The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade is, like its writers, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, many things.
It is an autobiography of the writers; a chronicle of how posting a web comic strip back in 1998 led to a company that publishes the web comic; has set up a multi-million dollar charity, and created the most important annual gamers’ convention in the world. All because Mike and Jerry created a web comic that allowed them to give their opinions on all things video game [and anything else that crosses their minds] form and substance.
There was an overwhelming amount of great TV, this year [and, as you’ll see not too much later, an almost equally overwhelming amount of excessively bad TV]. Given the truly amazing amount of quality to be found between the networks and the various cable outlets, I’ve decided to list my favorite fifteen shows of the year.
I remember, with great fondness, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Tom and Dick Smothers started out as a comedy/folk duo, playing clubs like the legendary Purple Onion. When CBS offered them their own TV show, they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. The Brothers Smothers started fairly innocuously, but as the series progressed it became a bastion of political satire that caused one U.S. president, LBJ [who clearly had a sense of humor], to send the duo a letter of praise – and another [Johnson’s successor, in fact] to ask CBS to take them off the air [making them the second top ten-rated series to be removed from a network’s schedule because a sitting president didn’t like it – the first being The Wild Wild West].
My favorite moment of the series came as the teaser for one episode that found Tom and Dick noting that CBS had been getting a lot flack because of the show, and that henceforth the audience wouldn’t hear “anything you wouldn’t hear in your own home…” followed by the sound of a toilet flushing. The Best of Season 3 has moments that match that hilarious moment [the opening song of the season premiere, We’re Still Here, for example notes that they’ve survived, among other things, the network’s censors]. And presented some of the most memorable musical performances of sixties television – as when Jim Morrison of The Doors blanked on the words for Touch Me, or when Donovan turned the show into a love-in/sing-along for Happiness Runs. And where else would you find George Harrison stopping by just for a couple minutes to urge the brothers to keep on keeping on? Continue reading DVD REVIEW: They’re Finally Here – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3!→
When a movie begins with a narrator intoning, “The day the world ended…” you can be sure that there’s a caveat somewhere. With City of Ember that caveat is that a bunch of the best and brightest built an underground city so mankind could live on. An ingenious device was placed in a box that would open in two hundred years, giving instructions on how to return to the surface to find out if the upper world was once again inhabitable. Unfortunately, the device [which was to be inherited by each succeeding mayor] was lost when the seventh mayor had a heart attack and the box was put away in a closet.
Now, two hundred years later, Ember is falling apart. The city’s generator is cranky and blackouts are occurring – each longer than the last. Food supplies are getting low – and what food can be grown in the city’s greenhouse is looking less and less edible. The city is run by the corrupt Mayor Cole [Bill Murray] – the only person in town who is actually fat. Into this situation come Lina Mayfleet [Soairse Ronan] and Doon Harrow [Harry Treadaway] who swap assignments after graduating from whatever school exists there – she to become a messenger, he to become a pipeworks worker.
City of Ember is darkly gorgeous to look at. The actual city looks like a close-packed English village with a central meeting circle, but the machines that keep the city alive are oddly fascinating, clunky Rube Goldberg devices that actually have uses. Though the citizens of Ember are worried about what’s happening their fears are assuaged by the mayor and a group of religious singers [led by Mary Kay Place’s Mrs. Murdo – who takes in Lina and her sister, Poppy when their grandma dies].
Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau, City of Ember starts slowly, like the city’s generator, and then [unlike the dying generator] picks up steam as it goes – and as Lina and Doon discover that there may be a way back to the surface – all tied into fragments of instruction in a weird little box Lina finds in her gran’s closet. Their characters aren’t all that well developed but both Treadaway and Ronan make us care about them. Other notable actors also make a lot of slenderly written, though pivotal characters like Tim Robbins [as Doon’s inventor father, Loris; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as greenhouse keeper, Clary, and Martin Landau, as pipeworks veteran, Sul].
With its touches of satire, fable-like storytelling and enthralling design, City of Ember manages to engage for its ninety-five minutes – though kids will likely find it vastly more engaging than adults [if Murray hadn’t sleepwalked through the role of Mayor Cole, that might have been different].
Last year’s mini-series The Starter Wife chronicled the events that led to Molly Kagan’s [Debra Messing] new, less wonderful life after her Hollywood producer husband, Kenny Kagan [David Allen Basche] told her he wanted a divorce. The mini-series did so well that USA decided to bring it back as an ongoing series [Fridays, 9/8C].
The series two-hour premiere finds Molly trying to get motivated as a writer, so she decides to take a writing class being given by bestselling author, Zach McNeill [Hart Bochner]. When she reads from her first children’s book, the class is quietly dismissive – though she does return for a second class where she reads from her journal – to very positive response. Positive enough that Zach invites her to a party where he can get her together with a magazine editor who is looking for a columnist with her skills. Not only does the party go badly for Molly, someone steals her journal and leaks bits of it to an influential gossip website.
