Freaks and Geeks S1E04: Kim Kelly Is My Friend

The fourth episode of Freaks and Geeks is the first to turn the primary focus of the hour onto someone lacking the last name of Weir. “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” focuses on, surprise, Kim Kelly, the one member of the freaks who had yet to warm to Lindsay. A young Rashida Jones guest-stars as a friend of Kim’s and a tormentor of Sam’s. You can see my other posts on Freaks and Geeks here.

Lindsay’s efforts to warm Kim Kelly’s icy heart have been met repeatedly with put-downs and insults, so when she gets an invite to Kim’s house for dinner, she is more than a little bit skeptical. Kim brings Lindsay home to meet her mother and stepfather, both of whom are selfish, bitter, and abusive. The dinner quickly turns sour over Kim’s purported failings and Lindsay’s relative affluence and the two girls flee the scene, only to find Kim’s boyfriend, Daniel, flirting rather heavily with another girl, Karen. Anger and sadness follow in equal measures.

I don't have a comment for this one.
I don’t have a comment for this one.

Sam is having his own problems with that same Karen, after an honest mistake where he tries to open her locker, she makes a point of humiliating him on a daily basis. Sam’s embarrassment is compounded when he realizes that his sister is going to dinner at Karen’s best friend’s house. Sam’s frustration leads to friction with Neal, who still thinks he is too cool for school, when he actually is too school for cool (I know it doesn’t make much sense, just go with it).

The episode culminates and climaxes (in more ways than one…) at the Weir house, where all four Weirs, Kim, Daniel, and Nick all come together and hash things out. Everyone is left a little bit happy, a little bit sad, and a little bit worried. Except for Nick, he has a fruit roll-up, and therefore all is right in his world. Mr. and Mrs. Weir are also given their first full meeting with Lindsay’s new friends, and they are far from reassured about the influence they are having on the ex-Mathlete.

This is the first time the Weirs are not the central focus, though they are pretty close to the center, and the show is better for it. As much as I like Sam and Lindsay, giving other characters the spotlight contributes greatly to an ensemble show like it has ensemble, and Kim was a good choice to start with. Having her and Lindsay spend a good portion of an episode away from the rest of the gang allowed for the characters to realistically develop something of a bond, without having it feel forced by anything other than minor contrivances of the plot.

So much resignation in one picture.
So much resignation in one picture.

“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is thus far the most focused episode of Freaks and Geeks to date, Ken does not appear and most of the recurring characters are completely absent, while Nick gets very little screen-time. I am personally a fan of shows not using characters when they are not needed for the plot (or it doesn’t make sense for them to be there, etc.), so I appreciated the tighter focus in this episode.

The subplot with Sam being bullied is a touch repetitive, but is also different in that there really isn’t a physical threat to the bullying, it is all about emotionally breaking down the freshman for the kicks of a screwed up upperclassman. It is always nice seeing Rashida Jones doing something besides The Office or Parks and Recreation, and she is delightfully against type here as the slutty-tough girl with a massive chip on her shoulder.

This is yet another strong episode from NBC’s Freak and Geeks, and is one that was not actually aired in the initial run of episodes, despite its importance to the development of several characters and some key plot development. Anyways, I liked this episode and I liked the focus on someone from the supporting cast. Oh, and Quincy Jones’ daughter is in it, so that’s something.

The World’s End: The Cornetto Trilogy’s End

Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are two of the great comedies of the new millennium and the loose “Cornetto trilogy” that comprises them has finally been completed with The World’s End, a tale of the disappointments of aging, pub-crawling, and extraterrestrial robots. The World’s End is directed by Edgar Wright, and stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, and seemingly half of the working actors in the United Kingdom in bit parts.

Gary “The King” King (Simon Pegg) was something of a hot commodity as a teenager in Newton Haven, the small town where he grew up. Over the years, King, so cool and popular in his youth, has degenerated into a pitiable husk of a man desperately trying to cling to the glory days of his youth that occurred almost two decades prior. He decides that the only way to salvage the pathetic state his life is currently in is to get back together with his childhood friends and finally accomplish something they failed at as teenagers: the Golden Mile, an epic pub-crawl comprising twelve pubs and twelve pints.

This is a very accurate poster.

This is a very accurate poster.

His four friends have all moved on with their lives. They have jobs, they wear ties, and they have not spent twenty years dreaming about passing out inside of The World’s End, the last pub of the Golden Mile, after spending a night drinking. Nick Frost plays Andy, Gary’s former best friend who he wronged years prior. Martin Freeman plays Oliver, whose unfortunate birthmark christened him O-Man for much of his youth. Paddy Considine plays Steven, who loved Oliver’s sister and resents Gary for drunkenly sleeping with her once when they were teenagers. Eddie Marsan plays Peter, a family man long removed from the days of being bullied at school. All of them have moved on, but all of them are drawn back by Gary’s promises of booze and belonging.

The quintet finds themselves back home and attempts the twelve pub crawl, but is sidetracked when they discover that Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), is back in town as well, and, oh yeah, just about everyone in newton Haven has been replaced by robots from space that are filled with blue, ink-like blood (probably should have gotten to that one first). Naturally, our five do the only thing that makes sense: complete the Golden Mile before the robots realize what they know. Note: they are all half in the bag by this point. So as their night goes from disappointing to terrifying, the five friends must fight for their lives and ask the age-old question: why did I listen to Gary f*cking King.

The boys are back and more skeptical than ever.

The boys are back and more skeptical than ever.

