Monday, May 24, 2010

In Defense of Super Mario Sunshine

In preparation for the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 I've been getting my plumber on by replaying the first three chapters of the Super Mario 3D quadrilogy (or as we called it back in the yonder days of '09, the Super Mario 3D trilogy). I had briefly considered doing retrospective reviews of all three games, but hey, I once also briefly considered My Name is Earl to be a good television show. We all briefly consider stupid things. Truth is that when it comes down to it there's nothing to say about Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy ― both are more-or-less universally accepted classics that routinely rank high on best games of all time lists and it's common knowledge that each game is one of the highlights of its respective console and all of post-1995 Nintendo gaming. Mario 64 rules and Mario Galaxy rules; those are my reviews.

It's the middle child of the Mario 3D family that I find interesting, 2002's strangely-named and more importantly strangely-conceived and designed Super Mario Sunshine. It's plainly the black sheep of the family with its homogenous tropical settings, Shine Sprites, mandatory blue coins, juice-vomiting Yoshis, and most importantly its water jetpack-centric controls and challenges, and as such it's frequently left out of nostalgic retrospectives on both the 3D Mario games and Mario series as a whole. Segments of Nintendo fandom enjoy it but without nearly the same fervor as the company's iconic classics and discussion of it on forums invokes equal parts praise and scorn. Plenty of people even argue it's just a bad game, period.

Me, well, I actually dig it. There's a slightly batshit experimental nature to it (much as other Nintendo-produced GameCube games like Pikmin and The Wind Waker) and for all its flaws it has gameplay and design elements that none of the other 3D Mario games or any other 3D platformer ever made have matched. I'm not here to argue with the consensus opinion that it's the weakest of the three games in the 3D Mario subseries I've played; I think that opinion is correct, even obvious. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy are both A+ masterpieces. Sunshine is more like an A-, or a B+ if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. But I still got a huge kick out of going back to and replaying it and it has a couple of my single favorite environments out of basically any game I've ever played; moments of whiteknuckle tension, serene beauty, and pure madcap cleverness abound.

So this is my defense of Super Mario Sunshine. It may be inherently absurd to write a "defense" of the 3rd best-selling game on any given console, but hey, high sales don't always correlate to acclaim. After all, The Phantom Menace is the 12th highest-grossing movie of all time (a lot higher than that if you don't count Harry Potter movies) and if you wrote something on the internet called "In Defense of The Phantom Menace" you would be swiftly lynched and your family assassinated. But unlike Star Wars, Mario climbed back on the cool train, so I should be safe. Let's do this in two parts: first, the game's downsides, and then its awesomeness.

Super Mario Sunshine downsides:

The blue coin hunt. We'll rip the band-aid off quick and get the shittiest aspect of Mario Sunshine out of the way first thing: the incredibly poorly-conceived and poorly-implemented hunt for hundreds of blue coins scattered arbitrarily as pigeon shit through the game's hub and seven worlds. And these ain't no Mario 64-style blue coins that are simply normal coins but worth more, oh no, these babies are traded in to net you the Shine Sprites needed to progress through the game. You can get to and defeat the final boss and see the ending without pursuing them, yes, but if have any completionist urges then you're in for a Lars von Trier-esque nightmarish journey into obsession as you desperately scour every square inch of every single world for just one last coin. And if you think that the game has any intention of indicating how many coins you're missing from each world, let alone where any coins might be, then guess again, asshole.

It goes without saying that Mario Sunshine is the only one of the three games I've never gotten all 120 trinkets in (Shines here, Stars in the others), and I can say with near-certainty that I never will. I'm simply not hunting down all those coins, even with a guide. But the real offensive thing about the blue coins isn't how difficult they are to find, but the fact that the 24 Shines acquired by finding them all is 24 potential obstacle courses, bosses, platforming challenges, and puzzles stripped away from the main game, if not whole worlds worth of potential. Which takes us straight into our next point.

Relatively few levels and unique challenges. Compared to Mario 64's fifteen levels and Mario Galaxy's forty, it's tough not to be disappointed by Mario Sunshine's seven. Seven expansive, excellently-designed levels, yes, but still only seven. One of the amazing things about Mario Galaxy is that every single one of its 120 Stars represents a unique and creatively-designed challenge, whereas if you strip out the blue coins, the Shines you get for collecting 100 yellow coins in each world, and all the repeat trips to collect a second Shine on each obstacle course, you're looking at just barely over 70 unique challenges in Sunshine.

Although I can't find any official info on the topic, I strongly suspect that just as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's relatively few dungeons is famously because development was cut short, Mario Sunshine was initially intended to have a longer development cycle but was rushed out the door at the end to get those sexy Christmas '02 sales. I would have happily seen the game delayed to 2003 to have the volcanic Corona Mountain and the lost ocean civilization at the bottom of Noki Bay expanded into full, ten-Shine courses instead of the tiny mini-levels they are, because as is Mario Sunshine just feels inescapably sparse compared to its older and younger brothers.

The implementation of Yoshi. The fact that Yoshi's in the game ― yay! Nearly everything else about his implementation, from aesthetics to gameplay ― boo! First off, I simply must know what mad genius at Nintendo decided that what Yoshi fans really wanted was for Yoshi to be available to ride in a 3D Mario game, but only in the colors of the prettiest pink, the brightest orange, and the most feminine purple. I mean... what? That would be like if in the Avatar sequel James Cameron decided that what the fans really wanted was for the Na'vi to have black and white stripes ala zebras. Yoshi's green, you idiots!

Beyond that, all that Yoshi really does is make Mario floatier and more difficult to control. He inexplicably dies by turning into paint (?) upon touching water despite being perfectly apt at swimming in Super Mario World and he vomits fruit juice all over everything, complete with gross gurgling noise, when you hold the R button, which turns enemies into platforms. Basically, nothing that makes Yoshi awesome is in this game; we're stuck with some neutered, gruesomely bulimic impostor. I pray Mario Galaxy 2 does a better job with the dino than Sunshine did.

The final level. If you're a fan of the 3D Mario games you may remember a pair of levels called Bowser in the Sky and The Fate of the Universe, the final stages in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, respectively. Both are awesome, lengthy, intimidating stages that do a great job testing all the skills you've picked up through the course of your journey and serve as worthy gauntlets before the final boss. In Super Mario Sunshine's final level before the last boss, Corona Mountain, you easily hop across a view platforms then take a boat across the lava to Bowser. It takes like a minute and contains no enemies or substantial platforming (especially not compared to the rest of the game). More than anything else in Mario Sunshine Corona Mountain screams that the developers were forced to rush the game out the door before the fruition of their vision.

