Monday, August 31, 2009

Listen Up, True Believers! Danny's Take on DISNEY's Monumental Purchase of MARVEL!

Well, I'm back from a looong weekend which saw my brother Matt make the big move from the east coast to LA. My brother and my dad flew in on Wednesday night, and we spent the weekend helping my brother get settled into his new place (conveniently located down the street from my apartment in Burbank). Trips were made to Target, Ikea, car dealerships, etc., and ultimately my brother's apartment, which he is sharing with his college friend Adam, is coming along fairly nicely. But yeah, it was a fairly exhausting couple of days, especially coming right off of Tuesday's epic Green Day concert ... and I am already looking forward to next weekend so that I can get a chance to relax and take a breath.

- Speaking of taking a deep breath, that's exactly what Marvel EIC Joe Quesada asked shocked fans to do after hearing about this morning's jaw-dropping announcement: Disney has bought Marvel.

Wow, this one is huge, and when I first heard this I had the same concerns as everyone else. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind for a Marvel fan is will the new corporate parent have a Big Brother-like effect on the House of Ideas? Will creativity be stifled? Will stricter standards and practices be enforced to encourage more family-friendly material? Will Wolverine be de-clawed, and The Punisher erased from existence by the magic of Mickey's wand?

I am pretty confident that such concerns remain baseless, especially in the near-term. In fact, if anything, the Marvel purchase is Disney's way of trying to broaden its appeal to the young male market. Bob Iger himself said as much in today's round of press interviews. So yeah, I think this is actually Disney's attempt to get a bit edgier, and not the other way around. Also, it's going to be a while before this deal fully plays out in a big way. Most of Marvel's biggest properties are currently tied-up with other film studios. Spiderman is with Sony, X-Men and Fantastic Four with Fox, The Hulk with Universal. Meanwhile, Paramount has a long-term distribution deal for Marvel Studios' films that includes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers. That said, Marvel money is now in turn Disney money, and with this slate of films, there is A LOT of money to be made.

That said, who knows what Marvel and Disney might cook up behind closed doors? There's already been talk of Marvel and Pixar having preliminary creative conversations. And Marvel-based programming is already a staple of the Disney XD network. Sure, it would be a while before the Incredibles' team could tackle a full-fledged CGI Fantastic Four, but who's to say that we couldn't see John Lassettar and co. craft a CGI journey to the Savage Lands starring Ka-zar? A new animated Howard The Duck movie? Doubtful, but you can't help but imagine the possibilities. I'm already dreaming up an animatronic Stan Lee that greets visitors at the gates of Disneyland -- "Welcome, True Believers!". Man, do you think Stan the Man ever envisioned that his characters would one day be owned by the House of Mouse?

Ultimately, this takeover to me is a huge indicator of the future of the media business. Because in this day and age of multimedia franchises and increasingly niche media markets, there are two things that are important for a company's success.

One is IP - and it's amazing to think of the sheer number of characters and concepts that are now part of the Disney/Marvel roster. And that's one reason why I do feel somewhat optimistic that the deal will be beneficial to the comic book industry. Marvel Entertainment needs Marvel Comics as it's R&D department of sorts, and by extension so does Disney. All you need to do is look at movies and TV these days. It's all remakes, remakes, remakes. And sequels. Comic books are one of the few areas where new ideas can emerge from. And as the last couple of years have proven, today's cult-favorite comic book can be tomorrow's big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Hopefully, Disneys multimedia prowess, its retail presence, and its marketing muscle can help bolster the comic book industry. As I was saying though, IP is king in this day and age - it's what separates a Marvel or a Disney from the pack, and it's those beloved characters - the ones that can transition from TV to movies to the web to theme parks to comics to candy bars -that will be the currency of the entertainment industry going forward.

The second item is multimedia reach, and if you think about it, Disney is in many ways the original multimedia entertainment company. Right from the beginning, their characters were leveraged in movies, TV, comic books, and theme parks. They have done for sixty years what others are just now figuring out, and that's why Disney has always been in a great position to be a power player in the digital age. Disney is a multimedia brand. Most other entertainment companies are not. NBC and CBS are TV brands. Paramount and Universal are movie brands. Disney has always been the one that is a true brand name that can work across all different media. And increasingly, so is Marvel. This is where Marvel has excelled in the last couple of years where DC has not - they've gotten the Marvel name out there in movies the same way they have in comics. DC and Warner Bros. have never created a true DC Comics film studio. I guarantee you, more people associate Spiderman or Iron Man with Marvel than they do Batman and The Dark Knight with DC. But the point is, Disney and Marvel have been two of the strongest multimedia brands of the last several years - it makes sense that they combine forces, and it also should serve as a wake up call to the old-media competition. I mean, both Disney and Marvel are out there in theme parks, comics, videogames, digital media. This is the new model to succeed in entertainment. You need idea generation. To that end, you can bet that another comic book publisher or two will be snatched up soon. You also need a true digital presence. Videogames are bigger now than movies or TV. If you don't have an in-house videogame studio or publishing wing or presence, you are not going to make it in the new digital world. I think a huge mistake of old-media is that they've been slow to get on this train. You can't just be a movie or TV studio anymore. TV especially is a business model that is losing huge traction to gaming. If you're not where the action is, you're missing out. It's evolve or die, and Marvel and Disney have done the evolution.

So, I do think this *could* be a good thing. Hopefully, it will force the competition to step up their game. Hopefully, it will mean greater exposure for Marvel comics and characters. And hopefully, it could lead to at least a couple of the kinds of cross-company "dream projects" that we'd all love to see. But mark my words, this is definitely a sign of things to come in the world of entertainment.

- Coming up next: a long-time-coming review of PRISON BREAK: THE FINAL BREAK!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"My Generation is Zero ... I Never Made It as a Working Class Hero!" GREEN DAY Concert Recap, Plus: The Dawn of a New Era in LA!

Ch-ch-ch changes ...

Well wow, today is a big day. It's the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, as my brother Matt moves to LA today ushering in the age of two Baram brothers both living in So-Cal. Is this town big enough for the both of us? That remains to be seen. All I can say is, it's going to be interesting ...

At the same time, literally, it's a bittersweet time in that some of my good friends here on the West Coast are heading out to start new chapters for themselves in other parts of the country. So, with that in mind, I think a couple of shout-outs are in order to some close friends (not to mention longtime readers of this here blog). So here's to Bradd K. - my friend and classmate both at Solomon Schecter Day School and later at Kingswood-Oxford in Connecticut, who's been living out in Newport Beach for the last couple of years. Bradd recently headed to Chicago for grad school, and I wish "The Kernel" the best of luck over there. Next, another shout-out to Scott C., my Page Program pal here in LA with whom I've shared many adventures, from Page-O-Ween and Knott's Scary Farm to Las Vegas trips and many a movie. Scott C. is soon bound for grad school in Virginia, and again, best of luck to him. Finally, a very special shout out to Ms. Liz L, who I'm pretty sure was one of the first friends of mine to ever read this blog on a regular basis, and who was one of my first real friends I made after moving to LA, and one of my best friends ever since - through many ups and downs and random adventures. Liz leaves LA today to return to the great state of Connecticut, and while I am excited for her, it won't be quite the same here in Hollywood without the girl who not only shares my love for cheesy 80's rock music, but who also shares my September 28th birthday. So good luck to Bradd, Scott, and Liz - if you're reading this, this blog post is dedicated to you guys!

- Anyways ...

I didn't really get the chance to hype it much here on the blog, but last night, I saw GREEN DAY live and in concert! Yeeeeeeeeeeaooooooow!

GREEN DAY Concert Recap:

- Way back in around 2000 or so, I went to the 104-fest in Connecticut and saw a bunch of up-and-coming modern rock bands at an all-day outdoor fest, with the headliners being a double-bill combo of Green Day and Blink 182. Even though Green Day's popularity had faded a bit by that point, to those of us that had grown up with their music, they were easily the main attraction. Even though Blink was on top of the world at that point, their so-so set was easily overshadowed by the sheer force and fun of the guys from Green Day, who absolutely brought the house down. At that point, the kickass live show that Green Day put on was easily the best I had ever seen.

And unlike most bands from that era, the legend of Green Day has only grown throughout this decade. They've transitioned from being a snotty punk-rock band into the Biggest Band in the World. They've gone from singing about teenage angst to railing against the Bush administration and rallying the rock n' roll troops against the ills of the 21st Century. Their music has gotten bigger, bolder, and arguably better with age. While I will always have a soft spot for the Dookie-era stuff, I also can't help but love American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown - easily two of the best rock albums of this decade. So Green Day for me was an absolute must-see band - when I heard they were coming to LA as part of the tour to support their latest album, I knew it was a show not to be missed. The world's greatest rock n' roll band, in their prime, doing what they do best in front of a stadium packed with fans both old and new. It doesn't get much better.

To that end, last night's show did not disappoint. Green Day absolutely shredded through an epic set that encompassed the entirety of their career thus far. They played the old stuff, the new stuff, and everything in between, and played song after song, nonstop, for almost three straight hours. And it was before a multigenerational crowd - kids, teens, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings. For those who say that no modern rock band has the same kind of wide appeal as the likes of The Rolling Stones or U2, I say they need look no further than Green Day - these guys rock hard, have an incredible catalog of hits, and are still in their 30's. Right now, as far as I'm concerned, they are the reigning Kings of Rock.

The show started out with a number of choice cuts from 21st Century Breakdown - the title track, "Know Your Enemy," "Static Age," "Before the Lobotomy", and more. It's amazing becuase so many bands live and die based on their aging hits. It's rare to see a band that has fifteen years worth of beloved material, where the new stuff is just as great and just as popular as the old. Suffice it to say, there wasn't a clunker all night - every single song, one after the other, rocked and rocked hard.

Plus, Billie Joe Armstrong is just an amazing frontman. Like I said, he had the massive crowd in the palm of his hand all night. It was definitely the best concert crowd I've seen in LA since I've been here, as people were on their feet, dancing and singing, throughout the entire evening. And a lot of that is due to Billy Joe, who uses every trick in the book to keep the crowd involved. He chants "heeyyy-ohhh's" with the crowd throughout the show to get everyone singing. He fires T-shirts into the crowd, sprays people with a super-soaker, and does stage dives into the front rows. One of Green Day's longtime trademarks, of course, is bringing fans on-stage - sometimes it's just to sing a couple of bars of a song, and sometimes it's to sing the entire song (!), as one lucky kid got to do last night with old-school classic "Longview." Sure, his voice wasn't exactly American Idol-worthy, but his sheer exuberance got the crowd rockin' - it's a party atmosphere, and the building, therefore, gets electric. During "Jesus of Suburbia," the epic punk-rock ballad off American Idiot, a long-haired teen was brought on-stage to play the lead guitar. And man - he rocked! But again, just the coolness of seeing some guitar hero-wannabe kid getting to go on-stage and play with his idols, well, you can't help but smile and let at least a little of his euphoria rub off on you. At one point, prior to "East Jesus Nowhere," Billie Joe brought two kids, maybe ten years old, onto the stage and had them participate in a mock religious revival.

