Friday, October 30, 2009
- Good evening, boys and ghouls, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I'm primed and ready for what should be a fright-filled Halloween -- I already kicked off the weekend in style with a trip to see The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D in Hollywood, and tonight I don zombie-hunter gear in preparation for yet another Page-O'-Ween spectacular. But put down the candy for just one more minute, because first, some pop-culture pontifications for your reading pleasure. I've got reviews of this past week's Halloween-themed episodes of The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation, as well as a movie review of the indie-horror, 80's-flashback flick - HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. So keep reading ... if you dare.
- THE OFFICE on Thursday had a fun Halloween haunted-house teaser, but then quickly became a very typical Office episode. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it felt a little bit been-there-done-that, sort of like it was just running on autopilot. We've seen Michael mess up and try to cover it up before, and we've seen Andy pine for someone else in the office before. The twist here is that Michael's embarrassing fall into a Koi Pond was something of a turning point for Jim, who was resentful of Michael for not letting him go to a big business meeting alone. The ongoing thread in this season of The Office has been Jim's newfound responsibilities as co-manager, and his ongoing struggle to take charge while not becoming Michael 2.0 in the process. One of the ep's most hilarious moments was Dwight ruminating on how Jim is his own worst enemy. Since Jim is Dwight's enemy, but also his own worst enemy, and since "the enemy of mine enemy is my friend ..." well, let's just say this paradox was a bit of a brain-teaser for Dwight. Anyways, with everyone in the office laughing at Michael's faux pass, Jim tried to teach Michael how to laugh at yourself in order to make him less of a target. Of course, Michael took this lesson to hilariously disturbing extremes, making fun of himself just a tad too harshly. Meanwhile, Andy goes on cold sales calls paired with Pam, and after everyone thinks they are a couple, Andy reveals his loneliness to Pam and also his developing crush on new office receptionist Erin. The twist here, of course, is that Erin, for some reason, thinks Andy is the coolest person since Marlon Wayans. Like I said, there were some twists, but too many of the scenes - Michael making inappropriate lists in the conference room, for example, felt familiar. So, yeah, this one had a few interesting wrinkles, but all in all seemed to dip into the old well a few too many times to be considered great.
My Grade: B
- But, by the way -- for some amazing OFFICE-related hilarity, check out the "Male Prima Donna" song and music video that spins out from the show's latest batch of webisodes, which center around Kelly's quest to form her own girl-pop group and to record her own music video. The name of she and Erin's duo? Subtle Sexuality. And their song and video? Hilarious, and really, really catchy to boot. You can watch it now on NBC.com, OR, you can download the song, music video, and digital album art on iTunes! I highly suggest you grab it as soon as you can! And yes, this is a cheap plug, as I worked on getting this up on iTunes, and want to see it blow up. But trust me, this one is worth your download.
- 30 ROCK really entertained me this week, even if certain critics (cough*AV Club*cough) seem to have turned against the show in full-force. No, this wasn't an all-time great ep, but man, there were more than enough moments of hilarity for it to be considered a good to very good ep. I mean, look, 30 Rock has always been Simpsons-esque in its humor. It's a show that can excel from great jokes alone, that doesn't need to have the kind of character or emotional moments of a typical sitcom. For me, the "rule of three's" subplot alone was enough to carry the ep. You don't need to analyze it, it was just hilarious. Tracy Morgan cracked me up with every line he said. (His determination to eat "ghost meat" in honor of the death of the "obese guy who PacMan was based on"? Classic.) Judah Friedlander's quest to get invited to a gay Halloween party was similarly hilarious - we need more storylines following the writers and their awesomely geeky adventures. As for the A-plot, well, it was an interesting commentary on how 30 Rock is perceived as kind of a New York-liberal show that can't quite entertain the masses like a Two and a Half Men or whatever. Liz and Jack's trip to small-town Georgia was funny, and also a nice send-up of all the talk you hear about the "real" America vs the elitist parts of the country on either coast. The main problem here to me was that the show dipped its toes into this pond, but didn't quite go far enough. It felt like the writers wanted to make some really cutting comments on the whole liberal elite vs middle America issue, but stopped short. Still, there was more than enough funny for this to be a very enjoyable ep.
My Grade: B+
- PARKS & RECREATION this week had a decently funny episode that was also Halloween themed. This one had Leslie on the hunt for a pesky teen who serially defaces local parks on Halloween. For a while now, people have been hailing Chris Pratt's character as being one of the funniest on the show, but this episode finally showed me just how funny he can be. I loved his impression of an FBI agent, and his "interrogation" of the teen prankster was great. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones threw a Halloween party that started off as pretty lame, but got much more happenin' as soon as Aziz Ansari and hi green-card-getting wife turned up and cranked up the fun-o-meter. The party scenes were a lot of fun, and Aziz was in fine form. Louis CK was once again very funny as Leslie's soft-spoken cop boyfriend as well. After last week's so-so episode, this was another good one from Parks & Rec.
My Grade: B+
- And by the way, I breathed a sigh of relief this week after I finally removed FLASH FORWARD from my DVR. In my last post, I outlined why I was pretty much done with the show, so I didn't really regret the decision. And think about it: with V starting next week and 24, LOST, and CHUCK on the horizon ... who has time to waste on crappy TV?
- Alright ... it's been a good month for horror movies that break the mold and make for some great October thrills. In the last few weeks I've talked about Paranormal Activity, Trick R' Treat ... and now we've got HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. What's really cool is that each of these films think outside the box in terms of production and distribution. The story of Paranormal Activity is well-known by now, but it still bears repeating because Hollywood suits never seem to learn the lessons of movies like this. The lesson here being that you DON'T need huge budgets or big-name actors to make a great mass-market movie. You just need a great premise and talent, some buzz-generating marketing ... and the masses will come. To think that so many execs insisted that Paranormal Activity would only succeed if it was remade with big-name talent - it goes to show how clueless people in Hollywood can be. Personally, I love seeing a movie buck the odds and succeed like this despite so many factors going against it. Even if you didn't think that PA was as scary as some have made it out to be, you've got to admire how it's success is, in many ways, one giant "F.U." to the traditional Hollywood way of doing things. Same goes for TRICK R' TREAT. The studio denied it a bigscreen release, held it back, and then finally put it out to market on home video after a long wait. But the fans rushed out to snatch up DVD's, download it off of XBOX Live or the Playstation Store, etc. Another example of cool content attracting an audience even if it didn't come through the typical Hollywood channels. And now there's HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. The third piece of a horror movie trifecta that has really got me thinking that the times, they are a changin'. The movie was released in select theaters, but also on VOD services and digital download simultaneously. Not only that, but cable viewers who get HD NET could check it out for free on their TV's during special on-air screenings. A well-reviewed, new-release movie debuting right on my TV screen? Sign me up. So what's the scoop on House of the Devil? Keep reading ...
HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Review:
- House of the Devil doesn't just remind you of an 80's horror movie, it IS an 80's horror movie, for all intents and purposes. This one feels like someone reached into a locked vault of cult-classic horror flicks circa 1982 and unearthed some never-before-seen piece of scary cinema. Because, man, writer-director Ti West has done an absolutely amazing job here of making a movie that is totally 80's in all the best ways. It's not just the spot-on hair and clothes and all that. And it's not just the fact that the details are pitch-perfect, from the way the actors talk to the old-school Coke cups at a pizza joint to the vintage Walkmen. It's much more than that. It's the camera angles, the fonts used for the opening credits, the way music is used in the movie, the way its shot and edited. Like I said, House of the Devil is the best 80's horror movie never made.
Ti West is not a name I was really familiar with before this movie, but he's definitely someone to watch out for. For one thing, this movie feels like a pretty singular vision - West wrote it, directed it, and his personal sensibilities and fetishes are all over this one. But also, West just displays a lot of cajones in making a movie like this that is so different than most of the horror flicks out there now. As I said, it is 100% an 80's throwback, stylistically. Pacing-wise, this one is a slooow burn. Most of the movie is all about creepy atmosphere and creating a sense of impending terror and dread. I love, for example, that the movie opens with a simple title card explaining the national fear and prevalance of Satanic cults in the early 1980's. For the next hour, we don't need anything else spelled out for us, because in the back of our minds we know that there's something really, really sinister going on between the lines of what we're actually seeing on-screen.
What we're seeing is a fairly typical story -- Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a cash-strapped college student in 1982, who is nonetheless determined to move into her own apartment in order to get away from her awful roommate. Sam finds a great new place, but needs some extra money to pay the rent - so she answers an ad for a babysitter. Quickly enough, we realize that the strange man who posted the ad is possibly hiding some sinister secret. And even more quickly, we realize that this isn't going to be a typical babysitting gig for poor Samantha. To say much more would be spoiling things ... but like I said, that ominous opening title card about Satanic cults is never far from your thoughts while watching things play out.
Again, West paces things nice and slow, methodically drawing us into this creepy story. Like Paranormal Activity, a thick atmosphere of discomfort is created, so for a while, every little bump in the night or creak of a door gets to you. But unlike PA, this one is very stylized, and you see a lot of homages to classic horror movie moments (and classic 80's-movies moments - yes there is even a freeze-frame!). It helps that the actors are totally up for the challenge of essentially recreating a vintage 70's / early-80's-style horror movie. Donahue is sort of the classic 80's girl-next-door tomboy type - tough, quiet, a bit sullen, but prone to random bouts of rockin' out to her Walkman whilst listening to The Fixx. Anyone who's OD'd on old-school movies will immediately get the kind of character that Sam pays homage to. Meanwhile, there is a really creepy turn from Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman, the dapper yet disturbing gentleman who's hired Sam to watch over his rustic old house in the middle of the boonies, so that he and his equally creepy wife can enjoy a mysteriously ambiguous "night out," that happens to coincide with a rare lunar eclipse.
