Monthly Archive for September, 2014

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (9/27/14) HBO (2014 ***) Directed and co-written by Rob Thomas, based on the characters he created in the TV show by the same name, starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni and Gaby Hoffman. When former teen private eye Veronica Mars’ old boyfriend is accused of murder, she returns home to Neptune, California to help clear his name… and attend her ten year high school reunion. I’ll be honest: I did not watch Veronica Mars (the show) when it was originally aired, though I did watch a handful of the first episodes several years ago as research for a book I was working on at the time. I liked what I’d watched and made a mental note to myself to watch it on Netflix someday. And I may yet do that. Watching the feature-length followup, it was clear several times that I would have gotten much more out of it had I watched the series. And so I can only really judge it based on its stand-alone merits, since I wasn’t watching it from the point of view of a fan. As a stand-alone theatrical film, it quite honestly felt like an extended episode of a TV detective show, and never quite felt like a “real” movie. Then again, I didn’t really expect that. Veronica Mars (the film) was famously financed via a Kickstarter campaign started by director/creator Rob Thomas, which made $5.7M for a $2M goal. As such, it represents a milestone in crowdsourcing and film financing, one that will undoubtedly affect the way certain fan favorite films get made in the future.

Garfunkel and Oates, Season 1

Garfunkel and Oates, Season 1 (9/26/14) IFC (2014 ***1/2) Created by and starring Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci. 8 episodes, originally aired 8/7/14 – 9/25/14. This half-hour comedy presents the lives of two single, female comedy musicians living in Los Angeles. Garfunkel and Oates built their following via a series of funny Youtube videos, many of which featured bargain basement-quality production values, and that’s how I was first introduced to them by my wife. They also appeared regularly at the UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) theater in Hollywood, and we saw them back in October 2011 (on our anniversary, actually). Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I knew this IFC series was coming months before it actually aired. I didn’t necessarily expect much from it, but I was pleasantly surprised by how solid it was. It’s not particularly easy to hit the tonal bulls eye in a TV show based on a semi-fictionalized version of yourselves, but G&O did a great job. Of course, it was also an extension of their on-stage personas they’d developed over years of performing together. One of the things that also helped significantly was that both had a fair amount of experience acting on TV outside their partnership, and so their acting talents were more than adequate to the task. Their real life side-jobs as working actors was also incorporated into their TV characters, and was utilized a couple of times, including the pilot episode, which featured Sir Ben Kingsley as himself. Though nominally a sit-com, the show was also a platform for music video versions of several of their songs. Some, however, were a bit too risque for the TV-14 audience. Oddly enough, the songs didn’t take center stage, but punctuated the storylines and were integrated thematically. I appreciated that the show wasn’t afraid to go into less comedic territory, including a storyline involving Riki’s fertility treatments so she could freeze her eggs.

Derek, Season 2

Derek, Season 2 (9/26/14) Netflix (2014 ****) Created by Ricky Gervais, starring Ricky Gervais, Kerry Goodman, David Earl, Colin Hoult and Tony Rohr. After reuniting with his estranged father, simple-minded, goodhearted retirement home employee Derek Noakes continues to try to live the best life he can with the gifts God (or whatever) has given him. I really love this little show. As I wrote in my review of the first season, I watched it while in the midst of grieving for my mother, who had passed away less than a month ago. Though the show featured a lot of elements that would be standard situation comedy material, it also spent a great deal of time exploring themes and ideas that brought tears to my eyes. In particular, this season seemed to be devoted to the concept of loss, which affected the show’s characters in a variety of forms. Another loss to the show was Karl Pilkington, who played Dougie the caretaker. He left rather suddenly during the season’s first episode, to be replaced by a newcomer, Geoff, played by Colin Hoult. Naturally, I’m curious what motivated Pilkington’s departure, and what it means for his continued professional relationship with Gervais. At this point, I’m a solid fan of Gervais’ gentle Derek, and while watching the second season I thought of yet another possible inspiration for him: Peter Seller’s Chance in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979).