Not only is their tons of crowd participation at a Green Day show, but there's just a whole lot of random fun. Billy Joe stopped to make jokes, rally the crowd, and tell anecdotes. The man didn't let up, he was just a ball of energy for three hours. Not only that, but Green Day got the crowd going by interspersing all kinds of random tunes into the show. At one point, a song seamlessly transitioned into "Shout!" At various times throughout the show, we heard snippets of everything from "Sweet Child O' Mine," to "Free Fallin'" to "Satisfaction."

And the Green Day catalogue did not disappoint. It helps that they have so many great songs with which to fill a show, but like I said, this really was like seeing the ultimate Greatest Hits remix live and in person. After the opening bout of 21st Century Breakdown material, there were a couple of American Idiot tracks like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," but we then got a prolonged batch of old-school Green Day goodness. Almost all the classics were covered: "Basket Case," "Brain Stew," "Longview," "She," and a thunderous rendition of "Welcome to Paradise." There were even some pre-Dookie rarities like "2000 Light Years Away." Finally, they went back to 21st Century and closed out with the smash hit "21 Guns" and then with the album's closer, "American Eulogy." Great stuff, and if the concert had ended right there it still would have been one hell of a show.

But it didn't end, not by a longshot. Green Day stormed back on stage for their encore, and brought the house down with a nitro-infused trilogy of rock anthems. "American Idiot." "Jesus of Suburbia," and then "Minority." Jesus of Suburbia, to me one of the band's modern masterpieces, was particularly sweet to hear live, although, you've got to love Minority's great sing-along verse of: "a free for all, &%#% 'em all!" And again, that right there would have been one hell of an ending. But Billie Joe did indeed come back for a second encore, a short accoustic set that included the crowd-pleasing "Time of Your Life." I don't love Green Day's softer stuff, but we got sooo many kickass rock n' roll songs in this epic concert that it didn't feel like anything too noteworthy was left out. Billie Joe and co. left everything on the stage, and everytime you thought they might be winding down, they just kept plowing through hit after hit. But each song was huge, each song felt special, and you felt like you were getting 110% on each one.

It was definitely a concert to remember, and another sign to me that Green Day is up there as one of the best live bands around. This is the new classic rock, baby, and once again, I'm just glad I was there to witness the awesomeness.

- Alright, I had my one night of rock n' roll glory, and now it's time for some quality (?) time with the fam. My brother has landed in LA, and my dad with him to help him move ... and the universe hasn't imploded ... yet. Stay tuned, folks.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Glory, Thy Name Be INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Tarantino's Latest - Reviewed!


- Are we sure that Quentin Tarantino isn't Jewish? I ask this because in some ways, his latest work, Inglorious Basterds feels like a movie that a young Jewish kid might have dreamed up while sitting in Hebrew School learning about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Because, yes, the Holocaust was horrible, and yes, we must never forget the *truth* of what happened to the Jews and others at the hands of the Nazis. But ... there is that "what if?" scenario that we all can't help but wonder about. That question that I, as a young Jewish boy, would ask myself while learning about the lives of Anne Frank and Eli Wiesel and all of the other figures that one learns about when studying this time period. The question sounds almost taboo, given the horrible circumstances surrounding this time period, given the ruthlessness and overpowering force of the Nazis, given their sudden and somewhat unexpected rise to power in Eastern Europe. But for, say, a twelve year old boy learning about all this - that boy can't help but wonder: "where were all the badass Jews?" Where were the take-no-prisoners, school-of-hard-knocks Jews who would rise up and be the great heroes of the war? It's funny because even in the fictional world of wartime pop culture, young Jews like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and Siegal and Schuster had secular superheroes like Superman and Captain America punching out Adolf Hitler on the cover of comic books, but it was always the Jews being liberated by some great outside savior. So yeah, as much as a kid like me was struck by the horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, you couldn't help but also get a slight desire to fantasize about some unsung squadron of badass Jewish heroes taking up arms and kicking Nazi ass.

Well, with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, Quentin Tarantino has created one hell of a "what-if" scenario, an alterna-version of World War II in which a squadron of revenge-seeking Jewish-American soldiers terrorizes Nazis deep behind enemy lines. He's created a world in which a teenaged Jewish girl survives Nazi slaughter and, under the guise of a new identity in France, transforms herself from meek farmer's daughter into a Nazi-hatin' glam-rock femme fatale. This is what Inglorious Basterds is on one level - a story about the righteous anger and punk-rock fatalism that the Nazi's atrocities ultimately inspired, an anger that in this universe ultimately becomes their undoing. While this spin on events is obviously film fantasy, it is fascinating, thought-provoking, and yes, in the end, catharctic on an almost primal frequency.

But on another level, forget all that ... on another level, this is simply Quentin freakin' Tarantino at his absolute rockstar best. If you're looking for the lowdown on this one, here it is: Inglorious Basterds is one hell of a movie, right up there with the writer/director's best. Despite a two-and-a-half hour running time, this one will have true movie lovers giddily smiling for the duration. The movie is expertly directed, filled with memorable performances, striking images, and dialogue that absolutely crackles.

It's an exciting and unique blend of styles and genres - par for the course for Tarantino, but hey, it's been a while now since we've seen a full-fledged QT movie, and it's still pretty shocking to see just how much fun he has with the possibilities of cinema. Watching a Tarantino movie is sometimes like watching some kind of ultimate movie remix, and with Basterds, some of the juxtapositions are just plain punch-to-face awesome. It's a movie filled with random asides, sudden bursts of on-screen titles in Kill Bill-style fonts, subtitles interweaving between several different spoken languages, and a glam rock music video-like sequence sublimely set to David Bowie's "Cat People." And oh yeah, random character origins narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Certainly, this is the most rock n' roll WWII movie ever made.

But it isn't all flash, either. Inglorious Basterds contains scene after scene in which QT goes for the slow burn, Hitchcock-style tension-building. And it's remarkable, because he builds up tension to almost unbearable levels, but to see that classic sense of suspense working in tandem with the kind of meaty dialogue that QT is known for- well, like I said, I had a stupid smile across my face for most of the movie. It's not restrained, nothing is held back, QT goes for broke with every scene, every *line* of dialogue. But through it all, you can't help but smile and think "oh man, this is *good*."

In any case, you have to love QT having fun with so many classic cinema conventions. Any student of film will instantly see some of the scenes in Basterds and think of Hitchcock's old "bomb theory" principle - that an ordinary scene of two people talking becomes infinitely more interesting - and infinitely more suspenseful - if it is revealed shortly after the start of the scene that there is, in fact, a bomb under the table. In Inglorious Basterds, there are lots of people talking, but also lots of proverbial (and sometimes literal) bombs under the table. But man, when those bombs go off - duck and take cover. Sure, Tarantino is known for his extended scenes of characters exchanging witty dialogue ... but as we know from Kill Bill, the man can also hit you with some of the most explosive and visceral action around. But that's what so great about Basterds, when the screen does on occasion explode with rapid-fire violence, the emotional and contextual build-up makes the payoff all the more satisfying.

I also think it's worth noting that Inglorious Basterds is a hilarious movie. Yes, there are moments of true drama and deep tragedy, and there is imagery that is absolutely haunting. But man, this is a drop-dead funny movie as well, probably more so than anything Tarantino's done to date. It's over-the-top, it's absurd, it's witty, and it's very much self-aware. There are moments when QT is clearly speaking directly to the audience via his characters, and there are moments that are as darkly absurdist as anything you'll find in a typical Coen Brothers farce.

All of that humor, and all of the great dialogue that triggers it ... is mostly pulled off to perfection by the film's stellar cast. I admit, on paper, the cast of Basterds looked like a Bizarro World assemblage of random actors. But in practice, it comes together quite well. For one thing, a lot of the standouts in the movie are European actors who are, or were, largely unknown in the US. That said, some of the European talent completely steals the show. First and foremost is Austrian television star Christoph Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa. Waltz is just awesome here as the passive-aggressive Nazi known as The Jew Hunter - a cunningly evil snake of a man, who leisurely sweet-talks his prey even as he moves in for the kill. Waltz is both funny and intense-as-hell, and he makes Hans Landa into one of the most memorable on-screen villains we've seen from Tarantino to date. There are so many little things that Waltz brings to the table here - his effortless knack for building tension in a scene, his quick transition between multiple languages, his overall presence on screen. It's just a great, great performance.

Similarly great is French actress Melanie Laurent as Shoshana Dreyfus - the aforementioned girl who flees Landa's group of Jew hunters as a teen, and then sets up a new life in France under a forged identity. Some may be surprised to learn that Shoshana turns out to be the central figure of the movie, more so than any of the titular Basterds. And yet, you can almost think of her as an honorary Basterd of sorts, because she shares the same determined desire for violent vengeance against the Nazis. When we meet back up with Shoshana a few years after Landa has had her family exterminated, she is a quiet and jaded young woman who owns a popular movie theater in France. Ironically, the theater and its owner have attracted the interest of Frederick Zoller (very effectively played by Daniel Bruhl) , a young German soldier who has become quite the war hero - so much so that a propganda film has been made about his exploits, in which Zoller plays himself. When Zoller suggests that Shoshana's theater be used to host the premiere of his movie, to be attended by all of the top Nazi brass and perhaps even Hitler himself ... well, you can probably guess the possibilities that race through Shoshana's mind.

In many ways, Shoshana's part of the story is one about the power of movies. On one hand, there is the burgeoning Nazi propaganda-fueled German movie industry (and QT even includes segments of a faux-propaganda film directed by Eli Roth, who also plays one of the Basterds). On the other hand, there is Shoshana, who uses film and uses her theater as a weapon. And not just a metaphorical one, either. Did you know that old film-stock is highly incendiary? If not, you will after this movie.

