Monday, April 28, 2008

The Kung-Fu Is Strong: FORBIDDEN KINGDOM Reviewed - Plus: Simpsons, KOTH, Family Guy, and MORE

Ah, it's good to eat bread.

I have to say though, I was pretty good this passover. I give some credit to the Warner Bros. commisary across from my building, as they have an excellent and well-stocked salad bar, which allowed me to eat chametz-free lunches throughout the work-week that were healthy to boot. And though I got by on crouton-free salads, orange chicken, matzoh-pizza, macaroons, and Crispy-O's ... well, it was nice, as always, to do the traditional post-passover pig-out of real (albeit West Coast) pizza, at post-Pesach staple CPK, with plenty of pieces of pre-meal bread, naturally.

All in all it was nice to have a relaxing weekend after last week's fun but exhausting trip to San Diego. Hung out with some of the NBC Page crew on Saturday in North Hollywood, took in a movie on Sunday, and generally watched a ton of NBA playoff basketball. I was happy to see the Suns live to fight another day and finally hand the Spurs a sound defeat. I was surprised to see the Celtics lose a game to the Hawks, though pretty impressed with Josh Smith and co in Atlanta. And I really enjoyed seeing yet another classic Houston vs. Utah matchup, gotta love watching those two teams go down to the wire yet again.


- THE SIMPSONS last night was a very mixed bag - the premise, of Bart getting overly attached to a cow he befriends as a member of 4H, only to see it sent to the slaughter - wasn't all that original or compelling. But this episode kept getting pulled back from the brink by a regular stream of funny moments or lines of dialogue. It was one of those episode where, just when I was feeling frustrated by the been-there-done-that nature of the plot (Bart gets married - again?!?), a great joke would surface and make me thing "hmm, this episode is actually not bad." (like all of Cletus' kids being named for what they would eventually do). I was also pretty impressed with the episode's stubborn refusal to branch out into random B-plots. Like the classic episodes of days gone by, this one took the whole half hour to tell its story. Maybe that's why, even when the plot felt like a retread or some of the jokes fell flat, this felt like a more substantial, more fully-realized episode than most modern-day eps. Was the plot all-over-the-place? Yep, pretty much, and it recycled the well-worn Bart-loves-a-doomed-animal plot to boot. But considering all that, this one was surprisingly solid.

My Grade: B

-I've talked about this before: sometimes, KING OF THE HILL will forego its solid but at times formulaic ways for an episode that can only be considered *really weird*. Last night was one of those strange episodes, an installment that felt a bit darker and more adult than a typical KOTH episode. The plotline was a bit convoluted, to be sure - After a string of terrible birthdays, Peggy decides that this will be the year where her party is the talk of the town, so she arranges to take part in a murder-mystery train ride - a 70's disco themed murder mystery, to be precise. At the last minute, Luanne is enlisted to replace one of the murder mystery actors, and before the production even begins, she tips off Dale as to the killer' identity. Dale promptly spoils the game, and Peggy's birthday seems to have been ruined yet again. The REAL strangeness begins when Hank tries to comfort a distraught Peggy, and in doing so, Hank does something very out of character, as he engages in ... "relations" with his wife right there in the train's restroom! Kahn notices some steamy footprints in the bathroom, and starts up a new murder mystery, enlisting the train passengers to figure out which of the many couples on board did the deed. Like I said - a very atypical KOTH plotline, and I was surprised how many different twists and turns it took, going from a story about Peggy's cursed birthday parties, to Hank and Peggy's sexual escapades (which I have to say, though odd for Hank, it was kind of hilarious to see his reaction, worrying that he could receive the "propane death penalty" as punishment), to the weirdness of having all the characters decked out in 70's disco apparel. In additon to all that randomness, there was the very strange subplot that saw Bobby, Joseph, and Connie home alone while their parents were away. Despite all three being young teens, they decided to spend their time ... building a fort? Hmmm, okay. So it was a pretty disjointed episode, with a somewhat adult A plot contrasting sharply with an oddly innocent B plot. Still, there were a ton of dialogue gems throughout. From Hank's approval of the train conductor ("fun in a controlled atmosphere!") to Lucky's expertise on solving mysetires via years of watching detective-show reruns. A strange, random episode - but definitely a memorable one.

My Grade: B

- Now, while both Simpsons and KOTH had enough going for them to make me forget some of my plot-oriented criticisms, FAMILY GUY last night had a few laughs but mostly just grated on me. I agree with some comments I've read on The Onion and elsewhere that Brian is usually most effective either when paired with Stewie or Peter. When Brian is meant to carry a story, especially as in last night's ep where it was alongside a one-shot character, you often get a flat-feeling episode. Overall, I tend to sour on FG when it feels more mean-sprited than satirical, and last night's ep was full of some pretty bitter humor. From Brian's old flame turning out to be a hideous monster, to his bastard son mostly being a murderous psycho, to an extended joke basically mercilessly bashing Matthew McConahay (sp?), I just found a lot in this episode to be generally pretty off-putting. I also thing this episode is a great example of how a joke is often funnier the more subtle it is. Back when Stewie was merely an effeminate baby with a murderous streak, he was often flat-out hilarious. Now that he's a full-on gay baby, the joke was already stale halfway through the episode as we were continuously beat over the head with this new out-and-proud status quo. It's too bad, because I thought FG was really gaining some momentum during its last run. It's a shame to see it devolve into a show that embraces its own worst tendencies.

My Grade: C

- Okay, now for a movie review. Because while last week I didn't end up getting into the free screening I was supposed to attend, this weekend, nothing would stop me from seeing Jet Li go at it with Jackie Chan in a kung-fu dream match. And thus I present to you:


- How great is your kung-fu? That was the question I asked of The Forbidden Kingdom as I sat down in the theater. And it was two hours later that I had my answer: the movie had a silly script, some wooden acting, and a nonsensical, acid-trip of a plotline. But was it's kung-fu grip strong? Indeed it was, Daniel-san. Indeed it was.

