Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Forget TV Guide, it's Danny's FALL TV PREVIEW

What's up?

So I realize my last few blog entries have sucked. And I sincerely apologize. I think it's a mix of lack of eventfull stuff to talk about and increasing anxiety that too many people out there are now reading the blog, be they at work, at home, whatever. For example, one thing I've been wanting to do for a long while is a Fall TV Preview. I've seen virtually every new pilot, and of course, have strong opinions on which shows are going to be worth checking out. Now, I decided that I am just going to go ahead and do this thing. The lucky thing for me is that, honestly, I don't have anything too negative to say about NBC's Fall lineup. In fact, I am legitimately psyched for our shows and feel that all four of our new fall dramas are really good and among some of the best on TV. Not only that, but as you'll soon see, CHUCK is probably my favorite overall new show of the fall. So without further ado:


Part 1: The MUST-SEE shows of Fall.

- To me, the best thing about this fall in terms of TV is that the nets seem to be willing, to a degree, to try something DIFFERENT. Sure, we still have cops, teens, detectives, doctors, and desperate suburbanites, but we also have ideas that in the past would only be looked at as suitable for feature films making their way to television. To me, HEROES was a big game-changer in that respect. For years, the common thought process was: "well, superheroes work on the big screen, but not on TV." Heroes is one of the first TV shows in a long while that brought the pop-culture zeitgeist to TV and made a hit out of it. Sure, the success of Heroes owes a lot to shows like Lost and Smallville for helping to pave the way, but with Heroes, I think you are now seeing high-concept ideas being brought to TV in a way that they wouldn't have before. I mean, a perfect example is FOX's The Sarah Conner Chronicles. Before Heroes, I don't know if the Terminator franchise would have been considered as a viable TV series - now it is. But even a show like ABC's Pushing Daisies, I love that it is so far removed from what we've come to expect from a TV show. When's the last time a TV series was this stylized, this artful? Sure, TV has had stylish noir-fiction like Twin Peaks and X-Files, but Pushing Daisies - a Tim Burton-esque fantasy? That's new.

The other big thing is TV shows that appeal to Gen Y. The biggest example of this, to me, is Chuck. Show Chuck to someone over 35 and the reaction may be a confused "huh?" But Chuck is one of the first shows I've seen that has characters who look and speak and act like typical twenty-something geeks. Josh Schwartz takes his knack for dialogue and humor as seen on The OC and perfectly transitions it to this adventure-comedy. I think that, the cool thing about shows that appeal to the younger generation is that we have a totally different set of expectations. We don't care if a show is animated, if it has a laugh track, if it mixes drama and humor, or if it's about superheroes, zombies, or whatever. The one problem? We don't watch as much TV as our parents did, and so a show like Family Guy, that saw so much of its success come from DVD views and whatnot, ultimately gets shortchanged in the ratings and by the network. But that is changing. Shows like The Office are getting a boost thanks to new Nielson methods that capture DVR time-shifting. DVD sales are becoming a more important factor in looking at a show's viability. And online streaming and downloading is becoming a new means for measuring a show's buzz-factor. I am very curious to see how a show like Chuck ends up doing. If it proves successful, I think it will really make networks rethink how they program their lineups. And not to toot my own horn, but I have personally been a huge supporter of Chuck since I first read the script. Again, it will be really, really interesting to see if the general audience responds to it with the same enthusiastic reception that it received at Comic-Con, where it got a standing ovation following the screening of its pilot.

And so, the Top Shows to look out for in the Fall:

1.) CHUCK (NBC) - Chuck isn't necessarily my favorite pilot of the fall, but overall it is the series that I am most excited to follow and see where it goes. I love that this show takes the geek / hipster Seth Cohen humor from The OC and transplants it into an action-spy thriller. The mix is like peanut butter and chocolate, and helps create a show that plays like The OC meets Alias. In the first episode alone, we get a reference to Zork, blonde-bombshell superspies, ninjas!, and a a hero whose vehicle of choice is one of those Best Buy Geek Squad cars.

2.) PUSHING DAISIES (ABC) - This is my favorite pilot of the fall. Now, I don't know exactly how this will work as a series, BUT, the pilot is simply great. The tone reminded me of Big Fish, whimsical and with that certain twisted fairy-tale sensibility. But the thing that clicks is the chemistry between the main actor and actress, who have a pitch perfect forbidden romance that is just the right amounts of sweet and crazy. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen. Basically, the story is about a guy who has a magical gift to bring people back from the dead by touching them, but once he does, if he touches them again, they are gone forever. If it wasn't done so well, there is surely the potential for disaster there. But Pushing Daisies' tone is spot-on, and it's one of the coolest, most artfully made shows I've seen.

3.) ALIENS IN AMERICA (CW) - I had pretty much no expectations for this show, but I was really, pleasantly surprised by what I saw. It reminded me of vintage Malcolm in the Middle, with a really smart, unique perspective on high school life. Now, this show has a lot of humor centered on one of its main characters, a transfer student from Pakistan. In less capable hands, that could spell disaster. But lo and behold, the jokes usually hit the mark, and we actually get a pretty spot-on satire of American xenophobia in the post-9/11 age. I am really curious about the recasting of the dad, now played by Luke from Gilmore Girls. I really liked the dad in the original version of the pilot, so I'm wondering how the casting change will affect things. But right now, I'm really looking forward to seeing more of this show.

4.) JOURNEYMAN (NBC) - While Bionic Woman is getting a lot of NBC's hype, Journeyman to me may have even more potential. The key here is the lead actor, Kevin McKidd, of HBO's Rome. McKidd plain and simply elevates this show, and I think he'll be as crucial to Journeyman as Kiefer Sutherland is to 24. Journeyman is kind of a more serious-minded version of Quantum Leap, with a heavy empahasis on romance as well. But fear not, guys, McKidd brings the badassery to his role as a time-traveler, with ample dosage of gravitas. Wait until you see the climactic ending of the pilot ep. This is def one to watch.

5.) BIONIC WOMAN (NBC) - The biggest geekasm moment of the new falls season is in the pilot of the Bionic Woman. As rain pours down in the night sky, the fledgling Bionic Woman meets a deadly assassin, precariously posed on a rooftop. Our hero flings a steel pipe at her attacker, only for it to be deflected with a loud, bionic "clang.""Who are you?" the newly-christened Bionic Woman asks of the blonde femme fatale, who fans will recognize as Katie Sakhoff of Battlestar fame. "I'm the original Bionic Woman," says the Amazonian villain in full-on bad-ass mode. And with that, a potential new cult hit is born. Sure, there are a few issues with plotting and some young actors who will need to prove themselves over the course of the first season, but there is a huge spark of potential here.

6.) MISS/GUIDED (ABC) - Here's another one that COULD have been a pretty generic sitcom, but is instead vastly better than most comedies out there thanks to its supremely talented leading lady, the hilarious Judy Greer. Greer, who had a small but awesome role on Arrested Development ("Girls With Low Self Esteem!") brings just the right amount of quirkiness to the role of a high school wallflower who returns to her old stomping grounds to become a guidance counsellor. Sounds like a standard sitcom premise, but Greer makes it work, with a Ricky Gervais-like mix of awkwardness, self-loathing, and ego-boosting. Too bad this one isn't coming until mid-season ...

7.) GOSSIP GIRL (CW) - I have never been into the WB / CW crop of teen soaps - the One Tree Hills, the Seventh Heavens, or the Everwoods. But Gossip Girl is different. It's a teen soap that will draw in even the most cynical anti-soap snob. Why? Well, it boasts a great cast. One of those casts where just about every player has "future star" written all over them. Not to mention, the characters are all instantly interesting. Sure, a few fall into typical teen soap cliches, but most are actually three dimensional and multi-faceted. But man, is this show juicy. I know, it sounds lame, but this is soapy at its best, in a way that may even rival The OC's first season. Trust me, watch the pilot about these over-priveleged Manahattan teens, and prepare to be sucked in.

8.) SAMANTHA WHO? (ABC) - Christina Applegate is always great, and she's once again really good here as a woman who wakes up from a coma and realizes that she can't remember anything about who she is. I stil ldon't get quite how she wakes up with a totally different personality than when she drifted into coma-land, but I guess you just have to run with it. But, anyways, Applegate is really good with the offbeat humor, and the show is pretty clever and a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how it holds up after a few episodes.

9.) REAPER (CW) - This is another one of those shows, that, like Chuck, would probably not have made it onto the air a few years ago. Full of geeky / slacker humor mixed with zany scifi (think Bill and Ted by way of Kevin Smith), Reaper is an entertaining show that is anchored by the always-funny Brett Harrison (Grounded For Life, The Loop), as a guy who finds out that his parents sold his soul to the devil, and in exchange he must serve as Satan's personal jail-keeper, hunting down hell's escaped souls and return them to the underworld. The pilot, directed by Kevin Smith, is a lot of fun, especially when Ray Wise shows up as the wise-cracking Satan. It has a bit of a Kevin Smith-lite feel though, a little watered down, a little less witty than it should be. However, it's still a fun show with a cool sensibility to it, so I am curious to see how it develops.

