Monday, June 30, 2008

Robot Love and Assassin's Revenge: WALL-E, WANTED, and RIP to Michael Turner

- Back again after a fun weekend that took me from Woodland Hills to Beverly Hills. The main thrust of this entry is going to be two big movie reviews - WALL-E and WANTED. So keep reading for my take on two of the summer's biggest blockbusters thus far.

- Fiirst, however, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Michael Turner, one of the true icons of the comic book industry throughout the last several years. Turner's battle with cancer has been well-documented, and by all accounts, Turner fought the disease valiantly, still drawing, making appearances, and going out of his way to meet and mingle with fans despite his weakened condition. In fact, Turner would go through prolific spurts where it was easy to forget that he was constantly fighting for his health. His distinct art seemed to be everywhere over the last few years, with memorable runs on all manner of comics and a number of stints as cover artist, for high-profile series like Identity Crisis. As an artist, Turner was one of those guys who took flack for his liberties with anatomy, but his style was fun, and most importantly cool. Along with guys like Jim Lee and J. Scott Campbell, Turner was one of the artists who really blended traditional American comic art with a manga influence, to create a sleek and highly stylized look. It was a look that became closely associated with Turner's signature series like Witchblade, Fathom, and Soulfire, and a style that rendered versions of all the big icons, from Superman to Batman to The Flash to Wolverine. Turner helped make comics cooler than ever, helped to bring them into the 21st century, and as a professional did so with class and grace. The loss of Turner is a true loss for pop-culture, and his art will be missed.

- Okay, onto the reviews ...

WALL-E Review:

- With Wall-E, there can be no doubt: Pixar has done it again. The prolific studio's latest is a tour de force of animation and imagination, a fully-realized future universe that not only stands as one of the most visually impressive movies ever created, but also as a stunning science-fiction fable that will make a lasting impression on children and adults alike.

To be honest, at this point I am a little weary of the worship at the altar of Pixar. In the last few weeks alone, I've heard the glassy-eyed Pixar fans dutifully rank each of their films in order of preference, talk about Toy Story like it was the second coming, and eagerly analyze Wall-E's box office potential in comparison to the likes of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. To this I say: enough! Pixar is an amazing studio, no doubt, but its most fanatical fans have a way of driving the rest of us insane with their uncritical praise and obssessive devotion. It's almost enough to drive me to look at a movie like Wall-E with a more-critical-than-usual eye, just to prove that Pixar is not, as the hype would suggest, infallible.

And yet, with a movie of the caliber of Wall-E, such pointed criticism is difficult to unleash. The movie has every bit of Pixar's typical intelligence and ambition, and yet, it's also an out-and-out crowd-pleaser. It seems to win over its audience with an unusual power that elicits comparisons to canonical greats like E.T. and Bambi. I mean, you simply can't help but be won over by Wall-E, the character. He's like E.T., Charlie Chaplin, and R2-D2 rolled into one by way of the robot from Short Circuit. Visually, Wall-E is an amazing creation. Much has been made of the fact that the film contains little to no spoken dialogue throughout its first half. Wall-E himself never "speaks" beond a few blips and beeps and mechanical words. And yet, the animators at Pixar have made the robotic Wall-E more expressive, more relatable, more *alive* than most big-screen protagonists. And obviously, that's part of the point. Thematically, Wall-E is about exploring that very phenomenon - how can this artificial lifeform be more "human" than the actual humans that we later meet? Whereas in this dystopian future, humans have fled earth and settled into a lazy and conformist and emotion-deprived existence, Wall-E, who was programmed to live exactly in that manner, transcends his pre-programmed routines and finds higher purpose, drive, and even love. Not only that, but he flexes his eyebrows with more comic aplomb than Groucho Marx, is more of a hopeless romantic than Seth Cohen, and more of a sentimental collector than John Cusack in Hi-Fidelity. Whereas the Replicants in Blade Runner were "more human than human," Wall-E is pretty much an average joe, almost an android Woody Allen, who happens to have a ViewFinder for a head.

While many will get wrapped up in the central romance between Wall-E and the sleek n' shiny fembot known as Eve (apparently in the future all robots are made with vaguely male or female yet semi-androgynous traits?), what elevates the film beyond being simply a quirky tale of robotic love is the thought-provoking futureverse which serves as its backdrop. Disney kept a lot of this aspect of the film under wraps in its marketing, so I think many were surprised to find that Wall-E is actually set in a fairly bleak and disturbing vision of the future. In this world, 700 years in the future, earth has become a junk-filled wasteland, with a small colony of humans fleeing the planet and living in oblivious lethargy in a decked-out spaceship. The people there have devolved, becoming bloated and balloon-like as they float around in personal people-movers, eyes affixed to monitors at all times, rather than each other. On their makeshift world, consumerism is religion - a computerized, omnicscient voice tells the ship's denizens to try wearing blue as opposed to red, and suddenly, in a mass behavioral shift of unquestioning conformity, everyone shifts colors so as to be one with the hive-mind. Where once the quest to make earth habitable again was a driving quest, it was now a mere afterthought - why risk the unknown when civilization could exist in a perpetual state of stagnant comfort? It is this strange new world that Wall-E navigates on his quest to reunite with his robotic soul-mate Eve. And if it seems like quite the weighty backdrop for what is on the surface, as I said, a quirky love story, well - that's because it is.

Post-apocalyptic Big Brother-controlled hive-mind societies of balloon people? In a Disney movie? Yep, it's all here, and Pixar pulls it off seamlessly. They are careful to keep all of these speculative sci-fi concepts in the background, however. And while their striking imagery stays with you, some of it will likely go over the heads of kids, and that's probably how it was intended. While the sci-fi fan in me would have liked a deeper, darker dive into all of this, the real magic of Pixar is probably that they can weave all of this stuff into a family-friendly film in such a palatable manner. They've crafted WALL-E in a way where for many, the robot love story is what will immediately affect them, but long after that initial rush has worn off, the bigger concepts begin to really sink in. I think that's why so many seem to find it hard to talk about the film until it's been fully digested, so to speak. It is certainly multi-layered, multi-tiered, with all kinds of ideas to absorb above and below the surface. From an oddly unsettling live-action appearance by Fred Willard, to the commentary on consumerism and modern malaise, to Jeff Garlin's spirited turn as the captain of the earth-colony ship, there's tons here on the periphery of the plot to examine and to take in.

Again, visually, this is Pixar at the peak of their powers. On one level, the sheer detail and texture of the CGI animation is unparallelled. Surfaces gleam, reflect light, and show age in a way we've never seen before in an animated film. On another level, this might be one of the best "directed" animated films I've ever seen. I say "one of" because, in movies like Cars and Ratatouille, Pixar continually raises the bar in this area. But here they've outdone themselves, with stunning shots of Wall-E roaming through the post-industrial wasteland that is earth, of him careening through space, and of the colorful legions of robots aboard the colonial spaceship. This is the kind of movie that will be a showcase for hi-def TV's and Blu-Ray players for years to come.

When it comes to grading this movie, I'm a little bit torn. There's no doubt in my mind that it's a landmark film, one that will be watched, analyzed, and enjoyed for a long time. At the same time, there are certainly some things that bugged me about it. The purist in me wishes that the movie, which mostly seems grounded in a harder sci-fi reality than most animated films, had a logical explanation of some kind for how these robots experienced emotion in the first place. Thematically, the reasons are obvious, but logically, it doesn't make sense. I've read reviews where the reviewer throws in their own explanation for this phenomenon, but I don't think the movie ever really addresses this. I didn't like that a movie with such an anti-consumerist message featured some pretty blatant call-outs to Apple. And I felt like there were moments in the movie that got a bit too schmaltzy, a bit too sentimental. In a movie that goes to such unexpectedly dark places, there were moments where I felt like there was a concious decision made to pull back, hit the brakes, and play it safe - to be a crowd pleaser rather than to fully explore some of the weightier concepts at play to their limits.

