(Video on Demand, July 2016) Five years after her breakout role in Bridesmaid, Melissa McCarthy has become an authentic movie star, to the level where she’s able to put together her own vanity projects. The Boss couldn’t be any more purely McCarthy, revolving around a character she created, co-written by her husband Ben Falcone (who also directs), and featuring her in a role that takes up most of the film. The result, on the other hand, may be too much McCarthy. While not a disaster, The Boss does feel meandering, overlong and curiously unfunny. While the structure of the script is conventional enough in a comic-underdog way, the rest of the film doesn’t come together. McCarthy’s character is unpleasant (although not as actively irritating as some of her previous roles), the jokes don’t reach for much and the surprises are few. Other players such as Kristen Bell and Peter Dinklage do their best to keep up, but this is the McCarthy show and while she’s OK as an actress, she gives herself no favours as a writer. Some bits work even then they feel familiar (such as the slow-motion girl scout fight sequence) while others just flop aimlessly. What’s unfortunate is that the McCarthy persona is fundamentally irritating, and pushing it too far ends up alienating viewers (See Identity Theft), while not taking advantage of it leads to boredom and restlessness. There’s an ideal balance to strike, but it’s not to be found in The Boss, which—at best—merely works as a run-of-the-mill comedy.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) The good thing about low-budget filmmaking is the freedom it offers to explore oddball niche topics. So it is that Knights of Badassdom is all about a sub-segment of geekdom so geeky that even other geeks often dismiss it – Live-Action Role Playing, or LARPing for short. This film is about such an event, where people dress up as fantasy characters and go hiking around the woods for a few days in an attempt to recreate the spirit of their favorite fantasy games/books/movies. Here, of course, things are complicated when a spell goes wrong and brings back a succubus into the real world. As bodies pile up, our heroes have to figure out how to vanquish their foe, and how to do so when surrounded by people convinced that it’s just another wrinkle in the game. Seemingly designed for the Comic-con crowd, Knights of Badassdom takes a few TV fan favorites (Peter Dinklage, Summer Glau, Ryan Kwanten, etc) and thrown them in the middle of a script sweetened with geeky inside jokes. To the film’s credit, much of it actually works: While the film is hampered by a small budget, it does actually understand what it’s trying to do, and delivers a few chuckles along the way. It’s too bad that the film suffers a bit from procedural blandness: in trying to combined comedy with horror, Knights of Badassdom often ends up with a compromise that won’t truly please anyone. Still, it’s a bit of a wonder to see such a niche film makes its way to cable TV, and remains accessible to people without much of an interest in the subject matter (the sequence where fight scoring is explained, with some visual aid to highlight the hits, is a good example of making the material more accessible.) It may not be much of a film, but it’s true to its goals and remains reasonably entertaining throughout.
(On Cable TV, April-June 2014) As a promise for this season of Game of Thrones, “adapting the second half of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords” couldn’t have been a more enticing prospect given the book’s sheer density of high narrative points. What we got was a bit more than that: a restructured narrative thread that mostly stuck to the book, but went cherry-picking plot threads from latter book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series in an effort to even out the pacing and even added subplots and a crucial bit of information not found anywhere in the books so far. Not that the additions were all required: simply telling the story as written was crazy enough, with plenty of role reversals, character deaths and sweeping set-pieces. As an adaptation, you can see the TV show slowly becoming its own thing, trying to keep order over the increasingly out-of-control sweep of the book series. But it’s still remaining broadly faithful to the books, enough so that fans should be pleased with the results. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headley once again steal the show as the lead actors, although new actors such as Pedro Pascal shine by fully incarnating minor characters with a great deal of skill and charm. Otherwise, it’s continuity in action, as the level of quality of the series remains constant and there are few major tonal shifts in what’s on-screen. The budgets are either getting bigger or the production team is getting better, because it seems as if the visual aspect of the show gets more impressive each season. Still, it’s the writing that remains so interesting, especially the way the screenwriters are wrestling a massive thousand-page epic into a format digestible and enjoyable by TV audiences. There’s no watching this series casually now: with the number of characters, the convoluted back-story and the multiplicity of sub-plots, it takes dedicated effort to watch Game of Thrones, and to its credit HBO isn’t even trying to dumb it down to network-TV standards. Even hitting its fourth season, Game of Thrones is more impressive than ever. Of course, the real challenge begins next year, as the adaptation hits what is widely acknowledged as the weakest/dullest book of the series, and the plot lines start venturing past what has been published to date. But it’s been a solid series so far –let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the show-runners for the rest.
(On Cable TV, April-June 2011) The first season of Game of Thrones was an astonishing adaptation of a long and complex epic fantasy novel into an easy-to-digest, well-produced, well-written ten-hours TV series. The second season may not be as groundbreaking, but it, too, manages to adapt a lengthy novel with a cast of hundreds into a fairly successful series of episodes. This time around, though, the changes from George R.R. Martin’s source text are more apparent: Sometimes for cost, sometimes for dramatic balance, sometimes to exploit the talents of the series’ actors, and sometimes to keep fans happy. The result is, despite a few noteworthy weak moments, generally successful. The War of the Five Kings is successfully brought to life despite the limited budget of the series, and the ninth episode, “Blackwater” is noteworthy for dispensing with the story’s multiplicity of subplots to focus exclusively on a spectacular military engagement. The story adds many more characters, but nearly everyone turns in some distinctive work: Peter Dinklage is up to the standards set by his Emmy-winning first-season work, but there’s also some fine work by Maisie Williams as Arya and Lena Headley as Cersei. Story-wise, many subplots hidden in the novel are shown onscreen, Arya’s travels are successfully condensed (something that led to the addition of a few gripping all-new scenes) and Theon’s inner conflicts are made more obvious while Daenerys’ time in Quarth is clumsily altered for greater dramatic suspense. These alterations to the original text are enough to keep readers engrossed in the series, even as they serve to adapt the original material on-screen. It’s unclear whether Game of Thrones will be able to juggle all of the extra subplots to be introduced in the next season, but the adaptation so far is amazingly faithful within the constraints of the production. On to Season 3!
(On Cable TV, February 2012) The fact that this ten-episode television series exists at all is remarkable: Few would have predicted that the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series could have been adaptable to the screen with any degree of faithfulness –let alone become a compulsively watchable success in the process. Featuring a credible fantasy world, continent-spanning intrigue, scores of characters, nudity, gore and complex family backstories on a TV series’ limited budget, this first season of Game of Thrones sets the stage for epic developments, keeps the essence of the book and manages to deliver a striking ten hours’ worth of entertainment in the process. Sean Bean makes for a compelling anchor as Ned Stark, a good man woefully out of his depth once thrown in the capital’s palace intrigue, but it’s Peter Dinklage who steals the show as Tyrion, perhaps the most self-aware character in a cast of a hundred. The amount of sex and violence is such that the series could only come from HBO, as is the patience through which the story is developed. The flip-side of such faithfulness to the 700-page book are a few pacing lulls, especially for viewer unwilling or impatient to piece together the slowly-developed back-story. Still, the result is worth the sit. The limits of the budget sometime show, especially in large-scale sequences, but the result on-screen still works well. The nudity, gore and sexual content often straddle the line from gratuitous to essential: It does affirm Game of Thrones‘ more adult scope, but some sequences combine nudity with exposition in ways that may be more audacious than successful. Still, the overall result is the beginning chapter of a fantasy series with scope and power. I hope ratings and DVD sales will be good enough to warrant enough latter installments to do justice to the rest of Martin’s as-of-yet-uncompleted series.