And so it begins…

Fall television premieres have officially begun. Last night Fox aired its season premieres of New Girl and the Mindy Project, two shows that have ranked among my favorite comedies in the past few years. New Girl hit a great stride in the middle of first season, with its writers learning to tap into the vast comedic potential of its cast, playing off their phenomenal chemistry. And the Mindy Project came into its own in its second season, establishing Mindy Kaling (in my humble opinion) as great new comic voice.

I was a little disappointed with how the premieres tonight went down. Neither were terrible, but both were a bit underwhelming, leaving me wondering whether or not they’re suffering from the same Roman Candle syndrome—burning brightly, but not for long. I’d like to think both shows have staying power and will be able to be consistently funny, but the season premieres tonight were a bit weak. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen them.)

New Girl was the most problematic. The premise of the premiere is that the gang goes to the last wedding of the summer together, making a pact that all of them will find someone to hook up with. From the start, there’s issues here. First of all, while the “everyone-goes-to-the-same-event” approach has worked for New Girl in the past, they’ve done weddings before. More than once. And the hooking up conceit is a little tired as well. There were a few standout moments—Nick’s reaction to the suggestion of a four way with two bridesmaids, himself and Schmidt, Jess’ impression of how her dancing is like sex, and Nick’s unconcerned reaction to discovering he accidentally bought tap shoes. But in general, I didn’t laugh as much as I normally do.

Jessica Biel guest starred as a weirdly competitive rival who was fighting Jess for a chance to sleep with the best man, played by Veep’s Reid Scott. Their storyline ended in an odd and unsatisfying way, and Biel’s character, whose seeming perfection is meant to be hilariously offputting, was so offputting there weren’t any laughs there. Winston was, in general, not given enough to do, which is a shame, since we know Lamorne Morris is a very gifted comedic actor. And Coach had a one note story that included a brief montage of the women he slept with lecturing him. Again, just not that funny. In general, for a comedy…the episode was weak sauce. Plus, they’re trotting out more and more of those “aw shucks, it’s great we’re friends and we have each other” moments on the show, usually at the end, and it’s not cute any more…it just seems sappy. (“We’re not going home alone,” says Jess…get it? Because they’re GOING HOME WITH EACH OTHER. Barf.)

The Mindy Project was a bit stronger, though plot wise it was all over the map. The main narrative, of Mindy and Danny navigating the beginning of their relationship, and adjusting to each other’s personalities in that context, wasn’t bad. Chris Messina and Mindy Kaling still have fun chemistry, and they’ve managed to transition the “will they won’t they” into a likeable couple. But there were so many sideplots…Peter’s girlfriend hooking up with Jeremy, Morgan’s cousin (played by Rob McElhenney) working at the office, gossip and secrets being shared…all of it got a bit muddled. But it was worth it for Chris Messina stripping at the end of the show. It was funny AND hot! And Mindy got in a few choice lines, as per usual.

I’m always excited to watch the fall shows when they’re back, but I was bit bummed that this was the way we kicked things off. We know these shows can be great. Let’s hope we see that again…sooner rather than later.

The Movies That Make Us Remember Why We Love Movies.

In our current era of informational overload, the entertainment business traffics in as much speculation and gossip and teases and sneak peeks and casting rumors as one would expect. This can be a lot of fun for a pop culture dork like myself. I love to read about what’s happening in the industry, what movies are in development, which of my favorite books are being adapted, who was cast as a classic character, or which director is going to helm the newest tentpole-franchise-blockbuster.

But.

It is also a double-edged sword. For one thing, the experience of the movie itself can sometimes be dulled by overexposure prior to release. We’ve already seen the domestic trailer, the international trailer, the featurette, the cast press interviews, the sneak peek, etc. So there’s less surprises in the movie itself, less wonder and excitement. It’s still fun, but we’ve SEEN this already.

The second issue is that it’s much more likely that a movie will disappoint. So much anticipation has built up from all the marketing we ingest that we’re so excited, so pumped…and quite often the movie doesn’t measure up. At least not fully. It might be good, but was it AS good as what we were hoping for?

But we all have movies we’ve loved since we can remember. The movie that, if it’s playing on TV, we have to stop and watch, no matter how close to the end of the movie it is or what else we’re meant to be doing. The movie that we can quote, virtually line by line, only vaguely aware that we’re annoying everyone around us. The movie that reassures us, by its mere existence, that movies can still be about unadulterated joy, about immersing oneself in a world that is, above all other things, still entertaining.