In any case, Laurent is extremely strong here - all bottled-up emotion and seething anger. It's a breakthrough performance, to be sure. Meanwhile, Basterds is basically bursting at the seems with noteworthy turns from all kinds of unlikely sources. And I know, I haven't even talked about the Inglorious Basterds yet - the misfit band of Jewish-American soldiers who run rampant through Europe scalping Nazis and instilling fear and dread in the hearts of their enemies. So let's talk for a second about Bradd Pitt. Depite his leading-man status, Pitt is always at his best when playing slightly offbeat and/or insane characters. Look at Fight Club, 12 Monkeys, or the Assassination of Jesse James, to name a few. And here, Pitt is once again pretty damn awesome, playing Lt. Aldo Raine, a quirky, southern-fried badass with a violent hatred of Nazis. He is hilarious as the over-the-top Aldo, and is just endlessly entertaining as a sort of parody of the all-American redneck hero. Aldo has that polite, good ol' boy charm, but he's also a violent killer who kills and scalps some Nazis (Apache-style), or else lets them live but brands them with a swastika across the forehead. Suffice it to say, when Pitt's Aldo eventually crosses paths with Waltz's Lando, it's a meeting of the minds for the ages.

The other Basterds are an oddball mix of quirky comedic actors and other unusual casting choices. You've got The Office's BJ Novak, Freaks & Geeks' Sam Levine, and horror director Eli Roth as "The Bear Jew," a fearsome lug from Boston who slugs his enemies' heads with a baseball bat. A Nice Jewish Boy he is not. Most of the Basterds don't have a particularly large role, and yes, you do almost wish QT had made an adventure movie solely focused on their wartime exploits. But the movie is about much more than just the revenge-squad antics of Aldo and his men, and there is a certain charm to the fact that we only know bits and pieces about this unusual group of surprisingly brutal soldiers. In retrospect, there is a certain brilliance to the casting though. There's something about the slim, dry-humored, sunken eyed BJ Novak scalping Nazis as part of a hit-squad of Jewish soldiers that is both fascinating and sort of hilarious. Seeing Novak, Levine, etc, in a pathetic looking role-call before Pitt's Aldo Raines is, certainly, a sight to behold.

And as I mentioned, there are countless smaller roles that are in very capable hands. Diane Kruger is dynamite as German film star Bridget Von Hammersmark. Not only does she look like she stepped right out of the appropriate era, but she delivers an absolutely great, memorable performance. How about Til Schewiger as Hugo Stitlitz, a German defector who ends up as one of the Basterds? Stitlitz, perpetually seething with barely-concealed rage, is yet another memorable character in the film. And, you know how Tarantino has that knack for taking out-of-favor actors and reminding you why you liked them so much in the first place? Well, he does that here with Mike Myers. With one extended scene, I forgot all about of that Love Guru crap and remembered why Myers is the man.

There are a lot of moving parts in Inglorious Basterds, but what really impressed me is that the movie works as a singular story. In the end, it all comes together, and you're left with a great movie that delivers on almost every possible level. The opening scene, with Hans Lando interrogating a farmer he suspects of hiding a Jewish family in his home, kicks things off on a tension-filled high-note. While I won't spoil the ending, I will say that it's one hell of a finale, that nicely parallels the opening. Tarantino doesn't just make any old World War II movie - he makes "Quentin Tarantino's Definitive Take on the WWII Movie," and you can see the care and precision that went into every word, every detail, every bit of action. There are all of the flourishes that Tarantino is known for - the impeccably chosen soundtrack, the references to other works and other genres (the spaghetti western, the men-on-a-mission war movie, the revenge film, the Hitchcock-esque suspense thriller, etc), and the random bits of craziness that most filmmakers wouldn't dare insert into their movies. But Tarantino relishes playing in that pop culture sandbox. So much of what he does seems to be derived from the question: "Wouldn't it be cool if ...?" And more often than not, the answer is yes - yes, that would be pretty freaking cool.

Like I said though, Inglorious Basterds isn't all flash and rock n' roll. There IS a real depth and subtext to this movie, more so than any previous Tarantino film, I think. And that's why some of the criticisms I've read ring false (Newsweek just ran an article condemning the movie for having Jews behave as violently as Nazis, for example). This is a movie that is very funny, over-the-top, and that has a lot of fun with its catharctic central premise. But at the same time, these characters are, like the title says, inglorious. This is a war movie, and in war movies characters, even the so-called heroes, do things that in other contexts one might find reprehensible. I commend Tarantino for not shying away from this. He has fun with his characters but never makes them out to be true-blue heroes. In fact, so much of the movie is about how the horrors of the Nazi regime have bred this group of otherwise-unassuming killers. It's something to think about. It's something that does provide moments where you root for the Basterds to kick Nazi ass. But it also leaves you unsettled. This isn't a black and white movie, and why should it be?

At the end of the day, though, I was fairly blown away by the sheer awesomeness of Inglorious Basterds. To think that it came only one week after the similarly mind-blowing District 9 is hard to fathom, given that it's late August, in theory the dry season for quality movies. I'm not sure where some of the mixed reviews are coming from. Maybe it's that people are so increasingly ADD that they can't stomach a long, dialogue-driven movie anymore? Maybe it's that some thought QT jumped the shark with Death Proof (don't agree) and are no longer giving him a fair shake? I don't know. But to me, Basterds is every bit as vital, as original, as entertaining, and as powerful as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, or Kill Bill. That to me puts it at or near the top of the list of 2009 thus far. Because with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has once again achieved cinematic glory, and I'm just glad I was there to see it.

My Grade: A

Friday, August 21, 2009

Forget Avatar, this Blog Post Will MELT YOUR EYEBALLS!

Yikes, it's been way too long since I have written here on the ol' blog. A quick explanation:

a.) It's been nuts at work, as we are in the final legs of prepping for the upcoming Fall TV season.

b.) My brother moving to LA next week = much family drama.

c.) Been a slow week for pop-culture, thus not much truly jumped out at me as great subject matter to write about.

d.) I wrote not one but two posts over the weekend, so less to say during the week ...

- Okay, so ... maybe it hasn't been THAT slow a week for movies and TV. I mean, this week did mark the release of the long-anticipated trailers for both AVATAR and THE WOLFMAN. Personally, I thought the Avatar trailer was pretty great, but I do think that seeing it in a smaller window on a computer screen makes it much harder to appreciate just how detailed and fluid the motion-capture CGI truly is. I think when people go today to see the 15 minutes of "Avatar Day" pre-release footage in IMAX 3-D, they will be a lot more pumped than they were post-trailer. Now, I'm not going to just immediately claim that Avatar is going to be the best thing since sliced bread, etc. For all I know, it will not live up to the hype. But, what I can say is that the footage I saw back at Comic-Con, as I reported back in my giant-sized show wrap-up post, was indeed pretty freaking amazing. Meanwhile, the trailer for Wolfman was just flat-out awesome. I love seeing Universal pay homage to its roots by giving one of the classic Universal monsters the kind of serious, prestigious treatment he deserves. The cast for this one looks amazing, the look and feel and tone is great, and the f/x look kickass. Can't wait to see this in 2010.

- At the same time, it's funny because of the somewhat unexpected impact of DISTRICT 9. The movie has positively rocked the pop-cultural landscape over the last week. I mean, a couple of weeks ago, how many people would have thought we'd be saying things like "well, Avatar looks good, but will it be able to top District 9?". Crazy, I tell ya'.

- Now, for the past week, everyone, including me, has been raving nonstop about the awesomeness of District 9. And hey, that's cool - the movie flat-out rocked. BUT ... what does bother me is when people seem to jump on a bandwagon only to ignore all the other cool stuff that's out there. My point here is: there are a couple of other AMAZING indie-ish movies still out in theaters that are very much must-sees.

For one, there's MOON. If you enjoyed District 9, please run out and go see Moon as soon as possible. Not only is it one of the coolest overall sci-fi movies in years, but it also features perhaps the single greatest acting performance we've yet seen in 2009, from Sam Rockwell, who plays one of the most demanding and challenging roles you can imagine. Moon is one of those movies that, like District 9, is much better to watch with little to no prior knowledge about the plot. That said, go see it now!

For another, as much as part of me might want to declare District 9 the best of '09 thus far, there's simply no way to have that conversation without also including THE HURT LOCKER. Katherine Bigelow's masterpiece is an absolute stunner of a movie, and is one of the most intense and gripping films I've ever seen. If you are scared off because you think this is just another dry war movie set in Iraq, don't be. While The Hurt Locker is, at it's heart, a character study, it also features some of the most balls-to-the-wall action you'll see this summer. In that way, it's a lot like District 9 - it's a pretty profound movie that makes you think, but, man, when the action cranks up, it's full-throttle.

So yeah, after you go out and see INGLORIOUS BASTERDS this weekend (hells yes, can't wait!), please go out and check out these two still-somewhat-under-the-radar films.

- Anyways, keeping it short and sweet today. Check back soon for the full BASTERDS review. Until then, have a great weekend!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Going Supernova with DISTRICT 9 - A Review of 2009's Sci-Fi Epic for the Ages!

DISTRICT 9 Review:

- I had a feeling about this one. Ever since I heard that Peter Jackson was working with a young new director named Neil Blomkamp on a modestly-budgeted sci-fi movie called District 9, I was intrigued. Amidst all of the big-name summer blockbusters that everyone knew about, this one seemed to have all the makings of a sleeper hit. After all, Peter Jackson is the man behind the most awe-inspiring movie franchise of this decade in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and this new guy, Blomkamp, who had originally been hand-picked by Jackson to direct the now-defunct Halo movie, seemed like maybe, just maybe, he had the chops to be the next big thing. But having just come back from seeing District 9, I stand before you somewhat blown away by what I have just seen. Given the movie's indie-sized budget, and given the tone of the ads and trailers, I was expecting a nice little movie with some cool ideas and concepts ... you know, a more thoughtful, more cerebral sort of sci-fi film.

And yeah, District 9 is plenty thoughtful and plenty cerebral ... but ... ho-lee crap, it's also a white-hot nitro burst of flaming intensity, that will both blow your mind and explode your eyeballs. Despite what accounting sheets might indicate, Blomkamp and Jackson have created a sci-fi blockbuster of epic proportions, one that's not quite like anything we've seen before. Gloriously brutal, disturbingly intense, and completely surprising, District 9 is one of the landmark movies of 2009.

District 9, via a documentary-style presentation, immediately throws us into the game-changing reality of its world, where twenty years ago an alien spacecraft landed on earth, above Johannasberg. Soon after, the odd-looking aliens that arrived in the craft have been sequestered in a slum-like ghetto known as District 9. These aliens, called by the derogatory term "prawns" (due to their shrimp-like appearance), remain somewhat mysterious to us throughout the movie. We're not sure how they ended up on earth, why they arrived with a massive stockpile of weapons that they are mostly unable or unwilling to use, or why their mothership hovers ominously over South Africa yet seems to be stuck high in the air. What we do know is that the prawns (and it's a tribute to the movie that it almost feels wrong to call them that) are fairly intelligent and eventually learned to understand English. They have a strange compulsion to eat cat food, which has a mind-numbing effect on them. And though they are leaderless and unorganized, there are those among them who have been silently plotting ways to escape their captivity.