A lack of Bowser. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy both have three big boss fights with Bowser. In Mario Sunshine you don't meet Bowser for the first time until immediately before your first and only battle with him; instead, you spend the entire game dealing with Bowser Jr. and his alter ego Shadow Mario. Even in the lone battle you have you can't actually touch or get close to Bowser (in contrast to the other games where you get right up in his ass). You sort of fight him as he lounges in a giant hot tub in the sky by dodging hot water he splashes and fire he breathes at you and pounding weak spots on the hot tub so that it breaks and spills him out. Seriously. It's real weak, and the battle with a giant Bowser Jr.-controlled Mecha Bowser in the middle of the game feels much more appropriately climactic, again indicating that the final act of Mario Sunshine had a truncated development cycle.

Nothing special for getting all 120 Shine Sprites. Super Mario 64 is guilty of this too (getting to talk to but not ride Yoshi does not count as special), so I don't begrudge Sunshine too much. But thankfully in Galaxy the developers finally figured out that you deserve a treat for your hard work and let you play as Luigi upon acquiring every Star.

Mentally retarded Princess Peach. There's no way around this: Princess Peach in this game is written and voice-acted with the clear intent of the character being mentally retarded. She constantly looks around in wide-eyed confusion and slowly slurs all her words like she's recovering from a brain aneurism. It's a little creepy and makes it quite confusing what Mario sees in her. Whatever happened to Peach's badass Super Mario RPG personality?

Super Mario Sunshine awesomeness:

The setting and mood. Ironically, one of the things that people complained most vocally about back in '02 ― Mario Sunshine's homogeneous tropical settings, all beaches and ocean and seaside villages ― winds up being one of the things that makes it stand out fascinatingly today. The game has a much stronger sense of place and feels more cohesive, vibrant, and real ("real" by Mario standards, I mean) than either of the other games. In Mario 64 we were told that all the paintings in Peach's castle were turned into magical alternate realities by Bowser so it didn't really bother us that they felt disconnected from the main hub. Mario Galaxy (and I assume Mario Galaxy 2 as well) happily plunges headlong into pure abstraction by simply explaining that we're traveling the universe so it's no matter that the planets we explore bear no resemblance to one another.

But in Super Mario Sunshine we visit Isle Delfino, a tropical paradise under siege from Bowser's vile son and a place where each level fills in and enriches the setting a little more. The island's biggest city, the bustling Delfino Plaza, acts as our central hub. From there we take pipes to visit other villages, namely the suburbs of Bianco Hills which neighbor a large reservoir and are fairly leisurely outside of their giant Piranha Plant problem, and the much more intense ancestral home of the Pianta people, Pianta Village, housed up among the tower-sized palm trees at the highest point of the island near a forest of giant mushrooms hanging over a perilous and infinite ravine. We go to various leisure resorts, from the world-famous hotel at Sirena Beach now infested by ghosts, to the relaxing Gelato Beach, to the Pinna Park amusement resort which Bowser Jr. attacks in a giant mech.

Throw in Delfino Airstrip, the bustling shipping port of Ricco Harbor, and the eerily beautiful Noki Bay on the far side of the island with its impossibly gargantuan waterfall and vacant underwater ruins deep on the ocean floor (now home only to a battleship-sized eel), and what you have is a place that feels utterly tangible. It's actually completely believable as functioning society, complete with a tourism and seafood-based economy, and in all of Mario gaming the city of Rogueport in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the only setting that comes even close in richness and atmosphere.

From each level you can see other levels in the distance, shimmering through the tropic sun, and this only makes the game feel that much more cohesive. Most notably, at the highest point of Pinna Park you can see every other level in the entire game except for Noki Bay, which is on the exact opposite side of the island. The geography of the island is completely solid. I imagine it's not too many years before we reach the point of remaking games from the beginning of the last decade, and if Nintendo ever does a remake of Mario Sunshine my primary wish is for them to strip the invisible walls out and give you the option to freely swim from level to level or run over the hills of Isle Delfino to get anywhere you wish. They would hardly even need to fill in any missing gaps to do so; it's all here.

Most of the level design. I say "most of" because, as specified above, I'm not pleased by the blue coin hunt or Corona Mountain, but beyond those flaws I think that Mario Sunshine has some of the greatest 3D platforming of all time. Whether you're dodging the hostile squids and making your way up the massive scaffolding of Ricco Harbor, chasing a giant Piranha Plant through Bianco Hills, hopping across towering mushrooms, riding a roller coaster while battling a mech with a rocket launcher, getting run down by Wigglers on Gelato Beach, rescuing the mayor from a burning Pianta Village, solving the mysteries of a haunted hotel, bouncing perilously hundreds of feet in the air from power line to power line, or surfing on a high-speed blooper, Mario Sunshine always seems to have a new, exciting trick up its sleeve and something to keep the game fresh and aggressively paced at every corner. The levels are big but not obnoxiously so ala Donkey Kong 64; exactly the right size for there to be lots to explore but to keep every square inch packed with action, excitement, and danger. I can't complain about any of 'em.

In particular, Noki Bay. I single this level out because it's actually my favorite level in any of the 3D Mario games and probably one of my top five environments in any game I've ever played, even sweeping aside the entirety of Shadow of the Colossus in terms of pure, serene beauty.

On the far side of Isle Delfino, tall cliffs form a perfect aquatic alcove where three spires topped with giant seashells penetrate from the somewhere on the ocean floor up into the clouds, interconnected by wires. An enormous waterfall plummets majestically from high up in the cliffs down into the bay. The cliff faces are etched with mystery too; covered in ancient markings, hidden tunnels, secret ruins, and pulley systems and footholds to help you make your way up. Explore enough and you'll find an antagonistic giant Blooper at the very top of the cliffs, above even the mouth of the waterfall. Keep exploring further and you'll find the tomb of Noki king behind the waterfall. Allow the waterfall to push you down to the ocean floor and you can visit the Greek-style ruins of a long-abandoned underwater city, now guarded by a monstrous eel.

The beauty, atmosphere, and pure visual creativity of this environment is borderline-obnoxious. Even the music's pretty serene. It'll make you depressed that nothing so gorgeous actually exists in real-world nature, and it's almost as much fun to just bullshit around in as it is to pursue the Shine Sprites. I hugely look forward to replaying it every time I'm getting my Sunshine on.

