Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tale of Two (On-The-Bubble) TV Shows: LIGHTS OUT and FRINGE

- To some extent, and with various ebbs and flows, we've been in the midst of a golden age of TV over the last decade. There is more content than ever before - more channels, more ways of watching, more flexibility in terms of WHEN we watch ... there's also more crap, and it can be increasingly difficult to wade through the junk to find the good stuff. For the more casual TV viewer, the fact that AMC or FX has just premiered a great new drama can get lost in the information clutter. And if you are, like me, one of those people who proactively seeks out good TV, then the sheer number of series that now come highly recommended can be pretty daunting. Part of me almost tends to want certain on-the-bubble shows to end, just to make room for other, better shows - or even just to free up my viewing schedule a bit.

- So when I heard that FX had a new serialized drama coming out a few months back - a show about a boxer called LIGHTS OUT - part of me just wanted to skip it altogether. Did I really have room in my schedule, and did I really want to mentally commit to yet another intense drama - even if it turned out to be great? Adding further confusion, the promos for Lights Out on FX were not particularly informative. It was hard to tell what kind of show this would be - what the tone would be, who the characters were, etc. I remember that the early ads were more abstract, featuring evocative footage of a boxer training for a fight - as opposed to actual footage from the show. At the same time, I have grown to trust FX when it comes to drama. JUSTIFIED has quickly become one of my favorite shows on the air. TERRIERS, while sadly cancelled after just one season, quickly became a true cult classic - one of the absolute best, smartest, most well-acted TV shows I've seen in years. And hey, even if I'm not much of a real-life boxing fan, I love movies about the sweet science. As fans of Rocky and Raging Bull can attest, boxing tends to make for great, epic drama.

And so I gave LIGHTS OUT a chance, and I have to say, after being unsure about it for the first couple of episodes, it quickly grew into a damn good TV show. As the characters grew more defined and the plotting got tighter and more intense, the show went from one that I'd catch up on over the weekend to one that I made a point to watch each week as soon as possible. After several weeks, I think it's safe to say that Lights Out is perhaps THE must-watch drama on the air for me.

The cast is awesome. Holt McCallany is great in the lead role of retired boxer Patrick "Lights" Leary. I wasn't familiar with him before this show, but man, someone get him into action movies. Any superhero movie that needs someone to play a tough brawler type - get Holt (if they ever make a JSA movie and need someone to play Wildcat - here you go). This is Emmy-worthy work from him, and more than that, he is 100% believable as a 40-something ex-champ looking to make a comeback. Similarly, I don't think anyone could play Lights' ex-fighter father better than the great Stacy Keach. Keach has always been a badass, and that holds true in Lights Out. For me though, Lights Out went from very good to GREAT during a two-part mini arc in which they brought in character actor Eamonn Walker as the loose cannon trainer Ed Romeo. Walker was just the spark plug that the show needed, introducing an unpredictable and totally captivating X-factor into the storylines. Romeo was on one hand likable, but on the other hand liable to snap and go full-on psycho at any moment. The story of Romeo's introduction into Lights' life gave Lights Out a ton of momentum going into its home-stretch of Season 1 episodes. With only a few episodes left to go, I can't wait to see how things wrap up. While the show started off feeling slightly familiar and predictable, the various twists and turns in recent weeks have given the show a wild, anything-can-happen feel.

Sadly, of course, word came in last week that LIGHTS OUT is cancelled. Ratings were low, and while the prez of FX insisted that it was just a tough premise to sell an audience on, I can't help but feel that the marketing did only a so-so job of getting the word out about the show - never really converying that yes, this was a show about boxing, but that it was also a character-driven serialized drama in the tradition of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

Why didn't more people watch Lights Out? What does it mean when networks like FX are taking chances on ambitious shows like this, but can't ultimately get the ratings to keep them on the air for more than one season? FX seems to be doing okay with Justified, but after Terriers' cancellation and now Lights Out, you have to wonder just how many serialized dramas can coexist at once on the air. A show like Lights Out is no longer just competing with its timeslot competitors either - it's up against recent shows that people are catching up on via DVD or blu-ray, against classic shows that people are streaming on Netflix. It's up against limited storage space on the DVR, and limited hours in a person's day devoted to TV consumption. Still, it's a shame when a show this good - particularly one that's really come into its own and found its groove over the last several weeks - gets the axe even as so much of the other garbage that's out there thrives.

I'll write more about LIGHTS OUT in the weeks to come, and I wish I had had more of an opportunity to write about it and sing its praises sooner. But if you've been on the fence, I say it's worth your time to hit up iTunes or whatever and catch up on the show. It really did become a pretty epic, super-intense drama about a fighter who wants one more fight - who needs one more chance in the ring - regardless of what it might cost him. This show deserved better. That said, I can't wait for the final two episodes of the season. When all is said and done, this will be up there as one of the year's best.

- On the other end of the spectrum, we have FRINGE, which I've talked a lot about over the last few years here on the blog. I haven't written as much lately, simply because I've been cutting back on my TV blogging ... but FRINGE remains one of TV's best, most imaginative, most thought-provoking, most daring dramas. It still features perhaps my single favorite performance on a TV show right now, that being John Noble's award-worthy turn as mad scientist turned FBI crime-solver Walter Bishop. Week in and week out, Noble is in turns funny, intense, heartbreaking, and imposing - a veritable tour de force. And not only is he doing all that as the jittery, scatterbrained Walter Bishop, but he's also playing a completely distinct and separate character to great effect - the Earth 2 version of Walter, affectionately dubbed Walternate. Walternate shares Walter's basic character DNA, but he's clear-thinking, cold, calculating, and ruthless. It's a testament to Noble that he's crafted two such distinct yet distinctly awesome characters. And it's a testament to the rest of the main cast, particularly Anna Torv, that they've done the same this season - playing both the Earth 1 and Earth 2 versions of their characters. Incredibly, Fringe's Earth 2 alternate universe has become just as compelling and interesting - if not more so - than Earth 1. Earth 2-centric episodes this season have been some of the season's best, including this past week's rip-roaring episode which saw Earth 2's Olivia ("Fauxlivia") get kidnapped by a mysterious group of conspirators, her recently-discovered pregnancy accellerated thanks to Earth 2's super-science.

I think what's really kept Fringe fresh this season is just its total willingness to go balls-to-the-wall, having no fear in terms of driving its mythology forward at a rapid pace. The show's been introducing huge, game-changing plot developments every week, and clearly isn't afraid to shake things up. If anything, the show has almost gotten TOO out-there in recent weeks, substituting its usual backbone of provocative pseudo-science with concepts that rely a bit too much on less science-based, more spiritual concepts that don't seem to jibe with the show's usual M.O. We've seen sci-fi series like The X-Files and Lost lose their way when they get too goofy and sentimental, and stray too far from the darker sci-fi aspects that first intrigued viewers. So I was a bit put off in recent weeks when Fringe introduced some semi-lame ideas, like the immortal soul of the late Dr. William Bell (played by Leonard Nimoy) being resurrected and transferred into the body of Olivia - necessitating that poor Anna Torv spend a whole episode trying to talk like Dr. Spock. Even amidst such absurdity, Fringe still managed to entertain. One of Fringe's most underrated elements is, of course, its sense of humor - as John Noble usually has at least a couple of laugh-out-loud non-sequitars in each episode (a conversation in the soul magnet episode between Dr. Bishop and Dr. Bell-in-Olivia's-body, in which Bishop suggested that they transfer Bell's conciousness from Olivia's body into a cow's - and the subsequent issue of who would have to milk said cow - is already a Fringe classic). Still, I think that Fringe was indeed slumming a bit since its return from hiatus several weeks back. The show lost a bit of momentum, and had too many plots that hinged not on sci-fi but on more abstract concepts rooted in sprituality, getting too close to Lost's end-of-series, bitter-taste-leaving "love is all you need" focus.

But this past weekend's FRINGE, to me, brought the show back to greatness, delivering a badass Earth 2 tale that effectively set the stage for some epic events in the weeks ahead, with the building drama involving the war between the two universes coming to a head. At its best, Fringe is just great sci-fi, and great serialized TV. The show almost never panders to the dumbest people in the audience, frequently introducing mind-bending, challenging concepts, and pairing them with ambitious, take-no-prisoners storytelling that's most definitely not by-the-numbers.

