Saturday, February 26, 2011

2010 Kraemer Movie Awards Part I — The Worst

In a classic "spoke too soon" maneuver, I declared last April that "The Lovely Bones is pretty much a lock for my bottom ten of the year." You know what they say happens when you assume. Turns out that 2010 descended to levels of shit I could not possibly have foreseen, and even without seeing Vampires Suck or Yogi Bear I had movies falling all over each other to make my worst list. If The Lovely Bones wanted to make the cut it still would have had to fight its way past Repo Men, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Last Exorcism, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and arguably The Losers, Conviction, and Chloe too to do so. I even briefly considered doing a bottom twenty instead my usual ten, but I doubt I'd survive being mired in so much shit. Fuck it. Let's get on with the show.



Oh, Clint. What happened? Just a couple years back you gave us the decisively awesome Gran Torino, then you slipped into the realm of Oscar bait with Invictus and now you've come full circle to direct the greatest insomnia-busting film of the year in Hereafter. Taking a page from the Crash / Babel "interconnectedness of humanity" playbook and mixing it with the dullest imaginable riff on The Sixth Sense, all that Hereafter excels at is making the afterlife and communing with the dead about as interesting and engaging as shoveling your driveway. I'm gonna be keeping an extremely nervous eye on Eastwood's upcoming J. Edgar. Fool me three times...


Take roughly equal portions of Spider-Man (a young New York City science nerd unexpectedly gets superpowers and fights Alfred Molina...), Harry Potter (...while training under the tutelage of a master wizard...), and feces (...and it sucks ass), mix thoroughly, and serve. Congratulations, you have successfully prepared The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a profoundly generic little Saturday morning cartoon episode of a movie that feels written and directed by a committee of businessmen.


This one I feel slightly guilty about, not just because picking on an indie flick that made $1.04 million at the domestic box office is kind of like bullying the smallest kid in class, but because I love thrillers, I love movies that try to reimagine the thriller and place interesting limitations on themselves, and unlike anything else in this top / bottom ten I actually admire what Buried tried to do. But the key word there is "tried." Buried is a swing and a miss, a high-intensity character study of a character who failed to grab me in any way and a premise (one man stuck in one coffin for an entire movie) that just couldn't maintain energy for the length of time it attempted. I found myself so zoned out I was compiling a grocery list in my head by the third act, which simply shouldn't happen in a thriller.


She's Out of My League is the story of an underemployed, uncharismatic nerd and the ultra-hot, kind, generous, infinitely forgiving, very rich woman who fucks on the first date, has a dirty sense of humor, likes his stupid friends, and falls in love with him for absolutely no apparent reason whatsoever. I didn't spoil the ending there. That's the movie's premise: Jay Baruchel can't deal with how perfect his new girlfriend is. That's the movie's conflict. He's right, of course — there's absolutely no realistic reason on earth that this girl should like him. There's also no reason that this girl should exist. In making its female lead an absolutely 100% flawless specimen of perfection in every single physical, personal, and spiritual way imaginable, She's Out of My League loops around to actually become one of the most aggressively antifeminist movies I've ever seen, declaring that this is what a woman should be but she's shallow if she asks anything more from a man than being, well, the protagonist. It's not quite the worst movie of the year but it absolutely has the shittiest, shallowest characterization.


I actually didn't want Skyline on this list, not because it deserves exclusion but because it's such a boring fucking nothing of a movie that there isn't really even anything to talk about. Aliens attack earth. A few people hiding out in a hotel try to fight back and it comes to a really silly and laughable ending. On the surface there's nothing wrong with that premise (except the laughable ending), but the execution is just terrible, from the bad TV performances to the nonexistent tension to the unimaginative action scenes. Think Independence Day mixed with a shitty version of District 9. Then again I know that a lot of people love Independence Day, so if you fall in that bizarre and inexplicable category, then hey, rock on. Maybe Skyline is right up your terrible alley.


Another year, another awful, generic slasher remake. I'm not sure it's quite as bad as 2009's Sorority Row or Friday the 13th, but once you've reached this pinnacle of shittiness the slight nuances become fairly irrelevant. It's not the shallow characterization or bad dialogue I object to so much as the fact that this movie is almost impossibly boring, following decades-stale slasher formula to the letter, scene-for-scene and beat-for-beat, without even pretending to throw a single twist or surprise in there. It's fitting that Freddy Krueger kills teens in their sleep, since sleep is the strongest reaction this supposed "horror" flick warrants. However, it does provide an opportunity to see the new Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara, in a lead role. Not a good role, but hey, a lead's a lead.


Little more than The Terminator with Skynet and robots swapped out for God and angels, Legion is the tale of an ordinary waitress who happens to be pregnant with the child who will go on to lead the scattered remnants of post-apocalyptic humanity to victory and the warrior sent to protect her. Shame that it lacks any of The Terminator's cool chases or creative violence or propulsive pacing or whiteknuckle tension or engaging characters, filling in the gaps with a lot of muddy visuals and shitty CGI and stupid, repetitive shoot-'em-up action. I'll admit some amusing novelty value in a movie whose main villain is unapologetically God, but that cute facet can't make up for every single other thing about the film.


The Tim Burtonpocalypse began last March with the release of Alice in Wonderland, a movie so forcedly quirky, so twee, so Hot Topic, so aggressively fucking Burton as to churn the stomach and make every hair stand on end. At least until the climactic sequence where Burton just shrugs, summons his wannabe inner Peter Jackson, and ends the damn thing with yet another sequence of fantasy CGI armies charging each and other and Alice taking on a dragon (or Jabberwocky, whatever) in one of the most unengaging, weightless, tension-free final battles I've just about ever seen. Every denizen of Underland is depicted as either bad CGI or white makeup-caked monstrosity, but Johnny Depp's hideously overacted Mad Hatter warrants special commendation, making it clear that Burton brings out the absolute worst in the man.


I take no pleasure in joining in a pile-on. There's no joy in it for me. I'd love to be able to say "Wow, turns out shifting gears to fantasy action-adventure was just to thing to revive M. Night's career!" But it wasn't. In fact, the end result was an unmitigated disaster, made worse by the fact that it shit all over what's actually a great TV series. The strangest part is that, for all M. Night's massive Hollywood budget, the action scenes and visual imagination of the settings actually feel considerably smaller in scope than the ones on the actual small screen did, occasionally coming off just one tiny step up from Power Rangers. The performances are godawful and the battle sequences play out dull beyond belief (although, to give whatever tiny bit of credit where it's due, some of the elemental magic looks alright). It's honestly just a damn shame this movie exists, reflecting so poorly on such high-quality source material. But Lady in the Water is still the worst movie of Shyamalan's career. Don't let anyone tell you different.


The Switch is the tale of a man, Jason Bateman, who gets drunk and swaps his semen with that of the sperm donor sample his best friend, Jennifer Aniston, is about to impregnate herself with. The two soon part ways due to work but some years later meet up again, and he comes to care for his bastard child and, oops, spoiler alert, he and Aniston fall in love. The rapey premise is almost as creepy as the movie itself is a dreadful, schmaltzy, drippy catastrophe, a black hole of unfunniness that destroys all comedy in a million-mile radius.

Do not let the presence of Jason Bateman fool you — this abomination shares absolutely no comedic DNA with Arrested Development, or even Friends for that matter. Bateman's character (who, despite the poster's billing order which places Aniston on top, is very much the protagonist) is an unimaginably loathsome passive-aggressive little shit. Aniston fares ever so slightly better until the end, when, exactly one scene after finding out that Bateman switched sperm samples and slapping him and telling him never to speak to her again, walks up to him on the street and tells him she loves him and wants to marry him and be with him forever. What the fuck? The Switch is like a romantic comedy from the bizarro opposite world where romantic comedies are intended to be as unromantic and as unfunny as humanly possible, and in that world it reigns as king of the entire genre.



