Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible” presents a great satire with a poor story

Jon Stewart dove back into politics with a splash Friday when his second film, “Irresistible,” premiered online.

The 102-minute comedy-drama — which follows a highly-contested mayoral race in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin — is classic Stewart. It’s a great editorial on the mechanics of the political system, and an even better essay on how we got to where we are today.

Unfortunately, it’s not a great story.

The movie stars Stewart’s longtime friend and coworker, Steve Carell, as Democratic politico Gary Zimmer. When Marine veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) achieves internet fame by making a heartfelt speech about immigration to his town council, Gary heads to Deerlaken to turn Hastings into the town’s first Democratic mayor in more than 50 years.

Gary’s Republican opponent, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), soon follows, kicking off a political catfight. The heart of the movie is the irony of Gary and Faith’s tactics.

“All you have is fear,” Gary says to Faith at one point.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Faith responds. “$20 bucks says that I do better with fear than you do with shame.”

In one second, Gary is a passionate idealist, and in the next, he’s ruthlessly practical. When Faith lies directly to a reporter about her hometown, Gary condemns and praises her cheap tactics in the same breath. Soon enough, even he resorts to playing dirty, encouraging Hastings to run an attack ad about the drug problem of his opponent’s brother.

“Is this politics?” asks Hastings’ daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).

“It’s just math,” Gary says. “We need what they get plus one. That’s all. And if I can’t get that by getting more people to vote for your dad, then I have to get fewer people to vote for Braun.”

For “Daily Show” junkies, the piece is a reassuring critique of U.S. politics. Stewart shows the same unhesitating courage to say things no-one wants to hear, taking on the news media and politicians alike.

The movie is filled with shocking, laugh-out-loud moments that ring all too true to viewers sick of the 24-hour news cycle. Plus, the documentary-style of filmmaking gives an eerily accurate picture of midwestern America after the 2016 election — from the boarded up shop fronts to the casual corruption of local politics.

The characters are more caricature than people, however. And even as they strengthen the satire, they weaken the overall narrative. Stewart never fully explores the love story between either Gary and Faith or Gary and Diana, simply introducing the idea to make a point.

Much of the movie feels like a set of disconnected comedy sketches about campaigning, super PACs and network news. Moments range from entirely believable — the distribution of pamphlets about birth control to a convent full of nuns — to absurd — the entrance of ancient billionaire Elton Chambers.

The film ends on a hopeful note, with Jack and Diana Hastings tricking two national political parties out of millions of dollars, which is then used to rebuild a local school. Of course, it then immediately undermines that ending, speeding through three confusing vignettes that leave the audience wondering what’s real and what’s not.

There are seeds of greatness in the film. Moments that could have grown into a moving experience. The lesson to be learned is that you should never give one person complete creative control over a project, no matter how talented he is. With Stewart in complete control of production, the movie becomes an extended segment of “The Daily Show” rather than a Hollywood hit.

Disney produces another disappointment in “Artemis Fowl”

In a feat of filmmaking, Disney has once again managed to destroy a childhood classic.

The movie adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s young adult fantasy novel “Artemis Fowl” has been a long time coming. Beloved by millions, the action-packed, hi-tech story of a criminal prodigy and his encounters with the fairy world seemed perfectly suited for the big screen.

In true Hollywood fashion, however, producers have managed to eliminate any scraps of humor, intelligence or emotion in the plot.

In a bizarre combination of the first two books in the series, a straightforward kidnapping scheme is transformed into a melodramatic conspiracy to control a power source called “The Aculos.”

In the nonsensical race to find the ambiguous weapon, small moments of suspense and conflict vanish. The cliched setup is completed by a few heavy-handed lines of exposition, outlining how The Aculos could be used to destroy life as we know it.

In an effort to make Artemis more likeable, his cold, calculating intelligence is replaced with a wide-eyed, childlike innocence that undermines the entire plot.

Instead of being the mastermind behind an elaborate money-making scheme, Artemis is turned into a helpless child who relies on his father’s guidance. His character seems to drift through in the story with no clear motivation, having no impact on its ultimate outcome.