Basically, this movie is a kung-fu version of The Neverending Story. Same basic premise - picked-on loner type kid gets magically swept away into a fantasy world of high adventure, eventually returns to his world a better and stronger boy, and finally teaches those schoolyard bullies a lesson or two to boot. In this case, our hero is a geeky, martial-arts obsessed kid from Boston who looks like a cross between Shia LaBuff and a young Scott Bakula. His room is a shrine to Bruce Lee and The Shaw Brothers (it probably would be to Chan and Li as well, but that would be a bit weird, continuity-wise). He collects bootleg kung-fu flicks that he finds at a shady pawn shop run by a wise old Mr. Miyagi type. And yet, he's still kind of a geek, at the mercy of a bunch of cartoonish thugs who seem ripped out of the pages of 1970's comic book, complete with thuggish, "street" dialogue that might make Stan Lee cringe.

To sum up what happens from there ... well, let's see ... the thugs decide to rob the old man, things get (somewhat shockingly) violent when the lead thug shoots (!) Mr. Miyagi. But before he goes, the shop owner bequeeths some magical staff to our hero, Nice Jewish Boy, and - bam! - the staff transports the kid from Boston to a mythical land of kung-fu adventure that's like a mix of Crouching Tiger and Mortal Kombat.

There's then an overarching plot about how the staff is being sought by a ruthless warlord type, who used it to imprison a mythical monkey-king centuries ago. Thus begins the journey to free the monkey dude, as our young hero is joined by the Drunken Master himself, Jackie Chan (playing, well, a Drunken Master), a young warrior-woman with a knack for flinging deadly throwing-darts (a prerequisite for this type of movie), and by, well, Jet Li, playing a silent monk (I think he is actually named Silent Monk), who is in fact an aspect of the Monkey guy (so he too wants to get the spear back to Monkey, etc.).

Of course, all of this is essentially window-dressing so as to ppave the way for a number of sweet fight scenes. Now, a lot of what we see here is pretty typical wire-fu stuff. If you've seen Crouching Tiger, Hero, Iron Monkey, or House of Flying Daggers ... then you've probably seen a lot of the action stuff here done really well already. But the thing I appreciated about Forbidden Kingdom was that it knew what the real main event was - Chan vs. Li, baby. When the two first meet midway through the film and ave the inevitable misunderstanding resulting in fisticuffs, it feels like a bigtime brawl, baby. The film really nails the iconography inherent in two of kung-fu's all time legends going at it for the first time ever, and I was on the edge of my seat watching the two exchange flurries of punches, kicks, and countermoves. Sure, it was all under the guise of a kid-friendly fantasy flick, with both wearing goofy period costume and such, but somehow, it all worked. It's in part because, for all its wackiness, Forbidden Kingdom serves as a somewhat heartfelt tribute to the great martial arts movies. It is in a way an homage to Chan and Li, painting them as rival masters not of this world but of some mystical kung-fu land where each is like a god. It's goofy and fun, yet there is a real kind of love-letter dynamic at play. It's evident from the opening credits, which are displayed over a montage of old-time kung-fu movie posters. From the get-go, the movie gets you primed and ready to rumble.

Chan and Li are huge presences, but there are some other fun turns as well. Our lead villain is a classic pulp antagonist, hissing his EVIL dialogue with the prfect amount of reptilian venom. There's a white-haired witch, looking like an anime character come to life, who uses her retractable, silken hair as a deadly weapon. There's a lot of cool characters, that's for sure, and the movie has them frequently and satisfyingly fight it out early and often, with all the acrobatics, elaborate choreography, and crazy kung-fu stuff that you could hope for.

So yeah, the film brings the pain, but it also tends to bring the pain, if you know what I mean. Some of the dialogue really is painful, and oftentimes just plain hard to understand. As charismatic as Jackie Chan is, he still struggles to speak English and to really be an effective actor other than when the script calls for broad humor. Li is a bit more of an effective dramatist, and its a blast seeing him play both a strong and silent monk and the crazy, hopped-up Monkey King ... but again, his stilted English combined with the flat script does produce some cringe-worthy moments. What's most disappointing about the movie is that it has some great visuals, great action, two icons in Li and Chan, and a proven, time-tested and kid-friendly premise - but too much of it feels thrown together. If just a little more care had been given to the bookend scenes in the real-world, for example, the movie could have had the same kind of fairy-tale effect as kids classics like The Neverending Story. But we never really focus on the awe and wonder that would go along with being swept away into a fantasy world. Everything is just kind of taken at face value, and it gives the movie a somewhat sloppy feel. It's the kind of movie that COULD have been a real kids' classic with some better storytelling chops, but is instead frustrating in that it really misses the mark in terms of giving us a classic hero's journey. Our main character is swept away into this other world, almost instantly accepts his fate, and within minutes goes from geeky teen to martial arts master - with a character arc that feels haphazardly handled at best. It's a shame, because the movie reminded me of all those great kids movies from back in the day, and at times it really had that same sense of fun, awe, and wonder. But as is, Forbidden Kingdom is a movie chock full of kung-fu action, an iconic throwdown between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but a movie that feels too hastily-thrown together to be measure up to the classics.

My Grade: B

- And with that, I'm out like a ninja, baby.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Explain it to me in Star Wars." 30 Rock, Office, LOST, and Smallville - Reviewed!

Oh man, what a week. Thank jeebus it's Friday is all I can say.

I'll jump right in though, because man, last night was a ridiculous embarassment of riches in terms of good TV. For the first time in a while, the deck was truly loaded, and you had to have your remote control hand warmed up if you wanted to catch all the good stuff. It didn't help that the Rockets and Jazz had a barn-burner of a good game last night, which was a lot of fun to watch - shades of the great Houston vs. Utah rivalries of days gone by - but the game unfortunately caused me to miss a few snippets from some of the other good TV last night (I think I missed the ifrst 30 seconds or so of both 30 Rock and Lost .... as Liz Lemon might say: blurgh!).