10.) BACK TO YOU (FOX) - The traditional sitcom may be on its deathbed, but Back To You is perhaps its last gasp. It plays like an all-star reunion tour of sitcoms past, with Kelsey Grammar, Patricia Heaton, and Fred Willard all starring. These guys know how to do old-school sitcoms, and so its no surprise that they actually pull this off with a lot of over the top humor and laughs that will make you have flashbacks to the days of Cheers and Taxi. Not to put this show on that level, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how tightly written it was, and it was fun to see Grammar be his usual over the top self, in a vehicle that plays to his strengths. It's funny that this show is on FOX, since it feels like a classic NBC sitcom to a large degree. But whatever, it's one that is worth checking out as a reminder of the good ol' days.


11.) THE SARAH CONNER CHRONICLES (FOX) - This one isn't until midseason either, but it actually has a decent amount of potential. It's pretty difficult to tell from the pilot how well this will work as an ongoing series, but the pilot is filled with action, and has a star-making turn from Summer Glau as a teenaged terminator whose petite exterior belies the fact that she is capable of going toe to toe with T-1000. Glau is pretty great, with a subtle hint of emotion and pathos shading her robotic persona. Meanwhile, Lena Heady is good as Sarah Conner, but it will be hard for her to step into the combat boots of Linda Hamilton. Still, I was pretty impressed with how seamlessly this fit into the Terminator mythology / timeline, and this could end up being a pretty damn good series if the momentum of the pilot is maintained and the ante upped, a la Prison Break.

12.) LIFE (NBC) - At first, I wasn't thrilled about yet another cop / detective procedural show. But Life is just quirky enough to stand out from the pack. The show has two twists that I really like. The first is that the main character is a total lunatic, which makes the show a lot more fun than it initially appears to be. As a cop who resumes his old job after being exonerated from a lengthy jail sentance, Life's hero is a zen-spouting new-agey philosopher who is grows pretty darn likable by the pilot's end. The other cool thing is that the show features a Prison Break-esque ongoing mystery regarding a conspiracy that was responsible for the title character's unjust imprisonment. The serialized subplot adds a nice layer of intrigue to the typical procedural goings-on.

And now, The Misses:

- VIVA LAUGHLIN (CBS) - The show is just all over the place, and misses the mark on almost all counts. It's a musical, but the songs are completely awkward and don't feel organic at all in the context of the show. For some reason, the actors sing the songs OVER the actual recorded versions of the music, which play in the background. So as Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" plays, some actor is singing on top of it. Talk about awkward and lame. On top of that, the characters are uninteresting, the plot is hard to follow and not especially exciting, and basically, this one is a mess. This is my prediction for first casualty of the fall season.

- MOONLIGHT (CBS) - This might have been a cool show on FOX, but Moonlight feels like a CBS-style show about Vampires. Yawwwwwwn. The show is slow, boring, and trots out every vampire-detective cliche in the book, with zero sense of fun or excitement or atmosphere. Here's another one primed and ready for the chopping block.

- NEW AMSTERDAM (FOX) - Arrgh, what's with all these boring shows about immortal detectives this year? New Amsterdam is like Highlander stripped of everything that made Highlander cool and superimposed on a really bad detective show. This show is not destined for immortality, that's for sure.

- CAVEMEN (ABC) - Okay, I can't give a full review since the show is being reworked from the pilot I saw. But what I saw was not only bad, but almost offensive in the ham-fisted way in which it tried to use the cavemen as a means through which to channel racial humor. Just as bad though was how shockingly unfunny the show was. In making the cavemen essentially just really hairy people, otherwise no different from the average Joe, the show removed all humor from the concept. I mean, the genius of Phil Hartman and his unfrozen caveman lawyer sketches was right there, waiting to be co-opted. And yet, Cavemen manages to be one of those terrible shows that seems to signal the downfall of Western Civilization as we know it. We'l lsee if the revamped pilot is any better, but don't count me as optimistic.

- BIG SHOTS (ABC) - Even if you have only seen the ads for this show, you probably hate it already. I mean, I cringe every time I see that one guy say the show's vomit-inducing tagline "It's like, men are the new women!" Ugggggh, kill me now. And let me assure you, the show is as bad as you'd feared. It's Sex in the City, but about men and not funny or well-written, every one of whom is a gigantic, self-absorbed, pampered douchebag. So, remind me again who likes to watch a show that glorifies such characters? Women will not like it. Men will sure as hell not like it. In fact, men who watch this will be praying for Jack Bauer to swoop down and castrate these losers.

Allriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight, I am outta here. Still to Come: My RETURNING SHOWS Preview, and my TOP MOVIES of the SUMMER.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Blog Gets SUPERBAD and Inhales Some STARDUST! And MORE

Sooooo ...

A quick update: Basically, my flight from CT to Burbank was long but pretty uneventful. I continued in reading The Stand, finished three weeks' worth of Newsweeks, and tried to rest my ankle, which had, over the last few days, seen the swelling go down but the bottom part of my right foot turn a deep shade of purple. Luckily, I was seated next to two little kids for the first part of the ride, who were watching DVD's and well behaved, giving me a lot of legroom. Of couse, that only lasted until Chicago's Midway airport, where we made our first stop. I had a lot less room from Chicago to Vegas, but it wasn't anything too unbearable. The final leg of the trip, from Vegas to Burbank, was short and sweet. I have to say though, it was pretty jarring to get on that last flight out of Vegas, in a way. The airplane up to that point had been filled with tourists, visitors, and basically regular Joes. When I got in line in the Vegas airport however, I was surrounded by a freakshow of bleached-blonde hair, plastic surgery, way too many people with iPhones, and a general feeling like "you know you're on a flight from Vegas to LA when ...". It's like, on one hand, I appreciate that LA is filled with all kinds of people, many of whom share my passions for film and pop culture, etc. On the other hand, it's sad and depressing when you realize just how few real, down to earth, "normal" people there are here in Hollyweird. At least, sometimes it seems that way.

Anyways, I got back to LA Sunday night, and am now back in the grind of work and the daily routine. My ankle is still pretty sore, but hopefully I'll have more of a chance to just stay off of it and ice it up in the next few days. I'm trying to figure out what combination of wraps / socks / braces to wear to work on a regular basis, since some of the bigger / bulkier ones do not fit comfortably underneat socks and slacks.

Now, I am excited to have a little stretch of weeks that are basically wide open - no business trips, no big plans, etc. I have a few concerts I'm going to coming up though, and it just hit me that my birthday - the big 2-5 - is scarily only a few weeks away. No idea what my plan is to celebrate, but hopefully I will think of something good. In October, it's Halloween season, which for the last few years here in LA has always meant many good times, so that's exciting. And in November, it looks like my family and I may take a trip to London, to visit my brother during his semester abroad.

BTW - I have to figure out what I'm doing for the High Holidays in September -- anyone have any suggestions?

Anyways, in more ways than one I feel like these next few weeks are the beginning of a new chapter, or at least, I hope so. Stay tuned.


- After two weeks of classic-style goodness, I was psyched to kick back Sunday night and check out my recorded episode of MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. With this week's quirky ep, I found myself enjoying it, but to me it didn't quite match up to the fun I had with the previous two installments. What we got this week was a somewhat oddball journey into a utopian future of sorts, where advances in genetic engineering have allowed for the creation of "Joes" - subhuman humanoids who basically do all the work that people don't want to. The Joes, essentially organic robots, hunt the desert for landmines, serve cocktails at fancy clubs, and serve as glorified butlers to the rich. While Joes are engineered from human DNA, they have no rights, no freedom, and are disposed of like tin cans when they cease to be useful. That is, until a rich society woman, played by Anne Heche, takes a liking to a Joe she called Jerry. Heche's character makes Joe rights her pet cause, and suddenly she's at the center of a trial to determine if Joes are, in fact, human and thus deserving of basic human rights. Meanwhile, she comes into conflict with a bioengineer played by Malcolm McDowell, who is great as always as a Dr. Frankenstein both weary of the frivolous nature of his work and of the claim that his creations are human.

Basically, this episode was kind of all over the place. It set up an interesting look at the future but didn't really give much context in terms of how the average person viewed the Joes or how they came to be so prominent in society. The tone was mostly quirky and light, but it seemed like a premise that demanded a bit more gravity to it. Anne Hech and Malcolm McDowell were great, but it was a bit hard to get a handle on their characters. I just kind of felt like the whole "are they or aren't they human" idea had been done many times before and often to great effect, whereas here we got a fun but kind of bland take. Still, really looking forward to next week's finale, penned by Harlan Ellison, and still annoyed that this series isn't getting any more attention or promotion.

