Friday, October 30, 2009

Zombies Ate My Blog! A Special HALLOWEEN Post, with a review of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL!

Darkness crawls across the land ... the midnight hour is close at hand ...

- Good evening, boys and ghouls, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I'm primed and ready for what should be a fright-filled Halloween -- I already kicked off the weekend in style with a trip to see The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D in Hollywood, and tonight I don zombie-hunter gear in preparation for yet another Page-O'-Ween spectacular. But put down the candy for just one more minute, because first, some pop-culture pontifications for your reading pleasure. I've got reviews of this past week's Halloween-themed episodes of The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation, as well as a movie review of the indie-horror, 80's-flashback flick - HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. So keep reading ... if you dare.


- THE OFFICE on Thursday had a fun Halloween haunted-house teaser, but then quickly became a very typical Office episode. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it felt a little bit been-there-done-that, sort of like it was just running on autopilot. We've seen Michael mess up and try to cover it up before, and we've seen Andy pine for someone else in the office before. The twist here is that Michael's embarrassing fall into a Koi Pond was something of a turning point for Jim, who was resentful of Michael for not letting him go to a big business meeting alone. The ongoing thread in this season of The Office has been Jim's newfound responsibilities as co-manager, and his ongoing struggle to take charge while not becoming Michael 2.0 in the process. One of the ep's most hilarious moments was Dwight ruminating on how Jim is his own worst enemy. Since Jim is Dwight's enemy, but also his own worst enemy, and since "the enemy of mine enemy is my friend ..." well, let's just say this paradox was a bit of a brain-teaser for Dwight. Anyways, with everyone in the office laughing at Michael's faux pass, Jim tried to teach Michael how to laugh at yourself in order to make him less of a target. Of course, Michael took this lesson to hilariously disturbing extremes, making fun of himself just a tad too harshly. Meanwhile, Andy goes on cold sales calls paired with Pam, and after everyone thinks they are a couple, Andy reveals his loneliness to Pam and also his developing crush on new office receptionist Erin. The twist here, of course, is that Erin, for some reason, thinks Andy is the coolest person since Marlon Wayans. Like I said, there were some twists, but too many of the scenes - Michael making inappropriate lists in the conference room, for example, felt familiar. So, yeah, this one had a few interesting wrinkles, but all in all seemed to dip into the old well a few too many times to be considered great.

My Grade: B

- But, by the way -- for some amazing OFFICE-related hilarity, check out the "Male Prima Donna" song and music video that spins out from the show's latest batch of webisodes, which center around Kelly's quest to form her own girl-pop group and to record her own music video. The name of she and Erin's duo? Subtle Sexuality. And their song and video? Hilarious, and really, really catchy to boot. You can watch it now on, OR, you can download the song, music video, and digital album art on iTunes! I highly suggest you grab it as soon as you can! And yes, this is a cheap plug, as I worked on getting this up on iTunes, and want to see it blow up. But trust me, this one is worth your download.

- 30 ROCK really entertained me this week, even if certain critics (cough*AV Club*cough) seem to have turned against the show in full-force. No, this wasn't an all-time great ep, but man, there were more than enough moments of hilarity for it to be considered a good to very good ep. I mean, look, 30 Rock has always been Simpsons-esque in its humor. It's a show that can excel from great jokes alone, that doesn't need to have the kind of character or emotional moments of a typical sitcom. For me, the "rule of three's" subplot alone was enough to carry the ep. You don't need to analyze it, it was just hilarious. Tracy Morgan cracked me up with every line he said. (His determination to eat "ghost meat" in honor of the death of the "obese guy who PacMan was based on"? Classic.) Judah Friedlander's quest to get invited to a gay Halloween party was similarly hilarious - we need more storylines following the writers and their awesomely geeky adventures. As for the A-plot, well, it was an interesting commentary on how 30 Rock is perceived as kind of a New York-liberal show that can't quite entertain the masses like a Two and a Half Men or whatever. Liz and Jack's trip to small-town Georgia was funny, and also a nice send-up of all the talk you hear about the "real" America vs the elitist parts of the country on either coast. The main problem here to me was that the show dipped its toes into this pond, but didn't quite go far enough. It felt like the writers wanted to make some really cutting comments on the whole liberal elite vs middle America issue, but stopped short. Still, there was more than enough funny for this to be a very enjoyable ep.

My Grade: B+

- PARKS & RECREATION this week had a decently funny episode that was also Halloween themed. This one had Leslie on the hunt for a pesky teen who serially defaces local parks on Halloween. For a while now, people have been hailing Chris Pratt's character as being one of the funniest on the show, but this episode finally showed me just how funny he can be. I loved his impression of an FBI agent, and his "interrogation" of the teen prankster was great. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones threw a Halloween party that started off as pretty lame, but got much more happenin' as soon as Aziz Ansari and hi green-card-getting wife turned up and cranked up the fun-o-meter. The party scenes were a lot of fun, and Aziz was in fine form. Louis CK was once again very funny as Leslie's soft-spoken cop boyfriend as well. After last week's so-so episode, this was another good one from Parks & Rec.

My Grade: B+

- And by the way, I breathed a sigh of relief this week after I finally removed FLASH FORWARD from my DVR. In my last post, I outlined why I was pretty much done with the show, so I didn't really regret the decision. And think about it: with V starting next week and 24, LOST, and CHUCK on the horizon ... who has time to waste on crappy TV?

- Alright ... it's been a good month for horror movies that break the mold and make for some great October thrills. In the last few weeks I've talked about Paranormal Activity, Trick R' Treat ... and now we've got HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. What's really cool is that each of these films think outside the box in terms of production and distribution. The story of Paranormal Activity is well-known by now, but it still bears repeating because Hollywood suits never seem to learn the lessons of movies like this. The lesson here being that you DON'T need huge budgets or big-name actors to make a great mass-market movie. You just need a great premise and talent, some buzz-generating marketing ... and the masses will come. To think that so many execs insisted that Paranormal Activity would only succeed if it was remade with big-name talent - it goes to show how clueless people in Hollywood can be. Personally, I love seeing a movie buck the odds and succeed like this despite so many factors going against it. Even if you didn't think that PA was as scary as some have made it out to be, you've got to admire how it's success is, in many ways, one giant "F.U." to the traditional Hollywood way of doing things. Same goes for TRICK R' TREAT. The studio denied it a bigscreen release, held it back, and then finally put it out to market on home video after a long wait. But the fans rushed out to snatch up DVD's, download it off of XBOX Live or the Playstation Store, etc. Another example of cool content attracting an audience even if it didn't come through the typical Hollywood channels. And now there's HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. The third piece of a horror movie trifecta that has really got me thinking that the times, they are a changin'. The movie was released in select theaters, but also on VOD services and digital download simultaneously. Not only that, but cable viewers who get HD NET could check it out for free on their TV's during special on-air screenings. A well-reviewed, new-release movie debuting right on my TV screen? Sign me up. So what's the scoop on House of the Devil? Keep reading ...


- House of the Devil doesn't just remind you of an 80's horror movie, it IS an 80's horror movie, for all intents and purposes. This one feels like someone reached into a locked vault of cult-classic horror flicks circa 1982 and unearthed some never-before-seen piece of scary cinema. Because, man, writer-director Ti West has done an absolutely amazing job here of making a movie that is totally 80's in all the best ways. It's not just the spot-on hair and clothes and all that. And it's not just the fact that the details are pitch-perfect, from the way the actors talk to the old-school Coke cups at a pizza joint to the vintage Walkmen. It's much more than that. It's the camera angles, the fonts used for the opening credits, the way music is used in the movie, the way its shot and edited. Like I said, House of the Devil is the best 80's horror movie never made.

Ti West is not a name I was really familiar with before this movie, but he's definitely someone to watch out for. For one thing, this movie feels like a pretty singular vision - West wrote it, directed it, and his personal sensibilities and fetishes are all over this one. But also, West just displays a lot of cajones in making a movie like this that is so different than most of the horror flicks out there now. As I said, it is 100% an 80's throwback, stylistically. Pacing-wise, this one is a slooow burn. Most of the movie is all about creepy atmosphere and creating a sense of impending terror and dread. I love, for example, that the movie opens with a simple title card explaining the national fear and prevalance of Satanic cults in the early 1980's. For the next hour, we don't need anything else spelled out for us, because in the back of our minds we know that there's something really, really sinister going on between the lines of what we're actually seeing on-screen.

What we're seeing is a fairly typical story -- Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a cash-strapped college student in 1982, who is nonetheless determined to move into her own apartment in order to get away from her awful roommate. Sam finds a great new place, but needs some extra money to pay the rent - so she answers an ad for a babysitter. Quickly enough, we realize that the strange man who posted the ad is possibly hiding some sinister secret. And even more quickly, we realize that this isn't going to be a typical babysitting gig for poor Samantha. To say much more would be spoiling things ... but like I said, that ominous opening title card about Satanic cults is never far from your thoughts while watching things play out.

Again, West paces things nice and slow, methodically drawing us into this creepy story. Like Paranormal Activity, a thick atmosphere of discomfort is created, so for a while, every little bump in the night or creak of a door gets to you. But unlike PA, this one is very stylized, and you see a lot of homages to classic horror movie moments (and classic 80's-movies moments - yes there is even a freeze-frame!). It helps that the actors are totally up for the challenge of essentially recreating a vintage 70's / early-80's-style horror movie. Donahue is sort of the classic 80's girl-next-door tomboy type - tough, quiet, a bit sullen, but prone to random bouts of rockin' out to her Walkman whilst listening to The Fixx. Anyone who's OD'd on old-school movies will immediately get the kind of character that Sam pays homage to. Meanwhile, there is a really creepy turn from Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman, the dapper yet disturbing gentleman who's hired Sam to watch over his rustic old house in the middle of the boonies, so that he and his equally creepy wife can enjoy a mysteriously ambiguous "night out," that happens to coincide with a rare lunar eclipse.

