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Monthly archives: August 2007


I Could Have Done Without the Kimmy Gibbler Jokes
2007-08-28 16:42
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So the other night HBO aired a Bob Saget standup special, "That Ain't Right," and I watched it. I'd heard from a lot of different people that Saget's routines are so over-the-top profane that there's kind of an artistry to them, and I can see their point. One of the most interesting things about his staccato, self-interrupting, rapid-foul style is the way he seems to break character periodically to apologize for how depraved he is. Sometimes he seems to be sincerely apologizing for needing to take an extreme course to distinguish his standup identity from his family-comedy past, and yet sometimes he just bursts forth with random strings of nasty words or mentions his personality problems or his therapy sessions as if to suggest he really is a Tourette's sufferer. Obviously, if you can't always tell what's a performance and what isn't, Saget is doing a pretty good job at making you think of him as someone other than Danny Tanner.

The trouble is, he's not even a little bit funny. Past the initial shock of seeing a guy who was in your life every afternoon in junior high school gently raising his three button-cute daughters doing all these riffs on bestiality and pedophilia, Saget isn't a good enough writer to keep the laughs going. He even by request repeats his popular bits from movies of the last several years (The Aristocrats and Half Baked), which is always a dead giveway of a comic desperately trying to fill time.

Watching Saget kind of sadly and pathetically attempt to get people to laugh with him instead of at him reminded me both of Michael Richards' troubles a while back and something my colleague Scott wrote about the difference between hardworking touring comics in the real world and one-note L.A. club standups who are just trying to land a pilot. Richards was an unfunny standup comedian but excellent physical performer (UHF)who got a good supporting role on a successful sitcom, but since there doesn't seem to be much demand for a Kramer spinoff, he doesn't have much to do with himself these days. Unable to get people to laugh the honest way, he went for shock value with his infamous race rant, and it backfired on him to the degree that he may never show his face in a comedy club again. (This was the point the episode in the recent "South Park" run featuring Richards had to make -- Richards isn't a bigot, he's just an unfunny comedian.)

I think standup comedy is the hardest popular entertainment discipline that exists. No wonder so many abandon it for the more lucrative world of TV, where you get a whole team of professionals to feed you jokes, makeup artists and flattering lights, and a studio audience and practiced comedy editors to make you seem a lot funnier than you actually are. I feel a little sorry for Bob Saget, which I think is one of the things he's trying to capitalize on -- the most poignant bit of his HBO special was when he was wistfully reflecting on the box-office failure of the film Dirty Work. Not because Dirty Work was any kind of masterpiece, but it wasn't any better or any worse than any number of Rob Schneider and Adam Sandler movies that have made a ton of money, and Saget directed it. Had the film succeeded, he'd have a reasonably dignified career working on the "SNL" spinoff scripts on which Adam McKay and Penelope Spheeris passed. Instead, he's singing a song to the tune of a Backstreet Boys hit called "Danny Tanner Wasn't Gay." Well, I can't hold it against him, he's doing what he needs to be doing for the money. As are we all.

Random "Star Trek" Episode Flashback #3
2007-08-27 05:01
by Mark T.R. Donohue

TOS 066 (Season 3, Episode 7): "Day of the Dove"

Something you faithful readers may not know about me, since my chosen style is writing with self-mocking overseriousness about things that really aren't that important (TV, pop music, and the Rockies), is that I am deeply sensitive to prejudice of any kind. It is difficult for me to talk about the life of my hero, Jackie Robinson, without shedding a tear or two. When I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the first time when I was nine or ten, the whole 42 thing made complete sense to me. The thing that makes me most cranky about people discussing how football has supplanted baseball as America's pastime is how to me it marginalizes Robinson. No single person in history has made a stronger argument for the positive effect sports can have on a society.

Likewise, there aren't a lot of scripted programs intended to entertain that have aired on TV with more of a cultural impact than "Star Trek." "Trek" made a guy with a thick Russian accent a hero on U.S. television in the middle of the Cold War. It put a confident and competent (and beautiful) black woman in a position of importance and insouciantly behaved like this was no big deal. The first widely seen interracial and same-sex kisses on network television came on "Trek" series. "Star Trek" at its best has always maintained a confident attitude about the human capacity to overcome while using its stories to teach harsh lessons about how much work we still have left to do.