Okay, onto the reviews:


- I know, you were thinking I'd start with LOST, right? Well, the thing is, is that as good as Lost was last night, the big winners for me were NBC's pair of comedy superstars. Both returned to form last night, for me delivering their best and funniest episodes since they came back with new episodes following the writer's strike. The Office last night, as has been the trend the last few weeks, was DARK. But unlike the dinner party episode which was brilliantly twisted to the point of being more uncomfortable than funny, last night's ep was both pretty awkward and at times uncomfotable, but also laugh out loud hilarious. I loved all of the interaction with Michael, Dwight, and Ryan - their trip to NYC was just so well done, playing off some of the funniest aspects of Michael's persona - his longing to turn back the clock and be a swinging young bachelor, his longing for male companionship, his longing for female companionship (of a slightly different kind), and his weird man-crush on Ryan, where last night he was so happy to attach himself to Ryan, who he perceives as young, hip, and exciting, that he was totally blind to the fact that the guy was having a drug-induced meltdown. Like I said - very dark, but like I said, very funny. The fact that Michael ended the episode on Cloud 9 was the perfect capper. Meanwhile, Dwight was great with his strange belief that New York was some kind of alternate universe where hobbits and amazons roamed the streets. "Do you live in a normal-sized house?" Bwahaha ... Then, the stuff at the office was well done i nthat it set up Jim more and more as a guy whose happy-go-lucky demeanour covers up the fact that he isn't necessarilly a great planner, when his idea to stay late on a Friday in order to avoid coming in on a Saturday backfires, as the crew gets locked out of the parking lot. The best moment of this plotline came towards the end, when the slowly-building tension between Toby and Pam came to a sudden head, with Toby blatantly placing his hand on her thigh in full view of Jim ... and everyone else in the office. Jim, Pam, and Toby's reaction was totally awkward and absolutely hilarious, with perpetually morose Toby abruptly announcing his impending move to Costa Rica, running away from the group, jumping the fence, and jogging home. Classic. Also, Meredith getting hit in the face with a football was pretty funny as well. Anyways, this one was up there with the best Office episodes of the season - laughs, pathos, awkwardness - who can ask for more? And by the way, as anyone who works in the digital world can attest to, Ryan's misguided insistence that Dunder Mifflin's website inexplicably become a social networking destination was right on the money.

My Grade: A

30 ROCK:

- I've always said that 30 Rock is at its best when it avoids sitcom-style sappiness and focuses on its patented brand of off-the-wall, absurdist humor. So yeah, I was pretty happy with the comedic chaos that was last night's ep - a perfect storm of laughs, parodies, and great character moments that had me rolling. First off, great to see Will Arnett back on the show. His delivery as always was spot on, and the exchanges between him and Alec Baldwin were on the money, and even contained some unexpected sadness and empathy. Liz Lemon's transition from showrunner to corporate exec was pretty funny, and as someone who's worked on both comedy shows and with programming execs, there was some pretty on-the-money satire in that plotline. I loved how Liz's simple suggestion regarding GE microwaves became an instant hit, and wherever she went Liz was credited for coming up with "Button Classic," when all she did was reject a new design in favor of keeping the old one. Yep, sounds like GE alright ... (Whoops, did I just say that?). But the thing that drove this episode over the top for me was Tracy Morgan. The guy just makes me laugh. plain and simple. The gag of him shouting an exclamation, only for him to actually be saying someone's name, well, I don't know if that will ever get old (last night it was something like "Eureka! She'll know what to do." hahahaha). Tracy's plan to create the ultimate pornographic videogame was just inherently hilarious. "Explain it to me in Star Wars." Hahahaha ... The whole thing just had me in stitches, and a late-episode cameo by Chris Parnell only added to the overall awesomeness of the episode. Now THIS is the 30 Rock we've come to know and love. Eureka, indeed.

My Grade: A


- Last night's LOST was a great return for a show that's been THE must-see-TV show of 2008. The show went out a few weeks ago with a couple of so-so episodes following the landmark "The Constant," but last night we got an ep that, if nothing else, kept me on the edge of my seat with a hearty mix of balls-to-the-wall action and breakneck storytelling. I guess where I might differ a little from some Lost fans is that I get kind of annoyed with Ben Linus. Yes, he's a great character, but I feel like the Lost writers at times fall a little too in love with him. In last night's ep, the focus was squarely on Ben, and I think some of my frustration with him is that he's been given SO many layers as a character, yet we still have no real idea what his actual deal is. To compare to another great sci-fi TV villain, look at the Cigarette Smoking Man of X-Files fame. In episodes like "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man," we got a ton of insight into the character that made him much more than simply a cookie cutter badguy ... but still, when push came to shove, he was a villain through and through. With Ben, there seems to be this whole notion that he is in fact on the side of the angels, and the writers on Lost now tend to emphasize this idea that, hey, maybe Ben's been fighting the good fight all along, and it's Whidmore and the others who are the real big bads. The problem with that is: Ben is clearly evil. In this episode, he LETS HIS OWN ADOPTIVE daughter die. So who could argue with Sawyer when he suggests that they just leave Ben to the wolves? I guess my only point is that Ben is long past the point of moral ambiguity, so let's stop pretending that his great master plan is somehow well-intentioned. The dude's stone-cold evil.

Anyways ... all that being said, it was a totally riveting hour of Lost last night. The island invasion by Whidmore's crew was action-packed and intense. Who didn't love the redshirts being knocked off one by one as Sawyer tried to warn them to stay back? The entire siege on Locke's compund was pretty riveting stuff, and it culminated in a nail-biting stand-off between Ben and Badass Whidmore Dude, that went against convention, or "the rules" as Ben stated, if you want to get meta about it, and saw the hostage actually gunned down, Ben's bluff called, and poor Alex a goner. A great, tragic scene, to be sure.

My one question -- the lead Whidmore attacker was the same guy we had seen on the boat with Sayid earlier, right? So, um, how did he get off the boat again? Did I miss something here? Anyone?

Otherwise, the flash-forwards with Ben tracking down Sayid (... and teleporting?!? What's what about?) were interesting. Apparently Ben now has combat skills equal to those of Jack Bauer, but hey I guess that's par for the course when you're an evil mastermind. I'm still a bit confused about the exact nature of time on the island - ie why was Ben confused about what year it was when he got to the mainland? And I also thought Sayid was a bit too hasty in joining with Ben on his quest, especially since Sayid is typically an "I demand answers" type of guy.

Still, any complaints had to have been somewhat negated by the awesomeness of the Smoke Monster devouring all of Whidmore's men at Ben's behest. And then Locke, nonplussed, admonishing Ben for saying that he didn't know what the monster was - nice. Finally, that last flash-forward scene with the bedside chat between Locke and Whidmore - very cool. Sure, it raised a lot of questions, but all of them are pretty darn intriguing. When Widmore said he knows who Ben is - what did he mean? What were "the rules" as Ben and Whidmore had agreed to them? And you have to wonder ... where is Penelope and/or Desmond in the flash-forward timeline? Might both be on the island, setting up a weird symbiosis in Ben and Whidmores' quests (Whidmore's looking for the island, Ben's looking for Penelope).