Simon Pegg, fresh off of Star Trek: Into Darkness, is back in another science-fiction effort, though one with fewer lens-flares and more drinking. Pegg is very much at the center of this film, and he is up to the challenge of being both charming and utterly pathetic. Gary King is one of those guys that never realized wanting to have fun forever means you probably will never have very much at all. He also calls his car “The Beast” and himself “The King” without a trace of irony, which is rather unacceptable for a grown man, even one who still wears the same coat he did as a seventeen year old.

Nick Frost, Pegg’s longtime comedic wing-man, plays someone who was tired of cleaning up his best friend’s messes and dealing with the inevitable betrayals and actually managed to leave him behind, only to be coerced back years later. He does well with material a little darker than he is typically associated with while still being very funny. Martin Freeman, Bilbo Baggins himself, is strong as well, if a bit underused in his role. Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan are also reliably funny and consistent throughout the film. Rosamund Pike seems underused as well, her character seems like a prize for one member of our group, an object of lust for another, and a sister for yet another and not much else, which is a shame, because I like the actress.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost seem to be carving out a niche for themselves in comedies with a science-fiction bent. Starting with Spaced, then Shaun of the Dead and Paul, and now The World’s End, the duo seems to know what they like. The aliens present here are actually legitimately interesting and rather unique in their motivations when compared to so many other cinematic aliens before them. They also seem like something out of a crappy video game, and I legitimately mean that in the best way possible. The fight scenes, while funny initially, seem to drag after a while, particularly as they become increasingly drawn out and complicated towards the end of the film.

No Gary, you're out of order!

No Gary, you’re out of order!

This is the darkest film yet in the Cornetto Trilogy, and probably the most mature Pegg and Frost have done together. Whereas Shaun of the Dead  was about a guy realizing he needs to start maturing before it is too late, The World’s End is about a guy who realizes after it is already way too late. Gary is a character, while good for making audiences laugh, is nothing short of depressing to think about. His friends, while successful, are also feeling the pressures of aging, albeit in ways that won’t send them towards the bottom of a beer stein. The symbolism of the town you grew up in looking the same but being totally different is a bit on the nose, though it works for The World’s End.

I’m a fan of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, together and separately, so I was admittedly a bit pumped to see The World’s End. The film managed to meet my expectations, and while it did not exceed them, meeting high expectations is certainly nothing to scoff at. The story and acting are strong, the humor is biting, and the ending is surprising, so go see The World’s End, and watch some grown men get inebriated and brawl with robots.

In a World…: In This World, I Liked It

The movie-trailer voice-over business is one of the most quietly iconic facets of the entertainment industry, so it is unsurprising that it took this long to get a film made about that rather eccentric corner of Hollywood. Lake Bell writes, directs, and stars in In a World…, a comedy about a woman who wants to break into the male-dominated world of voice-overs, a world in which her father reigns supreme. Fred Melamed, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, and Nick Offerman star alongside Bell in the Sundance favorite.

Carol Solomon is the daughter of Sam Soto, a legendary voice-over artist on the tail-end of his career. Carol works as a vocal coach, specializing in accents, but dreams of the glorious day when her voice will echo throughout movie theaters around the globe while theatergoers get their popcorn and go to the restroom “just in case.” Carol has the goods, but she has the wrong pair of chromosomes. Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) has it all: a girlfriend younger than his (youngest) daughter, rather impressive facial hair, and a voice that could shake the heavens. He is also a petty jackass.

Dani Solomon (Michaela Watkins) is married to the affable Moe (Rob Corddry), but the spark is gone. Her missing wedding ring is an annoyance rather than an emergency and her job appears to bore her. Two events flip Dani’s life on its head: Carol moves in, and a handsome Irishman sets his sights on her. Meanwhile, the attractive young woman next door (Talulah Riley) with a delightful accent of her own has befriended Moe.

I can't think of something "witty"

I can’t think of something “witty”

Carol frequently works at a recording studio staffed by Louis (Demetri Martin) a sound engineer crushing on Carol, Heners (Nick Offerman) who is filled with both good advice and ill-timed news, Cher (Tig Notaro), and a rather agressive new secretary who lusts after Sam Soto. This collection of odd-balls in united by their distaste for Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), the heir apparent to the voice-over throne.

The lives of these people intertwine and intersect and get increasingly complicated and convoluted as it becomes known that the phrase “In a World…” will be used in a trailer for the first time since the death of Don LaFontaine (the real life king of movie trailers). The choice for the recipient of the honor is limited down to three candidates: Sam Soto, Gustav Warner, and Carol Solomon.

That is a lot of awkward contact.

That is a lot of awkward contact.

This is a funny movie. The dramatic beats will occasionally fall a little short and some of the subplots are in need of refinement, but the laughs never stop coming from the opening sequence to the final scene. Lake Bell is a proven comedic actress, from the typical romantic-comedy fare to the more absurd (she is one of the leads on Children’s Hospital), but she has proven her ability to write witty, consistently funny dialogue here. Admittedly, having a stable of reliable comedic talents filling out the supporting cast definitely gives her something of a cushion to work with.

The romantic element in the film is probably the weakest aspect, and the dialogue present in the scenes between Bell and Martin tends to be a bit too “cute” for believability. This could be because the chemistry between Bell and Martin worked well in a friendly context, but felt lacking later in the film when it inevitably came time for there to be a slightly awkward romantic turn between the pair. While the romantic element is ever-present, In a World… is not a romantic comedy in the traditional sense where the leading lady finds her man and everything is all hunky-dory, Carol finds her own way in the world with some assistance, but does not have that way found for her.

The flamingos are symbolism.

The flamingos are symbolism.