The hub world. Super Mario 64 stumbled onto an interesting formula by making Princess Peach's castle the central hub via which all worlds were connected (a formula which the other great N64 3D platformer, Banjo-Kazooie, would copy verbatim a couple years later). It had a jaunty theme tune, was an interesting look into a location we'd yet to really explore in a Mario game, and there were even a few monsters and secrets here and there. By Mario Galaxy, this concept was still at work but had run itself a bit dry; Rosalina's Comet Observatory was frankly a bit of a pain to get around trying to remember which level was where, maybe the weakest aspect of the entire game. Nintendo seems to have had the same thought, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 has eliminated the hub formula and gone back to a series of levels laid out along a map screen ala Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World, a decision I approve of.

Super Mario Sunshine however hit the hub world sweet spot with the bustling seaside hamlet that is Delfino Plaza. It's not dangerous (you can die if you drown yourself or repeatedly jump from a really high location, but that's it), but it has such a fun and lively atmosphere to it, with canals and gondolas and statues and fountains and beaches and islands and shops and fruit stands. With the boats going in and out from Ricco Harbor and the airstrip and Piantas running about their days buying and selling and even a police station and a court of law it does a remarkable job feeling like a complete community, and it's actually about as fun as the game's "official" levels to go about Delfino Plaza playing the mini-games and searching for the secret bonus stages and hidden Shine Sprites. Best hub ever.

The floating obstacle course levels. Scattered about the worlds of Super Mario Sunshine you'll find ten or so so-called "secret" (I use the world secret in quotes since most of them are mandatory to beat the game) obstacle course challenges. These courses take place in bizarre, abstract voids splashed with bright colors and an a capella version of the Super Mario theme song humming along and they might be my absolute favorite part of the game as they represent the leanest, purest 3D platforming challenges in the history of video games (and continue to eight years later, unless something in Mario Galaxy 2 tops them).

They take away your jet pack in these levels so there's no gimmickry to them, no tricks, no puzzles, just sheer tension as you dance and flip your way over the spinning blocks and tiny platforms, always a hairsbreadth from oblivion. (Here's a good example. The guy playing it has his jetpack because he's already beaten it and you're allowed to bring the jetpack in after beating the level, but he never uses it.)

Funny thing is that thousands of internet whiners hated these levels because they couldn't beat them, and I'll admit, some of them took me damn near dozens of tries, but personally I thought that aspect was awesome. That leads us right into our next topic.

Challenge! Games today seem easy. It's not difficult to understand why; as presentation becomes more cinematic and budgets skyrocket, developers increasingly want everyone who plays a game to see it through to the end to see all the hard word they've put into it, as surely as a film director wants people to see it through to the end of his or her movie. But I confess that I sometimes miss the whiteknuckle tension, the sweat on my brow and the lingering dread of death lurking at the slightest missed jump or miscalculated twitch of the control stick, which is where Mario Sunshine frequently delivers, particularly in the aforementioned obstacle courses. Best part is that thanks to the flawless play control it never feels cheap if you die. You're in perfect control, whatever happens is your fault, good or bad.

Cool boss fights. This tends to be expected from big console Nintendo franchise games be they Mario, Zelda, or Metroid, and outside of the final battle with Bowser which I already bitched about, Mario Sunshine delivers. Repeat battles with an oversized Piranha Plant named Petey and no less than less than three battles with a giant Blooper are kind of cool, but the three battles where the game really shines (pun?) are as follows:

1. A fight with a giant ghost manta ray that you shoot with water to divide, again and again and again and again, until you're battling hundreds of tiny little shithead ghost manta rays out for your blood who are finally little enough to spray and kill.

2. A fight with a towering Mecha Bowser while you're riding in a roller coaster firing missiles at his face and blowing his rockets out the air.

3. A terrifyingly giant eel emerges from a hole in the deepest ocean floor of Noki Bay's underwater ruins and tries to suck you right into his school bus-sized jaw. It's pretty freaky by the standards of any game, let alone Mario, made worse by the fact that to calm him down you have to clean his teeth for him while he's still trying to kill you ― which mandates journeying by your own free will right into his mouth.

Great use of height. I'd venture to say that there's no 3D platformer where you go higher up more regularly than Super Mario Sunshine. Whether you're climbing the scaffolding to reach the highest point above Ricco Harbor, making your way up the cliff face to the mouth of the waterfall in Noki Bay, or traveling up the conveniently platform-sized fungus lining the side of the skyscraper tree at the center of Pianta Village, you're frequently reaching for the clouds in this game. A big part of the game's fun is what excellent use it makes of up-and-down space, for the most part even better than the next game in the franchise did. Galaxy made amazing, innovative use of gravity, yes, and that's part of why it's ultimately the better game, but you still aren't going quite as high quite as regularly as Sunshine.

FLUDD, the play control, and the physics engine. On its face, the idea of giving Mario a jetpack may seem absurd ― I mean, he's the jumpman! ― but it turned out to be genius, largely because of how buttery smooth it controls. Using FLUDD's hover nozzle will very rapidly become second nature as you play, and the quality of the jumping and hovering control is so superlative that you'll soon find you can bend the game world to your will like The Matrix or some shit.

A wall too high to jump over? No problem whatsoever; just do a sideways midair somersault against the wall, wall kick off, then turn on your hover nozzle and glide back over the wall you just kicked yourself off of. Easy as pie. Go back and play Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie or even the Jak and Daxter games on PlayStation 2 and feel the difference in how effortlessly and powerfully you can control your main character. It's just not even remotely close. I'd go so far as to say the only platformer with a comparable physics engine is Mario Galaxy, but even then I'm not sure that's it's actually better, just equal. The 3D Mario team has mastered the art of having your game avatar move both very quickly and very precisely (much as I'm not sure that any 2D platformers ever really matched Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World's play control).

Throw in the additional FLUDD nozzles picked up through the course of your journey that allow you to dash forward at rocket speed (including doing like Jesus and running over the surface of the water) and shoot yourself fifty feet straight up into the sky and what you have is a brilliantly cool little toy to base a platformer around. I understand why it had to go in future games but I admit I kinda miss the damn thing.