My Grade: B

- Yes, yes, I know, you can stop sending me your emails and IM's. KRISTEN BELL is now on HEROES. So, what do I think of the fact that the former Veronica Mars is now part of the Heroes-verse? Well, I mean, it's very cool, no question. It's just a bit of an odd combo to me at first glance. On VM, Kristin Bell specialized in fast-paced verbal sparring and dry humor, not really things that Heroes is known for. To me, VM was the perfect marriage of actress and material, so to be honest any Bell appearance outside of Veronica is bound to feel a little bit off, at least at first. But really, this is great for Heroes. Bell can act, and could bring a great sense of wit and cool-factor to the show. I'm definitely curious to see where this goes.

- Okay, now it's time for some long-awaited movie reviews:


- Knocked Up was great. 40 Year Old Virgin as well. But Superbad is better, and here's why: As funny as it is to watch the comedic exploits of a slacker twenty-something or a forty-year old loser, nothing beats a good teen comedy. When you're talking teenagers, the motivations are simple and easily boiled-down - Superbad is two high school dudes looking to get some action before they graduate. The motivation is clear, the desperation tangible, and the laughs mile-a-minute.

However, like Virgin and Knocked Up, Superbad benefits immensely from the casual, naturalistic, coversational humor that has become producer Judd Apatow's bread and butter. In this age of cell phones, IM's, and blogs, the art of conversation is probably the biggest source of humor for many of us in our daily lives. We've all had inside jokes, random asides, and pseudo-deep thoughts that were just oddball enough to be hilarious, and Apatow's movies have a way of capturing those little snippets of conversation for maximum laugh-factor. What he also does is cast his movies not with big-name stars, but with people who he simply knows to be funny. The combination of the right material with the right actors is a potent comedic formula. Witness the classic conversation between Superbad stars Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, as they discuss their personal preferences when it comes to internet porn. Cera laments the lack of production value when it comes to amatuer video, to which Hill fires back "what, do you want your porn to be directed by the Coen Brothers?" Classic.

Give writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg a ton of credit for a screenplay that holds nothing back. The humor is full of dick jokes, but at the same time there is an honesty to the dialogue that few other teen comedies have ever had. There is a realism to it that makes it feel authentic - this is how over-informed teens in the age of MySpace and Wikipedia SHOULD sound - these guys are geeks at heart, but they know enough to be well-versed on the ins and outs of bagging babes (speaking of which, watching this movie shows you how far we've come, for better or worse, since Anthony Michael Hall admitted that he's "never bagged a babe" in Sixteen Candles). But Rogen and Goldberg do a great job of capturing the humor that has rarely been captured in movies - the humor that comes out when a few funny guys are just sitting around and talking, the humor that is the stuff of late night dorm-room chats and rambling IM conversations. Whether it's Cera talking about how he wished he lived in a world where men could flaunt their, um, excitement freely, or Hill telling his friend that his adopted nom de plume, "McLovin," sounded like the name for an Irish R&B singer, Superbad has hilarious, real-sounding dialogue in spades.

The humor of geeky conversation and random guy-talk tangents hasn't been captured this well since "Clerks."

Again, the actors here are spot-on. I'm not exaggerrating when I say that Michael Cera is probably one of the funniest people on the planet right now. He was brilliant on Arrested Development as the anxious, cousin'-lovin' George Michael, and he brings that same ultra-dry wit and understated delivery to Superbad. When he bursts into song to appease a bunch of cracked-out party-goers, it results in one of the funniest scenes in a movie you'll see this year. And not only is Cera funny, but both he and Jonah Hill lend a realism to this movie because they're NOT playing cliches, they are playing real teens, basically. They have their cool qualities, they have their geeky qualities. They aren't at the top of the food chain but they're not quite at the bottom. They remind you of yourself or guys you knew. It's fun and refreshing to see, and it's one of the best aspects of all of Apatow's work from Freaks and Geeks to Knocked Up - Apatow's primary characters are always endearing, often outcasts, but never two-dimensional.

Hill is great as well, and has that kind of frantic "we've gotta get that beer NOW" delivery that is like so many guys in high school or college who can't see the forest for the trees. He and Cera are an instant-classic comedy duo, and again, their timing and delivery and naturalism, combined with the script, is a recipe for comedic gold.

Then there's the rest of the cast. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is classic as McLovin, just McLovin. He has that kind of nerdy enthusiasm mixed with awkwardness that makes it hard not to love the little guy. I'm sure his squinty face is already plastered on many a Hot Topic T-Shirt, but deservedly so, I'd say. Seth Rogen and SNL's Bill Hader are also really funny as two cops who get caught up in the plotline and become pals with McLovin, and the three of them have many hilarious scenes that threaten to steal the movie away from the two leads.

So to me, Superbad is an absolute must-see, and overall one of the funniest movies to come along in a while, even in a summer loaded with great comedy of all kinds, from Knocked Up to Eagle Vs. Shark to The Ten. Only a few minor points keep me from giving it a flat-out A:

a.) Too much screentime for McLovin and the Cops. While the trio is often hilarious, the heart of the movie is the banter and hetrosexual-lifemate relationship between Hill and Cera. Towards the end of the movie especially, when it feels like the focus should be on the leads, the movie gets a little too caught up in McLovin, Rogen, and Hader.

b.) A little too much randomness. Apatow and co have atendency to throw very broad humor into movies that are mostly played very natural and realistic. Sometimes the random humor wins me over, like the psychedelic ending to 40 Year Old Virgin. But in Superbad, I felt myself wondering if some of the tangents, like Hill having a childhood problem with phallic doodles, wouldn't have been better on the cutting room floor.

c.) Mainly though, my biggest issue was with the ending (SPOILERS). It just didn't work for me. I get the idea that these teens were so focused on sex that they overlook the idea of just trying to date and get to know the girls who they are crushing on, but, there was barely any build-up to make the ending realistic. Jonah Hill had basically made an asso of himself over the course of the movie's final few scenes, and then suddenly this cute girl who he accidentally headbutted wants to hang out with him at the mall? It just seemed off to me. Especially after the movie seemed to have wrapped up with an "aww shucks, Jonah and Michael have each other so it's okay that they didn't get the girls" ending. Then, they do kind of get the girls? Hmm ...

So in the end, again, this was a hilarious, must-see movie. A near-classic that had me laughing nonstop from start to finish. This is a teen movie to be put in the cannon with Breakfast Club, Fast Times, Porkys, and American Pie, and another feather in the hat for Apatow and co, who have now succesfully brought their particular brand of humor to 40 year olds, 25 year olds, and 18 year olds. Basically, this movie deserves your McLovin.

My Grade: A -


It's really a shame about Stardust. What we have here is a movie that isn't perfect, a bit rough around the edges, but in the end is a shining example of a fantasy movie with its heart in the right place - a sprawling adventure with fun characters, imaginative ideas, and a whimsical sense of humor that hearkens back to the days of The Princess Bride, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and other such fairy tale fantasy-films that have become a rare breed since their 1980's heyday. So why is it a shame, you ask? It's a shame because few people saw this, because it had a fairly lackluster marketing campaign and was dropped into a crowded late-summer slot. Most of all though, it's a shame because as much love as people have for classics like The Wizard of Oz, fantasy still remains one of the hardest sells out there for the movie-going public. And you wouldn't think so, not with the runaway success that is Harry Potter. But it kind of furthers my theory that Potter is like the Everybody Loves Raymond of fantasy. Sure, it might be well put-together and smartly done, but it is a kind of homogenized, goes-down-easy slice of pop culture, filled with all-too familiar tropes and themes. This isn't a knock on Harry Potter, it's just that, especially speaking about the movie versions, there is a certain plasticy polish there that makes you wonder what someone with a little bit of an insane streak, like a Terry Gilliam or even a Peter Jackson, could do if they got their hands on the material.

And that brings me to Stardust, which won me over in part because it is a little bit wild, a little bit crazy, like say a Time Bandits. It is, like I said, rough around the edges, both to its benefit and detriment. But as a kid, that's what I absolutely loved about these fairy tale stories - that mix of dark and light, of the nonthreatening with the horrific and gruesome. It's why I loved those Jim Henson Storyteller programs so long ago (and now have the complete set on DVD) - they told stories that were, on the surface, harmless and kid-friendly, but there was that edge, that darkness to them. With Stardust, director Matthew Vaughn brings that same quality. We have a light-hearted fantasy on the surface, but there are unexpected moments of scandal, sexiness, and horror. The stuff of all the great fairy stories.