But the fact is - with a movie like this, the kind of complaints that I leveled above are of the type that can only really come about after viewing a truly great and monumental movie. And I don't want any annoyance with the rabid Pixar fanbase to cloud my review, because this movie is too good for that. It's often been said that the mark of true art is that which can spread its message not just to a select few, but to the masses. And it's a testament to Pixar and WALL-E that the film exerts its power over a mass-market, family audience, while still operating at a level of sophistication and depth that's uncommon for the family genre. And I think that that's what is really at the heart of my conflict over Wall-E. Because as much as we film geeks like to claim these movies as our own, the fact is - they are kids movies. Yes they have a mass appeal and an uncommon depth, but at the end of the day, if they don't appeal to children then they haven't done their jobs as films. As a twenty-something film-goer, I can find fault in a movie when it's viewed on the same plane as other adult-oriented fare. But with Wall-E, its greatness is realized most when looked at from the perspective that yes, this is a family film, but wow - its ability to filter all of these substantive ideas and concepts through that family-friendly lense - that is what's truly remarkable. The fact that I as a 25 year old can discuss and analyze and enjoy Wall-E at this level is a testament in and of itself to Pixar. I don't know if we could have that kind of discussion with even some of the older Disney classics. To that end, I can't help but give Wall-E the highest possible recommendation.

My Grade: A

- And one more ...

WANTED Review:

- Man, as great as Wall-E was, after seeing it I was squarely in the mood for something nasty, brutal, and hardcore. And that's exactly what I got with WANTED - a balls-to-the-wall comic book adaptation that features over-the-top violence, imaginatively-staged action, and a sadistic, nihilistic premise that breaks the mold of watered-down action flicks. This movie positively revels in its R-rating, holding nothing back and going for broke.

Wanted is an adaptation of the comic book series written by Mark Millar, who has a unique style that is an almost perfect match for Hollywood sensibilities. Millar tends to write books that grab you with an audacious, high-concept premise and keep you glued to the page with a violent, plugged-in, punk rock sorta attitude. While the film strays pretty far from the graphic novel in terms of plot and character, it maintains the same sort of hard-hitting, in your face attitude.

Still, if anything can be faulted with WANTED, it's that the plot can get a bit wonky. The initial premise is solid and draws you in - it's the story of a bored and depressed twenty-something office drone. Played with a great everyman quality by James McAvoy, out hero goes about his mundane life with a droopy numbness. He never speaks up to his pushy boss, never reveals to his asshole best friend that he's well aware that the guy is hooking up with his girlfriend behind his back, and never has much ambition aside from surviving each boring and thankless day. Then, one day, Angelina Jolie shows up in the kid's life, tells him that his father, whom he thought long dead, was actually living a secret life as the world's greatest assassin - until yesterday, when he was killed by a rougue member of a secret league of killers with an axe to grind. Jolie, aka the sultry assassin known as Fox, recruits McAvoy to this secret brotherhood to replace his father and eliminate his killer. The brotherhood, led by Morgan Freeman, aka Sloane, is actually part of an ancient order that subscribes to the questionable philosophy of "kill one, save a thousand."

All well and good so far, but the movie goes on to spend a bit too much time on all kinds of random seeming exposition about looms of fate and mystical weavers. I guess if anyone is fit to monologue on all of this wackiness, it's Morgan Freeman. But still, there are points in the movie where you can't help but roll your eyes a bit, even keeping in mind the suspension of disbelief levels that a movie like this requires. It's a bit like the director's earlier effort - Nightwatch - where one mind-spinning piece of backstory after another was introduced in increasingly awkward fashion. But again, this is Morgan Freeman at the helm, he could make the phonebook seem interesting.

And the good news is this: the above is really my major complaint with Wanted, but on most accounts the movie handily kicked ass. Like I said, James McAvoy was great in the lead role, and had some absolutely killer moments, especially towards the beginning of the film when he's gaining the confidence to finally tell off his boss, his friend, etc. Can we please get the petition started now to cast McAvoy as Yorick Browne in Y: The Last Man? This movie proves that he's got what it takes to play the everyman forced into an extradordinary circumstance. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, although it's tons of fun to see him seem to revel in his villainous character, in his chance to play the mean-talkin', take-no-$%#*, grizzled old badass. Angelina Jolie - please, this is the kind of part that she was born to play. Sure, as Fox she doesn't exactly get to stretch her acting ability, but Jolie has the sultry badgirl role down to perfection - if anything it's remarkable to note the similarities between her role here an in the just-released Kung Fu Panda. I mean, geez, while I'm on this track, who's with me that a Jolie turn as Catwoman in the next Batman flick could instantly erase all memories / nightmares of Halle Barry in the part. Christopher Nolan - make it happen. In addition, WANTED's Brotherhood of Assassins is filled out by all manner of crazy supporting characters that feel like sub-bosses in some whacked-out videogame. Not since Kill Bill have we been introduced to such a motley crew of over-the-top, psychopath villains.

Visually, Wanted pours it on. There's all kinds of crazy, eye-melting tricks, from long erverse tracking shots, to curved bullets, to time-bending action scenes that shift from ultra slo-mo to sped-up fast forward with wild abandon. Headshots and shattered glass have rarely been so elequently filmed. I will say that at times, the action gets so busy that it walks the line between kickass and Michael Bay-style overdone. But mostly, the choreography is a lot of fun and there are a lot of pretty brutal battles and more than a few "holy crap" moments.

And even though I ragged a bit on the plot, the dialogue is actually pretty razor-sharp during a lot of the character moments. Some of the exchanges had a real fun edge about them, with some of the best/funniest/sharpest use of profanity in any movie in a while this side of The Big Lebowski. Suffice it to say that Mark Millar's Scottish penchant for well-timed curse words seems to come through just fine in the transition from page to screen.

In the end, WANTED is pretty much just what the doctor ordered in this summer of movies that try to be all things to all people. This is a movie that starts and ends with a bang, and succeeds in its clear mission to knock you upside the head and never let up. The deeper moral and philisophical questions at play are for largely skimmed over, but that's mostly okay, because we're still left with a knockout punch of an action movie, and one that shows that there's plenty of great, outside-the-box comic book material that's ripe for adaptation. So bring on Preacher, bring on Y: The Last Man, bring on The Sandman. After Wanted, I'm ready for Hollywood to embrace the dark side.

My Grade: B+

And that's all for now -- cya on the flipside.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forget Entertainment Weekly: Here's the REAL Top 100 Movies and TV Shows of the Last 25 Years

- Okay, so Entertainment Weekly last week came out with their big 1000'th issue, in which they listed the top movies, TV shows, etc. of the last 25 years. The lists caused all kinds of controversy online and amongst my friends, so I thought I'd put together my own lists of movies and television shows to take a stab and see if I could do them one better. EW obviously relied heavily on the pop-culture-influencer factor, hence movies like Clueless and Titanic making their lists ... and they also typically only gave big name directors one or at most two spots each on the list, even if luminaries like the Coens clearly deserve several spots on any legit list. But I thought it'd be fun to do my own lists, as, hey, I'm 25, it's the best of the Last 25 Years, I've seen too many movies and watched too much TV, and really enjoy making Top 100 lists. So why not? As for my lists, a few quick notes:

- I'm grouping movie trilogies in a few cases where the series is pretty much seamless.
- For TV especially, there's a lot of undoubtedly quality TV that I just haven't seen - so you won't find Buffy, Dexter, Deadwood, etc on my list simply because I haven't seen them.
- I include late night shows, but not news or sports.
- This is the last 25 years only, so nothing before 1983. I made an exception for Saturday Night Live, because it really is almost a different show year to year.
- As Abby W pointed out to me: are these "the" Top 100 movies and shows, or my picks for the "New Classics?" Well - my answer is this: there's no difference! If I say it's a Top 100 film or show, then by default it's a New Classic! This blog makes me that damn authoritative, baby!
- Okay, on with the lists - feel free to leave comments about how horrible my taste is!