I'd say that about wraps it up as goes Super Mario Sunshine. I hope I didn't come across as overly nitpicky in the first part; after all, I bitch because I love and I really do love this game, enough that I'd call it a personal favorite despite its many flaws. If nothing else, getting out all their wacky jetpack and tropical ideas in this game cleaned Nintendo's creativity pipes enough for Super Mario Galaxy, and even if you're one of those weird people who thinks Mario Sunshine is a piece of shit, I think we can all agree that that more than justifies its existence.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Okay, so here's the biggest cinematic surprise of the year (unless Inception and / or Toy Story 3 ends up being a piece of shit): MacGruber, a Saturday Night Live production expanding a series of thirty-second sketches into an 89-minute feature, made me laugh my fucking ass off. I'm not talking about a few scattered, guilty chuckles, I'm talking about bellowing laughter straight from my gut. I'm still thinking back on jokes and guffawing here in front of my computer hours later. I'm sure the critics will sneer at MacGruber and I'm sure it'll bomb spectacularly at the box office, but here and now and for the record I'm gonna say that I dug this movie and think it's one of the best spoofs in ages.

I intentionally use the word "spoof" instead of "satire," because, no, I don't think that MacGruber is as good as Zombieland or Hot Fuzz, but I don't view those movies as spoofs. They're too self-aware for that label, loaded with explicit discussion of the genres they're skewering; commentaries as much as they are narratives. A spoof is something more like Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Austin Powers, not critiquing its genre so much as heightening every aspect of it into comic absurdity, and what the original Austin Powers did for classic James Bond movies MacGruber does for macho 80s action flicks starring guys like Stallone and Seagal and Chuck Norris.

It clearly announces this intention as the film opens with MacGruber's former CO finding him in self-imposed exile in a third world country and trying to convince him that he's gotta come back because he's the only man who can get the job done, a scene yanked directly, beat-for-beat from Rambo III. We proceed on to a hammy terrorist villain, a tragic backstory for our protagonist presented in clunky flashbacks, every single character greeting MacGruber with "I thought you were dead," characters crying out in anguish in epic slow motion, the hero's romantic interest tending his wounds, gratuitous sex scenes, cool guys walking away from explosions, and hands-down the single funniest twist on the "gathering the team" montage I've ever seen. It works beautifully precisely because of how straightly it's played outside of the title character — scenes with the military brass and the villains could almost be plucked out of actual 80s action films with barely an alteration.

The twist comes in the form of MacGruber himself cranking the macho posturing, the arrogance, the hubris and the bluster of the manly 80s action hero (very different than the post-Die Hard action hero, who would just as soon sit out the action and can bleed and make mistakes) to hitherto unprecedented levels not even close to justified by his actually quite limited talent as a hero. The contrast between the cartoon protagonist and the surprisingly straightforward 80s action flick around him is hysterical if you're familiar with the genre that's being goofed on. I don't normally think of Will Forte as a great comedic actor but he gives it his all as MacGruber and does a hilarious job mocking and paying homage to the macho action hero all at once.

While Forte does the heavy lifting, I like Kristen Wiig as his romantic interest just as much. I never watch Saturday Night Live outside of occasionally checking out the SNL Digital Short so I first became aware of Wiig not from the show but from her small part in Knocked Up, and she has quickly become one of my absolute favorite comedic actresses. She's very subtle, never needing to raise her voice or overact to win a laugh, and she needs her own star vehicle stat. Meanwhile, Powers Booth gives sincere 80s gusto to MacGruber's CO, Ryan Phillippe has the dry but necessary straight man role as MacGruber's partner, and Val Kilmer's admirably hams it up as the villain, Dieter Von Cunth.

Despite a bit of gunplay and bloodshed, MacGruber isn't a true action-comedy, not in the way that Kick-Ass is. It's a comedy with a few slapstick action scenes that take themselves no more seriously than the action in the aforementioned Austin Powers; none of it is in any way exciting or visceral and it doesn't aim to be. The movie's just a spoof, but it's a smart, aware, hilarious one, fighting the good fight in trying to rescue the genre from the clutches Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedberg's "______ Movie" series.

It shouldn't come as any huge surprise in light of how funny MacGruber is that it's directed by Jorma Taccone, one-third of the comedy trio The Lonely Island alongside Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer who are collectively responsible for basically every watchable thing Saturday Night Live has done in the last decade not involving Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: "Lazy Sunday," "I'm on a Boat," "Jizz in My Pants," "Dick in a Box," "Motherlover," and every other funny Digital Short. Their ultra-modern, pop culture-infused and internet-influenced surreal sense of humor made Hot Rod one of the most underrated comedies of the last few years and it can be sensed here too. There's really no excuse not to just hand SNL entirely over to them at this point. Hell, that might even get to me to watch.

But however tepid Saturday Night Live may be these days they can at least be proud of this film, the best one to carry their brand name since Wayne's World back in 1992.

3 Stars out of 5

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shutter Island

Shutter Island is the pulpiest film Scorsese's ever done. That's not in any way to say that it's the worst film Scorsese's ever done, simply the pulpiest. Martin Scorsese is a director who generally aims to make great, classic cinema almost every time he steps up to the plate, a tendency that would be annoying as hell if he weren't literally one of the best artists ever to work in any medium through all recorded history, so it's interesting and a bit unexpected to see him unleash his talent after a four-year gap since The Departed onto the first pure, unapologetic popcorn-muncher of his career.

And if you thought that the tough cops and thick Boston accents and blaring Dropkick Murphys music of The Departed lacked subtlety, then Shutter Island is gonna really ruin your day. This is noir pulp drawn in the broadest possible strokes: fog and gloom penetrate everything, the shadows are long and black, the buildings ominous, the cliffs jagged and foreboding, the wind and rain and lightning overpowering and exhausting, and the performances very flashy (except for Mark Ruffalo, for reasons that make sense in the plot), all creepy glances and ragged dialogue and intense whispering that would border on overacting were they not in such able directorial hands. It's the cinematic equivalent of a master artist doing his latest painting in primary colors. It's such an immensely stylish movie that it overcomes any narrative shortcomings to stand proud as an impressive thriller.

The movie opens with a U.S. Marshal played by Leo DiCaprio on a boat to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. He and his partner have been brought in to investigate the case of patient, Rachel Solando, who seems to have impossibly escaped from her secure cell. As a hurricane settles over the island the findings of DiCaprio's investigation become less and less explicable and more and more personal and we descend into a psychological nightmare that comes to include secrets, conspiracies, escapes, chases, Nazis, and at least one explosion. The film's format of exponentially swelling insanity restricted to one fixed location is more than a bit reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining.

