between the paper-mache eggs and the hoof shoes and that final shot of the charred skeleton, I was thoroughly entertained.

Sure, it’s Pretentious, but I vastly prefer it to Shocking Prison Lady Romance, about which: Really? In 2010, we’re looking for something shocking, and it’s girl-on-girl prison action? I expected more from La Gaga, and that she continues to bring up the vagueness of her and Beyonce’s “characters’” relationship in the video in interviews suggests to me that she believes this was an edgy direction in which to go. I realize we live in a world where Adam Lambert still shocks people, but this felt like a very male-gaze-oriented cliche.

Zoe: It’s funny, because I feel like a lot of the core Gaga supporters are, like, well educated in film theory people (such as a friend of mine, who made very smart references to German cinema re: this video that I am less able to counter). And that makes me wonder two things: if I was less of a TV person, would I like this more? And: what does the general pop music loving public think about this? I mean, I can read blogs about it until the cows come home, but I would love to go to a mall and ask some 15 year old girls what they think about this, because maybe it is just edgy and shocking enough for them. Maybe it’s the exact kind of not-so-edgy-or-shocking that appeals to slightly angsty teenagers? Which isn’t bad at all! I mean, isn’t that where many great musical acts core audience comes from? But that’s a harder group to find out about, because they use Tumblr or something.

Airbender Corrections

Over the weekend, a little birdie informed me that some of the speculation in my opinion piece “The Last Word on The Last Airbender” was mistaken.

I made the argument that because show creators DiMartino and Konietzko hadn’t said much in support of the film, they had been excluded from its creative process and their once-friendly relationship with M. Night Shyamalan had surely fallen by the wayside. I followed the series closely as it was airing, and assumed that the creators would be as idealistic as I was in wanting to see its spirit captured in the film adaptation.

Evidently my idealism led me to make some incorrect assumptions. According to what I have been told, the three continue to enjoy a good working relationship, and recently it has come out that M. Night will be writing the foreward to the upcoming A:TLA artbook. DiMartino and Konietzko’s relative silence apparently has more to do with their complicated relationship with Nickelodeon than any dissatisfaction with the film.

On behalf of Sodapop Journal, I apologize for my misconstruing of the situation.

It is unfortunate that the fans of the show will receive no such apology for the whitewashed cast and gutted narrative of the film, and that the creators who owe those fans their success appear to have been willingly complicit in its shoddy treatment.

The Shrug, and Other Crimes Against DVD Covers

Several of us at Sodapop Journal are graphic designers by trade, so naturally we’re interested in the way our entertainment ephemera is represented visually. Recently, a terrible scourge has befallen comedy DVDs, and it has a name: The Shrug. It’s easy to design for an action film, just show a lot of stuff blowing up. But comedy’s a little tougher. Do you show plot points? Do you try to make something that’s funny as a still image? Do you take the abstract route? Usually, they take the path of least resistance, which is representing the leading man as a natural born cynic, shrugging off a mad world that understands him even less than he understands it and its zany goings-on.

I first noticed this trend with Idiocracy, one of the funniest comedies of the last decade, but one that was rushed into theaters unfinished. It never even had an official poster, so for the DVD, this happened.

The Larry Charles-directed, Bill Maher-hosted anti-religion essay film Religulous is another tough sell. It mocks all the world’s religions and ends in a breathless tirade warning us that we will all die in an apocalyptic fervor if we don’t ditch God. Since the film didn’t pull punches, the poster takes the most gutless way out.

“What’s with you people?!? I’m Larry David! You’re all dumb!” A poster that phones it in, making it a perfect representation of late-era Woody Allen.

This monstrosity of a film may not get intentional laughs, but Travolta’s pose on this poster is so insane and completely disconnected from reality that it made me laugh about five minutes straight when I first saw it.

This got us thinking about other DVD cover laziness.

The Last Word on The Last Airbender

Update: The speculation in this piece required corrections, the substance of which may be found here.