The film starts out on a smaller-scale, almost quirky note as we meet our main character, the oddly-named Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley. Honestly, I think that Copley's performance here and the nature of Wikus' character is going to be a hotly-debated aspect of the movie for a long time to come. If nothing else, Wikus is a complete departure from the typical protaganist of this kind of movie. He's basically an ass - a skinny, dweeby sort of fellow who is almost like a South African version of The Office's Michael Scott. Actually, his oblivious and spineless nature, and his faux-confidence, reminded me a lot of Murray, the character that Rhys Darby plays on Flight of the Conchords, if you can believe that. Wikus works for the MNU, a special organization charged with studying, containing, and interacting with the prawns. Of course, Wikus only achieved his management position due to the fact that he happened to marry his boss' daughter. But he's not just some harmlessly annoying middle-manager - the work that Wikus and his team do in District 9 is genuinely horrifying, and you can't help but draw the parallels between District 9 and the Apartheid-era slums of South Africa, or even the European ghettos set up by the Nazis prior to World War II. Even worse, the MNU is in the process of evicting the prawns from their homes in order to transport them to District 10 - for all intents and purposes, a concentration camp. It's a dark, cautionary nod to previous crimes against humanity, and a fitting metaphor that calls to mind the sci-fi parables of Rod Serling and the like.

But back to Copley as Wikus, he really is one of the oddest lead characters you'll ever see in a movie, in that every time you really feel for the guy and begin to root for him, he reveals himself to be the same self-centered, snivelling coward that he's been all along. On one hand, it's fascinating. On the other, it can at times hurt the narrative momentum of the movie, when so many moments of apparent character growth in fact turn out to be red herrings. But even though there were times when you want to groan in disbelief at Wikus, at the same time, I found myself amazed at the fact that Blomkamp almost never succumbed to any Hollywood movie cliches. It definitely took a lot of nerve on his part to craft such an uncoventional storyarc featuring such an oddball and oftentimes unsympathetic character.

But it's also an amazing tribute to the movie's creative team that, despite having such a relatively unlikable main character, you still find yourself glued to his every move. The way that District 9's plot unravels, the way that it starts out as this intimate documentary-style film and then explodes into an all-out, balls-to-the-wall action epic, is simply brilliant. I don't want to talk too much about any of the big twists or turns here - District 9 is a movie that works as well as it does because it defies expectation at every turn. I mean, for a movie that employs a documentary style for much of its running time, rarely have I seen a film that is so constantly, viscerally exciting. I mean, holy lord, I had heard all of the hype, but never did I expect to see some of the most badass and off-the-chain action sequences ever seen in a sci-fi flick. Sure, there are tons of interesting philisophical and political ideas at the heart of District 9. But what elevates this movie to that whole other level is the combination of those ideas with action that makes you cringe, that makes you smile, that makes you cheer. Again, I don't want to spoil too much here. But man, when we start seeing some of those alien weapons being put to use, hot damn, the result is EPIC DESTRUCTION on a massive scale. Okay, dammit, I have to at least give a little tease of some of the crazy stuff that goes on in this one ... all I can say is that, oh my god, this movie has the coolest mecha-robot fight scene since the ED-209 battled Robocop all those years ago. Yep, you heard me. Intrigued? Hells yeah, baby, you should be. Suffice it to say, the carnage in this movie is just crazy, and directed with style and aplomb by Blomkamp. With one movie, he's shot to the top of the list of directors who you want at the helm of the biggest and best blockbusters out there.

It's not just District 9's action that looks amazing - the whole movie is a visual tour de force, and that is absolutely mind boggling given its meager $30-million dollar budget. What makes this look like a $100-million dollar-plus movie is that every single shot is there for a reason. We only get a couple of glimpses of the alien mothership, for example. But when we do see it, damn, is it epic-looking. And the aliens themselves look great. It's not just the detail of the costumes and CGI work, either. It's the little things - the way they move, the way they talk - you buy them 100% as being real.

Meanwhile, both in the action scenes and in general, District 9 is a brutal movie that pulls no punches. There are scenes that are shocking and disturbing. Some of the violence is more on the cartoonish side, but some is hard to watch given the disturbing context in relation to the plot. This is a movie that shows humanity at its worst, and it's one that makes you wonder how people really would react if odd-looking alien lifeforms suddenly landed on our planet. There are also some very horror-movie-like moments that call to mind the slow-burn creepiness of films like The Fly. In fact, these are some of the best bits of the film, as Wikus is such an unlikely "hero", far removed from being a brave soldier type, that all the crazy stuff that happens to him has that added element of reality. We've seen countless movies where some alpha-male hero has to endure pain and suffering and crazy circumstances, but how many movies have all of this happen to some dorky cubicle-dweller? Wikus' constant, frantic, and heavily-accented cursing is pretty funny at times, actually, but it works because hey, if most of us were in his shoes, we'd be rambling, ranting, raving, and screaming out f-bombs too.

As I alluded to earlier, the movie does have its flaws, particularly in terms of Wikus' very jumpy character arc. Without going into details, you kind of get lulled into rooting for him, only to have the rug pulled out from under you - and the result is that some of his changes of heart feel a bit rushed or out-of-nowhere, particularly towards the end of the movie. I also wonder if Copley just plays Wikus too broad at times. He is so unusual a character that he is fascinating to watch, but sometime it does feel like you're getting a quasi-comedic performance when perhaps a completely serious approach might have worked better or been more effective. Maybe it was just Wikus' Daniel Plainview-like mustache that elicited the comparison, but at times I wondered how an actor like Daniel Day Lewis - someone with more real dramatic chops - would have fared in the role.

The other thing about the movie which might bother some is just how ambiguous it is in some respects. This is a film that leaves A LOT to the imagination. Personally, the more I think about it, the more I like the fact that so many of District 9's details are left for us to fill in on our own. The movie takes us on a thrilling, intense, awe-inspiring ride, and then leaves it to us to disuss and speculate on the details behind the story. That's cool, and hey, there's always a potential sequel to fill in some of the blanks.

But regardless of whether or not a "District 10" is ever made, what's so great about District 9 is that it's the rare movie where you watch it and feel like you're witnessing the birth of a landmark franchise, and the emergence of a brave new voice in the world of filmmaking. Not based on a book or graphic novel. Not a remake. Not a sequel. Not a movie that conforms to any of the usual Hollywood conventions. This is something all-new, all-different, and not at all what I was expecting. There is some messiness, some spotty acting here and there, some jumpiness in the plotting. But oh man, rarely have I sat through a film so completely engrossed, simply wanting to see more and not wanting it to end. Rarely have I seen a movie that is this contemplative and cerebral and yet this packed with applause-worthy "holy-$#%&" moments. Mr. Blomkamp, with District 9 you have just thoroughly kicked the Hollywood studios and the moviegoing public in the ass, and all I can say to you is "thank you, Sir, may I have another?"

My Grade: A

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer Heats Up: a (500) DAYS OF SUMMER Review and MORE!

Yikes, what a week it's been. Things got really crazy towards the end of the week, but hey, I can't really complain as I had some fun experiences and a couple of cool "only in Hollywood" moments. Thursday in particular was sort of nuts. I spent most of the day at Universal Studios, as for most of the morning I sat in on an event that my manager at work helped to organize. It was basically a series of panels and discussion for a group of high-schoolers in a special business-leadership program. The students - a very diverse group - sat in a meeting room on the Universal lot and listed to two separate panel discussions - one consisting of a couple of PR / marketing folks, and the other made up of programming and development execs. It was pretty interesting to hear the panelists speak, especially given that the latter panel included two of my former colleagues from back when I was an NBC Page on assignment in NBC Primetime Development. Anyways, after the panels concluded I went with the kids as they took a quick tour of Conan O'Brien's new Tonight Show studio. For me, it was the first time I had actually gotten a chance to see the studio in person, and it looked great. It was odd walking around though, as I immediately flashed back to my days as a Late Night intern in NYC. It's funny how for me, all of the people I worked with as an intern are etched into my memory - like, when you see a familiar face at Conan the instinct is to run up and say "hey, remember me!" But, the reality is that I was one of many hundreds of interns that passed through the halls of Late Night. As much as I like to think I made a good impression, I doubt most of the old Late Night staff would remember me at this point. But who knows, our paths could cross again (when they are all working for me -- on The Danny Baram Show! Bwahahahaha!).

So yeah, following the student event, which overall was really cool, we had a long meeting in the NBC Universal tower, and after that, a somewhat hastily-scheduled department activity. We were set to all go bowling at the Lucky Strike lanes in Hollywood, although due to the last-minute nature of the event, it turned out that it conflicted with many meetings and whatnot. That said, I drove over to Lucky Strike following our afternoon meeting, and got in a couple of rounds of bowling. For some reason, bowling has been the group activity of choice whenever we do a social event at work, so oddly enough most of my bowling experience over the last four years has been via work-related events. In any case, I am a still a pretty mediocre bowler. I actually got the same score two games in a row at Lucky Strike - a 98. Not completely awful, I guess, but it would have been nice to break 100.

Our bowling event wrapped up at around 5 pm, at which point I went back to the office for a bit to take care of a few pressing issues. I then went home, had a hasty dinner, showered, and eventually headed back out past Hollywood for an event that our partners at Microsoft had invited us to - a swanky premiere party to celebrate the launch of MS's Cinemash web videos. Basically, a series of short web films that take well-known actor combinations and place them in very random movie parodies. One has Cheech & Chong battle it out in Tron. One has Channing Tatum and Charlene Yi give us their hilarious take on Dirty Dancing. And one has a couple of the Reno 9-11 guys doing a very funny parody of Point Break. Good stuff. So, yeah, despite being exhausted fro ma long day, I managed to get a brief second wind at the party, held in Microsoft's uber-cool Zune LA headquarters. Finally, I got to enjoy the more glamorous side of working in new media! I mean, hey, Milo Ventimiligia of Heroes fame was there - not too shabby. I'm movin' on up! Cool party - a nice reminder that the digital media world in which I work is, in theory, at least sometimes actually kind of cool and happenin'.

As you can imagine, I was a bit out of it today after a crazy Thursday. A couple of things that were on my mind today:

- Aaaah! The rest of AEROSMITH's summer tour has been cancelled! This sucks, as I had tickets to their late-August show here in SoCal. I guess the important thing here is that the great Steven Tyler makes a quick recovery from his injuries, and that Aerosmith is back on their feet and kicking ass again as soon as possible. I mean, it's crazy - this is actually the second Aerosmith concert I've missed out on due to problems with the band. Back when I was at BU, my friends and I were set to go see 'em play in Boston, which would have been amazing. Unfortunately, the band cancelled the show due to throat problems that Tyler was having at the time. I still regret that I didn't get to see the Bad Boys of Boston play in their hometown. But, I have seen the 'Smith play three times. Once in Connecticut in a double-bill with KISS, and twice here in LA - once at the Staples Center with Lenny Kravitz, and once at the Hollywood Bowl with Motley Crue. Their current tour has the band paired with ZZ Top, who would have been a lot of fun to see live. Oh well - even though they are getting up there in age, I have little doubt that my favorite rock n' rollers will be back in the saddle again soon.