And the good news? Despite only-okay ratings in FOX's Friday Night Death Slot, FRINGE was just officially renewed for a Season 4. That is awesome news. Fringe is currently in the midst of telling a huge, ambitious, epic story - one that certainly can't be wrapped up in the handful of episodes left in Season 3. This isn't a show that I want to see go on and on and wear out its welcome, but it is one that I want to see have a solid 4 or 5 season run. But ... the fact that Fringe is still seemingly so under the radar has to be troubling for fans of good TV. This is a series from JJ Abrams, with all the intrigue, imagination, and high-concept fun of Lost, and with some of the finest acting on all of TV. How are more people not tuning in? Or are they, and we're just not capturing it properly in this age of time-shifting, online streaming, etc? Fringe deserves more viewers, more critical acclaim, and more buzz. And as tempting as it might be to try to simplify the show's themes for the sake of explaining its appeal, I don't think that's necessary. A recent Entertainment Weekly article on Fringe made the case that it was worth watching because it was, at its core, a universe-spanning epic love story. Um, what? Just because that's a palatable, easy-to-consume concept doesn't mean that it accurately describes this show. Fringe has romance and it is an epic, but to me Fringe is about the fundamental mystery of science, and the inherent danger of mankind messing with nature, and the unforseen consequences of said tampering. At a time when our real world seems to sometimes be coming apart before our eyes, Fringe is the heightened version of our contemporary fears and anxieties. And that - that's what all the best sci-fi is about.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Epic Tales of Epic Weekends, Including: A Report on KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR!

- Well, it's been a fairly epic month of March. It's been a rough month in some ways, but I've also been lucky to have a couple of pretty jam-packed weekends in a row, filled with some really fun events. I wrote the other week about the FREAKS & GEEKS / UNDECLARED Reunion event at the Paley Fest, and that sort of kicked off a series of epic March weekends ...

- Last weekend, I got to attend a great Purim party / carnival hosted by Valley Ruach - a group for young Jewish professionals here in LA. Valley Ruach put on a really fun event, converting the social hall at Adat Ariel synagogue in Valley Village into a giant party space. Food, drinks, carnival games, music ... they even had a giant jousting ring straight out of American Gladiators. A jousting tournament was set up, which saw my brother and I face each other in gladiatorial combat in the second round. Having each bested our first-round opponents, the stage was set for an epic brother vs. brother encounter. The crowd cheered, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Unfortunately, the day belonged to Matt, and he knocked me off my pedestal (literally and figuratively) to advance to the finals. I couldn't resist getting in one final tackle on Matt to slightly spoil his victory lap on the inflatable jousting surface, but it was, I admit, a true clash of titans. In any case, it was a fun night of Purim celebration!

- The following Sunday, myself, Matt, and the G-Man braved torrential rain and hurricane-like winds here in LA to journey to the Staples Center to watch the Clippers take on the Phoenix Suns. Now, many of you know that I am a big Suns fan dating back to the early 90's, when I desperately rooted for the '93, Charles Barkley-led Suns to best the Bulls and win an NBA championship. I wouldn't call myself a hardcore Suns fan anymore, but I still like the team and have been holding out hope that Steve Nash can get that elusive ring before all is said and done. This season, the Suns have been fighting just to make the playoffs, and they have an uphill battle. With that in mind, it was fun to see them in a back-and-forth game with the Clippers in which they ultimately came out on top. The crowd was very lively - after Blake Griffin got fouled out in the fourth, the crowd greeted every Suns possession with a deafening chorus of boos ... so it was a really nice atmosphere, esepcially for a Clippers game. It was also fun to see both the aforementioned up-and-coming high flyer Blake Griffin live and in person, as well as the Suns' current roster of veteran superstars - Steve Nash, Vince Carter, and Grant Hill (much to my delight, Nash was in fine form and Carter had at least one or two moves that reminded us why, back in the day, he was "Half Man, Half Amazing!"). The weather really was insane that Sunday though. The wind was so powerful that all of our umbrellas snapped and broke while walking to the arena, and the rain was so fierce and the streets so flooded that we were all soaked from just a couple of minutes outside. The apocalyptic warzone of BATTLE LA, which we saw after the game, almost seemed tame in comparison to the actual craziness that was going on outside.

- Finally, this past weekend was another big one. Friday brought a much-anticipated filmgoing event in the form of SUCKER PUNCH (and hopefully you've read the review I posted on Saturday ...). But Sunday ... Sunday was truly a pop-culture event of epic proportions ...

- ... Because Sunday was the day that I got to attend the first-ever public screening of KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR. For years, film fans have spoke in hushed tones about the special cut of Kill Bill that combined Volumes 1 and 2 into a single, extended version of the film. Long rumored to be targeted for release on home video, THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR has, to date, been seen only by select audiences at the Cannes Film Festival and at a private screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. Until now, when director Quentin Tarantino decided to screen the film here in LA, at the New Beverly theater (which QT himself is the proud owner of), for a limited-time, special-engagement theatrical run.

Well, Sunday afternoon marked the very first screening of the film at the New Beverly, and not only that, but it just so happened to be the birthday of Mr. Tarantino. Tickets for the initial batch of screenings sold out online in minutes, but luckily I was able to pull the trigger and snatch up a four-pack of tix several weeks back. In any case, my friends and I arrived at the New Beverly theater around 12:30 pm, with plenty of time to go before the screening's 2 pm start time. Already though, there was a decent-sized line of Kill Bill fans outside the theater, for what was of course a totally sold-out show. It was a true geek-out moment though - being outside tht theater, with throngs of fanboys and fangirls lined up, munching on Papa Johns pizza, and with "Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair" displayed prominently on the old-fashioned marquee. Above that was stated simply: "Happy Birthday Quentin."

Inside the theater, there were some pretty awesome hand-drawn Kill Bill posters being sold, though at $50 a pop I held off on purchasing, although yes, I was tempted. Anyways, the crowd was primed and ready for THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR, and there was definitely a palpable buzz in the New Beverly. We didn't quite know what to expect, but when a theater rep got up and had us all sing "Happy Birthday" to QT, everyone craned their necks and looked excitedly around the theater - was QT in the house? Turns out, he was! As a bunch of his biggest fans sang Happy Birthday, the man himself made his way down the aisle from his inconspicuous seat in the back of the room. Dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, QT was less the superstar director on this day and more a fellow fanboy. He appreciatively thanked the crowd, and talked about this history of this special cut of Kill Bill. Tarantino then said that he wanted the movie to speak for itself, so without further ado, it was time to get down to business and watch the movie. But wait! Before we got to the main attraction, QT had put together a special reel of cult-classic revenge film trailers to get us all primed and ready and to properly set the stage for his own entry in and homage to the revenge genre.

Before we could all even properly process the fact that QUENTIN TARANTINO himself had just addressed us - on his birthday no less - we were treated to some retro animated concession stand promos, followed by a sequence of ultra-badass, awesomely geeky movie trailers for old-school, often obscure revenge movies. Pam Grier as blaxploitation vixen COFFY. Martial arts mayhem in STING OF THE DRAGON MASTERS. Crazy, surreal weirdness in THE MILLION EYES OF SU-MARU. Vintage, Vietnam-era badassery in ROLLING THUNDER. Crazy-ass femme fatale exploitation in THEY CALL HER ONE-EYE. And finally, so-wrong-yet-so-right ultra-violence in the trailer for SHOGUN ASSASSIN. Pure awesomeness. Suffice it to say, a marathon of some or all of these movies is now a foregone conclusion (if I can actually find copies).

And then, finally, it was time for the main event. KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR. The crowd was properly primed, and we all applauded the various names that flashed during the opening credits sequence, including the late David Carradine, and Sally Menke - QT's longtime editor who passed away last year. The crowd was vocal and enthusiastic for the duration of the screening.

As for the movie itself, well, it was mostly the same KILL BILL that we all know and love. The changes to this version were pretty minor - a different opening and closing credits sequence, a couple of tweaks here and there, and an expanded version of the HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES sequence which is now even more beautifully violent and yes, fully colorized as in the international versions of the film. The final cut was long, and there was a 15 minute or so intermission between Chapters 5 and 6. But man, I was so energized after the end of Chapter 5 that I barely needed an intermission. In revisiting Kill Bill, I can't help but reiterate that Volume 1 is just 110% pure kickass ownage. It is just right up there to me as one of the most exciting, badass, and energetic things ever put to film, and just about every chapter is, in its own way, positively awesome. Volume 2, to me, has its share of awesome moments, although I think its ultimately dragged down a bit by its too-talky and somewhat anticlimactic finale, in which The Bride finally confronts Bill. Volume 2 doesn't have the unstoppable momentum of Volume 1, but it is still incredibly kickass. I do think that if and when The Whole Blood Affair is released on DVD / Blu-Ray, it will be the new definitive version. Although I do have one small complaint: the original intro of Volume 1, the part about the ancient Klingon proverb, is now gone. I don't know, I always thought that was a pretty badass way to open a movie. Again though, and especially given that it had been a while since I'd really sat down and rewatched these movies, I was struck by just how awesome they continue to be, and how well they hold up. In terms of sheer style, action, wit, character, and storytelling, nothing since has come close to topping KILL BILL. From The Bride to Bill, from Gogo to Buck (who "came here to %#$&"), from the Crazy 88's to the 5,6,7,8's to the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, these films are the stuff that fanboy dreams are made of.

All in all, I've rarely felt so overwhelmed by movie-fan geekery as I did on this inglorious day at the New Beverly. From QT's appearance and intro to the memorable trailer reel to the Whole Bloody Affair itself, this was an epic day of badassery of the highest order.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Danny Gets SUCKER PUNCH'ed ...!