For some, the ultra-slow-burn of the first two-thirds of the movie might be too much to sit through. But sitting at home watching this one, I found myself getting pretty wrapped up in the movie, just admiring all the creepiness and cool vintage details. And of course, the total shock-and-awe craziness of the last third of the movie was, to me, all the more effective after so much build-up. And when I say effective, what I mean is that for a good 20 minutes or so -- well, holy freaking crap, the $@#& hits the fan! That said, this isn't a movie where a lot happens - but it is a really cool genre excercise that's well-worth watching. It's a great movie to sit back and watch with the lights out. And it's a great movie to watch if you're feeling nostalgic for 1982 (clearly a good year ... I was born!). Go in at your own risk, but I'd say it's worth it to enter the House of the Devil.

My Grade: B+

- Are those werewolves I hear howling in the distance? Is that witches' brew I smell bubbling? Is that the thump ... thump ... thump of zombies lumbering towards my humble abode? Alright, ghosts and ghouls, it's time to don my anti-zombie gear and see what tricks or treats this Halloween has in store.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Doin' the Wild Thing - WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Review! Plus: How To Fix FLASH FORWARD!

And so the Halloween season continues ... It's already been an eventful October: Knott's Scary Farm, the annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon ... and then of course this Saturday, on the 31st, it will once again be time for some Halloween party craziness in Pasadena. It's even getting appropriately chilly again here in LA -- after several days of very unseasonably warm weather, it's now dark and cool and windy -- perfect October weather.


- So I went against my better judgement and watched the latest episode of FLASH FORWARD. A bunch of people told me this was one of the better episodes so far, so I gave in and gave the series one more chance. So, I'm not sure what some of my friends were smoking, but man, to me this was another clunker of an episode. And for me, probably the final nail in the coffin of my time as a Flash Forward fan and viewer. It's a shame - rarely have I so enjoyed a pilot episode only to be let down by subsequent installments of a series. So rather than just talk about this latest episode, let me simply count the ways in which Flash Forward needs some serious help:

a.) More Plot, Less Character: right now, we have gotten about two minutes' worth of actual plot over the course of several episodes. Flash Forward needs to bust its own myth-arc wide open, as soon as possible. Because right now they have given curious viewers next to nothing to hang on to. Now, typically, you want a show to emphasize character over all else - particularly a high concept or sci-fi show. You need great characters in order to ground the show and keep people invested in the storylines. This is what has kept Lost so creatively viable, and what enabled that show's long-running flashback structure to work over multiple seasons. But here's the thing - Flash Forward is structured such that we have to revisit the SAME character flashes in EVERY episode. This grew tiresome VERY quickly, and now each new episode hits us over the head with the same character bits again and again. So stop blatantly referencing them so much! Trust the viewer to remember what happened in each character's flash, and keep the allusions to them subtle. Do the occasional standalone episode that introduces a new character and examines their flash-forward. But the constant references to plot points that resurface in EVERY episode are totally off-putting. It's why the show needs to get the ball rolling in terms of the bigger-picture plot.

b.) More Forward Momentum: On that note, what is with this show introducing random cliffhangers or reveals and then not following up on them? You introduce Dominic Monahagan as a major antagonist at the end of one ep and then don't even reference him in the next? What?! This ties into a bigger problem with the show -- way too much focus on the mundane aspects of people's lives. Sure, you need those smaller moments to balance out the big stuff. But right now, the whole show is centered around all these little human-drama plotlines - the wife maybe sleeping with another guy, the main character going back to drinking, the FBI agent starting to date a new woman, etc. This was a huge mistake from the pilot that quickly began to aversely affect the tone of the show. The main throughline should be a focus on the how's and why's of the flash-forwards - all that other stuff should be relegated to the periphery. In the world of the show, a huge, world-shattering event just took place that seems to be part of some mysterious agenda. How does that ultra-intriguing concept take a back seat to will-she-or-won't-she fidelity storylines?

c.) Be Smarter: Right now, this show is not operating on a level of high-intelligence. Every character conflict, every plot point, everything, feels dumbed down and hamfisted. I mean, for a show where all this crazy stuff is happening, there are so many cliched "how dare you buck authority and go off on your own investigation?!" type moments. And why not play up the sci-fi aspect a little bit? There's a TON of interesting hypothetical questions intrinsic to the show's premise. First and foremost - why doesn't anyone deliberately try to do something contrary to someone's flash-forward? What would happen if they tried? I thought that the show had a great opportunity to shake things up this past week when, for a second, it looked like a major character had been killed off. But that didn't happen, and that's a bummer. Because so far, everything has happened exactly as predestined in the flashes. Where's the fun in that? Which leads me to ...

d.) Have More Fun: For a show with such a far-out premise, the episode to episode plotlines here are so ... pedestrian. You might as well be watching any other show on TV. I mean, essentially, this is a show about TIME TRAVEL. Have fun with that! I mean, sure, maybe most people have visions about their wives or children or workplace. But what if one guy's vision is of a nuke about to be launched? What if everyone had a second vision that was contrary to the first? What if the flashes were a result of some space-time rift that is just phase one of some giant cosmic catastrophe? Just tossing stuff out here, but geez, there is so much potential in the premise - do something with it. Look at FRINGE and all the awesomeness that that show has culled from its premise of alternate universes. Unlike FF, Fringe has seriously explored the ramifications of this. And Fringe also has great characters that fit its universe. Flash Forward has no eccentrics, no scientists, no geniuses, no badasses. There's no equivalent of a Jack Bauer or Fox Mulder or Walter Bishop or John Locke or Sawyer. It makes the show feel so ... bland. I said earlier that the show should actually focus less on character. That's true, but the fact is that if you have a great character from the get-go, you don't need to spend every episode hitting us over the head with additional characterization. Right now, every character on this show is basically pretty bland. Where's the great hero, the great villain?

So those are some of my suggestions for Flash Forward. Of course, some of these problems are fundamental to the show's structure and cast of characters. To which I say: shake things up. We've already seen that ABC has canned the showrunner and brought in some new creative talent, so who knows, maybe there will be shakeup and things will improve. But I don't have time to watch twelve episodes of a mediocre show to see if it eventually gets better, and neither do you. So sorry, FF, I'm out.

- And now, the long-awaited movie review of Spike Jones' latest:


- For the first fifteen minutes or so of Where the Wild Things Are, I was right there with the critics and fans who have hailed this one as a work of genius. I was completely taken aback by the sheer artistry and power of the images I was seeing. The raw emotion, the somber sense of nostalgia, the way in which every movement of the camera seemed to capture something about the truth of childhood. As many have said, this really seemed like a movie that made you remember the feeling of being a kid. Not just one that evoked familiar characters or themes from childhood ... but one that really, truly made you remember the way your mind worked at age nine or ten. For ten or fifteen minutes, I was sold. I was captivated. But as the movie's initial burst of novel energy disappeared, what started as a strange and unpredictable ride soon wore down to a slow and plodding grind. The sense of wonder gave way to pure melancholy. The power of the imagery gave way to endless talking and brooding and more talking still. The themes that were subtly touched on in the opening were hamfistedly bashed into the audiences brain over and over again as the movie trudged on. At first, I thought I was watching a groundbreaking contemplation on childhood escapism. In the end, I felt like I had just endured Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers' personal therapy session.

Even after that somewhat critical intro, I think that this is one of the hardest movies to write about so far in 2009. The thing is, I think there's no question that there is some element of brilliance at the heart of this movie. The talent and visual artistry on display, and the sheer level of originality, can't be questioned. The question then is: did it work for you? To me, beyond the stunning visuals, the movie, I think, was ultimately somewhat off-putting. It was very, very "emo." But not in a subtle way ... scene after scene consisted of characters who were just ... sad. There's so much brooding, so much bellyaching, so many pseudo-philisophical discussions about loneliness and anger and hurting others ... after a while, you can't help but groan. What I loved about the movie's opening is that we meet Max, our boy hero, and we see him playing in his house, playing in the snow, running around and rough-housing, acting out against his sister and mother and her new boyfriend -- you simply watch these brilliantly-shot, kinetic scenes of childhood and you understand what Jonze is going for. The power of the images on screen are enough to carry the movie - only minimal explanation or dialogue is needed. The same can be said for the initial transition to the land of the Wild Things. We feel Max's need for escape, and we get caught up in the sense of mystery and wonder and adventure.

But once Max starts interacting with the monsters, he and the wild things don't stop blabbering. Or blubbering, as it were. From Scene 1 with the monsters, we have to hear them espouse on their every existential crisis in near-excruciating detail. "She used to be my friend, but now she doesn't like me anymore." "Why aren't things like they used to be?" "Why did this innocent-seeming game of war lead to hurt feelings and injury?" It's like we are hit over the head with every childhood hang-up imaginable, in the most blatant and drawn-out way possible.

The end effect of this is that, despite the amazing visuals of the wild things and their faraway land, I was ecstatic when Max eventually sets sail for the real world. At least there, the great Catherine Keener is around to keep the movie's feet on the ground. Keener does a great job in her role as Max's worn-out mother. For that matter, kid-actor Max Records is great as Max. Whatever other problems I had with the movie, Records is actually pretty amazing here. He pulls off the emotion and pathos that the role calls for with remarkable ease. And while I'm praising the cast, I also have a lot of appreciation for the job that was done with the monsters. Sure, their relationship issues and "woe-is-me" brooding grew pretty tiresome very quickly, but still ... it's also kind of remarkable how well actors like James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, and Catherine O'Hara pull this thing off. If nothing else, the voice-cast really does bring these characters to life and makes them empathetic.

And a lot of that has to do with the amazing visuals as well. The craft and detail on the monsters is incredible. The amount of personality that the costumes and CGI-augmented faces possess is unprecedented. And the juxtaposition of these otherworldy, storybook monsters with the sweeping vistas, expansive deserts, and golden fields of their faraway land is often breathtaking. Jonez does an amazing job with the camera. The angles, the cinematography, all evoke this sweeping sense of awe and wonder. This movie looks stunning.

When I was caught up in the visuals and the atmosphere, I was into it. But a lot of the time, I just felt like I was on this plodding, aimless journey with no point to it. The movie felt needlessly somber and way too heavy-handed to me. Like I said, that opening did a great job of capturing the spirit of childhood. But soon enough, it felt like a bunch of sad, grown men putting their personal neuroses from childhood on full display for all to see. I couldn't help but get bored, restless, and frustrated with the movie. And yet ... I think it's worth seeing. It is a personal vision, and it is unique, and it does possess some amazing, memorable visuals that are not quite like anything you've seen. But ultimately, did the movie work for me as it was meant to? Not really. I'd call this an ambitious but problematic miss.