So yeah, I was at times a bit frustrated with the ep ... but, overall? This was an exciting, action-packed episode with some amazing bits of character, plot, and a lot of steam going into next week. Welcome back, Lost.

My Grade: A -


- Again, a pretty decent episode of Smallville that was hampered by the show's typical lazy writing. Chloe - is there anything she can't do? After making the point that she would have to up her computer-hacking game in order to make her way into top-secret NSA computer systems ... Chloe promptly breaches US government security and hijacks spy sattelites. Umm ... okay? Overall, this was a fun little episode that pitted Jimmy against Chloe in a kind of Mr. and Mrs. Smith riff. But after last week's grand plotting and epic fall of Lex, it seemed like the reset button was hit a bit this week, and things seemed to revert back to business as usual. This holds especially true with Lex - I was surprised to see the spotlight shift so far away from him after such a bigtime episode last week. So basically, while the focus on Jimmy was fun, it did have the air of being Filler en route to some big stuff that looks to be coming in the next few weeks. But geez, let's get to the good stuff already! They totally had me intrigued at episode's end, with the prospect of Clark visiting Krypton by means of time-travel. Now, next week looks to be yet another "what-if" type scenario, aka more filler. Come on, give us some epic ACTION already!Jimmy Olsen: secret agent is semi-entertaining, but I think Smallville fans are collectively dyin' for business to pick up.

My Grade: B

- Alright, that's it for now ... looking forward to a weekend that will hopefully include some rest, relaxation, and come Sunday night, some BREAD!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reviewing SARAH MARSHALL, San Diego, Passover, and MORE

Life is a highway, and I've been riding it all weekend long. Yep, seeing as how this year was the rare one in which the first two nights of Passover fell on a weekend, I decided to pack up and truck it down to San Diego to celebrate the seder with Aksel and his family. It was a long trip, and I set out a bit later than I intended, mostly due to being unable to pry myself away from the double-overtime Suns - Spurs Game 1 that was an instant playoff classic. But I arrived in San Diego, or more specifically Chula Vista, without getting lost or any other major incident, luckily enough. We had a nice seder, good food ... and the next day was fun as well, as Aksel, his sister Janice and I saw some of the sites of the Chula Vista area, and then took an impromptu trip down to Sea World. I believe I went to Sea World once when I was like seven, and that was in Florida, so even though it was already a bit late in the afternoon and I was getting nervous about heading home while there was still some light out, I said "dammit all" and agreed to spend a few hours with Shamu and co. So we did just that, spending the afternoon with sharks, walruses, and penguins. Then I set out again, hitting the road for the long drive back to Burbank. All in all though, a fun weekend - definitely a good way to kick off Passover and a nice excuse to get away from Hollyweird for a bit.

- And now I've got basically a week of Passover ahead of me. It still amazes me how the norm in LA seems to be to not keep the holiday in the least. I mean, I think I've accumulated too many years of Passover observance at this point to not observe its no-bread dietary regulations without a huge amount of guilt and self-loathing that would surely hit me if I were to become a true-blue LA Jew. All I know is, it was pretty frustrating this year trying to guage interest in doing something for the seders, whether it was going to an organized event or what have you, and having response be minimal to nil. Since when did one have to be a super-orthodox ultra-Jew to celebrate the holidays and enjoy a little culture and tradition?

- On the other hand, it is kind of a drag to try and keep kosher for Passover, no doubt about that. Especially for those of us who are cooking-impaired, and for those of us whose usual diet consists almost entirely of bread, grain, and wheat-based goods. But what I will say is this: after eight days of eating matzoh, salad, and chicken ... finally gorging yourself on pizza to mark the holiday's end is pretty much the greatest thing ever.

- No real TV stuff to talk about this week, at least in terms of reviews. One thing that a lot of people are debating is the hype / overhype factor going into tonight's return of GOSSIP GIRL. I'm finally all caught up on this season so far, so I feel like I can weigh in ... The show is good, really good - it's well-written, has a great young cast, and is entertainingly soapy without being ridiculously melodramatic. And let's face it - the marketing of the show has been brilliant these last few weeks. Call it annoying if you want, but all those ads brandishing over-the-top exclamations like "OMFG" are doing a great job at drawing attention to the show. And it's to the show's credit that it hasn't really had any OC-like super-huge plot twists yet - when something really big DOES happen, it will feel much more legit than if there hadn't been this slow build. So yeah - all of that stuff about Gossip Girl being a #1 show on iTunes and whatnot really doesn't mean jack - I can tell you firsthand that the only tangible benefit of that standing in the Apple rankings is a bit of good PR. But good PR is exactly what the show needs and what it's getting, so kudos to CW for actually marketing a show correctly for once and making a real effort to grow a franchise. Why oh why couldn't they have done the same for Veronica Mars?


- I don't think the trailers did a great job of conveying just how funny this movie is. I wasn't sure quite what to expect going in, but I remained optimistic - in paper, Sarah Marshall had all the trappings of an A-level flick from the Judd Apatow comedy factory. A former member of the Freaks and Geeks ensemble getting his much-deserved spotlight? Check. A host of Apatow-land guest stars, from Paul Rudd to Jonah Hill? Check. A script that mixes broad comedy with conversational humor that smartly looks into the mind of the post-adolescent male? Check. So I shouldn't have really been surprised - this was another film on par with 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad - a hilarious movie that I daresay had the overall best and funniest script of any Apatow flick to date, thanks to Jason Segal. The point is, this is top to bottom one of the funniest comedies I've seen in a while, and certainly one of the best films of 2008 thus far.