- Zack Snyder's latest, SUCKER PUNCH, will no doubt be a polarizing film. Already, reviews are mixed and opinions divided. Maybe the following puts me in the minority, but here's my view, in short: Sucker Punch flat-out ruled it. It may not be for everyone and it may defy the expectations of the typical moviegoer and critic, but when I see a visual masterpiece of this caliber, I can't help but stand up and cheer. Sucker Punch is ultimately a VISUAL movie - it's one filled with interesting ideas and pop-cultural-commentary, sure - but at the end of the day this is quite simply Zack Snyder: Visionary Director, unleashed and going full-speed-ahead at 500 mph. With evocative characters, gorgeous, eye-melting direction, and some of the most next-level, balls-to-the-wall action scenes ever put to film, I think that Sucker Punch deserves high praise for being original, for being different, and for raising the bar in terms of putting unbridled visual imagination on the big screen.

Sucker Punch is nerd-porn, plain and simple. If the idea of kickass, sexy women fighting their way through a collage of fantasy worlds with the unhinged energy of the craziest Japanese anime you can imagine makes your eyes widen ... well, you will experience full-blown sensory overload with this film.

And I get that some people will have no idea what to make of all of this. But I think that a lot of people refuse to enjoy a film as an almost purely visual showcase. People have such preconceived notions of what a movie should be, it closes their minds to something like Sucker Punch that works on an entirely different level than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

Here's the thing with me: I love art that inspires my imagination. I love staring at comic book covers simply for the outrageous ideas they hint at and the possibilities they tease. I love seeing the raw visual energy of animation. I love the way the aesthetic of over-the-top videogames gives your brain a jolt of electricity in a way that nearly removes you completely from the confines of reality. I love simply seeing a great visual stylist at work, and Zack Snyder is such an artist. To me he is like the Jim Lee of action films - he just has that inherent sense of how to create iconic yet ultra-modern, ultra-cool imagery. Whereas Michael Bay is more like the Rob Liefield of action flicks - presenting ugly visuals and often-incoherant action - Zack Snyder can strike that perfect balance between high-intensity action, beautiful character and world design, and action that actually flows brilliantly from one beat to the next. Sure, Snyder has his crutches. Just like Jim Lee makes his characters look cool with too many hash-marks, Snyder reliably uses the speed-up / slow-down technique to give his action scenes that extra little wow-factor. But like the best martial arts movies or the most intricately-staged musicals, Sucker Punch transports you to a world of high fantasy that shatters the laws of physics and logic, yet somehow hits the sweet spot of sensory stimulation.

And let's face it - for years now, movies have lagged behind videogames in terms of producing insane visual experiences and in terms of setting the standard for bleeding-edge cool. Games like Metal Gear Solid, God of War, and Final Fantasy have long dared to push the limits of visual outrageousness, whereas movies tend to be bound to reality and physics and action-movie-convention and all those other outdated, boring concepts. Well, with Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder says "%#&% that!", and singlehandedly raises the bar for over-the-top visual insanity in movies. For years, Hollywood has been trying to play catch-up to games, trying to figure out how to translate the aesthetic of games to movies - how to inject the tried-and-true action movie with a heavy dose of next-gen videogame-style awesome-factor. Very few films have ever figured out how to do this - how to adopt the visual language of games, comics, or anime into a live-action movie. And the funny thing is that the movies that HAVE brilliantly done this - from Speed Racer to Tron Legacy to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World - have all been universally panned by mainstream critics. These are people who sorely need to expand their visual vocabulary. To denounce SUCKER PUNCH as too videogamey, and to therefore shoehorn it into the same category as unimaginative dreck like Transformers, Prince of Persia, and so many other cash-ins and wannabes is to do the movie a great disservice. And you know what, seeing the sheer visual imagination on display in Sucker Punch ... well, it gives me cause to be hopeful about the new SUPERMAN movie that Snyder will be directing. Because frankly, I'm sick of "realistic" Superman. To me, Superman is a fantastic, epic hero - not a character tied to the "real world", per se. Look at old Jack Kirby or Curt Swan-drawn comics - they are all about bold, iconic ideas and limitless imagination. And that, I think, is what Snyder brings to the table.

Now, there will be many attempts to explain or read into the plot of Sucker Punch, but I think that to treat it as an Inception-style logic puzzle is to totally miss the point. The plotline is actually pretty simple, although it does adhere to a somewhat dreamlike logic. It's funny, because both this and Inception follow videogame-like structures, but whereas Inception is more Call of Duty, Sucker Punch is more The Legend of Zelda - it's that stripped-down, surreal sort of storytelling that makes sense on a micro-level (find the key, open the door), but less so on a macro level (what's "really" going on).

But basically, Sucker Punch follows the character of Baby Doll (a stunning Emily Browning), and her tragic backstory is laid out beautifully in a nearly wordless opening intro. After her mother dies, Baby Doll and her younger sister are left alone with their abusive Step-Dad - who resents the sisters even more when he realizes that all of their late mother's inheritance money went to them and not to him. One day, after being assaulted by her step-dad, Baby Doll grabs a gun and tries to shoot her tormentor, but she misses and accidentally kills her sister. Her step-father uses this as justification to have Baby Doll carted off to an insane asylum, where he pays off the mad-scientist warden, Blue (an awesomely evil Oscar Isaac) to have the poor girl lobotomized by the resident doctor (a cameo role from Jon Hamm). In the moment before the lobotomy, Baby Doll retreats into her own mind and imagines herself in a fantasy version of her current predicament. Instead of being in a drab asylum, she pictures herself as one of a group of girls taken against their wills, and forced to work as prostitutes in a brothel / burlesque house run by Blue. It is here that she assumes the stage name Baby Doll, and where she meets other runaways, castaways, and orphans - Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). The girls are supervised and tutored in dancing by their sympathetic den mother Vera (the always-alluring Carla Gugino). Very quickly, Baby Doll becomes the star of the show - her dances wow Blue, the other girls, and the venue's high-paying clients alike, and soon Blue tells her that he has booked her first official one-on-one job with a sinister-seeming High Roller (the alt-version of Jon Hamm). But Baby Doll is determined to escape the brothel before that happens. While performing one of her first dances, she propels her conciousness into yet another level of dreamscape. It is the first of many fantasy worlds that Baby Doll will visit, each one co-opting the trappings of all manner of geek-friendly genres. Here, she is in a martial-arts movie world where she encounters her dream guide of sorts, a wise mentor (known only as Wise Man), played with appropriate levels of gravitas by Scott Glenn. The Wise Man tells her she needs to find five items to engineer her escape (and here's where the videogame micro-logic comes into play): a map, fire, a knife, a key ... and the fifth object ... is a mystery.

Thus we have the three levels of reality in SUCKER PUNCH: a.) the "real" world where Baby Doll is in an asylum, about to be lobotomized, b.) the alternate reality where she and her burlesque-dancer friends are trying to escape the clutches of Blue, and c.) the fantasy worlds that materialize via alt-Baby Doll's mystical, trance-inducing dances, where she and her friends are reimagined as action movie heroes in crazy sci-fi settings.

To me, the characterization and goals laid out in Worlds A and B were enough to make the balls-to-the-wall, videogame-like action of World C immersive and gripping. Since so much time is spent on the more abstract World C action, there is limited time for the more grounded characterization of World B. But the cast does an excellent job with that time they have. Emily Browning, for one, doesn't have to do a lot, but what she does, she knocks out of the park. Here is a new action-hero icon for the girl-power set, whooping ass seven ways to Sunday with swords, guns, and fists without breaking a sweat, all while wearing a Sailor Moon-esque schoolgirl outfit. Undersized and overmatched, there's still never any doubt that Browning as Baby Doll is willing and able to unleash hell. This, I think, is a star-making performance. No, it's not an Oscar bait performance, but it's one that will isntantly imprint itself deep into the minds of fanboys and fangirls everywhere. The other huge standout to me is Oscar Isaac as Blue - one of the great villainous performances I've seen in a long while. Just unabashedly sleazy, over-the-top, melodramatic, and downright EVIL, this is a guy who you can't wait to see get his just desserts. Carla Gugino is elegant and effective as always, and Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish bring personality and pathos to the proceedings as well. Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung are more window dressing, but hey, in a movie like this, that's allowed.