For some, the ultra-slow-burn of the first two-thirds of the movie might be too much to sit through. But sitting at home watching this one, I found myself getting pretty wrapped up in the movie, just admiring all the creepiness and cool vintage details. And of course, the total shock-and-awe craziness of the last third of the movie was, to me, all the more effective after so much build-up. And when I say effective, what I mean is that for a good 20 minutes or so -- well, holy freaking crap, the $@#& hits the fan! That said, this isn't a movie where a lot happens - but it is a really cool genre excercise that's well-worth watching. It's a great movie to sit back and watch with the lights out. And it's a great movie to watch if you're feeling nostalgic for 1982 (clearly a good year ... I was born!). Go in at your own risk, but I'd say it's worth it to enter the House of the Devil.
My Grade: B+
- Are those werewolves I hear howling in the distance? Is that witches' brew I smell bubbling? Is that the thump ... thump ... thump of zombies lumbering towards my humble abode? Alright, ghosts and ghouls, it's time to don my anti-zombie gear and see what tricks or treats this Halloween has in store.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
- So I went against my better judgement and watched the latest episode of FLASH FORWARD. A bunch of people told me this was one of the better episodes so far, so I gave in and gave the series one more chance. So, I'm not sure what some of my friends were smoking, but man, to me this was another clunker of an episode. And for me, probably the final nail in the coffin of my time as a Flash Forward fan and viewer. It's a shame - rarely have I so enjoyed a pilot episode only to be let down by subsequent installments of a series. So rather than just talk about this latest episode, let me simply count the ways in which Flash Forward needs some serious help:
a.) More Plot, Less Character: right now, we have gotten about two minutes' worth of actual plot over the course of several episodes. Flash Forward needs to bust its own myth-arc wide open, as soon as possible. Because right now they have given curious viewers next to nothing to hang on to. Now, typically, you want a show to emphasize character over all else - particularly a high concept or sci-fi show. You need great characters in order to ground the show and keep people invested in the storylines. This is what has kept Lost so creatively viable, and what enabled that show's long-running flashback structure to work over multiple seasons. But here's the thing - Flash Forward is structured such that we have to revisit the SAME character flashes in EVERY episode. This grew tiresome VERY quickly, and now each new episode hits us over the head with the same character bits again and again. So stop blatantly referencing them so much! Trust the viewer to remember what happened in each character's flash, and keep the allusions to them subtle. Do the occasional standalone episode that introduces a new character and examines their flash-forward. But the constant references to plot points that resurface in EVERY episode are totally off-putting. It's why the show needs to get the ball rolling in terms of the bigger-picture plot.
b.) More Forward Momentum: On that note, what is with this show introducing random cliffhangers or reveals and then not following up on them? You introduce Dominic Monahagan as a major antagonist at the end of one ep and then don't even reference him in the next? What?! This ties into a bigger problem with the show -- way too much focus on the mundane aspects of people's lives. Sure, you need those smaller moments to balance out the big stuff. But right now, the whole show is centered around all these little human-drama plotlines - the wife maybe sleeping with another guy, the main character going back to drinking, the FBI agent starting to date a new woman, etc. This was a huge mistake from the pilot that quickly began to aversely affect the tone of the show. The main throughline should be a focus on the how's and why's of the flash-forwards - all that other stuff should be relegated to the periphery. In the world of the show, a huge, world-shattering event just took place that seems to be part of some mysterious agenda. How does that ultra-intriguing concept take a back seat to will-she-or-won't-she fidelity storylines?
c.) Be Smarter: Right now, this show is not operating on a level of high-intelligence. Every character conflict, every plot point, everything, feels dumbed down and hamfisted. I mean, for a show where all this crazy stuff is happening, there are so many cliched "how dare you buck authority and go off on your own investigation?!" type moments. And why not play up the sci-fi aspect a little bit? There's a TON of interesting hypothetical questions intrinsic to the show's premise. First and foremost - why doesn't anyone deliberately try to do something contrary to someone's flash-forward? What would happen if they tried? I thought that the show had a great opportunity to shake things up this past week when, for a second, it looked like a major character had been killed off. But that didn't happen, and that's a bummer. Because so far, everything has happened exactly as predestined in the flashes. Where's the fun in that? Which leads me to ...
d.) Have More Fun: For a show with such a far-out premise, the episode to episode plotlines here are so ... pedestrian. You might as well be watching any other show on TV. I mean, essentially, this is a show about TIME TRAVEL. Have fun with that! I mean, sure, maybe most people have visions about their wives or children or workplace. But what if one guy's vision is of a nuke about to be launched? What if everyone had a second vision that was contrary to the first? What if the flashes were a result of some space-time rift that is just phase one of some giant cosmic catastrophe? Just tossing stuff out here, but geez, there is so much potential in the premise - do something with it. Look at FRINGE and all the awesomeness that that show has culled from its premise of alternate universes. Unlike FF, Fringe has seriously explored the ramifications of this. And Fringe also has great characters that fit its universe. Flash Forward has no eccentrics, no scientists, no geniuses, no badasses. There's no equivalent of a Jack Bauer or Fox Mulder or Walter Bishop or John Locke or Sawyer. It makes the show feel so ... bland. I said earlier that the show should actually focus less on character. That's true, but the fact is that if you have a great character from the get-go, you don't need to spend every episode hitting us over the head with additional characterization. Right now, every character on this show is basically pretty bland. Where's the great hero, the great villain?
So those are some of my suggestions for Flash Forward. Of course, some of these problems are fundamental to the show's structure and cast of characters. To which I say: shake things up. We've already seen that ABC has canned the showrunner and brought in some new creative talent, so who knows, maybe there will be shakeup and things will improve. But I don't have time to watch twelve episodes of a mediocre show to see if it eventually gets better, and neither do you. So sorry, FF, I'm out.
- And now, the long-awaited movie review of Spike Jones' latest:
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Review:
- For the first fifteen minutes or so of Where the Wild Things Are, I was right there with the critics and fans who have hailed this one as a work of genius. I was completely taken aback by the sheer artistry and power of the images I was seeing. The raw emotion, the somber sense of nostalgia, the way in which every movement of the camera seemed to capture something about the truth of childhood. As many have said, this really seemed like a movie that made you remember the feeling of being a kid. Not just one that evoked familiar characters or themes from childhood ... but one that really, truly made you remember the way your mind worked at age nine or ten. For ten or fifteen minutes, I was sold. I was captivated. But as the movie's initial burst of novel energy disappeared, what started as a strange and unpredictable ride soon wore down to a slow and plodding grind. The sense of wonder gave way to pure melancholy. The power of the imagery gave way to endless talking and brooding and more talking still. The themes that were subtly touched on in the opening were hamfistedly bashed into the audiences brain over and over again as the movie trudged on. At first, I thought I was watching a groundbreaking contemplation on childhood escapism. In the end, I felt like I had just endured Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers' personal therapy session.
Even after that somewhat critical intro, I think that this is one of the hardest movies to write about so far in 2009. The thing is, I think there's no question that there is some element of brilliance at the heart of this movie. The talent and visual artistry on display, and the sheer level of originality, can't be questioned. The question then is: did it work for you? To me, beyond the stunning visuals, the movie, I think, was ultimately somewhat off-putting. It was very, very "emo." But not in a subtle way ... scene after scene consisted of characters who were just ... sad. There's so much brooding, so much bellyaching, so many pseudo-philisophical discussions about loneliness and anger and hurting others ... after a while, you can't help but groan. What I loved about the movie's opening is that we meet Max, our boy hero, and we see him playing in his house, playing in the snow, running around and rough-housing, acting out against his sister and mother and her new boyfriend -- you simply watch these brilliantly-shot, kinetic scenes of childhood and you understand what Jonze is going for. The power of the images on screen are enough to carry the movie - only minimal explanation or dialogue is needed. The same can be said for the initial transition to the land of the Wild Things. We feel Max's need for escape, and we get caught up in the sense of mystery and wonder and adventure.
But once Max starts interacting with the monsters, he and the wild things don't stop blabbering. Or blubbering, as it were. From Scene 1 with the monsters, we have to hear them espouse on their every existential crisis in near-excruciating detail. "She used to be my friend, but now she doesn't like me anymore." "Why aren't things like they used to be?" "Why did this innocent-seeming game of war lead to hurt feelings and injury?" It's like we are hit over the head with every childhood hang-up imaginable, in the most blatant and drawn-out way possible.
The end effect of this is that, despite the amazing visuals of the wild things and their faraway land, I was ecstatic when Max eventually sets sail for the real world. At least there, the great Catherine Keener is around to keep the movie's feet on the ground. Keener does a great job in her role as Max's worn-out mother. For that matter, kid-actor Max Records is great as Max. Whatever other problems I had with the movie, Records is actually pretty amazing here. He pulls off the emotion and pathos that the role calls for with remarkable ease. And while I'm praising the cast, I also have a lot of appreciation for the job that was done with the monsters. Sure, their relationship issues and "woe-is-me" brooding grew pretty tiresome very quickly, but still ... it's also kind of remarkable how well actors like James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, and Catherine O'Hara pull this thing off. If nothing else, the voice-cast really does bring these characters to life and makes them empathetic.
And a lot of that has to do with the amazing visuals as well. The craft and detail on the monsters is incredible. The amount of personality that the costumes and CGI-augmented faces possess is unprecedented. And the juxtaposition of these otherworldy, storybook monsters with the sweeping vistas, expansive deserts, and golden fields of their faraway land is often breathtaking. Jonez does an amazing job with the camera. The angles, the cinematography, all evoke this sweeping sense of awe and wonder. This movie looks stunning.