Meanwhile, Molly’s friends, Rodney [Chris Diamantopoulos] and Joan McAllister [Judy Davis] have interesting problems of their own. Rodney’ interior decorating business is flourishing while his social life is a disaster. Joan is finding her sobriety difficult to maintain and when she takes a job at a posh rehab facility, her first assignment is watch over a faded movie star who is very creative in his approach to getting drunk.
Like most of USA’s “Characters Welcome” programs, The Starter Wife features a mystery – who stole Molly’s diary. Unlike the rest of USA’s shows, though, it goes more for the odd balance of soap opera storylines and dark humor –both of which Messing and Davis, in particular, can play adroitly. Those moments of pure soap melodrama are folded into a mix that gives the entire cast moments to shine but the success of the series rests squarely on the shoulders of Messing, who does indeed get all the best material [in her dreams she translates her many crises into versions of hit movies – Elizabeth and Mission: Impossible are among the films referenced in the premiere].
While the dark humor and melodrama work relatively well here, The Starter Wife does have a tendency to get a bit too frothy from time to time. If it keeps that tendency under control, the series should be able to hold an audience geared to the kind eccentric characters at which USA programs excel. If not, the show will be hard pressed to survive.
In May, 1977, NBC premiered a [very] short-lived satirical science fiction series created by Buck Henry – one of the duo behind Get Smart. The series was called Quark and it ran for seven weeks before it was unceremoniously cancelled. The series was based around a United Galactic Sanitation Patrol vessel captained by Adam Quark [Richard Benjamin].
Most of the components of the series were based on Star Trek – particularly the relationship between Quark and his Vegeton science officer, Ficus [Vegetons, being plants have no emotions] – The Captain’s “Space Notes;” the transporter [or at least its sound effects], and even one episode, Goodbye Polumbus, which was a send up of the classic Trek ep, Shore Leave.
Henry took the Get Smart template [smart stories about less than brilliant characters in important positions] and transferred it to Quark. The crew of the USGP ship included Gene/Jean [Tim Thomerson], a “transmute” who exhibited both male and female behaviors; Ficus [Richard Kelton], the aforementioned Vegeton; Bettys I & II [Trish and Cybill Barnstable], a human and her clone, both of them second in command [and both of them crazy about their captain], and Andy [Bobby Porter], a cowardly android/robot that Quark built from spare parts. They received their missions from Otto Palindrome [Conrad Janis], commander of Perma Station 1 and The Head [Alan Caillou], a disembodied giant head seen only on a video screen.
Besides the show’s riffs on Star Trek, it also poked fun at all manner of SF and space opera conventions. The episode, May the Source Be With You, had a pretty obvious target [and skewered it pretty thoroughly] and set the tone for the series. But the show was just hitting it stride with the two-part Flash Gordon spoof, All The Emperor’s Quasi-Norms, when it was taken from NBC’s schedule.
Much of the series has held up pretty well, but there are instances where the silliness doesn’t quite make it. Overall, though, even some of the effects hold up – the transporter is more colorful than Trek’s and the series did show a fair number of actual alien lifeforms [some of which changed shapes disconcertingly – check out Captain Walker who is radically different in each of two eps].
Tropic Thunder may well be the most [deliberately] politically incorrect film I’ve ever seen – and one of the funniest. The fake trailers alone are worth the price of admission! Ben Stiller’s film takes aim at every level of Hollyweird culture, from trailers to fraudulent writers to explosive studio executives – and is on target far more often than not.
When the writer of a book about the Vietnamese War [Nick Nolte] suggests that a first-time director [Steve Coogan] send his actors into the jungle – which has been seeded with cameras and various practical effects [explosions, gunfire and the like] – the cast members find themselves mixed up with a heroin cartel headed by a twelve-year warlord [Brandon Soo Hoo].
The actors are a truly motley assemblage of stereotypes: Tugg Speedman [Ben Stiller] the action star seeking legitimacy; Jeff Portnoy [Jack Black], star of the Fatties franchise and drug addict, also seeking legitimacy; Alpa Chino [Brandon T. Jackson], a rapper breaking into the acting game; Kevin Sandusky [Jay Baruchel], an actor in his first big movie, and Kirk Lazarus [Robert Downey Jr.], an Australian actor with multiple Oscars, who has his skin darkens to play a black character. None of them really has much of a clue, which leads to explosive ranting by studio head Les Grossman [a virtually unrecognizable Tom Cruise].
Stiller’s direction is pretty much on the money as his movie-within-a-movie allows him to show Hollywood at both its strangest and its worst. When we see the trailer for Simple Jack, for example, we aren’t seeing an attack on the mentally handicapped – unless we’re looking at Tugg Speedman for playing a mentally handicapped man solely to win an Oscar – or Kirk Lazarus for explaining, in a very funny bit, why simple Jack didn’t work. And speaking of trailers, the fake trailers that open the film are spot on satires of specific genre trailers, and are among the funniest moments in the film.
Other highlights include black rapper Alpa Chino keeping Lazarus honest as he plays a black character, even while he [Chino, that is] tries to flog his line of merchandise on camera; Coogan’s director, Damien Cockburn, taking charge; Speedman using what he’s learned from Lazarus to wow his captors in a live, less-than-no-budget performance; that the film becomes a big honkin’ war movie even as it satirizes the culture that creates an Apocalypse Now; Matthew McConaughey’s turn as Speedman’s TiVo-obsessed agent, and Danny McBride who steals every scene he’s in as the film’s special effects expert, Cody.