Now, I've talked about how the narrative of Sucker Punch is more about big ideas and less about jigsaw-puzzle precision. I do think Snyder is trying to make some interesting statements about the male perception and sexualization of women and about the female reaction to that. I think he's playing with ideas of male versus female empowerment fantasy, and grappling with concepts of true-empowerment as opposed to pop-culture's tendency to substitute actual empowerment with male-fantasy-driven faux-empowerment. I think Snyder opens up the door to A LOT of discussion and debate, although I don't know that he himself arrives at any legitimate conclusions. I do think that's part of the point though - the question of what is "girl-power", really? So many of our geeky concepts of hot-girls-kicking-ass have nothing to do with actual female ideals. And yet, here we are watching a movie about fetishized women fighting robots and zombies, and all of the "whoah, cool!" synapses in our fanboy brains are going off. It begs the question - are Baby Doll and her friends any actual woman's true idea of girl-power? Or would most women trade the action-hero chops of the Ellen Ripleys, Beatrix Kiddos, Lara Crofts, and Baby Dolls of the world for the real-world fem-power of the Eleanor Roosevelts, Oprah Winfreys, and Hillary Clintons? Again, I don't know that Sucker Punch arrives at any satisfying conclusions in this regard, but hey, it does offer up some provocative food for thought. By the same token, I do think that Sucker Punch suffers from a narrative that just doesn't have a strong enough connective tissue. This is a surrealist fantasy, so I don't need logical explanations of how we get from Point A to Point B. Snyder is taking his cues less from Christopher Nolan and more from the Terry Gilliams and David Lynch's of the world in this regard. But, you still need the THEMATIC tissue to hold up, and I think that's where Sucker Punch most falters. Key thematic elements of the story - Baby Doll's relationship to Sweat Pea, for example - just seem to come too much out of thin air, with not enough groundwork laid to set the stage for their relationship arc to feel fully fleshed-out. Similarly, the reveal of the fifth and final item needed to escape also feels anticlimactic - the movie wants the reveal to feel inevitable, but I think it's one of the film's biggest "huh?" moments, that just doesn't pack the punch - no pun intended - that it should have.

Still, narrative flaws aside, I love the fact that SUCKER PUNCH is an original vision. Not a sequel, not an adaptation. Hugely influenced by comics, videogames, anime, and sci-fi - yes - it's a pastiche of influences from across the geek spectrum. But it still felt new, fresh, daring and different. And to me, the moments where you're in those fantasy worlds - where Baby Doll and her team of girls-on-a-mission were slicing and dicing their way through hordes of steam-powered Nazi zombies, or flipping and blasting through an armada of glowing robots on a remote outer space outpost - these to me were moments of unrivaled visual glory and action-movie awesomesauce. The movie, particularly these World C sequences, is like every fanboy dream and nightmare rolled into one, delivered with so much style and flair that you can't help but feel like you're watching Zack Snyder actively school every other action director in the business, saying "hey dudes, there's a new sherrif in town." There are times when the movie swings and misses, but in some ways, and where it counts, Sucker Punch positively kicks ass. This will be an easy movie for many to hate on. Personally, I endorse it - as a visual showcase Sucker Punch is second to none - it's one of the most visually mind-melting and imaginative movies I've yet seen.

My Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 23, 2011



- Battle: LA got absolutely eviscerated by a number of prominent movie critics, but after catching it last weekend, the truth is ... it's not that bad. In fact, as compared to some recent alien invasion flicks that were truly awful and abysmal (Skyline, anyone?), Battle LA gets a surprising number of things right. Yes, the movie suffers from some crippling problems - namely, its overly-shaky, less-than-coherant direction - but at the end of the day, it rallies in its third act and delivers some legitimately rousing and entertaining action and thrills. Plus, the movie is anchored by Aaron Eckhart, who is perfectly cast as the gruff, stoic, and superhumanly-determined leader of a squad of anti-alien GI's. Eckhart's performance in Battle LA reestablishes his chops as a true badass -- making you think that any and all superhero flick casting directors had better rethink their laundry lists of go-to action-hero actors, because Eckhart might be their man for the job.

The thing with Battle: LA is that it takes a while to really rev up. And yet, even during its introductory, "gathering of the team" scenes, director Jonathan Liebesman inexplicably subjects the audience to an unsteady, motion-sickness-inducing shakycam - even when the action onscreen solely consists of talking heads. It just reeks of Liebesman trying way too hard to artifically inject the film with some sort of you-are-there edginess. Instead, it's almost unintentionally funny. I mean, action-scene shakycam during dialogue-driven intro scenes? Really? All I can say is that five minutes into Battle: LA, I was prepared to hate it. And for a while, I found myself agreeing with some of the criticisms I had read from the likes of Roger Ebert, who blasted the film for its flimsy plot, characters, and messy, shoddily-choreographed action. For a while there, it was hard to argue.

But there is a strangely effective sort of pacing at work in Battle: LA. The movie plays out like one of those WWE wrestling matches where the good guy gets pounded on for most of the match, only to stage a late, miraculous comeback. Because for a while, Battle: LA really beats up its characters, and in turn, the audience. Within moments of the movie's intro, things are already looking incredibly bleak for humanity. A race of mysterious, warlike aliens have invaded earth, and they haven't bothered to talk or even make demands. They just want to straight-up conquer earth and kill all humans (there's some speculation that they're after our water supply, but it's never delved into with much detail). When the movie begins, a number of major cities are already S.O.L., and so the stage is set for the US Army to make a final stand in Los Angeles, where we later learn one the E.T.'s key central command units is located. Aaron Eckhart's character is the cliched (yet reliably awesome) army vet who was about to retire before the $%#& hit the fan, and who now must knuckle-up and go on one last mission for all the marbles. And it's because of the badassery he displays that we believe his unit has a snowball's chance in hell of making a dent in the seemingly unstoppable alien armada. For much of the film, Eckhart's squad just gets owned. It's almost funny, because since most of the characters sort of bleed together, it's hard to keep tabs on who lives and who dies. After about 45 minutes, I found myself surprised that anyone was still standing. There's not much ebb and flow - for scene after scene, the humans get whooped. Some of the confusion is also due to that pesky shaky-cam. Some of the action sequences are all about creating that sense of immediacy and gritty realism, but the directing style mostly detracts from the fun - with many of those first and second act sequences ending up as more headache-inducing than adrenaline-pumping. Utilizing shakycam means walking a fine line between purposely disorienting the audience and yet making sure to capture and give emphasis to the key action beats. I think that Battle: LA often fails at the latter, to the point where it sometimes feels like you're seeing a random jumble of action rather than actually being told a story.

Again though, Battle: LA makes a late-game rally, and at some point in the latter half of the film I found myself re-invested in the action. The characters had been wittled down to the essentials, and Aaron Eckhart was given the opportunity to give a rousing speech or two to give the movie a much-needed shot in the arm - and some semblance of humanity. This is, afterall, a war movie - and war movies need some sort of mission statement or else ... what's the point? Finally, we had a clear mission and a clear rallying cry -- Battle: LA was back in business. And I give the movie credit - it's final half hour or so is genuinely pretty kickass, with some well-put-together action scenes and a sense of urgency and coherancy that other segments of the movie lacked. The movie tightens up and narrows its focus on Eckhart, and much to my surprise I was rooting for him to overcome the odds, execute his risky, make-or-break last-ditch plan, and kick some alien tail.

Battle: LA ends on a send-'em-home-happy high note, and while I went in worried that this would be a bomb, I came away thinking it came surprisingly close to being da' bomb. Still, the movie was a long ways away from reaching its full potential. A bigger, better, more imaginative backstory and mythology would have gone a long way towards building out the world of the film. Too much of the movie seems to exist sans larger context, and it makes the film feel too insular and bland. I think of something like the book World War Z, where author Max Brooks went to such great lengths to paint a global portrait of his story of man-vs.-zombie warfare, and I wonder why Battle: LA seemed to put in such comparitively little effort at world-building. I also had some major issues with the direction / action choreography. Luckily, the movie tightened up at crunch time, but I think the shakycam style is only about 50% effective and 50% detrimental. Finally, Aaron Eckhart knocks it out of the park in this one, but the rest of the cast has little to do and there are very few other characters that are interesting or stand out from the pack.

At the end of the day, I do think that Battle: LA is a reasonably solid effort and that it has some legitimately kickass moments. To completely dismiss it speaks more to the inherent biases of certain reviewers than it does to the actual quality of the film. By no means a great work of cinema, but an entertaining action flick nonetheless.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PAUL - A Close Encounter of the Comedy Kind.

PAUL Review:

- PAUL may not be in quite the same league as the new-classics Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it is nonetheless a highly entertaining and endearing buddy comedy. With plenty of pleasingly geeky references, and enough genuine heart to counterbalance all the bodily-function jokes, Paul is a must-see for fans of Brit-comic duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Even if the third ingredient in the comedy trifecta - writer/director Edgar Wright - is sadly missing from this re-teaming of Pegg and Frost, PAUL still feels like a couple of hours of hanging out with old friends. It's geek comfort food.