When I was caught up in the visuals and the atmosphere, I was into it. But a lot of the time, I just felt like I was on this plodding, aimless journey with no point to it. The movie felt needlessly somber and way too heavy-handed to me. Like I said, that opening did a great job of capturing the spirit of childhood. But soon enough, it felt like a bunch of sad, grown men putting their personal neuroses from childhood on full display for all to see. I couldn't help but get bored, restless, and frustrated with the movie. And yet ... I think it's worth seeing. It is a personal vision, and it is unique, and it does possess some amazing, memorable visuals that are not quite like anything you've seen. But ultimately, did the movie work for me as it was meant to? Not really. I'd call this an ambitious but problematic miss.
My Grade: B-
- Alright, check back soon for more!
Monday, October 26, 2009
TRICK R' TREAT! A Halloween Movie Marathon Recap, Plus: TRICK R' TREAT - Reviewed! And: Smallville and Glee Thoughts!
- SMALLVILLE had a somewhat weak episode this past Friday, with the focus being on Oliver Queen and his current "identity crisis" of sorts. In the past few weeks, we've seen Oliver quit his life as the Green Arrow in favor of a hard-drinkin', hard-travelin' lifestyle involving lots of self-pity and brooding. As if all of Clark's self-doubt at the beginning of the season wasn't enough ... But really, it wasn't so much the premise of this episode that was bad, just the execution. I was actually excited to see Oliver and Clark tangle with Roulette, a cool villain from the comics created a few years ago by Geoff Johns in the pages of JSA. Her gimmick has long been a scheme in which she runs an underground gambling ring of sorts frequented by super-villain types, with the main attraction being hero-on-hero battles in which the good guys are forced to fight each other, or else suffer some horrible punishment cooked up by Roulette. So, did any of that coolness translate from page to screen? Um, no. Sure, they nailed Roulette's look, but that was about it. Instead of cool underground hero-fights, we got a rip off of the movie The Game, in which Ollie is put through a bunch of "are-they-real-or-just-part-of-the-game?"-style challenges. But the whole thing just felt plodding. Even worse was the peripheral stuff going on. Lois has been getting more and more annoying every episode this season, and this one did her no favors. So, "every year" she and Oliver play beer pong on his birthday? Like in all two of the years he's been on the show? And again, the Lois-Clark dynamic is getting sickeningly cheesy. They were so much better when they were written as having the traditional Lois/Clark friendly rivalry thing going, as opposed to now where they just stare into each other's eyes for half of every episode. Anyways, this season of Smallville has been kind of schizo so far, weighted more towards the side of fail. This episode was not a step in the right direction.
My Grade: C
- I hinted last week that I've been getting back into GLEE. And it's true. A couple of weeks ago I felt almost ready to drop the show, but ever since Kristen Chenoweth's guest appearance I think that it's been on a roll. Wednesday's episode was another good one, and like I was saying last week, I think the show has done a great job of shifting its focus a bit, to the point where the character dynamics now make a lot more sense than they did before. Teri is now something of a villain. Quinn is 1000 times more interesting than she was originally. Sue Sylvester is like the female Chuck Norris, increasingly hilarious in every episode. I loved the recurring theme of getting hit in the face with a Slushie in last week's ep. It takes skills to craft a whole episode around such a random thing, but somehow, Glee did it. And the fact that they pulled off that feat made me realize that this show has more win than I initially gave it credit for. I'm in for the longhaul, at least for now.
My Grade: A-
- I have Thursday's FLASH FORWARD on my DVR, but haven't watched yet, and not sure if I will. Thoughts?
- Alright, as promised, here's a review of the recently-released horror flick, TRICK R' TREAT.
TRICK R' TREAT Review:
- Trick R' Treat is a great Halloween movie, no question. I watched this one as part of my annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, and I think it's safe to say that it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. With a fun cast, a cool structure, and some very fun surprises, Trick R' Treat will likely be a staple of Halloween movie-viewing for a long time to come.
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, and exec-produced by Bryan Singer, Trick R' Treat marks a reunion of sorts for the team behind the original X-Men movies (it also features X-Men alumni Anna Paquin and Brian Cox). But what makes the movie stand out to me is that, stylistically, this is very much in the vein of EC Comics, Tales From the Crypt, Creepshow, etc. - that is, it's a horror anthology that focuses on darkly comedic morality plays, most of which have some sort of ironic twist at the end. I love that stuff, and the movie pays obvious tribute to its various inspirations with animated opening and closing sequences presented in a comic book style.
The big twist here is that, yes, this is an anthology, but at the same time, there are no hard breaks between the various storylines. Instead, we cut back and forth between them, at times stopping to focus on a particular set of characters. Meanwhile, the various stories intersect and crossover in often unexpected ways. In fact, things really start to get interesting when they do.
The various stories each focus on the mythology and experience of Halloween from a different perspective. First, we've got a group of kids out trick-or-treating - they seem like a nice enough bunch, but soon we find out that their Halloween plans include a rather sinister prank. Next, we've got a group of teens out on the prowl for a happening Halloween party. They seem like your typical horror movie victims-in-waiting, but again, all is not as it seems. Then there's a creepy middle-aged school principal, played by Spiderman's Dylan Baker. For him, Halloween is a chance to let it all hang out, so to speak. And finally, there's a curmudgeonly guy who is basically the Halloween equivalent of Scrooge. Given his hatred of Halloween, it's only a matter of time before this bitter soul, played by Brian Cox, runs afoul of Sam, the movie's mascot of sorts. Because throughout the movie, "Sam," lurks in the shadows. Charged with preserving the spirit of Halloween, like a creepy version of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, Sam is a little guy who looks like a cross between Jack Pumpkinhead and The Scarecrow. And despite his miniscule size, the guy packs a punch.
Trick R' Treat takes a while to really get into its groove, but about midway through the movie, things really pick up, as the various twists start popping up. In fact, there is one incredible sequence involving Anna Paquin and her teenaged friends that absolutely blows the doors down. Before that sequence, I was thinking the movie was only okay. But after that, I had to admit, this was getting good.
The movie is a nice combo of lots of various Halloween tropes. And it looks great too, thanks to some inspired direction from Daugherty. The movie is overflowing with Halloween atmosphere - glowing jack o' lanterns, creepy music, and that aforementioned sense of dark, ironic humor. And the script, while not overflowing with memorable dialogue or anything, nonetheless captures that spooky, sitting-around-the-campfire vibe. And the way the various stories criss-cross is also handled very cleverly.
All in all, this one definitely can be considered a Halloween treat. It's a shame it didn't get the theatrical release it deserved. But hey, I digitally rented it in HD via XBOX - a Halloween Horror Movie Marathon first. I certainly got some bang for my buck. And some of my friends were even reported to have walked back to their cars after the party on the lookout for diminuitive pumpkin-men with murderous intent. A sign of a horror movie that's done its job.
My Grade: B+
- Okay, that's all for now ... next: a review of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Gettin' My Freak On: CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT - Plus: THE OFFICE, MODERN FAMILY, and Jew-Night at the Laugh Factory!
- Otherwise, I've been trying to get into the Halloween spirit. Last weekend was our annual trip to Knott's, and this weekend marks another Danny Baram yearly special -- the Halloween Horror Movie Marathon. More on that next week, but yeah, hyped to finally see cult classic vampire flick Near Dark, and also psyched to see potentially new-classic Trick r' Treat.
- As far as movies go, I've still got to see WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and also BLACK DYNAMITE Also, I kind of want to see ASTRO BOY. It looks like an interesting mix of anime and American animation sensibilities, and it features the voice of Kristen Bell in one of the lead roles. Plus, who doesn't love stories about cyborg superheroes? Dammit, now I really want to see a crazy CGI Mega Man movie!
Also, last night I managed to catch a free screening of CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT. I saw a couple of reviews favorably comparing the movie to the likes of The Goonies, Monster Squad, and Sky High. Is it really in the same league as those other revered classics in the kids comedy/adventure genre? Scroll down for the answer. But first ...
- MODERN FAMILY continues to absolutely kill. Wedneday's episode was another awesome installment, filled with great character moments, hilarious jokes, and some very inspired writing and acting. I loved the interaction between Phil and Gloria, and the ongoing idea that Phil has a huge crush on his new stepmother. Ty Burell was so hilarious in this one - at times, I've worried that his character is a bit too much, a bit too cartoonish. But at the end of the day, Phil just gets a lot of the best lines and moments, and Burell's delivery is awesome. I mean, the entire scene of Phil in Gloria's bedroom, covered in her underwear ... oh man, classic. I also love that the show continues to give us new layers to its characters each week. This week we find out that Cam is a former football player and a huge fan ("surprise!"), and that Claire has a lot of pent-up resentment towards Gloria (she's a "coal-digger"). My only complaint with this one was that the ending was a little too sweet and saccharine. Especially after last week's brilliantly subversive ending, this one was a little too feel-good. Still, Modern Family is rocking.
My Grade: A-
- Last night's episode of THE OFFICE was dark, dark, dark, but very funny at times. The whole plotline of Michael having taken Pam's mom as his "lover" is just #$%#'ed up beyond comprehension, and Pam's reaction of horror mixed with anger and revulsion was pretty understandable despite the extremes to which she took things. Jenna Fischer did a great job in this one. But the episode worked so well because there were a ton of funny character bits surrounding the main, cringe-inducing A-story. From Creed crying to Dwight scheming to Ryan's fedora of mysterious origin, there was a ton of funny stuff going on in the periphery. But man, this episode went to some very messed-up places. I give credit to the writers that they somehow managed to pull together a semi-sweet ending out of this one, with Jim doing his best to console Pam - reminding her of the good times they had together on their honeymoon, as opposed to her current living-nightmare that her mom is gettin' busy with her psycho-creepy boss. One thing's for sure - the Office still = must see TV.