1.The Lord of the Rings trilogy
2. The Big Lebowski
3. Memento
4. Fargo
5. Unforgiven
6. Kill Bill
7. The Princess Bride
8. Mulholland Drive
9. Silence of the Lambs
10. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
12. Glengary Glenross
13. Dumb and Dumber
14. Beauty and the Beast
15. Pulp Fiction
16. The Nightmare Before Christmas
17. The Lion King
18. Jurassic Park
19. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
20. Wet Hot American Summer
21. The Breakfast Club
22. Aliens
23. Gladiator
24. Wayne’s World
25. No Country For Old Men
26. The Shawshank Redemption
27. Rushmore
28. Miller’s Crossing
29. Edward Scissorhands
30. Austin Powers
31. Cars
32. There Will Be Blood
33. The Little Mermaid
34. The Crow
35. Back to the Future trilogy
36. Fight Club
37. Dark City
38. A History of Violence
39. Donnie Darko
40. Thelma and Louise
41. Saving Private Ryan
42. Malcolm X
43. The Usual Suspects
44. Seven
45. Groundhog Day
46. The Truman Show
47. Batman Begins
48. Ghostbusters
49. A Mighty Wind
50. The King of Kong
51. Munich
52. Monsters Inc.
53. The Rock
54. Blue Velvet
55. Casino
56. Hustle & Flow
57. Fletch
58. Juno
59. Reservoir Dogs
60. Aladdin
61. Amelie
62. 12 Monkeys
63. Ed Wood
64. Goodfellas
65. Spiderman 2
66. Oldboy
67. School of Rock
68. Evil Dead II
69. This Is Spinal Tap
70. True Romance
71. The Life Aquatic
72. Unbreakable
73. The Naked Gun
74. Schindler’s List
75. Napoleon Dynamite
76. Office Space
77. Big Fish
78. Hero
79. Before Sunrise
80. Dazed and Confused
81. The Royal Tannenbaums
82. The Neverending Story
83. Lost In Translation
84. Punch Drunk Love
85. Waiting for Guffman
86. Pirates of the Carribbean
87. Sin City
88. Little Miss Sunshine
89. Die Hard
90. Master and Commander
91. Finding Nemo
92. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
93. The Assassination of Jesse James
94. Scarface
95. The Departed
96. Raising Arizona
97. Adaptation
98. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
99. Forest Gump
100. Clerks


1. The Simpsons
2. The X-Files
3. Seinfeld
4. Freaks and Geeks
5. Saturday Night Live
6. Late Night with Conan O’Brien
7. The Office (UK)
8. 24
9. Lost
10. Arrested Development
11. Futurama
12. King of the Hill
13. My So Called Life
14. Twin Peaks
15. Batman: The Animated Series
16. Veronica Mars
17. Ren & Stimpy
18. Malcolm in the Middle
19. La Femme Nikita
20. The State
21. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
22. Millenium
23. Da Ali G Show
24. The Adventures of Pete & Pete
25. The Real World
26. Curb Your Enthusiasm
27. The Sopranos
28. Gilmore Girls
29. Star Trek: The Next Generation
30. Beavis and Butthead
31. Perfect Strangers
32. Family Guy
33. NYPD Blue
34. Flight of the Conchords
35. Andy Richter Controls the Universe
36. Family Matters
37. The Muppet Babies
38. Sliders
39. The Colbert Report
40. 30 Rock
41. Pee Wee’s Playhouse
42. In Living Color
43. Married … With Children
44. Party of Five
45. Six Feet Under
46. Da Ali G Show
47. Doug
48. You Can’t Do That On Television
49. Aeon Flux
50. Stella
51. The Late Show With David Letterman
52. Jeopardy!
53. The Critic
54. The Office (US)
55. Prison Break
56. The Kids in the Hall
57. The Cosby Show
58. Justice League Unlimited
59. Charles In Charge
60. Reading Rainbow
61. The OC
62. Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast
63. Extras
64. Pushing Daisies
65. Melrose Place
66. Mr. Show
67. Dinosaurs
68. Boy Meets World
69. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
70. Rosanne
71. Animaniacs
72. Murder: She Wrote
73. Smallville
74. Survivor
75. Beverly Hills 90210
76. The Golden Girls
77. Herman’s Head
78. The Nanny
79. Double Dare
80. Full House
81. Fraggle Rock
82. Superman: The Animated Series
83. The Maxx
84. The Ray Bradbury Theater
85. Undeclared
86. 3rd Rock From the Sun
87. Night Court
88.Dave’s World
89. Punky Brewster
90. Monsters
91. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
92. Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
93. Jack and Bobby
94. X-Men: The Animated Series
95. Salute Your Shorts
96. Hey Dude
97. Duck Tales
98. Saved by the Bell
99. Clarissa Explains It All
100. That 70’s Show

Monday, June 16, 2008

It Ain't Easy Being Green: THE INCREDIBLE HULK - Reviewed, Plus the CELTICS, Stan Winston RIP, and MORE!

- Wow, tough game for the Celtics last night. I think a lot of people expected that last night's game would be a tough one for the Celtics to win, but still, the nice cushion that Boston has gets that much smaller with each loss. At this point, tomorrow's game now becomes a true "must-win" for Boston. If the Lakers can somehow get to a Game 7, then Boston will find itself in a place it most assuredly does NOT want to be. Still, there is cause for hope on the part of Boston that Game 6 will see a championship win for the C's. The team has been near-unbeatable at home, and being in Boston has been a consistent jump-starter for the bench. Still, I feel like KG has got to step up in Game 6. We've yet to see him have a truly monster game in this series, and its time that he fully exploited his advantages over the Lakers' D and terrorized them in the paint. Tuesday is now absolutely huge, and for The Celtics, it's time to close this out.

- I will say, for about a minute there it was great to see Bill Walton back on ABC during halftime of Game 5. He became his usual slightly-annoying self pretty quickly, but he is the type of annoying that you can't help but love to hate. At least he shows some actual personality, in contrast to ABC's usual gallery of drab talking heads. Still, I wouldn't mind seeing him call some games again next season, so that we can once again hear his over-the-top hyperbole and cries of "throw it down!", "terrible pass," and of course, "get a rebound!".

- Man, it was a rough Friday following the news of Tim Russert's passing. Take a look at my previous entry for more on him, but I would like to take a moment and praise NBC News for their great coverage of the untimely death. I can't imagine going on the air and reporting on the death of your own friend and colleague, but somehow Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Keith Olbermann and the rest did it and helped to create a number of fitting tributes to Russert.

- There was also another really sad piece of news today, another untimely death that is truly a devastating loss for anyone who loves great movies. STAN WINSTON died today, and that is just a true tragedy for the entertainment industry. Winston was, of course, one of the great pioneers in the world of special f/x - in fact he was THE man behind the magic of many of the most memorable film visuals of the last few decades. His resume speaks for itself: Aliens, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Iron Man, and many, many more. Before the days of CGI, Stan Winston made the fantastic possible on-screen with hard work and ingenuity, and without his work the fantasy and sci-fi genre would never have gotten to where it is today. So le't take a moment and pay tribute to one of the great wizards of movie magic, a guy who made special f/x truly special.