The Last Word on The Last Airbender

I’m really looking forward to having you guys on the set… I might even let you say ‘action’ once.

M. Night Shyamalan to Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, mid-2007

Just before the four-part series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, there was an episode that was essentially a play within a play—”The Ember Island Players.” In it, the main characters covertly visit a theater, wherein a troupe of actors from the antagonistic Fire Nation has created a play based on the events of the show so far. What follows is the stuff of absurd parody; a caricatured mockery of the characters’ actions as viewed through the distorted lens of Fire Nation propaganda, each character reduced in turn to cardboard cutouts of themselves, played by actors hilariously, insultingly unsuited to the role.

When their writing staff penned that episode, did show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko already have some inkling of how their series was being adapted by M. Night Shyamalan? It is impossible to know for sure, but one thing is clear—the collaborative process that the production of The Last Airbender should have exemplified broke down very early in the film’s production, with the result that Shyamalan exercised complete and final creative control, with DiMartino and Konietzko mostly or completely uninvolved.

The three appeared genuinely excited about the prospect of collaboration back in September 2007. The Season 2 DVD collection included an interview wherein DiMartino and Konietzko interviewed Shyamalan about the prospect of a live-action film. The pair spoke apparently genuinely of their respect for Shyamalan’s craft; Shyamalan in turn praised the series’s mythology.

At that point, Shyamalan seemed to still be in the process of outlining his script for Airbender, an outline that had apparently been so long that a film based on it would have made a seven-hour movie, so reluctant was he to omit anything. It is clear that he genuinely loved DiMartino and Konietzko’s creation, and that they were excited to be involved with and learning about live-action filmmaking.

What’s less clear is how the pair felt about Shyamalan’s ongoing efforts. In fact, since that interview—which by now is almost three years old—they have been utterly silent about the live-action adaptation of A:TLA. At the 2008 New York Comic Con, they jokingly introduced character drawings from “The Ember Island Players” as “live action feature concept designs,” but at their San Diego Comic Con panel later that year, they said nothing about the film, and at the next year’s Comic Con—by which point early casting news had broken—they did not so much as host a panel, appearing only at an informal gathering to autograph posters and pose with costumed fans.

How could they have been so thoroughly cut out of the film’s creative process? It’s not hard to imagine. Hollywood genre films—that is to say, SF/fantasy films—are big bets. If they’re not a sure thing—i.e., based on an established property that a studio believes has built-in credibility with audiences—then they need a charismatic advocate who can drum up support with his or her name alone. Shyamalan is uniquely positioned to do this, so no doubt Nickelodeon was ecstatic over his interest in A:TLA, a show that had been very successful, but—one senses—didn’t fit their brand and programming strategy the way SpongeBob or Fairly Oddparents did. So when Shyamalan came to Nickelodeon wanting to turn DiMartino and Konietzko’s opus into a big-budget, live-action film, the network must have fallen over itself to give him everything he asked for in terms of creative control.

And who can blame DiMartino and Konietzko for being excited about this opportunity? Their baby, a long-shot by any standard, had not only found success enough to carry it through its planned three-season arc, but was now getting a shot at big-time mainstream exposure and success. The A:TLA film was attached to a director whose oeuvre may have been uneven, but whose name could bring audiences in, and who genuinely seemed to understand and love their work.

But it would turn out that Shyamalan didn’t understand A:TLA at all, and his efforts to make Airbender “edgier” and “more real” seem to have amounted to him exercising complete directorial fiat over the project.

DiMartino and Konietzko have had any number of chances to speak out in support of the film, yet they have taken none. The controversial casting choices that have dogged the film’s marketing ever since they were announced have received no endorsement from either creator.

In what can only been seen as a desperate attempt to drum up some good buzz for the film, Paramount held screenings of a rough cut as early as February of this year, then again in March; responses were mixed but mostly negative as audiences failed to connect with or even understand what Shyamalan had to show so far.

