Thursday, April 30, 2009
Monday, April 27, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
There’s been a whirlwind of conflict swirling through NBC’s hit comedy “The Office” in its fifth season. Between Jim and Pam’s engagement, Dwight and Andy’s duel over Angela, and Michael’s failed relationship with Holly, the show’s writers have had more balls to juggle than ever.
But in the March 19 episode they pulled the biggest, and strangest, development yet when boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) decided to quit his job after Dunder Mifflin’s new vice president, Charles Minor (guest star Idris Elba), cancelled his fifteenth anniversary party.
Determined to start his own business, the aptly named Michael Scott Paper Company, Michael dragged Pam and Ryan into a basement supply closet to futilely try and compete against Dunder Mifflin.
Is the Michael Scott Paper Company the show’s brave new direction, or has this workplace comedy actually jumped the shark?
“The Office” is in a predicament, for if the fledgling company collapses by season’s end and Michael takes back control of the Scranton branch, it would render the so-far uneventful story arc pointless.
But if the new paper company succeeds into the show’s sixth season, it will only be setting up more painfully unfunny antics in this tedious development. With Michael and Pam out of the office, the balance of humor has shifted in drastically unpleasant directions.
Without Pam to balance him out, Jim’s pranks have grown sour. The recent trend of making Jim the fool is a welcome departure from his routine smugness, but actor John Krasinski has been unable to deliver his material with a hint of charm in weeks.
And Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who usually provides some of the show’s most unexpectedly welcome quirks and moments of surprising professionalism, is slowly devolving into a grab bag of pathetic clichés.
That says nothing of Ryan, whose story arc should have ended with his indictment for fraud at the end of season four. Instead, he now stumbles around Michael’s new company, with no real justification besides actor/writer B.J. Novak wanting to give himself things to do.
“The Office” lacks a single direction, making its usually brisk comedy feel confused and misguided. Where the series’ fourth season introduced more realistic, personal issues for the main characters, these recent episodes have become a collection of pointless interaction with no satisfactory catharsis.
The problem with “The Office” is that there’s too much going on. The humor, instant of feeling streamlined and organic, feels desperate, as if the characters are launching out in all directions, trying to scoop laughs from remote places.
This has been a problem since Jim and Pam’s relationship started, but the increasingly complicated love triangle between Dwight, Angela, and Andy managed to keep the void filled to a certain point.
With little to focus on in the way of interpersonal drama, the show’s producers have punched the conflict to a forced extreme. The behavior, usually awkward if humorous, now has a callous and uninvolved feel.
The Michael Scott Paper Company has systematically drained one of television’s most consistent comedies of its spark. It’s as if the writing and producing team has become Michael Scott incarnate, wasting everyone’s time on meaningless things no one cares about.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
In “State of Play,” the latest addition to the long list of films about politically tilted conspiracies and the rigorous journalists who uncover them, the twists come fast and furious and the crackling dialogue alone generates enough suspense to easily cover the two hours. Yet somehow, this breezily superficial movie hits a timely and strangely nostalgic note about the decay of print journalism.
Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a scruffy veteran reporter for “The Washington Globe.” With his almost beautifully messy desk and drastically out of date computer, McAffrey feels dropped from a different era of journalists, like someone straight out of “All the President’s Men.”
Crowe, giving one of his most invigorating and well-conceived performances of late, lays on the collected gruff and knows how to slant his inflection and cock his head just the right way to pull off an embodiment of sleazy-if-morally-upright journalist with flair and ease.
Rachel McAdams co-stars as Della Frye, the paper’s head online columnist. McAdams brings charm and strength to the role, and her blog-centered reporting contrasts terrifically with Crowe.
As the two are gradually forced to work together to figure out the truth behind the murder of a prominent young Congressman’s (Ben Affleck) aide, it becomes clear “State of Play” isn’t so much about uncovering the seeds of conspiracy, but reconciling the difference between Cal’s “old media” and Della’s “new media.”
That in the film the “Globe” has recently been re-acquired by a media conglomerate and is facing collapse only furthers the reflection of the media’s present state.