- Overall, a good weekend was had. I have to give a shout-out to Carlos M., former NBC Page and current Ellen staffer, for throwing another one of his signature parties on Saturday. Much Rock Band was played and crazy good times had down in Pasadena. I also partook in some marathon X-Files viewing with the G-Man in preparation for the upcoming movie, with a handful of monster-of-the-week episodes that still ruled it after all these years. Yep, I'm happy to report that even in 2008, Eugene Victor Tooms is still one creepy bastard. I'm also working hard to try to do some upkeep on my apartment. It's tough because I'm in a studio and the more stuff I accumulate, the more overcrowded it becomes, and there's not a lot of storage space to move things in order to keep things feeling open and spacious. So I'm trying to do some shifting of items, reorganization, etc. It's tough because at some point, it just becomes inescapable that my relatively small apartment will become a bit cluttered, but I'm trying to delay the inevitable a bit.

- Speaking of acquiring stuff, I finally caved in, cashed in a boatload of loose change, and ordered myself a Playstation 3. With the release of Metal Gear Solid 4 and the new 80 gb bundle which includes it as a pack-in, I figured now was finally the time to make the upgrade. I realize that the PS3 is far from being the dominant console so far in this generation, as the PS1 and PS2 were back in the day. But to me it's always been about the games, and while there are a few killer apps each on XBOX 360 and Wii, the PS3 remains home to the franchises that I simply can't go without. My preference has always been towards the platform, adventure, fighting, and Japanese RPG genres, and I've never really warmed up to the first person shooter phenom. So I'm not too broken up if I miss out on the latest Halo or Gears of War. Sure, if I remain XBOX-less, I'll be a little envious that I don't get to play bigtime games like Mass Effect, Ninja Gaiden, and others. And of course, I would love to delve into Mario Galaxy, but then I look at what's on the horizon for Wii and see practically nothing much of note, with Nintendo having seemingly abandoned real gamers for the Wii Fit / Wii Sports crowd. But with the PS3, there are just too many of my favorite franchises of the last several years that are exclusive to the console. Ratchet and Clank and Metal Gear, for example. New God of War and Final Fantasy are on the horizon, as is the potentially groundbreaking Little Big Planet. There are some recent games like Uncharted that really intrigue me, and multi-platform favorites like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, GTA, Star Wars, and a few upcoming titles that I personally am psyched for, like the Bionic Commando reboot, and Brutal Legend, from Tim Schaefer's Doublefine studios. And of course there is the added benefit that the PS3 doubles as a Blu-Ray player, and one of the few that is upgradable thanks to online software updates to boot. So yep, in a few short days, if I seem to be MIA, it may just be that I'm immersed in the world of Solid Snake. Snake? Snake! Snaaaaaaaaaaaaake!

- Anyways, onto a review for this past weekend's biggest "smash" hit ...


- Well, I was actually a fan of Ang Lee's HULK ... I thought it was a solid film that featured a great cast, thought outside the box of what a typical comic movie could be, and was suitably intense from start to finish. Was it a flawed film? Sure - it lacked a riveting climax and took itself a bit too seriously for a movie about a giant green superhero. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and was surprised it received such a backlash following its release. That being said, Marvel and Universal's lastest Hulk reboot is an entirely different beast. It fits squarely in the new Marvel movie cannon, right alongside Iron Man. Not only does the new Hulk literally exist in the same universe as Tony Stark, SHIELD, the super-soldier serum, etc., but tonally, this Hulk feels like a Marvel comic book. I believe Marvel's Kevin Feige likened Ang Lee's version to a prestige-format one-shot, whereas this version was the in-cannon, mainstream Hulk, and I think it's an apt analogy. Because, while perhaps not as psychologically deep as the previous film, this one plain and simply delivers on what any real fanboy wants to see in a Hulk movie: a great cast, tons of high-octane action, and overall, two hours of over-the-top escapist adventure. Like I said, this is the Marvel universe on screen. The same Marvel universe invented by Lee and Kirby in the swinging 60's, that read like the acid-laced, adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasies of two Jewish kids from New York. Let's face it, that Marvel Universe is a place of crazy heroes and villains, rampant alliteration, and colorful history. And man, has it been fun seeing it in all of its goofy glory in Iron Man and now The Hulk.

That's not to say that The Hulk is all comic book cheese. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, and compares favorably to Ang Lee's similarly high-profile lineup. Really though, I can't think of a better person to play Bruce Banner than Ed Norton. In movies like FIGHT CLUB, he's shown that he can do the whole Jekyll / Hyde, super ego / id thing. As always, Norton was great in this movie, bringing an everyman quality to Banner yet making him a believable conduit for the Hulk's rage. While not as singular a performance as Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Norton here was totally seamless and extremely engaging as the iconic Marvel hero.

The rest of the cast really got the job done. While Jennifer Connelly was good but perhaps a bit too dour as Betty Ross in The Hulk, Liv Tyler is far spunkier here - a much more prototypical comic book girlfriend, to be sure, but she makes the most of the part. As I see it, she's there to ground the story a bit and set up some conflict between Banner and her father, General Ross. Speaking of whom, he's played by William freakin' Hurt, what do you expect? The man is a walking badass, and I liked how the character was played up in all of his comic book-ish glory, outdated mustache and all. I mean, it wouldn't be a Marvel comic if it didn't feature a grizzled supporting character with gray hair and a cigar - am I right? Tim Roth also did a really nice job as Emil Blonsky, who eventually becomes the monstrous Abomination. Roth didn't have a ton of time to flesh out his character, but with his eyes alone we pretty much knew all we needed to know about Blonsky - he was a past-his-prime soldier who, once he got a taste of super-human power, couldn't help but hunger for more.

I also have to mention how many fun cameos were in the movie. Lou Ferrigno, looking as jacked as ever, had a really fun role. Stan Lee had a really funny cameo. Robert Downey Jr. picked up right where he left off in Iron Man, and completely stole the show during his brief appearance as Tony Stark. All that was missing was Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury - on the DVD, perhaps? Overall though, there was just that real sense of fun and joy here. This isn't Batman where you want it to be dark and brooding - this is THE INCREDIBLE HULK - a concept that is at its best when its played for high drama and comic book thrills.

It was also pretty refreshing to finally see a comic book film that was NOT an origin story. I know there was some controversy over the script, with Ed Norton's pseudonym eventually denied a screenwriting credit. But I really had no problems with the finished script. To me, there was plenty of character drama mixed in with - finally - some really fun comic book dialogue. I'm not sure the movie would have benefitted from being any longer - it felt just about right, and did a great job of presenting not the Hulk's origin per se, but the story of how Bruce Banner went from simply fighting the monster inside of him to accepting it and learning to use it for good. I thought that overall character arc was really handled well, and really laid the stage for some cool Hulk stories in the future, whether they come via a sequel or in an Avengers film that has now been heavily foreshadowed.