What is going on here? This is mostly supposition, but given how these things generally work, it seems likely that Nickelodeon perceived Shyamalan as being higher up on the entertainment totem pole, and were thus eager to hand creative control over to him—he is the writer, director, and producer of this film. Later, though, as Paramount began to assemble their summer 2010 lineup, Airbender went from Shyamalan’s pet project to a major part of the studio’s strategy. At this point, senior studio executives—i.e., the people giving the director his money—would’ve wanted to see the work in progress.

But did they like what they saw? The answer seems to be “no.” The stakes are high for Paramount. Airbender is a tentpole film for them. A large part of their summer movie strategy is built around it, and they need it to succeed. Recent casting calls for extras of “asian descent” hint at last-minute reshoots for a project that has perhaps gone off the rails. The fans that should be the film’s biggest cheerleaders are divided; a few are cautiously optimistic, but most are either resigned to its mediocrity or actively campaigning against it.

And why shouldn’t they? DiMartino and Konietzko have practically unlimited credibility with fans of the show; with a single positive interview they could turn thousands of A:TLA fans into advocates for the film. A better box office return surely puts money in their pockets. Yet their silence is deafening. Why?

There is only one reasonable conclusion: They aren’t saying anything positive because they don’t have anything positive to say. For whatever reason, DiMartino and Konietzko lost their faith in Shyamalan’s ability to tell their story as early as two years ago. Since then the only publicly-facing project they’ve worked on is an A:TLA art book, which notably is being published by Dark Horse Comics, rather than Paramount partner Del Rey. Did they go with Dark Horse in order to avoid any studio tampering?

Whether or not they choose to use the art book as an opportunity to obliquely voice their opinions on the film, their silence tells a clear story—a story of trust they extended to a filmmaker with all the best intentions but who ultimately lacked the ability as a writer and director to deliver on those intentions.

Even now, a few fans try to stay optimistic about The Last Airbender, but to them I say, Mike and Bryan gave up on this movie a long time ago. Who do you trust—them, or the guy who made The Happening?

A Special Kind of Story

This isn’t exactly entertainment-related, but I wanted to share this story of John Nese and Galcos Soda Pop Stop not because it’s about soda (although that is especially charming), but also because it mirrors the same passion we tend to have here at Sodapop Journal.

In the last year or so we’ve covered all sorts of movies, TV shows, music and so on, and we believe that entertainment is a treat, not an entitlement, so we do our best to keep our coverage grounded in honest opinion and free of rampant cynicism and snark. That’s not to say we won’t be disappointed when one of our favorite TV shows goes awry or when the biggest film ever is an impressive-but-troubling success, but tearing something apart just for the sake of it is too easy and nobody’s any better off as a result.

Instead, Sodapop Journal focuses on talking about different entertainment for different tastes in a way that we can all be satisfied. I like to think John Nese has the right idea by building a market where the little guys can hold their own, and that’s something we’ll keep striving for here at SPJ. As some wise dude once said, “It takes different strokes to move the world.”

Obsessives – Soda Pop

Holding Out for a Real-time Hero

With last week’s news that Fox was canceling 24 after its eighth season, I think it’s safe to say that most viewers weren’t all that surprised. The show has slowly been eating away at itself in terms of story lines and character developments over the years, and in terms of relevance, the action series has seen better days. Still, 24 is a remarkable show that made a mark on television for the creative risks it took.

Perhaps it was only through some strange cosmic alignment that 24 was already well into production and set to premiere right on the heels of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Even though the 2001 pilot had to be postponed and edited slightly, the crux of the series—a lone man in a minute-by-minute battle against terrorism—spoke to audiences like nothing else on TV at the time. It was even exciting to see Keifer Sutherland, an actor who had up until then built a solid reputation for playing scumbags and otherwise questionable characters in film, sink so thoroughly into the heroic role of Jack Bauer that it’s hard to separate the two any more.