My Grade: B-

- Alright, check back soon for more!

Monday, October 26, 2009

TRICK R' TREAT! A Halloween Movie Marathon Recap, Plus: TRICK R' TREAT - Reviewed! And: Smallville and Glee Thoughts!

Another HALLOWEEN HORROR MOVIE MARATHON has come and gone, and I'm happy to say that it was another successful night of thrills, chills, and teenaged werewolves. Saturday night's annual horrorthon was once again good times, and I thought the lineup of movies turned out well, with (mostly) crowd-pleasing results. This year's selection was somewhat unique in that I had personally never seen any of the featured films before. Nope, not even TEEN WOLF. That one was fun ... do I think it's a good movie? No. But it's a good one to watch with a group and mock mercilessly for its sheer absurdity. It's amazing how they could actually pull off a movie like that in the 80's. I mean, say what you want about the quality of movies today, but, wow, I feel like if Teen Wolf came out now, it would be totally ridiculed by critics and fans. But yeah, this was a fun movie if only for its sheer craziness. NEAR DARK on the other hand, was an awesome flick, but perhaps not the greatest party movie, as it at times was more of an atmospheric journey than a fast-paced thriller. But still ... the movie had some crazy moments of outlaw vampire badassery, and actors like Bill Paxton and Lance Henrikson were totally at the top of their game here. And the amazing direction from Katherine Bigelow reaffirmed what I extrapolated from The Hurt Locker - she is the real deal. She may still mostly be known for Point Break, but man, the woman can direct action and atmosphere with the best of them. Finally, we watched TRICK R' TREAT. Since this one is actually a newly-released movie (albeit direct-to-home video), I'll give a full review below. The short version: as a whole, it was pretty good, but man, there were a couple of moments of sheer awesomeness that elevated the movie from decent to very good. More on that later, but, it was definitely an ultra-appropriate movie for the occasion. And of course, we had some classic episodes of THE SIMPSONS - both a Treehouse of Horror episode and the beloved installment in which Mulder and Scully of The X-Files pay a visit to Springfield. So hilarious. So, anyways, thanks to those who came out for the marathon - a scary-good time was had by all, and looking forward to doing it again next year!


- SMALLVILLE had a somewhat weak episode this past Friday, with the focus being on Oliver Queen and his current "identity crisis" of sorts. In the past few weeks, we've seen Oliver quit his life as the Green Arrow in favor of a hard-drinkin', hard-travelin' lifestyle involving lots of self-pity and brooding. As if all of Clark's self-doubt at the beginning of the season wasn't enough ... But really, it wasn't so much the premise of this episode that was bad, just the execution. I was actually excited to see Oliver and Clark tangle with Roulette, a cool villain from the comics created a few years ago by Geoff Johns in the pages of JSA. Her gimmick has long been a scheme in which she runs an underground gambling ring of sorts frequented by super-villain types, with the main attraction being hero-on-hero battles in which the good guys are forced to fight each other, or else suffer some horrible punishment cooked up by Roulette. So, did any of that coolness translate from page to screen? Um, no. Sure, they nailed Roulette's look, but that was about it. Instead of cool underground hero-fights, we got a rip off of the movie The Game, in which Ollie is put through a bunch of "are-they-real-or-just-part-of-the-game?"-style challenges. But the whole thing just felt plodding. Even worse was the peripheral stuff going on. Lois has been getting more and more annoying every episode this season, and this one did her no favors. So, "every year" she and Oliver play beer pong on his birthday? Like in all two of the years he's been on the show? And again, the Lois-Clark dynamic is getting sickeningly cheesy. They were so much better when they were written as having the traditional Lois/Clark friendly rivalry thing going, as opposed to now where they just stare into each other's eyes for half of every episode. Anyways, this season of Smallville has been kind of schizo so far, weighted more towards the side of fail. This episode was not a step in the right direction.

My Grade: C

- I hinted last week that I've been getting back into GLEE. And it's true. A couple of weeks ago I felt almost ready to drop the show, but ever since Kristen Chenoweth's guest appearance I think that it's been on a roll. Wednesday's episode was another good one, and like I was saying last week, I think the show has done a great job of shifting its focus a bit, to the point where the character dynamics now make a lot more sense than they did before. Teri is now something of a villain. Quinn is 1000 times more interesting than she was originally. Sue Sylvester is like the female Chuck Norris, increasingly hilarious in every episode. I loved the recurring theme of getting hit in the face with a Slushie in last week's ep. It takes skills to craft a whole episode around such a random thing, but somehow, Glee did it. And the fact that they pulled off that feat made me realize that this show has more win than I initially gave it credit for. I'm in for the longhaul, at least for now.

My Grade: A-

- I have Thursday's FLASH FORWARD on my DVR, but haven't watched yet, and not sure if I will. Thoughts?

- Alright, as promised, here's a review of the recently-released horror flick, TRICK R' TREAT.


- Trick R' Treat is a great Halloween movie, no question. I watched this one as part of my annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, and I think it's safe to say that it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. With a fun cast, a cool structure, and some very fun surprises, Trick R' Treat will likely be a staple of Halloween movie-viewing for a long time to come.

Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, and exec-produced by Bryan Singer, Trick R' Treat marks a reunion of sorts for the team behind the original X-Men movies (it also features X-Men alumni Anna Paquin and Brian Cox). But what makes the movie stand out to me is that, stylistically, this is very much in the vein of EC Comics, Tales From the Crypt, Creepshow, etc. - that is, it's a horror anthology that focuses on darkly comedic morality plays, most of which have some sort of ironic twist at the end. I love that stuff, and the movie pays obvious tribute to its various inspirations with animated opening and closing sequences presented in a comic book style.

The big twist here is that, yes, this is an anthology, but at the same time, there are no hard breaks between the various storylines. Instead, we cut back and forth between them, at times stopping to focus on a particular set of characters. Meanwhile, the various stories intersect and crossover in often unexpected ways. In fact, things really start to get interesting when they do.

The various stories each focus on the mythology and experience of Halloween from a different perspective. First, we've got a group of kids out trick-or-treating - they seem like a nice enough bunch, but soon we find out that their Halloween plans include a rather sinister prank. Next, we've got a group of teens out on the prowl for a happening Halloween party. They seem like your typical horror movie victims-in-waiting, but again, all is not as it seems. Then there's a creepy middle-aged school principal, played by Spiderman's Dylan Baker. For him, Halloween is a chance to let it all hang out, so to speak. And finally, there's a curmudgeonly guy who is basically the Halloween equivalent of Scrooge. Given his hatred of Halloween, it's only a matter of time before this bitter soul, played by Brian Cox, runs afoul of Sam, the movie's mascot of sorts. Because throughout the movie, "Sam," lurks in the shadows. Charged with preserving the spirit of Halloween, like a creepy version of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, Sam is a little guy who looks like a cross between Jack Pumpkinhead and The Scarecrow. And despite his miniscule size, the guy packs a punch.

Trick R' Treat takes a while to really get into its groove, but about midway through the movie, things really pick up, as the various twists start popping up. In fact, there is one incredible sequence involving Anna Paquin and her teenaged friends that absolutely blows the doors down. Before that sequence, I was thinking the movie was only okay. But after that, I had to admit, this was getting good.

The movie is a nice combo of lots of various Halloween tropes. And it looks great too, thanks to some inspired direction from Daugherty. The movie is overflowing with Halloween atmosphere - glowing jack o' lanterns, creepy music, and that aforementioned sense of dark, ironic humor. And the script, while not overflowing with memorable dialogue or anything, nonetheless captures that spooky, sitting-around-the-campfire vibe. And the way the various stories criss-cross is also handled very cleverly.

All in all, this one definitely can be considered a Halloween treat. It's a shame it didn't get the theatrical release it deserved. But hey, I digitally rented it in HD via XBOX - a Halloween Horror Movie Marathon first. I certainly got some bang for my buck. And some of my friends were even reported to have walked back to their cars after the party on the lookout for diminuitive pumpkin-men with murderous intent. A sign of a horror movie that's done its job.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, that's all for now ... next: a review of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Page Strike! 30 ROCK Returns, Plus: The Office, Fringe, and Balloon Boy!

How weird is this balloon boy thing? As sick as I already am about hearing about it, I have to say this: I turned on my TV at work yesterday (benefit of working in TV - television sets at your desk), and saw this incredible thing playing out on live TV. I mean, you couldn't help but be totally glued to the TV. Was there really a six year old boy in this flying saucer-esque balloon? How would he land? How might they get him out? How did he get in there? What was that balloon for, anyway? There were so many crazy questions with regards to the amazing footage being shown. The whole thing was just completely surreal. So like many, I was holding my breath as the balloon finally touched down and a rescue team raced to see if they could free the boy. And then there was no boy. And it turned out that the boy was in his parents' attic the whole time, hiding in a box. And also, it turned out that the family has been around - they've been on Wife Swap, fer pete's sake. And they are all over YouTube. And they seem to be slightly insane - the dad thinks, apparently, that he is an alien half-breed.

So what are my takeaways from all this?

a.) Do I blame the media for covering the incident as it happened? No - watching a floating silver balloon fly over Colorado, with a six year old kid potentially trapped inside? - that's crazy, compelling stuff - you've got to cover it. But all the stuff after the fact? Not necessary. The media needs to self-regulate and recognize when enough is enough. Plus, I just feel bad for people who have been in a news cycle event like this and are suddenly forced to travel around and go on TV the very next day. Ugh.

b.) Was it a hoax / publicity stunt? I don't know, but if it was, what would be the point? To sell last-minute Balloon Boy Halloween costumes?!

c.) I want a UFO-like balloon to fly around in.

Anyways, enough about Balloon Boy. Seriously. Enough.


- THE OFFICE last night had an episode that initially turned me off with its cartoonish premise, but ultimately sort of won me over with its humor. I mean, the idea of a whole episode centered around Michael Scott fearing that an insurance pitchman was in fact a mafia tough guy out to extort him? Um ... okay. Like I said, pretty goofy. But as the absurdity continued to escalate, and the antics of Dwight, Andy, and Michael got increasingly over-the-top, at some point I just gave in and began to laugh my ass off. Not a classic episode, and the Kevin subplot kind of fell flat ... but some really hilarious moments made this won work.