I'll say straight up that I don't think this movie has a particularly great script. Not a bad one, mind you, but the magic here is indisputably on the set and behind the camera, not at the typewriter. When the investigation uncovers evidence of a mysterious unknown patient somewhere on Shutter Island, you don't have to be even close to as big a cinephile as I am to see exactly where things are going, and the story soldiers on to the conclusion 95% of you will predict as reliably as the sun comes up. It even adds a bit of insult to injury by climaxing with an extremely lengthy exposition dump that goes so far as to include a character pulling out an honest-to-god blackboard on which to explain the movie's plot.

So yes, in the hands of a lesser director with lesser aesthetics, Shutter Island could have been raw mediocrity. But man, the aesthetics — I just love the style of this movie, so much that I hope Scorsese does another equally blunt, subtlety-free movie, and soon. Shutter Island generates so much thick tension out of thin air that it's incredible; the nightmare just keeps building, the pacing aggressive and the movie getting more sinister by the minute. The cinematography is gorgeous, a perfect representation of what modern noir can and should be, except for when we cut to DiCaprio's dream sequences filmed in vivid, breathtaking color. Not noir, but still damn gorgeous.

Speaking of DiCaprio, I think this is probably his third best performance yet outside of Catch Me If You Can and The Departed, overcoming any vestiges of lingering boyishness and giving a driven depiction of the tough cop at the film's center. Ben Kingsley however still ends up dominating as the head doctor of Ashecliff, with some help from Max von Sydow, together forming a duo of unparalleled creepiness. Like most everyone else in the film they aren't playing it low-key, but they'll make your skin crawl and they greatly spice up any and every scene they're in.

I mean it in a good way, more or less, when I say that Shutter Island represents a triumph of style over substance. It probably won't be nominated for Best Picture and I don't think it needs to be (although the directing and cinematography are another matter), and actively doesn't deserve any writing awards, but it's simply a really cool and stylish bit of detective pulp with a psychological horror coat of paint on it. I think the teenage male standing in front of me in line for Alice in Wonderland said it best: "I went to see Shutter Island but I ran out and went home as soon as they showed a dick on the screen, because I was afraid I was gonna see another dick."

3 Stars out of 5

The Wolfman

[Ed. Note: I struggled with how best to approach reviewing a movie that reaches new heights of mediocrity with the resounding success of Joe Johnston's The Wolfman. It's too dumb, dull, and generic to praise with any enthusiasm, but the aesthetics, acting, and effects are too competent to tear into with any relish. Its middlingness haunts me. So I have decided that the only way to appropriately review such a mediocre film is with an equally mediocre review; thereby, my review of The Wolfman is written in the form of a 4th grade book report by Timothy Kraemer, age 9.]

Hi! This is my movie report on The Wolfman. In the movie The Wolfman a man acted by Benicio Del Toro gets a bit by a werewolf while visiting his dad in England! He starts turning into a werewolf too when the moon turns full. It is bad when Benicio Del Toro turns into the werewolf because he goes crazy and hurts people by accident even if they are his friends when he is normal human.

Some of the special effects for the werewolf are kind of cool! But they are also like a lot of special effects I have seen before in other movies, so they aren't any better than in other movies. Emily Blunt is in the movie. She is supposed to be the girlfriend of the wolfman but it is corny. She is pretty. A detective who is Hugo Weaving comes to figure out who is the wolfman. He was in The Matrix! That movie is cool.

When the wolfman comes it is kind of cool when he kills people. But you do not know the people he kills very good so other than being cool it is not scary. It is not scary because you do not care who dies. It is bad when a movie that is a horror movie is not scary. Maybe it is an action movie. But the action scenes are dark and I could not see them good. I do not know what the movie type is.

It is cool that the movie is in England in 1891. There is a lot of fog and scary buildings. It had an old monster movie feel to it! But I think maybe the guy who made the movie was copying the settings of old monster movies because he didn't think his movie was good enough without copying things instead of trying to make new things.

In the end there is a big fight with two werewolfs. They are both of the werewolfs made out of special effects so it made me think of the fight between the werewolf and the vampire in Van Helsing. This made me feel bad.

In conclusion, I do not think that you should see The Wolfman because I did not think that it scared me or had super cool action. If you did see it it would be cool to see Hugo Weaving and to see the old London buildings, but that might not be cool enough to see the whole movie. This has been my movie report on The Wolfman

2 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Despite an engagingly grief-stricken leading performance from Mel Gibson and a couple of muscular action scenes as staged by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, Edge of Darkness ultimately reveals itself as the most paint-by-numbers thriller imaginable. I've never seen the 1985 BBC television series of the same name that it's adapted from (also directed by Martin Campbell, before he hit it big with Bond and Zorro), but I understand it was highly acclaimed as a riveting, fresh work and selected by the British Film Institute as the fifteenth greatest British television series of all time. And I don't doubt that was true back in '85, but a lot of these conspiracy thriller tropes have become so deeply ingrained in our pop cultural subconscious that as of 2010 they no longer have the slightest kick.

(I'll warn in advance that, while leaving out specific details and who lives and who dies, I'm gonna reveal the rough outline of how Edge of Darkness plays out because it's tough to discuss my big gripes without doing so.) The film opens engagingly enough with a Boston cop played by Mel Gibson picking his visiting daughter up at the train station and her getting bloodily gunned down by an assassin within minutes. A grieving Gibson follows a lead by searching for the registered owner of a gun his daughter had in her nightstand and soon finds himself at her workplace, a shadowy, secretive weapons manufacturing firm called Northmoor, housed in a creepy black tower with a slimy, mustache-twirling CEO played by Danny Huston.

That might sound well and good, but here's the problem: the plot is basically over at this point, and we're only like a third of the way through the movie's runtime. If you've ever seen a conspiracy thriller before in your life, in any medium of fiction, it's painfully, glaringly obvious from the first second we set eyes on Northmoor that this is our villainous organization and Danny Huston is our big bad. Maybe this would be okay if the movie turned into an action flick after this point, but it continues on for another hour as a mystery, behaving as if there's any more plot we don't know, then shocks us by revealing that Northmoor was manufacturing nuclear weapons and Mel Gibson's daughter was killed because she found out and planned to expose them. I mean, come on now. A bright seven-year-old could've guessed that "twist."