With the standard American television season clocking in at 20-26 episodes, the idea of following a single character through a full day in real time seemed like a natural fit, but because it would require focused plotting, non-stop production and a consistent time slot, it had never been successfully done before. Not to mention that a day in the life of your average Joe would hardly be gripping enough to maintain an audience for a full season. While most of us spend a majority of the day toiling away at work and around eight hours fast asleep, apparently there’s no time for rest in the fight against the terrorists. Or so TV—and for years, the federal government—would have us believe. Whether it was because of Bush-era hysterics or just America’s general uneasiness about national security, 24 became an instant TV phenomenon.

Using the real-time format allowed the show to credibly divert attention from Jack driving in a car somewhere and focus on multiple characters and threads at once (which gave way to the split-screen intercutting that the show is now famous for) while always staying focused on the main plot over the course of a season. It didn’t hurt that 24 also pushed boundaries with the level of action—and in later seasons, torture and violence—that could be shown in primetime. And when it came to making hard decisions about who lived and who died, 24 knew how to take the hard road when necessary, sometimes to shocking effect.

Sure, there was a certain suspension of disbelief that had to happen to buy into it completely. Who can realistically get across Los Angeles in forty minutes during rush hour? Who can go for a whole day without eating, sleeping or even using the restroom? One man? Maybe. One man plus a whole CTU office plus the federal bigwigs in Washington plus all the bad guys? The point is that 24 made sure it felt real—felt even remotely possible—even when it wasn’t. That is, until it couldn’t any longer.

So where did it all go wrong?

There were missteps along the way, but for five seasons, the show was a bona fide hit with steadily climbing ratings, a strong cast of characters and ever-rising stakes—until the sixth season when it all went off the rails.

Through a set of circumstances far too complicated to detail here, Jack is captured by the Chinese government at the end of the fifth season. This set up one of the biggest cliffhanger moments in the series, because as we all know, the Chinese government DOES NOT PLAY. (They don’t even like Google!) To have this all-American hero now in the custody of the largest Communist entity on the planet…well, it harkened back to some old Cold War notion that all of a sudden we might be on the verge of nuclear war or some other worldwide chaos. How will Jack escape? Will someone have to go rescue him? Thanks, Jack, WE’RE ALL DOOMED! And yet, when the sixth season premiered, that plot was squandered entirely. Jack was released without incident thanks to some hush-hush dealmaking. Hoo-ray.

In fact, the sixth season as a whole went on to betray everything that made 24 so great. Suddenly, all the tricks and contrivances that could be overlooked for the sake of just getting to the action were now blindingly obvious, to the point where it all bordered on campy nonsense (Jack had a brother all this time? Mentally-challenged computer geniuses? Someone actually elected Powers Boothe as Vice President? Aaron Pierce loves Martha Logan and raspberries?). It also became apparent that 24 was never supposed to take place in our universe, but instead a nearly identical one where high-tech wizardry outpaced our own and leaps in logic and common sense and even time itself were the norm. In my opinion, the sixth season may have also retroactively ruined every season before it by exposing all sorts of faults that you might have simply chosen to ignore previously.

The reaction from audiences sent a clear message and the show’s producers, causing a postponed seventh season (due to the 2007-08 writers strike) in order to regroup and clean house. The seventh season touted a new setting as the biggest change for the show, finally putting to rest many a theory that Los Angeles had now somehow become an international hotbed of terrorist activity. By that point, it was unclear if 24 would ever be able to fully recover, and with America’s new outlook, if it would even still be as relevant as it used to.

After another change in setting for the current eighth season, it seems like the show is still up to the same old tricks—none of which are the substantial turnaround in quality that viewers were hoping for, as evidenced by the sinking ratings. It’s unfortunate really, because the format of the show is open to so many opportunities, and it seems like every season starts off with promise, only to settle into the same old ruts again and again. Someone’s a mole, someone has a secret past, someone’s a stubborn bureaucrat who can’t see the truth in front of their nose and of course, someone is a double-agent. As inspired as some of the show’s better moments were, it had rested on its laurels for far too long.