To start, it's just great to see Jason Segal getting the spotlight. I've recently been rewatching some Freaks and Geeks, and on the second run-through, it's amazing how Segal's Nick stands out as perhaps the series' overall most interesting character, responsible for some of the series' funniest and most memorable moments. Who can forget Nick serenading Lindsay with a 100% awkward rendition of Styx's "Lady," for example? So classic. In any case, Segal brings that same awkward, droopy yet overly-expressive energy to this film, and it's a lot of fun to see. Like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, you get the sense that Segal isn't playing a character too far removed from his own experiences and personality - and that's probably even truer here, where much of the script is supposedly based on Segal's own experiences with bad break-ups. That feeling of authenticity is really on display here - and really, it's all the little details that make things pop. From Segal's rendency to eat cereal from a gigantic mixing bowl, to his spontaneous imitation of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, to the way he admires himself in the mirror in the morning - the movie instantly grounds itself in a kind of everyday reality that has been the trademark of Apatow's comedies to date. It's that comedy of recognition that helps to make the movie so funny - I mean, who hasn't walked around with a stick and bellowed "You shall not pass!" in their best Ian McKellan voice? Anyone? Anyone?

But I digress - the genius of these Apatow movies is how they deftly mix these very grounded characters and dialogue with moments of really broad, laugh-out-loud comedy. The wackier stuff is present in Sarah Marshall thanks to reliable supporting actors, the kind of people who instantly make you smile when they show up. I mean, who doesn't love Jack McBrayer, aka Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock? In less hilarious hands, his character here - a guy on his honeymoon overwhelmed by the desires of his wife - might have been annoying. But McBrayer is so good at playing naive and befuddled that he never fails to deliver big laughs. Same goes for Paul Rudd - the guy just has awesome comic timing, dating back to his Wet Hot American Summer days. His character here, a stoned-out surf instructer, is actually way funnier than the trailers indicated. Jonah Hill may be a bit of a weak link here, as his character does grate a little by the film's end. Nonetheless, Hill has some funny bits, and delivers some great setups for Russel Brand ...

And Russel Brand, a British comedian, is hilarious in the film as pop-star Aldous Snow. He steals many a scene with his laid-back, sex-guru persona, and some of his lines are simply classic. This guy needs to be in more movies, that much is for sure. Both of our leading ladies are similarly very good in their roles, and do a great job of playing off of Segal and Brand while not being strictly one-dimensional love interests. Kristen Bell is particularly good as the title character, Sarah Marshall. No secret that I've been a big Bell supporter due in large part to my love for Veronica Mars, but it's honestly hard to think of another actress who could have played Sarah with such a great mix of realism and movie-star glamour. Bell paints a pretty vivid picture of a woman at the very beginnings of stardom, who still has one foot in the more mundane world of Segal and his huge bowls of cereal, and one foot in the world of Hollywood and rock stars and paparazzi. I'm sure a big part of Bell's authenticity is that Sarah Marshall probably isn't too far removed from Bell's own experiences as an up-and-comer in Hollywood. Similarly, Mila Kunis does a nice job as a perky resort receptionist who befriends the depressed Segal. I'm sure people will be tempted to knock her, but I thought she was handled the role of rebound-girl well. I always thought she did a good job as Jackie on That 70's Show (which gets a lot of crap, but was a really well-done sitcom in its prime), so it was cool to see her in such a big role.

But really, once again, this movie does such a great job of making depression funny thanks to Segal. A lot has been said about the amount of, um, exposure that Segal enjoys in the film, but it's really makes sense in terms of the plot and character arc that the movie is going for. This is a guy who is pretty emotionally and socially naked - just as you couldn't help but cringe yet laugh as Segal belted out "Lady" in the Freaks and Geeks days, the same holds true here. Without spoiling too much, there is a moment here where Segal is urged to peform a song he's been working on from his pet project - a puppet musical about Dracula (yep, you read that right). Suddenly, in his best Bela Lugosi singing voice, Segal is going all-out, belting out the absolutely hilarious lyrics to his Dracula song with total sincerity and conviction, in front of a room of total strangers who have no clue what they are witnessing. The moment is honestly one of the funniest I've seen on film - and it's partly because of the craziness of the voice and the lyrics and partly because it feels so raw and honest. When Segal puts himself out there, he really puts himself out there.

And that's why I can't recommend Forgetting Sarah Marshall enough. Of all of the Apatow comedies, I think it feels the most honest, the most authentic. It's amazing too because in the end it is, essentially, a romantic comedy, a genre which is notoriously NOT funny. And yet I think I laughed about as much here as I did for 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up ... but I left the theater feeling even more satisfied, because the story felt more authentic and better told. Are there flaws? Sure -- the plot does drag a bit, and the movie does feel a little overly long. The rebound relationship between Segal and Kunis was a little too Nora Effron-romantic comedy-ish for my tastes as well -- it didn't quite gel with the overall tone of the film. But those are mostly nitpicks - the bottom line is this was a hilarious movie and certainly, the reigning king of comedy so far in '08. And holy lord, someone make the puppet Dracula musical as soon as humanly possible.

My Grade: A -

- Okay, happy Monday. Time for a healthy lunch of ... um ... geez Passover is rough.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Always Bet on Baram: 21 Review, The Simpsons, and MORE

Whooooooooooooo. Greetings from your favorite limousine-ridin', jet-flyin', kiss-stealin', wheelin', dealin' son of a gun. What's the good word? Juno is out on DVD today ... I hate how that movie has such a backlash against it - it was a great movie! Who cares if the dialogue is unrealistic? So is the dialogue in almot every great movie ever made, honest to blog. Screw the haters, Juno was one of 2007's best films in a year that overflowed with great films. I'll tell you another great movie that you shouldn't overlook -- Walk Hard. I keep seeing negative reviews of the DVD, but come on, it was hilarious! Any comedy fan should check it out ASAP.

Man, summer movie season can't get here fast enough. So many bigtime flicks coming over the next few months, I can barely concentrate on any one in particular. As regular readers know I have a compulsive need to rank things, so ... here's what I'm most looking forward to:

1. The Dark Knight
2. The X-Files 2
3. Iron Man
4. Indiana Jones
5. Wall-E
6. Speed Racer
7. Hellboy 2
8. Tropic Thunder
9. Prince Caspian
10. Kung-Fu Panda

And that's not even including some other big films like The Incredible Hulk and Wanted and Pineapple Express. I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch of others as well ... but, there you go.