For me that movie is Ghostbusters.

I love comedies of all kinds (except bad ones). But Ghostbusters, for me, is special because it is a perfect marriage of a script that is not only hilariously funny, but incredibly unique, with a cast and a director who are all a precise fit. Obviously I’m biased. There are a lot of great comedies out there. But Ghostbusters is MY number one. It would be hard for me to find fault with it. Even things about it that are dated, like the soundtrack or the special effects, just add to the charm for me.

I got to see it again last night in the theater, and despite the fact that I’ve seen it a million times (only a slight exaggeration) it’s still makes me laugh from start to finish. I recite my favorite lines like an asshole, I grin in anticipation of Peter Venkman’s wry barbs and I cackle every… single… time Louis Tully locks himself out of his apartment. Seeing the movie WITH me is probably not always the most fun, but this is one movie where I honestly don’t give a fuck. I’m in it, man. This is Ghostbusters.

I think it’s just nice to be reminded of what movies can be to us. No matter what YOUR movie is—Caddyshack, Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, The Empire Strikes Back, Rushmore…you know that’s it there for you with the characters that will never stop being family, and the scenes that will never stop being home.

A Brief Tribute to Joan Rivers

As a young woman with an interest in comedy and feminism, I have to write a few brief words about Joan Rivers. We lost another great one. People will tell you she had controversial opinions on certain issues. She did. Some people may say she was mean. She definitely could be. But you know what else she was? Unapologetic. Outspoken. Funny as hell.

Male comedians can get away with that more easily than women can. Maybe you disagree, but I think that, as much progress as we’ve made, there’s still a gratuitous double standard when it comes to gender and comedy.

And Joan started doing comedy in an era when it was nearly IMPOSSIBLE for a woman to be those things. Not everyone may have found Joan’s style to their liking, and that’s fine. I usually found her to be hilarious. But no one can deny the impact that she made in a field that hasn’t always been kind to women. No one can deny that she was a trailblazer, and no one can deny that she worked her ass off for her entire career.

That may be what I admire most about her. She never stopped working, even when she easily could have. She did stand-up the night before the ill-fated surgery that eventually took her life. They taped a red carpet special of Fashion Police just last week after the Emmys.

Joan was one of a kind.

She was a true bad-ass bitch of comedy.

RIP Joan. What are we gonna do without you?image

The Mehmmys.

I don’t really have a lot to write about the Emmys, guys, because the Emmys this year were fucking boring as hell. There was just not much to it. I don’t dislike Seth Meyers, but he was a pretty bland host. He got a few good knocks in during his opening monologue, but otherwise, it was not too memorable.

I’m glad Breaking Bad won for so many categories in its final year of eligibility, and annoyed that Modern Family won for so many categories in NOT its final year of eligibility. Modern Family isn’t that great any more, Emmy voters! And it has never EVER been as funny as Veep or Louie or Parks and Rec!

I was very happy to see Julia Louis Dreyfus win. I know she’s taken the trophy before, but she is so damn good on Veep. And her moments on stage with Bryan Cranston were some of the few funny moments of the night. And I’m thrilled that Louis CK won for writing “So Did the Fat Lady,” and that he thanked Sarah Baker for her role in it. It was an amazing episode…funny and wry and sad.

But in general, this telecast was a snooze. The fashion was okay. Some pretty gowns, but no out and out disasters to make things interesting. Lena Dunham’s hair and dress came the closest, but she’s Lena Dunham, so, as “Joy Behar” would say…

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And speaking of Fred Armisen, you guys…the juiciest news to come out of the Emmys…Natasha Lyonne of Orange Is the New Black might be dating Fred Armisen, which would be like the biggest celebrity couple chaos vortex ever. And if it meant Lyonne, who is funny as hell and a little scary, guest-starred on Portlandia next season, I’d be ALL FOR THAT.

Holy Bleak.

I went last weekend to see Calvary, the new film starring Brendan Gleeson, about an Irish priest who is having, if you’ll pardon the pun, one hell of a week. If you haven’t seen Calvary yet and you plan to, be mindful of this review, there are some spoilers ahead.

Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, begins in the most startling way possible. We are in close-up on Father James’s face (Gleeson) as he hears confession from a member of his parish. The voice is telling him terrible things about abuse suffered at the hands of a pedophile priest when he was a child. He ends his visit to the confessional with a promise to kill Father James. Killing a bad priest would mean nothing to him. He wants to kill a good priest. Father James has one week to “get his affairs in order.”