That two of the film’s three screenwriters are Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity”) and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) should come as no surprise. Adapting the six-part 2003 BBC miniseries, the writers use their keen sense of structural complexity to deliver a lean, labyrinthine film without much bulky excess.
The wheels on “State of Play” turn ridiculously fast, and it conveys a wealth of information with skillful economy. Only in its final act does it become a bit too “twist-obsessed,” perhaps foregoing a sliver of deeper meaning for one more big bang reversal.
Nevertheless, the negotiation between lived-in characters and constantly evolving plot is met with balanced nods to the murky waters of journalism and politics.
Jeff Daniels, as a smarmy political party leader, makes the best of a few small scenes, giving well-nuanced hints at his possible entanglements. And Jason Bateman, as a greasy fixer, devours his dialogue in a terrific and riotously funny scene-stealing turn.
Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) goes for an aesthetic that always skirts with verisimilitude. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto incorporates lots of great Steadicam shots for following characters around locations quickly, with editor Justine Wright generating suspense by pushing each scene headlong into the next.
“State of Play” is deliciously satisfying material that shoulders propulsive plotting and manages to invest some significant contemplation on the media’s future.
By choosing a set of themes so resonate to the recent rapidity of media change, the film reaches for more than a brainy springtime diversion. For all its minor faults, it’s a pretty convincing pitch for the power of the printed word.
Monday, April 20, 2009
"Observe and Report"
Seth Rogen plays a different kind of law enforcer in director Jody Hill’s new film, “Observe and Report.” Rogen, who has assimilated a comfortable resume playing variations on his warm but juvenile everyman, daringly inverts his persona in this hard-hitting comedy that has far more under the surface than childish antics.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the admittedly bi-polar head of mall security with delusions of grandeur. He nurses his supportive but alcoholic mother (Celia Watson, in a terrific supporting turn both hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt) and failingly tries to win the heart of cosmetics worker Brandi (Anna Faris, once again capitalizing on her innate ability to play any kind of bimbo), who won’t give Ronnie the time of day.
But when a flasher starts terrorizing the mall’s parking lot, Ronnie sees it as a chance to finally make a name for himself. Too bad the manager calls in police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta, chewing scenery as best he can) to take the case away from Ronnie.
In its first act, there’s nothing very special about “Observe and Report.” Hill’s filmmaking is capable if devoid of a distinguishable style. All the actors outlandishly delve into the misanthropic scum ball material, and Rogen builds Ronnie into an occasionally charming, misunderstood underdog.
It’s generic, with the same kind of affectionate losers and rambling humor that’s charted more than a handful of recent R-rated comedies.
Then, halfway through the film, Ronnie decides to go off his bi-polar medication. Suddenly, the movie stops its silliness and starts becoming provocatively dark. As he goes off the deep end, beating skateboarders and utilizing his tazer, he submerges into a violent anti-hero.
With bizarre monologues caught somewhere between Batman and “Taxi Driver,” Ronnie Barnhardt’s cold cry of “the world needs a hero” becomes both pathetic and disturbing.
In a movie culture where individualist superheroes have dominated the popular imagination, not to mention the box office, “Observe and Report” is daring enough to attack that image, twisting the renegade outsider into a violent and mentally unhinged person, bluntly wondering if it’s remotely possible to root for Ronnie after a certain point.
It’s in this final act that director Hill creates complexity. By undercutting so much of the bizarre humor with sharp violence, Hill is trying to force his audience to assess their laughter and wonder if and when the line between humor and masochism was crossed.
The humor lurches out of a dark psychological recess, pulled increasingly to the fore by a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the violence.
Gradually stripping its sympathy and exposing its dark side, “Observe and Report” actually provides a deeply subversive commentary on popular culture.
There are some particular moments – the resolution of an awkward date with Brandi, the film’s overlong, slow-motion climax – that are borderline brilliant, stretching their jokes in directions that breed unease before coercing nervous laughter.
The trick doesn’t always work, but Rogen is brave enough to toy with his own image and use it to create and unexpectedly demented character sketch. Though simplistic, “Observe and Report” is dark-hearted and daring comedy.