Yet it's been some time since any "Trek" show really made a brave and relevant statement. The last one I can remember that moved me to any meaningful degree is the magnificent "Far Beyond the Stars," a race-centered "Deep Space Nine" directed by Avery Brooks that way too few people saw. "Enterprise" took a couple shots at domestic terrorism and the AIDS epidemic, but the blatant misogyny of the costumes and plots foisted upon Jolene Blalock's T'Pol rather overwhelmingly undercut any weight they might have carried. As for "Voyager," the show's fortunes took a rather dramatic and unexpected upward swing down the home stretch as seventh-season showrunner Kenneth Biller uncorked a number of really good episodes on contemporary subjects: the health care crisis, designer genetics for unborn children, punishment vs. rehabilitation for prison inmates, creative property rights for holographic novelists. Trouble was after six years of irrelevant and unoriginal lightweight sci-fi (and three years of a wholly undeserved huge role for Jeri Ryan and her impressively gravitational binary system), nobody was watching except for a nonjudgemental mass cult.

The best lesson that "Star Trek" has to offer, presented in microcosm in the classic third-season original series episode "The Day of the Dove," is that ignorance is the root of all fear. "Day of the Dove" is one of the handful of original series episodes like "The Trouble with Tribbles" and "The City on the Edge of Forever" to which even folks who have never watched a single "Star Trek" know the story. A mysterious glimmering entity that looks like a backwards "G" takes control of the Enterprise and influences the crew into a violent conflict with some Klingons led by the noble Kang, memorably played by Michael Ansara. When Kirk and Kang discover they are being manipulated, they famously dimiss the malign entity by laughing it right off the ship. (Less remembered are the unintentionally hilarious fight scene where Sulu dispatches an armed Klingon with a karate chop and a great Nimoy moment where under the spell of the "G"-being Spock breaks character and complains about irritating humans are.)

Of course, the Klingons are the single greatest fictional beneficiaries of Gene Roddenberry's laudable ideals. Because they were the recurring race from the 60's series and the earlier films that came across as the most one-dimensionally violent and prejudiced, Roddenberry insisted that one be front and center on the bridge of the Enterprise-D when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" premiered. Thanks to the imagination and passion of writers like Ron Moore and René Echeverria and the tireless behind-the-scenes work of hundreds of makeup artists, costumers, and set designers, the Klingons have bloomed from stock villains into an imagined culture that rivals many real ones in mythology, art, and language. What's most important about this is that the original image of the Klingons as formed from their handful of appearances on the 60's TV show was in no sense corrected. If you're a "TNG"/"DS9" fan who hasn't seen many of the classic episodes, you'll be surprised by how much of the behavior of the Klingons in "Day of the Dove" is consistent with what we know about the race today. Kang's response when a bluffing Kirk threatens to kill his captured wife is perfectly Klingon. So is his line when he recognizes the presence of the alien being: "It is a fool who fights in a burning house." The Klingons even chant "Victory!" together after driving an Enterprise security team back; today of course they'd say it in their own language ("Kaplaa!") but the sentiment remains the same. The episode, written by Jerome Bixby, isn't shooting for long-term insights into the nature of the Klingons, but rather characterizing them to suit the needs of the plot -- Kang needs to be completely ruthless regarding the death of his wife because otherwise the show would end right there.

Impressively maintained continuity, though, isn't the point. The "Enterprise" writers completely missed this when they cooked up a ludicrous fourth-season story regarding a Klingon epidemic whose cure had the side effect of removing their forehead ridges, finally "explaining" why the Klingons appearing on the original series just looked like regular guys with dark makeup, Fu Manchus, and upward-curving browlines. That sort of pedantic backbending is an indicator of how the "Star Trek" franchise has lost its way.