Okay, so the plot and cast are both way above average, but what really made this movie pop was the action, which quite simply kicked some Hulk-sized ass. Look, a big part of the appeal of The Hulk is that he is the embodiment of all the anger and rage that most people have to internalize and subdue. When the Hulk hulks up, it should be catharctic, brutal, and savage - and here, it was. Louis Letterier does a fine job directing the mayhem. He ratchets up the tension that precedes the action, and then unleashes chaos in numerous, gloriously-choreographed pieces. From the Hulk's stealth attack early on, to his battle against Blonsky and General Ross' army, to his final, brutally epic battle in the streets of NYC against the Abomination, Letterier has to be commended for creating the most badass Hulk-smashing scenes of carnage ever brought to the screen. At times, the CGI was a bit cartoonish, but in the end I didn't mind. You're never going to get a Hulk that looks 100% plausible in a real-world setting, so why not create a more stylized Hulk with muscles that look like they were drawn by Dale Keown? I did think Letterier did a nice job of framing some really nice, more serene scenes as well, with a few that brought to mind the likes of King Kong, with the Hulk as misunderstood monster. Between the jungles of South America to Mexican villages to hi-tech labs, there were some really cool locations on display.

Not eveything 100% worked. The movie did have a bit of a jumpy quality to it at times, and it did tend to slow down a bit when it focused on the romance between Norton and Tyler. As I mentioned, Blonsky as a villain felt like his character arc was slightly rushed, though he did feel developed compared to Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, so overall I thought they did a nice job with him. There were also some slightly goofy scenes with Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns (there's that alliteration again - Stan Lee you're crazay!). I definitely heard a few groans during the over-the-top sequences with him, but I actually didn't mind them all that much - like I said, the movie definitely had some lighter moments to contrast the relatively dark subject matter, and to me it was in keeping with the spirit of the comics.

In the end, I came out of this movie feeling pretty pumped, and that to me is a sign of a Hulk movie done right. From its hardcore action to its stirring score, from Ed Norton's great turn as Banner to the Hulk finally getting to say "Hulk Smash!" with pitch-perfect dramatic timing, this was just a fun movie that got me more excited about the character than I've ever been. So bring on a sequel, bring on Captain America, bring on The Avengers. Marvel is officially on a roll.

My Grade: A -

- Alright, time to Hulk smash outta here, True Believers. Until next time.

Friday, June 13, 2008

On Tim Russert - One of the Guys, One of the Greats

- You know, working in media was something I aspired to do for a long time, and I will always be someone to defend and advocate for the power and potential of film and television and the media in general. But there's no doubt - I love working in television, but at the same I can at times look out there at the media landscape and become jaded, cynical, depressed about what we as an industry are pushing out there to the country.

But working here at NBC-Universal, one constant has been that whenever I look at the work being done by NBC News, I always am filled with a sense of real pride. I look at NBC News and MSNBC and think to myself that these guys are the best in the business, these guys are fighting the good fight, and these guys are emblematic of everything that television can do to educate the public, to act as the gatekeepers of the news of the day, to engage us in politics and current events. From Brian Williams to Tom Brokaw to Chris Matthew to Keith Olbermann, regardless of whether I always agree with them or not, I have always looked up to this remarkable team and really admired them as people and as professionals.

But of all of them, was there anyone more likable, more the consummate pro, more the face of politics in America than Tim Russert?

Tim Russert was simply the embodiment of everything that was great about the media in America. His passion was palpable, and yet, he NEVER let his passion override his objectivity. In a world of pundits and talking heads, Tim was the voice of reason and yet the guy who got you invested, who made you care. It really is remarkable - in today's cult of personality, Tim had to have been the unlikeliest of television icons - and yet, there he was - an everyman in a sea of overblown personalities, who for that very reason was the most authentic and most memorable personality of them all.

Few others had the ability to wade through the noise like Russert, to put things in perspective, to hit on the big picture as well as the key points. No flash necessary - a simple whiteboard would do. Tim was one of the few guys who was simply an expert, a fan, a guru - he was legit in all senses of the word and I think that always shone through. You couldn't help but like him, you couldn't help but share in his passion and joy. He was the kind of guy who seemed like the perfect person to sit down and have a great conversation with - the kind of guy who would never berate or condescend to someone because of a difference of opinion, but someone who's opinion and views were themselves invaluable, because it was clear that nobody else knew their stuff like he did.

And you know what? There's few media figures out there who truly radiate "nice-ness." Tim Russert was one of those guys who, just by watching him, you knew without question that he was a great guy. And now, listening to Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams talk about him in such reverant, somber tones, all the while smiling as they recall their favorite Russert memories, all of the suspicions are only confirmed: we didn't just lose one of the best newsman of the modern era today, but we lost one of the genuinely great people in politics, news, media, and just in general. The absolute last person who you'd want to hear as being associated with tragedy, the absolute last.

I am sitting here at NBC just completely saddened by the sudden passing of Tim Russert. Just thinking of how excited he was for the upcoming presidential race, of how he spoke of the upcoming election as a true event, a game-changer, just realizing that he went right as he was there on the front lines, broadcasting the state of America to millions. I can only imagine that he will be up there somewhere counting electoral votes and telling everyone in earshot that it's "Ohio, Ohio, Ohio" or whatever the x-factor state turns out to be. He was in fact a person who any of us here at NBC could look at and feel good about being associated with. He was proof that you could be just one of the guys and yet also one of the greats. He was a constant symbol of the best that we in the media could aspire to be. He was quite simply a comforting presence, a constant reassurance in many a tumultous news cycle and campaign season. I'll miss his humor, his passion, and his professionalism. This is a real, tangible, unbelievable loss.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is the kung-fu strong with KUNG-FU PANDA? The review is here.

- I know, I know - where are the updates? Well, it's been a crazy-busy week, and I've barely had any time to do anything other than slog through in anticipation of the weekend. But anyways, I'll try to keep things concise so I can actually get a new post out of the gates.

- Celtics - huge game tonight! Man, Tuesday's game was a heart-breaker, and I think tonight is going to be another uphill battle for Boston. I feel like some wind had to have been taken out of their sails after Game 3, as with the Lakers playing only so-so, the game was one that could easily have been stolen by the C's, if only Paul Pierce or KG had come out of the gates with a little more fire. With the inconsistency that the Celtics have had on the road, and the fact that Kobe seems due for at least one or two more monster games before all is said and done, The Celtics will really have to kick it up a notch tonight if they want to win. They have to play mean and angry, play to win, and play the full 48 minutes. Pierce needs to have a big game and lead by example, and the C's will also need some strong and consistent play from the likes of Rondo and the other role players. They need a Leon Powe, Eddie House, Sam Cassell, or Kendrick Perkins to play big. But if Boston can somehow pull off a victory tonight, then, wow, they will be in great position going back to Beantown. If the Lakers win tonight, however, then things could get a little scary. So what I'm trying to say is: Go Celtics, Beat LA!

- So much to talk about, but since like I said I'm trying to keep things short, I'll skip straight to my long-awaited (by about 3 of you) review of Kung ... Fu ... Panda.


- Until now, I think I've yet to be truly impressed with a non-Pixar CGI movie. From the always-impeccable animation to the tremendous scripts, Pixar to me is simply the king of the modern animated film. It doesn't help things that studios like Dreamworks have seemed intent on releasing a flood of wannabe movies. Movies that sell themselves based more on the strength of the A-list talent doing voice work than anything else. Movies that never quite have the polish of Pixar. So many of these animated films have taken a heavy cue from SHREK, and played up the pop-culture references, the "cool" humor, and sacrificed that timeless sense of wonder for the cheap laugh. For kids, I'm sure a lot of these Dreamworks CGI movies prove pretty entertaining and fun, but for me, when I hear about a new non-Pixar CGI family film, I usually am pretty indifferent. I'm happy to say that Kung-Fu Panda karate-chops through all of that. While not quite Pixar quality, it is nonetheless an incredibly fun movie that feels like a top-notch produciton through and through. It's a movie that uses its big-name voice talent to its full advantage rather than as a crutch. It's a movie that has a real sense of artistic design about its direction, choreography, and overall look. And man, it's got some of the overall coolest and most kickass action sequences I've seen thus far in '08, and that goes for live action, animation, you name it.

