Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Let's Talk Television! The 10 Shows I Could Not Live Without

Although I focus the majority of my writing energy on movies, I would like to take a moment to discuss the boob tube. Over the years, the quality of television has taken a serious nosedive. We're left with superficial reality shows that send horrible messages ("16 and Pregant"/"Toddlers and Tiaras"); game shows that require little to no intelligence ("Deal Or No Deal"/"Let's Make A Deal"); high school dramas that are geared towards the superficial tween ("Gossip Girls"/"Pretty Little Liars"); and low-rent sitcoms with washed up actors ("Mr. Sunshine"/"Two and a Half Men").

Despite the overwhelming amount of crap and filth on cable television, I've found comfort in a number of series and shows. I'm really excited to create this list, as I hope that it will bring us together in the fight against shitty television. Without further ado, here are the 10 shows I could not live without - enjoy!

"The IT Crowd"
Created by: Graham Linehan
Starring Chris O'Dowd, Richard Ayoade, Katherine Parkinson
My favorite comedy series of all time. Every episode makes me laugh my ass off. It's wacky and absurd - God, I love the Brits.

"True Blood"
Created by: Alan Ball
Starring Anna Paquin, Steve Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard
No show has ever grabbed my attention like this one. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, providing a great escape from reality.

"The Wire"
Created by: David Simon
Starring Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Idris Elba
There's a reason why many claim it's the best TV series of all time: Incredible actors, an amazing script, and huge balls.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm"
Created by: Larry David
Starring Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines
Deep down, you know you're him. Who's "him?" The hilariously cynical Larry David, of course. He teaches us that everything is pointless and stupid - preach on, L.D.!

"Spartacus: Blood and Sand"
Created by: Steven S. DeKnight
Starring Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Lucy Lawless
Imagine a series that's a perfect combination of "Gladiator" and "300." Yeah. Add a dash of sex and scandal, and you've got the most exciting series ever created. Get well, Andy!

"Breaking Bad"
Created by: Vince Gilligan
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Who knew that the dad from "Malcom in the Middle" would turn out to be the best actor on television? Thanks to his role as Walter White, Cranston has proved himself a true star. This is an incredible series.

"Band of Brothers"
Created by: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks
Starring Ron Livingston, Damien Lewis, Donnie Whalberg
This show is not for the faint of heart. War is never easy and never pretty, but this series really touched me. The story of the 101st Airborne is truly inspiring.

Created by: James Manos
Starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, James Remar
I friggin' love this show. It's smart, funny, and dark - all at the same time. Dexter Morgan is everyone's favorite serial killer, and Michael C. Hall plays the role to perfection.

"Bored To Death"
Created by: Jonathan Ames
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis
I'm a writer, so naturally, I would enjoy a show about someone like me. A writer who smokes pot, has adventures, and smokes more pot. This is one of the most underrated shows on TV.

"Eastbound and Down"
Created by: Ben Best, Jody Hill
Starring Danny McBride, Steve Little, Katy Mixon
Kenny Powers is the shit. Well, scratch that, Danny McBride is the shit. It's entirely offensive and crude, but this show is totally hysterical.

Well, there you have it! These are my TV must-haves. I know I've left out a few titles that you will probably yell at me for (such as "Battlestar Galactica" and "Lost") but as it stands, these are my favorite shows. **What about you?**

Monday, June 13, 2011

It might be a mess, but "Super 8" is a highly entertaining summer flick: B+

It's the movie I've been waiting for; the summer blockbuster I've been counting on to take me out of this slump. Needless to say, I was not entirely disappointed. "Super 8" is not a perfect movie, but it was by far one of the most entertaining movies I've seen this year. If I could think of a quick way to describe it, I would say that it's somewhere in between "E.T.," "Men in Black," and "Stand By Me." There are some highs and some lows throughout the film, so it's by no means flawless. At times, it feels all too familiar - "Super 8" plays like a sort of ode to adventure and science fiction, filled with been-there-done-that plot devices. Luckily for J.J. Abrams, he picked the right source material to draw upon.