I'm not sure that I would call The Kids Are All Right a bad movie, exactly, just a completely unremarkable and inconsequential one with one of the most flabbergastingly hyperbolic critical responses I've ever seen in my entire life. Wall-to-wall, fever-pitch, unanimous acclaim. One of the best films of the year, maybe one of the greatest films about family ever made, they cried, stamping their feet in eerie unison. So I went to go see it, hopes high to have my heart warmed, and when the credits rolled all I could think was, "wait, seriously? That was it? That was the greatest comedy of the year? Are you fucking kidding me?" Yes, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore give fine performances and a convincing depiction of a loving and longtime yet somewhat stale marriage. But they also, along with Mark Ruffalo as their sperm donor who comes back into their lives when their kids want to meet him, do a great job depicting awful people I would never want to know in real life and who I didn't give first fuck about the happiness of. That makes it a little tricky to invest, you know?


#5 - Mark Wahlberg, THE LOVELY BONES — Furthering my theory that M. Night Shyamalan replaced the Mark Wahlberg who acted in The Departed with a pod person during production of The Happening, Wahlberg continues to comically widen his eyes and pitch his voice up an octave in place of what, in the acting biz, is commonly called "emoting." It's pretty agonizing to watch.

#4 - Taylor Lautner, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE — Look, I know this is shooting fish in a barrel. But he really is terrible.

#3 - Russell Crowe & Cate Blanchett, ROBIN HOOD — In all fairness, what I'm attacking here is only about half the acting and equally the casting, choosing two actors in their forties who look like they're in their forties to play Robin Hood and Marian in a prequel showing the beginning of the Robin Hood legend, but the performances are in no way off the hook. Russell Crowe seems remarkably tired and bored and when he rallies the people of England in a supposedly inspirational wartime speech at the end I didn't buy for a second that people wouldn't just be walking away. Cate Blanchett, a normally lovely and luminous performer, seems like she's fighting as hard as possible to be as uncharismatic as she can. The two have all the romantic chemistry of a pair of tables placed side-by-side, but sure enough, we're forced to watch them unconvincingly fall in love in a romantic subplot that has all the erotic charge of a root canal.

#2 - Noah Ringer, THE LAST AIRBENDER — Yep, I'm going there: I'm attacking a little kid. I don't give a fuck. The animated version of Aang, the titular Airbender, was a bright and chipper kid who, despite the loss he faced and the pressure on his shoulders, tackled life with a positive outlook. Ringer's version is brooding, emo, unsmiling, and about as dull and uncharismatic as any onscreen protagonist I've seen since, well, Colin O'Donoghue in The Rite a couple weekends ago. But we'll talk about that again in a year's time.

#1 - Johnny Depp, ALICE IN WONDERLAND — Johnny, why? Why would you do this? Why would you summon forth this godawful abomination of a character into an unsuspecting world? Less a performance and more an act of terrorism against moviegoers everywhere, Depp's Mad Hatter mixes an even more irritating version of his Willy Wonka with the most annoying aspects of Sweeney Todd, Jack Sparrow, a smattering of Edward Scissorhands, and a whole lot of Joker makeup to create a character I wanted dead every bit as much as his actual onscreen enemies did. A spectacularly overacted, scenery-devouring catastrophe of a performance that made me feel physically unwell.


#5 - Satanist hippie bonfire, THE LAST EXORCISM — Funny thing about The Last Exorcism is that I actually didn't think it was so bad until about, oh, three minutes before the credits rolled. Not good, exactly, but good for a mockumentary exorcism horror movie? Sure. Then... this ending. Our protagonist and his documentary crew stumble upon a mind-blowingly absurd mix of Rosemary's Baby and summer camp as it's revealed that our generic exorcism movie girl wasn't possessed so much as impregnated by a demon and everyone in town was in on it. The Satanists pull the demon baby from her vagina, the bonfire shoots up into the sky, and our exorcist runs in shouting that the power of Christ compels them before someone kills the cameraman. I fondly remember the boos that went up in the theater as we cut to black.

#4 - The mountaintop sequence, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE — This isn't really a moment so much as several scenes spanning five or six minutes, but the fever-pitch badness of it never lets up for a second so it all has to be included. Bella, Edward, and Jacob are hiding from vampires on top of a snowy mountain at night. Bella, who is Edward's fiance at this point, is freezing to death, and since Edward's vampire body is cold it's Jacob who has to take off his shirt and climb into Bella's sleeping bag to cuddle and warm her up all night while Edward glowers. In the morning Edward intentionally lets slip that he and Bella are engaged, so Jacob storms off. Bella chases him and Jacob tells her he hopes he dies in the coming battle with the vampires, so Bella shouts at him to kiss her and they make out. That's about where I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe and had to pause the DVD.

#3 - Mark Ruffalo is disposed of, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT — After a whole movie of watching Mark Ruffalo establish a new life with his kids and make steps toward responsibility and maybe being a better man, he's told off by his makeshift family for a mistake Julianne Moore had equal part in, shunned by the kids he's come to love, told to stay away forever, and has the door literally slammed in his face. The last time we see him he's standing outside in the cold, having just lost everything. Wow, great character arc, movie.

#2 - Jennifer Aniston learns to love her sperm rapist, THE SWITCH — I pretty much summarized what happened up above, but still, seriously, wow.

#1 - Futterwacken, ALICE IN WONDERLAND — In not only the worst movie moment of 2010 but quite possibly one of the worst in cinematic history, Johnny Depp concludes the final battle by doing a dance that the Cheshire Cat helpfully labels the "Futterwacken," so that we may give a name to our pain. I still remember how shocked and embarrassed I felt watching that in a theater full of people. I wished I had brought a hoodie and sunglasses so that I could have slunk out of the theater without anyone seeing me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Rite

Holy God Almighty, what a piece of shit! I'm not one for prayer, but if I were to offer one up I think it just might have to be for Hollywood to stop making exorcism movies forever. There may be no other subgenre that more obstinately refuses to evolve. Yes, a young girl making guttural noises, vomiting weird stuff, and swearing a lot while twisting and breaking her body in inhuman ways was considered horrifying when the world first saw it 38 years ago. That's why The Exorcist shattered box office records, making just shy of $200 million domestic at a time when that flat-out did not happen. But it was no longer horrifying by the time we saw it last year in The Last Exorcism, which "sweetened" the formula by doing it mockumentary and set in the deep south, and it sure as hell ain't horrifying this year in The Rite, which adjusts the formula by moving it to Europe and centering it around a young and inexperienced priest rather than an old pro.

Said priest is one Michael Kovak, kind of brought to life by actor Colin O'Donoghue in one of the blandest and most uncharismatic leading performances I've seen onscreen in years. I'm not beholden to the star system and am normally all for lesser-known actors getting a shot at a big screen lead, but not like this. Channing Tatum could teach this guy a thing or two about emoting. For a couple minutes I thought maybe he was being really subtle, but then I realized, nope, he's just spectacularly underacting.

But anyway, Kovak is a young seminary student (not sure if that's the proper term, but whatever) who expresses a lack of faith just before taking his vows, so his superior priest (that's definitely not the right terminology) sends him to Rome to show him the need for God and save his soul and all that. In Rome, Kovak meets up with an exorcist played by Anthony Hopkins and skeptically observes the process. I don't think you'll be shocked or consider yourself spoiled to learn that Kovak's skepticism begins to melt away and be replaced by faith as he sees the demonry at hand and starts becoming an exorcist himself. In all fairness, the generic exorcism movie young girl is only the first of several possessed victims, not the sole focus of the entire narrative, but none of the other exorcees are any scarier or more interesting.

The movie as a whole is basically Christian propaganda, and not even wannabe hip and edgy Christian propaganda like last year's Book of Eli either, but relatively gentle fare as evidenced by its PG-13 rating. There's certainly no sex or nudity or real swearing, but it's light on violence too, with only one true moment of gore I can recall that only really involves blood, no gristle or any other good stuff. I bet most grandparents could sit through this film, something I can say about few horror flicks I've enjoyed in recent years.

