As much as I've loved ESPN's "30 For 30" series, they haven't necessarily made it easy for viewers to keep up. The series premiered in the fall and ran a pile of installments in a rush and then vanished for several months. It returned with "Winning Time," one of the franchise's best installments to date and then took another couple weeks off.
Tina Fey and Steve Carell, plus some guest stars, work hard to generate a few laughs
Because Hollywood is a silly place with a hierarchy that falsely insists that movies are superior to TV, we get movies like "Date Night."
Steve Carell and Tina Fey, talented producer-writer-stars on two of the most decorated sitcoms in recent television history, put in their seasons of working on Emmy-winning comedies on NBC and then they spend their downtime collecting paychecks and trying to add sparkle to an ultra-conventional script from one of the guys who wrote "Shrek the Third."
Watching Carell and Fey in the new film "Date Night" is like seeing a bizarre missing chapter from Lars von Trier's "The Five Obstructions." These two tremendously smart and funny talents seem to be saying, "OK. We'll spot you a flat and plot-lite script from Josh Klausner and predictably flat and lackluster direcion from Shawn Levy and we'll *still* find ways of making you laugh."
And the admirable thing is that despite throwing these creative roadblocks in front of themselves, Carell and Fey frequently succeed. Nothing in "Date Night" is even slightly memorable, but there are transitory laughs laughs aplenty courtesy of the two stars and several all-too-fleeting cameos.
[More on "Date Night" after the break...]
Fey and Carell are the Fosters, the most generic married couple in the most generic suburb in New Jersey. They have irrelevant jobs -- he's an accountant, but it doesn't matter, and she's a realtor, which barely matters -- and an irrelevant number of kids and they set aside regular date nights to go out to the same restaurant, where they get the same food and return home for sex which we can only assume is indifferent. They're not a bickering couple. They're not estranged or contemplating divorce. They love each other in a way that's sweet, boring and genuine. For around 15 minutes, the movie's about real people and both stars are delivering natural and unforced performances. Naturally, that doesn't last long.
Instead, the Fosters decide to go into The Big City for dinner at a Fancy Restaurant. For one night, they want to step outside the confines of their boring lives. In no time, thanks to a case of mistaken identity and reservation theft, they're being chased around Manhattan by a couple bad guys (Common and Jimmi Simpson) who want to kill them, going from one wacky situation to the next. With almost no room for transition, they become blockbuster action stars.
Why is any of this happening? Klausner's script almost literally doesn't care. You get the feeling that they could have staged the wackiness and then inserted a line or two of dialogue in post-production to explain who the bad guys worked for and what was on the flash drive that serves as the plot's main MacGuffin. Because there are no real stakes, no real menace and no real goal for our heroes, "Date Night" chugs along for its 88 minutes and then basically calls it quits with an abrupt and unengaging ending that couldn't have taken long to plot out.
But that's OK.
The plot hinges only on the Fosters' ability to interact with crazed Manhattanites played by recognizable stars. Mark Wahlberg pops up as a security expert and reminds us that he's has been working out, but also that he's much more effective when he's in on the joke ("The Departed," "I Heart Huckabees") than when he's playing all-too-straight in a movie that's a joke ("The Happening," "The Lovely Bones"). Mila Kunis and James Franco pop up and steal one scene as a couple who are like the funhouse mirror reflection of the Fosters. Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson is the only stunt guest star who gets to appear in more than one location, but that doesn't mean she gets to have a character or serve a purpose in the narrative. She's there because somebody saw "Midnight Run" and remembered that the only thing more fun than a chase film is a triangulated chase film.
"Midnight Run" is one of several '80s landmarks that "Date Night" seems eager to emulate (or '70s, if you want to go back to something like "The Out-of-Towners"). It's much more indebted to the urban one-nighter genre, films of variable quality ranging from "Blind Date" or "Into the Night" at one end or "Adventures in Babysitting" or "After Hours" at the other.
"After Hours," one of my favorite "I have no desire to win Oscars" Scorsese films, was all about a very specific vision of mid-80s New York dystopia and how it impacted one very nervous wannabe Yuppie. Both Griffin Dunne's character and all of the people he meets in "After Hours" are a reflection of the city at a very particular moment in its history. In contrast, "Date Night" couldn't have less to do with New York City in 2010. It's just about the least authentic looking New York City film I've ever seen and learning that Levy and company actually shot on location astounded me. "Date Night" is a 20th Century Fox film and the New York City street set on the Fox Lot on Pico would have delivered identical value at lower cost. The location is an afterthought and the relationship between the different characters and the city is similarly unengaged.
As he proved on the lifeless "Pink Panther" remake, Levy has almost no sense of how to stage a set piece for either optimal comedy or optimal action. "Date Night" has one fresh sequence, a car chase through NYC featuring two cars that are welded together front-to-front. I'm not sure it's an inspired idea, but it's definitely not one I've seen before and thanks to expert mugging from J.B. Smoove, the scene gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie, even though it's poorly shot, poorly edited and ultimately barely relates to the plot. It's been two weeks since I saw "Date Night" and that's the only action beat I remember.