My Grade: B

- As for the season premiere of 30 ROCK ... well, The AV Club had an exhaustive article the other day examining last season's slow but semi-alarming drop-off in quality for one of TV's best comedies ... and so I was anxious to see if this ep turned a corner, and brought 30 Rock back to its former spot as the undisputed king of TV comedy.

This one was not, sad to say, a classic. Instead, it was a lot like many of last season's episodes - very, very funny at times, but not delivering the kind of rapid-fire, laugh-a-minute hilarity of season 2. Part of the problem is that with 30 Rock, you're always guaranteed a couple of things for any given episode - for one, that Tracy Morgan will say at least a couple of hilarious things, and that Alec Baldwin will do the same. Sometimes, a few bits of classic dialogue is enough to carry an episode, but sometimes, it's really window dressing that helps hide the fact that one of the A or B plots isn't 100% clicking. Last night, all of the Liz-Peter antics, as they tried to hide the fact that they were looking for a new cast member, were only just okay. Same goes for the Page Strike. Don't get me wrong, the very idea of a Page strike makes this former NBC Page smile. But there is so much potential in this idea that the actual execution was pretty good, but not amazing. Especially disappointing was that the great Steve Buscemi appeared, but didn't get much great material to choose on.

Personally, I've always been in favor of 30 Rock embracing its crazy, random side, and not ghettoizing that aspect of the show. I love when Tracy is involved in the main storylines rather than just off doing his own thing, for example. I still want to see 30 Rock be weird and random. We got that only in small doses last night, but we did get a lot of meta-commentary. I do like that 30 Rock isn't afraid to take swipes at NBC or at the television industry in general, but at the same time, last night was a little too wink-nudge-y for my tastes. I'd rather see these things satirized organically in the storylines, and not have, say, a throw to Jay Leno as a part of the show.

Now I don't mean to just rag on 30 Rock. The truth is, there was a lot to like in last night's ep. Like I said, I loved the premise of a Page Strike. I got a huge kick out of Tracy Morgan's quest to re-connect with his populist roots ("I'd better go call Rabbi Schmuley!"). There was good stuff in there. I just want to see 30 Rock back on top of its game.

My Grade: B

- Last night on FRINGE, we got another episode that was extremely X-Files-ish in terms of plot and tone. Now, I love Fringe, but I didn't start to *really* love it until it got away from these kinds of one-off episodes and began to focus on its overarching myth-arc - the pattern, the alternate universes, Walter's checkered history, etc. I think part of the problem is that Fringe has just never figured out the perfect formula for these episodes. If you look at The X-Files, they had a couple of keys to their monster-of-the-week eps that made many of them work so well. For one, they almost always completely ignored the show's larger mythology - this allowed them to completely focus on the freak o' the week. It allowed them to go in-depth with the villain's backstory, or its psychology, or its origins. The stories were based on myths, local legends, popular folklore, science-fiction, etc. On Fringe, early episodes were all connected in some wa to the ominous Pattern. Last night's ep and the week before? Not really. There were bits and pieces of the show's serialized mythology. There was a somewhat random villain who we never really got to sink our teeth into. Sure, there was a cool idea at the heart of the episode - the concept of bottling up people's dreams and nightmares and then force-feeding them to others via microchips implanted in the brain - but we never truly explored its ramifications or applications, and we never 100% understood why the doctor behind this insidious plot went down this dark rabbit hole to begin with. Fringe has done a great job of getting into the heads of its protagonists - now it needs to do the same for its antagonists. Finally, The X-Files always knew how to deliver a killer ending. Too many of these Fringe episodes feel rushed - there was hardly any real resolution in last night's ep, no reflection, no postscript. The mad dream doctor was simply dispatched with and that was all she wrote. It's funny too because Fringe has had some killer cliffhangers in its day, but these have mostly been relegated to its more serialized episodes. Again, the show still struggles to figure out how best to present these more self-contained storylines. One more gripe - some of the dialogue and overall storytelling in last night's ep was pretty clunky. Like when Peter remarks that one of the night-terror victims seemed to have an interest in sleep deprivation, then immediately rattled off the titles of all the sleep-centric books that were right there on his bookshelf. Or how about the way that the doctor's research assistant was introduced? He may as well have walked onscreen with a T-shirt saying "Hi, I'm Evil!". Okay, sure, he turned out not to be evil, and was just a red herring, but still. All of this being said, I still love Fringe. Even though I'm much more invested in the serialized eps at this point as opposed to the one-and-done's, I still love these characters enough that it's fun to follow them into pretty much any situation. John Noble is still ruling it week in and week out. There's still an overall great vibe to the show - dark and creepy and atmospheric. The show I think is off for a few weeks due to baseball - here's hoping it comes back in November with a vengeance.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, it's just about time for the weekend to commence, and I for one can't wait. For one thing, I'm completely burned out from what has been an uber-long week at work, and I'm already salivating at the thought of sleeping late on Saturday. But even more exciting, tomorrow is my annual trip to KNOTT'S SCARY FARM. And then, on Sunday, I'll be heading to the UC Irvine Campus to attend TNA's Bound For Glory event! So yeah, a jam packed weekend is ahead of me - check back next week for the full rundown!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Blog Is Experiencing PARANORMAL ACTIVITY!


- Talk about clever marketing. Rarely if ever has a movie gotten such a sudden groundswell of fan support, despite no major media marketing. Just a couple of glowing reviews, well-received film-fest screenings, great word of mouth, and a brilliant, deceptively low-key strategy from Paramount - where they have been asking fans to "demand" that the film be released in their areas. After a very limited number of midnight screenings in key markets, Paranormal Activity went on to explode in theaters across the country this past weekend. Despite showing in less than 500 theaters, the movie made over $7 million. Not bad. I knew that this one had buzz, but I was definitely unprepared for the completely sold-out theater on Saturday night. People were actually sitting in the aisles. And there was a huge energy in the theater. Fans were clamoring to see this one. Thanks to effective viral marketing and tons of buzz, Paranormal Activity had, suddenly and without warning, become THE movie to see on this particular October weekend. So the question remains - how good is this movie? Is it really as scary as people say? I don't want to get *too* caught up in the hype, but I will say that this is a very smart, very cool, very, very, very scary movie. A perfect pre-Halloween flick, I'd 100%recommend seing this one in the theater. Half the fun is hearing the audience scream in terror.

Paranormal Activity is basically a "found footage" movie, similar to The Blair Witch Project. The premise here is that we are seeing the home-movie footage shot by a young couple - Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) - that have just moved into a new home together in San Diego. The couple appears to be happy and healthy, but there's one problem: of late, Katie, a student, has begun experiencing strange things at night - whispers, doors opening and shutting, odd sounds, etc. Micah, a day trader and technology enthusiast, begins filming he and Katie around the house, and keeps a camera rolling while they are sleeping at night. His idea is that if anything out of the ordinary happens, he'll capture it on camera. And sure enough, some pretty crazy $#%& goes down.

I know that at some point, the popular consensus was that found footage movies were lame and gimmicky. But people tend to forget just how effective Blair Witch was when it was first released - how it captured people's imaginations and blurred the line between reality and fiction. When done right, this kind of film can be a unique and gripping experience. And Paranormal Activity knows how to push just the right butttons. This isn't a movie where HUGE stuff happens. But man, they make the most out of the little moments when all seems normal, except that something ... well, something is not quite right.

Throughout the movie, we get daytime scenes that establish the characters and how they are dealing with all the weirdness going on around them. And our two leads do a pretty darn good job of making us believe that they are just two normal twenty-somethings. The performances are pretty naturalistic, and definitely effective. But then, when the lights go down, that's when we *know* that something crazy might happen. Every time we cut to the shot of Micah's camera set in a stationary position on his bedside dresser, as he and Katie sleep, you can't help but tense up and brace for terror.

And like I said, in this movie it's the little things that get you most. But the feeling of watching real events happening to real people - the feeling of watching normal people just like you, in a normal house just like yours - makes the whole affair that much more genuinely creepy. I definitely checked around the corners of my apartment when I got home. And man, rarely have I see so many grown men scream out in terror while watching a movie. Like I said, see this one in a crowded theater if you can, because the reactions from the audience are bound to be entertaining.

Now, I do think that the movie can get a bit hokey and even repetitive at times. And the low-budget limitations do occasionally become obvious. Once in a while, the acting gets a little cheesy, especially when an excorsist is called in to examine the house. That said, there is some pretty effective comic relief throughout the movie, and you do need those moments to let you exhale a bit from all the built-up tension.

There is so much tension in part because the movie really is expertly-paced and crafted. There is a real art to how the intensity is slowly cranked up, until by movie's end, a real, palpable atmosphere of sheer terror and dread has been created. Paranormal Activity is worthy of the hype - especially when you consider how simple of a movie this really is. I love the fact that a movie with two unknown actors, minimal f/x, and an ultra-low-budget can succeed so well at telling a memorable, terrifying horror story where so many other, glossier movies fail. Like Blair Witch, this one will make you want to go home, turn on the camcorder, and see what kind of scary story you and your friends can whip up.

Paranormal Activity is certainly rough around the edges, but you have to give it a ton of credit for being such an awesomely effective ghost story. It's easy to go against the hype and be a hater, but sometimes you simply have to admire an underdog movie that attains unlikely but well-deserved success. And yes, it's really that scary.

My Grade: A-

Monday, October 12, 2009

Crack That Whip! WHIP IT Review, Plus: TV Mega-Blowout!

So much going on ... where to begin? Well, I've got a ton to talk about in terms of movie and TV reviews, so let's get to it.