And that, that is exactly the quality that has defined author Neil Gaiman's most famous works. His Sandman series was a modern adult fairy story, the sacred bible for goth kids everywhere, and aside from all else a great piece of literature that helped legitimize the comic book / graphic novel format in the 80's and 90's. Stardust, adapted from Neil's illustrated novel of the same name, has that same Gaiman touch, and Vaughn does a nice job of maintaining that balance of dark and light, that distinctly British tone, and the boundless imagination inherent in the works of Neil Gaiman.

Basically, Stardust tells of a quiet English village called Wall, named for the wall that borders it, said to be the gateway to a magical land, though few if any dare to cross it and find out. Years ago, a young man crossed into the magical realm and met a woman - unbeknownst to him a princess. The two had a quick roll in the hay, and nine months later, when the man had long ago gone back to Wall, a baby was dropped at his doorstep. Fast forward twenty years or so, and the baby is all grown up, soon to stumble into his own adventure beyond the wall. What starts out as a search for the boy's mother soon becomes a quest for a Falling Star, taken human form by Claire Danes. At the same time, a dying king says that whichsoever of his sons finds the amulet worn by the Star will become the new King. And, three witches seek the Star for its youth-giving magic. And there are also sky-pirates. Cross-dressing sky pirates, more specifically.

The characters really come alive thanks to the impressive ensemble at work here. Usually, big-name actors and fantasy are not a good mix, because the recognizabilty of the actor can hurt the suspension of disbelief in the story and world of the film. But one of the movie's biggest names is easily the show-stealer here - Michelle Pfeifer does a fantastic job as a wicked witch. It's a transformative, ego-less role, with Pfeifer aging and de-aging throughout the movie due to the effects of her magic. Honestly, I can barely even remember seeing Pfeifer in anything since she wowed everyone as Catwoman so long ago. But man, I am glad she's back - she is just awesomely villainous here, looks great, and may be one of the year's most fun movie badguys. Just a great role as a classic fantasy villain. Wicked Witch indeed. On the other end of the spectrum is the great Robert DeNiro. At first glance, DeNiro, with his tough-guy Italian looks and and Brooklyn accent, are an odd fit for a British fantasy. And there is certainly a bit of awkwardness when his character - a tough-talking Sky Pirate - is first introduced. But ultimately, Deniro really won me over. What could have been an embarrisngly bad part turns out to be a lot of fun, with the twist being that (SPOILERS), DeNiro's menacing exterior is a total facade, he is in fact, a ballroom dancing, cross-dressing, John Waters-level flamboyant pirate of a different sort altogether.

As for the leads, they do a really nice job. Again, they take a bit of time to win you over, but the great chemistry between them ultimately makes the central romance a lot of fun. Charlie Cox does a nice job as our hero, Tristan. He is a bit of an annoying, lunk-headed guy at first, but that's part of the point. He actually does evolve pretty dramatically by movie's end, although I admit even at that point he is somewhat unlikable. Overall though, he does a good job as the naive, in-over-his-head farmboy-who-becomes hero type. And he also has some great interactions with Claire Daines, as Yvaine, literally a fallen star. The two gradually enjoy a classic fairy tale romance, and you really root for them by the end. I'll always be a huge Claire Danes fan simply from her work on the great My So-Called Life, but she surprised me here by really pulling off a fantasy role like this one. She is just quirky and unconventional enough to pull it off.

There are some nice supporting turns here as well. It was great to see Ricky Gervais pop up and get off a few of his patented awkward dialogue exchanges. It must have been a real thrill for him to finally work with DeNiro as well (said having just watched the achingly awkard Extras episode featuring DeNiro). Rupert Everett has a nice role as one of the seven brothers willing to do anything to overtake the others and succeed their father as King. The idea that each brother is one-by-one killed by the others, with each one manifesting as a ghost in the same shape they were when they died (ie one with an axe in the head, one with no clothes on) is pretty funny and makes for some amusing scenes. And, lending the movie that little extra bit of Shakespearian gravitas is Ian McKellan, who provides narration to great effect.

Now, we have a great cast, a classically-told fairy story ... what's not to like? Well, the main weakness here is the overall direction, which is a bit uneven. Vaughn aims high but sometimes misses the mark. He has a lot of trouble (and perhaps limited budget) with establishing his loactions and giving the film a real sense of place and scope. After movies like Lord of the Rings, I was looking for sweeping shots of the Witches' stronghold, for example, but we never really got a sense of just what their evil lair lookedl ike from the outside. Stardust's magical kingdom has bits and pieces of visuals that give it shape, like shots of the towering peak that serves as the King's throne-room, but mostly, it lacks a distinct look and feel. On one hand, this hearkens back to movie's like Princess Bride that left much to the imagination in terms of setting and place. On the other hand, it can be a bit unfulfilling at times to see the movie's fantasy world be so loosely sketched out.

That being said, there are some innovative, really well-done visuals here. My favorite was a climactic fight scene where Pfeifer's witch reanimated one of the Princes' lifeless bodies for a wild duel with Tristan. Very, very cool and one of the better sword fights captured on film in a while. Michelle Pfeifer's ever-changing age made for some subtle and well-done visual f/x, and I thought that Claire Dane's star-halo, which glows whenever she feels love, was an old-school but effective little visual gimmick that added to the fun of her character.

Stardust is a movie that is a little messy, a little uneven. It's bursting with so many characters and ideas that there's never a dull moment, but also not much breathing room, and some of the plot points can feel a bit hurried and glossed over (for example, the whole backstory of Tristan's father and his aborted romance with Tristan's princess mother). But to me, Stardust had that element of magic and adventure that made it amount to much more than the mere sum of its parts. As I've alluded to many times already, the movie plain and simply won me over, and I've rarely felt more ready to nod and smile and applaud as the words "Happily Ever After" brought things to a close.

My Grade: A -

- Alright, that's all I've got for now. Until next time ...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

All Hail THE TEN

THE TEN Review:

Here's why it's so hard to trust critics when it comes to comedy - comedy is largely subjective, except that in a way, it's not. Determining what's funny is a lot like determining what's pornography - there may not be any strict definititions, but you know it when you see it. And that's the thing with a movie like The Ten that makes it so baffling to many critics - like The State and Wet Hot American Summer before it, The Ten is not trying to make a statement, not trying to satirize anything in particular ... it's simply trying to be funny. And it is. This movie doesn't tell a great story, it's not heartwarming, and it doesn't have three dimensional characters. And that's not what' it's about. At all. The Ten has one goal - to make you laugh. And laugh I did - I can say without hesitation that The Ten made me laugh more consistently than any movie I've seen in a theater, probably since Borat. The humor is not for everyone, and many people just don't or won't get it. And that's too bad, because what David Wain and Ken Marino and the rest of the crew from The State do here is its own special kind of twisted genius. It's theater of the absurd. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Randomness just because it's funny. If that doesn't appeal to you, then this isn't your movie. But if you like your comedy broad and abstract, if you hold Mike Myers' SNL stuff and Kids in the Hall and the Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show and Stella and The State and Adult Swim in high regard - then The Ten is another little slice of comedy nirvana in the vein of the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer. So please, disregard any review that even mentions the possibility of this movie having some kind of religious message. It doesn't. Disregard any review that says this movie is satirizing anything in particular. It isn't. Trust me on this - I'm an OG fan of The State and I rank Wet Hot as one of the funniest movies ever made. If you are on that same wavelength, then by all means, run out and see The Ten, because while not as good as Wet Hot, it's still flat-out hilarious.

As a kid, I went to a small Jewish day school. By the time I was in middle school, our class size was only about 14 people big, with only 4 girls and the rest guys. So what happened was, when something caught on - a movie, a TV show, a videogame, etc, all of us usually got pretty into it. Around the time of sixth grade or so, THE show to watch was MTV's The State. It was one of those great, experimental shows from MTV's heyday in the mid-90's, alongside classics like The Maxx and Aeon Flux. The State at the time, along with The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy, was one of the shows that completely shaped my ideas about comedy and what was funny. I couldn't get enough of the absurdist humor, and I had practically committed the dialogue of sketches like "Porcupine Racetrack" to memory. A bunch of friends and I even did a class project, for Bible class no less, called "The Garden." It was a video we made about the Adam and Eve story that had recurring characters from The State, like Louie and Doug, as stand-ins for Adam, Eve, the Serpent, etc. Man, do I wish I had a copy of that one (I wish I had a copy of all of the videos we made for class projects back in the day - making videos was all the rage back then, to the point where our teacher banned them as an option for our "CP's", or Creative Projects). I even had a logo of The State prominently featured on my eighth-grade yearbook page alongside Playstation and The X-Files (yes, I was really cool in eighth grade, as you can see). Suffice to say, I loved The State and was gravely disappointed when it suddenly went off the air. Back then, before Google or Wikipedia, I remember all these rumors about the show going around. There was that one-shot CBS special that barely anyone saw. There was the "Skits and Stickers" VHS collection that is now an out-of-print collector's item. When Thomas Lennon and a few others went on to make Viva Variety, the rumor was that there was a lot of infighting among The State's members and that the group had disbanded. All I know is, I remember eagerly tuning in to Viva, hoping to relive some of that old State magic, and being bitterly disappointed at how decidely unfunny it was, and that was the bginning of a long draught of all things State.