Now officially cancelled, there’s only the smallest of opportunities for 24 to wrap things up for the series as a whole in a satisfying way. There’s already talk of Jack Bauer living on in feature films, but without the real-time format and intricate plots, what’s to say it won’t be just another action/spy thriller that we’ve already seen done to near perfection with the Bourne series or even the new-and-improved James Bond?

One big plus is that screenwriter/director Billy Ray (BreachState of Play) is already on the case with a proposed draft of a script (and he knows his way around government/espionage territory). Ultimately, I’m hoping that if Jack Bauer makes his way to the silver screen that his next move will be better than anything we’ve seen lately. Our TV heroes deserve better.

The Sounds of Colour

It had been well over a decade since I’d heard a new song from the New York-based quartet known as Living Colour. Not for a lack of trying on their part, but the band just kind of disappeared off my radar sometime during the late ’90s. Add in the infrequent album releases, the occasional report that they had long since disbanded, even the eventual changes in the musical landscape, and after a while it became hard to expect anything new from Living Colour, much less seek it out. Until recently, that is.

When they burst onto the scene in the 1988 with their quintessential hit “Cult of Personality”, I immediately ran out and picked up their debut album Vivid. Drawing on so many musical influences and genres, Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Muzz Skillings and Will Calhoun put together such a diverse, energetic sound that was unlike anything else in the hard rock scene at the time. Vivid brought enough power for anyone looking for heavy riffs and dizzying guitar acrobatics, but also had a sense of funk and soul to it, all topped with a insightful layer of political and social commentary. And although I had no way of knowing it at the time, when their next album Time’s Up dropped 1990, it made me a fan for life.

I still maintain that Time’s Up is an even better album than Vivid. It gave us a Living Colour that was more calculated and precise, with more exploration in their sound and even more sophisticated messages. With Vivid, there was still a sense that Living Colour was a hard rock band flirting with different genres, almost in jest. With Time’s Up, the band clearly demonstrated that they were more than that. They were instead a group of multi-faceted musicians that could bend different styles to their will. Tracks like “Love Rears Its Ugly Head”, “Elvis is Dead”, “Under Cover of Darkness” and “Solace Of You” were reminiscent of blues, funk and R&B but with a masterful integration of rock elements. And yet, there were still heavy riffs and in “Pride”, “New Jack Theme” and “Type” to appeal to the core rock audience.

After that came 1993′s Stain, which was just askew enough from the first two albums that I never took much interest in it—and going by its lukewarm reception, neither did listeners. And that’s where it started to get cloudy for me as a fan. My tastes were changing and I was increasingly gravitating towards other genres of music. Sometime around the late ’90s, I remember digging up my copy of Time’s Up and going through it again, and after doing a little searching online, the only news I could find was that the group had broken up. I was disappointed of course, and just resigned myself to the fact that I’d at least have two really great albums to hold on to. I never even knew that the band had reformed to release 2003′s Collideoscope.

Fast forward to just a week ago—over twenty years after Vivid—when I stumbled upon the band’s new album The Chair in the Doorway. I hadn’t caught wind of its release in September 2009 but I eagerly gave it a listen. Would it be the same Living Colour I knew as a young man going through high school and college? Would it be so far astray from their early work that it’d be unrecognizable? Nonsense. Before I even got through it all, I was impressed to the point where I mentioned it on Twitter:

“Really digging this album. It’s like they never left!”

To which I soon received the following reply from @LivingColour:

“we didn’t”

Well, not only was I kind of embarrassed (OK, a lot embarrassed) but it really got me thinking about those first two albums and how much I loved them. It also made me think about how a band can have such a unique approach to their music and their sound, and after so many years, still come back together and knock one out of the park. How had I come to dismiss these guys? Was it because they were no longer relevant? Or because their music just wasn’t as good as it used to be?

The truth is Living Colour has always been relevant. It’s one of the staples of everything they do. And like all truly great bands, their music has always been an innovative mixture of styles and genres. As it turns out, the new album gives some interesting insight into the state of the band. Songs like “Burning Bridges”, “Hard Times” and “Behind the Sun” tell us that they consciously decided to step back from the spotlight, both for their music and for their own sanity. Living Colour had weathered the storms of life like everyone else over the years, but also took the time to reflect and focus on their music, which feels just as energized and soulful as ever.