- I really enjoyed Thursday night's big wedding episode of THE OFFICE. Regular readers know that I usually get down on The Office when it gets too cheesy or sentimental, but hey, if ever there was an episode where such a tone was appropriate, it was this one. Plus, even with the emotional high of Pam and Jim's wedding, the hour-long installment still managed to pack in a ton of hilarity. From Andy's hilariously ill-timed injury to his nether regions, to Dwight's attempts to woo Pam's relatives, there were a ton of very memorable, very funny bits scattered throughout the hour. I think the big x-factor going into this one was Michael Scott. Make him too awkward or embarassing here, and you risk being too dark and off-putting. At the same time, what would an Office wedding be without some well-placed, cringe-inducing comedy from the world's worst boss? As it turned out, I thought they did end up making Michael just a little *too* awful here. In general, the best moments of this episode were the smaller and subtler character bits. I dont know if they needed Michael's over-the-top antics thrown in as well. But in the end, they made up for it, I thought, with some awesome scenes between Michael and Pam's mom, which were pretty classic. I think ultimately, there were some moments where this episode lost it's way a bit, but, I also think that it was, overall, a pretty great episode and a satisfying conclusion of sorts to the long-running Jim & Pam saga.

My Grade: A-

- Meanwhile, PARKS AND RECREATION has slowly but surely been getting better each week. I'm now at the point where I am really enjoying the show and looking forward to new episodes each week. Louis CK has been great as a soft-spoken cop in the first stages of a relationship with Amy Poehler's character. And the rest of the cast has really begun to shine this season. It's not quite at that A-level yet, but all of the elements are there, and I am definitely in from here on out.

My Grade: B+

- On the other hand, I'm just not that into COMMUNITY. I want to like it, but I just haven't found it to be that sharp or that funny quite yet. And I think there are some real problems with the premise and characters that are going to be a problem in the long-run. This is one of those shows that, I think, seems funnier on paper than it actually is in practice. Sure, every episode produces a witty quote or two that Entertainment Weekly can re-print. But a couple of witty lines of dialogue does not a great show make. I don't know - is there something I'm missing here?

My Grade: B-

- FLASH FORWARD is a show that really wowed me with its pilot, but seems on the verge of dropping the ball in the weeks since. I mean, the pilot episode set the stage for a lot of intriguing storylines, but so far, with two additional episodes under our belts, NOTHING of any great interest has really happened yet. What felt fresh and exciting in the pilot is now quickly becoming stagnant. What made for a great premise is now leading to endless recaps each week of the same stuff we've already covered. I don't get it - why is this show treading water like it is? Get to the good stuff already. Give us some hints about the nature of the flash-forwards and who or what is behind them. Give us some mythology, some meat to chew on. This week's ep had two minutes of coolness at the episode's end - a scene that implied that the flashes have happened before, but in more limited scope. It was just enough to keep me interested for one more week. But man, did we have to wade through a lot of noise to get to that flash of coolness. I mean, okay, I was pretty intrigued by the premise that this old ex-Nazi holed up in a German prison had some knowledge that might be a key to solving the mystery of the flash-forwards. Immediately I had visions of some grand backstory that would tie the flashes to World War II, Nazi conspiracies, and secret government experiments. But, there was no awesome reveal of a cool, X-Files-style mythology. Instead, we got a number of lame sequences involving vague imagery of dead crows. Even worse, the Nazi guy explains to our FBI agents how the three minute and seventeen second time laps of the flashes corresponds to the kaballah. Um, yeah, because no rabbi or scholar on earth would have thought of that sooner. Anyways, I don't know about you guys, but to me Flash Forward is losing momentum and losing it fast. Next week's ep may be make or break.

My Grade: C+

- For my weekly high-concept sci-fi fix, at least I can count on FRINGE to deliver the goods - even if I've been watching it on delay since Thursdays are now so packed with good TV. Fringe has just been crazy lately though. To be honest, it's a fine line. Personally, I'm fine with the show becoming increasingly comic book-ish - I love that stuff, afterall. But I can see how a casual fan might have tuned in to this past week's ep and let out a big ol' "WTF?" after all was said and done. Because, yeah, Fringe has gone from a reality-based show about psuedo-science to a full-on, mythology-heavy sci-fi yarn about shapeshifting invaders from parallel worlds. Wow. But here's the thing - to me this transition has worked because: a.) it's slowly escalated over time, and b.) the show has such a solid foundation of characters. Even when the storylines get crazy, the characters remain well-rounded and relatable, and the dialogue remains sharp. Look at this week's episode - even in the midst of shapeshifting invasion drama, we got a very strong subplot about Walter reconnecting with a former test subject, and the realization that he did make a positive difference in some of his old subjects' lives, even if he now regrets the tests he subjected them to. We got those great Walter moments, and we also got the return of Leonard Nimoy as the enigmatic William Bell. Some very cool hints about the overarching plot, and again, Anna Torv has really come into her own here and has been cooly captivating in the show's lead role. Good stuff, and Fringe, I think, is still THE must-see drama on TV right now.

My Grade: A-

- Speaking of TV dramas getting a little bit insane, how about Friday's episode of SMALLVILLE? While the overal writing and plotting still left something to be desired, this episode had one thing going for it: roving hordes of undead ZOMBIES! I will say this: Smallville, for all its faults, is often a showcase for some really nice visual direction. This zombiefied episode looked great - there were some really cool looking zombies, and some pretty awesome action to boot. I mean, Tess Mercer taking out a legion of the undead with nothing but a katana sword? Pretty sweet, I'll admit. Zombie Lois Lane? Yes, please. Now, there was a lot of the usual Smallville clunkiness in between the bouts of fun zombie action. The explanation for and solution to the zombie outbreak was pretty lame, and the inclusion of Zod at the end felt very shoehorned-in. And geez, although I enjoy Lois and think Erica Durance does a great job, Smallville as usual drags things out to interminable lengths. I mean, if you want there to be an ongoing, subtle sexual tension between Clark and Lois - fine. But if every scene has the two of them on the verge of making out, the come on, get it over with already! So yeah, this ep of Smallville had some weaksauce moments, but it also had a lot of surprisingly kickass zombie mayhem. Sweet.

My Grade: B+

- It's funny, my brother and I sat down to watch THE SIMPSONS last night, and for a little while, at least, both of us were laughing like old times. The first act or two of last night's episode, which parodied the current Ultimate Fighting craze, showed a lot of promise. The premise was merely decent, but the dialogue was sharp and the jokes were hitting the mark. But man, this one fizzled out completely in the last ten minutes or so. The comedic momentum simply ground to a halt. Plus, even the early quality of the jokes couldn't hide the fact that, in the end, this ep didn't have all that much to day. The popularity of a violent sport like ultimate fighting is an interesting topic to tackle, but all of the character reactions in this ep felt pretty rushed. Marge began to protest the fighting events just because, and the ending provided no real resolution or lesson. Still, I do give The Simpsons credit for one thing: this is the third straight episode that has focused on as ingle, cohesive storyline from start to finish. That is a good sign for things to come. Now, next week is the annual Treehouse of Horror episode. The last couple of years' Halloween specials have been pretty bad, so I'm really, really hoping that this year we get something good.

My Grade: B

- As for FAMILY GUY, this was yet another mediocre episode in my book. Sure, it featured the guest voices of Dan Akroyd and Checy Chase as themselves, and sure, it featured a full-on Spies Like Us parody. But too many jokes in this one fell totally flat for me to give it high marks. Every joke was either a retread of an earlier gag from a previous episode, or a retread of a gag from earlier in this episode. Come on FG, you can do better.

My Grade: C+

Okay - time for a movie review. I actually saw two movies this weekend - WHIP IT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. But I think I'm going to save the latter for its own blog post. I have a lot to talk about with regards to that one. For now, here's a look at the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore ...

WHIP IT Review:

- Whip It differentiates itself from the typical underdog sports movie in that it hits you right in the face with a two-fisted jolt of 100% grrrrl-power, not from concentrate. In actress Drew Barrymore's first-ever directorial effort, the free-spirited Hollywood mainstay gives us a movie that, really, is less about the competition of roller derby, and much more about the punk-rock, dare-to-be-different aesthetic that the sport inspires and encourages. Most sports movies are about finding the will to win and triumphing over adversity. This one isn't really a sports movie at all. Instead, it's a coming-of-age flick about a girl raised to be a prim and proper beauty queen, who ditches all that to enter the rough n' tumble world of roller derby. This is a movie about switching one's internal radio dial from easy listening to rock n' roll.

And that's cool. Barrymore is up to the task of showing the inner struggle of our main character, Bliss, as she tries to both appease her traditional, small-town parents and also to come out of her shell and find her true calling. But at the end of the day, a lot of the credit for Whip It's success has to go to Ellen Page. Page is great in this one, just as she was in Juno, and she brings a realism and intelligence to the movie that few others could have. In addition, a couple of the supporting actors really do a nice job as well. My unlikely favorite? Daniel Stern. It's been a long time since I've see this original member of the Wet Bandits in a substantial film role, but Stern does a very nice job here as Bliss' beer-swilling, football-lovin', guy's-guy dad. On paper, it sounds like a somewhat conventional role - and in some ways it is. But Stern brings a ton of heart to the movie, and is responsible for some of Whip It's most effective scenes. Marcia Gay Harden also does a nice job as Bliss' uptight mom. What it all adds up to is that the scenes involving Bliss and her parents are almost always the movie's strongest.

The rest of the movie isn't quite as good. Bliss' roller derby teammates have awesome names like Smashley Simpson and Bloody Holly, but they don't get much time to shine. One of the keys to a great sports movie is to give each character their big moment to shine (or as Mighty Ducks fans call it, their "knucklepuck moment"), and Whip It doesn't really do that. Which is too bad, because you've got people like Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore herself in those roles. Similarly, Juliette Lewis, in full-on crazy mode, plays Iron Maven, a rival derby doll with a serious grudge against the young upstart Bliss (whose derby name is Babe Ruthless). There is a lot of potential with Lewis' character, but ultimately there isn't that much of a rivalry to speak of. She seems like she's only there because every movie like this needs a rival-team antagonist. But Barrymore doesn't seem too concerned with building up a true grudge match between Babe and Maven.

Barrymore's only middling interest in the actual ins and outs of roller derby ultimately hampers the movie a bit. It's tough, because from what little I know of roller derby, it's a pretty chaotic sport that I have to imagine is pretty tough to dramatize. Drew Barrymore does a nice job of capturing all of the craziness around the derby matches - the over-the-top announcers (here played by a pretty funny Jimmy Fallon), the hipster fans, the professional wrestling-esque atmosphere. And she does a good job of showing just how brutal those matches can be - there are plenty of hard hits and bloodied noses and wince-inducing falls. But the actual matches are rarely all that dramatic.