PAUL tells the tale of two nerdy guys - Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost) - from across the pond, who journey to the US & A on a pilgrimage of geekdom. Their first stop is the San Diego Comic-Con, and from there, they plan to do a cross-country roadtrip based around America's most infamous UFO hotspots - Area 51, Roswell, etc. Of course, their fanboy minds are collectively blown when, while on their roadtrip, they have their own personal close encounter - with a wise-crackin', attitude-laden' alien by the name of Paul. Graeme and Clive agree to help their new E.T. friend phone home, all the while keeping him out of sight of nosy FBI agents, revenge-seeking rednecks, and assorted other men-who-mean-them-harm. With Ruth - a stowaway religious nut (played by SNL's Kristin Wiig) - onboard, all hands are on-deck to help Paul escape the clutches of the US government and contact his mothership. All the while, an unlikely but oddly poignant friendship forms between Graeme, Clive, and Paul (gruffly voiced by Seth Rogen). Bonds are formed, lessons are learned, laughs are shared, and geek love and geek man-love blossoms. It's all pretty by-the-book stuff, but it's also winningly charming thanks to the combined likability-factor of Pegg, Frost, and Rogen.

PAUL is also basically bursting at the seams with talented comedic actors who fill out the supporting cast. Sure, you know going in that you'll be treated to the lovably quirky duo of pegg and Frost, and you know that you've got Seth Rogen voicing your quintissential alien-with-a-'tude. But you've also got Jason Bateman as a driven government agent, and Bill Hader and the ever-reliable Joe Lo Truglio as his FBI underlings. Jeffrey Tambor shows up as a prickly sci-fi author. Jane Lynch cameos as a sassy diner-owner. And even Ellen Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver, shows up as a Big Bad. There are a couple of other funny cameos to boot, but in general, Paul just feels like a nonstop barrage of funny people coming at you.

All of the on-camera talent in Paul probably helps elevate the movie past where it might have been otherwise. The script has its moments, and is littered with plenty of crowd-pleasing references and homages to many of the sacred cows of sci-fi cinema, from Star Wars to E.T. to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark (hell, even Mac & Me is name-dropped). There's a whole sequence that takes place at Comic-Con. The feeling of fanboy love is tangible. But, what's missing is the razor-sharp wit and satirical edginess of Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. As I alluded to earlier, Edgar Wright is very much conspicuous by his absence here. The writing is more formulaic and the jokes less clever, and the direction is more run-of-the-mill and less eye-popping than in Wright's previous collaborations with Pegg and Frost. Superbad director Greg Mottolla does an admirable job here, but he gives the movie a stock, 80's-roadtrip-movie-style look and pace. Whereas Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz paid tribute to the classics but also innovated, Paul is more of a warm, cozy blanket type of comedy.

You do wish that Paul spent some more time gently mocking some of the sci-fi greats, because it has a couple of great scenes of satire. The climactic, ET-style mothership landing scene is particularly funny and well-done, for example. But mostly, the movie consists of a lot of humor of the sex, drugs, and toilet variety. Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se. But sometimes it feels a bit too lowest-common-denominator as compared to what you might expect from these folks. Oddly, when Paul does try to delve into satire beyond mocking sci-fi movies, it falters a bit. Kristin Wiig's character, Ruth, is from a fundamentalist, anti-evolution family, and her core beliefs are shattered upon meeting the alien Paul (afterall, where does he fit in to her idea of creationism?). While Wiig has some scene-stealing moments, her character definitely feels sort of cartoonish and heavy-handed, and it feels odd that a sci-fi homage like PAUL spends so much time critiquing religious fundamentalism - it just seems out of place.

Still, PAUL is perhaps much more likable than it might have been without the dynamic duo of Pegg and Frost front and center. The two are now a bit older and a bit shaggier than before, but they still radiate so much genuine fanboy enthusiasm that you've got to love 'em. And it therefore holds true that the movie's most enjoyable moments revolve around its two leads. On one hand, all of their geeky shout-outs are awesome and a lot of fun. On the other hand, I really liked the scenes in Paul that sort of reflected Pegg and Frost's own journey from starving fanboys to Comic-Con icons. Like their real-life counterparts, Paul's duo of Graeme and Clive - through determination, persistance, and lots of luck - go from geeky zeros to fanboy heroes, and that's where the movie's big heart really shines through. You can't help but root for these guys - both the actors themselves and the characters they portray. Even when Paul isn't firing on all cylinders, you know that Pegg and Frost are doing their best to fight the good fight.

My Grade: B+

Monday, March 14, 2011

Freaks, Geeks, and a Night To Remember: a Recap of the UNDECLARED / FREAKS & GEEKS Event at Paley Fest!


- If you're a pop culture / TV nerd, there's really no better event than the annual Paley Fest, held each year in LA. The 'fest is a huge celebration of great TV shows past and present, consisting of a series of panel events where the cast and crew of the various featured series gather for screenings, Q&A's, discussion, etc. Most nights of the Paley Fest are dedicated to currently-airing series, although there are usually one or two nights that serve as reunions for / tributes to some of the most beloved shows in TV history. I've been to a few Paley Fest events, and they've been uniformly great. The main problem for most fans is that event tickets are very, very pricey (especially if you're not a Paley Center member), and also that, despite the high ticket prices, most of the higher-profile panels sell out ridiculously quickly. Luckily, the last two years I've gotten complimentary tix thanks to some work connections. Last year, I got to attend the CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM panel, which was amazing. The assemblage of talent onstage was amazing, and consisted of any number of hilarious people - many of whom, like Larry David, don't tend to do a lot of public appearances. This year, however, the event was a whole other level of awesome. Because this was no ordinary Paley Fest panel, but a special, one-night-only reunion of two of TV's best and most beloved cancelled-too-early series - UNDECLARED and FREAKS & GEEKS. Each produced by Judd Apatow, both shows featured stars who went on to become some of Hollywood's hottest comedy stars (and of course Apatow himself went on to become a high-profile director and prolific producer). Aside from all that though, both of these shows were and are stone-cold classics. Freaks & Geeks in particular is right up there as one of my all-time favorite shows. I was one of the few who watched it every week during its original run, and it was a hugely influential show on me. In fact, I'd go so far to say that along with The Simpsons and The X-Files, it was one of the shows that really made me want to work in TV in the first place. This was a show that was ahead of its time and, in all likelihood, too good for TV (at least the TV of 1999).

Now, I wasn't sure where we'd be sitting for the event. Last year we were towards the back of the mezzanine section of the Saban theater in Beverly Hills, so I thought perhaps we'd be in the same section this year. Turns out, we had reserved seats about five rows from the stage, front and center. It was pretty incredible - in the row right next to us was the Apatow family, including actress Leslie Mann. When the stars came out for the panels, we were right there. So that alone was amaing. The other big surprise was that our tickets came with backstage passes to the event's afterparty. I wasn't mentally prepared for that at all, so it was a little hard to process. Yes, I work in TV, but I still get starstruck mingling with people whose careers I've followed and admired for so long. But more on that later.

The UNDECLARED panel was up first, and it was introduced in hilarious fashion by Judd Apatow's young daughter, who nervously but entertainingly cracked some jokes to kickoff the evening. Before the cast came out, we all watched an episode of the show together in the theater, which was pretty awesome. I've revisted F&G a few times over the years, but I haven't really sat down and watched Undeclared since its original airing - during my sophomore year of college in 2001 / 2002. The episode that screened, "Eric Visits Again," was even funnier than I remembered it. Guest starring Jason Segel as the revenge-seeking boyfriend of main character Lizzie, the episode was packed to the brim with great dialogue and hilarious physical comedy. It was a lot of fun to revisit the show, which ran for only one season on FOX back in the day - one in a long list of victims of FOX's horrible scheduling and promotional practices in the early 00's. But man, was this show good. And as the talent onstage for the panel clearly demonstrated, the cast was an embarrasment of riches. From frequent guest stars like Segel and Amy Poehler (both on the panel) to star Jay Baruchel, from soon-to-be-bigtime directors like Greg Mottolla (Superbad) and Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard). Pretty incredible.

The banter during the panel was a lot of fun, with Segel and Poehler stealing the show. Segel talked up his movie-star credentials and had some playful disses of Baruchel, while Poehler gave some interesting insight into Judd Apatow's early TV history, recalling the never-picked-up pilot she did with him called North Hollywood. Seth Rogen was also very funny on the panel. Despite being one of the biggest stars out onstage, Rogen impressed with his slice-of-life stories and random pop-culture knowledge (at one point, the cast was trying to remember who sang the song "Bitch," since apparently it was popular while they were shooting the show - without missing a beat, Rogen recalled that it was Meredith Brooks).

An interesting theme throughout the night was seeing how so many of the old Apatow gang has gone on to huge stardom - Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Jay Baruchel have all blown up from the cast of Undeclared, for example. And yet, as is the way of things in showbiz, a lot of the cast members have struggled since their time in Undeclared or F&G. Some have had sort of journeyman careers over the last ten years, others have gone on to do stand-up or writing or producing, and others have either been on the fringes of showbiz or out of the business altogether. You have guys like Seth Rogen who have become huge, and someone like Carla Gallo, who's had mostly bit parts since Undeclared. And then there's someone like Kyle Gass of Tenacious D - a recurring guest star on the show - who, well, he's Kyle freaking Gass.

