Where Credit Is Due

I hated "Spider-Man." The cornball script, the lame special effects, Willem Dafoe--all of it. What irked me the most about "Spider-Man," though, was how much everyone else seemed to love it.

Ordinarily, I'D stick to my guns. I've always rejected the old saw that a million people can't be wrong. But 70 million? Hmm. I'm pretty sure that 70 million people cannot, in fact, be wrong. So why don't we compromise? If "Spider-Man" wasn't terrible, it was, at the very least, overrated. (Fifth biggest movie of all time? Come on.) In fact, let's play the overrated/underrated game. So far, you've got my pick for the most overrated movie of the year. I owe you an underrated pick, which I'll save for the end, all dramaticlike, so you'll run right out and buy the DVD. In between, here are a few more for the year 2002.

TELEVISION DRAMA

Normally I don't begrudge anyone their cult obsessions. But this drably written, woodenly acted show gets an Emmy nomination every darn year for best drama series, and that's going too far. I've watched "L&O" many times--my roommate and my girlfriend are fans--and I can appreciate its strength: each week you can count on a taut little mystery with a whiff of cultural relevance. ("Ripped from the headlines!") But there aren't any real people on the show--except maybe Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy, who's a self-righteous jerk and gives the same speech every episode--and the acting is often painful. Elisabeth Rohm, the latest in a string of pretty foils for Waterston, sounds like a porn actress reading Black's Law Dictionary. Yup, bring on the hate mail. I'm ready.

Underrated: 'The Wire' (HBO)

I love this show so much that I wrote a 3,000-word tome about it a few months ago and then cut it in half so my editor wouldn't go into cardiac arrest. Here's a show that, like "Law & Order," is positively soaking in the world of cops, bad guys and the bureaucracy of our criminal-justice system--and yet the two couldn't be more different. "The Wire" has a sense of milieu, a crackling voice and at least a dozen knockout actors. Of course, the first season came and went with little fanfare. But thank goodness for HBO, because it'll be back this year for one simple reason: it's a great frickin' show.

TELEVISION SITCOM

I'll go to the mat for the brave, hilarious Cynthia Nixon (Miranda), but this once-trailblazing show has just about run out of gas. The low point in the dreary fifth season was a shrill, snotty episode in which Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) took an Amtrak cross-country, dreaming of a romantic, 1940s-era getaway with handsome strangers. Instead, they spent three days packed into musty sleeper cars with fanny-packers and Atkins dieters. The poor things. The "Sex" girls have always been deliciously shallow, but in a way that reminded people of why they love New York. This episode reminded people of why they hate it.

A doctor friend of mine claims that this show--which manages to be both sweetly and wickedly funny in every episode--is a more accurate portrayal of life in a hospital than its NBC cohort, the mighty "ER." That makes sense to me, because the nutty residents on "Scrubs" screw up more often than they save the day. They also make no money, like real residents, so, in one episode, a main character tries to sneak out of the hospital with a cartload of pudding cups. An all-around terrific cast is led by the deadpan John G. McGinley as the snarling Dr. Cox, whose withering, uproarious insults make the drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket" look like an afternoon nanny.

MISCELLANEOUS NO. 1

In his charming new book of essays about beloved pop tunes, titled "Songbook," Nick Hornby writes hilariously of a great discovery he made as a young adult: when you're at a concert, or a play, or a movie and you're bored, or unhappy or dismayed by what you're seeing ... you can leave! Since I'm a coward, I can count on two fingers the number of times I've actually done this. But Hornby has emboldened me to do it more. I really wish I'd walked out of "Auto Focus," the dreary Greg Kinnear film about Bob Crane, the murdered, sex-addicted "Hogan's Heroes" star. My colleague David Ansen raved about the movie, made many fine critical points about it, all of which I'm sure are correct. That doesn't change the fact that watching it made me miserable and I would've been better off walking out as soon as it became clear that wasn't going to change.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'm too much of a wimp. If you aren't, know that you have my enduring respect. And envy.

MISCELLANEOUS NO. 2

"Treasure Planet"--ouch. Did you know that movie cost more than $100 million to make? Good grief. What a disaster. Actually, though, I'm assigning "overrated" status on the basis of the whole tradition of Disney films: all those beloved, time-honored fairy tales taken by Disney, stripped of their darker elements and dropped like kiddie narcotics into theaters. Boo.