The acting in the film is excellent, especially the work done by Bell, Corddry, Melamed, and Watkins. The convoluted family unit those four actors create, is a cavalcade of disfunction, from the father actively trying to thwart his daughter’s successes, to the husband and wife in danger of letting their little crushes get the better of them. Melamed does well as the antagonist you don’t fully realize is an antagonist until the movie’s nearly done and is able to provide his unpleasant characters with some layers.

The subplot regarding the marital strife between Dani and Moe is effective, sad, and touching but occupies the not-so-medium where there was either too much of them onscreen, or not enough. The disappearance of the couple’s accented objects of lust halfway through the film is a little bit jarring and something that could have been easily remedied with an extra few minutes of screen-time.

In a World… is a very funny film, but like most comedies worth their salt, it is has something to say beneath the witticisms and banter about its subject matter. Lake Bell is making something of a statement regarding the state of an intensely male-dominated field and also about the pandemic of young women adopting voices that are infantilized to the point of being unintelligible. Bell’s Carol is feisty and willing to fight for what she wants, so if you are the type to go in for positive lessons in their entertainment, there is one here to go along with a rather damning critique of how an industry, and others, are run.

In a lot of ways, Lake Bell is to actresses as voice-overs are to Hollywood. She has hung out around the fringes of the mainstream for years now, and while she is a recognizable face, she does not come immediately to mind when thinking of actresses. This makes it fitting that her first outing as a writer-director would focus on this aspect of the movie business. In a World… is a funny movie with enough narrative heft and strong acting to make for a memorable and unique, if unexceptional movie-going experience for the first-time director, who should have a lot of success with future cinematic endeavors behind the camera.

Freaks and Geeks S1E03: Tricks and Treats

Ah, Halloween, it is a time for dressing skimpily, eating wantonly, and vandalizing frequently (honestly, it’s a great day to be alive if there ever was one). Halloween also unleashes an onslaught of holiday episodes upon scores of television screens; Freaks and Geeks was no exception to this rule, though it did manage to play with traditional holiday episode conventions. Sam wrangles with his rapidly waning youth and Lindsay is torn between going out with her friends or staying in with her mother in “Tricks and Treats”, the third episode of the show (my other write-ups for Freaks and Geeks can be found here).

In the episode, Sam is tasked with reading Crime and Punishment for a book report after his own literary choice, the novelization of Star Wars, is rightfully shot down. So, feeling the relentless onslaught on aging coming upon him (he shouldn’t have, I read Crime and Punishment for the first time when I was fourteen and I didn’t embrace nihilism until at least two years later), he decides to grasp more firmly onto his youth by going out trick or treating with his friends, something he had previously determined as being a younger man’s game. He decides to go as Gort, the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, while Neal goes as Groucho Marx, and Bill goes as the Bionic Woman. As you can guess, they look really cool.

I can't imagine why girls don't go out with them.

I can’t imagine why girls don’t go out with them.

Meanwhile, Lindsay would much rather hang out with her new friends than spend the night at home in an embarrassing costume handing out candy. Lindsay, like most teenagers, lacks the tactfulness to avoid making it a huge issue, and winds up exiting the house at the last second to go drive around, and maybe commit a little bit of minor vandalism, with Daniel, Ken, Kim, and Nick. This leaves her mother hurt and a little confused, considering how convincing Lindsay had been in saying she was looking forward to spending the night in. Lindsay’s mother may have been a little (or a lot) naive, but Lindsay’s timidity made a non-issue into a time-bomb.

Lindsay is given her first true taste of something uniquely “freaky” in this episode, as the quintet decide to go around and vandalize. Over the course of the evening, the vandalism increases in severity, from quite mild to something more in the realm of moderate. Eventually, after crushing a few pumpkins and smashing a mailbox or two, Lindsay goes a little too far and does something she can’t take back.

This episode is the one most centrally focused on the Weirs yet, and that includes the parents for the first time. Lindsay and Sam’s parents are really only seen through the eyes of their children and, even taking that rather biased lens into consideration, are quite cliched. When Lindsay or Sam do something to avoid spending time with their parental units, I can’t judge them because, well, I simply would not want to be around those people for any length of time. “Tricks and Treats” does, however, take steps to humanize them a bit more than they had been.

So much worry in one picture

So much worry in one picture

Joe Flaherty’s father figure is prone to hyperbole but, for the first time, demonstrates some degree of wisdom regarding how Sam’s night would turn out. The gist of his good advice: a child at heart is not actually a child. Becky Ann Miller’s mother figure is about as naive as they come, but it is hard not to sympathize with her as so many things go wrong: her daughter ditches her for greener pastures, her homemade cookies may contain razor blades or hallucinogenics so they are not fit for consumption by costumed children, her husband can’t help but to say I told you so, et cetera.

Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley each continue to do strong work in their roles, fully willing to give in to the more negative traits their characters display. Lindsay Weir has a lot of positive traits, but is also possessing of the most unattractive of character traits: desperation. Lindsay is desperate for the approval of her new group of friends, but the very act of trying too hard is just what is keeping her from being fully embraced (by Kim and Ken at least, Nick and Daniel both seem to have accepted her).

Sam Weir may be in high school, but he is still struggling to learn when it is okay to be childish and when not to. If you want to play Dungeons & Dragons with your friends, go for it because it is fun. Whereas, if you want to walk around at five o’clock getting candy along with little kids, it is probably best to hold off. The lesson here: buy your candy on the first of November when it is cheap and unlikely to see you beaten up. Secondary lesson here: it is much more worth your time to read Crime and Punishment than the novelization of Star Wars (or any novelization of any movie really).