My Grade: A-
- After last night's episode, I think that reports of 30 ROCK's demise may have been greatly exaggerated. I saw that The AV Club gave this one a somewhat harsh grade, but on this occasion, I'm not sure what they were smoking. This was a great episode of 30 Rock. I mean, Will Arnett was back, for one thing, and that means awesomeness. Arnett was in fine form as Jack's corporate rival, and the scenes between them were friggin' hilarious (their argument about hot vs. cold pizza was amazing). Meanwhile, Tracy Morgan got in some of his best lines in a long while. I was dying during one of his exchanges with Liz Lemon where he randomly began speaking only with two-dollar words. The two subplots that didn't quite work as well in this one were those revolving around Jenna (she went to Iceland to film a B-grade werewolf movie, playing a "moonologist"), and Kenneth (turns out he's part of a group called Big Brother, that secretly keeps watch on people in case they do bad things). There was almost too much going on in this one, but the hilarity of the main storylines more than made up for the shortcomings. And we even saw a glimpse of a 30 Rock porn! Good lord.
My Grade: A-
- I thought PARKS & RECREATION faltered a bit last night. Here's the thing: the main ongoing plotline about Leslie trying to fill the pit ... is boring. So too is Rashida Jones' relationship with Chris Pratt. These are the very same plot points that turned me off from the pilot, and so it was a bit of a letdown to see them pop up again here. What's worked the last few eps has been an increased focus on the supporting characters (Aziz, the intern, etc.), and the introduction of Louis CK as a cop with a crush on Leslie. This ep felt like a Season 1 ep - it didn't have the punch or the sharpness of the last few weeks.
My Grade: B-
- I'm still in catch-up mode on GLEE. I will say this - I had been considering dropping the show, but the last few weeks' worth of eps have definitely sucked me back in. I feel like the character dynamics have really gotten interesting of late. One brilliant move was making Will's wife Terri into the defacto villain of the show. Now that they've given up on trying to make her overly sympathetic, it's a lot more fun to just sit back and hate her. Another smart play was upping the screentime for Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester. Lynch is plain and simply one of THE funniest people on TV right now, if not THE funniest. Glee needs here as a constant presence, and luckily she's become much more prominent. The more of her awesomely kickass line deliveries and female badassery that we get per episode, the better. Glee is still sort of all over the place in terms of plot and tone, but in the end, great characters always win out.
- Alright, enough TV for now ... it's time to get spooky, bloody, and decidedly undead, as in the spirit of the Halloween season, I present:
CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT Review:
- This movie reminds me of one those flicks that, as a kid, I absolutely HAD to see for some random reason, only to be disappointed and embarassed that I had gotten so worked up about it in the first place. Let's face it, when you're an 11 year old boy, you want to see any movie that features monsters, vampires, aliens, or Hulk Hogan. And that means that you get a mix of the good and the bad. For every kickass action or sci-fi movie you see that ends up becoming a treasured childhood classic, there's a "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" or a "Mr. Nanny." (both, incidentally, childhood picks of my brother's, not mine!). But The Vampire's Assistant is one of those movies that is a little bit weird, a little bit dangerous, and promises a kid-friendly but complex story of vampires, circus freaks, cool action, and classic good vs. evil undead shenanigans. If I was currently ten, I'd be chomping at the bit to see it. But even a ten year old boy will probably come out of this one sensing that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The fact is, this movie is pretty much a mess. There are moments of coolness, but those moments are overwhelmed by some cringe-worthy acting, flat direction and f/x, and a crappy script. A modern-day Monster Squad this certainly is not.
It's funny too, because for the first couple of minutes of Cirque du Freak I was all smiles. There's a cool, mood-setting animated opening credits sequence that establishes a fun and creepy vibe. But within minutes, things take a turn for the sucktacular. It starts when we meet our two main teen characters, Darren and Steve. They basically follow the Clark Kent / Lex Luthor model from Smallville - they start out as inseperable best friends, but as we have hammered down our throats for much of the movie, they are destined to be mortal enemies, locked in an eternal battle of good vs. evil. Sounds epic, right? Too bad that a.) both of these two turn in performances that wouldn't cut it on the Disney Channel, and b.) the whole thing plays out due to the goofiest circumstances imaginable.
I mean, the whole movie is so rushed and matter-of-fact. "Oh, a forbidden and dangerous freakshow - let's attend!" "Okay, cool, wow, that one guy is clearly a vampire!" "Cool, let's become vampires, that would be awesome!" "Wait, YOU got to be a vampire? I wanted to be a vampire! Now I'll hook up with a band of way evil vampires and we can become mortal enemies!"
There's never any real sense of wonder or mystery. Steve recognizes that John C' Reilly's character is a vampire because he's obsessed with vampires and saw his picture in his book about vampires. And he's totally nonplussed about the whole thing. Later on, Darren (who for some reason is obssessed with spiders), decides he wants to be a half-vampire, because, um ... just because. So he forsakes his entire life on a whim. Again, the script here is pretty terrible. Characters just do whatever so the plot can move from Point A to Point B. And the whole thing feels like some half-baked story that I might have come up with in fourth grade. There's lots of lofty talk about a coming war between vampire clans and the big bad villain Mr. Tiny. But we never learn what's up with Mr. Tiny, and we never get to the war, or find out why Darren is so important to the grand scheme of things. In fact, the entire movie feels like one big cluster, because on top of the bad dialogue and poorly-drawn characters, the whole thing was written as if this were merely Part 1 of some huge 10 part saga or something. This is fine in books or comics or whatever, but ... what the hell?! Audience know that this isn't like Harry Potter where a complete series adaptation was planned from the outset. So now we're left with a movie that has about a million plot holes and unanswered questiosn and ends on a cliffhanger to boot, with only a slim shot of ever getting a sequel. That's no way to craft a movie like this. It's The Golden Compass all over again.
Again, the two main teen actors are pretty iffy. Say what you will, but man, give credit to impeccably-cast franchises like Harry Potter. Even Twilight, for all its faults, has an amazing lead in Kristen Stewart. The weird thing is that the supporting cast is made up of a completely talented group of actors. But they almost all seem either miscast, or else are barely used at all. I mean, the members of Cirque Du Freak alone ... you've got Ken Watanabe, Selma Hayek, Jane Krakowski from 30 Rock, Kristen Schaal from Flight of the Conchords ... I mean, wow. But each appears only briefly, and there's barely a memorable line or moment for any of them. Watanabe is kind of cool as the enigmatic ringleader Mr. Tall, but that's about it.
As for John C. Reilly, I mean, I'm a huge fan. I think he's absolutely hilarious in movies like Walk Hard and Step Brothers. But this movie barely takes advantage of his comic timing. There are a few moments where he gets to be funny, but otherwise, he's playing a sort of grizzled and wise mentor character. Which makes you wonder ... why was Reilly cast in this role, one that seems like it would be far better suited for some wryly humorous British thespian type? Hell, freaking Willem Dafoe is in this movie for all of five minutes - he could have played Reilly's character, Crepsley, and maybe done a bang-up job.
There are a few standouts here. You've got to love the larger-than-life Michael Cerveris as the mysterious and evil Mr. Tiny. He chews up scenery with creepy foreboding. Only problem is, like I said, this movie gives us almost no indication who Mr. Tiny is or what his deal is or how he has his magical powers. Ugh. I also liked Jessica Carlson as Darren's love interest / closet sideshow freak. Too bad there's zero chemistry between her and the ultra-bland Chris Massoglia who plays him.
It's frustrating because I got the sense that somewhere buried beneath the movie's flat script is actually a pretty cool mythology. I'd be curious to take a look at the books and see how things compare. The Vampire's Assistant does have moments where I actually became intrigued at some of the ideas it was setting up - rival vampire factions, strange races of trolls and goblins, a book that foretells a vampire apocalypse. Maybe in the books these turn out to be cool ideas once they are more fully explored. But in the movie, the various plot points never come together to form any kind of cohesive whole. It makes the movie feel like an overstuffed but undercooked mess. Making matters worse, the direction from Chris Weitz never really pops. Very few moments recapture the atmosphere of the animated intro. You can only imagine that Tim Burton would take one look at this one and demand a complete stylistic redo. Meanwhile, the f/x work barely holds up to a typical episode of Smallville.
I know that this is one of those movies that you want to root for. I know I did. It feels like one of those underdog, semi-throwback movies that, again, hits all the right buttons to set off your inner ten-year-old boy. But this isn't the next Sky High, and I guess if you really want your Halloween freakshow fix, you'd be better off just watching the classic X-Files episode "Humbug." I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you won't be missing much by skipping out on Cirque Du Freak.
My Grade: C-
- Alright, just about time for the weekend to commence. Keep it spooky.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Return to the SCARY FARM! Plus: TREEHOUSE OF HORROR, Smallville, Flash Forward, and: I go to BOUND FOR GLORY!
Despite a long night of traversing the park, there was no rest for the weary. The next day, me and the G-Man reconvened, along with my brother, and drove down to the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine for TNA Wrestling's BOUND FOR GLORY pay-per-view event. Yes, we are nerds. And we were surrounded by fellow nerds - since TNA is a smaller federation, they tend to attract a more hardcore fanbase. So the relatively small arena was packed with intense fans eager to boo, cheer, and scream out chants like "This is awesome!" or "You %#$&'d up!". TNA is a smaller fed, but they have a TV show on Spike TV, and they have a number of big name talents like Sting, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, Booker T, Kevin Nash, and Scott Steiner - along with some great up and comers like Samoa Joe and AJ Styles. So being live at one of their biggest events was a lot of fun - it had the crazy atmosphere and rabid fans that you might have found at an old-school ECW event. That said, the show probably didn't come off as well on TV as it did live, as there were a number of botched spots and some iffy booking. But there were enough good matches and crazy moves to keep the live fans entertained, and we all had a lot of fun yelling and screaming for our favorites. We saw an insane "Ultimate X" match, in which a title belt is suspended from criss-crossed high-wires, a great tag team "full metal mayhem" match featuring Team 3-D, a very solid Kurt Angle vs. Matt Morgan bout, a bloody hardcore match pitting Mick Foley vs. Abyss, and a main-event title match with the legendary Sting vying for champion AJ Style's heavyweight gold. Yes, we were indeed "reeeeeeady to ruuuumble."