A couple other elements of the movie also seem a bit glossed-over. The worst offender is the main romantic subplot, in which Bliss falls for an emo rocker type, who I guess is supposed to be another part of her ever-expanding world of danger and rebellion. But I have to say, the whole thing is pretty thin, and the small amount of real emotion that propels the relationship makes it seem unworthy of the overly-long underwater hookup scene in the middle of the movie.

One subplot that I did like - the inclusion of Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as Bliss' best friend. She brings her usual charm and comic timing to the role, and helps to emphasize the movie's themes of escaping from small-town drudgery into a more meaningful life. The scenes with Ellen Page and Alia together - especially those at the ramshackle diner where they both work, tend to be funny and really well done. The other standout is SNL's Kristen Wiig, who gets the most depth of any of the derby dolls, serving as a surrogate mother figure of sorts for Bliss. Coming off her well-realized turn in Extract, Wiig continues to show that she can do a lot more than just goofy sketch comedy characters.

Overall, I liked the vibe of Whip It. There's a great rock n' roll soundtrack, a great lead in Ellen Page, and a positive message at the center of the movie. It's a punk rock sports movie with heart. I just wish that Drew Barrymore and co. had focused their energies a bit more and spent as much time on the rest of the movie as they did on the relationship between Bliss and her parents. As it is, there's a great movie buried somewhere in there, but what we get is merely pretty good.

My Grade: B

- Okay, next time: things get PARANORMAL.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Danny is A SERIOUS MAN. The Latest from Joel and Ethan Coen - Reviewed!


- "Man, those Coen Bros. are *good*." I kept thinking a variation on that sentiment over and over again while watching the Coens' latest, A Serious Man. While watching this hilarious, thought-provoking, and brilliantly-shot and acted film, I had that same feeling I've had while watching other Coen Bros. productions, that same feeling I got recently while watching movies like Inglorious Basterds. The feeling that the director has you in the palm of their hand. The feeling that you're watching a master manipulator - of images, of words, of storytelling - at work. It's amazing to simply watch A Serious Man and marvel at each delicately chosen turn-of-phrase, at each carefully crafted character, at each visually-rich shot and each precisely effective camera angle. This is another superlative movie from perhaps the best writers-directors working today.

A Serious Man is set in that strange Coen Bros. universe that has one foot firmly planted in reality, with a keen eye towards observational humor, and the other foot threatening to veer off into the surreal and strange. That said, many have commented that this is the duo's most autobiographical work to date - based, to some extent, on their Jewish upbringings in 1960's midwestern suburbia. And there is a detail and authenticity to some of the characters and events here that could only have come from personal experience. I think that those who had a semi-traditional Jewish upbringing will smile in recognition at many of the scenes here. The odd mix of American suburbia and half-assimilated Jewish life (that still exists today) is perfectly captured, in scenes of Hebrew school drudgery, of awkward talks with not-as-smart-as-you-hoped-they'd-be rabbis, and in a masterful sequence covering the tense, climactic moments of a bar-mitzvah service. But even if you're not Jewish or not familiar with Jewish customs, I think you'll nonetheless get caught up in this world that the Coens create. The attention to detail draws you in, and the humor, the characters, and the dialogue keeps you glued to the screen.

This being the Coens though, A Serious Man is not simply a slice-of-life sort of movie. As always, they take small people and look at them from a cosmic viewpoint. Like Burn After Reading, A Serious Man has the feeling of watching these characters as they blindly stumble their way towards the cruel punchline of a grand cosmic joke. This is a movie about an ordinary man whose carefully-composed life is unravelling at the seams. His wife has suddenly taken up with another man, his son spends all his time watching F-Troop and listening to his transistor radio rather than studying his bar-mitzvah torah portion. At his job as a college physics professor, an angry student is trying to bribe him to upgrade his F to a passing grade. He's theoretically up for tenure but can never elicit a straight answer from his bosses about his prospects. His sadsack of a brother is staying at his house, perpetually occupying the bathroom. His daughter nags him, his neighbor scares him, and his lawyer is overpriced. All of these problems, major and minor, keep escalating until this ordinarily unassuming man is on the verge of breaking down. And that leads to the central qustion at the heart of the movie: is there some deeper meaning to all of life's struggles? Are they God's way of telling us something? Is there method to the madness, or do we simply lead lives devoid of any real meaning or purpose? The recurring theme of the movie is seemingly profound stories that are rendered meaningless because they don't have any sort of real ending, they don't contain any real answers to the very questions that they pose. The movie itself is one of those stories. It makes us think about the nature of true wisdom and knowledge. Is there any great truth to be found in the bible, in the old stories, in ancient tradition, that is really any deeper or more reassuring than the lyrics of a Jefferson Airplane song? Is a passage of Leviticus any more meaningfull than: "When the truth is found to be lies - and all the joy within you dies - don't you want somebody to love?" A man steeped in culture and religion would argue that, surely, the wisdom of a learned rabbi trumps that of a rock n' roll song. But this movie posits that maybe it's all just noise. Whatever works for you. If it really is all meaningless, then who is anyone to pass judgement on anyone else?

These are the kind of themes that I love, and these are the kinds of discussions that almost always arise after a Coen Bros. movie. Their stories are sometimes small in scale, but always enormous in terms of thematic scope.

It goes without saying that A Serious Man contains the same sort of brilliant, rythmic dialogue that we've seen in movies like Fargo and No Country For Old Men. It goes without saying that it has the same kind of hilarious back-and-forth exchanges that made movies like The Big Lebowski into cult classics. And it goes without saying that it has the same kind of sweeping, iconic cinematography that characterizes those same movies. A Serious Man even features a stirring score from frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell. But here's something that I haven't heard a lot of people talk about - the casting. The Coens have a knack for finding just the right talent to bring their distinct characters to life. A Serious Man lacks almost any name actors. It features a lead known mostly for theater work in Michael Stuhlbarg. But man, this is a defining performance for the actor, playing the put-upon Larry Gopnick. He's absolutely great here, a wound-tight, neurotic physics professor who can rarely quite emote exactly what's on his mind. Exactly the kind of everyman primed and ready for a meltdown should his small universe begin to fall apart. Stuhlbarg is surrounded by an amazing cast of character actors. There's Richard Kind from Curb Your Enthusiasm as the down-on-his-luck uncle. There's a scene-stealing Fred Melamed as the dorky Sy Ableman - the slow-talking Jew who, much to everyone's surprise, somehow wins the affections of Gropnick's wife, and then proceeds to cordially work out the details of a ritual divorce with Larry. George Wyner is absolutely hilarious in several scenes as Gropnick's useless rabbi. And Aaron Wolff is really good and very funny as Gropnick's teenaged son, who preps for his bar-mitzvah torah reading by smoking a joint in the bathroom just prior to the service. Again, these aren't big-name talents, but man, they do great work in A Serious Man.

I could go on and on about this one, but I'll simply say that this, to me, is in the upper tier of the Coen Bros. catalogue. Whenever the brothers release a new movie, there are always the naysayers who claim that their latest doesn't measure up to their best works. And there are always those who think that just because a movie is a comedy, that it couldn't possibly measure up to a strictly serious work. But A Serious Man is a serious movie. Sure, it's funny as hell, but in many ways it's just as dark, if not darker, then No Country For Old Men. At least in that movie, evil is personified in Anton Chigurgh - he's a tangible embodiment of our fears and worst instincts. Here, the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people has no answer, has no rhyme or reason. A Serious Man is both a look at the lives of American Jews in the 1960's and also a deeper examination of the questions and neuroses that have plagued the Jewish people from ancient times until now. It reminded me of something that teachers and rabbis used to tell us in Hebrew School - that if you start studying the kaballah before you are ready, the questions that will be posed and the truths that will be revealed could be so overwhelming as to drive you insane. So tread carefully when looking for hidden meaning. A Serious Man confronts this path for answers and shows us the potential to come up empty. It's a movie I'll be talking and thinking about for a long time to come.

But the bottom line is this: this one is yet another must-see from Joel and Ethan Coen.

My Grade: A

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

THE INVENTION OF LYING - Reviewed! Plus More!

What's up? I'm back with a midweek blast of blogtacular goodness, including a movie review of THE INVENTION OF LYING. I would, however, like to call attention to two of this past Spring's best movies, newly released on DVD ... both of which kind of fell under the radar. But, I strongly urge all of you guys to go check 'em out. For one thing, OBSERVE & REPORT is, to me, a modern comedy classic. It's from director Jody Hill, who did The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down. But while The Foot Fist Way was rough around the edges, Observe & Report is a polished movie that is ultra-dark, ultra-hilarious, and features, believe it or not, a riveting performance from Seth Rogen in the lead role. If you like uncompromising comedy, you have to check this one out as soon as possible. Also, I recommend checking out ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. The movie is hilarious, emotional, and involving - it's a documentary about a washed-up rock band known as Anvil, who despite years of struggle and rejection, still believes that they can achieve their shot at greatness. It's one of the best movies about rock n' roll I've ever seen, and you will come away from it a fan of Anvil and the never-say-die spirit that they represent.


- After a subpar season premiere, SMALLVILLE came back with a pretty decent episode this past week. If nothing else, the ep thankfully put a quick end to the Matrix-Clark storyline and returned Clark to The Daily Planet and got him out of that lame black trenchcoat. Also, Metallo proved to be a pretty darn good villain, thanks to a strong performance from Brian Austin-Green. I would definitely welcome further appearances by the character. In any case, it was nice to have a Smallville episode that had some depth to it - some darkness, some action, some real super-villainy. Still, I guess it speaks to the lameness of the season premiere that a somewhat cookie-cutter episode was such a relief. In some ways, this one followed the tired Smallville formula to a T, complete with Lois getting kocked unconcious *just* before Clark arrives on the scene to show off his superpowers. Chloe also continued to be really annoying in this episode. But, despite its fairly typical Smallvillian flaws, this episode definitely felt watchable. It had moments of coolness. Meaning, there is still some life left in this show.