Father James IS a good man. We watch him go throughout his weekly duties in the small Irish village where his parish is located. He counsels the sick and those in prison. He performs last rites and comforts a grieving French widow. He spends time with his damaged daughter—the daughter from the life he had before he lost his wife and, we learn, turned to the priesthood. (The daughter, played by Kelly Reilly, is herself recovering from an attempted suicide, the bandages on her wrist a constant visual reminder.) Each day is fonted on screen over a shot of a beautiful yet slightly menacing Irish hillside—a visual reminder of the Golgotha that is looming over Father James, the threat to his life that he does not know if he can avoid.

The film is probably best described as a drama, but it is NOT without dark humor, thanks mostly to the VERY colorful cast of townspeople that are part of Gleeson’s world. There is the loose woman, the cynical doctor, the mysterious immigrant, the horny young man, the overly wise altar boy, the rich prick, and James’ own fellow priest, who means well but is a bit of a boob, missing the mark every time. Some of these actors were familiar to me (Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd) and some were not, but all did a great job surrounding Father James with morally gray, flawed people…evoking his compassion and his ire as the week progresses.

If you are going to see this movie, even if you don’t like it, I don’t see how you’ll be able to help being impressed by Brendan Gleeson. He must carry this movie, and is in basically every frame. And he did an amazing job. McDonagh favors a fair amount of close-up shots on Gleeson’s face, like the opening scene in the confessional, and the amount of world-weary heartsickness he’s able to convey with only his eyes and a few subtle movements of his mouth is incredible. The film also looks beautiful overall, shot on location in County Sligo in Ireland. The countryside is lovely, yet shot in such a way that the grey skies and shifting winds make you feel the approaching darkness and growing melancholy as Father James’ week progresses.

So here’s my caveat, and the reason I titled my post the way I did. This film is dark. Like, really dark. It ended in such a way that when the credits started rolling and the lights came up in the theater, everyone in our audience just sat silently for a few seconds. Nobody really wanted to say anything or move. We were all just sort of processing those last few minutes. It was sad and strange and violent and…well, those are all words that would adequately describe Christ’s crucifixion, no? So the title is more than accurate. It was a pretty, oddly funny, and terribly haunting experience.

So much good will.

Like many people the world over this past week, I was shocked and saddened to learn about the loss of Robin Williams. His career and his life have been a demonstration of just how much one man’s generosity, as a person and as a performer, can reach people. It’s been very moving to read the outpouring of stories people are sharing about him now—little personal interactions that say so much about who he was when he wasn’t on stage or in front of a camera.

There are so many wonderful movies that I could choose from as personal favorites. The child in me would say Hook or Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire. The film-loving adult would say Dead Poet’s Society or Awakenings or One Hour Photo. The movie I chose to watch tonight was Good Will Hunting, the only role he won an Oscar for, despite being nominated three previous times.

I hadn’t seen it in a few years, but I remember it well. Williams’ performance as therapist Sean Maguire is everything he was best at in dramatic roles. Williams’ comedic antics and gift for improvisation (an almost unmatched gift, I might add) were probably what got him the most attention and recognition over the course of his career. But his dramatic performances are striking examples of true talent—they demonstrate just how much range he had.

Maguire, like many of Robin’s previous dramatic roles, is a restrained and almost quiet character. He loses his temper infrequently, and the scenes where he does are all the more jolting because of it. (I especially enjoy when he threatens to “end” Will during their first session, when Will goes around his office finding things to pick apart, and finally hitting a nerve when he brings up Maguire’s deceased wife.) But there is also warmth and humor there, and a kind of genuine understanding that is the reason Maguire can connect with someone as damaged as Will.

Williams’ more serious films always felt like that. Like they came from a place of fundamental human connection. And the passion that enlivened his comedy always came through in the drama as well—more restrained, more focused, but still infusing the performances with life. A sort of embodiment of the Walt Whitman poetry that Williams’ John Keating espouses so emphatically to his students in Dead Poets Society.

Parts of Good Will Hunting were still able to move me to tears, I’m not ashamed to say. The movie is great, but it was also nice to be reminded again of what Williams’ legacy is. At his best, he had a way of bringing a beating heart to the stories that we tell, the things that make us laugh and cry, and sometimes do both at the same time. In answer to Walt Whitman’s question, that was his verse.