- Let me start off by reviewing a Halloween tradition, THE SIMPSONS' twentieth annual TREEHOUSE OF HORROR special. That's incredible - for twenty years, since I was seven years old, every year I've looked forward to The Simpson's Halloween episode, and through the good times and the bad, I've learned to appreciate this little slice of awesomeness as not just a yearly special, but as a genuine by-God American tradition. Now, regular readers of the blog know that I have not thought very highly of the last, well, several editions of Treehouse. In fact, last year's entry was particularly dreadful, and not in a good way - which was particularly disappointing given that last season as a whole was a pretty decent one for The Simpsons. So far this year, the show has been a mixed bag, but the good thing is that there seems to be an overall back-to-basics approach going on. Episodes have been tighter and more focused. Plots have a beginning, middle, and end, and are less random than they've been in the last few years. Even if the humor hasn't always been up to the level of the glory days, there is a decidedly old-school feel to recent episodes. And I'm happy to report that this year's THOH had a similar approach. None of the random non-horror movie parodies of recent years (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, anyone?). Overall, this year's ep was a great change of pace from the disappointing Halloween eps we've now grown used to. Everything was thematically-appropriate. There was some hilarious humor. There were some great homages and cool visual tributes. Finally, a Halloween episode that didn't suck!
I loved the first two segments of the show. First off, the monster-themed intro was a fun little opener, spotlighting the classic Universal monsters out for some trick r' treating, and realizing that their "costumes" were decidedly old-school. Funny stuff. But I really enjoyed the first real segment - a "Dial M For Murder" parody - that was both visually inventive and pretty sharply written (no pun intended). Bart and Lisa's plot to make a secret pact to murder each other's teacher's was gruesome fun, and there were some classic lines from the likes of Principal Skinner and Groundskeeper Willy, among others. I also laughed a lot at the second segment, a 28 Days Later-inspired riff on zombies. The Simpsons has done zombies before (in maybe my all-time favorite Treehouse segment), but this was a different spin on the genre and had a ton of hilarious moments. This one was easily the best segment of the night - packed with laughs and great dialogue. The final segment was interesting. I give it points for trying something different - the visual motif of framing the segment as a stage play being performed by the Simpsons characters was pretty cool. But the story - a musical about Moe enhancing his bar's beer with drops of human (specifically, Homer's) blood - was a bit hit and miss. And really, really weird (Homer's song about turning gay was hilariously strange). While there was some fun stuff in this one and a couple of so out-there-they're-funny jokes, this one didn't have the tightness or quality of humor as the first two segments.
So overall, as a wiseman (or Meatloaf) once said, two out of three ain't bad. This was definitely the best Treehouse of Horror, all in all, in a long while. Tons of hilarious bits - I loved this line, for example:: Principal Skinner: "Lisa Simpson in detention? My horoscope told me I'd see something interesting today, but I thought that'd be the horoscope itself." All that, and the episode, for once, actually aired in October, prior to Halloween. Sweet!
My Grade: A-
(Opener: B, Segment 1: B+, Segment 2: A, Segment 3: B-)
- SMALLVILLE followed last week's fun zombie-themed ep with a much more run-of-the mill outing this Friday. They brought back a semi-cool villain in The Toyman, but didn't really focus on him. Instead, they introduced an out-of-nowhere plotline in which Clark is suddenly given the ability to selectively read minds, which led to all sorts of cheesiness involving Clark getting a glimpse of Lois' inner-thoughts. Like I said last week, WTF? A while back, the Clark-Lois dynamic was one of the best things about the show. Now it has very quickly become very annoying by introducing all kinds of lame mushiness. Didn't they learn anything from how awful Lana Lang became? They need to seriously tone down the Clark-Lois stuff. Also, I'm pretty sick of Tess Mercer. I really don't think she has any set character traits at this point - she's simply good or evil depending on what a given week's script calls for. So really, the ending with her recruiting the captured Toyman to her cause fell pretty flat - this week, she's evil, next week, she's helping Oliver out of a jam. Ugggh, make it stop. Speaking of Oliver Queen, the scenes with he and Clark were probably the highlights of the ep. Oliver is the one character who they haven't semi-ruined yet, and I liked the continued exploration of he and Clark's evolving relationship. All in all though, this was not Smallville's finest hour.
My Grade: C+
- Here's the thing though - as easy as it is sometimes to rag on Smallville, there is a certain spark to the show that keeps me coming back even when things are bad. I don't know if the same can be said for FLASH FORWARD. This past week's episode was so bland, boring, clunky, and mind-numbingly uneventful that I think this may be it for me. I mean, look, the show is very competent in certain areas. The cast is comprised of very talented actors, no doubt. But I don't think a single character has really popped yet. I don't give a crap about any of them, really. There's no hero to really root for, no villains you love to hate. Even the show's most intriguing element, the mystery of who or what was responsible for the flash-forwards, has been dragged out so long, and in such meandering fashion, that it's hard to really care anymore. All the hints we've been given are right out of the usual sci-fi book of cliches. Wow, a mysterious organization with nefarious intent might be behind the whole thing? Well slap me sideways and call me uncle. It didn't help matters that the interrogation scenes - in which the mysterious femme fatale from Ambiguous Evil Organization X was questioned about her knowledge of the flashes - were hamfistedly scripted and ultra-clunky. The writing in general on this show has been so frustrating. I mean, the biggest and craziest event in human history just happened, and we get scene after scene where the gruff FBI director dude questions his agents' every move as being too out-there? Spare me. Okay, so now is the point where apologists will point to a show like Lost, and say that Lost had a very ambiguous set of mysteries when it debuted, but what made the show work was the characters and their backstories. Well, here's the thing. Lost's character-based flashbacks worked so well because each flash revealed NEW information that further fleshed-out that character. In Flash Forward, each character has now been inextricably tied to a single, short flash. And we've had to see that same flash-forward footage about 10,000 times now. How many times do we need to see Olivia walking down her staircase and saying hello to the guy from Swingtown, implying that she's left her husband for him? Enough already! Every ep of FF so far feels like its just recycling the pilot. It was a damn good pilot, yes. But it's time to move on. Forward momentum! Does anyone honestly care about any of the slow-moving plot-points on this show after four episodes? D. Gibbons? The crows? The long-dead daughter who may still be alive? I don't think I do. One thing I will say in the show's favor -- Thursday's ep had a couple of really well-shot scenes. A great opening montage revisiting the chaos caused during the flash-forwards. An exciting on-foot chase scene. But these were all incidental scenes that did nothing to move the plot forward. Like many, I'm still waiting for a single jaw-dropping, holy-%#$@ moment. Or for a "Walkabout"-like episode that wows me from start to finish. If you have to wait five episodes for a show to at all live up to the potential of its premise, that's way too many in my book. Should I give the show another episode or two? Dominic Monaghan made a nice entrance at the end of this week's ep, but it was yet another instance of the show having a couple seconds of coolness after 44 minutes of blah. Dominic is a good actor and Charlie wasa great character on Lost, but Flash Forward is a show filled with quality actors who have yet to make an emotional impact via their characters. It feels to me like this might be a case of Kristen Bell on Heroes. So, yeah, I don't know, I feel like I might be done with Flash Forward. Thoughts?
My Grade: C-
- I'm also still feeling kind of disinterested in COMMUNITY. It's funny because I'll watch an episode and feel somewhat ambivalent, and then I'll go online and see several glowing reviews from various entertainment sites. This is one where I like the cast, I like a lot of moments in the writing, but the characters and overall premise just don't do it for me. I don't really like how much the show has focused on wacky side-character Abhed. He just falls flat for me as a character, and I find it strange that he's gotten so much of the spotlight. Meanwhile, Chevy Chase's character still feels underdeveloped. I don't feel like we've really explored him yet, and at the same time, he feels kind of out-of-place. He's yet to really have a breakout subplot that justifies his existence on the show - instead, they seem to be coasting on the fact that it's Chevy Chase. I'm as huge a fan of Chevy's classic comedy as anyone, but I don't think the character he plays here has really been a standout. Finally, the relationship between Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs just feels strained. Rather than letting the two develop chemistry, we've immediately rushed into a situation where McHale openly pines for Jacobs. For a show that aims for an Office-style sophistication and realism, this and other plotlines feel way too traditionally sitcom-ish. In fact, I think that may be what gets me about Community. It has the trappings of a new-school single-camera comedy, but at the end of the day, is does have the feeling of being second-rate TGIF.
My Grade: B-
- On the other hand, PARKS & RECREATION continues to impress. I got a kick out of this past week's ep, and thought SNL's Fred Armisen was pretty hilarious as a visiting dignitary from Pawnee's South American sister city. The clash of egos as Leslie met her foreign counterparts was a lot of fun, and there were a number of subplots that were very funny. The foreign intern making passes at Leslie's droll, not-buying-it intern was great. And Aziz Ansari sucking up the embarassment of being taken for a servant and gladly acepting the foreign visitors' tips? Also very funny. Parks & Rec is officially a pretty awesome show.
My Grade: A-
Alright, that's about it for now. Hope you're surviving this latest Monday. I'll be back soon for more rants, reviews, and general craziness.