With the plot and pacing of Edge of Darkness being a bust you have to turn to acting and directing to find the movie's admirable qualities. Mel Gibson may be a real-life racist and right-wing fundamentalist whack job, but damn if he doesn't still have an engaging screen presence even after a near decade-long gap between this and his last role in 2002's Signs. Compare him to newer actors like Sam Worthington and Channing Tatum and the vast gulf in talent is pretty damn clear. While no other performance is particularly memorable Gibson makes his character's grief and drive for justice and revenge about as compelling as you could ask for through the super-thick Boston accent he puts on.

Martin Campbell's direction is typically classy and understated, free from flashy camera or editing tricks and with action scenes that take the form of extremely short bursts of intense violence (outside of one Bourne-flavored fight sequence in an apartment). It's a far cry from what Campbell did in his Bond and Zorro movies, but he gives the violence a weight and intensity that's admirable. One particular scene where Mel Gibson kills an antagonistic car with a gun made me laugh out loud with approval (don't worry, my theater was pretty much completely empty, I wasn't being an asshole) and think "damn, I wish that had been in a Bond movie!"

However, Campbell and screenwriter William Monahan undermine the weight of the movie's action and general realism of its tone by inserting quite a few scenes where Mel Gibson hallucinates about his dead daughter and has conversations with her. Very jarring, very unwelcome, and very unnecessary — Mel Gibson's sad that his daughter died. We get that. It's very, very simple, and Gibson's performance more than drives the point home. We didn't need Star Wars-style post-death ghost conversations to jackhammer it in.

So overall I can't bring myself to recommend this movie unless you've never seen a conspiracy thriller before in your damn life. There's just nothing remotely creative or substantial here, nothing that adds anything to the world of cinema, nothing that needed to be said. You wanna see a conspiracy thriller? Great, watch The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the 2004 remake). You wanna see an action flick about a father out for justice for his daughter? Great, watch Taken — it's got Liam Neeson, even better than Mel Gibson! But as for Edge of Darkness, I quote Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher: "You are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth."

You nailed it, Bill.

2 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart is a movie with a great character badly in need of a worthwhile story. Jeff Bridges is incredibly entertaining as the washed-up country singer Bad Blake, weariness always lurking at the corners of his eyes with his voice thick and gravelly from decades of drinking and smoking, and while I stand by Sam Rockwell in Moon being 2009's best leading performance I have no problem that Jeff Bridges picked up the Academy Award for Best Actor. Dude's put in his time as a great performer going all the way back to 1971's The Last Picture Show and he deserved it.

But as for the movie around him, sheesh. I honestly never need to see another musician struggle with substance abuse onscreen again. Since it's about a musician struggling with addiction and the love of a good woman it goes without saying that the critics went apeshit for it, and I admit that if you focus exclusively on Bridges and block out everything else I can see the appeal, but for me Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story skewered all these musician movie tropes so thoroughly that they just kind of make me chuckle and roll my eyes now.

Here's my recommendation for Crazy Heart: watch the first half, then quit. I'm dead serious. The first hour or so just has Bad Blake driving around the Southwest, boozing and disrespecting everyone and singing country music and generally being a badass, and it's a good fuckin' time. Then we have to watch him fall in love with a divorced journalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (who, by the way, gives a completely nondescript performance and it's a fucking joke that she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress while Inglourious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent wasn't) and sober up and become a better man and ugh. No thanks. Already seen that movie, assholes. We actually have to watch him go to Alcoholics Anonymous, when all we want is to see him get drunk and sing some more country. It's agonizing.

So yeah, the critics missed the boat here. There's two great things in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges and the country music he sings. Everything else is redundant bullshit. However, the movie failed to get a Best Picture nomination even in the expanded ten-film field, so it seems like I'm not the only one who noticed.

2 Stars out of 5

Monday, May 17, 2010

Iron Man 2

Seeing the original Iron Man remains one of my most purely exuberant moviegoing experiences of the last five years. I laughed, I cheered, I applauded at the end, and I still had an imbecilic grin plastered on my face hours later. In fact, I loved watching Iron Man in theaters so much that I intentionally haven't rewatched it in the two years since and have no plans to do so — I'm sure I'd still enjoy it, but I simply don't want to dilute that fond memory by noticing any deficiencies the movie may actually have. I don't have any immediate plans to rewatch Iron Man 2 either. But not for the same reasons.

When I first saw the full Iron Man 2 trailer, which featured multiple villains, Lt. Colonel Rhodes robot-suiting up, Tony Stark flirting with Pepper Potts, Nick Fury setting up the future Avengers movie, and Scarlett Johansson doing something inexplicable, I said to myself, "Holy shit! That looks like a goddamn mess!" And sometimes the trailer is honest: Iron Man 2 is a goddamn mess. A slick, polished, and reasonably entertaining mess to let wash over you with a tub of overbuttered popcorn in a big movie theater, mind you, with a predictably quirky and awesome leading performance from Robert Downey Jr., but still a mess. It's mystifying to me why so many of the same nerds who were enraged by Spider-Man 3 seem ready to die in defense of Iron Man 2, because, news flash (any obese comic book nerds reading this may want to stop here, lest they risk a heart attack), the two movies have damn near the exact same problems.

Of course, I was one of the few people who found Spider-Man 3 sort of fun, so that's not me shitting on Iron Man 2. Not exactly, anyway. But just as Spider-Man 3 fell short of its predecessors, Iron Man 2 isn't nearly as good as the original. It's all over the place, breathlessly trying to tell its own cluttered story while simultaneously shuffling pieces towards the future Avengers flick. To the movie's credit it doesn't pull a Matrix Reloaded or a Dead Man's Chest and end with "to be continued," it's self-contained and can be watched on its own, but in every other respect it's one of the messiest flicks I've seen in years, with nearly every scene seeming to pick up with a completely disparate storyline from the one preceding it.

The trailer actually left out one of the biggest plot threads: Tony Stark is dying, his blood poisoned by the power reactor in his chest. So he hands Stark Industries over to his assistant Pepper Potts and focuses on being Iron Man full-time, but holy shit, because after revealing his identity at the end of the first film the United States government is trying to get him to hand over the Iron Man weapon, an unscrupulous arms manufacturer named Justin Hammer plots to best Tony's designs, a crazy Russian named Ivan Vanko cuts even more to the chase by just planning to build a better suit and kill Tony to death with it, and Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson groom Stark for future opportunities on the superhero team they're putting together. Oh, and Tony feuds with his friend Rhodey. And has some alcohol problems, and copes with daddy issues, and of course has a romantic subplot. Holy overstuffed two hours, Batman Iron Man!

