Thursday, May 24, 2012

The good, the bad and the Smash

Smash has ended its first season (and been renewed for a second) and so I will include spoilers here as I discuss the high and low points of the show.  I wrote about the first few episodes already here and will try not to repeat myself too much, but generally things went along much as I expected them to.  The soap opera drama carried the day over the potentially more interesting examination of what goes into the making of a Broadway musical.  Debra Messing cheated on her husband with a man from her past, the actor chosen to play Joe DiMaggio in Bombshell, and her husband found out and left her (briefly) until their teenage son got in trouble.  After the Bombshell workshop, which featured Megan Hilty as Marilyn, the producers decided to go for a big Hollywood name (played by Uma Thurman, and if she was channeling a specific real-life actress, it wasn't clear to me), though both Hilty and her rival Katherine McPhee were given roles in the chorus, with McPhee being made understudy.  On the opening night of the Boston tryout, someone spiked Thurman's smoothie with peanuts--she's allergic.  Over the objections of most of the creative team, the director (Jack Davenport) picked McPhee to go on rather than Hilty, and McPhee was a "smash," leaving Hilty in her dressing room contemplating a Monroe-like suicide with a bottle of pills.

The good:  Debra Messing and Angelica Huston (as the producer, pictured above with Davenport) continued to give the best performances, though Messing had a few too many teary scenes as her domestic drama developed.  Huston met a scruffy bartender whom she's sleeping with and who is helping to bankroll her show.  The Bombshell show numbers continued to be strong, though the single best number of the season was "A Thousand and One Nights," a Bollywood-style fantasy number performed by McPhee and featuring virtually the entire cast.  The music and costumes were fun and the number managed to comment wordlessly but effectively on almost every storyline in  the show.  After a shaky introduction, Thurman (below with McPhee) did a nice job as the obnoxious star who can't sing and tries to take over the production.  And Hilty remained strong, even as she was forced by the script to slip into the soap opera "bad girl" role--though to be fair, her character was given some sympathetic moments.

The bad:  Megan Hilty is still clearly the right choice for Marilyn, and the writers and the actor (Davenport) were unsuccessful at making us understand why the director chose McPhee for the starring role.  I appreciate McPhee's talents, though they seem limited, but her singing is almost always augmented by Auto-Tune technology to sharpen it up, whereas Hilty's big voice doesn't need gimmickry.  It feels like the writers knew the audience would be on Hilty's side, as they make Davenport's decision to use McPhee an unpopular one among the rest of the creative team.  Regardless, what should have been a sure-fire feel-good climax as McPhee plays Marilyn fell flat for me (and, according to the blogosphere, many other regular viewers as well).

They didn't seem to know what to do with McPhee's good-hearted boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) so he had a one-night stand with Hilty, and now comes news that Jaffrey will not return next season.  Christian Borle, as Messing's songwriting partner (above in the Bollywood number), comes off well acting-wise, but his personal storylines have been boring and led nowhere.  Some of the dancers have been fleshed out a bit, and I hope will continue to add color to future episodes.  I'll watch next year, but I'll be looking for more fun, and fewer pre-existing pop songs done Karaoke-style by the stars--I hope they'll use Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the writers of the Marilyn songs, more.  And I'll be waiting for Megan Hilty to get her reward.    

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Last Horror Movie

It's difficult to write meaningfully about The Cabin in the Woods, the new horror film from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, without using all kinds of spoilers.  To say that it isn't really a horror movie as much as a postmodern commentary on the horror genre, with tones of sci-fi, comedy, religion, and even Lovecraft thrown into the mix may be giving too much away, but most of the above becomes apparent to the viewer after only a few minutes into the movie.  Some critics have noted that this is the ultimate, as in last, horror movie, and while that is certainly not true, I understand the feeling: after watching this, I wondered, where else can the genre go and still move forward?

Two things are happening here (well, three things, but I can't reveal that third thing although you will find a couple of clues in this review):  1) five college students, the usual mix from shy girl to studly guy to stoned joker, head off for a weekend at an isolated cabin in the woods; 2) two white-collar guys in what looks like a small-scale Mission Control building, are observing the five all the way, from when they leave their apartments to their arrival at the cabin and beyond.  It soon becomes apparent that the two guys (and a large team of assistants) are to some degree controlling what happens to the kids.  The tone in the office is light-hearted, with bets going on as to what the kids will do and what will happen to them.  My first thought was that the kids were unwittingly either starring in a reality TV show, or participating in a secret scientific experiment, but things soon take a dark turn when zombies appear and people start dying--or do they?

And that's about all I can say about the plot mechanics.  Not only would more detail spoil the twists, it would spoil the fun.  And despite the blood and gore, this is a fun movie, though ultimately, it really isn't.  The apocalyptic tone that takes hold near the end cancels out some of the fun.  This movie is not about the actors, though they all do OK, with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins standouts as the two white-collar guys.  It's not even about the effects:  there aren't many effects in the first half, and the last half is filled with CGI, but I think the movie would have worked even with a lower budget.  It's about the ideas: about the horror genre, about human nature, about our mythologies.  And a little bit about what scares us in the dark.  The two best scenes in the movie: 1) early on, when the five kids go down into the cabin's dark basement and find, well, every possible spooky artifact that could ever set a horror movie's narrative in motion; 2) a scene near the end which I can't describe except to say it happens when a bunch of elevator doors all open at once--I was scared, I laughed, and I was in awe all at the same time, three feelings that this movie conjures up regularly.  It's not perfect--a more detailed backstory would have filled in some glaring plotholes--but it's damn fun, and a little scary, and kinda awesome.