Whatever my own religious leanings may be, I don't actually have any problem with Christian propaganda if done well. Two movies that come to mind, coincidentally both from 2002, are Signs and The Count of Monte Cristo, which have largely identical character arcs about formerly godly men who suffer tragedy, become atheists, achieve victory, then triumphantly get religion again in the final scene. It makes for a pretty lazy depiction of religion and irreligion alike in both cases, but what the hell, the former film has crazy intense atmosphere and the latter some of the coolest swordfights, so it's all gravy, baby. The Rite offers no such perks, just pure, boring exorcism movie cliché delivered via bloodless, risk-free filmmaking and a leading man who's more leading mannequin. If it isn't on my bottom ten of 2011 that I'll be posting in February 2012 then this will be one shitty year.

1 Star out of 5

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 2/17/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 17 — "Threat Level Midnight"

Well, accuse this Office of anything you wish, so long as it isn't of being a generic Office episode. What's kind of funny about this sitcom block is that, although I'm sure it wasn't planned, it feels like Community and The Office swapped gimmicks, with The Office doing a high concept film genre parody while Community turned to mockumentary. Big difference being that when Community does its genre parodies they actually take place in-universe, while The Office, a show set in a not-entirely-but-much-more realistic world, did it with a film within the show.

This created some difficulty for the writers in how to make Threat Level Midnight (the film, not the episode) exactly bad enough that it felt like a real, unintentionally bad movie and not a knowing swing at so-bad-it's-goodness. Some moments definitely crossed over the latter line, namely the coin flipping scene and especially Todd Packer going "if doing the Scarn is gay, then I'm the biggest queer on earth!", something that made no sense for Michael to be angry at Jim for laughing at because it's obviously, patently absurd.

There were lots of other bits I enjoyed though, including just about every moment with Jim's Goldenface, seeing Karen again, Stanley's voiceover, the revelation of the president being evil, Michael and Dwight's conflicting interpretations of Samuel being a robot, and the very first scene of the episode. And as for the out-of-movie scenes, there isn't all that much to say. It was nice (if a bit unbelievable after ten years of work) that Michael came around to enjoying his movie in its proper, terrible light with his officemates, and Michael and Holly were cute enough as always.

Funniest Moment: My favorite bits were those that actually seemed believable as being written by Michael Scott to be badass when they were really just awkward and made the audience visibly uncomfortable, namely Goldenface saying "then I'm gonna dig up Scarn's dead wife and I'm gonna hump her real good," and especially Michael strangling Oscar with the American flag.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 5 — "Media Blitz"

I loved "Media Blitz." It's easily the best Parks of the third season to date, thanks almost entirely to Adam Scott, who owned the episode from the starting gun. His stammering and staring at the floor and horrific attempts at charm in his interviews were goddamn hilarious. I loved the spot-on parody of shitty morning radio shows with all the fart sound effects, always starring two hyper-"manly" douchebags, and it was great how disgusted Ben was at the whole affair (and that Tom loved it, because of course he would). But the final interview with Joan Callamezzo was better still. The line "Why does everyone in this town use AltaVista? Is it 1997?!" confirmed that, while I still mourn the late, great Party Down, Adam Scott has landed on his feet on a show that knows how to use his talents.

I liked seeing Andy and April finally reconcile and I'm glad the show didn't stretch that out any longer than they needed to, although I'm surprised to say that I'm arguably liking Andy's evolving friendship with Ron Swanson even more. Andy is one of the most nicely-evolved characters on television from his first appearance, transitioning from mooching, disgusting slob to goodhearted and hardworking government employee without a single missed beat or jarring leap. Ann and Chris I'm more apathetic on, because their relationship is too new to really invest in to the degree they're asking of us, but that was only one little blemish on a great episode.

Funniest Moment: Ben Wyatt — Human Disaster

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 15 — "It's Never Too Late for Now"

This was a wildly nondescript 30 Rock. Well, okay, maybe that's not entirely true. It was missing Tracy, for one thing (as will the next episode or two as Tracy Morgan was recovering from a kidney transplant during filming), and it also had a dedicated Frank / Pete storyline, something that happens maybe, I dunno, once every couple seasons. But comedically speaking it was sparse, with almost all of the laughs coming from individual lines in conversations between Liz and Jack ("What is business school?"). The whole Agatha Christie parody at the end, while probably seeming wickedly clever and irreverent in the writers room, wound up just feeling tacked-on and awkward.

Funniest Moment: Probably Jack's reaction to "I can fit Emily Dickinson's whole head in my mouth!" right before the show cut to opening titles. A throwaway moment, but what the hey, I laughed.

Community, Season 2 Episode 16 — "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking"

Holy crap this was a good episode. I mean even by Community standards. As I mentioned above, it was coincidentally doing Office-style mockumentary the exact same night The Office was doing elaborate genre parody, but I thought Community wore The Office's clothes a lot better than vice versa. Jeff shouting "Don't you dare intercut this with footage of me freaking out!" at Abed, intercut with footage of him freaking out, was arguably a more hilarious use of true documentary filmmaking than anything The Office has done in years, not to mention Shirley shooting her own talking head and Abed commenting on the generic documentary montage ending technique while simultaneously using it.

Pierce's psychological tests for Jeff, Shirley, and Britta were all clever and did a great job diving into each character's neuroses and personal insecurities. That's a big part of why Community is so much better than 30 Rock (not just today, but even in Rock's prime): it treats its characters as complex people rather just joke machines tweaked to fit any given moment and punchline. But this episode didn't want for laughs in the least either, thanks mostly to Troy and LeVar Burton's absofuckinglutely hilarious B-plot. Donald Glover is going to fly high in the world of comedy, and unlike so many others who have he completely deserves it. Annie had a smaller part than the rest of the group, although "Are they... Holocaust diamonds?" was priceless.

Hoping Jeff's father shows up before the end of the season. It seems essential at this point.

Funniest Moment: "Set phasers to love me!"

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation 3. The Office 4. 30 Rock

The Mechanic

Important note to all action filmmakers: a badass hero is good. John McClane is badass. Indiana Jones is badass. Everyone loves 'em. A hero so badass and so invincible that absolutely no obstacle causes him one single moment of effort, exertion, or adversity throughout the entire film is not good. It's boring as shit. And that brings us to The Mechanic, a movie it seems I should like since I love Jason Statham in the Crank and Transporter movies and I've been singing the praises of Ben Foster ever since 3:10 to Yuma, but I don't. I actually kind of hated it.

It all comes back to our protagonist Arthur Bishop, or, as we'll be calling him from here on out, Jason Statham. This is one badass man. Everyone he wants dead is killed with no apparent effort whatsoever. Every plan he makes goes off without a hitch. Every trap set for him is sidestepped effortlessly. Every goon sent to kill him is dispatched without breaking a sweat. Absolutely nothing goes wrong for him throughout the entire movie, ever, and there's no indication that anything we see him do is more difficult for him than going out and getting the paper in the morning is for you or I.

This is not cool. It is not fun. It's so, so dull. It's deathly fucking boring to watch. You might be asking, "but Tim, don't you love the James Bond movies? Bond never fails either." And it'd be a fair question, except that Bond occasionally gets captured. One of his allies or a Bond girl gets killed. The bad guy gets away from him. He loses a fight to the main henchman in the middle of the movie before coming back around for a successful rematch at the end. Jason Statham in The Mechanic is not even tested to any of these levels. The movie makes it clear that he is absolutely, literally fucking invincible, against anything up to and including dozens of machine gun-toting goons firing on him all at once.