- So over the last couple of weeks I've written a bit about my ongoing problems with my right ankle. And through this whole process, I've been thankful that the doctors I've been seeing - both my new primary care physician, as well as the foot specialist I saw in the same medical group, have been both helpful and knowledgable. However, as much as I like these doctors ... I am quickly growing to hate the office that they're a part of. I mean, holy lord, every call to this doctor's office connects you with a cranky assistant who seems to be juggling more calls than a QVC hotline. Scheduling appointments has been consistently crazy - I made an appointment the other day for this coming Wednesday, for example, but realized today that I had to change it due to a work conflict. I called to reschedule, and got booted back to September 1st! WTF! Even worse, I'm not even sure what this appointment *is*. After getting an MRI on my ankle last week, the foot doctor left me a message that, luckily, I do not have a torn ligament. However, I do appear to have tissue damage that requires treatment. All I was told was to call and follow up. However, here's where dealing with a monster-sized conglomerate of a doctor's office kind of sucks. It's virtually impossible to actually talk to the doctor. Instead, staying on hold for ten minutes just gets you a clueless receptionist who can't do much except make you an appointment for three weeks from now. I asked the receptionist if she could leave a note for the doctor that I was trying to figure out what my next steps should be following his ankle diagnosis. Her response was to transfer me not to the doctor's line, but to his assistant's direct line. I got the assistant's voicemail. Arrggggh ... I don't know, man, is this lack of a personal touch an LA thing or what? Or are all larger-sized doctor's offices this annoying to deal with?

- Anyways, tonight was definitely going to be a somewhat laid-back evening, and so I thought I'd try to take in a showing of a movie that's been gettign a lot of critical buzz of late ...

500 DAYS OF SUMMER Review:

- It can get pretty annoying reading reviews of a movie like 500 Days of Summer. Certain things about it are so prone to inspire love or hate that critics and commentators tend to assess it not based on the content or quality of the film, but on their own personal little hangups. As I browsed through reviews of the movie online, I often saw one of two things. On one hand, there were the more mainstream reviews that cited this movie as the perfect antidote for formulaic romantic comedies. To them, 500 Days of Summer is so refreshing, so uncharacteristically original and authentic-seeming, that it instantly ranks amongst the best movies of the year to date. On the other hand, there is the contingent of been-there, done-that hipsters who claim to see through the movie's forced quirkiness. To them, the movie falls in the same category as overhyped, self-conciously hip emo films like Garden State. Personally, it's frustrating when people rate a movie solely based on how it conforms to their various predispositions. Fed up with cookie-cutter rom-coms? Then 500 Days of Summer is the movie for you! But wait - are you one of those haters who takes offense at Zooey Daschenal's pre-packaged manic pixie dream girl schtick? Does the very idea of a zeitgeisty comedy with an alt-rock soundtrack make you cringe? Then gee whiz, dude, 500 Days of Summer is a piece of pop culture best left for scenester teens too naive to realize that this movie is, in fact, just as cliched in its own way as the romantic comedies it tries not to associate with.

Honestly, I think both sides of the love-it or hate-it argument are probably overreacting. For one thing, I hate most romantic comedy movies with a passion, and am happy to report that 500 Days of Summer, is definitely a smart, funny, authentic-feeling movie that defies many of the typically-lame trappings of its genre. I mean, it's a movie that's told from a guy's perspective. It's a movie that's not especially sappy. It's a movie that has real-feeling characters. And it's a movie that doesn't tie up everything in a nice, neat little bow. For another thing, I am not at all a fan of Garden State. To me it is the very definition of annoying emo lameness. And, I am again happy to report that 500 Days of Summer is nothing like Garden State. It has a great, believable lead actor in Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It doesn't at all feel whiny - it feels like a movie that actually has something legitimate to say. It has a strong voice as a film. It's genuinely very funny at times. Visually, it looks great, and there are a number of very inventive sequences that are a lot of fun (the joyful musical number that follows Levitt's first night spent with Zooey is guaranteed grin-inducing). To that end, the movie really does present the ebb and flow inherent in a complicated relationship. There are light moments, funny moments, sad moments, and joyful ones. It's a tapestry, and the film does a great job of taking all these various snapshots and letting the individual moments combine to tell the larger story.

As you may have heard, 500 Days of Summer follows a unique storytelling structure in which we jump around to various points within the 500 days that comprise the different stages of the relationship. We see the first meeting, the first fight, the "just friends" speech, and the post-breakup encounter. And we see a lot of moments in-between. It works, and it's a thematically relevant device to boot. Because part of the movie's theme is how you can't just romanticize the great moments or dwell on the bad ones - real life and real relationships are inevitably a messy combination of both.

The acting in the movie is very good. Gordon-Levitt has quickly become one of the top young actors out there today. It's amazing and kind of funny that in one month he's starring as an everyman in an indie romantic comedy and as an evil mad scientist in GI Joe. Now that, my friends, is range. Now, personally, I like Zooey Daschenal as an actress. I get that her oh-so-quirky-act has worn a bit thin at this point, but the cool thing with this movie is that it kind of deconstructs the whole quirky-yet-amazing, manic pixie dream girl cliche. A big point of the movie is basically that the proverbial manic pixie may not always turn out to be the girl of one's dreams. 500 Days of Summer almost wants you to become increasingly annoyed with Zooey's flighty weirdness. As one character points out in the beginning of the movie (and I paraphrase): "just because a girl likes all the same weird crap that you do doesn't make her your soulmate."

Now, are there times where this movie gets off-track? Sure. For one thing there's Levitt's wise-beyond-her-years little sister, a perky 12 year old who dispenses romantic wisdom as if she were the ABC Family version of Yoda. The character could work, in theory, but in practice she feels way too cliche for a movie that is supposed to be anti-formulaic. For another thing, there are Levitt's two best friends, who come off as somewhat one-dimensional and ultimately prove kind of usless to the overall plot. They have a couple of funny moments, but like the little sister, they seem a bit cookie-cutter - generic slacker/stoner friend and generic nerdy/goofy friend.

What I did like though was that the movie had some nice bigger-picture moments that made it, to me, more than just a romantic comedy, but a movie about being a young adult and trying to balance idealism with reality. Do you give up dreams and personal fantasies in the name of practicality and stability? I like that the movie left me with a lot to think about. Not something that can be said for most rom-com's. At the same time, I will admit that there were moments that were just too obvious and fit too neatly into the whole quirky-hipster aesthetic. Like the two leads bonding over The Smiths. Or how Zooey's character thinks that Ringo is the best Beatle. Or the too-cute record-shop where the leads talk whilst browsing vintage LP's. But then again, like I said, the point of the movie is that all these almost obnoxiously cute and quirky moments don't always translate into true love. In that way, this is certainly a romantic comedy that, even when it has those almost-cliches, doesn't feel paint-by-numbers. Because beneath the surface, it actually does have something to say. That alone gives it high marks in my book.

My Grade: B+

- And with that, let the weekend begin!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Yo Joe!" GI JOE Review, Plus: More on FUNNY PEOPLE, and MORE!

... And I'm back.

- Man, Monday's FUNNY PEOPLE review was probably one of the most difficult I've tried to write in a while. It's one of those movies where it's just extremely tough to articulate where, exactly, it goes astray. It's funny because while perusing Rotten Tomatoes, there was pretty much zero consensus in the assemblage of reviews. There were indeed a good portion of primarily negative reviews, but each of them seemed to focus on different aspects of the movie that deserved criticism. I guess, if anything, the two key phrases are probably "self-indulgent" and "self-important." Those might best describe why the movie ultimately rubbed me the wrong way. That said, people seem to have skimmed my review and assumed I hated the movie. I think I focused on the negative mostly because Funny People is in many ways a potentially great movie, and it's a case where the parts are much greater than the whole. The parts that work in Funny People are the parts that keep the tone light. But it's Judd Apatow's attempts at giving the movie dramatic weight - and his transformation of what was a movie about stand-up comedy into a semi-autobiographical morality play - that feel very tonally off. This makes Funny People a flawed film, but it also makes it a fascinating one to discuss and disect. I do think it's worth checking out if you're a fan of Apatow, because I think this will ultimately be his most controversial and hotly-debated film. I would add though that I am by no means ready to just hate on Apatow because of this one movie. I think he went overboard in a lot of ways with this one and gave in to some of his worst storytelling instincts. But the guy has had a hand in way too much great comedy to just claim that he's now jumped the shark or whatever. Personally, I'd love to see Apatow's next movie just be something completely crazy and absurd. Remember - he's had a hand in movies as crazy as Anchorman and Walk Hard. I'd love to see more in that style from him. Funny People, however, is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking entry in the Apatow cannon.

- Speaking of funny people, I do have to make mention of Sunday night's ROAST OF JOAN RIVERS on Comedy Central. All in all, I've loved these Comedy Central roasts. If nothing else, they are a different type of comedy than what you typically see on TV. The roasts are a great chance to see comedians like Greg Giraldo and Jeff Ross do what they do best: scorch people with one scathing and hilarious insult after another. At the same time, there are always interesting guest appearances - this time we got Donald Trump and Don Rickles via video, for example. And there is always an oddity or two. For example, the Rivers roast featured an 87-year-old Carl Reiner as one of the roasters, performing a set that basically celebrated the level of vulgarity that one can get away with in the 00's as opposed to the 50's. I mean, Reiner talked about how he couldn't even use the word "pregnant" back on the Dick Van Dyke Show ... and then went on to use various curse words with the relish of an 87-year old man who knew he was getting away with murder. And then there is Gilbert Gottfried, who is basically in a class by himself at these roasts. Gilbert is one of those people who is just so out-there that he's inherently hilarious. His delivery alone just cracks me up, but his enthusiastically-told made-up story about a sexual encounter with Joan Rivers was just side-splittingly funny. Man, Gilbert is one messed-up man, but good lord can he be hilarious. A couple of the comedians in this particular roast were more filler than killer: Brad Garett, Robin Quivers, etc. Although the cool thing about a show like this is that they are a great way to discover new comedic voices - one person who impressed me here was Whitney Cummings, a regular on The Chelsea Handler Show. She had a pretty funny set that tossed some excellent zingers Joan Rivers' way. And then Joan herself capped off the show as only she can, giving a nonsensical yet pretty entertaining rant on why America needs her, pushing her trademark scratchy squeel of a voice to its breaking point. One thing is sure: she is definitely one of a kind. Overall, not as consistently funny as some of the previous roasts (I think the Pam Anderson, William Shatner, and Bob Saget roasts remain my favorites so far ...), but still, definitely one of the more entertaining pieces of television I've seen in a while.