From the looks of it, The Chair in the Doorway has been taking a lot of old fans by surprise, earning the band the noble-but-burdensome “under-appreciated” status in today’s rock music scene. Did Living Colour ever really leave? Of course not. What they did do is step into the shadows just enough to make discovering them all over again that much more rewarding.

More Than Meets The Eye

hulk

I recently had the great honor of meeting Willard Wigan, a brilliant artist who calls his meticulously constructed works “micro-sculptures”. Over the course of three to six months, he puts himself in a trancelike state to create microscopic sculptures with the eyes of needles, heads of pins, and other insanely tiny spaces. I first saw him on Conan O’Brien:

Needless to say, I was highly impressed. I immediately checked out his website to learn more, and learned his great personal story of overcoming a harsh childhood to become a great artist whose worked is owned by everyone from Prince Charles to Mike Tyson. He gave a great presentation at this year’s TED conference as well:

Learning more about Wigan’s work makes it seem even more special and personal. He’s an enormously witty artist, always coming up with clever ways to twist his materials, like making the lines on a ship out of spider webs, or placing most of the characters from Peter Pan on a hook:

peter_panAfter spending quite a bit of time reading about Wigan’s work, I got a chance to check out his show when it stopped in Houston. It’s incredible to see his work on TV or in print, but it’s even more shocking in person, when you can actually see the tiny specks in front of you before putting them under the microscope to see the full picture. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and then got an even bigger shock when I left the gallery to see Wigan standing outside drinking a smoothie! Turns out he’s travelled with his show over most of this year and loves meeting the people who see his shows. He’s a really warm, friendly guy who happily signed my book and even offered to walk across the street to take a picture with me because the light was better there.

wigan

If you’re in the Atlanta or Washington DC area, make sure you check out his show. It’s a rare opportunity to see work by one of the most awe-inspiring artists working today, and chances seem pretty good that you’ll actually get to meet him!

The Polanski Effect

Roman-Polanski

Anybody who knows film knows who Roman Polanski is, and anyone who knows who Roman Polanski is also knows that something has been following him for most of his career.

You could say that 30 years after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, especially considering his childhood and personal tragedies, his remarkable career as a filmmaker and even the apparent acquittal from his victim, Polanski has paid his dues and it’s time to let bygones be bygones. There is, however, that one part about being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl. The details are far too repulsive to go into here, but for anyone who’s either been a victim or known a victim, this sort of crime is intolerable in any regard.

Don’t consider this a full-on condemnation of Polanski or his work as a filmmaker, because there’s certainly more than enough to celebrate and sympathize with, but the fact of the matter is that there’s now a bigger issue at hand here. Whether you think he should be free to continue his life or whether he should be extradited back to the US to serve his original sentence, the fact that now dozens of high-profile figures in the American and European filmmaking communities have come to support a man who has undoubtedly committed a heinous crime has escalated things to another level. I can’t think of another instance where things have been so cut-and-dry and yet so many people of note have come down on what appears to be the wrong side.

All I can wonder is what logic these people are playing by. By “these people”, I mean names you’d easily recognize like Martin Scorcese, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Harvey Weinstein, Mike Nichols, Neil Jordan, Darren Aronofsky, Woody Allen and plenty of others. Can all of these people be wrong? Do they realize what they’re saying to the world or are they simply standing alongside Polanski as a show of solidarity? Do they know something the rest of us don’t?

Personally, it’s given me a new perspective on these artists and filmmakers and where their judgments lie. They’ve clearly declared their support for a convicted criminal, but does that make it any more or less powerful a statement to the rest of the public? Is it a substantial movement in the making or will these celebrities eventually find themselves eating crow? Either way, what everyone involved is counting on is that the public eye (including the authorities) will believe as they do, but how likely is that?