"That's okay," you say to yourself. "It's a summer action flick, I ain't in this for grand storytelling, I'm in this for all the action!" Well, geez, this is awkward — I don't quite know how to tell you this — but there are only three action scenes in Iron Man 2's 124-minute runtime. Three, all of them robot suit-on-robot suit battles. The final one is admittedly a lengthy blow-out, but nothing in these fight scenes really begins to compare in vibrance, energy, or creativity with the train scene in Spider-Man 2, the Batmobile chase in the middle of The Dark Knight, or even Stark's escape from imprisonment in the original Iron Man. Robot suit men just punch and shoot at one another. Fun, sure, but nothing remotely spectacular.

But as I said above the movie is still deftly carried in spite of everything else by Robert Downey Jr. What else is there to say? Dude fuckin' rules. One of the best actors alive. Makes every line entertaining, makes silence captivating, generates chemistry with every other actor onscreen no matter how little they may offer him in return. Tony Stark is a more flamboyant and probably more purely entertaining figure than any other onscreen superhero we've seen, thanks much more to Downey Jr. than to the script, and I hate to even imagine what the movie would be like without him.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well outside of the also awesome Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Mickey Rourke seems bored as shit as Ivan Vanko, his dialogue agonizingly drawled in a goofball Russian accent, Scarlett Johansson is never good outside of Woody Allen movies, and as sincerely shocking as this is to me, Don Cheadle as Rhodey is a clear downgrade from Terrence Howard in the original film. The critics, confused by the fact that Don Cheadle is usually a wonderful actor, pretended like this wasn't the case, but it is. Howard brought a certain spark to the character; I still remember his reading of the line "Next time, baby" two years later. Don Cheadle just phones it in, dry, flat, and devoid of any personality. Can't remember any of his lines a week later.

So should you check out Iron Man 2? If you wanna see some dumb, pulpy fun with some laughs, some robot fights, and an immensely charming leading performance, sure, go for it. It's vastly inferior to the original (and, for that matter, Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes from a few months back), but harmless enough, and if you see it stay through the end credits, because like the original film there's a secret scene at the end setting up the Avengers. But please, if you're only going to see one superhero movie this season, make it the far superior Kick-Ass.

2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robin Hood

There's a huge gulf between talking about the best movies and talking about your favorite movies. A handful of classics, like Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, fit comfortably into both categories. Others, like Citizen Kane and To Kill a Mockingbird, are acknowledged masterpieces and mandatory viewing for any serious student of film, but I'm not gonna pretend like I regularly pop them in and kick back with a cold one. And then on my list of all-time favorites that are in no way masterpieces you would find movies like GoldenEye, The Karate Kid, Wayne's World, and of course, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The critics shit on Prince of Thieves in 1991 and they continue to shit on it today, but hey, fuck 'em. I love that movie with a feverish glee, American-accented Robin Hood and all, and could give one iota of one one-millionth of a shit how this may reflect on my tastes. I love its freewheeling adventure spirit, its rousing score, its rollicking action scenes, and most importantly Alan Rickman devouring the scenery in bloody, twitching chunks as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. I've seen it so many times I can damn near quote along with it while I watch and I could (and probably would, if I didn't consciously stop myself) go on for hundreds of words on that film alone, but I'll save that for a future retrospective review. For today I feel like it's just important to establish upfront the heavy baggage I carried with me into Ridley Scott's new Robin Hood.

This ain't the Robin Hood story you think you know, whether in the form of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, or Disney cartoon animals. While basically every other version of the myth ends with the return of the heroic King Richard, this movie begins with a dickhead version of King Richard dying in battle on his way back from the Crusades — not a spoiler, it happens like ten minutes in — and the traditional Prince John villain receiving an upgrade to King John. He squabbles with his advisors while one of Richard's archers, Robin Longstride, returns to England and finds himself looking over a small farming village called Nottingham alongside a widow named Marian. Meanwhile, King Philip of France plots to make war on a weakened England. Big battle scenes ensue.

Ridley Scott aimed to bring Robin Hood down to earth and in that straightforward respect he was successful. The problem is that he arguably brought Robin Hood crashing down to earth, jammed like a square peg in a round hole into a generic semi-epic of medieval warfare and political intrigue. Change the names of Robin, Little John, Marian, and the village of Nottingham and I'd pretty much have no idea that this screenplay was ever written with the intention of being a Robin Hood movie — even the villain, a French spy and marauder named Godfrey, is a brand new creation, with the Sheriff reduced to a piddling, zero-impact supporting character. It ends up feeling like a little bit of Robin Hood mythos accidentally leaked onto a print of Braveheart or Gladiator so they said fuck it and decided to release it in theaters, albeit with the bloodshed dialed back to PG-13 levels.

That's not to imply that the movie is boring or devoid of action; there's plenty of battles, hundreds dead, and even a spot of comic relief in Little John and Friar Tuck. But — and this is where my Prince of Thieves bias comes in — when I think of Robin Hood the giant neon sign in my mind flashes the word ADVENTURE, and I would in no way, shape, or form ever describe Scott's Robin Hood as an adventure movie. A medieval war movie perhaps, but not an adventure movie. There's a little bit of travel, sure, but Robin spends at least half if not more of the runtime just chilling in Nottingham, flirting with Marian and tilling the soil. And, sorry to be unimaginative, but I wanna see Robin Hood getting chased, sneaking under the enemy's nose in disguise, picking up new companions on his journey, swashbuckling, and in general feeling like a rogue, none of which this Robin Hood does. It's a bizarrely dry interpretation of one of popular fiction's most infamous scoundrels.

Part of the problem is the badly miscast leads. There's fun to be had in Kevin Durand's Little John, Max von Sydow's Sir Walter Loxley, Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass's Mark Strong further cementing his villainous typecasting as Godfrey, and even a bit of scenery-chewing in Oscar Isaac's King John, but however many Academy Awards they may have between them I don't think that Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett were right for Robin and Marian. Fine actors, especially Blanchett, but they have virtually no personalities in this movie and no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Dryness emanates from them; I was worried they would near a spark and catch flame.