Slowly but surely, over the next few years, I saw members of The State pop up in various things, but it was usually something depressingly lame, like Lennon appearing in all those Jello ads or whatever for a while. Finally, the other shoe dropped. When I was in college, I eagerly read up about a new movie being released called Wet Hot American Summer - written by Michael Showalter, directed by David Wain, and featuring many members of The State. I remember dragging some friends to go see it at the theater in the Copley Mall in Boston, back when it played more independent movies. I don't know if I've ever laughed so hard in a theater - this was it, this was basically like THE comedy movie I had always wanted to see. As soon as I saw the DVD appear at Newbury Comics, I snatched it up - one of the first DVD's I bought, and easily one of my most watched. It became a bit of a litmus test - have you seen Wet Hot American Summer? No? Then let's watch it now! That and The Big Lebowski - those are my two "have you seen this?" movies - both endlessly hilarious and rewatchable.

Since then, there's been the success of Reno 911 - a show I find intermittently funny but I'm not a hardcore fan of per se. There was Stella, which I loved during it's all-too-brief run on Comedy Central. And a few great roles for people like Ken Marino, who had a nice turn as Vinnie Van Lowe on the late great Veronica Mars. But now, with The Ten, we have a second real State movie. At long last!

For the uninitiated - The Ten is a collection of ten short pieces, essentially elongated sketches, each themed after on of the Ten Commandments, and linked together by a series of segments featuring Paul Rudd as MC. It's almost like a State greatest hits album, in a way, but like some weird double-album where the second half is new material, or something ... Hmm, am I comparing this movie to Michael Jackson's HIStory album? Yikes.

Showalter, Wain, and Michael Ian Black all appear only in small cameos, but their distinct Stella brand of humor is still all over this one. Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney add their unique styles to the mix as well - Kenney especially is a scene stealer as the mother of two twins trying to figure out their true parentage. Ken Marino, who wrote the movie, is great as always. And the rest of The State cast each turns up and everyone at least gets ina good line or two. One standout though has to be Joe Lo Truglio, who I don't think I've seen in anything since his hilarious turn in Wet Hot. Seen here, as a hellbent on Keeping Up With the Joneses neighbor to a hilarious Liev Schreiber, he is funny as hell.

And Liev Schreiber is one of many great actors who contribute here with unexpectedly hilarious results. Winona Ryder is particularly awesome, totally game for some of the craziest $#@# you're likely to ever see in a comedy. You will love Winona if you don't already after seeing her in The Ten. Adam Brody of The OC has some great lines in this, and Gretchen Moll is also very good. Phoenix herself, Famke Janson, does a nice job of sparring with Paul Rudd as his ex-wife. And Jessica Alba even pops up for a bit of self-parody as Rudd's ditzy girlfriend. Also great is Rob Cordry, hilarious as Ken Marino's doting friend in prison. Jason Sudeikis from SNL and 30 Rock has some great moments as well.

All of these actors do great work, and it's cool to see so many familiar faces and big-names be so game to subject themselves to The State's oddball sensibilities. I mean, Winona Ryder plays a woman who leaves her boyfriend for another guy after a freak accident, then leaves THAT guy for a ... wooden puppet! And she gets it on with the puppet! Repeatedly!

But it's also great to see some of the actors who have become kind of unofficial State members return for The Ten. Janeane Garafolo is in there with one of the movie's funniest scenes to her credit. It's funny, I sometimes can't stand her when she's doing other types of movies or TV, but whenever she's with The State crew, Garafolo is comedic gold. A.D. Miles also pops up to great comedic effect as a nerdy librarian who later reveals a predilication for skipping church to hang out naked around his house on Sunday mornings. And Paul Rudd - well, he is awesome as always - delivering his lines with a pitch-perfect sense of comic timing, and possessing of the uncanny ability to play the Everyman, even in the midst of all kinds of surrealist craziness.

Now, as you can probably tell, the gags and jokes and attempts at oddball humor fly a mile a minute in The Ten. Luckily, most work. But, there are definitely lulls that kind of drag, fall flat, or just leave you scratching your head. Case in point: towards the end of the film, an animated segment involving a confabulation-prone Rhino lost me until its halfway point, when the segment finally started to come together. Some segments drag out too long, feeling like two or three minute sketches that got artifically stretched beyond their ideal length. And I have to admit, I really missed seeing Michael Showalter, David Wain, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, etc. throughout most of the movie, and it was too bad that in their first movie together in so long, so many of The State's members were relegated to bit parts. I mean, Showalter barely even got off a line of dialogue, which is really a shame since he's rarely been seen in movies or TV since the end of Stella.

But man, when this movie is working, it had me laughing nonstop. There's the Winona-Puppet romance. Liev Schreiber competing with his neighbor to see who can own the most Catscan machines. The raunchy Mexican narrator in Gretchen Mol's segment. Ken Marino's "it was only a goof" defense, and his subsequent quasi-prison-romance with Rob Cordry. Adam Brody as a guy stuck up to his ears in the ground in the middle of a field, who becomes a big celebrity because of and in spite of his freak condition. This one teenager who is pitching his idea for a reality show in the midst of a nuclear meltdown ... There is some classic stuff here, and I think this is a movie that's going to be rewatched and quoted endlessly by comedy afficianados for years to come. Comedy for people who are into comedy. Absurdist, surrealist, subversive, and just plain weird - The Ten isn't a total home run, but it's definitely something to be praised - a return to the crazy sensibilities of The State and one of the funniest movies of the year.

My Grade: A -

Alright, I'm out.

TOMMOROW: POISON, live and in concert!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

BOURNE AGAIN - Bourne Ultimatum and RESCUE DAWN - Reviewed! Plus: Masters of Science Fiction and -- REGGIE MILLER on the Celtics?!?!

Okay, so I was pretty amused that my last entry received a comment from WERNER HERZOG himself ... I mean, I knew my blog had some high-profile readers, but this, this takes things to a whole other level. Mr. Herzog, it was an honor to have your wit and lack of knowledge about professional basketball grace these pages.

- Speaking of which, I've got to give a quick follow-up to yesterday's posting about the CELTICS. Today saw yet another potential blockbuster story coming out of Beantown, and for me personally this could be the kind of thing that dreams are made of. Could it be ...? Could one of my all-time favorite players be coming out of retirement to don the green and white? Could REGGIE MILLER indeed be coming to the Celtics?!?! If this is true, if this happens, I will seriously be completely psyched for the NBA this year. I am already incredibly on board with the Celts this year, but if Reggie Miller were to join the squad, for the first time in a long while I would truly have a player and a team to root for. I've already written extensively about Miller on this blog in year's past, but suffice to say, if Miller Time comes to Boston, then business has REALLY picked up in the NBA.


- I've got some movie reviews for ya', but first I wanted to touch on a little TV Talk. Yes, it's been a long while since I last talked tube, but a show has come along that needs to be talked about. I am referring to ABC's new anthology: MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. Now, this is one that I am really annoyed about how it's been programmed, scheduled, and marketed. It was banished to the TV purgatory that is Saturday nights, and given little hype. And yet, this show boasts stellar casting, adaptations of many classic authors' works, and judging by the first ep, it's of the utmost quality. Why not give this one a push, or at LEAST a decent weeknight time-slot for its limited run, especially considering it's airing in the doldrums of summer? It just makes no sense to me. Especially after seeing the premiere episode. I mean, wow - this was one of the best things I've seen on television in a long time. The episode featured a mystery that slowly unraveled as the hour progressed, at first leaving you slightly confused but slowly and surely flooring you with each new twist. Basically, we opened with Judy Davis as a government psychologist quizzing a seemingly ordinary man, in hopes of jogging his addled mind, which due to a medical condition was incapable of making new memories (a la Memento). For fourteen years, the subject has been in a state of arrested development, believing himself still in the thralls of his old life as a businessman and family man. Eventually, the sinister truth is revealed - this character, played to perfection by Sam Waterson, is no ordinary man, but the acting President of the United States, whose hubris and poor judgement led to nuclear armageddon that resulted in all but a small pocket of the world's population being wiped off the map. Judy Davis, his former counsel, is obsessed with undoing the President's trauma-induced memory loss so that he can be held accountable for what he's done. The build up here is slow and deliberate, the pacing reminiscient of an old Twilight Zone episode, in that it builds and builds to each twist. Like those classics of old, this ep had melodramatic dialogue, stage-like performances, and a keen commentary on our own political reality under the guise of far-fetched science fiction. Simply put, this brought to mind The Twilight Zone and other classic scifi anthologies in all the right ways. Sure, it's style and pacing may have been a bit jarring for those weened on today's quick-cutting attempts at "edgy" TV. But to me, this WAS edgy - a cunningly smart riff on our own present-day politics featuring superlative acting from Sam Waterson and Judy Davis. When Sam finally does break down in the face of his accumulated memories returning, the moment is classic. I was surprised to read some mixed reviews for this. To me it was great, great TV and I can't wait to see future installments with such favorite actors as Terry O'Quinn and William B Davis, not to mention an episode with a Harlan Ellison-scripted screenplay. As someone who loves The Twilight Zone, and as someone who loves anthology television in general, from Ray Bradbury Theater to Night Gallery to Are You Afraid of the Dark, it was awesome to see such quality from Masters of Science Fiction - this is the kind of stuff that made me a scifi geek in the first place. ABC - give this a decent time slot, and more episodes!