Plot-wise, Kung-Fu Panda is about as simple as you can get. A young panda, Po, voiced by Jack Black, dreams of a life beyond his father's noodle restaurant - a life of adventure, intrigue, and hardcore kung-fu. So for Po, it is a fantasy come to life when he is inexplicably deemed to be the chosen one - the Dragon Warrior - who is destined to join with an elite group of kung-fu champions in order to thwart the evil machinations of the sinister Tai Lung. Of course, Po is an unlikely candidate to be the Dragon Warrior - he's a roly-poly panda, afterall, and his talents lie more in eating than kung-fu fighting. It is here that Kung Fu Panda becomes a classic lovable-loser-spreads-his-wings-and-realizes-his-potential movie. But what could have been a pretty bland affair instead becomes a lot of fun thanks to inventive action, solid humor, and a great overall aesthetic.

As mentioned, the voice cast is of the type that at first glance seems gimmicky, loaded with big names. But the voice talent really adds to the precedings, with some real spot-on casting. Jack Black, for one, is pretty perfect as Po. Black works so well because he's not really shoehorning his personality onto Poe - the truth is that Po in many ways IS Jack Black - an overexuberant, goofy fanboy of a Panda -- so really, the melding between Jack Black and Po the Panda is pretty darn seamless. You've also got to love Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, Po's gruff mentor who's kind of like Yoda by way of Master Splinter. The other real standout is Ian McShane as the evil Tai Lung - despite not having much of a backstory or real motives, McShane nonetheless makes sure that Tai Lung comes off as one evil bastard.

On the other hand, some of the peripheral characters never really pop. The Furious Five - the band of elite kung fu warriors who join with Po, are voiced by a veritable all-star cast of talent ... but despite some fun visual designs, each based on a different real-life kung fu style, none of these potentially-cool characters are given much to do. I mean, we've got Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogan doing their voices, but only Jolie is given any real backstory, the others are just kind of barely-there.

But again, the movie is really about Po's journey, and then, it's about giving us some insane kung fu action. The action scenes here are just awesomely-choreographed and staged. When we first meet McShane's Tai Lung, he's holed up and chained deep in an underground prison uilt especially to contain him - in fact, he's its only prisoner. The setup is classic - we KNOW it's only a matter of time until Tai Lung escapes, but the question is how. What ensues is a crazy-awesome escape / action sequence that definitely rocked and rocked hard. We get a similarly kinetic scene later on, when Lung confronts the Furious Five atop a hanging bridge that crosses a cavernous ravine. Again, the action is fast and furious, and the drama heightened by some really innovative staging. 

There's a lot of fun humor here as well. The kids at the theater were all laughing hystrically throughout the movie, and a lot of that is thanks to a combination of Black's great delivery and some really well-done animation that bursts with life and character. I really appreciate the comedy is all organic to the script - there's no random pop culture references or anything like that. There's a lot of Simpsons-esque physical and verbal humor (Po often reminded me of Homer Simpson, actually), but it mostly works. 

In the end, I really enjoyed Kung Fu Panda - I thought it had a wholesome central message that was great for kids, but in the context of a funny and smart movie that really did feel like a loving tribute to all things kung-fu. And not only was it a fun homage, but it really did deliver on the action, with some stunning CGI set pieces. The story is ultimately pretty flimsy - the Furious 5 are never really fleshed out, and the main villain, while cool, is kind of just there, without any real plan or plot-based reason for being a threat. But really, this is just a fun movie with its heart in the right place, and an indicator that Pixar may finally have a bit of competition.

My Grade: B+

- Alright - I actually started this blog entry earlier in the afternoon, but am wrapping it up as I'm sitting here watching the Celtics-Lakers game. Dayum, the Celtics have cut it to 2 at the end of the third quarter ... this has been a mostly dismal game for The C's thus far, but ... could there be hope? The next half hour or so is going to be interesting. 

Monday, June 9, 2008

Now With Extra Hummus: ZOHAN review, Celtics!, and MORE

Celtics, baby! Man, what a couple of games we've had thus far in the NBA Finals. Game 1 got things off to a great start - if anything, it was simply refreshing to see two teams other than the Pistons or the Spurs go at it. Game 1 had that old-school intensity, that big-time feel. And once Paul Pierce went down with a knee injury, and then made his seemingly miraculous return to ignite the Celtics and lead them to victory - well, that was the stuff that NBA legend is made of.

Now, last night's Game 2. Wow - never have I seen a game where one team looked so good for so long, but then ultimately barely squeeked by with a victory. It was a game that may ultimately have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Celtics fans, despite the win. I mean, for most of last night's game, I was totally caught up in Celtic Pride. Leon Powe, for one, was having the game of his life, timed to perfection to coincide with ABC's inspirational halftime piece on him. On the court, Powe was running and gunning and "throwing it down" (as Bill Walton would say) like a man possessed, to the point where the notoriously skeptical Boston fans replaced their usual chants of "Beat LA" with uncharacteristically supportive cries of "Le-on Powe! Le-on Powe!". I mean dayum, give that man a Tommy Point! Otherwise, things were just really clicking on all levels for the C's. Ray Allen was looking great, hitting his shots and in the flow of the offense. Pierce was leading the team with energy and a fiery offense, and KG was rebounding and making plays. Even Rondo, whose play has been marked by occasional lapses in judgement, seemed in the zone - cutting to the basket, racking up the assists, and setting the tempo. The Celtics' defense was unstoppable, all but shutting down Kobe, and slowing down Gasol. With the Lakers' perimeter guys not having great shooting nights, Boston kept building and building on the lead until, by the early fourth quarter, we had what looked to be a blowout. All indications were that the Celtics were firing on all cylinders, eyes on the prize.

But then, you could start to see the signs ... The C's began looking all-too casual and content, even as Kobe was getting fired up and raising his game to superhuman levels. When James Posey was visibly joking around on the court, even as the Lakers were seriously cutting into the Celtics' lead, I knew that there might be trouble. But then, a sudden barrage of Lakers points did the unthinkable - closed the entire gap and nearly tied the game, with minutes to go.

The Celtics managed to hold on, but holy lord, they nearly managed to give their entire fanbase a collective heart attack. The combination of their lax play in the final minutes combined with the Lakers' sudden burst of offense almost caused one of the greatest comebacks / most surprising defeats in sports history, and had that happened it would have been an utter embarassment for the Celtics.

So the end result is something us Celtics fans can be pretty happy with - a 2-0 lead against a tough opponent. But I think we're all holding our breath for Game 3, because the Lakers surely have some momentum going into that one. I mean, man, the Celtics need to quit having this Jekyll and Hyde personality disorder. For some reason, they can't seem to find that killer instinct that allows them to get up and STAY up, to put the final nail in their opponents' coffin. But whatever that missing x-factor is, they are going to need it on Tuesday in La, because the Lakers will be gunning for that key home victory, and I expect them to come out with guns blazing.

- Meanwhile, a quick note on the world of politics, as this weekend finally saw Hillary concede and to some extent endorse Barack Obama. I really had mixed feelings about her speech on Saturday. There were times while watching it where I really did feel somewhat moved, and proud of what Hillary accomplished in her historic campaign. But when all was said and done, I was left with something of a bitter taste in my mouth. In the end, so much of Hillary's speech came off as self-congratulatory, and I'm not sure that she sent a strong enough message to her supporters with regards to supporting the Democracratic nominee in Barack Obama. This was a point she really should have hammered home, but mostly seemed to gloss over. I can only hope that in the coming weeks we'll see the Clintons coalesce around Obama. Not that they should try to overshadow him, but they should work to show a united front, and at the same time turn their attention to go on the attack against McCain. This is where Hillary can be so valuable - she can be the hatchet-woman against McCain and take the hardline where Obama might prefer to keep things more civil. In any case, I still feel a bit uneasy about how the whole concession was handled, but I'm curious to see how all of this plays out in the next several weeks, and can't wait to see Obama and McCain finally go head to head. Ultimately though, I am feeling pretty positive about Obama and feel like his momentum may only grow throughout the summer.