My Grade: B+

- Also want to give a shout-out to MICHAEL & MICHAEL HAVE ISSUES on Comedy Central. The show has seemed to increasingly find its groove with each new episode, and while it still has to iron out some things, the show has been consistently funny week in and week out. It's great just to see Showalter and Black's trademark insane humor on TV every week, and I hope everyone is checking out the show!

- And yes, I do have to make mention of last night's season finale of NYC PREP. As I've mentioned here on the blog, I work closely with Bravo here at my job even if I am not exactly in the target Bravo demo. Suffice it to say, after working to help promote the pilot of NYC Prep on digital platforms like iTunes, I sat down to watch the first episode, and quickly, much to my surprise, became a total addict of the show, and helped to get a good portion of my office addicted to it to boot. What can I say, I don't usually like reality shows, but NYC Prep is so compelling first and foremost because the Upper East Side high-schoolers it profiles are honestly pretty fascinating. Sure, they can be shallow and snobbish, but the show didn't just paint them as stereotypes. You couldn't stop looking away as these kids grappled with their own unique version of typical teenage drama. And man, was this show hilarious. The antics of the dim-witted, girl-chasing Sebastian alone were amusing as hell. So, as much as I hate myself for saying this ... bring on Season 2.

- Finally, did you hear that AMC has committed to a TV series based on the uber-awesome comic book series THE WALKING DEAD? Robert Kirkman's insane zombie comic has been one of the most intense, gripping, and unpredictable reads out there for the last several years, and it's still going strong. The comic is paced very much like a TV show, so it's always seemed a natural for adaptation. Now, I remember checking out a script for a Walking Dead pilot that at one point was in consideration at NBC. The script was actually pretty darn good, but at the same time you had to wonder if network television could handle a violent and brutal post-apocalyptic zombie adventure. AMC is probably a better home for such a series, although, man, it'd be VERY interesting to see how a full-fledged zombie series would do in primetime. CBS came extremely close to having such a show, Babylon Fields, a couple of years ago (although that was more of a quirky zombie comedy, if you can believe that). Still, with Frank Darabount attached to write and direct, and AMC typically being a bastion for good original TV content, The Walking Dead is now potentially *the* TV show to be on the lookout for. And by the way, if you've yet to sample The Walking Dead, there's no better day than today -- the latest monthly issue, as well as the tenth graphic novel volume, both hit stores today.

- Okay, onto today's movie review. All I can say is ... TENNNNN HUTT!


- GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is good, solid, goofy fun. If you were a fan of the old-school GI Joe cartoon or comic books back in the day, I think that this one will be a nostalgia trip that takes you back to the days of waking up early on a Saturday morning and camping out in front of the couch for three hours in your pajamas. All that's missing is a bowl of Lucky Charms to slurp down while watching.

Now, you might be one of those too-cool-for-school hipsters who's all like "GI Joe? What the hell, that movie blows goats." To which I say ... "drop and give me twenty, Maggot!" Seriously though, GI Joe is good clean summer movie fun. Unlike the Transformers flicks, GI Joe does right by the franchise in that it basically presents the material as is. This isn't Citizen Kane, but it is pretty much everything you'd want in a GI Joe flick. Bigger-than-life good guys, majorly evil bad guys, cool action scenes, and Snake Eyes. Sure, things can get pretty cheesy at times, but at least the focus of the movie is on the Joes and their world-saving mission. There's no Shia LeBuff character stealing the spotlight away from the real stars of the movie. There's no age-inappropriate sex jokes. GI Joe is the kind of movie that's plenty light enough that a young kid could watch it, get a kick out of it, and come out of it screaming "Yo, Joe!" just like we did at age ten. And get this: there are action scenes that actually make sense, are easy to follow, and that feature the movie's best and coolest characters kicking ass and taking names. Are you listening, Michael Bay? The fact is that director Stephen Sommers (best known for the first two Mummy films), love him or hate him, knows how to do big, over-the-top, fun action scenes and set pieces. He's no Spielberg, but he has a sense of how to produce finely-orchestrated chaos in a manner that's fast-paced yet coherant.

Getting back to the movie being a living, breathing cartoon - to me there's nothing wrong with this choice. Sure, they could have gone the route of doing a darker version of GI Joe, but I mean, is that really what best suited the franchise. I think that fanboys sometimes get greedy in that they want every franchise to get the "mature" treatment a la Batman and The Dark Knight. There's nothing wrong though with the occasional light-hearted action flick that is made for kids and kids at heart.

That said, I'm not going to pretend that GI Joe is some kind of action-movie masterpiece. The story and characters are underdeveloped at times, and the plot can be a bit too simplistic in places. In particular, the love-hate relationship between Marlon Wayan's Ripcord and Rachel Nichols' Scarlett is a bit much even for a cartoony movie like this one. Plus, it would have been nice to get slightly more insight into the motivations of the evil Destro and his plans for world domination.

But man, in some ways GI Joe, perhaps surprisingly, kicks some serious ass. For one thing, I came away sort of shocked by how fun the ensemble cast here is. No one is going to win any Oscars, but a lot of the roles are filled out by more-than-capable actors who hit just the right notes in terms of playing comic book-style heroes and villains. I mean, you've got Christopher Eccleston as Destro. Eccleston is a fine actor and is a lot of fun here as the Joe's charismatic nemesis. Even more fun is scene-stealer Joseph Gordon-Levitt as The Doctor, aka the man who will become the criminal mastermind known as Cobra Commader. It's funny because I just couldn't envision how Levitt would play this type of role, but he totally kills in the part. Partly hidden behind a metal mask, he uses an over-the-top, full-on EVIL voice that calls to mind the classic cartoon, and is just an awesomely fun villain here. The other huge scene-stealer is Sienna Miller as Baroness. Miller is pretty great here, chewing up scenery like nobody's business, kicking ass left and right, and reinforcing the idea that everybody loves a badass girl with glasses. Sienna Miller comes away as the movie's MVP - a femme fatale that will make the young boys in the audience feel funny feelings they've never felt before. Rounding out the cast of villains, you've got Storm Shadow - the arch-enemy and rival of Snake Eyes and one badass martial-arts master, and Zartan, a cunning master of disguise. Fun stuff.

On the Joes side, our two leads are unfortunately the movie's weakest links. Channing Tatum is okay as the All-American Joe leader, Duke, but at the same time you wish they found someone with a bit more, well, gravitas, to play the part. Marlon Wayans has some fun moments as Duke's right-hand man, Ripcord, but sometimes his comic relief does fall a bit flat. That said, you've got to love Dennis Quaid as General Hawk. I mean, it's Dennis Quaid as a GI Joe General whose name is Hawk. That is basically inherently awesome right there. Plus, you've got Ray Park as GI Joe's resident silent ninja warrior, Snake Eyes. Snake Eyes basically has always ruled, and continues to rule in live-action. Like everyone else, I agree that the drawn-in mouth on his ninja mask is kind of lame, but not a huge deal. Just fix it in the sequel, dammit all. Even Mummy star Brendan Frasier makes an uncredited cameo. I would have preferred a Sgt. Slaughter cameo, but, oh well. And hey, noted British thespian Jonathan Pryce plays the President of the United States! Sweet!

So yeah, the cast is really pretty good. Similarly, the action is fast and furious, and covers all the bases you'd want in a GI Joe movie, and then some. You've got your Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow sword battles, your Scarlet vs. Baroness grrrl fights, your underwater shoot-outs, death-defying airplane jumps, and a standout chase scene through the streets of Paris. Not too shabby.

In addition, there are some fun shout-outs to the old cartoon, which I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say, by the film's end, you leave primed and ready for a potential sequel that is now set up to deliver a full-on Joes vs. Cobra war. To that end, this movie's ending is a little bit abrupt, basically one giant to-be-continued. But it's a testament to GI JOE that it has me eagerly imagining what a sequel could be. This one has its moments of cheeseball stupidity, but it more than makes up for it with lots of grin-inducing action and adventure. Like I said, all that's missing is the bowl of Lucky Charms.

My Grade: B+

- And that's all for now. What did you think of GI JOE? Post your responses here!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Danny Knows From FUNNY PEOPLE.

Monday-shock! That's a new phrase I'm coining, to describe that feeling of waking up on a Monday and being like "holy $#%& kill me now, today is going to be harsh!"

Anyways, to help get me through my Monday-shock and hopefully yours, let's dive right into a movie review, because, man, I've got a lot to say about this one ...


- I went into Funny People cautiously optimistic. Prior to seeing the movie, I had heard completely mixed reviews - from those calling it Judd Apatow's masterpiece to those bashing the movie as an over-long mess. I think that the true story lies somewhere in the middle. There are moments in Funny People that are hilarious, and moments that are vintage Apatow. There are moments that work as spot-on satire and moments that have the kind of painfully authentic yet unmistakably funny conversational dialogue that Apatow has become known for. At the same time, I don't think I was prepared for how bleakly depressing of a movie Funny People actually is, when all is said and done. And yeah, I knew full well that this was a movie about a comic star assessing his life after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. But the part I wasn't expecting was that the aforementioned illness wasn't even the most depressing part of the film. The fact is that Funny People paints a very dark, very cynical, almost weary picture of life in Hollywood. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing. But the problem lies in the fact that Apatow seems to have lost perspective on this one. Whereas his previous movies have been defined by the heart and soul that lies beneath the profane comedy, Funny People feels oddly soulless. It feels like the rambling, messy, and somewhat embittered work of a man who's been beaten down by an adulthood spent in entertainment. This is like watching Judd losing his innocence on-screen, and it's unsettling. Mixed with a somewhat half-hearted attempt at the usual Apatow sense of sentimentality, the result is a movie that wins you over with its great little moments and comic asides, but turns you off with its often unappealing big-picture premise.