My Grade: A

Now, on to some movie stuff:


Okay, Werner. This one is for you.

This is a film that I had been anticipating due to Christian Bale's involvement, but a movie from which I really didn't know quite what to expect. And after seeing it, it's a movie that is pretty difficult to put in a box. On one hand, it's a traditional war / POW / escape movie. But on the other hand, it's a harrowing tale of survival that carries strong themes of man vs. nature, the willpower of the individual, and the merits of being passive vs proactive when faced with overwhelmingly bleak circumstances. Most of all, Rescue Dawn is an incredible movie, one of the best I've yet seen in 2007. It feature all of the intrigue, action, and excitement of a traditional war or adventure movie, but it takes things to another level through the strength of its performances and the depth of its storytelling.

The basic plot here is an intriguing one based on the true story of the comically-named Dieter Dangler, a German born American pilot who has big dreams of flying planes and adventure. However, on his very first mission with the airforce, Dieter's plane is shot down over the jungles of Vietnam. Eventually, our hero is captured and placed with a group of American POW's who have been captive for two years. Dieter is at once a source of new hope and a source of tension - he wants to forge a plan of escape from the camp but he butts heads with Gene, an acid-washed POW who is convinced that the war will soon be aborted and the best plan of action is inaction. Eventually, Dieter does make a run for it, and the second part of the movie is the story of Dieter's odyssey through the jungle, forced to survive on instinct and luck as he searches for a way to escape.

Werner Herzog does a spectacular job with this one. Herzog is a director whose works I really need to become more familiar with, because from what i know of his films he is really someone who should be put up there with the greats of modern filmmaking. Rarely has a director been able to convey the great outdoors with so much mystery, foreboding, and sense of awe. In trying to figure out what separates Rescue Dawn from other war movies, the answer became clear - few movies are so IMMERSIVE as this one. Like Paul Greengraass, whose latest Bourne movie I'll talk about soon, Herzog puts you IN this movie and takes you on a ride. By the end, you feel like you've been with Bale and Steve Zahn as they journey through the Laotian jungles in search of a way home. You've been right there as they nearly tumble over a towering waterfall, when they are drenched by torrential rains, when they hide in makeshift camoflauge in the hopes of eluding the VietCong. This is one INTENSE movie, and I give a huge amount of credit to Herzog for putting us right there in the midst of the action, switching seemlessly from lush, sweeping shots of the panoramic landcapes to claustrophobic POV shots of the dense jungle brush. This is truly accomplished, Oscar-worthy direction.

Now, as far as acting goes, this is yet another unbelievable turn from Christian Bale. Bale is an actor who just amazes me - in seemingly every movie he's in his characters go through sweeping changes from the film's start to it's finish. He always brings depth and charisma to his roles, and this one is no exception. But Bale takes things to a whole other level. When we first meet Dieter, he is healthy, cocky, almost naive in his laughing off of danger and child-like shrugging-off of the seriousness of his mission. By movie's end, Bale has undergone a startling physical transformation - he is skinny, starving, pale, dirty, sickly. His eyes dart back and forth and his speech is slurred. He is a man who has stared death in the face, who has had to revert to his basest survival instincts. Few other actors could pull this off. Few others could even come close. There's still a lot of time left in the year, but if Bale isn't nominated for an Oscar for this role, something is seriously wrong. This is about as great of a performance as you're likely to see.

The supporting cast also does a really excellent job here. Of particular note are Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies as two of Bale's fellow POW's. Steve Zahn has mostly been known as a comic actor, reliable and funny, but not as a real heavy hitter. Not anymore. This has got to be Zahn's best performance to date, far and away. He plays his part with a powderkeg of emotions, he is nervous, embarrased about the loss of dignity that comes with being a POW, but also quietly determined. The bond between he and Bale is great stuff, the kind of friendship that classic war and adventure movies are made of. Meanwhile, Davies is practically on another planet as the Charles Manson-looking Gene, a guy whose faculties have clearly faded after years as a POW, who expounds grand philosophies all the while quietly making enemies with his confrontational personality. Davies in this film is like a time warp into the 1960's. His mannerisms, his gestures, his speech patterns, it's amazing. What a great, memorable, complex performance.

And that's part of what is so great about this film - it's timeless. It is of course very much about Vietnam, but in terms of the filmmaking this is a real, honest-to-god MOVIE. No crazy cuts, no post-modern editing. This could have been made in 1975, 1985, 1995, or today. And yet it looks spectacular and features amazing acting. You've got to love a film that can say that, that in ten year's time someone can still watch it and say "wow, great movie" with no sense of context that they are watching a film of and about 2007. I think the one drawback to this type of storytelling is that there just isn't enough background given here. We only get glimpses of Dieter's history, which is fine, except that it's sometimes hard to get a read on the man whose transformation we are watching. There are allusions to a girlfriend waiting for him at home, etc, but to some extent we are left to guess in terms of how and why Dieter is at first so cavalier in the face of trauma, and then just how his ordeal had affected him. Overall though, this is a hell of a movie. Intense, dark, psychological - this is a true journey into the Heart of Darkness, and a must-see film of 2007.

My Grade: A -


Well, last weekend I found myself totally immersed in the world of BOURNE. Up until last week, I had never seen any of the movies, and yet there was a free screening of Ultimatum coming up that compelled me to watch the first two as soon as I could, so I'd be all caught up to see my first big-screen Bourne flick. After two very solid movies, I was primed and ready for Part 3, espeically since it featured a return from Superemecy director Paul Greengrass, who has got to be one of the best directors working today. Greengrass absolutely floored me with his work on United 93, a movie that I think will be regarded as a classic in the years to come. What he excels at is immersiveness. Whether it's a plane crash, a fight scene, or a car chase, Greengrass shoots without borders, giving his films an almost reality-TV like vibe that still maintains a level of real artistry. Because for all of the Bourne movies' modern, edgy trappings, the cool thing about them is that, really, they are distinctly old-school. Bourne is essentially a glossier version of McGyver, a nose-to-the-grindstone hero who uses everyday items as his main arsenal, not high-tech gadgets. The Bourne movies have been hugely influential though, which is a testament to how well they've been recieved. The gritty, back-to-basics approach of Bourne has even rubbed off on the latest Bond installment, which really says something.

The Bourne Ultimatum is yet another really fun movie in the franchise that is certainly entertaining from start to finish. Paul Greengrass once again directs the hell out of it, and even throws in a few very clever editing tricks, weaving the ending of the second film seamlessly into the middle of this one, creating a very interesting, non-traditional timeline in which this movie's first half takes place sometime in the midst of Part 2. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever seen that particular storytelling tactic done in a film trilogy before (at least one not involving time travel ...). In addition, I think that Ultimatum has the best action of any of the Bourne's to date. The fight scenes are, simply, off the chain, with the best, most visceral bare-knuckled brawls this side of Kill Bill. One moment in particular, in which a hardcover book is used as an instrument of pain, is particularly badass. And of course, there are once again car-chases galore, with some of the best high speed encounters since the storied days of Steve McQueen.

The other great thing about these movies is how consistently great the acting is. Matt Damon has evolved into one of the best young actors around, and even though he doesn't necessarily say much as Jason Bourne, he is able to convey that there's something deeper going on with Jason than with your typical action hero. Damon is solid here as always, and he has a cool intensity that always makes Bourne interesting to watch. However, the real story here is once again the background characters, an area where this franchise really seems to shine. In the past, some true greats like Chris Cooper and Brian Cox have lent their talents to relatively small parts, a real bonus to see such accomplished actors steal scenes that could have been far less interesting in lesser hands. This time out, we get David Strathairn in a key role, as a CIA A.D. who is out to reel in Jason Bourne and keep a lid on the whole Treadstone project that created him. Straithairn, who I've recently become a big fan of thanks to Good Night and Good Luck, is awesome here - really the perfect guy to give the movie some real gravitas and in turn an effective foil for Bourne. In addition, Joan Allen is back as a more liberal government official who tends to sympathize with Bourne. Allen is very good once again, particularly in her sparring matches with Straitharn (sorry, unsure how to spell his name), where the two have some cuttingly classic exchanges. Julia Styles is also pretty good here, but a possible romantic past with Jason is hinted at with such ambiguity that it never really becomes much of a factor. I'm fine with some subtlety, but the point is glossed over so that it barely ever comes into play.