Friday, October 16, 2009
So what are my takeaways from all this?
a.) Do I blame the media for covering the incident as it happened? No - watching a floating silver balloon fly over Colorado, with a six year old kid potentially trapped inside? - that's crazy, compelling stuff - you've got to cover it. But all the stuff after the fact? Not necessary. The media needs to self-regulate and recognize when enough is enough. Plus, I just feel bad for people who have been in a news cycle event like this and are suddenly forced to travel around and go on TV the very next day. Ugh.
b.) Was it a hoax / publicity stunt? I don't know, but if it was, what would be the point? To sell last-minute Balloon Boy Halloween costumes?!
c.) I want a UFO-like balloon to fly around in.
Anyways, enough about Balloon Boy. Seriously. Enough.
- THE OFFICE last night had an episode that initially turned me off with its cartoonish premise, but ultimately sort of won me over with its humor. I mean, the idea of a whole episode centered around Michael Scott fearing that an insurance pitchman was in fact a mafia tough guy out to extort him? Um ... okay. Like I said, pretty goofy. But as the absurdity continued to escalate, and the antics of Dwight, Andy, and Michael got increasingly over-the-top, at some point I just gave in and began to laugh my ass off. Not a classic episode, and the Kevin subplot kind of fell flat ... but some really hilarious moments made this won work.
My Grade: B
- As for the season premiere of 30 ROCK ... well, The AV Club had an exhaustive article the other day examining last season's slow but semi-alarming drop-off in quality for one of TV's best comedies ... and so I was anxious to see if this ep turned a corner, and brought 30 Rock back to its former spot as the undisputed king of TV comedy.
This one was not, sad to say, a classic. Instead, it was a lot like many of last season's episodes - very, very funny at times, but not delivering the kind of rapid-fire, laugh-a-minute hilarity of season 2. Part of the problem is that with 30 Rock, you're always guaranteed a couple of things for any given episode - for one, that Tracy Morgan will say at least a couple of hilarious things, and that Alec Baldwin will do the same. Sometimes, a few bits of classic dialogue is enough to carry an episode, but sometimes, it's really window dressing that helps hide the fact that one of the A or B plots isn't 100% clicking. Last night, all of the Liz-Peter antics, as they tried to hide the fact that they were looking for a new cast member, were only just okay. Same goes for the Page Strike. Don't get me wrong, the very idea of a Page strike makes this former NBC Page smile. But there is so much potential in this idea that the actual execution was pretty good, but not amazing. Especially disappointing was that the great Steve Buscemi appeared, but didn't get much great material to choose on.
Personally, I've always been in favor of 30 Rock embracing its crazy, random side, and not ghettoizing that aspect of the show. I love when Tracy is involved in the main storylines rather than just off doing his own thing, for example. I still want to see 30 Rock be weird and random. We got that only in small doses last night, but we did get a lot of meta-commentary. I do like that 30 Rock isn't afraid to take swipes at NBC or at the television industry in general, but at the same time, last night was a little too wink-nudge-y for my tastes. I'd rather see these things satirized organically in the storylines, and not have, say, a throw to Jay Leno as a part of the show.
Now I don't mean to just rag on 30 Rock. The truth is, there was a lot to like in last night's ep. Like I said, I loved the premise of a Page Strike. I got a huge kick out of Tracy Morgan's quest to re-connect with his populist roots ("I'd better go call Rabbi Schmuley!"). There was good stuff in there. I just want to see 30 Rock back on top of its game.
My Grade: B
- Last night on FRINGE, we got another episode that was extremely X-Files-ish in terms of plot and tone. Now, I love Fringe, but I didn't start to *really* love it until it got away from these kinds of one-off episodes and began to focus on its overarching myth-arc - the pattern, the alternate universes, Walter's checkered history, etc. I think part of the problem is that Fringe has just never figured out the perfect formula for these episodes. If you look at The X-Files, they had a couple of keys to their monster-of-the-week eps that made many of them work so well. For one, they almost always completely ignored the show's larger mythology - this allowed them to completely focus on the freak o' the week. It allowed them to go in-depth with the villain's backstory, or its psychology, or its origins. The stories were based on myths, local legends, popular folklore, science-fiction, etc. On Fringe, early episodes were all connected in some wa to the ominous Pattern. Last night's ep and the week before? Not really. There were bits and pieces of the show's serialized mythology. There was a somewhat random villain who we never really got to sink our teeth into. Sure, there was a cool idea at the heart of the episode - the concept of bottling up people's dreams and nightmares and then force-feeding them to others via microchips implanted in the brain - but we never truly explored its ramifications or applications, and we never 100% understood why the doctor behind this insidious plot went down this dark rabbit hole to begin with. Fringe has done a great job of getting into the heads of its protagonists - now it needs to do the same for its antagonists. Finally, The X-Files always knew how to deliver a killer ending. Too many of these Fringe episodes feel rushed - there was hardly any real resolution in last night's ep, no reflection, no postscript. The mad dream doctor was simply dispatched with and that was all she wrote. It's funny too because Fringe has had some killer cliffhangers in its day, but these have mostly been relegated to its more serialized episodes. Again, the show still struggles to figure out how best to present these more self-contained storylines. One more gripe - some of the dialogue and overall storytelling in last night's ep was pretty clunky. Like when Peter remarks that one of the night-terror victims seemed to have an interest in sleep deprivation, then immediately rattled off the titles of all the sleep-centric books that were right there on his bookshelf. Or how about the way that the doctor's research assistant was introduced? He may as well have walked onscreen with a T-shirt saying "Hi, I'm Evil!". Okay, sure, he turned out not to be evil, and was just a red herring, but still. All of this being said, I still love Fringe. Even though I'm much more invested in the serialized eps at this point as opposed to the one-and-done's, I still love these characters enough that it's fun to follow them into pretty much any situation. John Noble is still ruling it week in and week out. There's still an overall great vibe to the show - dark and creepy and atmospheric. The show I think is off for a few weeks due to baseball - here's hoping it comes back in November with a vengeance.
My Grade: B-
- Okay, it's just about time for the weekend to commence, and I for one can't wait. For one thing, I'm completely burned out from what has been an uber-long week at work, and I'm already salivating at the thought of sleeping late on Saturday. But even more exciting, tomorrow is my annual trip to KNOTT'S SCARY FARM. And then, on Sunday, I'll be heading to the UC Irvine Campus to attend TNA's Bound For Glory event! So yeah, a jam packed weekend is ahead of me - check back next week for the full rundown!
Thursday, October 15, 2009
- I would like to take a minute and give a shout-out to a man who was a large presence in my pop culture-saturated childhood - Captain Lou Albano. The good captain was a fixture of WWF wrestling in the 80's, and some of my earliest memories of watching WWF Superstars and All-American Wrestling as a young kid include the crazy antics of Cap'n Lou as he managed the likes of "The Rock" Don Muraco and other larger-than-life competitors. Captain Lou made his name as a wrestler in the 60's and 70's, but hit his stride as a manager during WWF's "rock n' wrestling" period in the 80's, during which Captain Lou enjoyed crossover, mainstream success - appearing and fueding with Cyndi Lauper, and becoming a fixture in movies and TV shows, from Hulk Hogan's Saturday morning cartoon show to guest appearances on Hey Dude. Not only that, but the guy was the first (and to many, definitive) live-action Super Mario, portraying Mario on the Super Mario Super Show back in the day, where he taught us all to "do the Mario," and became a fixture of Saturday mornings for many of my generation. With his trademark Hawaian shirts and rubber-banded beard, Captain Lou was a true character for the ages. So let's all give one final salute to the good captain.
- The other week, I mentioned the home video releases of two awesome yet underappreciated movies in Observe & Report and Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This week, I want to remind everyone that another one of the best movies of the year thus far, DRAG ME TO HELL, is out on DVD and blu-ray. You can check out my full review from this summer, but I just want to reiterate that if you've enjoyed Sam Raimi's earlier horror-comedy flicks like Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, or if you just like horror-comedies in general, you need to see Drag Me to Hell as soon as possible. In fact, now is the perfect time to catch it given that Halloween is fast-approaching. Drag Me to Hell is hilarious, totally insane, and completely memorable. Alison Lohman kicks ass in the lead role. And yes, this is old-school Raimi at the top of his game.
- On a somewhat random note, I had had the classic movie DELIVERANCE taking up space on my DVR for a couple of weeks, so I finally decided to hunker down and watch it the other night. Very, very well-made movie, and the outdoor scenes have a real sense of danger to them, due to the awesome cinematography and stunning real-life setting. Like many though, I came away with two particular scenes burned forever in my brain. One being the totally weird banjo-duel at the beginning of the movie, and the other being the, well, the whole "squeal like a pig" scene. Talk about disturbing. Anyways, at least now I will be fully in the know whenever I see a Deliverance parody.
- Argh, too many movies. Even though I've been on a big movie-watching streak of late, I feel like I am going to get behind after this weekend. I still want to see Capitalism: A Love Story, and am still kind of curious about Surrogates. This weekend, there's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, which I very much want to see even if it looks kind of bleak and depressing. On the other end of the spectrum is BLACK DYNAMITE. A retro-comedy parody of 70's blaxploitation movies? Sign me up, sucka.