The plot involves Jason Statham taking Ben Foster, son of his recently late mentor, under his wing and training him in the ways of the hitman. We watch them go on a few missions before they turn their sights on the movie's big bad villain, the identity of whom is incredibly, painfully obvious less than twenty minutes in to anyone with a brain, but who I still won't reveal because whatever. We do admittedly see Foster struggle a little bit early on, make a few mistakes and take a rather bloody beating, but this comes nowhere close to saving the movie, nor does the cold and emotionless relationship between the two men. No other character makes the slightest impact outside of Donald Sutherland in his tiny role as Foster's father in the opening minutes, which includes the bad guys and Chuck's Mini Anden in a completely nondescript role as Statham's sort of-love interest.

Like Statham? Great! So do I. You'd be much, much better off just rewatching Death Race, either Crank, or the transcendent Transporter 2. You could even go serious, non-action Statham and watch The Bank Job. But I insist that you avoid the dry bore that is The Mechanic. It's a nightmare vision of action cinema at its worst, suitable only as a cure for insomnia.

1 Star out of 5

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TV Pilots, Day 2 — Lights Out, Being Human, Harry's Law, Skins, Perfect Couples

Yikes! I've fallen behind on my TV pilot reviews! All of the shows I'm about to discuss actually debuted way back in January, but what the hell, I just recently got around to watching most of them for the first time so I'm gonna go ahead and talk about 'em anyway. Now that Friday Night Lights is over I'm gonna need like five new good shows to fill the gaping hole that leaves in my heart, and while nothing I talked about last time truly did the trick (Episodes was alright, but more in a "this is amusing" way than a "need more now!" way), this time we have something truly interesting. I'm also hoping that HBO's Game of Thrones will fill one of those good show slots come April.

But April ain't til April. Today, let's talk about FX's Lights Out, Syfy's Being Human, NBC's Harry's Law, MTV's Skins, and NBC's Perfect Couples:


The premise in ten words or less? Retired boxer contemplates a comeback.

Any good? Oh yes. This is real television right here; by no means perfect, but really interesting, brawny and brainy fare all at once. For the record, I've actually seen a lot more than just the pilot of Lights Out — five episodes, in fact — but all those episodes have done is confirm the good stuff I suspected after the first. While I enjoyed the recent boxing film The Fighter I had pretty big issues with its pacing, namely how difficult it was to discern the narrative's time frame and how rushed Micky Ward's rise from the bottom to the top felt. Turns out the real way to tell a boxing story is patiently and methodically, in a serialized, weekly format. Setbacks are much more gripping and heartbreaking when you don't know redemption is coming a few scenes later.

Actor Holt McCallany is awesome in the lead role of former heavyweight champ Patrick "Lights" Leary, giving the part more intelligence, cynicism, and alpha male swagger than Rocky Balboa and making you wonder how McCallany never took off as a movie star. American History X's Stacy Keach also does a great job as Lights' father, tired and aging but with the fire for training still burning in his heart, while The Wire's Reg E. Cathey amps the sleaze and the charm up to eleven as boxing promoter Barry Word. Catherine McCormack fares a little more awkwardly as Lights' wife Theresa, her natural British accent occasionally exploding out of her American character for a line or two before she covers it up again. But the real star outside of McCallany himself has to be the gritty atmosphere and muscular vibe, giving stuff we've seen a million times before like boxing training sequences an entertaining kick and a compelling freshness. This is a great show.

Will I watch again? As I said, I already have, and I'm looking forward to watching through to the end of the season and can't wait to see where it goes. Unfortunately, the fact that the show averages under a million viewers makes me suspect the end of the season is also going to be the end of the series, and Lights Out will follow the late, great Terriers into FX heaven. I'd love to be wrong, but one thing I've learned over the last decade or so is that me liking a show is the best way to guarantee its swift cancellation.


The premise in ten words or less? A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost all live together.

Any good? First off, I feel I should be clear that the premise I've just described is not the setup for a punchline, but the show's actual plot. That's actually, literally what it's about. And it's not a comedy either, it's a drama! The immediate temptation is to begin making Twilight jokes, which the show attempts to judo by directly referencing and then dismissing Twilight in the pilot, but the bluish-tinted visuals, the Smallville-looking vampire super speed, the mysterious and probably evil cabal of ruling vampires, and even the lead's suspiciously Robert Pattinson-esque voice and jawline speak louder than any dialogue. But it is harsher than Twilight, to give credit where it's due; bloodier, more violent and more sexual, plus it doesn't weakly pussyfoot around the fact that our lead vampire has killed innocent people to stay fed.

However, I still wouldn't go so far as to call it good. Watchable, maybe. The second best show I'm discussing today, absolutely, and by a comfortable margin, too. But it's also choked with melodrama, angst and cheese wafting off of it in eye-stinging waves. Although the characters aren't teens (in fact, the lead vampire is supposed to be hundreds of years old), there's definitely a teen drama-esque soapiness to the narrative and lack of subtlety to the dialogue. The evil vampire who comes around to harass our heroes also just comes across as annoying, not intimidating. This is one of the only shows I've seen that actually seems to crawl to a halt when the bad guy arrives rather than leaves.

Oh, and like Shameless from my last batch of TV reviews, Being Human is a remake of a British series of the same name, and like Shameless, I've never seen the original, so I can't compare. Just thought I'd mention that so no one thinks I don't know.

Will I watch again? Probably not. I actually did start the second episode, not so much out of a burning need for more as because the pilot ended in a cliffhanger, but as soon as said cliffhanger was resolved I found myself fast-forwarding, then closing the browser window a couple minutes later. Being Human isn't awful, but it's wholly unremarkable, a show that's just kind of there. If Being Human were a soft drink, it'd be RC Cola.


The premise in ten words or less? Lawyers in Cincinnati, Kathy Bates stars.

Any good? It's better than any of the new lawyer shows I talked about in the fall (Outlaw, Law & Order: Los Angeles, The Defenders, and The Whole Truth), I'll give it that much. I'd even go so far as to say it rises to the level of "not completely horrible," which by default puts it in the 90th percentile of its genre. But it still can't change the fact that I don't give a shit about episodic lawyer procedurals. I just don't. I never have and I never will, even if you make the protagonist a sassy older lady played by an Academy Award-winning actress who carries a giant magnum to her office in a crime-ridden neighborhood. I feel nothing but apathy and boredom when I watch the opening statements and witnesses taking the stand and a series of "Objection!"s and the jury foreman stand up to read the verdict. Even while avoiding these types of shows it's a scenario I've watched play out more times than I could possibly begin to count — I can't even imagine how many times people who actively seek this shit out have seen it. Thousands, probably?

The courtroom scene in the climax of Harry's Law is particularly hilarious. I'm no Bob Loblaw, but I'm pretty sure that if the defense attorney bolted from her seat and started yelling at the prosecutor in the middle of him questioning a witness that she'd be in deep shit, but here the two of them just have a minute-long shouting match right there in the courtroom, in front of the judge, witness, jury, and crowd, presented without a hint of irony. It was pretty shocking, but not in the way the show intended.

Will I watch again? "Has the jury reached a verdict?" "We have, Your Honor. The jury finds the show... not watchable."


The premise in ten words or less? Teens talk about / have sex.

Any good? Nope! Admittedly, Friday Night Lights has raised my standards for teen shows to a level that quite literally might never be reached again within my lifetime, but even powering my brain down to a Dawson's Creek level of expectations Skins remains a shockingly boring show for one that sells itself as the height of orgiastic excess. It's trying to be edgy, of course. It's trying so, so hard. It's almost adorable, like a nine-year-old who's just learned how to swear so you put on feigned show of shock to humor them. It's not that I'm offended in the least by the wall-to-wall sexual dialogue (and I do mean wall-to-wall; there's barely a line that isn't about sex) — hell, I watch Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which features considerably more sex and nudity in any five-minute window than Skins will throughout its entire run — it's just that without said dialogue coming from characters I find remotely interesting it's so fucking dull.

Oh yeah, and once again, Skins is a remake of a British show of the same name, and once again, no, I've never seen the original. What can I say? I don't watch a lot of British television.