And I guess that's the main thing that keeps the Bourne franchise from really being *great* and not just very good. All the movies are slickly made, full of nice action, and populated with overqualified, top-of-the-line actors (also special mention must be made of the kickass soundtrack / score to all 3 movies - mood-setting, catchy, and definitely one of the best of the modern action franchises). But what is especially evident in Ultimatum is that as much polish as Greengrass and his team of actors give to these films, the source material is ultimately somewhat thin. And that's not a knock on the books - I haven't read them and can't speak to how they are adapted here. But my point is - this movie was essentially all about uncovering the secret origin of Jason Bourne, and the entire plot hinged on the big reveal of who he was and how he came to be a CIA experiment plagued by memory loss and dumbfounded at his own superhuman efficiency as a field-agent. But the plot, when you strip away all the cool action, is basically paint by numbers. There's no big twist regarding Jason's real identity, no real mysteries raised about his past, no info given about his life pre-CIA, or any hints about what made him volunteer for this experimental program in the first place. The lack of substance to the mystery behind Bourne really hit me towards the end of Ultimatum, when Jason confronts the Dr. Frankenstein of the Treadstone Project, in what should have been an epic, monster-meets-his-maker moment. And yet, there was no real spark, mainly because we had been given only bare-bones background information about the relationship between the two. It felt like all of the scripts energy was focused on the crackling dialogue between Allen and Straitharn, with little left to devote to the actual backstory of Bourne, which is purportedly what this movie is all about.

So yeah, I would heartily recommend The Bourne Ultimatum - it's a very solid action / espionage flick with some amazing action sequences and riveting performances from Damon, Allen, and Straitharn, rounding out a franchise that has been consistently high-quality. I would hesitate to call this film an "A" however, simply because, while the characters are memorable, there isn't a plot, or, in turn, a reason for the movie to exist, that lives up to the quality apparent in the direction and cast. Still, head and shoulders above the typical summer action movie, and in terms of sheer style - a potent mix of cutting-edge technique and old-school charm, Bourne can't be beat.

My Grade: B+

- Whew, alright, that's all I've got for now. Thanks for reading and check back soon for more.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Hey, hey, boys and girls!

Man, after an exhausting week of long hours and much craziness at work, in the wake of an insane weekend in San Diego, I am more than ready for a little R & R, and at least one night's sleep lasting approximately 10 - 12 hours! Yes, when given the chance I enjoy sleeping that long. But anyways, SO many interesting movies coming out. This weekend alone, the fine folks at UNIVERSAL (cheap plug!) have the Bourne Ultimatum, which should be great. I am sad to say however, that until last night I had never seen any of the Bourne movies. So yesterday I finally watched Part 1, and hope to catch Part 2 ASAP so I'll be ready for Part 3. I enjoyed The Bourne Identity a great deal - it was far removed from your typical action flick and reminded me more of films like Point of No Return, more cerebral, more about atmosphere, and with a plot that clearly seemed part of a planned, well-thought-out trilogy rather than a one-and-done. Great turns from Damon, Chris Cooper, and Brian Cox as well. Looking forward to checking out what Paul Greengrass did with Bourne Supremecy and then with Ultimatum, as I was blown away by his directing in United 93.

But I have to say, my #1 most anticipated movie of the weekend is one that anyone who likes comedy should be psyched about: THE TEN. Basically, this is the next true project from the guys behind "The State" and "Wet Hot American Summer," which to me is one of the funniest movies ever made. The movie is written by Ken Marino and directed by David Wain, and actualyl features EVERY member of The State comedy troupe as well as people like Paul Rudd, Wynona Rider, Adam Brody, and Jessica Alba. I cannot WAIT to see this, and if you consider yourself a comedy fan whatsoever, you need to go familiarize yourself with The State, Wet Hot, and now The Ten as soon as possible. Go see it!

Now, for the main event:


- As I detailed here a few days ago, this was in many ways a movie I was both anticipating and dreading. I've been a Simpsons fan, for all practical purposes, for my ENTIRE LIFE. I am 24 years old. This means the Simpsons has been running since I was about 6. And even though the show has steadily declined in quality, I've remained a faithful viewer, because for me the show has become a comfort, a routine, a way of life. Sunday night at 8 pm it's time for The Simpsons. At times Sundays on FOX have been home to Futurama, King of the Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Family Guy, The X-Files, and many more. But the one constant for many years has always been The Simpsons. Even when the episode turns out to be mediocre, which tends more often than not to be the case these days, there is that certain comfort in seeing that familar opening, checking out what the couch gag will be, hearing that familiar theme song play. The Simpsons isn't just a TV show at this point - it's a pop cultural touchstone, the shaper of an entire generation's sense of humor. It's a tradition.

So it was only fitting that I saw The Simpsons movie on a Sunday night. And even more fitting that I saw it in San Diego in the last hours of Comic-Con, a crowd to which The Simpsons has always played remarkably well to. It's a show that rewards attention to detail, obscure pop culture knowledge, and one that has always been an equal opportunity offender. But the question was this: even with the return of classic writers like Mike Reiss and John Schwartzwelder to the fold, could The Simpsons movie mark a true return to form for a show that is on the verge of having as many subpar years as it has had classics? In an era when so many episodes feel like remakes of rehashed concepts, could the movie give us everything we love about the show AND something that felt new and different?

It's funny, because The Simpsons itself provided just the right metaphor for this situation, in the episode where the Itchy and Scratchy movie is released and Bart finds himself bursting at the seams with anticipation. If this movie had been released in The Simpsons' heyday, I'd probably have had that same child-like anticipation for this, no trepidation, no anxiety, just pure, unadulterated excitement. And I have to admit, as the buzz grew in the weeks leading up to the film, as I saw a genuine Kwik-E-Mart pop up down the street from me in Burbank, well, I WAS starting to get a little giddy. For a long time, The Simpsons as I remembered it from back in the day and The Simpsons as it currently existed were two very different things. What was so exciting about the movie was that it held with it the promise of a return to those glory days. The days when all we could talk about at school on a Monday morning was last night's episode of The Simpsons. The days when my brother and I watched on a Sunday night with a mix of uncontrollable laughter and student-like attention for fear of missing a classic joke. The days when it was merely an unspoken and inarguable truth - The Simpsons was not only the funniest thing around, it was the Best. Show. Ever.

And all this brings me to the movie. In short - I am pleased to say that this represents the funniest that The Simpsons has been in years. Aside from a few standout episodes scattered over the last several years, this was the most laughter I've gotten from a new Simpsons story in a long, long time. The best news to report about this movie is that above all else, the writing is spot-on. The jokes zing like old times. There are a few clunkers, sure, but when Ralph Wiggum sees a naked Bart Simpson skateboarding by and nonchalantly remarks "I like boys now!" - well, all seems right in the universe, and The Simpsons of old had returned without missing a beat. The fact is, there are a number of instant-classic jokes in the movie that will join the cannon of amazingly quotable Simpsons lines. "I'm just concerned about Grampa." "I'm in the mob!"

Now, the major knock against this movie is that the plot is nothing special. In fact, not only is it kind of a mixed bag that's fairly all-over-the-place, but many of its major themes and beats have very noticably been done to death over the last decade and a half of Simpsons episodes. Let's look at some of these redundant plot points:

- Lisa falls in love with a similarly globally-concious boy.
- Homer and Marge's relationship is on the rocks thanks to Homer's latest act of stupidity.
- A Simpson kid gets taken in by Ned Flanders.
- The town of Springfield seems to be on the brink of disaster.
- A climactic moment involving the jumping of Springfield gorge.
- The Simpsons being forced to relocate away from Springfield.