The trouble is that "Star Trek" has become such a monumental world unto itself, with the entire invented culture of the Klingons only one of dozens of such examples, that the shows long ago stopped commenting on society at large. "Star Trek" nowadays pretty much only comments on other "Star Trek," such is the weight of its accumulated backstory. The powers that be at Paramount were crazy for thinking that "Enterprise" was a concept that was going to be embraced by a mass audience. C'mon, kids, let's gather round and watch the prequel to a forty-year-old show about people in pajamas on a spaceship! The new movie planned with J.J. Abrams directing (and Zachary Quinto from "Heroes" confirmed as Spock) is this same bad idea being repeated only with even higher stakes. What people miss about the way "Star Trek" used to be and isn't now isn't Kirk and Spock. It's the relevance. If the new movie doesn't say something to audiences about who we are as human beings right now, it could be the final nail in the coffin. Good thing not even Rick Berman can tarnish the legacy of Jackie Robinson.

Joss 'n' Judd
2007-08-24 17:13
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I just read that Superbad made more than $30 million on its opening weekend, and I was impressed. The television previews didn't look funny in the least, but I gather that was an inevitable consequence of the film's dialogue being more persistently vulgar than Goodfellas'. If I went to see movies, I would totally go see it now. But as we've discussed, I don't. Moving on.

Not so long ago -- back in the simpler, palindromic times of 2002 -- Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow's careers were in very similar ruts. Now one has had two films open at more than $30 million this summer and the other is writing comic books. What happened? Both built their names as writers and producers for 90's cult television successes, Whedon with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and Apatow with "The Larry Sanders Show." Both exhibited a knack for discovering previously unknown young talent (not just talents but multiple talents, like actress/director/novelist Amber Benson or actor/screenwriter/Canadian Seth Rogen) and being able to tell believable stories about young people to both the currently young and the once youthful. Both started the new millennium off rather unsteadily by having two shows apiece they created cancelled before their time -- Whedon, "Angel" and "Firefly;" Apatow, "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared." (Well, nominally Paul Feig created "Freaks and Geeks," but if you have listened to any of the 97 commentaries on the "Freaks" DVDs then you know Apatow felt for the show as if it was his living, breathing offspring. So long as we're spotting camels here, Tim Minear co-created "Firefly" with Whedon, too. But all of these little Red Delicious-to-Granny Smith comparisons break down if you pick at them long enough.)

Since "Not Fade Away," the "Angel" series finale, Joss Whedon has written a whole bunch of comic books, including runs on "X-Men" and "Runaways" and a relaunch of the "Buffy" series billed as the direct canonical continuation of the television show. I haven't read a single one of these because, frankly, comic book stores skeeze me the heck out, and they should you too. As far as the medium that made him famous goes, Joss made a cameo appearance in a second-season episode of "Veronica Mars" and directed a single episode of "The Office." His only moving picture output since 2004 was the film Serenity, a good film that didn't have much of a shot of reaching anyone outside of the maniacal and kinda scary "Firefly" fanatics who call themselves Browncoats. Not to digress for too long, but there are few things in the pop subculture that mystify me more than the Browncoat phenomenon. How could a TV show that only aired for 14 episodes, maybe five of which were really good, generate such frothing passion? Like honestly, these people are crazy, monumentally crazy. Google "Browncoat" and tell me you don't see what I'm talking about. Maybe if these yahoos had dedicated all of their resources into getting more Whedon work made that might actually appeal to more than a core of cosplaying lunatics, their hero's career would be in better condition right now. I tease the "Firefly" people affectionately, but Whedon's biggest problem right now is his ego and having a ready-to-mobilize army of people who think anything he touches is axiomatically genius probably isn't helping things along very much in that area.

But hey, zip over to Judd Apatow's CV and in the same period of time it took Joss to make his one movie Apatow has made eight, five of which (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and now Superbad) were big hits. What's the difference? Apatow doesn't have to be the big boss all of the damn time. After "Undeclared" bit the dust he happily collaborated with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on Anchorman, scoring a bit part for Rogen and forging a valuable friendship with Steve Carell at the same time. Carell and Rogen went on with him to 40-Year-Old Virgin, also Apatow's cinematic directorial debut. In the same way as Whedon developed a recurring repertory cast across his three television series, Apatow has a whole platoon of very funny people following him from project to project. (Through random luck, or perhaps more likely creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas's admiration of both filmmakers, the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" has become a surreal nexus for Whedonites and Apatownians to meet and mingle. Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel are regulars, obviously, but check the guest star list: Alexis Denisof, Samm Levine, Morena Baccarin, Amy Acker, Martin Starr, Marshall Manesh, Tom Lenk. It's a cavalcade of stars, for people of a certain persuasion. Too bad they haven't brought in more of Whedon and Apatow's writers.)