- By the way, I may have alluded to this previously, but partly in the name of being film geeks and partly in the name of honoring the passing of a great actor, some friends and I decided to partake in a Charlton Heston mini movie-thon this past weekend, since none of us had ever seen two of his most famous forays into the sci-fi genre, SOYLENT GREEN and THE OMEGA MAN. My quick reviews? Well, Soylent Green is legitimately a pretty cool movie - a good performance from Heston and a really well-realized vision of a dystopian future that's coming apart at the seems. As for Omega Man, holy lord. I suspect that you need to be under the influence of various mind-altering chemicals to enjoy it - it made I Am Legend look like a masterpiece in comparison. I mean, the vampires / creatures in the movie are just NORMAL PEOPLE with white skin. On one hand they talk and think rationally, yet on the other had they spend every night, and I mean EVERY night standing outside of Heston's home, moaning, clawing, and hurling the occasional flaming object at his windows. Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?!?! Man, what a strange, strange movie.

Anyways, I've got a movie review of 21 for ya', but first some TV STUFF:

- Sunday's episode of THE SIMPSONS seems to have been a bit divisive. Some are claiming it was a good to very good episode, especially relative to most episodes from the latter-day Simpsons output. But others, like me, for one, sat through this episode enjoying a few clever lines here and there, but mostly just shaking my head in disappointment at how much most of the humor missed the mark. The fact that this episode seemed to have pretty grand ambitions only made its ultimate failure that much more painful to watch. I mean, this ep, in theory, pulled out all the stops. It brought back a beloved one-off character from the show's glory days - Lurleen Lumpkin. It had a musical number. It even had a guest-turn from The Dixie Chicks. But what can I say, the ep just never really clicked. The opening, an oddly dark bit in which Homer fantasizes about killing his dad, was disturbingly random. And I guess that if you look at the original Lurleen episode, it was really not so much about Lurleen, and much more so about Homer and his temptation to go off with this other woman - the episode is a classic precisely because I think it surprised people with how many complex themes it pushed into an animated series. In this episode, there was really none of that complexity. Lurleen's daddy issues were dealt with broadly and swiftly, and Homer's relationship with her was pretty much glossed over. The humor did work in parts - I liked how all of Lurleen's post-Homer boyfriends were basically thnic versions of Homer - but too many of the jokes felt limp. In any case, this was one of those Simpsons episodes that was decent, but by evoking a classic episode, it really painted a tale of two shows - one that was effortlessly funny and multi-layered, and another that is gimmicky and seems to just be coasting along.

My Grade: C+

- I thought KING OF THE HILL had a similar feel, where it just felt a little off despit a premise that seemed to have some potential. The idea of Joseph leaving public school to go to a fancier private one seemed rife with comedic possibilities, but the episode seemed pulled in a lot of different directions, touching on the relationship between Joseph and Dale, Dale and Hank, and Dale and Nancy's newfound role as high-society prep school parents. Conspicuous by his absence was John Redcorn - you'd think it'd only be natural for him to show up in an episode that so heavily emphasized Dale's belief that Joseph's football talent was a result of his good genes. Plus, as has been pointed out, Hank did seem a little bit callous about Bobby's best friend changing schools. It's been a while since we've seen Hank and Bobby have much interaction, so it seemed like a missed opportunity.

My Grade: B -

- As for this Saturday's SNL featuring guest host Ashton Kutcher ... um, yeah ... the less said the better. Or, to take a page from Fred Armisen's recurring news-commentator character ... "Well, the thing is, I mean, we have to, don't you see?, the problem!, if I can be frank, dolphins!, throughout our history, and that's exactly what, when push comes to shove.

Okay, onto movies.

21 Review:

- First off, I'll open with the following preamble: Perhaps the coolest thing about 21, for me, was the fact that much of the movie was shot at Boston U. So throughout the film, I recognized familiar classrooms, hallways, and exteriors from my school, which was pretty sweet. Sure, the locations were used as a stand-in for one of those "grand institutions across the river," namely, MIT, but still, go BU!

Anyways, 21 is one of those movies that was surprising in that it could have been a lot worse, but also at least a little disappointing in that it never really amounted to anything more than a pretty by-the-numbers teen thriller. The movie tells the drawn-from-true-life tale of a couple of MIT students who, under the tutelage of a scheming professor, form a club of high rollers who travel to Vegas on weekends and use their penchant for number-crunching to beat the system and win big at blackjack. It's an intriguing story, but the movie spends a lot of time on flashy shots of Vegas and not enough time examining its principle characters and their motivations for embarking on such a risky and potentially dangerous endeavor.

The big upside here is the young cast, particularly Jim Sturgess as the lead. Sturgess' performance here reminds me a lot of some of the recent, breakthrough performances we've seen from Casey Aflleck. There's something in his work that goes deeper than we're accustomed to to seeing in this type of film - a nuance, a maturity. While the material he's given to work with isn't always particularly subtle, Sturgess nonetheless brings subtlety to the role. It's not a breakthrough film, per se, but it may just be that type of attention-grabbing performance for Sturgess.

As for Kevin Spacey as the students' sleazy cardshark / professor / ringleader, well, to his credit, his work here reminded me a little of some of his classic scumbag roles in movies like Glengary Glenross and LA Confidential. I'm still pissed off at him for sucking so bad as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, but I guess that's only partially his fault ... In any case, Spacey brings some zip to the proceedings, but his character is ultimately kind of a generic antagonist, and almost a little too sketchy to be believable. Part of the problem is that the pull he has over his group of student math prodigies is never quite defined in a satisfactory manner. This means that when the inevitable dissention i nthe ranks happens later in the film, it's all feels a bit forced, as we were never quite sure what this guy's deal was in the first place, or who these students were that they were so drawn to him. In fact, this almost seems like the more interesting angle to approach the film from, but instead ...

... We get a pretty lifeless romance between Sturgess and Kate Bosworth's character, a fairly cold cardshark who is basically there as the token object of lust. We also get lots of light scenes with Sturgess and his MIT friends, a couple of geeky braniacs who don't understand where their friend jets off to on weekends or why he isn't that into their create-your-own robot contest thing anyomore. One of his friends is that Chris Farley-esque guy from FOX's Back to You, who looks a lot like the late great Farley except not really as funny. I guess that's one kind of general complaint about the film -- it could have bene a pretty intense character study and thriller, but it keeps throwing in little bits of annoying humor, the kind of stuff that brought down similarly "look-at-me-I'm-so-cool" movies like Disturbia. You know - goofy sidekicks, blank-slate girlfriend characters, etc.