- Just so I can have one of those "I'm cooler than you" moments, I'd like to mention that I am currently watching JJ Abrams' new FOX series, FRINGE. This coming fall season is going to be interesting, as many of the networks are scrambling to get their new shows ready in the aftermath of the writer's strike ... so there may be fewer-than-usual high-profile, franchise shows. But if any show on the horizon has that bigtime, can't-miss feel, it's this one. More later.

- Okay, finally watched FEAR ITSELF. I love sci-fi/horror anthologies, so I was really pscyhed about this show. The other thing I like is that it's on network television. Yep, you heard me. The reason is that I am not a fan of the recent trend in horror towards all the gore / torture-porn style stuff. I would love to see a horror anthology that is more atmospheric and creepy than simply Rob Zombie-style mayhem. Now, the first episode of Fear Itself came off as a bit of a mixture - it started out creepy enough, but eventually devolved into a bit of a mess. And a lot of that had to do with a script that was positively filled with holes. It was a script that worked FAR more effectively when we had no real idea what was going on. All we knew was that four small-time crooks are on the run, and stumble into a remote village that seems populated only by three creepy sisters. Not bad. But as soon as the backstory began getting filled-out, things took a turn for the absurd, with a whole vampire mythology tossed in that made little sense. The look of the episode was pretty solid, but some spotty acting and a bland / nonsensical plot didn't do the show any favors. I love the premise of FEAR ITSELF, and the anthology format means that, for all we know, there could be some real gems mixed-in with the inevitable clunkers. But you'd think and expect that the show would try to start off with more of a bang than this decent, but ultimately pretty disposable episode, which was way more of a whimper.

My Grade: C

- If you look deep in the archives of this here blog you'll see that I've already talked a bit about CBS' SWINGTOWN. I feel like the long delay between having seen the pilot and the show actually debuting on-air may have dampened my enthusiasm a bit, but overall it is still a pretty impressivly high-quality show considering how little else there is in the way of scripted summer TV fare. I'm curious to see a second or third episode and watch whether the show builds momentum or else crashes and burns. But geez, how are this and Fear Itself, the networks' only new scripted shows, on at the same time on Thursday nights?

- Wow, I still need to watch the SMALLVILLE finale. Somehow my desire to check it out has just gotten smaller and smaller as the days go by, but sometime this week I should get around to it.

- Anyways, onto some movie stuff ... I saw a few flicks this weekend, but for now will focus on Adam Sandler's latest, with the other review coming at ya' soon. For now though, here you go ...


- You know, I admit that I can be as negative as anyone about Adam Sandler, but the truth is that the guy has more often than not made me laugh. Sure, he's had a string of subpar movies dating back, oh, about five or six years, give or take, but the guy can be funny when he's on his game. There was a time when his comedy albums were the bee's knees, when nobody elicited bigger laughs on SNL than the likes of Canteen Boy and Opera Man, when Billy Madison was the movie that middle school kids everywhere quoted like it was the comedy bible. I'm not trying to paint Adam Sandler as some comedic genius - we all know he's had his share of clunkers, and that he's coasted on the same man-boy act for years now - but at the same time, if a Sandler movie comes along that promises to have the same energy, random humor, and freshness that marked his early career, then as a comedy fan I can't help but be interested.

So when I heard some early reviews of ZOHAN that were surprisingly positive, I started to get a little bit excited. Might this actually be Sandler's best comedy in years? And then there was the whole Jew / Israeli factor. As a Jew, it's always semi-exciting to see a Jewish or Israeli hero in a big Hollywood production, so I was especially curious to see how Sandler would lampoon Israeli culture and also how he would shape the rare kickass Jew character to hit the big screen (once again: thank you Steven Spielberg for Munich - we owe you one!). It turns out that this may actually be the best part of Zohan. The character of Zohan is a pretty funny spoof of various Israeli stereotypes - from the macho exterior to the ridiculous love of Hummus and ultra-sweet soda drinks to the affinity for "disco" clubs. I wonder if some of this humor comes off as pretty strange to people not in the know, but I think that Sandler paints a broad enough picture that Zohan is funny regardless of one's knowledge of Israeli culture. I know for me, I spent many years being taught by Israeli teachers and working with Israeli camp counsellors, and there was definitely a lot of humor to be found in our cultural differences. I remember one teacher we had circa fifth grade, Mrs. Schmidt, who talked in broken English with a particularly strong Israeli accent. "Who is TALKING right nooow?!?" she would bellow whenever someone disrupted class, much to our amusement. So anyways, it may be that I'm part of a pretty narrow audience who sees the humor in Israeli culture, but I thought the movie really clicked when it kind of presented this strange other culture in similar fashion to, say, Borat. At the same time, it's always cool to see someone paint Israel as such a cool and fun-loving place, and you can see the affection that Sandler and co. have for everything that they happen to be poking fun at.

A lot of what works here is thanks to a script that was actually co-written with Sandler by Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel - two of the funniest guys around when it comes to broad humor. With those guys behind the scenes, you can be assured that you get plenty of totally off-the-wall humor and random craziness, and again, it's there that the movie really excels. In fact, the movie's opening, which kind of plays like a Naked Gun-esque riff on what an Israeli James Bond might be like, is really and truly hilarious. As Sandler as Zohan runs through the streets of Jerusalem, chasing down The Phantom (played to perfection by John Turturro), his Palestinan nemesis, there is a real energy and zing to the humor that had the entire audience doubling over in laughter.

Where things falter is later on, when the movie goes from being a zany spoof to being more along the lines of a typical Sandler comedy. That is to say that when the movie begins to infuse itself with typical Hollywood romantic subplots, and tries to put in all these important life lessons about being yourself and following your dreams, not to mention "why can't we all just get along?"-style commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... well, that's when the movie can really get groan-inducing.

Really, the premise of an Israeli version of Austin Powers is a lot funnier than the worn-out idea of the super-tough guy who really just wants to be a ___ (insert goofy profession here) __. So things definitely slow down a bit once the former unstoppable Mossad agent Zohan becomes a hairdresser in New York, predictably falls in love with his Palestinian boss, and has to take on a greedy landlord who is trying to oust the local ethnic tennants from his property so he can build some new super-mall on the premises. It's as if the idea of a satirical movie about an Israeli super-agent was too out-there, so to balance the scales, every weak-ass Hollywood comedy cliche was thrown into the mix for good measure.

That being said, there is some well-done humor that comes out of all of this. For one thing, there's the running joke about Zohan's tendency to follow his haircuts with some sexy-time. Since most of his clients are old bubbies, to use the Jewish vernacular, this is pretty darn funny, at least for a while. Similarly, there are some very funny scenes that come from the supporting cast of local transplanted Israelis and Palestinians. On one side of the NYC street, a bunch of Israelis work in an electronics store, mercillesly confusing their customers into thinking they are getting great deals as part of a never-ending going-out-of-business sale. Meanwhile, Rob Schneider draws some laughs as part of a group of inept, wannabe terrorists who discover that the local hairdresser is actually the presumed-dead Zohan, and look to cash in (by, among other things, calling the "Hizbollah Hotline" - hahaha ...).