Whedon was attached for some time to a big-screen revival of Wonder Woman, but after a long, slow, not-so-hard-to-perceive death spiral, he and the big-money studio parted ways. It's not the first time Whedon has had a possibly career-defining franchise snatched from his hands. Almost every comic book movie of the last ten years seems to have been at least briefly connected to Joss, particularly Daredevil (while the film eventually made had no connection to Whedon, people who would know better than I have informed me that its style and plot were somewhat influenced by Whedon's earlier run as a writer on the comic book series) and X-Men. Inevitably, though, things drift away, and it's not too difficult to read between the lines to figure out why. Even though former mavericks like Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan (or even the grandaddy of them all, Tim Burton) have made themselves fat loot and not tarnished their artistic cred one iota by getting involved with megamarketed megabudget megafranchises, Whedon seems unwilling to bend even the least little bit in the manner to which people being put in charge of billion-dollar business ventures are obligated.

In the case of Serenity, as Roger Ebert noted in his review, the contextually microscopic budget arguably made for a better film. But Whedon is squandering his talents (chief among them the ability to craft the most purely pleasurable spoken dialogue modern English has yet heard) limiting himself only to projects where the investors have enough confidence in him to give him free reign. The ugly irony is that the only words Whedon has written for the screen since wrapping Serenity are ones few will ever know he even wrote, as I assume he's still script-doctoring on the side as he has for years. Whedon's defenses are up so high partly because of the brutal way Fox mishandled "Firefly" but close observers know that Joss has never fully recovered from the hatchet job that was done by the directors of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer feature film. Ever since he's insisted that no hands would point the cameras filming actors speaking his words other than his own and those of his approved acolytes. You know, Joss, it's been fifteen years. Might be time to bury that grudge.

Mostly, Whedon owes it to his fans and to himself to at least try doing the megamovie thing at least once before his star completely dims. Evil studio suits might make a complete hash of it, but then again, they might not. As entertaining as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films have been, there is no writer in Hollywood who mixes hip and of-the-moment with the necessary comic book sense for the larger than life than Joss Whedon. If he made another movie, I would totally go see it in the theaters.

Late Night Rentals: Hot Fuzz
2007-08-24 05:16
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's been hard finding things to write for this site this summer, since there hasn't been much going on on TV. When I first started doing this I did occasional movie reviews of whatever it was I had just caught on cable, but I felt completely out of touch doing so, particularly with Mr. Variety there in the next office over. Here's the thing about me and movies: I don't go to them. They cost money, and I don't have enough to spread around. To me the choice between paying ten bucks to see something I can buy on DVD later for eight or going to see a couple of live bands or a baseball game is no choice at all. I guess this exposes me as less than a true movie lover. You know what, fine, I admit it. I like TV better than movies. Film is a visual medium and I am profoundly nearsighted and also by disposition far more likely to fall in love with pure language than pure cinema. On television the writers call the shots and the directors are hired hands working a job; movies are the other way around. This seems intuitively wrong to me, kind of like how some people think football is better than baseball. But whatever. There's room enough for all of us in the world, TV junkies and film buffs alike, and it's not like I hate movies. I'm going back to writing reviews of the stuff I rent from the Redbox machine at the local McDonald's and so what if the rest of you all saw these movies eight months ago.