My Grade: B

- I was somewhat ready to give up on GLEE, but then Kristen Chenoweth came along and convinced me otherwise. Maybe it's just my leftover love for all things Pushing Daisies, or maybe it's just that Chenoweth is that damn good, but likely it's a little of both that made me really enjoy last week's episode. Suffice it to say, KC's awesome guest appearance kept me interested for at least a little while longer.

My Grade: B+

- GOSSIP GIRL is a show that can basically get away with anything, because it presents all of its crazy storylines with a wink and a smile. To that end, I really enjoyed Monday's ep featuring Hillary Duff and Tyra Banks. But, I also think that the NYU setting is going to need some shots of momentum if its going to continue to hold interest. I found myself at times more interested in seeing Jenny Humphrey's high school exploits. But, next week, with Rupert and Lilly's wedding, and Georgina as the potential spoiler, looks like it could be pretty amazing.

My Grade: B+


- Ricky Gervais has got to be one of the funniest people working in comedy today. Every so often, you see something new in comedy and realize that you've just seen a paradigm shift. You realize that this movie or this TV show represents a bold new voice, and that it's time to sit up and take notice. I felt that way the first time I saw the original version of THE OFFICE. From that moment on, I was a fan of Gervais and eagerly looked forward to seeing what he'd come up with next. The Invention of Lying represents Gervais' first real film that he can call his own. He co-wrote it and directed it, and he also stars. And while the movie does conform to Hollywood convention to some extent, mostly, this is a far darker and more biting social satire than you're used to seeing from a major Hollywood picture. The Invention of Lying is smart, funny, and makes you think. In short, you should run out and see it as soon as you can.

The movie has a high concept similar in scope to movies like Albert Brooks' classic Defending Your Life or Mike Judge's more recent Idiocracy. Like those movies, Lying takes an almost sci-fi premise and uses it to put our own society under the microscope. In this universe, people can't lie. They simply never developed the mental capacity to say things that aren't true. In our reality, an inability to lie would probably mean that a lot of us would simply refrain from talking. But not so here. People talk. They express themselves. And the results are often quite unflattering in their bluntness. That means a lot of awkward confrontations where people greet each other and then explain how much they hate one another. It means that dates include tragically frank discussions about just how attractive you find one another. It means that when someone asks you what you're up to, you tend to tell them exactly what you're up to, which, as you can imagine, could get a bit uncomfortable.

But these little social oddities aren't all that The Invention of Lying is about, although it is certainly where a lot of the humor comes from (and Ricky Gervais, already the master of awkward comedy, is right at home with all that stuff). But the movie also goes much deeper (and this is where it probably differs from the typical Adam Sandler high concept comedy, or whatever). It looks at how the lack of lying affects the media - at how advertising becomes hilariously literal, and how movies are merely history lessons, and how religion, well, religion doesn't even exist.

The turning point of the movie is when the down-on-his luck character played by Gervais somehow overcomes his world's mental block and gains the ability to make things up. From there, as you can imagine, hilarity ensues. But as mentioned above, there is also a somewhat profound message behind the madness. The movie accomplishes a somewhat remarkable feat in this way - not only does it break down many of the everyday lies that comprise our day to day social interactions, but it tackles the very roots of religion, politics, etc. I don't think it does it in a mean-spirited way either. Gervais has that unique ability to be very dark and very cutting, yet still create moments of real warmth, and characters with real heart. Think The Office, think Extras. That same sensibility is on display here. A real intelligence and subtlety to the humor, but also a surprising amount of emotional connection.

It helps that the cast is up to the very difficult task of selling us on this oddball alterna-reality. Gervais is in fine form. Very funny, with some classic moments of David Brent-style befuddlement. But good lord, the man is actually a pretty amazing actor when he wants to be. There were hints of that on The Office and Extras, but here, there are some genuinely affecting scenes of sadness, scenes where you feel for him and scenes where you root for him. Jennifer Garner is also crazy-good in this movie. It's another one of those roles for her where it doesn't immediately stand out as anything amazing, but then you stop and wonder how many other actresses could actually pull off such a difficult role. The one problem with Garner is that, even in this quirky fairytale romance, let's face it, it's stretching it a bit to imagine her ending up with Gervais. You wonder if the movie might have worked slightly better if the object of Gervais' affections was someone without Garner's movie-star good looks. But again, she really does do a nice job with the material, so I give her a lot of credit.

Rob Lowe is great here as an obnoxious rival to Gervais. Louis C.K. is hilarious as his dimwitted sidekick. And man, the movie is practically overflowing with talented and/or hilarious actors in smaller roles. I mean, was there any better choice to play Gervais' bumbling boss than Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor? Tambor is great, and so is Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Martin Starr, Christopher Guest, and even Edward Norton. Yeah, those are some pretty heavy hitters right there. It's amazing to think about the talent that Gervais has assembled for this film. Office fans can even look forward to a funny cameo from co-creator (and Extras regular) Stephen Merchant.

The Invention of Lying really won me over. I think the one place where it falters is that, at times, it ignores all the funny and fascinating social commentary in order to become a somewhat by-the-numbers romantic comedy. And at it's core, this is a romantic comedy, which might be surprising or even disappointing for some. But while some of the Hollywood cliche moments might have been crippling for another movie, what separates this one from the pack is how smartly it plays off of and directly addresses many typical genre conventions. I mean, I am not a fan of the forced sentimentality of the usual rom-com, but I think that this movie genuinely earns most of its "awwww-shucks" moments. There is that deeper subtext here, and there is that somewhat profound statement working in the background. Because this isn't just a world where everyone tells the truth - it's a world where everything is based on facts and logic and truth. There are no fictions, no flights of imagination, no ideals. Therefore, the fact that love can exist in this world is truly a miracle in and of itself. It might sound cheesy, but the movie addresses these things with wit and cleverness. And aside from that, there are those looks at religion, media, etc. that produce some classic bits of satire.

So sure, this movie doesn't have quite the gloss or polish of some other big movies out right now. But it has some fascinating ideas at its core. And its often very, very funny. If you like The Office, Extras, or the humor of Ricky Gervais, make it a point to check this one out.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, I'm out. Later!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Danny Goes to ZOMBIELAND! Plus: The Simpsons, Fringe, and MORE!

Well, it's back to the grind after what was, luckily, a fun and pretty packed weekend. I spent time in a Sukkah, went to a b-day party in West LA, and saw a couple of very entertaining films in ZOMBIELAND and THE INVENTION OF LYING.

So without further ado, some TV STUFF ...

- I was pretty shocked last week during a routine check of The A.V. Club website to discover that Thursday's episode of FRINGE was unceremoniously given a D+ grade. I mean, whaaat? It was hard to imagine an episode of one of TV's best dramas being THAT bad that it warranted such a poor grade. Of course, my brother eagerly reported back to me this weekend that the episode in question did not, in fact, suck, but, in truth, "ruled." So ... which was it? I sat down last night and downloaded the HD episode onto my XBOX (because I'm cool like that), and determined that the truth was somewhere in the middle. The fact is, Fringe is, at this point, something of a well-oiled machine. Even when the plotting isn't spectacular, the characters are so consistently well-drawn and entertaining that, as long as you get to see Olivia, Peter, Broyles, and most importantly, Walter, doing their thing, you're guaranteed a fun time. And on Thursday, all of our principles were in fine form. Lance Reddick had some kickass line readings. Anna Torv really did a great job playing Olivia as a scared but determined woman looking to get to the bottom of what's happened to her by any means necessary. Joshua Jackson did a nice job and gave some intriguing hints as to Peter's shady past exploits. And man, John Noble, as always, is just a joy to watch - funny, intense, and crazy all at once. That said, I did feel a bit of frustration with some of the forced weirdness - the whole bowling alley thing was a little too random for a show that is typically less about Yoda-like mysticism and more about hard science. Still, Kevin Corrigan makes the bowling alley scenes way more bearable than they might have been otherwise with a lesser actor. And speaking of cool actors, Stephen McHattie (of Watchmen) kicked ass in this ep as the gruff Colonel who has gone off the grid to prepare for otherdimensional invasion. Sweet. I think a fundamental problem with Fringe sometimes is that the show can never 100% focus on coming up with amazing monsters-of-the week in the vein of The X-Files. Since EVERY episode of Fringe tends to have at least some tie to the ongoing mythology, you don't get to really focus as much on the weekly cases as The X-Files did, and because of that, I think you get eps like this one where the freaks-of-the-week are cool, but nothing all that memorable or mindblowing. X-Files fans can quickly rattle off classic villains like the Jersey Devil, Fluke Man, Eugene Tooms, etc., whereas Fringe is forced to divide time between a number of ongoing subplots and side characters in any given episode. I think that sometime makes episodes like this one feel a bit all-over-the-place, and you wonder why they throw in scenes of Olivia and Peter going to Iraq rather than actually spending time with the freaks and seeing what makes them tick. So no, this one was definitely not a home-run, but it was solid, and, if anything, a reminder that Fringe is now so fundamentally strong as a series that it can overcome most of its weaknesses.

My Grade: B

- THE SIMPSONS followed up on a strong season premiere with a not-as-strong second episode of Season 21. I actually really liked the initial premise - that Mrs. Krabappel is unceremoniously fired after one of Bart's pranks goes wrong, and is replaced with a cool young teacher who encourages students to text message, download homework assignments, and friend him on Facebook. There was a lot of potential there, but for some reason, the ep quickly veered away from this and focused more on Mrs. Krabappel and her woes, an area that has been covered many a time in past Simpsons seasons. Even worse, Bart found a potential cure for her miseries in the form of "The Answer," a parody of keys-to-the-universe self-help books. The whole thing felt tired and kind of dated, and a lot of the Edna-centric humor fell kind of flat. It's too bad that we couldn't have focused more on the new teach and his eventual Frank Grimes-esque implosion (which also seemed like sort of a cop-out of an ending). Overall though, a decent ep that also felt like a missed opportunity.