This episode is as well written as the previous two, but has a resolution that is much too clean for comfort. Lindsay buckling under the pressure of guilt rang hollow (as does her agreeing to wear a costume sight unseen), though Sam finally reading of Crime and Punishment works by virtue of it being a homework assignment (and a good book). Something potentially interesting I noticed just now: Lindsay is the only one to commit a crime, but Sam is the only one to receive something actually akin to a punishment. I blame society.

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

“Tricks and Treats” also sees Martin Starr continuing to be the most reliable, and frequent, source of laughter on Freaks and Geeks. His choice in costume and nonchalant manner of going about making and wearing it made me guffaw at least three times throughout the program. Neal’s struggle to do a mustache befitting Groucho Marx without descending into Hitler territory is also quite funny. Sam’s pair of geeky friends may lack as much development as Lindsay’s group at this point (excepting Ken, that man is still very much a cypher), but may have an edge in entertainment value.

The attention to period detail on Freaks and Geeks is always strong, but this episode kicks it into high gear. From the paranoia about the what people are putting in Halloween candy (it still occurred when I was of a trick or treating age) to Bill going as the Bionic Woman, it all felt authentically eighties. My opinion may not be totally worth listening to, however, considering I was born early into the following decade.

Halloween episodes of shows tend not to be as strong as other episodes in whatever program unleashed them, but “Tricks and Treats” manages to sidestep this particular trend with aplomb. It is a strong episode of Freaks and Geeks that contains some of the funnier moments of the show without sacrificing any dramatic heft. Plus, Martin Starr cross-dressing is worth price of admission on its own.

Spaced S1E01: Beginnings

This weekend, The World’s End was released stateside and I was unable to swing my schedule to be able to go see it. I was able, however, to finally gain the proper motivation to push Spaced to the top of my Netflix queue and actually watch that program. One of the initial collaborations between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, Spaced lasted for two series of seven episodes a piece. Spaced  was created by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, who also starred as a pair of friends who decide to pose as a professional couple in order to move into a quality apartment with a reasonable price. Anyways, here are my thoughts on the first episode of the first series, titled “Beginnings.”

Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Stevenson) are both down on their luck. Tim, a prospective comic-book artist and the assistant manager of a comic-book store (his boss is named Bilbo; personally, I never trust a man named Bilbo: he may disappear on you), has been broken up with by his girlfriend, who has started to date one of his friends, and kicked him out of their flat. Daisy, a “writer”, is tired of living in squalor with a bunch of squatters and decides the time has come for a real place to call home, assuming it is reasonably priced. Tim and Daisy meet and talk daily in a coffee shop for several weeks while they apartment hunt separately before deciding that they should become roommates who must pretend to be deeply in love and in a committed adult relationship in order to fool their new landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin).

None of them looked particularly spaced.

None of them looked particularly spaced.

Tim is the kind of guy that argues his ability to be emotional by referencing how he reacts to some of the more “touching” scenes in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and will stop dead in his tracks when someone speaks ill of The X-Files. Daisy is the kind of woman who blurts out insignificant factoids about her faux-life-partner in order to seem inconspicuous to an apathetic landlady. Fun fact: Saying “fun fact” before stating random facts and trivia makes it slightly more palatable to the unsuspecting victim. Sad fact: I do this quite a bit.

The supporting cast of this off-beat sitcom includes Nick Frost as Tim’s best friend Mike, a weapons “expert” and the recipient of very little screen-time thus far. Katy Carmichael plays Twist, Daisy’s best friend who works in “fashion”, and the recipient of even less screen-time than Nick Frost thus far. Mark Heap portrays Brian, the downstairs neighbor of our protagonists, and an off-beat artist motivated by pain, anger, fear, and all those other buzz words. He possesses a strange bit of sexual tension with Marsha: she gets sexual, and he gets tense.

key_art_spaced

Spaced is an intriguing animal thus far, it is possessive of a very standard setup (I’m nearly certain will they or won’t they tension will be rampant by the end of the second series.) but it also has a surrealistic style all its own and some decidedly quirky humor. Tim and Daisy are also different from your typical leads: Tim is as nerdy a nerd as you can get, but does not possess the redeeming sort of extreme intelligence usually found in nerdy characters in sitcoms (at least American ones from the 1990′s and CBS ones from the 2000′s) , and Daisy is apparently a slacker and lacks a supermodel figure.

Thus far Spaced has entertained me, and seems poised to entertain me even more considering the setup and expository dialogue appears to have been dealt with in the first episode. The show was funny, I got the geeky references, and I still like it when Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright work together, so Spaced remains atop my queue and I am even more excited to go see The World’s End sometime in the near future, assuming the world doesn’t end before then.

Clear History: Curb Your Expectations

Larry David is one of the great comedic forces of our age. His fingerprints are instantly recognizable on any one of his projects (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and he has earned the right to be as caustic as he wants on any project that he wants, no matter how very underwhelming it is. Clear History is a film made for HBO, and stars David along with a veritable stable of quality talent in this comedy about a man who threw a fortune away over a minute detail. Greg Mottola directs a cast consisting of Jon Hamm, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Michael Keaton, Kate Hudson, Eva Mendes, Philip Baker Hall, J.B. Smoove, and Liev Schreiber alongside the inimitable Larry David.

Nathan Flomm (Larry David as a variation of Larry David) had it all: a job all but guaranteed to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, an attractive girlfriend, and a glorious mane of hair. He also had a mouth and a stubborn streak. The latter two cost him the first three, and he became both a disgrace and a laughingstock. His decision to jump ship and give up ten percent of a surefire money-maker may have been idiotic, but, to be fair, naming an electric car “the Howard” is pretty stupid no matter what Ayn Rand novel his boss, Will Haney (Jon Hamm), had taken it from. Flomm’s towering mistake led to his public humiliation: he was laughed out of coffee shops and made fodder for late-night monologues. Faced with the relentlessness of the public’s scorn, he disappears.