I think Hot Fuzz is one of those movies I am going to get myself in trouble recommending to people, like Wet Hot American Summer (I think it's among the funniest movies ever made but I can totally see how its wavelength can fail to synch up with certain people) or Blade: Trinity (OK, for that one I have absolutely no defense). Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the same actor/writer and writer/director team that made the much-loved Shaun of the Dead, are absolutely committed parodists. For the first three-quarters of Fuzz, the pair is so determined to nail every detail of the classic mannered British detective story that for those of us who didn't absolutely adore Gosford Park things might just get dull enough to give up on the boys. Only the over-the-top gore of the various murder scenes, and the somewhat hackneyed device of using lock-and-load-type smash zooms and quick cuts to overdramatize routine activities, are there to suggest that things are being played any way other than straight. But I would argue that every moment of Hot Fuzz's very, very long buildup is necessary.

I think it's mostly a problem of expectations. Here in the States the film was promoted as an action spoof, which it is -- eventually -- first and as the followup to Shaun second. In the UK, Wright, Pegg, and costar Nick Frost are all bigger stars and they had a huge cast of British leading lights joining them. Critics and moviegoers who went to Hot Fuzz only expecting "the new Edgar Wright movie" probably had a much better time than those who thought they were in for something in the vein of The Naked Gun, as the American trailers rather clumsily suggested. For film buffs and Anglophiles in particular, Hot Fuzz is a real treat and an improvement on Shaun of the Dead, which was one of those movies where the high concept was so great your memory tended to gloss over the fact that a lot of the jokes weren't as funny as they could have been and the acting past the central Pegg/Frost duo was kind of crappy.

There is a long outstanding tradition of these British Isles "whimsical village" movies, where a bunch of wizened character actors live in a picturesque little community and comment knowingly on the activities of the younger and fitter leads. My mother is a big fan of this particular cinematic genre, so I've seen quite a few in my day. For some reason at the theater, at least, English or Irish accents are required; the American version of the whimsical village movie is Deliverance. But "Gilmore Girls" pulled it off on TV, for what it's worth. Anyway, if you've seen enough of these movies, and really one is enough since they're all essentially the same, then you know at the end the locals always come together to save the day for the heroes. I can't even begin to explain how cathartic it is when Hot Fuzz finally gets to the point, after almost two hours of diligent trenchwork, where all of the quirky, folky local color starts whipping out automatic weaponry and trying very earnestly to kill Pegg and Frost. Naturally the trailers tried to take all of the air out of this punchline by selling Hot Fuzz as if all there was to it was old ladies with machine guns. A random old lady with a machine gun is kind of funny, but Billie Whitelaw with a machine gun is hysterical, particularly if for most of the running time of the film she's behaved exactly as you would expect a Billie Whitelaw character in a whimsical British village movie to act.

What Wright does here is meticulously set up all of the beats for one kind of film and then substitute the payoffs of a buddy cop/action revenge flick at the very close. It's a lot cleverer and a lot harder than it sounds. We actually form bonds with all of the local color, against our better judgement, and in no small part due to the fact that they're all played by people such as Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. While Shaun had a lot of trouble sustaining its comedy, the last twenty minutes of Hot Fuzz, even being as it is the same joke over and over again, is punishingly hilarious because Pegg/Wright have done their due diligence making you recognize and care about each one of the delightful batty old people who turn around and start emptying clips of ammunition at the camera. Besides, it's not as if the epic introduction isn't funny at all. It is, within the tradition and pacing requirements of the genre being parodied. And as an added bonus for a brief and giddy spell between the main body of the film and the bullet-soaked conclusion there's a drop-dead hysterical salute to classic English horror that's so knowingly daft and completely out of left field that I had to rewind the movie in the middle of watching it for the first time in order to fully savor and appreciate the willful weirdness of it all.

Most of the time with so-called "cult" movies the party line can be trusted; the sort of people who go to see these sorts of things have largely unified tastes, which I guess is the very definition of a cult. But with Hot Fuzz, at least in this country, the prevailing wisdom is wrong. It's not a letdown after Shaun of the Dead -- it's way, way better -- and it's certainly funny enough. The trouble is that certain lowest-common-denominator trends in filmmaking have become so widespread that we as viewers have practically lost the ability to appreciate movies that don't fit within a few minutes into an easily recognizable genre slot. When was the last time you saw a comedy that was as funny or funnier in the last 20 minutes as in the first?