In any case, the panel was filled with great stories, lots of back-and-forth banter, some playful jabs at the various cast members, and a number of interesting insights into the show's history and production.

After a short intermission, it was time for the FREAKS & GEEKS portion of the event to begin. Judd Apatow's daughter again came onstage and said "Are you guys ready to see an episode of Freaks & Geeks?" (huge applause) "Or would you rather just watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County?".
Luckily, we ended up watching a classic episode of F&G - the season (and sadly, series) finale, in fact. Fans of the show will recall that in 2000, NBC chose to pull the show from its regular timeslot, and then burned off some of the remaining episodes in one Saturday night marathon. Only later did the now-defunct FOX Family Channel air the final four still-unaired episodes via syndication. The show's shoddy treatment from the network was pretty devastating at the time. Here was a show that was so above and beyond almost everything else on the air, and it was being treated like a red-headed step child. In retrospect, it doesn't sting as much if only because the show now works so well as a one-season-long storyline, easily digested on DVD. But still, to think that a show that good was treated so poorly by the network, and also that - come on, America! - it got such relatively low ratings ... well, it's crazy.

Like I said, I've rewatched F&G a bit, so seeing the finale again was like comfort food. Although, the added novelty of watching it with a theater full of huge fans was pretty awesome. It's funny because the finale isn't even an episode that I'd rank as one of the series' best, per se, but it still has so many memorable moments. Most notably is the plotline in which Daniel Desario joins the AV Club and, eventually joins the geeks for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It's a hilarious and moving storyline, and the episode as a whole - while having a sort of rushed feel to it as it tries to wrap up a number of the seasons' ongoing character arcs - is still pretty damn good. As a whole, the show holds up amazingly well, even 10+ years later. There still are NOT many shows out there that depict teenagers with any sort of authenticity. And yet Freaks & Geeks, with its young and talented cast, its dead-on writing, and its blend of humor and pathos, just nails it.

As all of the show's stars gathered onstage, it was, again, pretty amazing to see the raw assemblage of talent and starpower. The only major star missing was James Franco, though he contributed a pretty great video greeting that poked fun at his Oscar hosting gig, as it costarred a photo of Anne Hathaway (Franco, apparently, doesn't go anywhere without her these days). Again though, it was kind of interesting to see the contrast between the guys like Seth Rogen and Jason Siegel who have blown up, the people like Busy Philipps and Samm Levine and Linda Cardellini -who have had steady work but never quite on the level of F&G, and then people like Natasha Melnik (who played geek-crush Cindy), who seemed a bit embarassed to admit that she'd done time waitressing since the show ended. It was also funny to see how some of the cast had aged (John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, had definitely grown up a lot since his days as a young teen on F&G), whereas some had barely aged at all (Samm Levine joked that he was the only cast member who could still play his old character in a remake). There was also just an interesting dynamic on stage - it really did feel like we were watching a true reunion. Seth Rogen and Jason Segel joked around like best buddies, whereas Rogen's reminiscing about his days rooming with Martin Starr had a nostalgic, "those were the days" quality (Judd Apatow joked that he used to refer to their ramshackle apartment as "the masturbatorium"). Many of the cast remarked how they had barely recognized the sleekly made-over Melnik. And then, one of the most fascinating characters onstage had to be Stephen Lea Sheppard, who played nerd-king Harris on the show. Clearly not far removed in real life from the character he played, Sheppard seems to have exited showbiz altogether post-F&G, retreating back to the wilds of Canada from the spotlight of Hollywood, and seemed sort of bemused just to be sitting on the same panel as so many of his old castmates who have since achieved stardom. There was an almost voyeuristic quality to all this, and there was a real, sincere feeling that we were peering in on a group of people who shared this crazy, singular moment in their lives and were now genuinely having the equivalent of a ten-year high school reunion. Busy Philipps even played the part of drunk-girl-who-can't-help-bringing-up-ancient-but-still-possibly-raw-history. Admitting that she was slightly inebriated, Philipps told stories about the absent James Franco with a mix of mocking humor and maybe a little soreness. Apparently, Franco was trying to be all method while shooting the show, and would take on the rough-edged Daniel Desario persona even between takes. One time Philipps put her hand on his shoulder or something, and Franco, immersed in his character, flipped out and yelled "don't touch me" and pushed her to the ground. Soon enough the set was in chaos, Cardellini was in her trailer crying, etc. Meanwhile, Samm Levine was the group historian, recounting the show's troubled broadcast history. And Apatow was sort of the doting father. Along with creator Paul Fieg, he clearly looked at this cast with a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. As Segel put it, Apatow felt a sense of resposibility for them. Afterall, many had dropped out of high school or college to be on the show, and Apatow then went out of his way to keep as many of the cast working as possible.

There were all kinds of great anecdotes at the panel, lots of hilarious banter, and again, many great insights into one of the truly seminal TV shows of the last 25 years. Martin Starr wrapped things up with some great thoughts about the experience of creating Freaks & Geeks, and he ended the panel on a poignant note when he talked about what it meant for him to be a part of it.
After the panel, we flashed our tickets to get into the backstage area for the afterparty. It was pretty awesome, on one hand - to be in a small room with so many big stars and actors who I grew up watching. It was a little awkward on the other hand, just because I had no real "in" to talk to any of them, and the only other random people I knew at the event were through work and had no particular ins either. It's always that strange mix at these sorts of things. You want to just be a fan and ask for a picture or autograph, but you also want to act like you belong there and play it cool. So yeah, suffice it to say I didn't have any big moment with any cast members, and also didn't have the nerve to bumrush Judd Apatow with a copy of one of my screenplays (probably a good thing). But hey, I still had that "look at me, Ma" feeling of hanging with the stars and being right there where the action was (of course, my actual parents had minimal reaction to all this - they don't know Seth Rogen from Paul Hogan). And man, if my 18 year old self had known that one day I'd be in a room with Linda Cardelini, well, my 18 year old self would have totally freaked. And hey, let's be honest ... my 28 year old self was semi-freaking out as well.

Anyways, it was a really fun event, and the backstage access made it that much more memorable. So here's to UNDECLARED, FREAKS & GEEKS, great TV, and big Hollywood dreams!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ready to Tango With RANGO ...?

RANGO Review:

- Even if Rango isn't a perfect movie, it's one you've got to admire, and one that you want to support. In a world filled with cookie-cutter ideas - particularly in the often-dumbed-down, lazily-plotted world of big-screen animation - it's awesome to see a movie that feels this original, this different, this weird. Yes, Rango is essentially a talking-animal CGI movie, but it doesn't feel patterned after your typical Disney or Dreamworks affair. If anything, it's a whacked-out homage to classic Westerns, film noir, and other old-Hollywood staples, with a healthy dose of postmodern surrealism thrown into the mix. There's also big action, absurdist comedy, and delightfully trippy animation that brings to mind classic Looney Tunes. Rango will make you smile, but it might also make you think "WTF?!". But in a good way. Because this is one of those rare animated films that doesn't feel made by committee - it feels like someone's strange fever dream, dreamt after a night of old movies and too much candy, transplanted from their mind directly to the screen.

Rango begins with our titular character - a scrawny lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp and resembling his version of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) - in the midst of an existential crisis. Trapped in a small terrarium, the lizard is forced to wonder about his true purpose in life. In a Waiting For Godot-like void, the lizard is forced to converse with inanimate objects and stage one-man-plays for his own entertainment. However, his world turns upside down when he's shaken loose from his terrarium, while being hauled in the back of a car by his owners. Stranded in the middle of a stretch of lonesome desert highway, the lizard sets off to find meaning, identity, and yes, adventure.

After a lengthy prologue that ie enjoyably strange but also a bit too ponderous for its own good, RANGO really picks up steam once he stumbles into the town of Dirt - a dusty, lawless place that seems transplanted directly from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western - except, you know, populated by talking animals. And while the trappings are pure Wild West, the plotline soon takes on the tropes of Chinatown, as we find out that Dirt is quickly running out of water - water that's being hoarded by someone out to squeeze the townsfolk for all they're worth. If you've seen Chinatown, then you'll quickly cast a suspicious eye at Dirt's charismatic, grandstanding mayor. And if you've seen Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, than you'll notice a resemblance between the fearsome serpent who terrorizes Dirt - Rattlesnake Jake - and the "Bad" of Leone's film played iconically by Lee Von Cleef. And, if you're familiar with old-school Westerns, you'll also get a huge thrill (maybe even some chills), during the scene when Rango - now the self-styled Sherriff of Dirt - has a surreal encounter with the very familiar-looking Spirit of the West.

