Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Arrested Development - season four [television review]

All 15 episodes from season four released in May on Netflix

The resurrection of Arrested Development for a fourth season easily ranks as the most disappointing television viewing experience this reviewer has ever had. The fast-paced and edgy comedy, which I had considered the funniest TV show I'd ever seen next to Seinfeld, premiered on Fox in 2003 and received huge critical acclaim, but garnered anemic ratings and was cancelled after three seasons. Fox's mismanagement of the show didn't help matters - they infamously burned off the final four episodes of it opposite the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. A loyal post-cancellation following cultivated by DVD sales and streaming services gave show creator Mitchell Hurwitz the traction to bring back all of the original cast members for 15 new episodes, which were released simultaneously in May on Netflix. Sadly, season four falls astonishingly short of the admittedly ridiculously high bar that was established during Arrested Development's initial run.

Freed up from network TV constraints, Hurwitz and his writers take the unconventional approach of structuring each episode around one principal character, with each episode running longer than the traditional 22 minute format at anywhere from 28 to 37 minutes (commercial free, of course). I'm the first to bemoan the dumbing down of TV these days, but the ambitious and unorthodox story structure utilized here, while an intriguing idea, simply fails to work. And those extended running times just make the whole thing not work for that much longer. Arrested Development's previous biggest strength was the interplay and chemistry between its outstanding large ensemble cast (which is second-to-none in TV comedy history, in my opinion) and although everyone may be back, that crucial element is drastically cut back during season four. Main characters Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman), his son George Michael (played by Michael Cera), his mother Lucille (played by Jessica Walter), his father George Sr. (played by Jeffrey Tambor), his brothers Buster (played by Tony Hale) and Gob (played by Will Arnett), his sister Lindsay (played by Portia de Rossi), Lindsay's husband Tobias (played by David Cross), and their daughter Maeby (played by Alia Shawkat) don't get nearly enough interaction with each other. Long stretches pass with distracting absences from some of the main actors, with the storylines relying far too much instead on contributions from lame new characters like Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as a younger George Sr. and Lucille, comedian Maria Bamford as an addict, Isla Fisher as the object of Michael's affection, and Chris Diamantopoulos as a character with a facial recognition disorder. There's also an overreliance on a number of returning supporting players, including characters played by Liza Minnelli, Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller, James Lipton, Carl Weathers, and Henry Winkler. Ron Howard, one of the show's executive producers and its narrator, is also overused in appearances playing himself as a producer on a film about the Bluth family, one of the many storylines that never achieve liftoff. Other main plots involving a shady land deal orchestrated by George Sr., the marital strife between Lucille and George Sr., the mounting of a Fantastic Four musical, and an app designed by George Michael are even more labyrinthian and complex than the elaborate storylines used during seasons 1-3, but it all just feels far too convoluted and doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff when the plotlines eventually intersect and provide some much-needed clarity. 

Fresh off a repeat marathon viewing of all 53 episodes from Arrested Development's brilliant first three seasons on DVD prior to watching season four, it was probably inevitable that a letdown with the revived show was to follow. Even with lowered expectations, though, I was completely unprepared for just how much of its mojo the show would lose. At one point during season four, I was conscious that I had laughed maybe twice over the entirety of three episodes, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a single episode from seasons 1-3 that didn't have me laughing at least a half dozen times. By the midway point of the latest season, as it became clearer and clearer that the comedy was not going to right itself from its protracted stumble, I resigned myself to the fact that the show's sterling legacy had been tainted. I continued watching right through the 15th episode, but more out of sheer fanboy obligation than anything else. Frankly, I couldn't wait for the last car in this trainwreck to finally come to a merciful stop. 

Rating: D    

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Metallica Through The Never [film review]

Released theatrically in September

The last time Metallica ventured into feature film territory, it was with 2003's brilliant Some Kind Of Monster, which documented the near-implosion of metal's biggest act amidst the chaos of personality clashes between band members and the substance abuse problems of lead singer James Hetfield. This time around, chaos remains very much a dominant theme in Metallica Through The Never, the band's new IMAX 3-D feature directed by Nimr√≥d Antal that had its world premiere last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Metallica Through The Never's first week of release saw it play exclusively on every IMAX screen in North America before expanding wider to regular theatres, which had never been done before.