I'm not sure whose hair is more impressive.

I’m not sure whose hair is more impressive.

Ten years later, Nathan lives in the idyllic Martha’s Vineyard, goes by Rolly, and has traded in high profile marketing gigs for being the caretaker of an old woman even more unpleasant than himself. His life lacks the glamour and the importance it did before, but he is happy. He plays poker with his friends, he is on good terms with his ex-girlfriend, and he seems content to wile away his remaining years in the comforting embrace of obscurity.

Then, Will Haney moved to town and everything changes. All the bad memories and resentment bubbling beneath the surface become Nathan’s primary motivators once more, and his mind becomes focused on one thing: revenge. He drafts the help of his best friend (Danny McBride) and a couple of crazed locals (Michael Keaton and Bill Hader) in his plot to destroy the grandiose new home Haney has built. Nathan also manages to befriend Haney’s wife (Kate Hudson) and seeks to woo her away from her chiseled husband.

Are denim jackets still a thing?

Are denim jackets still a thing?

Larry David shines while playing a(nother) modified version of himself, but his reassuring sort of unpleasantness can only do so much to elevate this movie beyond being a sterling example of a bloated cast. So many roles are filled by actors of various levels of star power, it becomes both distracting and detracting. Worst of all, there is not an actor here, aside from David, Hamm, and maybe Smoove, who doesn’t have their talents wasted by virtue of a lack of development and the inherent superfluity of so many of their roles.

Clear History is just a case of a bunch of celebrities getting together to have a good time with each other by being politically-incorrect and engaging in a bit of improvisation (without the quality of, say, This Is the End). If this made for television film sounds a lot like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, you would not be even a little bit off base. The problem with Clear History, however, is that it just isn’t very good. It is overstuffed, indulgent, and in desperate need of someone to go through it and trim all the fat, and Clear History is mostly fat. This is a shorter review than normal because I just can’t think of aspects of this film legitimately warranting discussion, and that is a bad sign.

Anyways, I guess I will list some random observations to pad this out.

  • Larry David’s epic hair worked for me.
  • Liev Schreiber, Danny McBride, Larry David, and Jon Hamm are all leads on television series currently.
  • Apparently the band Chicago still exists.
  • Michael Keaton is still weird as hell.
  • What was the point of hiring Eva Mendes if you aren’t going to have her look like Eva Mendes?
  • I agree with Jon Hamm about seersucker jackets. This makes me happy.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Reviewed by James, Who Watched at Home

The Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) are the original kings of mumblecore, and, after a period of flirtation, they have apparently decided to embrace the mainstream with Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Starring Jason Segel as the Jeff of the title and Ed Helms as his brother Pat, the comedy-drama focuses on a family as they struggle to determine what exactly it is that they want. Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, and Rae Dawn Chong also star in the 2012 film.

Jeff is thirty years old and still living in his mother’s basement. He doesn’t have a job and it does not appear that he is looking for one, he smokes too much pot, and has seen the movie Signs by M. Night Shymalan too many times for comfort. According to him, Signs eventually reigns in all the meandering and contains one perfect moment, and, while I doubt the veracity of that statement, it leads him to his personal philosophy: eventually life will contain one perfect moment that makes up for everything that occurs leading up to it. He looks for signs in everyday life, and his marijuana-infused state of mind leads to conclude that the name Kevin will lead him to his destiny. His logic is oddly sound.

The wood-paneling doesn't work for me.

The wood-paneling doesn’t work for me.

Pat is Jeff’s older brother and he does not live at home. Pat is married to Linda (Judy Greer), who seems to be on the verge of finally reacting to the passive-aggressive back and forth her marriage has devolved into. Pat is the kind of guy who is solidly middle-class, goes to Hooters on his lunch break, and can be talked into actually believing that they are basically giving a Porsche away for free if there is only a small down payment. Eventually Pat and Jeff cross paths and Pat must finally confront the state of his marriage.

Sharon (Susan Sarandon), the mother of Jeff and Pat, is in a bit of a funk. She resents her kids, she’s bored in her job, and she hasn’t had sex since her husband died. So, when she starts getting messages from a secret admirer, she is more than a little skeptical of their intentions. Following some urging from her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), she decides to give it a go, though the result is quite surprising to her (but not us). As these kinds of movies tend to do, the main cast ends up in the same place at the same time, and things find a way to resolve themselves, for the time being at least.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a film extremely reliant on the contrivances of the script, and no matter how sparingly the Duplass brothers filmed it, that kind of thing does not go unnoticed. This is a rather short film, clocking in at just over eighty minutes, so the need to keep the plot moving at a reasonable clip is rather high, the but the manner in which it was done could have been more subtle. Jeff, as a character, seems to have embraced fate and the interconnected nature of the universe as a means to motivating himself, so the usage of things seemingly occurring by fate makes a degree of sense considering this film isn’t damning its title character, but it all just rang so hollow. Also: the subplot regarding Susan Sarandon’s Sharon and the coworker who secretly admires her was sweet but not affecting.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot. That was bad, even for me.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot.

Issues regarding the plot aside, Jeff, Who Lives at Home was a very well-acted film by all four principles. Jason Segel has been a bastion of comedic solidity (I really need to get this flowery writing in check) for over a decade now, and, despite the comedic bent of the film, is finally beginning to test his dramatic chops. As far as I can tell, Segel is fully up to the task and demonstrates this by spending much of the film either by himself or with the camera zoomed closely on his face.