There are all sorts of reverant tributes and homages in Rango - stylistically and plot-wise, and it makes for a really fun viewing experience for anyone who's a big film fan. The movie has a lot of rapid-fire humor, both visual and dialogue-driven, but it also has a strange sort of gravitas as well. There's a real epic quality to the story - in part due to the awe-inspiring, sweeping visuals, and partly due to the surrealistic, expressionistic style, which gives everything an air of hidden meaning and metaphor. And man, those visuals ... this really is one of the more beautifully-animated movies you'll ever see. This one isn't about hyper-detail, like, say, last year's Legend of the Guardians. Instead, it's more about creating these evocative landscapes and characters, and giving the whole thing an enormous sense of scope, motion, and picturesque, high-contrast, modern art brilliance. And while certain frames of the film are fit for, well, framing, there are also a couple of epic action scenes where director Gore Verbinski channels his own Pirates of the Carribean movies and just goes balls-to-the-wall in terms of screen-filling, madcap craziness.

So what's not to like about Rango? I guess it's just that for all it's visual bluster, the story and plotting is just so all over the map that the movie would tend to lose me at times. There are a number of scenes that are a lot of fun and very cool in and of themselves, but the movie's overall connective tissue can be a little flimsy. In some ways, it leaves you feeling a little empty, if only because it never quite succeeds at telling a coherant story that keeps you invested. I mean, what is RANGO? Is it a Western, a film noir, an action movie, a kids movie, a comedy, a surrealist art-film? It's a little bit of all of the above, and yet not quite any of them. In a way, you've got to like a movie that doesn't confine itself to any one genre or style. On the other hand, sometimes the result is less seamless than it should be (especially when you compare to the effortlessly genre-bending works of, say, the Coen Bros., or even the wonderously hilarious videogames of Tim Schaefer - like Grim Fandango - of which Rango really reminded me). In Rango, the stylistic shifting is just too messy to really come together in a way that 100% works.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed Rango, and would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it's refreshing to see something that doesn't feel like a stock Dreamworks or Pixar or Disney movie. This is something that is wholly its own, and I admire that. And on a purely visual level, Rango is astounding, cementing Gore Verbinski as one of the true visual masters working behind the camera today. I can't wait to see what sort of imaginative world he takes us to next (and I'd still love to see his take on Rapture, aka the world of Bioshock). Finally, Rango is just a pretty cool tribute to classic movies and stories and character archtypes. A lot of love and passion went into this one, and that makes this a movie that, despite its flaws, is still in my mind a must-see.

My Grade: B+

Friday, March 04, 2011

Should You Join Up With THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU ...?


- I suspect that The Adjustment Bureau is going to be a somewhat divisive movie. In some ways, there's a lot to like about it. In particular, if you go in simply looking for a light, relatively breezy romance with some supernatural elements, you may come away plenty satisfied. However, if the film's marketing led you to believe that this was, in fact, a more hardcore sort of sci-fi movie, a mind-bender on par with movies like Inception - I think you will likely come way fairly disappointed. The fact is, the movie is somewhat "soft" sci-fi. It presents an admittedly charming love story, but the real selling point of the film (to me) - its examination of fate vs. free will - is never taken as seriously or examined as thoroughly as I would have liked.

Like I said though, the movie is definitely charming if nothing else. As soon as our hero, a young would-be Senator played Matt Damon, meets a mysterious dancer, played by Emily Blunt, it's love at first sight for them, and for us, it's easy to buy into. The two stars have an easygoing, believable chemistry, and there's a lot of fun banter between them. It's easy to imagine a version of the movie where, stripped of all the supernatural stuff, it's just an interesting little romance about a slightly edgy senator and the free-spirited woman who falls for him. Damon and Blunt both do a great job, particularly when they're just doing ordinary boy-meets-girl sorts of things. The strange thing though is that the two do such a good job of coming off as natural and believable, that it's ultimately pretty jarring when the movie shifts to sci-fi mode. The contrast in tonalities is almost too much, and the movie ends up having to walk a very fine line between treating its supernatural element with a light, whimsical touch and simply coming off as goofy and groan-worthy.

At first, Matt Damon's encounters with the enigmatic members of The Adjustment Bureau - the men who ensure that our collective fates play out as they are meant to - are suitably creepy and interesting. Dressed in ominous-looking hats-and-trenchcoats, the Bureau members - including the likes of John Slattery, Terence Stamp, and Anthony Mackie - call to mind the similarly-dressed, otherworldly watchers in such films and TV shows as Dark City and Fringe. But soon enough, despite the inherent awesomeness of the actors mentioned above, the Bureau team becomes less threatening and more ridiculous. They have lame "rules" - like a weakness against water and a reliance on their hats as a source of power - that are more chuckle-worthy than cool. And there's the fact that despite being near-omnipotent beings, they're always having to run around New York City on foot in pursuit of Matt Damon. Anthony Mackie sort of pulls it off, but seeing middle-aged Slattery and senior citizen Stamp have to hoof it to try to track down Damon is sort of comical.

From a visual perspective as well, the movie feels surprisingly mundane. There's not a ton of visual flair or atmospheric touches. You might expect this sort of movie to have some pretty trippy moments or mind-bending sorts of sequences, but not really - it all feels pretty plain. Indeed, I was more surprised by the film's opening montage of Damon with a barrage of high-profile poilticians who turn in cameos - from Mayor Bloomberg to Jesse Jackson - than I was with any particular action or f/x sequence. Actually, I thought the heavy use of real-world cameos - from John Stewart to James Carville - while at times funny, rooted the movie almost too heavily in reality.

Overall though, I just felt like the movie posited some intriguing questions, but never took them to their logical extremities. We know that Damon and Blunt are not "supposed to" be together, but we never really understand why. We know that the Bureau guys seem to want Damon to have this great political career, but again, we never really understand why. We never *really* seem to know the stakes. To that end, the perspective of the Bureau comes off as perpetually weak and baseless. Why do they really care if Damon and Blunt hook up? Again, the movie never fully explores any of the possible timelines it sets up - there's just this very vague notion that if Damon and Blunt end up together, well, it won't be good for them in some mysterious, cosmic sense. There is a lot of pseudo-theological talk, but it all just has an air of spotty new-agey blandness. To me, the whole thing felt half-baked - an intriguing premise without any real follow-through - and certainly never approaching the jaw-dropping conceptual extremes of movies like Dark City.

Instead, much of the movie ends up just being Matt Damon running through New York, trying to evade the persistant pursuers of the Bureau (and oddly, sometimes they seem able to appear wherever they want, and sometimes they have to amusingly run after him, as I mentioned above). When Damon, with the help of Mackie's sympathetic Bureau member, finally hatches a plan to outrun the Bureau guys in order to track down his one true love, the plan comes off as so silly that it took me out of the movie. To that end, the movie in my mind could have been saved by really ending with a bang - some huge reveal that tied everything together and served as that big "aha!" moment that the movie really needs. Unfortunately, things end with a pretty predictable and unremarkable wimper - I won't spoil things, but the ending is sort of proof that this movie never really aspired to be much more than a high-concept romance. And that, to me - especially given that this is based on a Philip K. Dick story - is disappointing.

As a send-'em-home-happy romance, The Adjustment Bureau gets the job done, and as a date movie it certainly isn't a bad choice. But again, given that the concept seemed so ambitious, with so many intriguing story possibilities at its core, it's too bad that the film didn't go all-out to really try and blow our minds. This isn't a cerebral movie at all, which I realize, is fine for some. But with some excellent performances from a talented and charismatic cast (you really do root for Damon and Blunt to end up together), I have to imagine that this one could have - with the right creative vision behind it - taken a different and much more satisfying path. I guess it simply wasn't meant to be.

My Grade: B-

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Hair Metal Madness: a ROCK OF AGES Musical Review!

I've reviewed movies, TV shows, concerts, and comedy shows ... but never have I reviewed a musical here on this blog ... until now!


- This past weekend, I was lucky enough to attend my first full-fledged musical in LA - ROCK OF AGES. Now, while I grew up with a lot of theater and musicals, I hadn't actually seen much since moving to LA, and I had yet to attend the Pantages theater, LA's signature playhouse (located right in the heart of Hollywood on Hollywood and Vine). So what was it that finally got me to visit the Pantages and see my first LA-based musical? It was Rock of Ages - a show comprised entirely of vintage 80's rock and hair-metal songs. As a certified fan of all things 80's and rock, as a man who's seen the likes of Poison, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Styxx, and Van Halen live and in concert, this was a show that seemed specially made for me. The show actually originated here in LA a few years back - eventually, it opened on Broadway, and is now touring the country. It's only fitting that I saw it in LA though, as the musical is set on the Sunset Strip circa the mid to late 80's. It's just like when I saw My Fair Lady in London at the theater in Covent Garden! Umm ... sort of.