Actually, I also remember the movie's climactic striptease set piece, because it proves to be everything that's both right and wrong with Levy's work. It's wrong because it's a scene that plays out flaccidly and takes far too much screentime for the laughs it delivers. It's right because it indicates, very clearly, the reason actors continue to work with Levy. He's a director who's obviously willing to give his stars nearly endless latitude.
With that room, Fey and Carell are able to find laughs even in stagnant conversations that attempt to weave monologuing on the nature of romance and marriage into madcap cases. They're able to sell lame punchlines that all feel like introductory set-ups to third act payoffs that never occur. They're likable enough that you only occasionally resent that movie is making you spent time with the Fosters rather than the more colorful supporting characters. Fey and Carell both have WGA Awards for comedy and I don't doubt that every single chuckle that I got from the script came from something they added themselves.
Both Fey and Carell's NBC comedies are having slightly down seasons. One could easily argue that "The Office" and "30 Rock" have been usurped by shows like "Modern Family" or "Parks & Recreation" or "Community" for the title of Network TV's Funniest Comedy. Even in down seasons, a typical Thursday 9 p.m. block of "The Office" and "30 Rock" delivers better writing, tighter direction and more laughs than 88 minutes of "Date Night."
I'll return to my opening point: Yes, Fey and Carell are able to do a salvage job on "Date Night," but for them this was like the Quickfire Challenge on last night's "Top Chef Masters," which forced the chefs to make a delicious dish out of ingredients found at a gas station. Sure, it's nice they can do it, but wouldn't you rather seem them both use better ingredients?
"Date Night" opens on Friday, April 9.
Daniel Fienberg and Alan Sepinwall discuss 'Lost' and 'Chuck'
Despite our claims that The Firewall & Iceberg Podcast might take a couple weeks off while Alan takes a couple weeks off, Sepinwall wasn't able to stay away this week.
That's what happens when you have "Lost" delivering one of this best episodes of the season and "Chuck" delivering its best episode of the season.
So in a short-but-sweet installment of The Firewall & Iceberg Podcast, Sepinwall and I do away with silly stuff like "American Idol" and whatever shows happen to be premiering this week and we dig right in to the meat.
Here's this week's lineup:
"Lost" -- 00:55 - 12:25
"Chuck" -- 12:30 - 17:55
"Justified" and the need for serialization -- 18:00 - 26:10
As always, you can subscribe to The Firewall & Iceberg Podcast over at the iTunes Store, where you can also rate us and comment on us. [Or you can always follow our RSS Feed.]
And here's this week's podcast...
Here's what Zachary Levi, Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz said about the pivotal episode
If you haven't watched Monday (April 5) night's "Chuck," titled "Chuck vs. the Other Guy," you may want to stop reading now.
In theory you could just read my recap, but that wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as watching the episode. After the episode, you can certainly come back and read my recap before reading this story. I'm just sayin' that if you're a "Chuck" fan, you ought to be warned that spoilers are coming.
After screening Monday's episode, the 'Chuck' team basked in Con love
On Sunday (April 4) afternoon, "Chuck" packed a WonderCon ballroom for a spirited panel that kicked off with an airing of Monday night's episode, a fairly major episode that was meant as the season finale when it looked like "Chuck" was only airing 13 episodes this season. It was subsequently extended to 19, but that doesn't mean that "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" isn't still formative.
Due to spoiler discussion and then a six-hour drive back down to Los Angeles in a downpour and limited computer batteries, my recap of the panel got delayed.
Note that I've done this in a live-blog format, but I've trimmed the segment relating to Monday's episode and I'll do a separate story on that later tonight. So the live-blog contains zero spoilers about Monday's episode, but it does contain a few teases an spoilers about upcoming guest stars and a couple very minor hints at things that will happen in the last six episodes...
Jackie Earle Haley, Thomas Dekker, Rooney Mara and the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' team hit WonderCon
So that's what the new Freddy Krueger looks like.
Fans at Saturday (April 3) afternoon's WonderCon panel for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" got the most extended look to date at Jackie Earle Haley's version of the beloved nocturnal Boogieman.
The panel wasn't accompanied by a wealth of new clips and "Nightmare" director Samuel Bayer was unexpectedly detained, but at least the audience got to watch one full-length scene and witness one of Freddy's attempted kills.
[What did we see and how did it look? And what did stars like Haley and Thomas Dekker have to say about their remake? Click through... But I'll warn you that there's at least one spoiler...]
Christopher Nolan makes a surprise appearance for his 'Dark Knight' follow-up
The early trailers have offered very narrative few hints, but a big crowd at San Francisco's WonderCon now knows exactly what Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is about.
Oh, I kid. The extended clip package introduced by Nolan himself on Saturday (April 3) afternoon certainly provided more intellectual meat for viewers to gnaw on, but if you asked me to explain the plot of "Inception" to you, I wouldn't even begin to know where to start.
[But I'll try to give a flavor for the clips after the break, plus a little background courtesy of Nolan's Q&A after the clips. Not that during the Q&A, Nolan didn't get a single question about possible franchise pics involving "Batman" or "Superman."]