The manufactured "controversy" surrounding Skins is actually far more compelling than the show itself. The Parents Television Council, an organization that should be nuked off the face of the earth, has spent weeks waging war against the show, getting numerous advertisers to drop their support and, in one of the most hilarious real-life drama queen maneuvers of all time, attempting to file child pornography charges against MTV. I know there's that saying that pornography is defined only as "I know it when I see it," but I confess being a bit baffled anyone born after World War I regards some sullen teen squeaking about how he needs to lose his virginity to fall even within those broad parameters. Who knew my high school years were so lurid after all?

Will I watch again? The supposedly far superior British original is up on Netflix Watch Instantly right now and I doubt I'm ever even going to watch that, so my chances of following this one are pretty fucking nonexistent. But at the same time I'm paradoxically rooting for it to get a second season, because the idea of the Parents Television Council successfully canceling a show should be viscerally horrifying to anyone who enjoys free speech.


The premise in ten words or less? Three couples who are all Friends... er, I'm sorry, friends.

Any good? No. Neither is it aggressively awful. It's just remarkably generic and white bread, a show that feels like it was created by a sitcom-writing computer. I mean, look at that male lead on the right there. He looks like he came off a bland, genial leading man assembly line. He and his wife are the levelheaded and normal ones. The couple in the middle are rash and impulsive and constantly teeter on the edge of breakup, while the couple on the left are unhealthily uptight. Together, these six friends will make you halfheartedly chuckle once and tilt the corner of your mouth upward for a split second twice. Sitting through Perfect Couples made for a long 22 minutes, but hey, at least there's no laugh track.

Will I watch again? Nope. Community, Office, Parks and Rec, and 30 Rock will do nicely as far as NBC sitcoms go. Hell, I'd be more likely to watch more of Outsourced. Not Mike & Molly, though. Never Mike & Molly.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is an interesting case of a movie that I appreciate or admire many individual elements of without really liking as a whole. It depicts the final days in the marriage of two people who were never really right for each other, intercut with scenes of their initial courtship several years earlier (although reviews saying the chronology is all over the place are exaggerating; it's just two timelines that keep moving forward, something no one who's ever seen Lost will struggle with). It's raw and uncomfortably intimate and excels at making marriage look about as appealing as having the flesh shaved off your genitals with a cheese grater, although it embraces the naked cliché more than some seem ready or willing to admit.

But first off, let me say upfront that Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling's performances are entirely beyond reproach. Perfect casting, naturalism beyond naturalism, making whatever dialogue they're assigned feel achingly authentic and the emotions leap off the screen. They're two of the best actors of their generation and the Academy was totally on point giving Williams a Best Actress nomination (though Portman still deserves to win). Gosling could have easily replaced Bridges or Bardem in one of the Best Actor slots too and I wouldn't utter a word of complaint. They're really damn good.

Blue Valentine aims to be an unguarded and supremely well-acted portrait of a marriage in decay, and it achieves that completely. If you're down for following the film as a pure emotional journey then you can probably stop reading here, as it may be right up your alley. But in big picture plot developments I found a lot of it tough to buy. (SOME SPOILERS INCOMING FOR THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS) Take the scene where Michelle Williams' ex-boyfriend and his goons hunt Gosling down and beat him up, or worse, the scene where Gosling storms into Williams' office, starts screaming at people, accuses her boss of wanting to sleep with her, then punches him out. I may live a dull life, but that's not an event I have borne witness to and it kind of broke the movie's vérité vibe into pieces.

The film also runs screaming into the arms of cliché in its "abortion" subplot, where the past version of Williams goes to the clinic after getting unexpectedly knocked up then, of course, as movies and television have taught us all women who consider getting abortions do, decides she can't go through with it. I mean, sure, the scene's "gritty" in that there's no music and she goes into the OR and puts her feet up in stirrups before bolting, but otherwise there's nothing separating it from Juno. There's only one TV show I know of in the last five years that's been gutsy enough to subvert the generic "I can't!" abortion clinic scene cliché (I won't name the show because it would be a big spoiler), but Blue Valentine sure doesn't. I'm not saying they should have ditched the daughter from the movie, because she's important, but they could have found a better way to go about it. (END SPOILERS)

Director Derek Cianfrance shoots a good three-quarters of the movie in extreme close-up (especially scenes set in the present), which I suppose has the intended claustrophobic effect but also becomes extremely monotonous and makes certain scenes border on visually incoherent. At times it effectively yanks us into the moment with Williams and / or Gosling, but at other points I was way too aware of the camera and too aware of the directing and wished Cianfrance would just get out of the way and let his actors work. When I'm squinting and trying to figure out what the fuck the camera is swinging around at, I'm forcibly reminded that I'm watching a movie. For some movies being reminded you're watching a movie is alright. In a supposedly realistic character piece like this it breaks the illusion and is a huge problem.

I feel like I should also briefly mention the film's initial NC-17 rating until it was reduced to an R after months of appeal. Actually watching the film, it's rather comical and absurd that it was ever slapped with such a branding — there's a tiny bit of nudity, I guess, not an amount that stands out or is unusual in any way, and one scene of implied cunnilingus that barely shows anything, and that's it. It just goes to show how much more censored film actually is than television these days.

2 Stars out of 5

Thursday, February 17, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 2/10/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 16 — "PDA"

I'm on record as thinking that Michael and Holly's romance is wildly rushed (out of necessity, of course, since Carell has less than ten episodes left; I'm reminded of Gandalf declaring that "Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time!" — The Office has moved along with such a relaxed, luxurious pace for six years now, advancing stories one centimeter at a time, that it's jarring to see it blitzing through so much plot in a few episodes), but in spite of that this episode is exactly what I was hoping for when Amy Ryan rejoined the cast in December. The only thing better than Carell and Ryan's chemistry is letting the rest of the office be disgusted by Carell and Ryan's chemistry, and this was a damn funny episode thanks to that. I loved Oscar's quiet irritation at Michael and Holly. It's easy to overlook how key Oscar is to the office's comedic rhythm, and I'm sure I'm not the first person to point out the irony that the show's most consistent straight man is its one gay man.

As for the B-plots, while I wasn't feeling Jim and Pam being drunk at first, it took a much funnier turn when they started trying to have sex in the office, especially Ryan offering them his closet with quiet, slightly sad resignation. Andy and Erin I'm iffier on as I always have been — I blame how unfathomably stupid they spent the first part of this season writing Erin — but I do like Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper, so if this subplot is gonna be moving forward at least I can enjoy watching the actors work.

Funniest Moment: Dwight rattling off a surprisingly long list of everyone who's had intercourse in the office was hysterical, as was Kevin saying "I agree, this is nasty!" about Michael and Holly's not-touching PDA and "Better luck next time, pal!" to Oscar. But as far as my biggest laugh of the entire episode I would actually have to go with the standalone cold open with Darryl and Pam. A single tear rolling down a man's cheek is easy comedy, but it's also damn effective comedy.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 4 — "Ron & Tammy: Part Two"

I feel kind of the same way about this episode's A-plot as I do about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest or any number of superhero sequels: it didn't really do anything that the first "Ron and Tammy" didn't over a year ago. I mean, maybe it wackied things up a little and threw in a fight scene between Tom and Tammy, but I for one still strongly prefer the power plays of the original and the way it brought Leslie in more effectively.

However, I did enjoy the B-plot with April and Chris. Pairing the show's most dour character with its most blindingly chipper makes for a great combo, and it's just nice in general to see April sharing a story with someone other than Andy (even if Andy still gets the story and episode's best line; see funniest moment below). And although I don't for one moment believe that April is going to be moving to Indianapolis (not for more than a short arc, anyway), Chris' job offer at the end was a clever way to throw half the cast into temporary chaos.