So ... how is the show? Well, I enjoyed it, although it works best if you think about it as less of a musical and as more of just a highly-choreographed 80's rock concert. The fact is that the connective tissue between songs - aka the plot - is sorta weak, and very, very cheesy (yep, even by musical standards). My main basis for comparison here is We Will Rock You - the musical based off of the songs of Queen. I wholeheartedly loved that show and I actually thought it's crazy, sci-fi dystopia plot was pretty awesome - and it really helped to give the music a totally different context than what we're used to. In Rock of Ages, the thin plot is basically an excuse to use various 80's staples. I mean, as soon as you realize that one of the main characters is "just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world ...", well, you can pretty much guess that things are building towards a climactic rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Going deeper though, the show's plot concerns the 1980's Sunset Strip - a haven for sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. LA's new (and in this case fictional) mayor is entertaining a proposal from a Danish businessman who wants to gentrify the Strip and turn it into something more closely resembling a strip mall. As local businesses - like the sleazy dive bar where our main characters hang out - face the prospect of forced closure, the patrons rally to keep the place going. Meanwhile, our main character - Drew - is a would-be rock star who dreams of fame, fortune, and girls girls girls. He has his eyes on Sherrie, the aforementioned small-town girl who's fresh off the midnight train, and trying to make it in Tinseltown as an actress. However, just when Drew seems to be winning over Sherrie, he has to compete for her affections with Stacee Jaxx - an over-the-top rock-star who's like David Lee Roth meets Brett Michaels. It's a pretty simple story, like I said, though again, the main point here is just to find a way to shoehorn in as many 80's rockers and ballads as humanly possible.

And if you're a fan of such music (and I hope you are), you will likely get a huge kick out of the various numbers in this one. It's fun and somewhat funny to hear classics like Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and White Snake's "Hear I Go Again ..." used as the centerpieces of melodramatic musical numbers. One thing that I had mixed feelings about though is that a large percentage of the music here consists of mash-ups. Sometimes they are indeed pretty fun and clever ( a mash-up of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You" and Asia's "Heat of the Moment" was a favorite). But sometimes I found myself disappointed that we didn't just get a full, complete, non-mashed-up song. For example, I was psyched to hear the cast bust out Mr. Big's "Be With You," but then annoyed when it was mashed-up with Extreme's "More Than Words."

All in all though, the music is pure aural pleasure if you are a devotee of hair metal and power ballads. If you like your rock monsterous, then Rock of Ages will hit your sweet spot and rock your face in. The cast that I saw here in LA and that's currently touring the country is also very talented. The standout is definitely American Idol alum Constantine Maroulis, who is a total natural at belting out the 80's tunes. What his voice lacks in Dee Snyder-esque grit, it makes up for with a Sebastian Bach-like ability to wail and shriek. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, although I wouldn't say that anyone in particular blew my mind.

Otherwise, the humor of the show is a mixed bag. Some of the jokes work by sheer force of will from the very game cast. Some of the characters like Franz (the flamboyant son of the Danish developer) and Regina (a politically-active hippie chick) are so cartoonish that they'd be grating if not for the charisma of the actors who play them. Plus, the humor definitely falls flat at times when the show goes for Mel Brooks-style wink-at-the-audience humor. I don't know why, for example, the show felt the need to resort to the old "let's check the script to find out what happens to the characters" gag, as popularized by Spaceballs. There are definitely plenty of groan-worthy moments in the script, but it's hard to get too bogged down worrying about 'em, since again, it's really just build-up to the next big 80's-rock musical montage.

So yes, at the end of the day I had a blast with Rock of Ages, and would highly recommend it for any afficionado of hair metal. Seeing songs by the likes of Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and Europe as part of a musical is in and of itself pretty darn entertaining. I don't put this in the same league as We Will Rock You, because it just isn't innovative or clever enough to be considered on that same level of quality. But it is, most definitely, a rockin' good time.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Don't Worry, DRIVE ANGRY ...!


- In my recent review of Unknown, I lamented the fact that 2011 had yet to produce a signature, awesomely-over-the-top B-movie. I mean, it's tradition - typically, we get at least one glorious slice of grindhouse pulp in the early months of the year, as the studios change course from winter prestige pics and slowly rev up for summertime blockbusters. Well, one movie has answered the call, and that movie is DRIVE ANGRY. A ridiculous, hilarious, and unabashedly insane film in the grand postmodern exploitation tradition of Machete and Planet Terror, Drive Angry is pure, balls-to-the-wall trash - and I mean that in the best way possible.

One thing that's telling about Drive Angry - it features Nicholas Cage in full-on crazy mode. Now, we all know that Cage is a, well, unique sort of actor. There are times when he's cast in a "serious' movie, and his inherent strangeness makes it hard to take things, you know, seriously. Other times, his semi-unintentional, over-the-top style is the one entertaining aspect of an otherwise awful movie. Wicker Man, anyone? And then, there are those glorious moments where Nicholas Cage gets to act completely insane in a movie that's also completely insane. Werner Herzog's recent remake Bad Lieutenant was perhaps the best example of such a phenomenon ... until now. Yep, Drive Angry is that perfect Cage vehicle that plays to the fact that Cage - in his attempts to be badass despite looking like a homeless farmer - is actually hilarious. And so what we have here is a movie that wants you to laugh and smile along with Cage's pseudo-action-hero antics. This is a movie with dialogue so nonsensical and over the top that you have to laugh. This is a movie where an evil cult leader carries around the femur bone of Nicholas Cage's daughter - whom he murdered - an uses it as a vanity cane. This is a movie where Cage drinks a beer from the skull of his fallen enemy. Where the body count is high. Where the outfit on female lead Amber Heard is perpetually skimpy. Yes folks, this is old-school B-movie action/exploitation, and if this sort of thing floats your boat, then you should run out and go see it while this movie is still in theaters.

The plot is simple: Cage is John Milton, a former convict who, after dying, was sentanced to a lifetime of eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell. However, when Cage's undead soul gets word that, back on earth, his daughter was murdered by an evil cult leader, and her baby stolen, Cage is so PO'd that he drives straight outta hell back to earth, with sweet revenge on his mind. While Cage tracks down the nefarious cult leader and his missing granddaughter - with the help of a hot, trailer-trash waitress who he picks up along the way - a minion of Hell known as The Accountant has been dispatched to find Cage and bring him back to the underworld. Yes, this movie is insane. I never said otherwise.

Cage is Cage, delivering the most absurd lines the movie can throw at him with absolutely zero hint of ironic detachment. It's awesome and funny as hell. Meanwhile, if you are a fan of badass actors, then you are probably a fan of the great William Fichtner. You may know him from many small roles in movies like Heat and The Dark Knight, or from his awesome turn as a rogue FBI agent on TV's Prison Break. Fichtner is the man, and he is once again the man here as the dapperly-dressed hellspawn known as The Accountant. Fichtner delivers all of his lines with icy-cool gravitas, and is both badass and very funny. It's great to see him in such a substantial and fun role. A bigger surprise though is Amber Heard. More than just a pretty face, the up-and-coming actress actually does a remarkably solid job in this one. She's totally game for all of the action that's demanded of her, and seems a natural at kicking ass and taking names. She also seems quite adept at adapting to the movie's B-movie stylings, delivering her dialogue with a near-perfect mix of commitment and self-seriousness, as well as self-aware campiness. After her strong performance in Drive Angry, I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more of Amber Heard (ahem ... in action movies, I mean).

There are a number of great character actor types who are peppered throughout the movie as well. A real scene stealer is Tom Atkins, as a howlin', shotgun-toting police captain. David Morse is also great as an old friend and associate of Cage's. Finally, Katy Mixon, who was so good on Eastbound & Down as Kenny Powers' one true love, is similarly funny here as a lusty waitress who shares an intimate moment or two with Cage. The only real weakpoint is Billy Burke as cult leader Jonah King. He's overshadowed by Fichtner in terms of scene-stealing villainy, and doesn't make quite as much of an impression as he should.

On a sidenote, Drive Angry was shot in 3D, and it looks very good as compared to the typical movie that receives as rushed post-conversion to three dimensions. Rather than shy away from over-the-top 3D f/x, director Patrick Lussier has bullets and explosions and body parts fly right at your face, making for a very visceral experience to say the least. Now, some of the action scenes aren't always jaw-dropping, and some lack the mind-blowing insanity of similar fare like, say, Shoot 'Em Up (one scene in particular in Drive Angry - you'll know the one I mean - seems to pay homage to that Clive Owen-starring pic). But, Drive Angry does have many a mean car chase, complete with vintage 70's-era muscle cars, making for some truly explosive metal-on-metal action.

I guess I'd also say that this is a movie that comes at you nonstop at 100 mph. Sometimes, it's hilarious and entertaining. But there are sections where the movie tends to drag a bit, and sometimes the dialogue feels more flat than funny. And yet, just when you start to lose interest and your mind begins to wander, something so crazy and weird happens that you can't help but look at your friends in shock and awe. The movie isn't as sharply shot or written as, say, Machete - but its sleazy, shlocky vibe is nonetheless admirable.

DRIVE ANGRY is by no means a *great* film, but it's entertaining as hell ... no pun intended. If you're in the mood to see a B-movie grindhouse flick with Nicholas Cage at his most insane, William Fichtner being awesome, and Amber Heard in cutoff jean shorts, well, what are you waiting for, get drivin' to see Drive Angry.

My Grade: B+