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.

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