Tag Archives: Comedy

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.

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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-happy-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.

Freaks and Geeks S1E01: Pilot

When listing off shows that went off the air before they had received a fair shake, odds are that the 1999 cult classic Freaks and Geeks settles somewhere near the top (along with Firefly). Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980 and centers on Lindsay and Sam Weir (Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley), and their circles of friends, as they deal with all the trials, tribulations, and awkward situations that high school can throw at them. The show was produced by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig and launched many of its cast-members to movie-stardom, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel. Anyways, here is my review of the first episode, christened without much originality as “Pilot.”

Lindsay Weir is a fairly ordinary high school student, apparently an ace mathlete, and at a bit of a loss of exactly what to do about anything. She is very intelligent and excels scholastically, but is intrigued by the titular “Freaks” made up by Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel), and Kim (Busy Philipps) who skip class and get high, yet are also generally accepting and lacking in obvious pretension, even if they are a bit rougher around the edges.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

Lindsay is also, like so many slightly-outcast teenagers, a bit self-righteous and mistaken in thinking that withdrawing from social-situations is really some vague protest. So when she is coerced into attending the homecoming dance by her parents (fun fact: I did not attend any of mine, it wouldn’t have been fair to the all the girls who would be heartbroken by my attending with someone else. My nobility astounds even me.), she decides to take the mentally-handicapped Eli (a young Ben Foster), who is perpetually happy, but often the butt of jokes. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, is struggling to find a foothold in something other than his clique of friends (the titular “Geeks”). Sam is close with his friends Neal and Bill (Samm Levine and Martin Starr), but he is viciously bullied regularly and can’t get up the courage to ask his crush Cindy, a cheerleader, out. Cindy is friendly, attentive, tall, and, like so many girls, is even further out of reach because she is actually willing to stand close. Sam, put in the same homecoming dance conundrum as Lindsay, resolves to ask Cindy to the dance and finally stand up to his bully (by ganging up with his friends and beating him up).

"I had a dream it would end this way."

“I had a dream it would end this way.”

This first episode is, rightfully, primarily a showcase for Linda Cardellini as Lindsay and John Francis Daly as Sam (who both excel), but some of the supporting characters are also given a chance to shine. James Franco is both greasy and charming as Daniel Desario, and Jason Segel as Nick Andropolis is a surprising source of wisdom for our heroine. Additionally, Martin Starr steals most of his scenes as the geekiest of the three geeks, Bill Haverchuck. Also: Seth Rogen plays acerbic rather well.

Part of the reason Freaks and Geeks has latched itself so strongly in the minds of its viewers despite such a short run (eighteen episodes, three were unaired), is how strong it came out of the gate. The pilot is a good introduction to the show and a strong individual episode in its own right, which something commendable (I commend you Freaks and Geeks, fourteen years after the fact).

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

Freaks and Geeks greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is that the adolescent characters are all believable and realistic. Even, the characters that are more thinly drawn at this stage of the game appear to have complexities, even if they haven’t been revealed yet. Furthermore, the fact that none of the characters are really black and white in their moralities, is a welcome change from the typical geeky/popular paradigm. Sam has a bully and cannot be described as popular, but the popular Cindy is nice to him without any apparent motivation. Nick goes out of his way to cheer Lindsay up, but his method ends with her in trouble with the school. Inherent complexities and contradictions like this can make a show feel as real as life, and can turn a one-season network run into something much more enduring.

Freaks and Geeks starts out strong, and if you haven’t seen it, it is probably something well worth your time, if only to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen it” when asked, unprompted via some thin conversational connection by someone as arrogant in their particular brand of television-watching as myself. Anyways, this pilot episode flew straight (as always, the pun is intentional).

Wreck-It Ralph: 8-Bit Nostalgia and Product Placement

Over the past couple of decades, the primary location where video games are played has shifted from the arcade to the living room, and while the graphics may be improved, the nostalgia for those quarter-to-play games remains. Wreck-It Ralph taps into this nostalgia and focuses on the characters living inside the arcade-games, particularly Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy of the game Fix-It Felix Jr.. The film is produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, and directed by Rich Moore. The voice cast includes John C. Reilly as the titular Ralph, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Ed O’Neill, and Dennis Haysbert.