"Super 8" tells the story of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a shy young boy who lives in the small town of Lillian, Ohio. Joe occupies himself with monster makeup and model trains. His best friend, Charles (Riley Griffith), is filming an amateur zombie movie with a ragtag group of local kids: brace-face Cary (Ryan Lee), awkward Preston (Zach Mills), freckle-faced Martin (Gabriel Basso), and tomboy Alice (Elle Fanning). One evening, while the kids are filming by the train tracks, they witness a huge collision. A small white truck makes its way onto the tracks, heading in the direction of the speeding train. The crash is enormous, to say the least. It was probably the loudest sequence I've ever heard in the theater in recent years - it reminded me of my "Jurassic Park" experience. Anyway, so once the kids recover from the crash they make their way to the small white truck. Inside, they find Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), the school's biology teacher. Bloodied and bruised from the crash, Woodward tells the kids that they cannot tell anybody what they just saw. Scattered about the damage site are mysterious white cubes, one of which Joe snatches up and takes home.

Strange things begin to happen in Lillian following the train wreck. For some reason, the local dogs have disappeared. The engines have been stripped from the cars on the local dealership. TV sets have gone missing from the local electronics stores. People have also gone missing, including the Sheriff. As the Sheriff's deputy, Joe's dad Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is on a mission to find out what's going on in Lillian. A heavy concentration of military personnel arrive after the crash, scanning the town with Geiger counters and tanks. There are mysterious red semi-trucks, all painted with the same symbol (three white circles in a triangular shape) that also arrive in Lillian. Jack attempts to get information from Lt. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), but to no avail.

**BIG SPOILERS HERE** If you're smart enough, you can pretty much figure out what's going on in Lillian: There's a big, scary creature running around. Conveniently (or is it lazily?) J.J. Abrams works the entire explanation for this creature into the script. When Joe and his friends head back to Lillian after the town is evacuated, they get their hands on Dr. Woodward's research. They proceed to watch a film, narrated by Woodward, that details the life of the creature. After crash-landing on Earth, the creature is held captive by the U.S. Air Force for research. After making physical contact with the creature, Dr. Woodward is able to understand - psychically, he claims - that all the creature wants to do is fix his ship and go home. So, it turns out that when Dr. Woodward took his small white truck up the tracks, he was trying to set the creature free (it was being transported to the base for more research). Oh, and those mysterious white cubes? Well, it turns out they are able to form themselves into any solid material or shape. They're like little mini-shapeshifter-thingamajiggs.

**BIG SPOILERS HERE** It was a little disappointing, this whole alien thing. I'll give props to Abrams for the build-up (Hey "Lost" fans! I think you understand this), but not the unveiling. So, this whole time, it was just a lonely alien who's trying to get back home?! How unimaginative. Not only that, but the alien itself looked like a cross between an Ent, an Orc, and one of those Garthim critters from "The Dark Crystal." So, all the electronic devices that went missing were being used by the alien to recreate a model of his spaceship. That's it. That's the big secret. I know. Me too.

What saves this movie from near-mediocrity is the incredible young cast. Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning, especially. It's always fun to watch a group of kids discover something cool or go on an adventure. I mentioned "Stand By Me" earlier, but I'd also like to mention "The Goonies." Joe and his friends have to learn how to survive fairly quickly, but not without a sense of humor and curiousity. It's the epitome of adventure. I really hope we see more of Joel Courtney, and I hope that he doesn't go the way Henry Thomas. The special effects are the other saving grace of "Super 8." Thank goodness that Spielberg gave J.J. some assistance. I don't think Abrams would have pulled this off without Amblin. "Super 8" has a lot going on, and nothing going on all at the same time. For pure entertainment value, I'm going to go ahead and give it my blessing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"The Dark Stranger": An Appreciative Editorial

In honor of his birthday, Lesya @ Eternity Of A Dream has created a list of Johnny Depp films she has never seen. Lesya and I are certainly not alone in our belief that Johnny Depp is the greatest actor in recent cinema history. But don't start thinking I'm some kind of groupie - although he may have devilishly good looks and a face that doesn't seem to age, Johnny Depp is the reason why I have become what I am today - a movie lover.