- Also, I would lose some geek cred if I didn't mention how insane of a week this is in the world of gaming. This week, of course, saw the release of what is probably my most-anticipated videogame of the year, that being UNCHARTED 2. The first Uncharted game on the PS3 totally blew me away, and it was the first game I purchased when I got a PS3 a few years back. To this day, it is probably one of the most definitive games of this console generation - taking so much of what was great about games like Tomb Raider, and adding a level of graphical gloss and narrative polish that was pretty incredible at the time and still holds up today. In terms of graphics alone, I have never, ever seen outdoor environments (and particularly water) as amazing looking in a game as those in Uncharted. I can't wait to see what developer Naughty Dog has cooked up for part 2. And assuming that all of the great reviews its gotten prove true, I think you've got to talk about ND as one of the premiere developers working today, if not THE best of the best. From Crash Bandicoot back in the day, to Jack & Daxter, and now with Uncharted, these guys consistently outdo themselves and raise the bar. Can't wait to reaquaint myself with Nathan Drake and the world of Uncharted. At the same time, this week marks the release of another hotly-anticipated game, BRUTAL LEGEND. From the mind of iconic game producer Tim Schaefer, BL looks to be a ton of fun. Afterall, it comes from the man who brought us cult favorites like Grim Fandango and Psychonauts. Schaefer is one of the few real storytelling masters in the world of games, a guy who could easily get out of gaming and just produce awesome Adult Swim animated shows if he so chose. Gaming is not a medium known for comedy, but Schaefer has produced works that are hilarious and therefore easily stand out from the pack. He's a guy who reminds me of the reason why many of us got so into the medium in the first place - the chance to visit strange new worlds and get caught up in absorbing, surreal experiences far removed from the real world. It's great to know that Brutal Legend is of that same Schaefer spirit, and also that it's actually getting a lot of great press thanks to the involvement of Jack Black. I can't wait to rock n' roll with this one.
- I've got to start off by talking about last night's hilarious episode of MODERN FAMILY. I've been singing this show's praises for a while now, but until last night's ep, I still had my doubts that the show was really as good as the hype would lead you to believe. Don't get me wrong, I was already a huge fan of MF, but man, last night's ep was, to me, a landmark. I am now 100% sold - MF isn't just a sort-of funny show, it's officially a must-see comedy in the upper echelon of currently-airing scripted TV. Last night's ep just fired on all cylinders. Shelly Long was great as the returning mother hen who's had a bit too much of the crazy sauce. And just every cast member was killin' it. I loved the teen boyfriend singing his love song to the family, and their expressions going from adoring to horrified within a matter of moments, as the lyrics took a turn for the racy. And then everyone singing the catchy tune at the end of the episode? A perfect ending to an all-around awesome ep.
My Grade: A
- Looking forward to tonight's 30 ROCK. Everyone watch!
- Getting a bit behind on GLEE ... will have to catch up, perhaps this weekend.
- Enjoyed Monday's GOSSIP GIRL, but found it to be a bit underwhelming in the dramatics department. Georgina's revealing the truth about Rufus and Lili's secret son was not quite the bombshell it could have been. That said, Georgina was sort of awesome in this ep, just downright psycho and entertaining. But some of the other subplots are really lagging. Don't care at all about any of the Serena-Carter-Nate stuff.
My Grade: B
- Last night's JIMMY FALLON featured a Monty Python reunion! Awesome! Looking forward to checking that out later today.
- Anyways ... that's about it for now. I'm off to mentally prepare for a busy weekend that will include, among other things, my annual trip to KNOTT'S SCARY FARM. It's been cold, wet, and dark here in LA -- perfect Halloween weather.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
- Talk about clever marketing. Rarely if ever has a movie gotten such a sudden groundswell of fan support, despite no major media marketing. Just a couple of glowing reviews, well-received film-fest screenings, great word of mouth, and a brilliant, deceptively low-key strategy from Paramount - where they have been asking fans to "demand" that the film be released in their areas. After a very limited number of midnight screenings in key markets, Paranormal Activity went on to explode in theaters across the country this past weekend. Despite showing in less than 500 theaters, the movie made over $7 million. Not bad. I knew that this one had buzz, but I was definitely unprepared for the completely sold-out theater on Saturday night. People were actually sitting in the aisles. And there was a huge energy in the theater. Fans were clamoring to see this one. Thanks to effective viral marketing and tons of buzz, Paranormal Activity had, suddenly and without warning, become THE movie to see on this particular October weekend. So the question remains - how good is this movie? Is it really as scary as people say? I don't want to get *too* caught up in the hype, but I will say that this is a very smart, very cool, very, very, very scary movie. A perfect pre-Halloween flick, I'd 100%recommend seing this one in the theater. Half the fun is hearing the audience scream in terror.
Paranormal Activity is basically a "found footage" movie, similar to The Blair Witch Project. The premise here is that we are seeing the home-movie footage shot by a young couple - Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) - that have just moved into a new home together in San Diego. The couple appears to be happy and healthy, but there's one problem: of late, Katie, a student, has begun experiencing strange things at night - whispers, doors opening and shutting, odd sounds, etc. Micah, a day trader and technology enthusiast, begins filming he and Katie around the house, and keeps a camera rolling while they are sleeping at night. His idea is that if anything out of the ordinary happens, he'll capture it on camera. And sure enough, some pretty crazy $#%& goes down.
I know that at some point, the popular consensus was that found footage movies were lame and gimmicky. But people tend to forget just how effective Blair Witch was when it was first released - how it captured people's imaginations and blurred the line between reality and fiction. When done right, this kind of film can be a unique and gripping experience. And Paranormal Activity knows how to push just the right butttons. This isn't a movie where HUGE stuff happens. But man, they make the most out of the little moments when all seems normal, except that something ... well, something is not quite right.
Throughout the movie, we get daytime scenes that establish the characters and how they are dealing with all the weirdness going on around them. And our two leads do a pretty darn good job of making us believe that they are just two normal twenty-somethings. The performances are pretty naturalistic, and definitely effective. But then, when the lights go down, that's when we *know* that something crazy might happen. Every time we cut to the shot of Micah's camera set in a stationary position on his bedside dresser, as he and Katie sleep, you can't help but tense up and brace for terror.
And like I said, in this movie it's the little things that get you most. But the feeling of watching real events happening to real people - the feeling of watching normal people just like you, in a normal house just like yours - makes the whole affair that much more genuinely creepy. I definitely checked around the corners of my apartment when I got home. And man, rarely have I see so many grown men scream out in terror while watching a movie. Like I said, see this one in a crowded theater if you can, because the reactions from the audience are bound to be entertaining.
Now, I do think that the movie can get a bit hokey and even repetitive at times. And the low-budget limitations do occasionally become obvious. Once in a while, the acting gets a little cheesy, especially when an excorsist is called in to examine the house. That said, there is some pretty effective comic relief throughout the movie, and you do need those moments to let you exhale a bit from all the built-up tension.
There is so much tension in part because the movie really is expertly-paced and crafted. There is a real art to how the intensity is slowly cranked up, until by movie's end, a real, palpable atmosphere of sheer terror and dread has been created. Paranormal Activity is worthy of the hype - especially when you consider how simple of a movie this really is. I love the fact that a movie with two unknown actors, minimal f/x, and an ultra-low-budget can succeed so well at telling a memorable, terrifying horror story where so many other, glossier movies fail. Like Blair Witch, this one will make you want to go home, turn on the camcorder, and see what kind of scary story you and your friends can whip up.
Paranormal Activity is certainly rough around the edges, but you have to give it a ton of credit for being such an awesomely effective ghost story. It's easy to go against the hype and be a hater, but sometimes you simply have to admire an underdog movie that attains unlikely but well-deserved success. And yes, it's really that scary.
My Grade: A-
Monday, October 12, 2009
- I really enjoyed Thursday night's big wedding episode of THE OFFICE. Regular readers know that I usually get down on The Office when it gets too cheesy or sentimental, but hey, if ever there was an episode where such a tone was appropriate, it was this one. Plus, even with the emotional high of Pam and Jim's wedding, the hour-long installment still managed to pack in a ton of hilarity. From Andy's hilariously ill-timed injury to his nether regions, to Dwight's attempts to woo Pam's relatives, there were a ton of very memorable, very funny bits scattered throughout the hour. I think the big x-factor going into this one was Michael Scott. Make him too awkward or embarassing here, and you risk being too dark and off-putting. At the same time, what would an Office wedding be without some well-placed, cringe-inducing comedy from the world's worst boss? As it turned out, I thought they did end up making Michael just a little *too* awful here. In general, the best moments of this episode were the smaller and subtler character bits. I dont know if they needed Michael's over-the-top antics thrown in as well. But in the end, they made up for it, I thought, with some awesome scenes between Michael and Pam's mom, which were pretty classic. I think ultimately, there were some moments where this episode lost it's way a bit, but, I also think that it was, overall, a pretty great episode and a satisfying conclusion of sorts to the long-running Jim & Pam saga.
My Grade: A-
- Meanwhile, PARKS AND RECREATION has slowly but surely been getting better each week. I'm now at the point where I am really enjoying the show and looking forward to new episodes each week. Louis CK has been great as a soft-spoken cop in the first stages of a relationship with Amy Poehler's character. And the rest of the cast has really begun to shine this season. It's not quite at that A-level yet, but all of the elements are there, and I am definitely in from here on out.
My Grade: B+
- On the other hand, I'm just not that into COMMUNITY. I want to like it, but I just haven't found it to be that sharp or that funny quite yet. And I think there are some real problems with the premise and characters that are going to be a problem in the long-run. This is one of those shows that, I think, seems funnier on paper than it actually is in practice. Sure, every episode produces a witty quote or two that Entertainment Weekly can re-print. But a couple of witty lines of dialogue does not a great show make. I don't know - is there something I'm missing here?