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is your typical arcade villain, he spends his days wrecking buildings that are destined to be fixed by Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), and he spends his nights alone living in the junkyard while all of the other residents of the game live in a cushy apartment building. After going to a Bad-Anon (Bad Guys Anonymous) meeting, Ralph’s frustration with his lot in life builds to the point where he barges in on a party for all the citizens of the game, except for him of course. He then heads off to the central hub where all of the game characters from the arcade can mingle in order to find a game where he can finally gain some respect, and a shiny medal. After a mishap in a shoot-em-up game, he winds up in a Candyland inspired racing game where he must team-up with a glitching little girl, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who just wants to race. But a malicious King Candy (Alan Tudyk) desperately wants to keep Vanellope away from the racetrack, and isn’t afraid to go through Ralph to do so.

Wreck-it_Ralph

The voice-acting of Wreck-It Ralph is top notch, particularly the work of John C. Reilly in the title role. Reilly is one of the most underrated actors working today, able to be incredibly subtle while doing some outlandish comedy. His voice is naturally downtrodden, in fact I can’t recall one of his characters that is not at least a little bit depressed, so his casting as the frustrated and (wait for it) depressed Ralph was ideal. Reilly’s work is strong throughout Wreck-It Ralph, and his work anchors a film whose plot could have easily ended up being a framing device for sight-gags.

Sarah Silverman, as the intriguingly named Vanellope, straddles the fine line of endearing and cloying when playing (voicing) spunky children. The character is surprisingly well-developed for a child in an animated film, but she is onscreen a little bit too much, and her antics get old rather quickly. Though, it must be said that she is an easy character to support. Jack McBrayer, of 30 Rock fame, is cast in yet another goody-goody role as the hero to Ralph’s villain. He is good-natured, but frustratingly naive about the ways of the world and the manner in which he treats Ralph.

wreck-it-ralph-title

Jane Lynch provides most of the funny one-liners in the film as a hardened soldier programmed with the most tragic back-story ever (the only day she didn’t check the perimeter was her wedding day…). Her character is the stereotypical gruff, competent soldier type so common in just about every narrative medium, but it is very funny. Alan Tudyk plays the villainous King Candy and goes for broke with the over the top performance, but he is effective, and actually quite menacing, despite the pitch of his voice.

The animation is, as is the case with most 3D animated films these days, superb and detailed. The sequences of 8-Bit animation give the film a large modicum of charm that many of the computer-animated films released these days lack. Having all of the characters exist in different arcade games allows for a variation of designs of the characters that actually makes sense, from the exaggerated features of those in Fix-It Felix Jr., to the anatomically correct sort-of-realism of those from Hero’s Duty, and just about everything in between (Pac-ManStreetfighter!). And for once, the vast variations fit the story, and don’t distract from it. The settings are all detailed and visually resplendent, but none of them are all that interesting. It is either a town, or a battlefield, or “Candyland.” The central hub where all of the different characters is much more interesting, if less elaborate, but very little time is spent there.

Wrecking-It in multiple languages.

Wrecking-It in multiple languages.

The story of Wreck-It Ralph is surprisingly complicated for an animated family film, but the execution of some aspects of the story-line, particularly in the third act, leaves a lot to be desired. Wreck-It Ralph is yet another animated film to end with an extended chase sequence, which may look pretty but are almost never tonally consistent. The ending of the film also redefines what it means to have a happy ending. I am, in general, not anywhere near a fan of endings that wrap up everything in a neat little bow, and that definitely holds true here. I liked the film, I truly did, but that doesn’t change the fact that the ending was sweet enough to give me a headache (context: really sweet things tend to give me headaches).

Wreck-It Ralph is worth watching if only for the constant stream of references and homages to other arcade games. I couldn’t help but to get a kick out seeing Clyde, one of the ghosts from Pac-Man, running a support group for the antagonists of various games found in the arcade. Or seeing Ryu and Ken (from Streetfighter) going out for drinks after a long day of fighting on the streets (sorry for the wordplay). In this way, Wreck-It Ralph is not dissimilar from the Toy Story series which featured a plethora of various different toys both as characters and as cameos.

Wreck-It Ralph is a very fun, very well-made and well voice-acted animated feature from the people at Disney, the concept lends itself to visual splendor and Wreck-It Ralph delivered on that promise. This is not a great film, the story is too easily resolved and the plot is more than a little bit hectic, but it is definitely worth watching, for both children and adults, who will probably actually get more out of it than younger viewers.