His transformation from antihero to hero also eliminates all potential for emotional growth or change.

In the next item on the Disney checklist, sociopath Opal Koboi becomes a cookie-cutter villain. A dark, hooded figure with a modified voice, her presence is an invitation to a sequel viewers can only pray will never come to pass.

The most colorful character on screen, kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggums, is reduced to narrator, filling wide shots of Ireland and Haven City with inane declarations that just take up time.

In the end, despite the stunning images of the fairy underworld, Disney somehow manages to take the magic out of magic.

And although a 2018 trailer for the film hints at a powerful environmental theme — lifted from the books — we can only presume any scenes of genuine quality or believable dialogue were left on the cutting room floor.

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)

Fun: 5/5
Fame: 2/5
Critical Acclaim: 4/5

Birds of Prey the Harley Quinn-centered, R-rated superhero flick — seemed like a good investment. The studio had a lot of reasons to think the movie would do well after the success of Deadpool and Wonder Woman. So why wasn’t it a box office smash? 

You got me.

Birds of Prey fell far short of box office expectations, making only $33 million domestically on opening weekend. When I saw the movie the day it came out, I was mystified at the half-empty theater. Aside from the popularity of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, there’s been a recent drive toward female-directed films.

“Surely,” I thought, “even if the seats aren’t filled today, word will spread. People will be lining up to see this edgy, empowering film.”

Maybe it was a lack of buzz or failure to market to the college student population, but regardless, moviegoers are missing out. Birds of Prey is a hilarious, action-packed romp through the confusion, ambition and emotion of your early 20s.

Harley, a larger-than-life character, inhabits an extraordinary world of villains and heroes. The plot  is driven by the fact that crime and violence are around every corner, but even in Gotham City, Harley faces problems that are uniquely female. Throughout the movie, she and her cohort of superheroes struggle with issues recognizable to everyday women.

The first 20 minutes of the movie show the fallout of Harley’s breakup with the Joker. She goes through stages of grief every woman can relate to — binge-eating ice cream, adopting a new pet and even raining down fire and destruction on her ex’s life. 

Later, Harley’s troubles become more complex. She’s assaulted in a club after getting drunk. She tries and fails to be a role model to pseudo-daughter Cassandra Cain, attempting to take care of the girl while also dealing with her own issues. 

Other characters deal with different struggles. Detective Renee Montoya is capable but dismissed by her colleagues. Black Canary is seen as a woman first and person second, valued more for feminine qualities like appearance and singing ability than fighting skills. 

In the end, the characters break down each of these obstacles like they’re kicking in a locked door. The physical beating they give their opponents represents victory over more existential problems. And it all unfolds to a kick-ass soundtrack. 

From the costume design to a guest appearance by Ali Wong, I give this movie 10s across the board. But unless people start buying tickets, we won’t see another film like it. 

A blind review of burgeoning Broadway hit “Six the Musical”

“Six the Musical,” a tried-and-tested West End hit, will undoubtedly be the must-see show of this season — especially after the success of another British import (“Ferryman”) in 2019.

But while the energetic pop score puts a twist on the story of Henry VIII’s six ex-wives, it doesn’t have the staying power of shows like “Hamilton” or “Hadestown.”

“Six” walks a dangerous line between producing something original and riding the wave of Broadway trends. I can’t help but think it’s attempting to create box office success with modern music and unnecessary references to pop culture.

In the Broadway monarchy, music is king (or queen). And while the “Six” score has many strong numbers that grab the audience — like the edgy opening “Ex-Wives” and “Get Down,” a driving anthem to the 1% lifestyle — others are forgettable.

Weaker numbers like “No Way” and “Don’t Lose Ur Head” are static, spending too much time on historical detail. The music is well-composed — a toe-tapping mix of disco, techno and pop — but there are too many songs that don’t build the story.

The score also embraces my personal pet peeve: use of what adults think is popular teen lingo. Words like “epic fail,” “totes” and “unfriended” appear a lot.

The real problem, though, is that these powerful, interesting female characters are reduced to shallow high-schoolers singing about their boyfriends. The women ultimately band together and find empowerment in “I Don’t Need Your Love” and “Six,” but the ending assumes the audience hasn’t already learned that lesson.