I also liked Ben this week, specifically Leslie's reaction to Ben recommending calzones. Or the cop's reaction to Ben recommending calzones. Ben is a much, much better straight man than Mark Brendanawicz ever was, mostly because Adam Scott is a great damn actor (not to mention that him and Megan Mullally in the same episode make this a Party Down reunion). I'm still not sure how I feel about him and Leslie as romantic interests, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Funniest Moment: "She didn't do that, that, was, uh, I think—sounds like it was Macklin's call."

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 14 — "Double-Edged Sword"

This was a cute little episode, funny, with lots of great one-liners, and the somewhat parallel structure of Liz and Jack's vacations gone bad was clever. As is often the case, all stories outside of Liz and Jack failed to resonate in the least (except Pete's anecdote about his grandfather's German uniform, anyway), but the main plots were more than enough to pick up the slack from the few minutes they didn't fill. Watching Liz's plane slowly deteriorate into madness was quite amusing, and I especially loved Jack and Avery going on a jingoism-fuelled hitchhiking road trip so she could have their baby in the States (kudos to the show both for avoiding every single "birth episode" cliche and for making the pregnancy, which was confirmed in the episode "I Do Do" on May 20th, actually last the correct amount of time).

Solid guest spots this week too. Matt Damon was offered more opportunity to be legitimately funny than any of his appearances as Carol to date, and it was nice to see John Cho even if he didn't do all that much. They really might as well just add Elizabeth Banks as a regular at this point.

Funniest Moment: This may be random, but for some reason Matt Damon's line "We say half an hour to control the herds of walking mozzarella sticks who think that $300 and a photo ID gives them the right to fly through the air like one of the Guardian Owls of legend!" made me laugh hardest. Partially because of its innate absurdity, partially because I just watched Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole literally a couple days before seeing the episode. Yay for coincidence!

Community, Season 2 Episode 15 — "Early 21st Century Romanticism"

This was a pretty average, down-the-middle Community, which is to say that it was securely the funniest sitcom of the night by a wide margin. The combination of Jeff, Chang, and Duncan was hilarious (especially once the party got started), while Troy and Abed gave us an amusing and even slightly touching twist on the "two friends fighting over the same girl" subplot. Britta's non-homophobic subplot was a good use of Britta's absurd side, something we haven't seen in several months, and I admire the show for taking the lesbian kiss episode cliche and making it as aggressively un-erotic as possible. Annie and Britta actually kissing would have been erotic, sure, but at the same time I'm glad they didn't do it because that would been pandering on a level beneath such a good show. Also, I can't be the only one who wouldn't mind seeing Annie's new friend (whose name I didn't even catch) again. She was pretty funny.

The only part I was a little iffy on was Pierce's drug subplot, both because characters being high is some of the most generic sitcommery out there (and Community already did it much funnier, also with Pierce, in season one's Halloween episode "Introduction to Statistics") and because Andy Dick kinda skeeves me out. However, Dick did give us the line "If doctors are so smart, why are there millions of 'em?", a notion to ponder.

Overall, a very solid episode, although not quite as good as last year's Valentine's special "Communication Studies." Hard to top that Breakfast Club dance.

Funniest Moment: All of the biggest laughs came from quick, throwaway jokes in Jeff and Chang's storyline — Chang destroying Jeff's lamp with the nunchucks, Jeff's reaction to Chang using his toothbrush, and of course the exchange "Where're the white women at!" "No! There are no white women here, Leonard!"

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. The Office 3. 30 Rock 4. Parks and Recreation

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Green Hornet

You know what The Green Hornet really reminds me of more than anything? The Mask. Most obviously because of Cameron Diaz's presence as the top-billed female, but also the eponymous superhero's signature color being green, that same hero operating mostly by night, turf wars between classy-yet-villainous gang leaders, the way it mixes action and comedy, and the largely lighthearted and irreverent tone with occasional moments of violence. The big difference is that The Mask's Stanley Ipkiss actually has superpowers — near-omnipotent ones, in fact — while The Green Hornet's Britt Reid hardly even has skills, let alone superpowers. He instead relies on his massively skilled sidekick Kato. Stanley Ipkiss' sidekick was a dog.

But I don't make this comparison to criticize (unless you hated The Mask, in which case your heart is cold as ice). On the contrary, I love The Mask and while I won't use a word as strong as love, I enjoyed The Green Hornet a great deal. It's neither the best comedy nor best action flick I've seen lately, but sometimes it's okay to be a jack of all trades, master of none, and the movie definitely made me laugh a fair bit and compiled enough clever action to have me feeling satisfied I hadn't wasted my money, particularly the climactic sequence. Without giving anything away except that many, many bullets are involved, I'll say that this is definitely a film that saves its biggest set piece for last.

The fairly simplistic plot involves Britt Reid, the rich and lazy son of an idealistic newspaper owner, finding out after his father's untimely death that his father's mechanic and coffeemaker Kato is in fact a martial arts expert. So the two team up to become superheroes, take down corruption, and clean up the streets of Los Angeles, something that doesn't sit well with gang leader Chudnofsky. The Green Hornet ain't exactly shaking up superhero formula — in fact, boiled down, it's doing a lot of the same stuff as Batman Begins, minus the ninja training cult — but it's a perfectly satisfactory clothesline on which to hang fights and chases and general goofiness, so that's fine. As True Grit recently proved, you don't necessarily have to shake up the formula to make a fine film.

Seth Rogen is definitely doing his standard Seth Rogen schtick again (I'd argue the only movie where he explicitly isn't is Observe and Report, one of many things that makes that movie so damn good), but it's a schtick that continues to make me laugh, so no problem. It's impossible not to notice a certain backlash against Rogen if you bounce around the internet long enough, but backlash never affects me, one of many awesome byproducts of having assurance in your own opinions. I guess it helps that I was familiar with Rogen long before he was Seth Rogen the Media Personality, back when he was just Seth Rogen the Little-Known TV Actor on Undeclared, but I liked him then and I still like him today.

The rest of the cast is a bit more nondescript, but no one stinks up the joint by any means. Jay Chou's Kato is charismatic and reasonably convincing in the action scenes (with help from the film's Kato-Vision, where we see enemies go into slow motion from Kato's point of view while he continues to move at normal speed), although it's obvious that Chou is nowhere near fully fluent in English and his accent is sometimes unintelligibly thick. This throws off his comic timing a bit, but Rogen does a good job picking up the slack. Christoph Waltz's Chudnofsky is obviously nothing next to Inglourious Basterds' Col. Hans Landa, but he projects an entertaining villainous sleaze.

Cameron Diaz's part as Britt Reid's new secretary who knows far about journalism than he does is interesting in that (MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH) she actually isn't the generic romantic interest you'd assume she is from the trailer. The movie hints that she is and seems to take the first steps down that road but rather cleverly averts expectations in a way that made me chuckle and nod in approval. I mean, how often do we see a superhero movie that doesn't forcibly shoehorn in a love story? It's not something I have a problem with when done well, but I still shudder thinking back on those syrupy, endless scenes between Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns.

The Green Hornet was directed by Michel Gondry, best known for his masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but you shouldn't see it hoping for much of his quirky style. It's pretty obvious Gondry was a hired gun here, with Seth Rogen holding the real power, although Gondry still does a great job staging some pretty clever action scenes, especially when the Green Hornet's tricked-out car gets brought into the mix. It's somewhat embarrassing for other filmmakers that a director who has never done an action scene before in his life was able to outdo anything in Clash of the Titans or Prince of Persia or, if I'm being perfectly honest, Iron Man 2. One scene where a single camera shot breaks apart into more and more separate squares, each following a different character, is particularly bizarre and cool and almost certainly a Gondry contribution.

I don't want to overhype anything here. There are several jokes that fall flat, the plot unfolds in a thoroughly methodical, predictable fashion, and thanks to Jay Chou's weak English the chemistry between Kato and the Green Hornet remains awkward and unwieldy throughout the entire film. But although it's not a flick I'll come back to again and again, I laughed, I saw one of the most clever car chases in years, and I had an altogether good time at the movies. If nothing else it's an infinitely better follow-up to The Mask than Son of the Mask.