Ed Helms is an actor defined by how comedic his intensity can become before it just becomes sad (note: the later seasons of The Office). In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Helms embraced the inherently pitiable, if frustrating, manner his characters typically act, and gave what may be his strongest performance to date. Helms’ willingness to let his characters be legitimately unpleasant and unlikable makes him a natural fit for the Duplass brothers, who have made something of a career out of mining the aspects about people that tend to annoy other equally annoying people.

Judy Greer is in many ways the ultimate supporting player in Hollywood. Indie or mainstream, television or film, she seems to pop up a few times a year to elevate whatever material she is tasked with working with. Her Linda is a frustrated woman, her marriage is failing and her husband has depleted the funds they had been saving to buy a house in order to purchase an ill-advised Porsche. So, if Linda were to have an affair with some guy who is willing to actually put in some effort and listen to her complain, no one would really blame her.

I can't tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

I can’t tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

The thing in this film is that Pat and Linda deserve each other. Linda complains that none of her friends like Pat, but admits it was she who poisoned them against him. Pat wants a wife who loves him, but can’t manage to actually love his wife. These are deep problems, and while a day of catharsis may help, some wounds just don’t heal. As can be expected, Jeff’s search for meaning and following of signs doesn’t lead him inwards, it leads him straight into the middle of the cold war between his brother and sister-in-law.

I didn’t like the ending of this movie. Maybe it is the pessimist in me, or maybe it is as someone who thinks a deus ex machina should be reserved for a Greek drama or something more irony-laden, but the ending just didn’t sit right. What occurs is a cop-out used to ensure a happy(ish) ending, and while I can appreciate the desire to end on a more positive note, it didn’t work for this viewer. I am perfectly content for something to end happily if it makes, well, sense, but the final few scenes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home just didn’t make all that much sense to me.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is Jay and Mark Duplass’ first legitimately mainstream film, and it is competently done if a bit disappointing. This film is demonstrative of many of the frequent pitfalls of independent cinema: it confuses the intimate for the unambitious, is content to be reflective rather than attempt something revelatory, and thinks a shaky camera is a good idea. The cast, primarily Jason Segel and Ed Helms, does an exceptional job and manages to elevate the material somewhat, but unlike Signs (this is Jeff’s opinion, not mine), all the meandering doesn’t actually manage to culminate into the one perfect moment they were clearly intending to achieve.

Freaks and Geeks S1E02: Beers and Weirs

The second episode of the under-seen classic Freaks and Geeks sees Lindsay Weir attempting to fit in and gain some credibility in the eyes of her new circle of friends by hosting a keg-party at her home. Meanwhile Sam and his friends worry about the potential for tragedy when alcohol is involved and concoct a plan to marginalize the risk. You can also see my write-up on the first episode of Freaks and Geeks here.

Like most high school students struggling to fit in with a new group of friends, Lindsay Weir is willing to do quite a bit to win their approval and gratitude, particularly if one of them (James Franco’s Daniel Desario) looks like he could one day play James Dean in a television movie. The opportunity arises for our heroine when her parents go out of town for the weekend and the house is suddenly a space in which a party where a moderate amount of alcohol can be served to a bunch of moderately rebellious teenagers willing to drink it without moderation, and exclaim to anyone willing to listen, “I’m so wasted.” Even if the beer doesn’t technically contain alcohol.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The lack of alcohol stems from a rather ingenious plot by Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, and his two friends Neal and Bill. The geeky trio has their rational, if exaggerated, worries about the dangers of beverages with a bit more kick, exacerbated after viewing a school assembly in which three students espouse the virtues of being cool without drinking (you can, but the assembly failed at showing it). Sam, Neal, and Bill use some of Neal’s Bar Mitzvah money to buy a keg of non-alcoholic beer, in order to exchange it for the real one. The perfect blend of shrewd and idiotic, their plan actually manages to work. Also, all three of the assembly “actors” show up to the party, two of them get drinks, while the other prefers to get high on life.

This episode’s central focus is on Lindsay, but aside from the implied crush on Daniel Desario being made more blatant, we really don’t learn much more about her than we learned from the pilot. The episode’s primary character development is centered on Neal (Samm Levine), and to a lesser extent Nick, Kim, and Daniel. Neal is revealed to have maintained a crush on Lindsay for the majority of his life, and is extremely disheartened to see her starting to hang out with a “bad” crowd. Neal also proves himself quite clever a couple of times throughout the episode and leaves a more positive impression on the audience in this episode than the last.

Look at how natural they're acting

Look at how naturally they’re acting

As was hinted in the pilot, Nick has taken a shine to Lindsay, and makes an ill-timed move on her. Additionally, when the nerdy Millie starts to (effectively) humiliate herself, he is the only person present that gets up to help her out. Admittedly, there is not much to be done when the girl voluntarily starts singing “Jesus is Alright With” at a keg-party, but it is the thought that counts I suppose.

This episode sees Daniel and Kim’s their relationship clarified to the extent their relationship lacks anything resembling clarity, they are perpetually swinging between the on and off sides of their relationship, and sometimes they make-out in Lindsay’s bedrooms. Lindsay seems to make headway with Kim, who has a genuinely non-caustic remark as she exits the premises following the party. There is also a telling moment where Daniel is legitimately puzzled as to why Lindsay is embarrassed about being a mathlete: he may lack motivation, but he doesn’t resent those who have it. Sam also seemingly makes headway with his crush Cindy, as she both comes to the party and strikes up a conversation with him rather than the other way around. We the viewers, however, can see the trap that Sam is unknowingly walking into regarding what he might see as his burgeoning relationship with Cindy.