Feeling Outlandish.

I recently watched the pilot of Starz’ new adaptation of the Outlander series, historical romance novels by Diana Gabaldon. The books are immensely popular, though I’ve never read them. So if you think you’re going to watch the show or read the books, and you haven’t yet…spoilers lay ahead.

The series centers around Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a young woman who served as a nurse in WWII, and is happily married to a history professor (Tobias Menzies) named Frank. The two are traveling in Scotland, after the war, to explore her husband’s Scottish heritage. In the pilot, Claire and Frank spy on a secret pagan rite out on the highlands, and when Claire returns to the site later, she is magically transported to the past, to 1743, when Scotsmen and British soldiers roam the land, engaging in bloody skirmishes.

Claire is attacked by a British officer who just so happens to be her husband’s direct ancestor (and so is also played by Menzies). She is rescued by a band of Scottish rebels at the last second, and her ability to help heal one of the young Scots’ injuries, using her own wartime nursing experience, tells them she is not just some prisoner to be easily discarded. Claire doesn’t fully understand what is happening to her, or why she’s suddenly found herself two hundred years in the past, but she is a smart and steely character, and does her best to keep her wits about her.

The young Scotsman that she helps to heal is named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Though she does not trust him, he’s grateful for her assistance and tries to be kind to her, as much as possible. Of course, because this series is based on historical romance novels, Jamie is strapping, handsome and fascinated by Claire’s modern ways, rather than put off by them. So I think we can see where this is going…

Outlander looks lovely. It was filmed on location in Scotland, and it shows. The rocky hills and green valleys of Inverness form a beautiful backdrop to the action. The score is also a big part of this atmosphere, filled with instrumentation and melodies that invoke traditional Scottish tunes. Balfe seems to be holding her own as Claire. So much of the success of this series will depend on how realistically she can convey the distress of a character caught in a situation that is, quite literally, unbelievable. She narrates the opening episode, a conceit I assume they’ll continue using. It’s hard to tell right now whether that will be helpful to the audience, or a distraction. As a character, however, Claire is strong and has keen survival instincts, so if Balfe can keep tapping into this side of her, she should be fascinating to watch.

Menzies also impressed in the pilot. Frank, Claire’s husband, is a gentle and likeable man—someone who, like many in his position, is carrying some psychological baggage from the war, where he worked with British spies to infiltrate Germany. But it is clear from the first half of the episode that he adores his wife, and their relationship is passionate and strong. His work as the villain Black Jack is only glimpsed briefly, but Menzies was able to admirably switch gears and make the British officer both a creep and a menace. And it’s a juicy twist that Claire is confronted with such a terrible man who resembles exactly the husband she loves and trusts.

I’m not sure I would have watched Outlander at all, but many of the reviews have been quite positive, so that piqued my curiosity. And I’m glad I did. The pilot had a lot to do, setting the table for what was to come. Claire and Frank’s relationship, Claire’s nursing in the war, their trip in Scotland, the time traveling, and finally Claire meeting up with the Scottish rebels. There was a lot of ground to cover, so my only complaint was that none of it got quite enough time to breathe. That will probably change, now that our story and characters are well established. While Jamie, clearly meant to be the romantic lead, hasn’t made a huge impression yet (other than being much better looking than his cohorts), that story will probably also move faster now. I look forward to seeing how their relationship heats up.

Okay…for real, guys. Guardians of the Galaxy is as good as most people are saying.

So, I missed opening weekend, but I got to see Guardians of the Galaxy last night. If you have NOT seen it, do not keep reading, because SPOILERS. Also, if you have not seen it, what are you waiting for? It’s freaking great!

I have a very limited set of knowledge about comic book superheroes. I know your big ones on both sides of the Marvel and DC aisles—your Supermans, your Batmans, your X-Men, your Spider-Mans, etc. But only so much as I know that they exist, and in a few cases, what their basic powers are, or who their love interests are, or their main villains. It doesn’t go much deeper than that for me.

So when I heard about GotG, I was like, honestly, “What the ever loving fuck?” A raccoon? A tree man? What even is this? And you know what? Having now seen the movie, I’m super glad I didn’t know anything about it. I had no expectations. At all. No idea of what should or could happen to these characters. No sense of what ancillary characters ought to be popping up. No eye for any of those classic Marvel Easter eggs. Props to the comics fans who can and will enjoy it on that level, but for me, given what these characters are like, and what this movie was about, it was just really fucking fun to go along for the ride.