I think that this movie particularly affected me as someone who saw a lot of himself in Seth Rogen's character in the film, Ira Wright - a young, Jewish, slightly awkward stand-up comedian with big dreams and small funds. Ira works in a grocery store deli to make ends meat while doing small-time stand-up gigs on the side. Meanwhile, his two roommates are also making their bid for Hollywood stardom, with varying degrees of success. One, played by Jason Schwartzman, has found marginal fame as a star on a cheesy sitcom called "Yo, Teach." The other, played by Jonah Hill, is faring similarly to Ira, except that, thanks to wealthy parents, he doesn't have to worry about keeping a day job. The scenes involving the three roommates are all entertaining and are the bits that most call to mind the humor of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Except, as the movie rolls on, you start to realize something about Rogen's roommates - they are basically assholes. In a different Apatow movie, these guys might have been steadfast friends to Ira, but not this one. Here, you see the parallels between Ira and the man he will eventually go to work for - George Simmons, played by Adam Sandler. Simmons sees George do stand-up and decides to take him under his wing, sort of. The fact is that their relationship constantly tows the line between actual friendship and indentured servitude. Part of the point is that Simmons has no concept anymore of legitimate human interaction. He lives in a bubble of casual showbiz buddies, casual sex, casual drugs, and lots of faceless and nameless people who are servants, yes-men, and hired help. Not only that, but you see that the seeds are being planted for Ira to end up a lot like Simmons - to make fake Hollywood friends, to pursue fake Hollywood dreams, and to live a fake Hollywood life. Realistic? Maybe. Unsettling to watch for us young guys and gals in Hollywood looking to mix career aspirations with real friendships and well-rounded lives? You bet. When even Funny People's most likable and relatable character spends the movie teetering on the edge of the abyss, you know this isn't exactly going to be the feel-good movie of the year.

And yet, like I said, Apatow has always been known for the way he is able to infuse sentimentality and heart into movies where the premise wouldn't, at first glance, seem to allow for such things. In Funny People, however, the problem is that on some level we are supposed to empathize with Sandler's George Simmons, and yet, holy lord, the movie paints him as a borderline-psychotic asshole. I sort of assumed that Sandler would play a likable comedian who has lost his way, but at the least someone you could eventually root for. And yet, there's a moment very late in the movie where Simmons verbally assaults Ira that strips away whatever goodwill you've built up for him. On one hand, I suppose it's bold of Apatow to be so uncompromising with his characters. On the other hand, it makes the movie feel almost pointless - like you're trapped in these characters' self-made hell and can't get out. I guess you start to wonder if this is a movie or simply a bitter rant about how Hollywood can chew you up and spit you out.

Just for the record, I know that me being put off by a dark comedy might seem contradictory. After all, I've raved in recent months about the work of Jody Hill, like Observe And Report and the TV series Eastbound & Down. But while Hill's characters are very, very dark, they are also heroes in their own warped and twisted worlds, and you can't help but root for them after realizing that, hey, maybe these guys' are the real sane ones in an insane world. In Funny People, there's nothing surreal going on here. This is a slice-of-life movie through and through. And it's funny because some of the biggest laughs come from the bigger and broader moments, like the 90's-style "Yo, Teach" or Aziz Ansari as a douchey, Dane Cook-esque comedian - Raaaandyyyy.

With Ira and George, however, the humor is often so uncomfortable that you wonder how much of it is directly autobiographical. It's been said that Simmons is a commentary on what a guy like Sandler *could* have been if he had not been grounded by his wife and kids. But Simmons isn't just lonely or jaded or whatever. He's downright weird. He has spastic and violent mood swings. He yells at Ira and then desperately forces him to sit by his bedside and tell him embarrassing personal anecdotes before he drifts to sleep. In some ways, Sandler's character here is even more f'd up than the one he played in Punch Drunk Love. Except, whereas that movie took place in a surreal, warped version of reality, this character is very much set in the here and now.

Make no mistake, Sandler is in fine form here. His Simmons is funny, scary, depressing, and fascinating all at once. Even stranger, Simmons is basically an only-slightly altered stand-in for Sandler himself. The blend of fiction and reality makes the performance - and the movie -all the more unsettling. I mean, the film begins with real-life footage that a young Apatow shot of his then-roommate Sandler when the two were both young transplants to Hollywood, just starting out. And throughout the movie we see other real, archival footage of Sandler's early career. So it's hard not to watch Funny People and to see it as a somewhat biographical movie. Again, that's what makes it kind of creepy.

This unsettling feeling only magnifies when Leslie Mann enters the picture. Again, you can't help but be aware of the fact that she is Apatow's real-lefe wife, acting here alongside their real-life kids. Mann is very strong in her role here, but at the same time her whole quasi-love story with Sandler just seems off. Sandler calls Mann, his one-true-love-who-got-away, trying to reconnect, knowing that he may not have long to live. Their second courtship feels rushed - they meet once, and within minutes they are practically ready to elope. Later, Simmons and Ira visit Mann's No-Cal home and even more awkwardness ensues. For a while, the whole premise of Funny People shifts dramatically. It stops being a movie about stand-up comedy, and starts being a morality play. It asks: is it justifiable for Sandler's messed-up, semi-crazy character to break up a marriage and a family because he might still be in love with Mann's flighty former actress? In another movie, you might really root for Sandler, but here, when Sandler giddily coerces Mann into adulterous behavior, it just feels wrong and strange and somewhat emblematic of everything that's wrong with the movie.

In fact, the whole of Funny People has this strange and somewhat off-kilter moral compass that I'm not even sure it's self-aware of. All of the characters have this sense of self-entitlement that is at times disturbing, but there's also this air of melancholy because of just how screwed-up and soulless they all are.

The movie also suffers in that, as you can tell, there is way too much packed into the film, and the emotional core is therefore lost and muddled within the jumbled web of side characters and subplots. It's a movie that is trying to be too many things at once, and the bizarro romance between Mann and Sandler ultimately distracts from the best part of the movie - its satirical look at the world of stand-up comedy.

Personally, I'd recommend checking out Jerry Seinfeld's THE COMEDIAN to see a true-life, very insightful doc on the world of stand-up.

As it stands, Funny People does have a lot to like. There were many moments that made me smile and made me laugh. I really liked the movie when it kept things light and had the same kind of Apatow charm that has won me over in the past. Despite what others have said, the movie never felt long to me, just over-stuffed. But what's hard to convey is that a lot of the feelings I have about the film occurred to me as the credits began to roll. For much of the time spent actually watching the movie, I was solidly entertained. The cast here is top-notch, a lot of the jokes hit the mark, and there are a number of winning cameos from celebs and comedians to boot.

But honestly, this is both Apatow's most ambitious movie but also his messiest. Too many times, Apatow's own self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical voice conflicts with what the movie is trying to accomplish. Too many times, the movie comes off as a bleak and jaded rant on Hollywood-as-hell (all the while looking at the glamour and riches of Hollywood with a somewhat self-important gaze), and forgets that the main character arc here is actually supposed to be somewhat hopeful and redemptive. A brief couple of scenes at movie's end remind us that our characters might be on the up and up, but it's too little, too late. By that point, the semi-happy ending feels tacked on. I was too caught up in what seemed to be the movie's central message for it to really resonate - that being that if you want to make it in Hollywood, you have to do so at the expense of real friends, real life, and real happiness. Not something I agree with, and not something I found very appealling. It's too bad that this part of the film, the whole funny people-as-awful people thing, at times overshadowed so much of what worked in the movie.

My Grade: B

- And that's it for now. Stay tuned for a review of GI JOE.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Don't You Forget About Me: A JOHN HUGHES Tribute, and More!

Sweet, a very much-needed weekend is about to commence. This was a long week, to be sure. I feel like I haven't even had a real moment yet to just relax and catch up from my San Digeo trip and other recent adventures. This past week, there was, well, a lot going on. For one thing, there is the ongoing drama of if/when/how my brother Matt will be moving to LA from the east coast. I won't go into the details suffice it to say the whole thing is a bit of a cluster. Meanwhile, I went to the doctor's office on Monday where I was told I might have a torn ligament in my ankle. So today I went to an imaging lab for the MRI, which honestly was really nothing. I didn't really know what to expect, so I was probably expecting the worse, but really it was just lying there for twenty minutes with my foot in a brace. Kind of relaxing, actually. But yeah, Monday or Tuesday I should know the results of the MRI, so, yeah, to be continued. Add in an LA visit from some east-coast cousins on Thursday night, and as you can see it was a jam-packed week. But, I now feel like I've gotten over the hump, so to speak, and am ready to get back on track. Not that I've been off-track, per se, but I may just be specifically thinking of my apartment, which has looked like a disaster area this entire week due to neglect and lack of cleaning on my part.

Okay, I'm really starting to ramble now.

So let's focus for a second and talk about the movies. Like I said recently on the ol' blog, this August is ridiculously packed with unusually promising late-summer releases. District 9, Inglorious Basterds, and GI JOE, which man, I have to admit, I am pretty darn psyched to see tonight. My brother saw an early screening yesterday and reported back that the movie was bad and yet awesome, which is basically what I've been hoping for. I feel like it will have those super-cheesy yet super-cool moments that will make my inner ten year old feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Plus, I actually was a pretty big GI JOE fan as a kid. I used to watch the cartoon every weekend and thrilled to the adventures of Duke, Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, and Destro. Seeing a live-action Snake Eyes alone (played by Ray Park, no less), is guaranteed geek-out material.

In other movie news, I do want to talk about something slightly more serious, for a second ...


- I was completely saddened to hear about the news of John Hughes' passing yesterday afternoon. It was one of those news items that instantly hit me hard to the point where it was difficult to continue with work for awhile after reading some of the tributes and obituaries. John Hughes was, certainly, one of *the* absolute great writers and directors of comedy movies. More than that, his movies were so unmatched and so influential that I don't know if there's any other director who is so continually sighted as a chief creative influence. There's a direct lineage from Hughes to Judd Apatow, to Kevin Smith. In fact, practically every teen movie that's come out in a post-Hughes world owes him a direct debt of gratitude. And yet, so many teen movies today fail to live up to the high standards set by Hughes. But those that do - like this year's Adventureland, for example - take heed of the example set by the great teen movies of the 80's - The Breakfast Club, Feris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, and so many others that Hughes had a hand in. Those movies aren't just slapstick comedies - they are, in their own right, epic adventures. To me, The Breakfast Club is and may always be *the* seminal teen movie of all time, because it so memorably treated high school as the dangerous jungle that it is. This was not the shiny and happy high school of Grease - The Breakfast Club was a place where the humor was awkward, the stakes high, the characters not what they seemed. High school has its caste system, and yet every single teenager can relate the characters in The Breakfast Club, because every teen wants to be more than just a "type." Hughes' magnum opus deconstructed the old high school stereotypes and accomplished a remarkable feat - you related to ALL of the characters - whether you yourself were the nerd, the jock, or the freak. Hughes' ear for dialogue, his brilliant sense of humor, to me it set the standard for everything from Freaks & Geeks to Mean Girls to Superbad.