3 Stars out of 5

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 2/3/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 15 — "The Search"

I found "The Search" to be pretty light on laughs. Granted, it seemed like an intentionally understated episode that wasn't aiming for huge belly laughs in the first place, more of a minor Michael Scott character study than anything else, but even in that respect I'm not sure it revealed much of anything about Michael we haven't known for years. Yes, he's lonely and lovesick, we get it. Most of the episode's laughs were found in the other half of the lost Michael story that showed Dwight, Holly, and Erin searching for him, mostly thanks to how inexplicably irritated both Dwight and Erin seem at Holly's presence. People hating other people for no apparent reason is a comedic technique that never fails to work on me. And the Michael-Holly kiss at the end, while not entirely earned in the few episodes Holly's been back, was tough not to smile at.

However, the B-plot with Gabe and the captions on Pam's art was pretty much a comedic nonstarter outside of Darryl bragging about his elite captioning skills. Oh well, can't win 'em all.

As a side note, I read that the reason for Jim's borderline-cameo appearances the last three weeks is because John Krasinski was simultaneously shooting a movie called Everybody Loves Whales in Alaska during filming (and yes, the movie is literally about whales). Whether or not he's still shooting it I don't know, but it's probably safe to assume that at least a few more Jim-light episodes await us moving forward. Just in case anyone was unaware.

Funniest Moment: Although Erin's pathological dislike of Holly is my favorite running joke, for reasons I myself can't entirely explain it was Michael saying "You are disgusting, you'll never find love." to the snake that made me laugh hardest.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 3 — "Time Capsule"

I liked "Time Capsule" while being a bit disappointed by it at the same time, or at least disappointed by its big guest star. Weird thing is that I actually loved the movie MacGruber, and because of that I naturally assumed I was a fan of its protagonist Will Forte, but I haven't liked him in anything since. I think his character on 30 Rock (Jenna's crossdressing boyfriend Paul) horribly gums up the momentum every time he appears and I didn't think his Twilight-obsessed wannabe martyr in this latest Parks was much better. He was just trying so, so hard to be funny, visibly trying, and nothing kills comedy deader than looking like you're straining for it.

However, that story still came to a pretty entertaining climax with the town hall meeting. It's in its town hall meetings that Parks and Recreation reveals its tone and grip on reality to actually be a bit more akin to The Simpsons than The Office, the show it was initially inspired by, and the baffling, frustrating-to-Leslie surreality of Pawnee's citizenry is pretty much always funny as hell. I also enjoyed Andy and April's subplot once again, although I do hope the show doesn't make us wait until the season finale to finally get those two crazy kids together — not just for our own gratification as viewers, but because it would be sluggish to wait that long when their secrets and crushes are already out in the open. But for now they're still likable. It was a shame the episode was so light on Ron Swanson, though.

Funniest Moment: Either Andy suggesting that they put April's new boyfriend in the time capsule and "seal the top, so that he suffocates and dies" or the following exchange at the town hall meeting: "Please remember this is a government project, so we need to refrain from corporate promotion and religious items. Who'd like to start?" "I think we should put in the Bible." "...Great."

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 13 — "¡Qué Sorpresa!"

This episode was not surprisingly a big step down from last week's transcendent "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning," one the best 30 Rocks in years, but I still thought it was pretty solid by season five standards. The best part was Liz, Avery, and the ethnically ambiguous Carmen Chao's fake pregnancy A-plot, mostly because of how obviously absurd and flimsy Liz's side of the story was, but I also enjoyed Jack's B-plot except for his new, creepily friendly boss, who I'm not sure I like much more than Jack does. It was an episode mostly reliant on moment-to-moment jokes as opposed to last week's strong character work (very, very strong by 30 Rock standards) so I'm not sure what else I have to say beyond "yep, I laughed here and there," so yep, I laughed here and there — at Liz and Jack's stories, anyway.

As for Tracy and Jenna's feud... well, eh, but did anyone really expect such a thing to be any good in the first place?

Funniest Moment: Jack attempting to demonstrate the voice-activated television to his new boss, particularly the Keeping Up with the Kardashians burn at the end. The scene with Jack ordering Kenneth to hit him in the elevator was also pretty good.

Community, Season 2 Episode 14 — "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"

Now, this. This was peak Community. This was peak televised comedy, period. The best of NBC's Thursday block to be certain, but also one of the best episodes of the series and probably one of the best sitcom episodes of the last ten years. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, and fucking hilarious, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was a borderline-bottle episode that took place almost entirely within the confines of the study room.

I've never actually played Dungeons & Dragons (in high school me and my friends got as far as creating characters before losing interest) so I can't review "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" on the basis of accuracy, but I think they did a great job making the game look simultaneously very geeky and very fun. The episode's sound design — an aspect of sitcom production I rarely find myself commenting on, but demands attention here — was sublime, using the sounds of goblins attacking and swords clanging and dragon wings flapping and the hustle and bustle of an elf tavern to actually give the episode a palpable high fantasy flavor without utilizing a single exotic prop or set. And the modifications to what we're familiar with, namely the medieval version of the theme song and Pierce making the supply closet into a generic dark lord's throne room, were so perfect.

Pierce's place in the episode is interesting. I read some people on forums claiming that he was too sadistic and too evil to even find funny, but it didn't bother me, as Community has always been a show of shifting alignments (Dungeons & Dragons pun intended). I'm sure you'll recall Troy becoming a jerk jock in "Football, Feminism and You," Shirley becoming a crusading zealot in "Comparative Religion," and Jeff turning temporarily selfish and / or manipulative in any number of episodes. Yeah, this one took Pierce a little further, but it could be argued that in the end he helped Neil more than anyone.

Altogether the episode gave every character a few great moments to shine, and it was creative, propulsive, and hilarious in everything from its biggest moments (the showdown with Draconis) to its littlest (Britta's hilarious "ow!" when Abed tells her she's been hit by an arrow). I admit that I didn't think last week's "Celebrity Pharmacology" was among the series' stronger efforts, but they've come back from that and then some. Just a couple more episodes on this level and the second season of Community will easily go down as one of the greatest sitcom seasons of all time.

Funniest Moment: So, so many to pick from. I could almost just say "the whole episode" and that'd be pretty damn accurate, but it'd also be a weak-ass move, so I'm gonna buckle down and say Annie and Abed's "sex scene," particularly Troy's reaction and Annie adding the fourth finger.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. Parks and Recreation 3. 30 Rock 4. The Office

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris

Little more than the poor, gay man's Catch Me If You Can, I Love You Phillip Morris is based on an undeniably fascinating and bizarre true story but falls miles short in the filmmaking department. Steven Jay Russell, for those who don't know, is a southern conman who successfully bluffed and impersonated his way into jobs as a judge, cop, doctor, and most notably CFO of North American Medical Management, embezzled millions of dollars, and escaped from jail over and over again throughout the better part of the 90s, all while falling in love with and securing the release of fellow inmate Phillip Morris. His escapes were impossibly daring and creative and the depth of his financial deception puts even Frank Abagnale to shame. No, there's nothing wrong with the story — just the filmmaking.

The movie leaves out very little of Russell's actual story, which is admirable and certainly keeps things fast-paced, but has the unfortunate side effect of making the story feel wildly repetitive. You can only watch so many cons and escapes played out at high speed before you're kind of like "eh, I get it." I'm not sure how Steven Spielberg was able to pull off keeping it so fresh and exciting in Catch Me If You Can, but of course I'm not making a movie about an elusive conman, so I don't need to — the problem is that Phillip Morris directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don't seem quite sure either. And the movie is tonally all over the place, occasionally hinting at a more traditional Jim Carrey comedy and then becoming a straight-faced drama or romance with little rhyme, reason, or warning from scene to scene.