On the other hand, sports announcer Michael Buffer, of all people, was somehow cast as the lead villain of the film, and he is predictably pretty weak. Sure, it's briefly amusing to hear him, in his well-known voice, talk about his hot wife's perfect proportions, but geez guys, Michael Buffer? Couldn't they have gotten a slightly better actor? (Rob Lowe was busy?) Kevin Nealon has a pretty useless role here as a neighborhood friend of Zohan's, and Nick Swardson (sp?) gets in a few funny moments as a loser who Zohan takes under his wing, but he is never quite used to his full potential.

Overall though, I give ZOHAN credit for being Sandler's funniest flick in a while. I really enjoyed it when it dared to just go nuts and try some really random and zany humor - including some very funny physical comedy. The movie has some pretty crazy action scenes, and again, this is often where it works best - with Sandler as a kind of even more out-there version of Austin Powers with a mediterranean twist. Speaking of whom, Zohan features a pretty memorable performance from Sandler, where, like him or not, you have to give him credit for creating a fun character who is consistently pretty amusing to watch. Definitely worth a look for comedy fans who dare to mess with the Zohan.

My Grade: B

Alright - check back soon for a review of KUNG-FU PANDA. For now, Shalom!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"No, Jujitsu sucks." THE FOOT FIST WAY - Reviewed, MTV, and MORE!

Live, from a musty copy room somewhere in Burbank, comes the latest edition of my all-new and semi-awesome adventures.

- So on the political front, it looks like tonight might finally mark the end of the long, seemingly neverending road for Hillary Clinton and her prolonged race for the Democratic nomination. It remains to be seen exactly how this will all play out, and the next few days should be interesting. Let's hope for a graceful exit. That being said, after this election, the primary system really needs to be reexamined. I mean it really is amazing how large a percentage of the Democratic delegate count is determined by the Super Delegates, and how iffy some of these delegate counts are to begin with. Personally, I don't see why all elections can't simply be determined by popular vote. If millions of votes can instantly be tabulated for the likes of American Idol, why is it so hard for this to be done for a presidential election?

- So turning to the world of entertainment ...

The MTV MOVIE AWARDS aired on Sunday. Man, I have fond memories of this show from year's past. Of course, it's rare to find anything worth watching on MTV these days, but I was at least somewhat excited to see that the talented Mike Myers was hosting this year's festivities, rather than like Tila Tequila or something. The awards themselves were the usual ridiculousness - Transformers as movie of the year? Seriously? Even by MTV standards that doesn't make much sense. Suffice it to say I'd be curious to do a quick check and see how many of the night's winners fall under the same corporate umbrella as MTV.

However ... I thought overall this was a pretty entertaining show, probably the best since Jack Black hosted several years back and did a hilarious Lord of the rings parody. Myers and co did a great job with the preproduced sketches. Myers got to try out some funny new characters, each parodies of various backstage Hollywood types. Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black starred in a pretty hilarious short parodying the viral video craze. And, best of all ... Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reunited to do an all-new Wayne's World sketch! Schwing! This alone was worth the price of admission, and it was insanely cool to see Wayne and Garth back with a vintage sketch. It made me realize something too ... it made me realize that now, more than ever, the world is ready for WAYNE'S WORLD 3 to be made. Come on, Myers, make it happen!

- Alright, speaking of out-there comedy, time for a movie review of the latest comedic film that has all the cool kids talkin'. Yep, I'm talkin' 'bout ...


- There's no better feeling as a comedy fan than that of having your mind blown by something new and never-before seen. That feeling of sitting down and watching, for the first time, something like The UK Office, or Da Ali G Show, or Flight of the Conchords, or Arrested Development. The feeling of seeing a movie like Wet Hot American Summer, or Napoleon Dynamite, or Office Space, and realizing that the definition of funny has just been turned on its head.

So is The Foot Fist Way up there in the comdy pantheon? Is it, as the hype would have you believe, the funniest thing since sliced bread, a movie deserving of enthusiastic endorsement from the likes of Will Ferrel, Patton Oswalt, and Seth Rogan? Is this the next big thing in comedy?

The answer is: almost, but not quite. The amazing thing about The Foot Fist Way is just how much raw potential everyone involved exhibits. There is genuine hilarity at the core of this movie. But in execution, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag. The movie is simply not quite as funny as it wants to be. In fact, at times it morphs into a strange, excessively dark sort of drama, going so far with its characters that it becomes genuinely disturbing rather than just awkwardly funny. But like I said, the raw talent is unquestionably there. There's no doubt: martial arts instructor Fred Simmons, as brought to life by Danny McBride, is a near-classic creation. McBride creates a memorable character here, fleshed-out and wholly authentic. The same can be said for a number of the supporting players, as well as, in general, the world of the film. Everything feels real, accurate, and therefore rife for merciless mocking. It helps that the movie was shot outside of Hollywood and with a number of non-actors. If Napoleon Dynamite leaned more towards the surreal, this one is much more grounded. Still, Fred Simmons, the "king of the demo," is a larger than life character in the vein of a David Brent or any number of Will Ferrell creations - a guy who is the king of his own small, sad world yet, when the curtain is pulled back, he's kind of sad and pathetic.

Fred Simmons, despite being a pudgy, redneck-ish guy, paints himself as a master martial artist, the ultimate mentor to his loyal class of students young and old. And yet, as we see Fred's home life, we realize he isn't quite as indestructable as he'd have his students believe. Fred's biggest problem: his wife seems to be a chronic flirt and sometime cheater. Fred's great white hope is Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, a Chuck Norris-esque martial artist / movie star who Fred idolizes. When the two meet at a karate expo, Fred convinces Chuck to visit his class, thinking it will be a watershed moment for him personally and professionally. Instead, Chuck isn't all he's cracked up to be, and soon becomes not just a nuiscance to Fred, but his mortal enemy.

As mentioned, the movie descends into some very dark comedy as it progresses. It somewhat tries to be an uplifting story, but ends up being an almost depressingly sad portrait of a pathetic guy with delusions of grandeur. Still, there are a lot of laughs to be had. Fred's passive-aggressive relationship with his wife, for example, produes some of the movie's most downright hilarious moments. Same can be said for Fred's interactions with his "apprentice," a rolly-polly kid named Julio, who seems mostly just confused as to what Fred sees in him. The kid playing Julio is great, and really steals a number of scenes. I also really got a kick out of Fred's friend Mike, played by the movie's director, Jody Hill. Mike was a dead-on parody of a certain kind of wannabe nerd, who worships all things martial arts. Mike speaks in a deadpan deep voice, sounding like he's mimicking a bad Hong Kong movie dub. He has bleach bonde, slicked back hair, constantly reminds people of his black belt, and is in a death-metal band. Hilarious. Mike definitely has some of the movie's best lines as well.

So again, this is a movie that I would recommend that any comedy fan check out. I wouldn't put it in the absolute top tier of comedy flicks, and I can't say it quite lives up the enormous wave of hype that preceeded its theatrical release ... but I give it points simply for being a unique, original vision and for being consistently entertaining. Even if at some points the humor stops clicking and the plot overwhelms the comedy, the characters alone were fun and interesting enough that it's just entertaining to see them in their natural environment. Part of the problem may be that the movie kind of sets itself up to be a Will Ferell-esque laugh-a-minute comedy, but ultimately plays it a little straighter, a little more Office than Anchorman. If anything though, this is a pretty impressive debut for Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and the rest of the Foot Fist Way team. I for one would be very interested in seeing what they come up with next.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, the fumes from the copier are about to knock me out. I'm outta here, dude.