Metallica has a lengthy track record of taking creative risks, with some turning out very good (their 1999 live collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony documented on the S & M album/DVD) and others not so much (2011's jawdroppingly crap Lulu album with Lou Reed; read my scathing review of it here). Metallica Through The Never isn't a Lulu-sized gamble, but it is one nonetheless, given the poor commercial track record of theatrical releases from rock acts over the decades and the film's ambitious structure of combining Metallica playing live with a fictional narrative. Drummer Lars Ulrich stated earlier this year that the project took some inspiration from Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same film and that immediately raised my eyebrow. I love Zeppelin and all, but that movie and its bizarre fantasy sequences woven around an unremarkable live performance from the group was nothing more than a pretentious bore, as far as I'm concerned. Sure enough, the flimsy narrative element of Metallica Through The Never ends up dragging the film down, resulting in an uneven cinematic experience that is only redeemed by Metallica's live portions.

The weak plot, conceived by Antal and the band (rounded out by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo) draws partially from Metallica's lyrics and revolves around a roadie named Trip (played by Dane DeHaan from Chronicle and the next two Amazing Spider-Man movies) who is sent off on a mission during a Metallica concert to retrieve a truck that has run out of gas. Inside that truck is a mysterious bag that somehow is of great importance to the group. Perhaps, as in KISS' classic KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park 70s TV movie, that bag holds a box containing the talismans that give the band members their special powers? Well, probably not, but maybe that'd explain Hetfield's superhuman rhythm guitar skills. What is definite is that the idea is ripped off from Pulp Fiction's mysterious briefcase. Trip's largely-narrative-free mission takes him through numerous surreal scenarios set in a mostly-deserted post-apocalyptic downtown Vancouver occupied by anarchists, riot police, zombies, and masked horsemen. Not much of it works, frankly. The only time the coupling between the band playing and the story unfolding really feels right is during a riot scene interwoven with a performance of "Cyanide". Hell, even Ulrich himself admits here that "I've spent three years working on this movie and I don't have any idea what it means." If the guy who helped write the script is admitting that then the rest of us are pretty much screwed, too, no?

What does work, and quite well, are Metallica's live performances, shot specifically for the film with 24 cameras over five nights in Vancouver and Edmonton a couple of summers ago. Their huge stage occupies most of the arena floor area and employs specially rigged effects and props that reference classic Metallica iconography. Ulrich fittingly refers to the elaborate and versatile setup as the "Swiss Army knife of stages", as white crosses pop up from beneath the stage, an electric chair with real bolts of electricity shooting from Tesla coils descends from the lighting rig, a collapsible statue of Lady Justice is assembled by stagehands as the band plays around them, and the hanging coffins from the most recent World Magnetic Tour display creepy visuals of people trapped inside them. The stage floor, which is covered by video screen panels, is innovative, but not quite used to optimum effect, other than the impressive visuals of flowing blood that "wash over" the stage during opening song "Creeping Death". I really wasn't blown away by how the 3-D was used in conjunction with the staging or the rest of the content in the movie, especially considering the pre-release hype about how much effort had been made to maximize the film's 3-D effects.

The band runs through a mostly-greatest hits setlist that includes live staples "For Whom The Bell Tolls", "Fuel", "One", "Master Of Puppets", "Enter Sandman", "Wherever I May Roam", and "Nothing Else Matters", while relatively less obvious songs like "Ride The Lightning", "...And Justice For All", "Hit The Lights", and an unexpected and first-rate version of the obscure instrumental "Orion" over the end credits with the band seated and playing in an empty arena also make an appearance. That old school Metallica fan who thinks they've sucked since 1991's Black Album came out would undoubtedly disagree, but to this longtime fan's ears the band has never played better than they're playing at this point of their career and Metallica Through The Never does a superb job of capturing that. And praise be to Antal and editor Joe Hutshing for giving Metallica fans a filmed concert production that doesn't overload the viewer with rapid-fire video editing, unlike their other recent slew of home video releases. 

So while the narrative component is disjointed and a slightly annoying interruption between scenes of Metallica doing what they do best, as well as those live portions not being quite as immersive as the experience I had watching U2's spectacular U23D live film, Metallica Through The Never is still a must-see for fans. Between the big screen presentation, phenomenal sound mix, and a properly loud volume level, it's unquestionably the next best thing to attending an actual Metallica show. 

Rating: B

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: December 2009 review of Metallica's Francais Pour Une Nuit DVD, March 2012 review of their Beyond Magnetic EP, and my review from March of the band's Quebec Magnetic Blu-ray