This my chance to plug "Spirited Away," the best movie I saw in 2002, hands down, animated or otherwise. Disney can release a dozen "Treasure Planets" a year (although I think zero would be just fine with them) so long as they keep bringing movies like Hayao Miyazaki's breathtaking, instant classic to U.S. theaters. This fever dream of a movie, about a timid young girl who discovers her courage when she accidentally stumbles into a spirit world, flat-out blew me away. In Japan, "Spirited Away" is a smash hit, adored by adults and kids. That it would puzzle and terrify American children says something sad about the simple-minded junk our culture feeds them.

MISCELLANEOUS NO. 3

At this point in our culture, gay characters have become so ubiquitous on TV (and in film) that their mere existence has ceased to be socially influential or, by itself, interesting. Don't get me wrong, some of my favorite characters are gay. (Ha.) But it isn't progress anymore to simply be gay on TV and have no fuss made about it.

Most annoying to me is how TV writers seem to go out of their way to portray same-sex relationships as unfailingly sturdy and affectionate. As if gay people never break up. It's actually funny: On TV, gays aren't "just like the rest of us"--they're better than the rest of us! And if you ask me, that's condescending--to gay people. Which is why I'm so thankful for HBO's "Six Feet Under" and its depiction of the crumbling relationship between David (Michael C. Hall) and Keith (Matthew St. Patrick). It's about two real people whose diverging needs--David still believes his sexuality makes him a bad person; Keith's family troubles are causing him to strike out violently in his work as an L.A. cop--are ripping them apart. It's heart-wrenching to watch, and an important lesson in art-as-activism: you make progress by being honest.

ALBUM

I love Beck, and I actually like "Sea Change," especially the bummed-out "Lost Cause" and "Paper Tiger" once the string section kicks in. But the CD overall just isn't that tuneful, the lyrics not that memorable. The fact that it graced the high end of so many critics' lists says far more about music critics than it does about "Sea Change." Music critics, contrarian as they often are, have a pack mentality when it comes to anointing genius. (A similar thing happened to Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind" a few years back.) Sometimes they're right ... and sometimes they're just pretending to be smarter than everyone else.

Granted, my feelings here might derive from the fact that singer Chris Martin and I have exactly the same vocal range, meaning I can sing every note of this CD at the top of my lungs when I'm driving alone. (Martin, it must be said, sounds a bit better.) Unlike their smash-hit debut, Coldplay's second CD doesn't have one standout, glorious anthem like "Yellow." But song for song, "Rush of Blood" is much better. Martin is a wild songwriter--"Politik," with its crashing strings-and-piano opener, is particularly inventive--and as a frontman, he has magical timing, always tiptoeing ahead of or behind the beat. He's a real vocalist, not just the guy who sings the words. Critics raved about this CD then ignored it on their top 10s. Too bad. This is the album of the year.

JUST FOR FUN, BRITISH KNIGHTS

Hannibal Lecter is a fabulous creation--probably cinema's most famous movie murderer. And he was wonderful in either "Howards End" or "The Remains of the Day." I forget which. The one where he was the butler. Wait, was he a butler in both? Anyway. The point is, three big roles does not a Sir make. And ask yourself this: do you think the guy below would be caught dead in "Bad Company"?

Now this is a British knight. As great as the first "Lord of the Rings" was in its own right, McKellen was the glue. Just listen to the guy say "Mordor"--the way he rolls that first "r" and breaks the word into two pieces, so that it sounds like somewhere you'd absolutely never wanna go. Gives me chills. As for the rest of his career, well, he may not have a Hannibal Lecter on his resume, but that's hardly his fault. What he does have is about a dozen performances--"Richard III" (1993) and "Gods and Monsters" (1998) are my favorites--that were unforgettable to anybody who saw them. Word is he'll replace the deceased Richard Harris in the Harry Potter series. Perfect choice. McKellen's probably the only actor on the planet qualified to fill Harris's shoes.

AND FINALLY

The most underrated movie of the year: 'About a Boy'

It did snag a Golden Globe nomination for best picture in the "musical or comedy" category--but so did "Nicholas Nickleby." It's a tough category to fill. This pitch-perfect movie, from the directors of "American Pie" of all people, is the most underrated because it got such a raw deal at the box office. Very few films these days are worth $10; I would've told friends to pay $20 for this gem. Heartbreaking but never phony, hilarious but never cheap, smart but never too smart--our man Ansen said it best when he wrote that this was a movie he didn't want to end. Me neither.

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