They are not amused, but I am.

They are not amused, but I am.

Oh, it would be a crime not to mention that Martin Starr once again steals the show as the super-geek Bill. His standing up for his favorite television program, Dallas, is probably the biggest laugh of the episode. His getting drunk after being left alone with the keg filled with beer that actually contains alcohol is hilarious as well. Starr is both riotously funny and able to take a character type that could easily have been cloying and made him endearing in a very short period of time.

This is another strong episode for Freaks and Geeks and one that makes the most out of a situation that could have easily devolved into a big bundle of cliches towards the end. The considerably smaller and quieter bundle of cliches we receive is a rather welcome surprise. Strong performances are had all around and the writing is sharp, “Beers and Weirs” does not disappoint. I must also add that the large aspect of my personality that almost entirely subsists on wordplay and bad puns really appreciates the title of this episode.

Saga, Volume 2: Meeting the Grandparents

After greatly enjoying the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staple’s space-fantasy comic book epic Saga (read my thoughts on the first volume here), it was only a matter of time before I came back to give my opinion on the second volume of the hit series by Image Comics. Volume 2 collects issues seven through twelve of Saga and includes a couple of rescues, a surprise team-up, and a fair amount of sewing.

Volume 1 left off with Marko coming face to face with his parents for the first time in years, Alana meeting the in-laws, and the infant Hazel meeting her grandparents. Oh, and the spectral Izabel was banished from the ship because Marko’s mother, Klara, is a bit hasty in her actions. Marko equally hastily takes action by chasing after Izabel with his mother in tow, while Alana and her new father-in-law, Barr, are left to make small-talk.

Meanwhile, freelancer The Will comes into contact with a new ally, Marko’s ex-fiance Gwendolyn, who is out for the blood of the man who spurned her, but may end up being either a help or a hindrance when it comes to rescuing a child-prostitute from slavers. And Prince Robot IV follows up on a lead based on a book that had made an impression on the newlyweds early on in their relationship.

This is the cover of the second volume.

This is the cover of the second volume.

The interactions between Marko and his over-bearing mother are quite telling, as are the scenes of him in his childhood. It is easy to see how Marko wound up such a formidable combatant and also able to burn out so quickly on that violent style of living. Klara’s needling of Marko about his choice of bride quickly enrages him, but the hints of timidity shine through when he is around his warrior-mom. Their search for Hazel’s baby-sitter takes a surprising twists when they realize the world they landed on isn’t exactly what it seems.

Barr is much more accepting and takes it upon himself to help the new members of his family, whether they want him to or not. His revelation that he is in the last stages of a terminal illness and his ability to make stylish clothing that are also able to stop bullets warm Alana’s initially icy reaction to him (he is an armorer, not a seamstress). But as is usually the case with life, tragedy lurks in shadows waiting to strike.

All of life's big moments are made more awkward by a towel.

All of life’s big moments are made more awkward by the presence of a towel.

This volume focused primarily on Marko and how he became the damaged, dangerous, somewhat-pacifistic man on the run he is today. Early in his life, his parents brought him to the sight of a brutal battle in the war between Wreath and Landfall, and used magic to have him experience the carnage as if he was presence. This act, and presumably others like it, shaped Marko into a fearsome warrior, but did not manage to permanently poison his opinion on their winged enemies. It is also said many times by the narrating-from-the-future Hazel that he has a certain way with the ladies, excepting the ones who currently want to kill him, namely his ex-fiance and possibly his mother.

The Will and Gwendolyn clash early and often, but you don’t have to a be one of the creators of Saga to see where their relationship is going, and the dynamic is fun and connects his subplot more fully to Marko and Alana’s story. Also, the Lying Cat is still a very amusing presence in story and a nice source of levity in a subplot that has the potential to get very depressing very quickly (a grieving hit-man trying to save a young prostitute…).

I'm not sure what use the ax is on a dead person, but the prospect is intriguing.

I’m not sure what use the ax is on a dead person, but the prospect is intriguing.

The plot of this volume, while still very entertaining and tense, isn’t as gripping as the story in the first volume. I believe it is because most of the characters are still reacting from the events of the first volume, and only truly start to to move in new directions in the latter portion of the book. The cliffhanger ending, however, certainly promises some very interesting situations to come and a larger, more immediately threatening, role for the antagonistic Prince Robot IV.

The best part of the book is still Fiona Staples’ art, which has not missed a beat from the previous volume. The characters are attractive without being unrealistic (aside from the horns and the wings and the guy with one eye and you get my point) Every page is detailed and cinematic in the manner implying that a movie screen wouldn’t be able to do it justice: Staples definitely shines brightly here.

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the legends working in comics today, and Saga is certainly reaffirming that reputation. Intimate and epic, funny and tragic, Vaughan has hit just the right balance in his writing for an enduring series we will presumably be enjoying for years to come, and in tandem with Staples’ art, it becomes something really special, though maybe not for everyone.

Saga‘s second volume continues the same high level of quality as the first, with both Vaughan and Staples continuing to be exceptional. While the plot isn’t quite as exciting as that in the first volume, the deepening of the characters and the setting of the stage for things to come keeps Saga the must-read it already was. I am awaiting the third volume (in six months or so) with bated breath.