My Grade: B-

- As a proud member of The Tribe, I love me some Jewish humor ... but, FAMILY GUY seems unable to do satirical humor these days without being cruel and crass for no good reason. Sure, last night's FG, in which Lois finds out that she's actually of Jewish descent, had some chuckle-worthy laughs (I liked how Peter's Jewish look came complete with "glistening chest-hair"), the episode had no real meat to its satire. The Jew angle was basically a way for the show to bust out every single Jewish stereotype there is one after another, without highlighting almost anything positive at all about Judaism. Worse, most of the jokes just were not that funny. Like I said, I love Jewish humor when it's done well, even if that humor pokes fun at the religion - trust me, we can take it. But I think back to the classic Simpsons episode where Krusty is revealed as being Jewish, the son of a rabbi, no less. That episode is so smart, so well-done ... hell, we watched it in Hebrew school. This one was just lazy, which seems to be the modus operandi of late for Family Guy. Still, one final item of note: I give an automatic bump-up for the hilarious Kathy Ireland gag, which produced the very-funny image of Peter pressing his Kathy cut-out against the shower door in a scene both hilarious and disturbing.

My Grade: C+

- The second episode of FLASH FORWARD was not the kind of hour I was hoping for or expecting following the great pilot episode. After all of the twists and turns of the pilot, this one felt like a whole lot of recap. Not only that, but it's as if some network execs turned up the dumb-it-down dial. All of the dialogue just felt overly expository, and so much was simply spelled out for the viewer. There were some real cringe-worthy moments in this one. I think the show is going to need some huge moments and big reveals soon if it's going to hook people for the longrun. I mean, there's only so many times I can care about FBI agents staring at the same blurry image of a guy on a computer screen. Yes, we get it, he's the only one who didn't black out. Next. Also, there was some reaaally hokey stuff here. I mean, did we really need our heroes to chase their suspect into some weird doll factory, complete with oh-so-scary nursery rhymes being recited in the background, like they are in EVERY HORROR MOVIE TRAILER EVER? If you have to try that hard to be creepy, there's probably something wrong.

My Grade: C+

Alright, time to talk about the movie that was, without a doubt, *the* event movie of the weekend despite the large amount of highly-anticipated flicks now out at the box office. Yep, time to get in touch with my inner zombie, and bring you ...


- Zombieland is a movie with a great sensibility, and sometimes, that's enough to carry a movie. This is a movie that was clearly made by people who know from cool stuff. They know that zombies are cool. They know that Woody Harrelson as a Stone Cold Steve Austin-esque zombie hunter with a strange obsession with Twinkies, well, they know that that right there is one badass character. They get what makes zombies cool and fun and even funny. They get that at this point, most movie fans know Zombies 101 - at this point, we can skip the introductions and get right to the good stuff.

And there is a lot of good stuff in Zombieland. There's nervous, neurotic Jesse Eisenberg teamed up with Woody H. in what is certainly an odd couple for the ages. There's Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as a team of sisters who prove that looks can be deceiving when it comes to survival of the fittest. There's action, comedy, and romance. There's plenty of Zombie mayhem and gore. There's memorable gags aplenty, and even a meta-cameo from a comedy legend, as himself. There's no doubt - Zombieland will entertain the crap out of you.

So the only remaining question is ... is Zombieland merely really good, or is it great? Well, I think it's one of those movies that has that spark, that potential for pure awesomeness. Its heart is in the right place, so to speak. Its director, newcomer Ruben Fleischer, is definitely now a name to watch - this guy knows his stuff, and has a knack for splicing genres and also for depicting stylishly framed action and carnage. He gets comedy, and gets how to create those kind of fun moments that make fanboys high five each other with glee.

But Zombieland is also a bit rough around the edges. It has many cool moments, but it feels more like a snack than a full meal. Like I said, all of the ingredients are there for not just a good movie, but a truly great one. But while the movie is great with characters, it falls short in terms of plot. There's a lot of meandering, and things sometime feel sort of directionless. There isn't exactly one driving plot point that keeps the movie moving forward - instead, it's more just about the characters living in this zombiefied, post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's a nice introductory piece, but it also makes you wonder what a crazier, bigger-budget sequel could be like. And it also makes you wish that the whole movie was as consistently good as some of its best scenes. Case in point -- Zombieland opens with an absolutely badass look at the new, zombie-apocalypse America, set to Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It's a great, adrenaline pumping montage that gets you ready to rock n' roll. It's disappointing, then, that the finale, set in an amusement park overrun by zombies, never quite lives up to that previous level of awesomeness.

Also, I think there's just an overall lack of true intensity or danger. There's only a couple of scenes where we actually fear for the characters' lives. And again, the character stuff is great, but there's so *much* character stuff that the movie sometimes threatens to become Jesse Eisenberg's previous movie, Adventureland, but, you know, with zombies. Even the very-funny surprise cameo is cool, but man, it takes up A LOT of time that could have been devoted to plot and/or action.

But Zombieland is well worth seeing for the great characters and spot-on humor. The cast does an awesome job top to bottom. Woody Harrelson is at his iconic, badass best here, and Jesse Eisenberg's hilarious performance is evidence that, when in need of a neurotic, geeky Jew / unlikely hero for an action movie, Eisenberg should always be choice #1 as opposed to Shia. Emma Stone is sort of the thinking man's teen queen, and Abigail Breslin shows that she could have a great career post-child stardom.

So yeah - Zombieland is a movie that is aimed squarely at the heart of zombie-lovin' fanboys and fangirls everywhere. It's a movie that deserves its box-office success. Not a classic, not yet. But Part II could be. I say bring it on.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, I'm out for now. Next time: a review of THE INVENTION OF LYING.

Friday, October 2, 2009


- I really enjoyed The Informant, but it's also one of those movies that kind of leaves you feeling a bit puzzled. It's a film that, for one thing, completely defied my expectations. Not having been overly familiar with the story behind the movie, I was caught off guard by the strange twists that the movie took. And when the film ended, I was left wondering what it all meant. What whas The Informant trying to say? Was it ultimately simply a character study? Was it a cautionary tale? A parable about the ability of large mega-corporations to corrupt a well-meaning man into a white collar monster? Whatever the case may be, I think the movie lacked the proper exclamation point to really put things into the proper perspective. But I also think that it's a film well worth seeing - a fascinating look inside the mind of a man with delusions of grandeur.

The Informant tells the story of Mark Whitacre, a seemingly unassuming exec at ADM, a large company that manufactures and distributes lysine - a key chemical component for many common food products. Whitacre, a soft-spoken family man with a wife and daughter, seems to discover that ADM is conspiring with its various competitors to carry out a price fixing scheme, and at some point decides to take what he knows and blow the whistle. Whitacre begins to work as an inside man for the FBI, and helps to feed them info as they conduct an investigation into ADM's potentially shady business practices. The results, at least at first, are pretty hilarious, as the semi-bumbling Mark tries to be a white collar James Bond of sorts. Gradually though, Mark not only becomes pretty adept at spying and manipulation, but, well, we learn that he himself may not be quite what he seems.

There's no doubt - Mark Whitacre, as portrayed here, is a completely fascinating character. He's both relatable but also someone who defies expectation. Matt Damon does an excellent job here too in the lead role. He really sells all of Mark's subtle emotions and nuances. You wouldn't typically think that Matt Damon could pull off playing a pudgy, middle-aged, mustachioed bean-counter ... but I give him credit, Damon pulls it off. It's a pretty impressive turn. But ... at the same time, you can tell that the role is something of a stretch for Damon. For a lot of reasons, the obvious comparison is William H. Macy in FARGO (a movie very similar in some ways to this one), and Damon just doesn't fully inhabit the in-over-his-head everyman character like Macy did. At times, Damon will drop his you-betcha accent and start talking more like Jason Bourne. And at times, his composure seems to shift a bit and suddenly, meek Mark Whitacre looks more like Matt Damon: leading man. I guess what I'm saying is that Matt Damon 90% nails this part, but there are definitely moments of slippage, where you can tell he is kind of stretching to stay fully in character.

One thing I really loved about The Informant though: the supporting cast. Director Steven Soderbergh has assembled a really fun group of actors here. These are all people who are fan-favorites, who are the type of people who don't appear often enough in big roles but who always get the job done. I mean, Scott Bakula of all people is in a large role here as the lead FBI agent working with Whitacre. And why not? I'm sure the studio could have paid five times as much to get Dennis Quaid or something, but Bakula is a very capable actor for this kind of role. I really enjoyed seeing him get such a prominent part and doing so well with it. All kinds of other cool actors turn up. Scott Adsit from 30 Rock. Joel McHale, in a nice turn as Bakula's weary FBI partner. Clancy Brown (!) as a hard-nosed attorney. Tom Papa as a smarmy ADM exec. Tony Hale from Arrested Development as Whitactre's lawyer. Patton Oswalt! The Smothers Brothers! Like I said, the cast is overflowing with these sort of lower-profile yet still-awesome actors. It's the kind of casting that makes you realize how lame (and unnecessarily pricey) so much Hollywood casting really is. I mean, Clancy Brown should basically be in every movie (I'm still waiting for him to show up again on LOST!).
Getting back to Matt Damon for a second though, I don't know, I guess my slight frustration with his character is that the script tries to both put us inside his head AND keep him mysterious to some degree. Throughout the movie, we hear snippets of Whitacre's running internal monologue - his comically well-reasoned observations and random theories. We are, literally, inside of his head. And yet, we keep getting these revelations about Whitacre's true nature, and by the end of the movie, we realize we never really got to know anything about the guy. Again, it's that strange feeling of emptiness I alluded to earlier. As in, we spent so much of the movie "getting to know" Mark, and yet, we eventually realize he is, in the end, a pretty baffling person. Again, there is never quite that "aha!" moment or true exclamation point.

But while the movie might have some big-picture issues, scene to scene it is incredibly sharp and witty. The sense of fun and absurdity just keeps escalating as the movie goes on. And there really is some great humor here - if nothing else, Damon has some great coming timing and really sells a lot of the subtle humor. Steven Soderburgh, meanwhile, directs the movie in a very understated, matter-of-fact manner. It places the focus on the script - a wise thing to do given the strong dialogue and character work.

I don't think The Informant ever quite reaches the sublime comic-tragic heights of, say, Fargo. But I do think it's a pretty fun and even fascinating movie in its own right, a small-scale but very thought-provoking and enjoyable movie, that makes for an interesting addition to the Soderbergh portfolio.

My Grade: B+