It's also kind of bizarre how the film purports to be the beginning of the legend, yet Robin Hood is played by an actor nearing fifty. Don't get me wrong; I'm not one of those morons who needs all my film leads to be whippersnappers — I'm the world's biggest enthusiast of 57-year-old Liam Neeson's newfound career as a pulpy action star and I was appalled at them casting sexy teens as Superman and Lois Lane in Superman Returns — but both Crowe and Blanchett just look too damn old for these parts. I would have rather seen someone like, I don't know, Stardust's Charlie Cox as Robin Hood. Not as good an actor, no, but better for this role. Fuck, I never, ever thought I'd say this, but even Orlando Bloom would have been better.

As for what the film gets right, if you've seen Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (which, by the way, in its director's cut form ties for Alien as the best film Scott's ever done) you know that Ridley Scott has a real talent for making these medieval epics look and feel just right. The sets, the costumes, the castles, the villages, the weaponry, the layer of Middle Ages dirt and grime on everything, it all looks great, especially bolstered by beautiful cinematography. I won't go so far as to say it makes you want to be there, but it's authentic and drawn with painterly skill, simply a nice movie to look at and watch unfold on a big screen, whatever near-fatal weaknesses may be found in the storytelling.

Therein lies the problem when it comes to whether or not I'd recommend seeing Robin Hood. The de facto middle ground recommendation with a middle-of-the-road movie like this seems to be to suggest renting it on DVD, but there's no way you should watch a movie where nearly all pleasure derives from letting the medieval settings are warfare wash over you on your television screen. It insists to be seen in theaters. But it's not good enough to unconditionally recommend, so I'll add a condition: if you're really into medieval settings and conflict, check out Robin Hood at a cheap matinee screening. If not, then just watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves again. That's right, you big baby, you know you like it.

2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, May 2, 2010

NBC Sitcom Musings: 30 Rock, The Office & Community

Three years ago at the end of 30 Rock's first season I was completely in favor of the show's Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series. It got off to a slightly shaky start, buoyed more by Alec Baldwin's instantly classic interpretation of the sleazy executive archetype in Jack Donaghy than the scripts themselves, but soon grew into itself, finding a manic, madcap, often surreal voice that at its best moments even reminded me of Arrested Development's goofier bits. Episodes like "Tracy Does Conan" and "Hardball" (still, I think, the two best of the entire series) achieved comedic nirvana while The Office was in the midst of some slight third season growing pains with the whole Jim-Karen-Pam love triangle and, well, the less said about My Name Is Earl the better. An Emmy well awarded.

30 Rock's second season was still an easily recommendable sitcom but not quite up to the standards of season one. Not that the writers dropped the ball in any big way — quite the contrary, that's the season we had "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" — it was just a little less fresh, while The Office season four was roughly on the same level as season three (except for the episode "Dinner Party," a minor masterpiece of cringe-inducing, soul-crushing awkwardness, which I absolutely fucking loved). That year was definitely more up in the air but I certainly didn't have a problem with 30 Rock snagging the Emmy again. I still watched and laughed at every episode. It was just a little more ambiguous which show was truly better.

But when it comes to the latest Emmy, 30 Rock season three versus The Office season five, again won by 30 Rock, Emmy dropped the ball. 30 Rock was still ahead of the TV comedy curve, sure, anything written by Tina Fey will be, but was palpably treading water by that point, declining to innovate its format, take risks, or develop its characters in any permanent way (the show's only true long-running story arc is Liz and Jack's initially antagonistic relationship becoming a close friendship, which was pretty well complete by the end of season two).

The Office season five was meanwhile the show's best season since its second, with immensely likable new characters in Holly Flax and Erin Hannon, brilliantly awkward episodes like "Golden Ticket" and the "Lecture Circuit" two-parter, the long-time-coming Dwight vs. Andy showdown in "The Duel," the absurd sheer joy of "Cafe Disco," and the pièce de résistance, the entire Michael Scott Paper Company arc spanning the last quarter of the season where new boss Charles Miner (played by Idris Elba of The Wire) came in and fired Michael, prompting Michael to start a rival paper company. That arc was hilarious, exciting, bold, and not only some of the best comedy of that TV season but some of the best television, period. So I think the Emmys messed up there.

As for this TV season we now near the end of with The Office season six and 30 Rock season four, while I hate to admit it since I used to love the show so much, I'm really feeling 30 Rock's age. I've come this far and I continue to like Jack Donaghy so I'll probably stick it through to the end, but as a show that never tweaks its tone or settings, has no real running story arcs, never introduces any major new characters, and really evolves in no way except the well of jokes and episode plots running gradually drier, it's become a creaky thing. "Sweet, a new 30 Rock! Play that shit!" has become "Oh, a new 30 Rock. I guess I'll get around to that." The Office season six isn't nearly as strong as season five but I'm still enjoying it (outside of the abysmal clip show episode), perhaps because unlike 30 Rock the dynamics change, the characters develop, and the plot has at least a little sense of forward momentum.

The new NBC show that has risen forth from nowhere to become possibly my favorite sitcom on television is the college comedy Community, now nearing the end of its first season. It's tonally much more on par with 30 Rock than the The Office, with a cartoony, madcap, surreal nature to it and little in the way of genuine awkwardness or human drama (and as such, we'll see if it's feeling similarly old if it ever makes it to season four), but I'm really loving it. It's clever as hell, has a big cast of completely distinct and hilariously messed up characters, does pop culture references just right, and best of all has a strong satirical touch in the way it parodies or plays up sitcom tropes. Community deserves this season's Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, although I'm already cringing in anticipation of Glee winning. I'm glad that the torch will be passed, but I fear it will be to the wrong show.

Consensus: Watch Community now while it's still young and easy to catch up on, because it's hilarious. The Office has its rough patches but I'd definitely still recommend getting into it if you haven't, and start from the beginning because it's a show that builds on itself and has satisfying character arcs (and because season two is the best season). 30 Rock is a little dusty at this point but at least watch the first two seasons. Skip My Name Is Earl now and forever. I'm not really into Parks and Recreation either, but some worthwhile critics like it.

Note: This post isn't to imply that NBC sitcoms are the only sitcoms worth watching. Starz' Party Down is outstanding dark comedy and possibly the most underwatched show on television outside of Friday Night Lights, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is ongoing, Curb Your Enthusiasm has been renewed for another season, and although I haven't yet watched it, many non-stupid people have recommended Modern Family to me. (I don't like How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory because the laugh track murders it, the animated sitcom trio of The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy have all grown incredibly stale and I stopped watching each years ago, and Entourage is a piece of shit and if you like it you should feel bad about yourself.) But I was just specifically interested in analyzing the NBC comedy block in this post.