Tropic Thunder may be the best film Ben Stiller has ever made. It’s loud and crass, joyously politically incorrect, and well under two hours and gives us all the action of movies thirty minutes longer. In a summer that has had a number of good comedies, Tropic Thunder literally blasts its way to the next level.
Touchstone’s Swing Vote is a political fable on the value of the individual vote; a tale of reversed roles in a dysfunctional family, and the best thing Kevin Costner has done in a decade. The plot revolves around one vote being ruined because of mechanical failure – and the courting of the supposed caster of that one vote by the incumbent Republican President [glossily played by Kelsey Grammer] and the principled Democratic challenger [a surprisingly delicate performance by Dennis Hopper].
The problem is that Ernest “Bud” Johnson [Kevin Costner] got drunk and passed out, thereby missing his appointment with his daughter, Molly [Madeline Carroll – Watch out, Dakota! Look out, Abigail! There’s a very talented new kid in town!] at the polling station. When Bud fails to show, Molly takes it upon herself to sneak into a voting booth [after sneaking a voting card and forging her dad’s signature]. Unfortunately, a cleaning lady accidentally unplugs the machine just as Molly tries to cast Bud’s vote.
Once the word gets out that Bud will have to re-cast his vote, he becomes the center of a three-ring circus that includes the President and Democratic candidate. As Bud is interviewed, the two candidates are lead by their campaign managers [Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane] into adopting each other’s policies, until finally, Bud is called out by Bill Maher on national TV [“Bud Johnson is a dumbass!”].
Costner does a great job as the befuddled Bud, who has never recovered from his wife leaving him and Molly. As we see in the first two acts, he is a drunk who can’t hold on to a job packing eggs – and Molly is really parenting him. When he suddenly becomes the center of attention on all the news shows, he rides the wave without really thinking what he’s saying – or what it effect it will have on the country’s image around the world. The two candidates are so focused on winning that they ignore their principles as they try to persuade Bud to vote for each of them.
There’s a bit of speechifyin’, but it’s done with sincerity and a bit of unexpected wit, and really speaks to issues like hypocrisy in politics – while simultaneously giving us the story of a loser who finds something inside himself that he truly didn’t expect to be there. Perhaps the film works because Costner financed the film himself and thus felt a real connection to the material – or maybe, the film’s secret ingredient is Carroll, who is definitely one to watch. Whatever the case, even though it is a mite long, Swing Vote does work.
Director/Co-Writer [with Jason Richman] Joshua Michael Stern has, in Swing Vote, produced a thought-provoking little dramedy that deserves to be seen. Hopefully, it will corral all the moviegoers who choose not to brave the crowd of the weekend’s blockbuster fantasy/adventure movie [you know, the one with the mummies].
With an A-story that features the love story between WALL*E [Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class] and EVE [Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator], and a B-story that involves humanity’s possible return to a post-apocalyptic Earth, WALL*E is more than a bit of a gamble on PIXAR’s part.
Neither WALL*E nor EVE has a large vocabulary [at least, in terms of actual words – he has a number of R2D2-like sounds that clearly express what he’s feeling, and she has her own electronic vocabulary as well] – and neither has what you could call a real face [he’s a pair of binoculars on a box and she’s a floating egg with occasional arms & hands] – and yet we always know exactly what they are thinking and feeling.
Their romance is a classic one – and simultaneously poignant and hilarious – even though the film goes almost twenty minutes before a word of English is spoken.
The B-story features humans who have, in 700 years in space, become obese figures on floating couches/chairs. They live on a gigantic starship called the Axiom, where they are waited on, hand & foot, by robots of all sizes, shapes and functions [there’s more than a bit of eco-satire here, and it’s quite sharp].
The appearance of EVE [and WALL*E] with a fragile little plant from Earth should signal a return to Earth, but there are problems…
WALL*E does pay homage to various classic SF films [he resembles ET more than Johnny 5, and the ship’s autopilot, Otto, will certainly remind one of Hal from 2001], but homages are only cool if the film is worth seeing.
WALL*E is, quite frankly, dazzling. Purely from a cinematography perspective, almost every frame of the film is a perfect composition – and yet not predictable, or in any way sterile.
Some of the best moments include the realization that the deserted city we first see is only partly man-made [you’ll see what I mean…]; the lovely moment from the trailer when WALL*E trails his hand through asteroid dust like a little boy trailing his fingers through the water as a motorboat zips across a lake [see photo]; the beautiful skyscapes that open the film, and so many more [including the fact that WALL*E is hooked on Hello, Dolly – and has a cockroach as his only friend!].
WALL*E is the best film of the year – let alone the summer – so far. Easily. It may be too intense or hard to follow for younger children [the lady and four kids, ages about three to six, who were sitting next to me got up and left well before WALL*E reached the Axiom], so you should be aware of that.