My Grade: B-
- FLASH FORWARD is a show that really wowed me with its pilot, but seems on the verge of dropping the ball in the weeks since. I mean, the pilot episode set the stage for a lot of intriguing storylines, but so far, with two additional episodes under our belts, NOTHING of any great interest has really happened yet. What felt fresh and exciting in the pilot is now quickly becoming stagnant. What made for a great premise is now leading to endless recaps each week of the same stuff we've already covered. I don't get it - why is this show treading water like it is? Get to the good stuff already. Give us some hints about the nature of the flash-forwards and who or what is behind them. Give us some mythology, some meat to chew on. This week's ep had two minutes of coolness at the episode's end - a scene that implied that the flashes have happened before, but in more limited scope. It was just enough to keep me interested for one more week. But man, did we have to wade through a lot of noise to get to that flash of coolness. I mean, okay, I was pretty intrigued by the premise that this old ex-Nazi holed up in a German prison had some knowledge that might be a key to solving the mystery of the flash-forwards. Immediately I had visions of some grand backstory that would tie the flashes to World War II, Nazi conspiracies, and secret government experiments. But, there was no awesome reveal of a cool, X-Files-style mythology. Instead, we got a number of lame sequences involving vague imagery of dead crows. Even worse, the Nazi guy explains to our FBI agents how the three minute and seventeen second time laps of the flashes corresponds to the kaballah. Um, yeah, because no rabbi or scholar on earth would have thought of that sooner. Anyways, I don't know about you guys, but to me Flash Forward is losing momentum and losing it fast. Next week's ep may be make or break.
My Grade: C+
- For my weekly high-concept sci-fi fix, at least I can count on FRINGE to deliver the goods - even if I've been watching it on delay since Thursdays are now so packed with good TV. Fringe has just been crazy lately though. To be honest, it's a fine line. Personally, I'm fine with the show becoming increasingly comic book-ish - I love that stuff, afterall. But I can see how a casual fan might have tuned in to this past week's ep and let out a big ol' "WTF?" after all was said and done. Because, yeah, Fringe has gone from a reality-based show about psuedo-science to a full-on, mythology-heavy sci-fi yarn about shapeshifting invaders from parallel worlds. Wow. But here's the thing - to me this transition has worked because: a.) it's slowly escalated over time, and b.) the show has such a solid foundation of characters. Even when the storylines get crazy, the characters remain well-rounded and relatable, and the dialogue remains sharp. Look at this week's episode - even in the midst of shapeshifting invasion drama, we got a very strong subplot about Walter reconnecting with a former test subject, and the realization that he did make a positive difference in some of his old subjects' lives, even if he now regrets the tests he subjected them to. We got those great Walter moments, and we also got the return of Leonard Nimoy as the enigmatic William Bell. Some very cool hints about the overarching plot, and again, Anna Torv has really come into her own here and has been cooly captivating in the show's lead role. Good stuff, and Fringe, I think, is still THE must-see drama on TV right now.
My Grade: A-
- Speaking of TV dramas getting a little bit insane, how about Friday's episode of SMALLVILLE? While the overal writing and plotting still left something to be desired, this episode had one thing going for it: roving hordes of undead ZOMBIES! I will say this: Smallville, for all its faults, is often a showcase for some really nice visual direction. This zombiefied episode looked great - there were some really cool looking zombies, and some pretty awesome action to boot. I mean, Tess Mercer taking out a legion of the undead with nothing but a katana sword? Pretty sweet, I'll admit. Zombie Lois Lane? Yes, please. Now, there was a lot of the usual Smallville clunkiness in between the bouts of fun zombie action. The explanation for and solution to the zombie outbreak was pretty lame, and the inclusion of Zod at the end felt very shoehorned-in. And geez, although I enjoy Lois and think Erica Durance does a great job, Smallville as usual drags things out to interminable lengths. I mean, if you want there to be an ongoing, subtle sexual tension between Clark and Lois - fine. But if every scene has the two of them on the verge of making out, the come on, get it over with already! So yeah, this ep of Smallville had some weaksauce moments, but it also had a lot of surprisingly kickass zombie mayhem. Sweet.
My Grade: B+
- It's funny, my brother and I sat down to watch THE SIMPSONS last night, and for a little while, at least, both of us were laughing like old times. The first act or two of last night's episode, which parodied the current Ultimate Fighting craze, showed a lot of promise. The premise was merely decent, but the dialogue was sharp and the jokes were hitting the mark. But man, this one fizzled out completely in the last ten minutes or so. The comedic momentum simply ground to a halt. Plus, even the early quality of the jokes couldn't hide the fact that, in the end, this ep didn't have all that much to day. The popularity of a violent sport like ultimate fighting is an interesting topic to tackle, but all of the character reactions in this ep felt pretty rushed. Marge began to protest the fighting events just because, and the ending provided no real resolution or lesson. Still, I do give The Simpsons credit for one thing: this is the third straight episode that has focused on as ingle, cohesive storyline from start to finish. That is a good sign for things to come. Now, next week is the annual Treehouse of Horror episode. The last couple of years' Halloween specials have been pretty bad, so I'm really, really hoping that this year we get something good.
My Grade: B
- As for FAMILY GUY, this was yet another mediocre episode in my book. Sure, it featured the guest voices of Dan Akroyd and Checy Chase as themselves, and sure, it featured a full-on Spies Like Us parody. But too many jokes in this one fell totally flat for me to give it high marks. Every joke was either a retread of an earlier gag from a previous episode, or a retread of a gag from earlier in this episode. Come on FG, you can do better.
My Grade: C+
Okay - time for a movie review. I actually saw two movies this weekend - WHIP IT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. But I think I'm going to save the latter for its own blog post. I have a lot to talk about with regards to that one. For now, here's a look at the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore ...
WHIP IT Review:
- Whip It differentiates itself from the typical underdog sports movie in that it hits you right in the face with a two-fisted jolt of 100% grrrrl-power, not from concentrate. In actress Drew Barrymore's first-ever directorial effort, the free-spirited Hollywood mainstay gives us a movie that, really, is less about the competition of roller derby, and much more about the punk-rock, dare-to-be-different aesthetic that the sport inspires and encourages. Most sports movies are about finding the will to win and triumphing over adversity. This one isn't really a sports movie at all. Instead, it's a coming-of-age flick about a girl raised to be a prim and proper beauty queen, who ditches all that to enter the rough n' tumble world of roller derby. This is a movie about switching one's internal radio dial from easy listening to rock n' roll.
And that's cool. Barrymore is up to the task of showing the inner struggle of our main character, Bliss, as she tries to both appease her traditional, small-town parents and also to come out of her shell and find her true calling. But at the end of the day, a lot of the credit for Whip It's success has to go to Ellen Page. Page is great in this one, just as she was in Juno, and she brings a realism and intelligence to the movie that few others could have. In addition, a couple of the supporting actors really do a nice job as well. My unlikely favorite? Daniel Stern. It's been a long time since I've see this original member of the Wet Bandits in a substantial film role, but Stern does a very nice job here as Bliss' beer-swilling, football-lovin', guy's-guy dad. On paper, it sounds like a somewhat conventional role - and in some ways it is. But Stern brings a ton of heart to the movie, and is responsible for some of Whip It's most effective scenes. Marcia Gay Harden also does a nice job as Bliss' uptight mom. What it all adds up to is that the scenes involving Bliss and her parents are almost always the movie's strongest.
The rest of the movie isn't quite as good. Bliss' roller derby teammates have awesome names like Smashley Simpson and Bloody Holly, but they don't get much time to shine. One of the keys to a great sports movie is to give each character their big moment to shine (or as Mighty Ducks fans call it, their "knucklepuck moment"), and Whip It doesn't really do that. Which is too bad, because you've got people like Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore herself in those roles. Similarly, Juliette Lewis, in full-on crazy mode, plays Iron Maven, a rival derby doll with a serious grudge against the young upstart Bliss (whose derby name is Babe Ruthless). There is a lot of potential with Lewis' character, but ultimately there isn't that much of a rivalry to speak of. She seems like she's only there because every movie like this needs a rival-team antagonist. But Barrymore doesn't seem too concerned with building up a true grudge match between Babe and Maven.
Barrymore's only middling interest in the actual ins and outs of roller derby ultimately hampers the movie a bit. It's tough, because from what little I know of roller derby, it's a pretty chaotic sport that I have to imagine is pretty tough to dramatize. Drew Barrymore does a nice job of capturing all of the craziness around the derby matches - the over-the-top announcers (here played by a pretty funny Jimmy Fallon), the hipster fans, the professional wrestling-esque atmosphere. And she does a good job of showing just how brutal those matches can be - there are plenty of hard hits and bloodied noses and wince-inducing falls. But the actual matches are rarely all that dramatic.
A couple other elements of the movie also seem a bit glossed-over. The worst offender is the main romantic subplot, in which Bliss falls for an emo rocker type, who I guess is supposed to be another part of her ever-expanding world of danger and rebellion. But I have to say, the whole thing is pretty thin, and the small amount of real emotion that propels the relationship makes it seem unworthy of the overly-long underwater hookup scene in the middle of the movie.
One subplot that I did like - the inclusion of Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat as Bliss' best friend. She brings her usual charm and comic timing to the role, and helps to emphasize the movie's themes of escaping from small-town drudgery into a more meaningful life. The scenes with Ellen Page and Alia together - especially those at the ramshackle diner where they both work, tend to be funny and really well done. The other standout is SNL's Kristen Wiig, who gets the most depth of any of the derby dolls, serving as a surrogate mother figure of sorts for Bliss. Coming off her well-realized turn in Extract, Wiig continues to show that she can do a lot more than just goofy sketch comedy characters.
Overall, I liked the vibe of Whip It. There's a great rock n' roll soundtrack, a great lead in Ellen Page, and a positive message at the center of the movie. It's a punk rock sports movie with heart. I just wish that Drew Barrymore and co. had focused their energies a bit more and spent as much time on the rest of the movie as they did on the relationship between Bliss and her parents. As it is, there's a great movie buried somewhere in there, but what we get is merely pretty good.
My Grade: B
- Okay, next time: things get PARANORMAL.