All of these are MAJOR plot points of the film, and all are pretty much things we've seen a million times over on the show, sometimes to better and more well-thought-out effect. Of these, my two main criticisms are the following: We've seen Marge question her relationship with Homer based on a screw-up that is purportedly his worst ever, and then eventually reconcile with him after his misguided but well-intentioned plan to save face, over and over again throughout the show's history. In particular, we've seen this plot resurface more times than I can count in the last few years, and it's probably the #1 generic plot that has been used of late when it seems like the writers are grasping at straws for new plot ideas. To see it return yet AGAIN here is pretty disappointing in some respects. But I'll tell you why it's not wholly disappointing in a minute. But first, my other main plot complaint is that the overall premise for the film is simply not that great. Even as the snappy jokes are hitting their mark, it's for the sake of advancing a plot that seems cobbled together simply for the sake of hitting all the necessary beats: Homer screws up, Marge gets mad, Springfield is in jeapordy, Homer saves the day. Instead of using all of the established Simpsons characters to full effect, like, say, Mr. Burns, Albert Brooks steps in as an EPA official who serves President Schwarzenegger (randomly, the apparent Prez in the Simpsons-verse these days). Now, it's always great to hear Albert Brooks, Hank Scorpio himself, voice a Simpsons character, but again, it just seems like his character is one of many random and underdeveloped elements that were thrown into the salad bowl that is this movie's plotline.

What I'm getting at is this: while the jokes here have the same zip and laugh-factor as the classic episodes, the plotline has the scattered and random feel that tends to characterize the newer episodes. We have a running theme of Grampa predicting the movie's plot as part of a weird doomsday prophecy, an extended relationship between Homer and his new pet pig, and a long segment detailing the Simpsons' new home in Alaska. All of these stories produce funny scenes, but they all serve as these weird divergences that don't necessarily contribute to the whole. In addition, all of the randomness means we have less time with beloved characters like Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns, probably the two most conspicuous by their lack of screen time. Not to mention, it's too bad that this movie didn't make use of probably the greatest Simpsons villain - Sideshow Bob, who would have been a great fit for an epic movie with one of his typically diabolical schemes.

But here's the thing -- because the writing here is much sharper than what the show has produced as of late, the plotlines, even though they are somewhat rehashed and jumbled, are really pretty scecondary. Because, for example, even though we've seen Homer and Marge have relationship issues all too often of late, it's been a LONG, LONG time since their marriage was written with as much nuance, heart, and character as it is here. It's a sharp reminder of the fact that in its prime, the brilliance of The Simpsons wasn't just how funny it was, but how these yellow cartoon characters could inexplicably possess the ability to make your eyes water and your emotions swell. What separates The Simpsons from its descendants like Family Guy and South Park, and puts it, to me, on a level that those shows will never reach, is that it has that hefty dose of HEART. That classic element that defined episodes of old returns in full force here, and it's a testament to the writing and of course the superb voice acting that even though I've seen Homer and Marge struggle so many times, this time, it actually really got to me, in a way it hasn't since that one episode where Homer realizes that Marge is his soul mate from 1990-something. I mean who knows, maybe guys like Schwartzwelder haven't been watching the show lately and didn't even realize that some of their plotlines had since already been done to death. I don't know, maybe that's the case. But in a weird way it's okay, because again, the heart is there, the dialogue is there, that genuine sense of emotional involvement is there, and man is it great to see.

And again, how can one see this movie and not give heaps of praise to the brilliant, brilliant voice actors who give these characters life. To think that a guy like Don Castanella is so consistently brilliant as Homer Simpson, I mean the guy deserves some kind of award. He's hilarious, random, moving, empathetic - a true classic on the top of his game here. And Julie Kavner as Marge really shines as well - she has that way of making you sad that a cartoon character really shouldn't be able to pull off, but somehow, she does it. There is just this magic between Homer and Marge that is on full display here, and the movie really does a great job of reminding you that in the end, The Simpsons is really just about a dysfunctional family that somehow still loves each other and sticks together in the end. Homer and Marge are the true stars of this movie, and I am just continually amazed at the combination of hilarity and pathos that their respective voice actors bring to the table. I mean, all of these guys are just amazing. Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, Yeardly Smith, Harry Shearer ... what these people do really is lightning in a bottle.

So there you have it. In some ways, the movie reminded me of some of the things that I've grown to dislike about what The Simpsons has become. It's gotten too jumbled, too random, and too derivative of itself, and some of that is evident in the movie. But in a much bigger way, this movie was a testament to how great The Simpsons has been and can be when it hits its stride. Not only is it one of the funniest franchises ever, if not THE funniest, but it has so many levels of depth - social commentary, political commentary, a real family dynamic, pop culture satire and homage, and a hefty helping of heart. To be reminded of the show's greatness and continued potential was truly awesome. It reminded me that in a weird way, the show's humor and sensibilities are so affecting and so near and dear to me, that when I meet someone who is NOT into The Simpsons, I have to try hard not to judge their sensibilities in general. In the end, this wasn't the super-ultimate-better-than-anything-ever Simpsons movie that I used to dream about as a kid, but it was a worthy flashback to a time when The Simpsons ruled the world. And it's nice to see the movie do so well at the box-office to boot, because as far as I'm concerned, if the masses are into The Simpsons, then it's one of the few positive signs we have that maybe, just maybe, we're not as doomed as we think.

My Grade: B+

- Have a great weekend.

"De Goggles, dey do nothing!"

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More Comic-Con Thoughts: 24, The State on DVD, MORE

Allllllrighty then. Let me first follow up a bit on yesterday's epic Comic-Con post with a few thoughts I forgot to include the first time around:

- For one thing, I totally forgot to mention that my friends and I did in fact catch the tail end of the TWENTY-BY-GOD FOUR (24) panel on Friday afternoon. We missed most of it, but we did catch one VERY interesting tidbit that all of you diehard Tony Almeda fans will want to pay attention to: The 24 producers revealed that, their ORIGINAL but never-shot ending for this past season was for Jack to be standing outside of Heller's home, when all of a sudden a car would pull up, TONY "SOUL-PATCH" ALMEDA would triumphantly step out, and say: "Jack, we've got a lot to talk about." DAAAAAAAAAMN. Why oh why didn't they go with this? That would have been SICK. But even more importantly, does this reveal imply that regardless of whether he appeared last season, that TONY yet lives in the 24 universe in the hearts and minds of the show's creators?!?! If so, does that mean that the be-patched one may yet RETURN to wreak unholy vengeance on those who killed his wife? Please, let it be so! May Season 7 of 24 be the season that the SOUL returns.

- I would have loved to have attended the Warner Bros. panel but alas it was not meant to be. I was uber-curious to hear director Zach Snyder talk about WATCHMEN. That movie is hopefully shaping up to be amazing, and it had better be, as it's the best comic book ever written and probably my personal favorite piece of literature I've ever read. On the other hand, nothing was shown or talked about relating to DARK KNIGHT. I am still chomping at the bit to hear more about this one, to see anything that will reassure me that it will kick ass. I have faith in Chris Nolan, but give us something to sink our teeth into.

- I also forgot to mention this one cool event that I didn't go to but seemed awesome nonetheless. Warner home video coopted all of Petco Park in San Diego and turned it into a giant colliseum, as a special screening of 300 was shown, complete with slave-girls, Spartans, Persians, and shields and helmets for everyone. I think this event was invite-only but man did it seem cool. THIS. IS. SPARRRTAAAAAA!

- Perhaps the greatest single announcement to come out of Comic-Con was when Thomas Lennon announced that, finally, THE STATE was headed to DVD on October 20th!!!!!!!!! This is awesome news, I've been waiting for this to happen seemingly forever and I will be there on day of release to relive Doug, Louie, and the rest of the classic sketch comedy bits from the glory days of MTV. YES!!!! The State on DVD, baby!

- Also interesting that DC's FINAL CRISIS will be penned by Grant Morrison. Grant's last event for DC, DC 1 Million, was one of the better intercompany crossovers in recent memory, so it's one of those things where even if it doesn't live up to the name "Crisis" in terms of scale or game-changing twists, at the very least it's an all-new Grant Morrison penned DC Story, which is rarely a bad thing.

- I'm also glad that Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES finally got an October release date. It seems like forever since this was supposed to have come out. Kelly is one of those filmmakers who everyone's been holding their breath to see what he has up his sleeve as a follow-up to Donnie Darko. Other than the screenplay to Domino, we've still been holding our breath. But I still can't wait to see this.

- Can't wait for the new FUTURAMA episodes on Comedy Central and the upcoming DVD movies. FUTURAMA was criminally underrated and underwatched when it first aired, no thanks to FOX contiually screwing around with its scheduling. It's great to see this show, which was consistently great for all four of its seasons, come back in such a big way with such a big groundswell of fan support.

- Finally, I can't remember there ever being so many interesting movies coming out in August. BOURNE ULTIMATUM, WAR, the guilty-pleasure that is Rush Hour 3, STARDUST (which should be amazing), and then a ton of great comedies in SUPERBAD, BALLS OF FURY, and THE TEN (can't wait to see that one either - who's with me?). Even Hot Rod looks kinda funny. Plus I still need to see Rescue Dawn and Sunshine.

- I still need to review THE SIMPSONS, I know. I'll get to that ASAP, hopefully. Check back soon. For now, I'm outta heeeeeeeeere.