Back in the 90's, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I watched "Edward Scissorhands" for the first time. I don't remember if my parents had it on VHS or if it was playing on cable TV, but the movie never escaped my memory. I'm pretty sure that the film forever solidified my romantic sensibility and my penchant for the dark and odd. Ironically, at the time, my mother was working as an Avon sales representative. She would let me ride along with her as she made her rounds in our neighborhood. The connection I felt to Depp's character was something I had never felt before. The dark stranger in a bright and superficial world - that would become my identity.

The years that followed were, let's say, tumultuous. One of my go-to comforts was watching movies. For a long while, I didn't know who Johnny Depp was. I just knew who Edward was. On a lazy Sunday afternoon while I was staying with my mom, my younger sister and I watched "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." I think this was in '97 or '98. I immediately recognized his face - Edward's face. I made sure to make it through to the credits so that I could finally know his name. Johnny Depp. The dark stranger in a bright and superficial world.

I followed Depp as best as I could. It wasn't an obsession as much as it was a guarantee - I knew he could help me escape. He wasn't my heartthrob as much as he was my hero. Films such as "Donnie Brasco," "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas," "The Ninth Gate," "Sleepy Hollow," "Blow," "From Hell," "Finding Neverland," "Corpse Bride," and "Sweeney Todd" provided me with the little push I needed to fully embrace my movie love.

Now as an adult, my Depp-only days are over. I have branched out a bit, and now that I know what I need, I can rely on myself to find it. The escape is what I am obsessed with. Johnny Depp provided me with the blueprint. I am now going to build a foundation for my true passion. This blog is part of that foundation. Without Edward, without Gilbert - I would still feel like the dark stranger in a bright and superficial world.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Vault: "Pan's Labyrinth" ('El Laberinto del Fauno')

When I think about the best movies of the past 10 years, "Pan's Labyrinth" certainly comes to mind. Released back in 2006, "Pan's Labyrinth" introduced (most) Americans to the brilliant Guillermo del Toro. I remember watching "Pan's Labyrinth" with the faintest notion that del Toro would be the next Tim Burton. With his whimsical characters, his eye for the fantasical, and a talent for storytelling, del Toro has been forever solidified in my mind as a true artist. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a story for all ages.

The film opens with the epic tale of Princess Moanna, the daughter of the King of the Underworld. The Princess grows curious about the world above, and one day she decides to leave the safety of the Underworld. As she spends time on Earth, she begins to forget about her father and her kingdom. Princess Moanna dies as a mortal, but the King believes that her divine soul will return to the Underworld some day.

In 1944 post-Civil War Spain, a curious young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is forced to live in a remote military outpost in the forest. Her mother is pregnant with the son of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), whose attention is focused on destroying the remaining members of the Republican opposition. The harsh reality of her new situation doesn't stop Ofelia's love for fairy tales and adventures. As she roams the grounds of her new home, Ofelia comes across an old labyrinth. Here, she meets the Faun for the first time. A gangly creature made of leaves and branches, the Faun explains to Ofelia that she is meant for bigger and greater things. He tells her that she has the soul of Princess Moanna, and that she must complete three tasks to prove that she is the real Princess.

As Ofelia attempts to complete the Faun's tasks, her nanny Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is attempting to accomplish tasks of her own. Mercedes and the house doctor work together to bring food and medical supplies to the Resistance. There is a strong connection between the characters of Ofelia and Mercedes. Although they are aware of the painful reality of life, both Mercedes and Ofelia abandon thoughts of hopelessness and instead go on individual missions to make their world better. Mercedes encourages Ofelia to embrace her imagination, while Ofelia is the only one who knows that Mercedes is working for the Resistance. The two form a very strong bond, and their relationship is perhaps the most touching element of del Toro's fairy tale.