Overall though, I was entertained. The systems that the students used to beat the house at blackjack were pretty interesting in theory, and between Sturgess' brooding intensity and Spacey's hammy intensity, there was enough intensity to keep me attentive and curious about what would happen next. On the other hand, it seemed like every chance the film had to really turn things up a notch, all it delivered were yet more extraneous shots of flashing casino names. Vegas has bright lights - we get it.

My Grade: B -

- Okay, until next time ...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Kicking Ass with KICKASS, and lots more.

What's up, loyal readers? Man, this has been a nutty week. Lots of craziness at work, to the point where by the end of each day my brain is 100% fried. It's a terrible feeling. Like, yesterday I really needed to go grocery shopping, and just removing myself from my new couch (!) was like this huge process. I kept wanting to do some writing, but I sat staring at my computer screen and was pretty much just numb. Ahhh, I need a vacation. Or something.

Hmm, mentioning my new couch has made me realize that I've barely talked about me at all of late here on the blog. And what good is a blog if it can't be filled with every who-gives-a-crap detail of my life? Haha, okay, well, I won't totally bore you to death, but since I've already annoyed my friends and coworkers with this stuff, I might as well put it here too. Basically, I have been trying to make some very exciting (well, to me) upgrades to the ol' apartment of late. Gone is my old LL Bean couch, and in its place is a shiny new, and, much more comfortable sleeper-sofa. The new couch is a few inches longer, which is perfect as I can now lie fully outstretched on it without my feet going over -- a necessity for any true-blue couch potato such as myself. In any case, its very comfortable and is a big upgrade. Since I live in a studio apartment, any change in furniture is a bit traumatizing, as it changes the whole look of the place. Luckily, I am over my initial minor-trauma and am now pretty well-adjusted to the new look of my apartment. Let's call it Danny's Apartment 1.5. Or even 2.0, if we're feeling ambitious. New couch, new TV ... is this a sign that I'm moving up in the world? Most likely, no, but one can dream.

What I am realizing is that, since I am a big collector / accumulator / person who refuses to throw stuff away ... my studio apartment is getting really full. I already have more DVD's than I have room to store, my closets are all full ... Oh well, one step at a time. One step at a time.

- So, NBC announced its fall lineup, much earlier than is customary for the big networks. But, f course, this year is different thanks to the Strike, and while there are surely tons of cost-saving measures that make this new process advantageous, I can say that for us on the peripheries of the network, it's a lot less fun. Basically, when NBC announced its Fall Schedule, I got my info about our new shows the same way as everyone else -- going online and reading Ain't It Cool and Variety and the NY Times. I've barely seen any of the scripts for the new shows, and have definitely not seen any footage (and may not, as the late production schedules and lack of a real "pilot season" means that first episodes will be ready-for-viewing much later than is typical). So, when it comes to: what do I think about the new NBC lineup, I have no idea as of yet because I don't know anything. But yeah, like everyone else, I'm dying to know what exactly an Office spinoff looks like.

- As part of my new HDTV setup, I upgraded my cable to include HD channels (though Charter's selection kind of sucks right now), as well as built-in DVR. Finally, right? So I'm still playing around with recording seasons and series, but yes, I have finally entered the 21st century. Like I said, I'm movin' on up. Now I seriously need a PS3.

- Nothing to really talk about in terms of TV. Next week, THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK return, praised be Jeebus. I am dyin' for some more LOST though.

- One big TV news item is that longtime SMALLVILLE showrunners Gough and Miller have apprently left the show. I think that, overall, these guys deserve a ton of credit for creating a show with a great premise that really helped inspire the whole "the hero BEFORE they were a hero" genre, and paved the way, IMO, for shows like Heroes to have a place on network TV. Now, on the other hand, Smallville has undeniably been a show that's never quite lived up to its potential. Furthermore, over the last few years the show's quality has steeply declined -- forcing fans to endure endless runs of lame dialogue, week after week of characters being possesed or personality-altered, Lana being turned into a witch, Lana in general, and just an overall lack of real forward momentum or epic storytelling. Yeah, I've praised the show in recent weeks, citing a string of fun, big-event-style episodes that helped reignite some of my flagging interest in the show. But would I welcome some new blood to help end the show in style? Yes I would. Here's hoping that this next season of the show is its last, but that it's a fun, inspiring, epic adventure that delivers one hell of an ending.

- Speaking of Superman-related letdowns, DC's COUNTDOWN seems to get more godawful by the week, even as it jets towards it conclusion, after nearly fifty weeks of lame storylines, lame characters, and a plot that can only be called one giant, pointless cluster$#%*. I read this week's issue baffled at the sheer ineptitude of what I was reading. How did this happen? How did creators like Paul Dini and Keith Giffen allow their names to be put onto such a meandering, aimless piece of crap? Look, I am usually one to find the brightside in any given book ... but this has been 50 weeks of garbage ... I think it's fair to ask what gives.

- Now, on the other side of the coin, all hail Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly for the work they've been doing on ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, a series that with each and every issue gets better and better, each story a self-contained mini-classic in its own right, and even more impressive when looked at as part of the larger tapestry of the series. This book has proved the perfect venue for Morrison's out-there ideas and imagination, and Quietly's subdued but ultra-expressive art is a 100% perfect match for the quirkiness at hand. A must-read for Superman fans, All-Star Supes is awesome.

- One more comic to talk about: Mark Miller's much-hyped mature-readers series, KICKASS. After hearing so much about it, I picked up the first two issues and gave it a read. The verdict? Well, hard to say definitively this early in the game, but there is most definitely a spark here. The kind of spark that you see in a series like Y: The Last Man, or Preacher, or Supreme Power. A spark that indicates this COULD be the next great comic book. Basically, it's the premise that makes it so darn intriguing from the outset. A depressed and restless teen, firmly planted in the "real" world, has a pent up desire to throw caution to the wind, throw on an old scuba diving suit, and go out on the streets and, well, be a superhero. So he goes out, gets more and more into his whacked-out idea, and proceeds to quickly get the living hell beat out of him by a group of thugs. Within one issue, our "hero" is in a hospital bed, barely alive. But in issues #2, after months of healing, he tries to dispense some vigilante justice again - he just can't shake that crazy superhero idea of his. This time, he is once again beat up and humiliated, but somehow, he puts up a pretty good fight. The twist? a bunch of onlookers watch him, someone records the whole thing, and this being the "real" world - the video, of course, finds it ways on to YouTube. What happens next? I literally have no idea. But I haven't been this excited to find out in quite a while. The series, if nothing else, feels totally fresh and new, and I think what makes it so exciting is that I have no clue where Millar is going with this. Sure, there are some hints dropped and some foreshadowing of what's to come. But man, this one is going to be a ride - I can 100% see why this book was immediately optioned by a major studio to adapt into a feature film. This one has "make into a movie" written all over it. Highly recommended that you get on board.