Boston Rob discusses Coach, Russell, his fainting spells and why he loves 'Survivor'
For a large swath of "Survivor"-dom, Friday (April 2) morning brought little joy. Facing the rest of the season of "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" without Rob "Boston Rob" Mariano, more than a few fans are somewhere between inconsolable (possibly an extreme reaction) and severely disappointed (totally appropriate).
Still hindered by Tyson's inexplicable flip-flop elimination last week, Boston Rob was forced to turn to Jerri -- a vanquished nemesis from "Survivor: All-Stars" -- and Coach -- a slightly unstable player with delusions of nobility -- to keep his alliance together. Instead, Jerri jumped ship to Russell's alliance, while Coach cast a totally symbolic vote against Courtney, sealing Boston Rob's fate.
The game will certainly be the poorer without Boston Rob's thick Massachusetts accent, his genius with puzzles and a scheming brilliance that didn't get him the win on "Survivor: All-Stars" but laid the foundation for his girlfriend-now-wife Amber to take home the million.
HitFix caught up with Boston Rob on Friday to talk about his disappointingly truncated run and the challenges of playing pretend with Coach.
Full interview after the break...
As always, things with the 'Clerks' director got a little lewd, so proceed with caution
Having covered five or six patented Kevin Smith Q&As between WonderCon and ComicCon, there are things I know about the "Clerks" director that I don't know about my closest friends or intimates.
Spend enough time listening to Kevin Smith interact with his fans -- in these Q&As, on Twitter, through his Smodcasts -- and you're going to come away with possibly unwanted knowledge about his bathroom habits, his sex life and more. It's also hard not to come away from one of these Q&A's with a big smile, because even if you've heard the stories before -- and Smith isn't immune to recycling his material -- this is probably the man's natural habitat, his ideal milieu.
As he put it on Friday (April 2) evening, "You can't come to a Kevin Smith show and be like, 'Too much information.' It's like going to Disneyland and saying 'Too many pederasts.' It comes with the territory."
That was a tame quote. As Smith pointed out to the WonderCon faithful, the paper name placards waiting for talent on the dais typically include a warning on the back telling them that some members of the audience will be under 18 and to keep the commentary room-appropriate. Smith turned his name placard around and showed the crowd that the warning had been covered with a white sticker before he even arrived. Con organizers know that attempting to muzzle or mute or blunt Kevin Smith is as futile as attempting to make edible Kosher-for-Passover pasta.
[In that spirit, I've got some highlights from Kevin Smith's WonderCon Q&A after the break, but things get mighty blue and you probably don't want to click through if you're a sensitive sort...]
Warner Brothers TV filled a big WonderCon room on Friday
Due to low cloud cover in San Francisco -- or some similar weather excuse relating to the City by the Bay -- my arrival for the start of WonderCon was delayed by several hours. That left me a bit concerned about catching the start of Warner Brothers TV's dedicated afternoon of screenings.
Of course, even sitting in LAX or riding a Virgin America flight, the TV work never really stops. I transcribed this week's "Survivor" exit interview (posting later). I watched the next "30 For 30" sports documentary from ESPN and wrote a review. And I eavesdropped on Virgin America air hostesses making fun of The CW's "Fly Girls."
My concern at the late landing in San Francisco was missing a screening of next week's "V." However, although that new episode was on original Wonder-Con schedules, it was quietly pulled earlier this week, meaning that I rushed to the Moscone Center and ended up watching last week's episode for a second time. [It wasn't improved. This slightly revamped "V" no longer has the subtext to reward repeat viewings.]
Fortunately, WBTV had a new "Fringe," a rough cut of the "Human Target" finale and the first screening of "Ghostfacers" to present to an increasingly full (Kevin Smith was up next) WonderCon Hall.
There will be more coverage from WonderCon tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, but I thought I'd kick things off with a few words on the new episodes screened for the Con faithful.
Click through... I'm gonna keep the spoilers to an absolute minimum... Promise...
The latest film in ESPN's sports doc series isn't premiering on ESPN and it's no 'Winning Time'
The next "30 For 30 Film" isn't premiering in primetime and it isn't even premiering on ESPN. It's airing at on Saturday (April 3) afternoon on ABC as an appetizer before Final Four coverage begins on CBS. It's been programmed to coincide with the NCAA Tournament, which makes sense since its major focus is on the unlike tournament run of the Loyola Marymount Lions back in 1990. But even here, its timing is off, since ESPN already paid tribute to that team on the 20th anniversary of Hank Gathers' death, using much of the same footage and, I believe, some of the same interviews. So ESPN already scooped its own documentary last month.
Confusing timing aside, "Guru of Go" isn't one of the best of the "30 For 30" films. Directed by Emmy and Oscar winner Bill Couturie, it's a straight-forward and by-the-numbers documentary, suffering from the same topical and stylistic familiarity that made the USFL and Jimmy the Greek films also feel not-quite-worthy of the more specific, more personal, more cinematic entries in the "30 For 30" franchise.
But even the bad "30 For 30" films have their moments and "Guru of Go" is emotional and heartbreaking , if not necessarily illuminating.
[Some more thoughts on "Guru of Go" after the break...]