Derek, Season 1

Derek, Season 1 (9/23/14) Netflix (2012-13 ***1/2) Created by Ricky Gervais, starring Ricky Gervais, Kerry Goodman, Karl Pilkington and David Earl. 7 episodes, originally aired 4/12/12 – 9/12/13. A developmentally-challenged man with simple needs works in a retirement home. Though nominally a comedy shot in the same documentary style as Gervais’ The Office (2001-2003), this series is decidedly un-comedic more often than it is. I found it charming and endearing, but recognize that the show (written and directed by its creator) is unabashedly manipulative from the get-go. I believe that Gervais’ goal was to create a gentle character in the same tradition as Chaplin’s Tramp, and in many ways he succeeded. While not without his flaws, most of them stemming from his reduced mental capacity, Derek Noakes is almost too good, bordering on sainthood. However, it’s nice to think there might be people in the world like him, people who believe the ills of the world can invariably be solved with kindness. But lest you think the series is nothing but heaping spoonfuls of saccharine, Derek’s purity is offset by the cynical worldview of the home’s caretaker Dougie (Pilkington) and the all-around disgusting and crude unemployed drunk, Kev (David Earl). Now, on a very personal note, I began watching this series only a few weeks after my mother passed. She had spent the last decade of her life in a retirement home that had much in common with the one on the show. And so, my heart was in a decidedly tender disposition when I decided to watch Derek despite my wife’s warnings. I was especially moved by some of the storylines involving Derek’s relationships with the residents, and frequently brought to tears. Though it was hard for me to watch at times, I actually found the show to be quite therapeutic, and I believe it has helped me with the grieving process.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (3D)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (3D) (9/22/14) DWA Screening (2014 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller, starring Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Powers Boothe and Eva Green as the titular (in more ways than one) Ava. Marv, Dwight, Johnny and the other hard-boiled citizens of Sin City live out their lives in a set of sometimes-intersecting storylines. This is a sequel to a film that came out nearly ten years ago, and I had found the highly-stylized dialogue in the original jarring. That particular aspect of the film made so much of an impression on me that I was mentally prepared this time around. Though I was largely immune, based on the occasional chuckles I heard from the crowd I saw it with, the sequel carried that tradition forward. The film and storylines were sometimes cheesy but never boring. I loved the visual style of the film; there really is nothing else like it, and there was no shortage of eye candy, not the least of which was Eva Green, who spent at least half of her time onscreen in some state of undress. I’m also very glad I got to see the film in 3D, and would highly recommend it to anyone with the option of seeing it that way. The 3D combined so beautifully with the stylized shot compositions, and it was obvious that great care had been taken to compose for depth. Finally, some film-geek part of me positively loves the fact that the film was shot and edited by Rodriguez himself, though I to wonder how his directorial collaboration worked with creator and comics legend Frank Miller.

Adventure Time, Season 1

Adventure Time, Season 1 (9/21/14) Netflix (2010 ***1/2) Created by Pendleton Ward, featuring the voices of Jeremy Shada, John DiMaggio, Hynden Walch and Tom Kenny. 26 episodes, originally aired 4/5/10 – 9/27/10. A human boy named Finn sets out each day on a surreal adventure with his best friend Jake, a dog with magical powers of elasticity. My impetus for watching this animated kids’ show was an article I read several months (possibly a year) ago in Entertainment Weekly describing various TV shows available on Netflix and other Video On Demand services worthy of binge-viewing. I was intrigued by its description of Adventure Time as evolving and maturing over time, and I wrote a mental note and pinned it to a cork board in the back of my brain. There definitely is something about the show that is addictive, made even more so by the fact that the episodes are about 11 minutes each in length, which made them bite-sized enough to watch on my iPhone in-between other activities. It also meant the total viewing time for the first season was under five hours. The key to the show working was the relatability of the main character Finn, and to a lesser degree his canine pal Jake. Finn feels like a real teenager, and seems driven by normal teenage problems and priorities. Given that solid foundation, the show’s setting in a surreal, vaguely post-apocalyptic world was all the more interesting. As of this writing, Adventure Time is currently in its fifth season, and I look forward to watching more. However, I’m saddened to see that it only appears the first two seasons are available on Netflix. Boooo!! Finally, two warnings to the uninitiated: (1) The show is quite addictive, but it takes a few episodes for that addiction to build; (2) The opening and closing theme songs are category five ear worms that will lodge themselves into your brain and only release their grip in the event of emotional trauma or singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” aloud.

