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 ...