- Alright, I am out of here for now. Now where's that old scuba suit ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It's April 1st But I Ain't Foolin' -- a review of AMERICAN ZOMBIE.

And a happy April Fool's to everyone. So far today I've tried convincing unsuspecting friends that:

- I am a time-traveller from the future.
- I was bitten by a strange dog and now think I might be becoming a werewolf.
- I was recently married and divorced and have been taking it very hard.

Oy ......

- So, man, what is with the rut in movies lately? It's hard to believe it's already April and aside from a couple of badass action-flick throwbacks in Rambo and Doomsday, there's been very little in the way of quailty cinema so far this year. Wasn't it only a few months ago that we were overwhelmed with an overabundance of great movies? I can only hope that Forgetting Sarah Marshall will be a top-notch comedy when it's released in a few weeks, because lord knows we need one.

That being said, the current movie rut has given a bit of an opportunity to seek out some lesser-known releases and give them a shot. One such small-release movie that I saw this past weekend was an indie mockumentary called American Zombie.


- One of my favorite niche genres in film has always been the mocumentary. Mostly, this is because of the brilliantly hilarious work of Christopher Guest, who made three instant comedy classics in Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. Similarly, I've always loved the combination of horror and comedy - whether its Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, the Simpsons' Halloween episodes, or even The Munsters. There's just something about mixing creepiness with comedy that goes down smooth. So I was definitely curious about American Zombie, a mockumentary that imagines a world in which the living dead are essentially just another minority in the melting pot that is America. They're dead and they're proud of it, and they just want to be looked at as normal people, just like you and I, albeit with slightly rotting flesh. Of course, some normals have the sneaking suspicion that their zombie neighbors are hungry for more than just equal rights. Some believe that just as in the movies, the zombies are a dangerous lot intent on snacking on humans whenever possible. So which is it - are the zombies just average joes, or vile monsters? Documentarian Grace Lee sets out to answer this question, and the result is an entertaining though slightly uneven film that, if anything, is a clever send-up of documentaries and the lengths they'll go to to paint a fair portrait of their subjects.

The background here is that the real-life Grace Lee is a noted documentary filmmaker who, in the past, has mostly tackled very serious subjects, often making films with strong social causes. It's interesting then to see her take that same type of formula and apply it to a movie that in execution IS a serious social documentary, but in reality is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre. In the movie, Grace Lee plays an exaggerated version of herself - the mind behind the documentary, intent on creatign a fair portrayal of Southern California's local zombie population. John Solomon also plays himself, a kind of Mulder to Lee's Scully. He is intent on exposing the truth rather than simply being fair. His suspicions? That zombies are in fact flesh-eating monsters who are a menace to society. Soon enough, it becomes clear that, as normal-seeming as the average-joe zombies that we follow around appear to be, John's suspicions, repeatedly rebuked by Lee, are more than likely correct. But in the name of doing right by this supposedly oppressed minority, Lee insists that they paint a rosy picture of their undead subjects.

It's a really interesting premise, to be sure. The various zombie subjects that we meet are all pretty fascinating characters. Particular standouts include Jane Edith Wilson as a passive-aggressive zombie who bottles up her rage at with her obnoxious neighbors, and Suzy Nakamura as a scrapbook-obsessed, socially-awkward shut-in whose zombie status is the least of her problems when it comes to finding a man. One problem though lies in the fact that the acting is a bit uneven. Grace Lee and John Solomon do a good job playing fictional versions of themselves, and Lee is pretty effective at playing things totally straight no matter how absurd they get. But while the two aforementioned zombie actresses are pretty good, some of the other zombie characters are a bit up-and-down.

Part of the problem is that Lee never seems quite sure how funny she wants her movie to be. While this is clearly a comedy and a parody, things are often played a little too straight. The stretches of flatness are compounded by the fact that only a few of the actors are really able to make their lines work with the type of self-mocking with required of this type of film. People like Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey come to mind as actors who can totally nail the deadpan, mock-serious tone I'm thinking of, and it's why Christopher Guest uses them over and over. Because Grace Lee doesn't have quite the same knack for comedy, her humor often gets buried ... no pun intended. You can also see her weaknesses as a *fictional* filmmaker exposed. Unlike in a real documentary, this type of crazy horror premise requires a little thought put into the whole mythology aspect of its universe. When did the zombies first begin to rise? How were they accepted? How do they seem to be a mystery to so many people when they work in convenience stores and factories? I mean look, it's a comedy, I dont' need a whole bible detailing the history of the zombie uprising -- but this movie's zombie-centric premise raises a TON of questions that are never really addressed, and for that reason there's often huge logic gaps in the narrative, which is where they ultimately become noticable and distracting.

As the film progresses, there's a gradual shift from pure comedy to horror, and I give Lee credit in that she does a great job of shifting the atmosphere from farce to frightful, to the point where, when the $%#* really begins to hit the fan, it is genuinely pretty disturbing and creepy stuff. Still, the tonal shift does kind of highlight the fact that for all of its potential, this is a pretty uneven movie that, like I said earlier, never seems quite sure what it wants to be or what point it wants to make. The fact that Lee applies the template of her more serious documentary films to an over-the-top, fictional concept in zombies makes for an inherently cool premise, rife with potential for hilarity and horror. And while it's a fun, enjoyable, at times funny, at times creepy flick, it never quite realizes that full potential. Still, in a spring season filled with generic lameness at the box office, you can't go wrong with a little dose of zom-com quirkiness. If it's playing near you (likely only if you're in LA or NYC), or when it comes out on DVD this summer, give it a shot.

My Grade: B

- Alright, that's all for now. Well, except for the news that I just got a big promotion, and am now sixteenth in line to run NBC.

April Fool's.

I mean, um ... okay, April Fool's.