Guillermo del Toro has a keen eye when it comes to creating creatures and critters. Ofelia's first task involves retrieving a golden key from the mouth of a large toad that lives under a tree. After feeding it three magic stones, the toad explodes from the inside out, revealing it's stomach contents where the key is found. For her second task, Ofelia must face a grotesque creature. Its eyeballs rest not in the sockets of the head, but in the sockets of the palms. With murals depicting the creature violently gorging on the flesh of babies, and a heaping pile of children's-sized shoes resting in the corner of the room, this creature is truly terrifying. Ofelia must resist the urge to feast on the wealth of fruit and sweets in order to keep the creature from waking up.

I do not want to go too far into detail with the ending, in case some of you have not seen the film. I will say that the climax of the movie brings the struggles of both Mercedes and Ofelia together in an edge-of-your-seat moment. (I will also say that if your eyes do not water towards the end of the movie, then I believe you have no soul).

Upon reading some other articles on "Pan's Labyrinth," I discovered that when it made its debut at Cannes the movie was received with a 20-minute standing ovation! Well-deserved, if you ask me. "Pan's Labyrinth" is right up there with "Edward Scissorhands" as an unforgettable modern fairy tale. It's a beautiful movie that is sure to not let you forget about it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review Roundup: "The Hangover 2" and "X-Men: First Class"

Cut. Copy. Paste. Move. Save As TheHangover2.doc. Rub hands devilishly and laugh at all the stupid people. Did you walk out of "The Hangover 2" with the nauseating feeling that you just got played? Mmhmm. Me too. Here we are in Bangkok, once again following the epic tale of outlandish drunkenness with The Wolfpack. There's another wedding on the horizon, this time for timid dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and his Thai bride. With Phil (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and the bride's young brother Teddy (Mason Lee) in tow, the nightmare begins. The guys wake up in a sleezy hotel room with no knowledge of the events that have just taken place. Instead of missing incisors, a jungle cat, and a baby, we get a Mike Tyson face tattoo, a chain-smoking monkey, and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Instead of marrying a Las Vegas stripper, Stu has a very close encounter with a ladyboy. Instead of a Mike Tyson cameo, we get one from Paul Giamatti - wait, scratch that, we still get the Tyson cameo. Do you people see where I'm going with this? "The Hangover 2" is a carbon copy of "The Hangover." And my reaction is a carbon copy too: I wasn't all that impressed. I chuckled a few times under my breath, but not one moment in the entire movie sent me to the edge of hilarity. I don't know why I was expecting more.
Grade: C-

"X-Men: First Class" deserves a good chunk of credit for its efforts. The X-Men franchise has been haunted by crummy scripts, poor acting, and mediocre special effects. Eleven years later, we finally see some improvement. The fuel that drives this movie is the doomed friendship of Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender). Armed with an Oxford education and plenty of family money, Charles goes the way of peaceful mentor to the young mutants he and Erik find. Erik, on the other hand, has made it his mission to destroy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), compelled by the desire to avenge the death of his mother. In the background, Charles rounds up some teenage mutants, most of whom are forgettable characters. The movie attempts to dig a little deeper into the origin of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who wrestles with her appearance and self-esteem. Let's talk acting, briefly: Michael Fassbender is the stand-out performance. James McAvoy wasn't as annoying as I thought he would be. Jennifer Lawrence was pretty bland, but not as bad as January Jones (Seriously! Are you just going to stand there?) Nothing against Kevin Bacon, but why was he the bad guy? I thought that was a very strange casting choice. With a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, I was feeling a bit restless towards the end. Overall, "X-Men: First Class" was a well-executed origin story that was worth the ticket.
Grade: B

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