With the prevalence of the MeToo movement and a renewed focus on female-centered stories, I’d rather see a show that delves into the women’s social circumstances and their struggle to form an identity outside of “wife,” a la “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

“Six” explores what the wives feel and experience, but tends to sugarcoat it. This is especially frustrating when you see the musical’s true potential in songs like “All You Wanna Do,” a blunt exploration of abusive male-female relationships.

In a male-dominated media landscape, I could definitely do with “five more minutes” of music about who the wives were outside Henry VIII.

“Timeless”

Keep an eye on Eric Kripke’s new time-travel series coming to NBC this fall! Unless the other time-travel series’ sharing that timeslot are being made by Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams, I’m betting on the creator of Supernatural‘s show to win the ratings.

‘Supernatural’ Mid-Season Finale Does Not Bode Well for the Show’s Future

I’m not gonna lie, the eleventh season of Supernatural has been more than a little rocky so far, with the writers and creators missing the mark as often as they’ve been hitting it. Though they seem, thankfully, to be trying to get back to the basics, making each episode it’s own little monster-hunting story a la seasons 1 and 2, the show’s been tired, played-out and laughably ludicrous (Episode 7, Plush) as often as it’s been smart, funny and wonderfully engaging (Episode 4, Baby).

It seems to have lost it’s uniquely Supernatural touch of self-aware irony, along with any talent it once had for making epic, apocalypse-scale stories seem reasonable and relatable. So Supernatural really needed pull out all the stops for the mid-season finale, if for no other reason than to reassure viewers that there was still something in the show worth sticking around for.

Unfortunately, they failed.

For an episode that was supposed to offer us at least a few answers to some of our more pressing as-yet-unanswered questions, the 9th episode of the eleventh season of Supernatural, O Brother Where Art Thou?, gave us depressingly little in the way of useful plot points.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with keeping the audience in the dark. Suspense is television’s bread and butter. But in order for suspense to work, it has to be accompanied by action. For every hint you’re dropping that something interesting is gonna happen in the future, there needs something interesting happening now. Otherwise it’s just a 45-minute trailer that no one wants to have to sit through.

Sure, there were some bright, witty moments with the return of our two favorite supporting characters, Rowena and Crowley, but for the most part this episode was slow, passive, and over-dramatic. Most of the dialogue is pointless meandering that leads nowhere, with the exchanges between Dean and the Darkness coming off bewildering, unmotivated romance rather than prompting the audience to ask about the nature of their relationship. I can only hope that the writers intend to clarify that particular “bond” in the future because seriously, vague, inscrutable hints about destiny are really not doing it for me right now.

The two threads of plot that the mid-season finale actually manages to pick up—the idea of the minions of Heaven and Hell standing united against the Darkness, and the question of who has been sending Sam visions—are based on things that happened so long ago in the season that we need reminding of why we care with flashbacks to the initial set-ups for these storylines.

Even then, Dean and Sam’s conversations about the meaning of Sam’s visions, who’s been sending them, and what they should do about it have become stale by now. The stakes are too repetitive for us to understand how high they really are: we’ve already heard about what might happen if Rowena escapes with the Book of the Damned (hint: it’s nothing), what might happen if Crowley betrays the Winchesters (which he’ll never do), and what will happen if Dean finds out what Sam’s planning (a lot of yelling).

I didn’t dislike this episode, despite the fact that the music Supernatural uses during Sam’s scenes with Lucifer make me want to tear my hair out. Mark Pellegrino (Lucifer) does some great acting, I still love Rowena, and I’m eager to see what’s next.

There are hints of greatness everywhere—in a line here or there, in a plot point that’s not developed fully…but despite the fact that I think the basic plot of this episode does have some integrity, the execution of the ideas was actually pitiable. As much as it pains me to say this as a fan, I can’t say I’m looking forward to the season finale.