Serenity

Serenity (9/14/14) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau and Ron Glass. An alliance operative (played by 12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor) is determined to return Serenity‘s resident fugitives back to the home world. I watched and reviewed this film a few years back without having had the benefit of watching the TV series on which it was based. If you check out that review, you can see my enjoyment remained roughly the same. Serenity is still an odd duck of a film, seeing as it’s essentially a medium budget feature-length wrap-up of a TV show that never managed to find enough of an audience to justify its existence. I wonder to what degree the movie was created as a love letter to the show’s fan base versus a vehicle for Joss Whedon to find a sense of closure on his beloved, idiosyncratic creation? Checking on the internet, the film earned a worldwide box office just shy of its budget, meaning it was a flop.

Firefly, Season 1

Firefly, Season 1 (9/14/14) Netflix (2002-03 ***1/2) Series created by Joss Whedon, starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk and Morena Baccarin. 14 episodes, originally aired 9/27/02 – 7/28/03. Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his intrepid crew fly a Firefly-class spaceship named Serenity from planet to planet, taking on odd jobs, only some which are legal. More than ten years after this short-lived series originally aired, I finally got around to watching the fourteen episodes on Netflix streaming. Firefly is very definitely an outer space western, with many comparisons to the original Star Trek. This is somewhat ironic, as Star Trek had often been referred to as Wagon Train (1957-1965), set in space. Watching the show, it’s not hard to see why it struggled so hard to find an audience: It definitely is an odd duck. I can also understand why Firefly‘s fans have been so vocal over the years about bringing the show back. Highlights of the first (and only) season included Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks in two different episodes as the sexy and manipulative Saffron. I also loved a later Whedon written/directed episode called “Objects in Space,” featuring Richard Brooks as a ruthless but philosophical bounty hunter named Jubal Early. Though we enjoyed Firefly, with its well-drawn and colorful characters, my wife made an interesting observation after we watched the final episode: None of the character relationships advanced much, if at all. Backstory elements were set up along the way (like Ron Glass’ Shepherd Book’s mysterious past) but the show didn’t last long enough for them to pay off. Then again, that made the post-series feature-length film Serenity (2005), which we watched directly after episode 14, so important.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (9/11/14) Netflix (2013 ****) Directed by Michael Kantor, written by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, narrated by Liev Schreiber. This excellent 3-Part PBS documentary featured interviews with comics luminaries like Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Jerry Robinson, Jim Steranko, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams and many, many more. Some serious comic book historians and collectors might consider the documentary to be superficial, providing a simplified narrative of the history of comics. Others might argue that its scope (American superhero comics) was too narrow. In my view, the 3-hour miniseries was clearly aimed at a broad audience, and it succeeded quite nicely at its intended goal. It was also aired shortly after the wildly popular 2012 Avengers film, which meant that the documentary had the opportunity to provide the 75-year backstory of something that was very much in the pop culture zeitgeist. Aside from its subject matter (which of course is near and dear to my heart), I also found it to be a terrific example of modern day documentary technique. In particular, the animated imagery throughout added to my visual enjoyment as well as focusing on the artwork (and occasionally the writing) of those great old comics.

Amazing Stories, Season 2

Amazing Stories, Season 2 (9/8/14) Netflix (1986-87 **1/2) Anthology series created by Steven Spielberg, directed by and starring various. 21 episodes, originally aired 9/22/86 – 4/10/87. The second season of Spielberg’s anthology series featured a number of well-known directors, including Danny DeVito (“The Wedding Ring”, Joe Dante (“The Griebble”), Robert Zemeckis (“Go to the Head of the Class”), Brad Bird (“Family Dog”), Paul Bartel (“Gershwin’s Trunk”) and Tobe Hooper (“Miss Stardust”). While the first season was stocked with star power, the second had no shortage of familiar faces, including (in no particular order): Charles Durning, Jon Cryer, David Carradine, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Lloyd, Danny Devito, Rhea Perlman, Patrick Swayze, June Lockhart, Laraine Newman, Hector Elizondo and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. I watched the series streaming on Netflix, and for reasons I don’t understand, the frame rate was choppy throughout. It’s very obvious that this show was a deliberate effort to recapture the magic of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, including the participation of writer Richard Matheson as series consultant. I’m more than a little curious about the production story behind this program, and it may be telling that each of the episodes in the second season was directed by a different person. The result, however, was fairly uneven and my relatively low **1/2 rating is because there were only a few “gems” and a lot of episodes so disappointing I was tempted to fast-forward through them. The highlight of the season for me was its 16th episode, the Brad Bird written and directed “Family Dog,” which went on to have its own short-lived TV show, running for 10 episodes in 1993. Bird went on to direct The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004).