Personally, I know that a lot of my creative endeavors have been heavily influenced by Hughes. I think part of what I love about his movies is how easily they combine humor with real drama and pathos. As a writer, sometimes you want to do something that's funny but that also has some real poignancy behind the laughs. Something that feels real and authentic despite the humor. To me, Hughes trademarked that combination - few others since have ever been able to match it. Because even though we now tend to think of teen comedies as some of the most Hollywood-ish, written-by-committee films out there, Hughes had such a distinct voice as a writer, such a knack for characters, and such an authentic-seeming vision, that his best movies all pretty much seem like the work of a true auteur.

But hey, Hughes didn't just make great teen comedies. He wrote one of the funniest family movies ever in National Lampoon's Vacation - a movie that will be quoted and referenced from now until the end of time. And then there is Home Alone. When I was a kid - and I think this is true for many of my generation - this was my absolute favorite movie ever made. I watched it over and over and over again and it cracked me up everytime. It was one of the few movies I owned on VHS tape. I mean, sure, it's cheesy, but it's definitely a modern-day kids n' family classic. And again, that was Hughes.

Hughes had been retired and out of the spotlight for some time, but at age 59, he was still taken far too early. You always thought that the guy had a couple of more great movies still in him somewhere, and that it was only a matter of time until a comeback of sorts took place. But Hughes is one of those filmmakers who was so singular and so influential that he will be talked about and referenced for as long as people are telling stories about teenagers and teenaged wastelands. Because, man, he create the template. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Pretty in Pink - basically four of the all-time quintissential 80's teen movies, forever associated with 80's Brat Pack nostalgia. Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Hughes' great teen hero character will forever be an icon. National Lampoon's Vacation - a bonafide Chevy Chase Classic. Home Alone - who doesn't love this movie? And those are just a few of the highlights.

So thank you John Hughes. I have a feeling there will be many a movie-marathon this weekend in your honor.

- Annnnd with that, let the weekend commence. Stay tuned for a GI JOE review, and much more.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Quench My THIRST - Chan-wook Park's latest: reviewed! Plus: a Weird, Wild, and Crazy Trip to the OC Super Fair!

Man, another manic Monday. Today has been a bit nutty. I had a doctor appointment this morning to have my ankle looked at, due to a sprain that I suffered almost two years ago now. As longtime readers of the blog may recall, two summers ago I woke up ready to fly from LA to NYC for a company offsite event, when I tripped over a poorly-placed suitcase upon stumbling out of bed. I suffered a severe ankle sprain, but at the time the doctor kept saying it was nothing more than that. I simply wore an ankle brace for awhile, iced it a lot, and that was that ... or so I thought. The fact was that my ankle has remained semi-swollen all this time, and just never quite felt 100% healed ... and I've long supsected that *something* was up with it, even though time after time my doctor reassured me that nothing was wrong. Well, a few weeks ago I switched doctors, and the new guy instantly saw that there was likely something wrong there. So, today I saw a foot and ankle specialist who suspects that there may indeed be a torn ligament of some kind. MRI is scheduled for Friday. Joy. Ugh - it is just yet another example of how doctors can be idiots. I had several appointments over the course of two years with my primary care physician and was told over and over that nothing was wrong, despite my concerns. So that was the start of my Monday ...

Anyways, whatever, it was a fun weekend so let's talk about that instead. Some highlights included a showing of Korean vampire import THIRST on Friday evening, and then on Sunday, me, Kyle O., and the G-Man ventured to the OC for the annual ORANGE COUNTY SUPER FAIR. I had never been to the fair before, and it was a great time. I guess the east-coast comparison is probably The Big E, which is held every year in New England. But I'd venture to say that The OC Fair is a lot bigger and crazier than even the Big E. Held in Costa Mesa, it's a gigantic carnival of rides, games, animals, vendors, arts, crafts, exhibits, and more food than you ever imagined could be contained in one venue. It's funny, because I imagined that the fair would have all kinds of traditional fair foods - popcorn, sno-cones, etc. But I was not prepared for the sheer insanity of the food vendors at the OC Fair. Any manner of deep-fried artery-clogger you could ever imagine, and some items you never dreamed could actually exist, were on display, in a vast array of gaudily-designed food stands, each one with more audacious menu items than the last. Deep-fried Zucchini Weenies! Krispy Kreme Chicken Sandwiches! Pizza on a stick! Deep-fried decadence platters of funnel cakes with Bavarian cream and chocolate drizzle! Every meat, salty snack, vegetable, or dessert item you could imagine was offered up in the most decadent and over-the-top and often deep-fried manner you could think of. Crazy, I tell ya'. I also think attending the fair made me about 25% more redneck. There was all kinds of livestock on-hand at the festival, along with horses and even an elephant, but the capper had to be the fact that they had ... racing pigs! Yes, my friends and I actually sat and watched pigs square off in races, and rooted for the likes of Spider-Ham to outrace Harry Porker. I may as well turn in my liberal Democrat card now.

But ... amidst all the down-home, deep-fried foods and racing pigs, there was in fact a shining bastion of subversive humor and free-thinking intellectualism at the OC Fair, and that beacon of light was AL'S BRAIN, a special Weird Al exhibit that featured an all-new 3D movie created by and starring none other than the Weird One himself. As a lifelong fan of all things Al, I was particularly excited for what was sure to be a typically bizarre and zany trip into the mind of Mr. Yankovic. I was not disappointed, as Al's Brain was a smart, imaginative, and oftentimes hilarious exhibit / movie. The 3D film was actually great - it was vintage Al, very funny, and featured a brain-themed song that brought back memories of listening to the likes of "Fat," "Yoda," and "Like a Surgeon." Plus, the movie featured hilarious cameos from the likes of Thomas Lennon, Patton Oswalt, Fabio (!), and even Paul McCartney (!!!). Given the unfortunate fact that kids today don't get regular doses of Al on MTV like we used to back in the day, I can only hope that a new generation of kids sees Al's Brain and become fans for life. Man, is that guy a genius. I can only wonder what the OC crowd made of his offbeat antics.

But yeah, it was a fun day at the Super Fair, and the pictures are on Facebook to prove it.

- Now, I do want to talk about THIRST, which was, well, something completely different ...

THIRST Review:

- If you are the type of film fan who loves something a little wild, a little crazy, a little out-there, then you should definitely check out THIRST - a new vampire romance-epic from Chan-wook Park, the visionary Korean director behind cult favorites like Oldboy. Thirst is Chan's take on the vampire genre, but it's like no vampire movie you've ever seen - it has that unique flair to it that is a speciality of Chan - it's a strange but engrossing hybrid of sex, violence, horror, and humor that can't easily be described or classified. But if you're into vampires and have a tolerance for insane Korean cinema, then Thirst is pretty much a must-see. Is it as good as Oldboy? I wouldn't quite put it in the same category as that breakthrough film. Is it as memorable as last year's entry in the offbeat foreign vampire genre, Let The Right One In? As good as Thirst is, I don't know if it's quite as unique and haunting as 2008's Swedish shocker. But Thirst is something totally different than anything being released into the mainstream this summer, and it is a tour de force of insane vampire love. The obvious comparison to make is with Twilight, but the only real similarity is a focus on romance and a sort of descent to the dark side. But if you must make the comparison, Thirst is basically the crazy Korean cousin of Twilight that's full of brutal violence, explicit sex, grand themes of morality and mortality, and a whacked-out sense of humor that is very much foreign to our typical American sensibilities.

That's not to say that Thirst is some kind of grindhouse exploitation film. While it is explicit in many ways, the sex and violence is not just tossed in for no reason. Instead, it's all tied in to the movie's almost operatic story of a priest, Song, who slowly and unwillfully gives in to the dark side. See, our protagonist here is a pious man of the cloth who is so devout that he actually volunteers himself to be infected with a horrific disease in order to be used as a test subject in the search for a potential cure. What he doesn't plan on is that he is, in fact, miraculously cured, but it's thanks to a blood transfusion that injects him with a shot of old-fashioned vampire blood. So suddenly, our holy man is an undead vampire with a taste for blood and all kinds of other burgeoning desires.

These desires begin to manifest, and what results is our conflicted priest trying with all his might to stick to his morals and not give in to the pull of his new vampiric longings. At first, for example, he tries only to feed on terminally-ill patients, who he is in effect putting out of their misery. But in what turns out to be a kind of Sid and Nancy-style relationship, the priest runs into a girl, Tae-joo, who was a childhood crush, and who now lives a live of indentured servitude with her stepmother and stepbrother, who she has been forced to marry. This odd, somewhat incestuous relationship calls to mind some of the same themes as Oldboy, and here Tae-joo undergoes a similar metamorphasis to Song. Soon enough, the two modest and virginal characters are exploring their every darkest desire, but the question is -- how far will they go? And how much of this is truly the influence of the vampire, and how much is simply a psychological drive to shatter one's own personal set of taboos. As with his other films, Chan sets up a fascinating morality play, and there is a truly intense philisophical subtext at work here. The two main performances are also outstanding - the actor playing Song is great and the actress playing Tae-joo is a true powderkeg.

Visually, the movie is simply stunning. There are scenes here that are so remarkably shot that they will be burned into the very synapses of your brain. There is a grotesque beauty to even the film's most violent and disturbing scenes, and the choreography and cinematography is unmatched. I think that Thirst is really worth seeing for the gorgeous direction alone.

With all this praise, you might be wondering when the other shoe will drop. Well, here's the thing: Thirst is a unique and praise-worthy movie, but it can also be a very uneven one. Part of this could just be chalked up to the style of Chan-wook Park and Korean filmmaking in general - for example the wild shifts from deadly seriousness to slapstick comedy - but, at the same time, the movie just seems to meander a bit at times. The strength of the movie is clearly the Song / Tae-joo relationship, and yet far too much time is spent on oddball subplots like an aging and blind priest who wants Song to turn him into a vampire. Similarly, some of the movie's more comedic elements just start to drag after a while. Take Tae-joo's vegetative mom, who's character arc is like something out of Weekend at Bernies. Finally, I give a ton of credit to Chan for attempting to realize such an ambitious, epic film - but oftentimes the character development just feels jumpy and a bit random. Without spoiling the ending, for example, I ahve to say that to me it felt pretty abrupt given what had just come beforehand. That's not to say it wasn't a striking scene in and of itself, but just that there isn't necessarilly a very organic character arc at play here. All in all, the movie just felt a bit less cohesive and fully-realized than, say, Oldboy.

But man, as a piece of operatic and visual cinema, Thirst is a sight to behold. This is gory, bloody, steamy, and it holds nothing back. It's an uncompromised creative vision, and its vampires done as only a guy like Chan-wook Park could do them. While the movie didn't come together quite as seamlessly as I might as hoped, I still consider this a must see for any real film fans out there.

My Grade: B+