“Joy” Trailer

Christmas movie of the year folks! And I have to say, I am pretty damn excited. This trailer bodes well, though I’m still dying to see Jennifer Lawrence in something directed by someone who is not David Russel. Not because David Russell doesn’t seem like a wonderful director, but because Jennifer Lawrence is an incredibly versatile actor. I want to see her push her limits. Work with someone else, see what happens.

“Hamilton:” EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION

Ok, guys, buckle up. Tickets for next year’s “Best Musical” Tony Award Winner are going fast, so you need to get them NOW.

Don’t worry, it’s not even a slightly bold prediction. “Hamilton” is going to be the next major 2016 Tony Award winner. Writer, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to be giving several (I’m guessing at least 3) acceptance speeches, late in the evening on June 5th. Yeah, he’s gonna be up there more than once. I’m guessing Best Musical, possibly Best Performance by an Actor/Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, if he doesn’t get beat out by Leslie Odom Jr., which is very possible, and definitely Best Original Score.

Phillipa Soo, who plays Elizabeth, Hamilton’s wife, is probably also going to be up for Best Actress in a Lead Role in a Musical, though I’d rather she was up for Best Actress in a Featured Role. In any case, I actually like Renee Elise Goldsberry a lot better, who plays Angelica in the musical. To my mind, she definitely deserves Best Actress in a Featured Role, more than Phillipa Soo or anyone else.

Regardless of it’s (amazing) Tony prospects, “Hamilton” is a great musical. The music is all hip-hop, and underneath the American history, immediate dramatic conflict, and compelling romance and political fights that play out on stage, there is incredible contemporary relevance and meaning. Themes of immigration, subculture, youthful arrogance and talent, and the American Dream pop out with vibrance that shines a light on some conversations we should definitely be having. The soundtrack is available on YouTube. For free. So go and listen to it already.

On a different note, the music itself is a unique mix of classical musical theater and rap. Extremely addictive and beautifully crafted, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Lin-Manuel Miranda has more than earned his place among his peers as a rap artist and composer. And every now and then (by which I mean throughout the entire soundtrack), you can see his passion for American history, precise legal language . Each song is a surprise that you can’t stop listening too: sometimes straight-up rap (with appropriate profanity, rap battles between two diametrically opposed characters, accompanying beats and sound effects); sometimes soaring ballads sung by the talented female leads; and sometimes ensemble pieces, that are a mix of both. Trust me when I say you’ve never heard anything like this before.

#1 on Broadway.com right now, tickets are sold out into the New Year, and effectively into April, as the only tickets available until then are resale. These can cost anywhere from $300 (at their cheapest), to $2500 (for front row orchestra seats). Also, there are NO weekend evening show tickets until June, so if you do go to see a weekend show, it will be matinee with understudy Javier Mandoz. Not that he’s not probably awesome, but if I’m gonna travel to New York and bribe my friend with pie to stay at his apartment, I pay to see the original cast. And you should too.

My point is, people: buy your tickets now. Because after June 5th, tickets are gonna be gone so fast it’ll make your head spin. And the original cast is NOT going to be around forever. Right now, if you want a remotely affordable price, you have to buy at least six months in advance.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”

After watching Josie Rourke’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, (starring David Tennant and Katherine Tate), and then David Tennant’s Hamlet (Gregory Duran, 2009), and then buying tickets for Tennant’s Richard II in London (I’m a fan of David Tennant, you may be able to tell) I end up where I always seem to end up after marathoning Shakespeare–with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Honestly, I think I may love this play even more than Hamlet. And I love Hamlet a lot.

Hands down the best production of this play ever made was actually made available to the public in 1990, and, through some insane and wonderful twist of fate, was preserved on film for all eternity. So that even those poor people who were born 4 years after the production was originally aired can still see it– and still wonder at how beautifully funny and simultaneously poignant it is. Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, is the best play I have seen and probably ever will see in that, while funny, it also transports you to another world–your own. The world of your mind.