Chris Pratt, as always, is incredibly likable as Peter Quill, aka “Starlord.” In fact, he may be giving Paul Rudd a run for his money for most likable, attractive and funny leading man. His Peter Quill is not an intellectual, but he is quick on his feet, funny, open and, as he says himself, “not a 100 percent dick.” He has fun chemistry with Zoe Saldana, whose Gamora is more of the heavy in this movie. (She is not funny in the way Peter is, though some of her reactions to him are pretty great. After he flirts with her, she has an awesome line about “pelvic sorcery.”)

The biggest surprise to me, hands down, were the non-human Guardians. Rocket and Groot are both fantastic, fully realized characters. This is pretty astonishing when you consider that one of them is a raccoon, and the other is a tree who can only say three words. (“I am Groot.”) And yet the script writers and the actors manage to infuse them both with personality and give them actual stakes. I don’t mind saying that Bradley Cooper’s Rocket has a couple of scenes that were downright moving…something I never thought I’d say about an anthropomorphic raccoon bounty hunter. And Rocket gives Peter Quill a run for his money as the funniest character in the movie.

If GotG had one weak point, it was the villains. Lee Pace’s Ronan was run of the mill at best. A lot of shouting, posturing and chasing the MacGuffin (an “infinity stone”) that was the central plot point, and not much personality. None of the charisma and charm that Tom Hiddleston brought to Loki. (The Thor movies rank as high as they do, in my estimation, largely because of Hiddleston’s Loki—an example of what a villain CAN be, when done really well.) 

The other thing worth mentioning is the sound track. A lot of other reviews have been citing it, and with good reason. The movie is scored with a lot of 70s and 80s top 40 hits—classic radio tunes that would seem out of place in a space fantasy…except somehow they’re not. They work perfectly, injecting even greater levity and entertainment value into the film, and they are even tied into the plot line (albeit loosely). They’re more than worth it for Chris Pratt’s opening scene alone…a dance sequence I won’t even try to do justice to in this review.

So, go see it, please. There’s only one response to someone who doesn’t want to see this movie.

Golly…where are my manners?

Happy Trails: Into The Woods Edition

The first teaser trailer has been released for the upcoming big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The musical, a fairy-tale mash-up, is a personal favorite of mine, and when I heard they were bringing it to the big screen, I had high hopes. Then I heard about some of the casting choices, which were a little questionable. Johnny Depp has not been in anything particularly stellar lately, and while I enjoyed him in Sweeney Todd, his voice is only middling. Luckily, the Wolf, while colorful, is not a major character.

More interesting to me was casting Meryl Streep as the Witch. The Witch, a role originated by the fabulous Bernadette Peters on Broadway, is a fantastic part. She is a villain, but she’s complicated, and at various points in the show she is smart, sad, angry, triumphant, ugly AND beautiful. Meryl, if I may call her Meryl, can act circles around almost anyone. So on the acting side, I think casting her may have been kind of ingenious. But this is a musical, and again, my memories of Mamma Mia were not of Meryl’s extraordinary singing chops. And if you’re not familiar with Into the Woods, the fact that Bernadette Peters originated the part of the Witch should tell you that the singing for that part is extensive, and no fucking joke. (In my opinion she gets some of the best songs in the whole production.)

The question of the singing brings me to this trailer. It LOOKS beautiful. Lovely imagery, elaborate costumes, just the right atmosphere. There is a breathless sense of anticipation about the whole thing, and orchestral music that dances around some of the musical’s main themes. It FEELS magical, and in that sense, spot on. But as another website pointed out, there is a huge, glaring absence here. There’s no singing. Not a note.

This is a teaser, so perhaps Rob Marshall and company just didn’t want to give away all the goods right now. But I am fervently hoping that it is not because they’re luring people in, only for the music of this musical to turn out to be somewhat second rate. As much as I loved Sweeney Todd (and I did legitimately love that movie) the singing wasn’t amazing. It was just okay. For the sake of all that is good and holy in musical theater, we cannot have another Sondheim musical turned into a movie where full justice isn’t done to his amazing score. People like Anna Kendrick and James Corden in lead roles (Cinderella and the Baker, respectively) make me feel a bit better, because I know they have musical theater backgrounds and the ability to belt. I just hope everyone else can keep up. It will break my heart if this movie is not everything it could have been.