Jim Carrey does a fairly good job as Russell, giving him the somehow simultaneously charismatic and off-putting charm of a sleazy but talented salesman while visibly softening in his scenes across from Ewan McGregor's Phillip Morris. (I've never seen any video of the real Steven Russell so I don't know how accurate Carrey is, but I don't really care either.) I can't get behind the trailer's claims that the role is "daring" — unless you've accidentally fallen through time to the 1970s, playing a gay man onscreen is not exactly controversial or subversive anymore — but it's good. McGregor I'm a more uncertain on, although the problem is likely more in the script than the actor. His American accent is definitely better than it was in The Men Who Stare at Goats, but Phillip Morris is more a prop than a true, rounded character, mostly just asked to camp it up and let Carrey play off of him.

By no means did I hate the film. As I said, it's a damn interesting story. Problem is that I was more engaged looking up and reading about Steven Jay Russell on my own time after getting home than I was watching the movie about him. I Love You Phillip Morris' ultimate value is less that of a film and more of visual CliffsNotes, especially when we already have a movie, Catch Me If You Can, that tells a remarkably similar story with much more energy and verve.

2 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 1/27/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 14 — "The Seminar"

Definitely not as good as last week's "Ultimatum," with nondescript stories across the board, although I'm not surprised to see them starting to give Andy more A-plots. With Steve Carell gone, depending on who they get to play the new boss (or whether they even hire a new actor rather than literally promoting from within), Ed Helms is gonna be the biggest star on the show, so for better or worse this episode is probably a harbinger of things to come. I found Andy's seminar a little dry on its own but I did enjoy the specific individual speeches by Kevin, Creed, and Kelly.

Jim's subplot wasn't worth too much. Forcing Jim out of his own office because of an ex-childhood friend's awkward presence was a good idea for a story, but it fizzled out into a bit of an anticlimax and kind of had the feel of someone telling you a long joke then forgetting the punchline.

And while, as previously established, I'm very happy to have Holly back on the show, doesn't it feel like they're rushing through her story with alarming speed? I figured she and Michael would eventually get back together, but I didn't expect she would be broken up with A.J. within two episodes after being together for, what, two years? That's so fast it almost reflects poorly on her character, like she has no will to commit to anything. Hopefully it means they're just giving themselves more time to approach she and Michael's reunion with a bit more subtlety.

I was also worried that they were going to wimp out and make Gabe lovable at the end by having him let Erin watch WALL·E after all, and I was glad they stuck with unlikable guns. Nice surprise.

Funniest Moment: I think the funniest part may have been Kevin breaking down, sweating and shaking, then vomiting in front of the seminar attendees after running a couple laps around a small room, but the best part was obviously Michael Scott and David Brent colliding at the beginning. I mean, it had nothing to do with anything and was logically suspect (why the fuck was David in Scranton, Pennsylvania?), but it was an awesome — nay, essential thing to get out the way before Michael's final departure from the show.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 2 — "Flu Season"

First off, great Ron Swanson episode this week, including two particularly great Swansonisms in "I'm not interested in caring about people" and "I'm surrounded by a lot of women in this department. And that includes the men."

However, I was a bit iffier on Leslie. First off, although this is more a criticism of makeup than comedy, they should have put a little more effort into making Amy Poehler look convincingly sick at the beginning, make her look more sweaty or clammy or something. It just kind of came across a little strange how she just looked like Amy Poehler but everyone was constantly like "whoa, you look awful! Are you sick?!" I also really didn't like the way they had her start arbitrarily babbling in her delirium; it just felt like wackiness for the sake of wackiness, something that tends not to work too well in these mockumentary sitcoms (outside of Creed on The Office, anyway). But I do like the way she and Ben are gradually learning to work together.

And while the unfolding of the Ann / April / Andy love triangle subplot was pretty obvious and predictable, I still liked it. Jim and Pam's flirting subplots in the early days of The Office tended towards predictability too and that's one of the best TV romances of all time, right? I also wonder if Andy's temporary stint as Ron's secretary may lead to his increased prominence in the main office. Already he's the character who has evolved most from the pathetic slob we saw in the pilot, and a true government job would be a perfect way to bring him full circle.

Funniest Moment: "Stop. Pooping." was pretty obviously the funniest moment of the entire comedy night.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 12 — "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning"

Holy crap, where'd this episode come from? This was not only absolutely hilarious, it's probably my favorite episode of the entire fifth season of 30 Rock so far, maybe even the fourth and fifth combined. Sure, some of my 30 Rock pet peeves were still present — the three main stories were all completely disconnected and they shoehorned in some reason for Jane Krakowski to sing for the billionth time — but damn if I wasn't laughing my ass off for twenty-two minutes. This was some peak Rock right here.

Jack's story was the slowest to build up outside of Robert De Niro's surprise cameo (not sure what exactly to say about it other than that he was briefly in there, and it was pretty funny), but it came to a wonderfully unexpected and beautifully absurdist culmination with the Mel Gibson revelation. Around the point of "The Holocaust never happened!" I was actually rather surprised to see them tearing into a major Hollywood player with such abandon, but man did I laugh. Lutz's story was equally funny — perhaps because having a full Lutz story is so incredibly rare that the formula of it hasn't worn thin the way Kenneth and Jenna have. His fourth-wall-breaking "I don't really have a car!" into the mirror was hilariously bizarre.

But the episode's highlight was definitely Liz and Tracy in what I'm almost positive is the single best use of Tracy all season, specifically because it treated him as an actual character rather than a goofy joke machine, while still surrounding him with plenty of quality jokes. Seeing five years of Liz's frustration come bubbling to the surface and all laid out was interesting, funny, and satisfying on a character level, and, although this may be hoping for a little too much from such a continuity-light show, I hope that maybe we can see a smidgen more mutual respect between Liz and Tracy moving forward.

Funniest Moment: Lots of hilarious bits to choose from, but I'd say that Liz and Tracy's "Uptown Girl" singing duel was what brought the episode to the next level. "And also let me say that Liz is a ho!"

Community, Season 2 Episode 13 — "Celebrity Pharmacology"

I found "Celebrity Pharmacology" to be a little light on comedy by Community standards — especially Shirley and Chang's subplot, which, outside of Chang's intentionally botched performance as "Drugs" for the children, contained almost nothing in the way of a joke — but I still liked it a lot largely because of the way it took us into the psychology and backstories of Annie and Pierce. I'm almost positive that Annie being estranged and financially cut off from her parents is new information which gives a much darker spin to her (until now largely mentioned for humor) drug addiction backstory, and outside of Abed's dorm no episode of the show has taken us into a character's home in such an intimate way before. Pierce's daddy issues were also interesting, and the way his need for approval came out through wrecking Annie's play was pretty amusing in a sad kind of way.

The B-plot with Jeff accidentally sexting Britta's nephew as Britta was damn funny in its conception and buildup but didn't really come to that much of a comedic climax. I guess I was kind of hoping it would take things into slightly more twisted territory when Britta reentered the story, but she never really did. However, one particularly hilarious scene with Abed that I'll mention below probably justified the whole story anyway.

One thing I'm not in love with is the gay jokes with Dean Pelton, "Jeff Winger is sexy even in a coffin!" and whatnot. The Dean's dalmatian fetish last season was funny because, one, it was rather subtle until the season finale, and two, well, that's obviously incredibly bizarre, and the gay jokes with Tobias in Arrested Development were funny not because he was a gay man but rather because he was a gay man in denial to himself and everyone else. But just throwing out "Dean Pelton is GAY!" as if we're supposed to laugh and laugh and laugh strikes me as a little uncomfortably homophobic.

Funniest Moment: Close call between two. The little girl hugging Pierce while going "I love you, Drugs!" as the show cut to commercial was absolutely brilliant, but for whatever reason I think I probably laughed harder at Abed's utterly blank expression staring at Jeff as Jeff tried to work his way out of the sexting hole he'd dug himself into. Danny Pudi can do more without dialogue than most comedic actors can with.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. 30 Rock 2. Community 3. Parks and Recreation 4. The Office