Superman: Unbound: My Review is Also Unbound

Marvel may be dominating the world of live-action super-heroism, and probably will continue to do so barring some unforeseen dramatics, but DC Animation has been equally dominant in the (admittedly significantly less lucrative) realm of animated film-making. They continued their solid stretch of quality film-making with Superman: Unbound, based on the 2008 “Brainiac” story arc in Action Comics by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The sixteenth DC Universe Animated Original Movie, Superman: Unbound is directed by James Tucker and has a voice cast lead by Matt Bomer (White Collar) as Clark Kent/Superman, Stana Katic (Castle) as Lois Lane, John Noble (Fringe) as Brainiac, and Molly Quinn (Castle) as Kara Zor-El/Supergirl.

It is just another day in Metropolis, Superman is off doing something or other for the betterment of humanity, the sun is shining, and Lois Lane has been taken hostage. Again. Since this occurs in the first two or three minutes of the film, it is a given that she is rescued from her predicament with all of her snark still intact. Her rescuer is Superman’s adolescent cousin Kara Zor-El, who has taken on the moniker of Supergirl. Kara has all of the power, with twice the midriff. Clark Kent may have the power of a god and be an unparalleled master of disguise (Glasses! So subtle, so genius!), but he lacks that specific tact needed to deal with a troubled teenager (who was actually familiar with the home planet that was obliterated) without pushing a few buttons.

You're not my real Dad!

You’re not my real Dad!

Superman: Unbound was shaping up to be an understated meditation on the importance of family and open communication in all sorts of relationships, but this is all derailed (damn you comic-book cliches! I’m kidding, hooray for explosions) when a robot from space engages in a lengthy brawl with the Man of Steel and it is revealed that the pair of Kryptonians may have to deal with an enemy Superman never knew he had, and Supergirl wishes she could forget: Brainiac. Brainiac is a being that is part organism and part machine who thirsts to know…everything. The impossibility of that mission has caused him to rig the game by eliminating the element with the greatest potential for chaos in the universe: life, and all the free-will that goes along with that. Brainiac travels from planet to planet miniaturizing and bottling cities from intelligent worlds for his collection before destroying those planets. One such conquest was Kandor, the former capital city of Krypton.

Superman, desperate to stop the inevitable destruction of his new home, decides to seek out Brainiac in the cosmos and leave the Earth in the care of Kara, who still remembers the fruitlessness of the defense Krypton mounted against Brainiac. Meanwhile, Lois wants to stop hiding her relationship with Clark Kent and has discovered the joys of wearing miniskirts to work (admittedly, this probably makes her interviews go more smoothly).

The character designs in Superman: Unbound were hit and miss for the most part, with Brainiac and Supergirl looking fantastic but Superman and Lois Lane looking slightly off, and not quite like themselves. Note: the characters don’t unnatural, it just never quite feels like Superman and Lois Lane, at least based on their appearances. The background animation and environmental scenes are all superbly rendered, even if the actual motion of what’s on screen can feel clunky (a minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless).

Who said superhero movies couldn't be shocking?

Who said superhero movies couldn’t be shocking?

The character of Superman works better for me here than he has in a long time, certainly better than in Man of Steel, in that it adds shades to the character that do not detract from the character’s core qualities while adding a depth that is just not inherent to the character (sorry fans of the character, I’ve never quite gotten it). His upstanding nature has made him self-righteous, and his all-consuming protectiveness has added hints of timidity in all things non-violent. Superman: Unbound also conveys something refreshing in that it is usually not seen with character, at least not on screen: he’s out of his depth. Brainiac is Superman’s match and then some, and they both know it. Additionally, Lois Lane is at her least cloying in the film, which saying quite a lot considering my dislike of the character (I may be ambivalent towards Superman, but I genuinely dislike Lois Lane…I’m sorry, fans of the character).

Matt Bomer’s voice-work is certainly competent, and the actor looks the part (not needed in a voice-actor, but I thought I should point it out), however, it is generally bland and unmemorable. I did appreciate that Bomer made his voice sound slightly more nasally when voicing the definitely-not-Superman Clark Kent, as opposed to the definitely-not-Clark-Kent Superman. Stana Katic is equally competent and unmemorable in her role of the feisty reporter commonly known as Lois Lane.

Brainiac makes for a good villain, and is suitable as a foil for Superman who is not named Lex Luthor (also: good on Superman: Unbound for not inserting that character when he is unnecessary). Superman is essentially a god, but he wishes nothing more than to be able to be fallible without disastrous consequences ensuing. Brainiac seeks godhood, and the question regarding his apotheosis isn’t if he will become a god, the question is just when did he shed the last remnants of whatever humanity he had to start with? John Noble probably does the strongest voice-work in the film, though I feel it was a mistake for him to interject any emotion into Brainiac’s voice. Cold, calculated brutality is just so much more terrifying than some of the heated decision-making we saw.

I kind of like the decor.

I kind of like the decor.

The action is a good, though it sometimes it feels like the action sequences are from a stylistically different film from the quieter scenes with fewer explosions. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be jarring at times. The plot of Superman: Unbound moves along at a very quick pace, and the film could have definitely used an extra ten minutes or so to develop the characters and their relationships a bit better, though profit margins must be maintained and animation is expensive to produce relative to the revenue that they yield (not a judgment).

Superman: Unbound continues the increasingly impressive streak of DC for quality animated features, though it is not up there with some of the more exceptional works they have put out. The voice-acting is solid, and the focus on lesser-known characters (to the general public) such as Supergirl and Brainiac is refreshing when facing the overabundance of Lex Luthor (who I like) in Superman media. Superman: Unbound is a solid animated effort, and fans of the character, the genre, or non-mainstream-superhero-cinema (it being about the most mainstream of superheroes not withstanding) should enjoy it.