While watching these two characters muse about onscreen, one begins to think about one’s own life, one’s own “play.” And then all of a sudden, the humor of such absurd wonderings is pointed out to you, and the futileness of trying to “discover” what life is about is made to be laughed at. This is one play everyone in his life should see at least three times, and, because we on Earth are just that lucky, one can actually go watch this performance whenever one wants. In a travesty of judgement, it’s actually been taken down from Netflix, but it’s still on DVD and online. So do yourself a favor and go discover what life is! To peak your interest (hopefully) and to give you a heretofore unforeseen-by-me peek at what this play is, I give you my absolute favorite monologue from the piece as performed by Benedict Cumberbatch. You’re welcome.

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365178493

White Collar

Fun: 4/5

Fame: 3/5

Critical Acclaim: 4/5

As the only one on this blog who has seen the entirety of “White Collar,” I was begged to write this scintillating review. “No one knows this TV show like you do, Sam,” they said. “We’ll be lost without you.” …OK, so it might have gone more like this: “We need someone to write about White Collar. Hey, Sam, you actually watched the last season, go do it. Don’t make it too long.” And…since I’ve already wasted too much time making you read this introduction, let’s go to it.

“White Collar,” a TV show characterized by the New York Times as “a winsome, quick-paced caper that is part “Catch Me if You Can,” part “Shampoo,” is surprisingly fresh despite being centered around the lives of its seemingly cliched characters: gentleman thief Neal Caffrey and stoic FBI agent Peter Burke. Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and Burke (Tim DeKay) may seem like mere television tropes at first, but are quickly revealed to be more complex than one might have assumed at first glance. Caffrey is certainly as handsome, charming, intelligent, and squeamish about violence as you might expect him to be, but he has also been irrefutably caught–first arrested for bond forgery and later released to work for the FBI under close, close supervision. As a result, he is at times angry, insecure, and desperate, the stark opposite of the expert cat burglar who is always one step ahead. Burke adheres to type as well, as the upstanding workaholic cop who despises playing politics and can crack the cases that no one else can–but we are told he began his career as a glorified accountant, working financial fraud cases rather than walking a beat on the streets, and he remains happily married through all six seasons of late-night stake-outs and dangerous undercover ops, unlike many of his fellow TV cops.

These individual traits certainly drew my attention when I first began watching the show, but what really makes these characters, and thus the show, unique is their relationship to each other. The writers pull off quite a balancing act: Caffrey and Burke influence each other, but not too much. They are changed due to their partnership, but not enough to abandon their fundamental principles, leaving them free to keep challenging each other in interesting ways. For example, Burke becomes willing to turn a blind eye to Caffrey’s pickpocketing and other petty crime, as long as it gains them a clue they couldn’t have picked up any other way. Caffrey begins to distance himself from all but the closest criminal contacts, and second-guesses engaging in more serious crime out of fear of what Burke might think of him.

Each new situation they encounter raises the question of how far each is willing to extend his trust–and with these men, both of whom have a lifetime of reasons to distrust each other, the situations become complicated very fast. The classic cat-and-mouse game between criminal and cop plays out between them in microcosm, as each decides whether to fall back on his adversarial instincts to outmaneuver the other, or whether to try and bridge the divide by being honest with themselves and each other.

WHITE COLLAR --
WHITE COLLAR — “Promo” — Pictured: (l-r) Tiffani Thiessen as Elizabeth Burke, Tim DeKay as Peter Burke, Matthew Bomer as Neal Caffrey — USA Network Photo: David Giesbrecht

Add a plethora of well-developed supporting characters to this intriguing and tumultuous central relationship (Tiffany Thiessen’s Elizabeth Burke, Willie Garson’s Mozzie, etc.), and at its best moments, the show is as captivating as it is witty and charming. At its worst, its characters revert to fulfilling functions to move the story along, regardless of previous character development: Neal suddenly demonstrates a facility with firearms in the Season 1 episode “Hard Sell” for instance, to rachet up the tension between him and Peter. Along the same vein, junior agents Diana Berrigan (Marsha Thompson) and Clinton Jones (Sharif Atkins) sometimes become simple dispensers of vital leads whenever one is needed, rather than actual people.

Despite this, White Collar’s season long story arcs are reliably well-established and well-explored, and true to the show’s conman theme, one can hardly ever accurately predict the end game–making for some thrilling developments just at the moment they are least expected.

"Fiction holds a mirror to reality."