Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guiltless Review: The Office: Weight Loss

"Summers going great. Just spent two hours listening to Michael Clump. I have a weird pain in my left side that I'm convinced is an ulcer. My girlfriend lives in New York and I haven't seen her in 10 days. How's your summer?" - Jim Halpert

Comedy is really the hardest thing to write a review about. Its purpose for existing is to provide us with honest laughter, through any means necessary. The means to accomplishing this goal is going to vary greatly from show to show, and the reactions that people have to these attempts will vary even more. Some things just need to be seen to be understood.

That being said, I feel I can describe what makes The Office, now in its 5th season, so special. I've never before seen the intentionally wacky characters of a TV sitcom come across as so fully realized and so relatable. From the insecure attention mongering of office manager Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) to the sincerely hilarious Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck-style rivalry between salesmen Jim Halpert (John Krasinsnski) and Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), the characters on The Office are funny and sympathetic in the best way possible. The humor comes from the characters' personalities; their fears and hopes are all laid bare in unexpected, embarassing ways, creating comedy from the social discomfort that results.

If you haven't been following The Office before now, I strongly recommend catching the old seasons before watching the current season 5 (they are all available at I believe). Watching the current season can still be funny without doing this, but due to the nature of the character-driven comedy on the show, being informed of the character's histories makes being up to date so much more rewarding than with your average sitcom. Also, the remainder of the review contains major plot spoilers, so don't read it if you wanna have the complete "Office" experience (highly recommended).

On to the review of "Weight Loss" the typically funny season 5 opener.


There's a new summer HR initiative at Dunder-Mifflin: the branch that loses the most weight is going to be rewarded with 3 vacation days. Naturally, this means everyone at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton gorges themselves before the first weigh-in. Meanwhile Michael attempts to sort through his feelings for the new HR rep Holly (Amy Ryan), and Jim & Pam (Jenna Fischer) deal with the pitfalls of a long-distance relationship.

Laughs: 9
Nine is about average for an episode of The Office, the bad ones might go as low as 7 or even 6, while the best ones will break the scale. "Weight Loss" didn't have many big belly laughs in it, but there were a few character moments that were just perfect if you are a follower of the show. My favorite was Jim painfully reminding his former boss Ryan (BJ Novak) that he indeed was fired, publically disgraced, and sentenced to community service for engaging in corporate fraud last season. There was an art to how Jim effortlessy peels away Ryan's self-estem just by asking him very simple questions. Like with most laughs in The Office, it is understated, and pretty difficult to describe, but extremely satisfying if you understand the characters' histories.

Investment: 11
Like I've said, this is what The Office has over every other TV comedy I've seen. The characters are truly three-dimensional. They may have some personality quirks that are exaggerated, but their motivations as people are all very real. For example, Dwight Schrute may be considered a very broad character at first glance: an overbearing, socially incompetent dork. Lesser shows would just leave it at that and use him for easy laughs by bringing him into scenes Kramer-style (no knock on Seinfeld, I like that show, but The Office is just so much funnier). The genius of The Office is that they have managed to give a character like Dwight an inner life, they actually manage to make him a very sympathetic figure on several occassions.

In "Weight Loss" we have 4 years of personal baggage from Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight, Angela, Andy, Ryan, Kelly being avoided, exploited, and misinterpreted as usual, which will no doubt lead to many funny episodes in the future. There was however, one notable exception; which lead us to. . .

Twists: 11
Ok, who saw that scene between Jim and Pam at the service station coming? This episode did everything in its power to lead us to believe that it was trying to intentionally complicate Jim & Pam's pending engagement just like EVERY other TV show has done when it tries to put off the union of its two "will they-won't they" characters. Then they went ahead and did it: Jim proposes to Pam in quite frankly the most natural, un-TV-like, and romantic way possible. I mean seriously, does being engaged, and eventually married really remove all prospects for comedy from characters? I really think not; there is plenty of awkwardness, deception, and personality clashes in even the most loving relationships. I for one am ecstatic The Office's writers are willing to meet this challenge head on.

Final Word:
Love, love, love The Office, quite possibly my favorite TV show ever, can't wait to see the next episode.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guiltless Review: WALL-E

A is for Axiom, your home sweet home. B is for Buy N Large, your very best friend.

Somehow I've managed to neglect writing about Pixar movies until now. Not that Pixar needs any introduction from me at this point. The studio has consistently pumped out instant classic after instant classic since Toy Story hit theaters 13 years ago. Thus, it was absolutely no surprise to me that I thoroughly enjoyed Pixar's WALL-E. It exemplifies all the high standards of storytelling, humor, and heart that the studio has made a habit of.

What did surprise me was just how hard WALL-E plays with its audience. While remaining a completely satisfying family comedy, this film paints about as damning a picture of humanity's future as I've seen in a mainstream science fiction movie. In all seriousness, earth's future landscape in WALL-E makes the celebrated wasteland of Blade Runner seem like a Hallmark card in comparison.

There is just so much to say about WALL-E that I'm not sure where to start. This is one situation where having the guiltless format makes it much easier to organize the downright sloppy level of affection I have for this movie.

One more thing, there are clearly labelled spoilers near the end of this review. Please, please, please, do not read these sections if you have not seen WALL-E, you really owe it to yourself to see the movie first.

WALL-E is a little waste disposal robot on a mission to clean up the planetary junkyard that earth has become in the future. His lonely quest brings him into contact with human artifacts from a bigone era, and with them a quirky appreciation of his creators.

Meanwhile, the whole of humanity awaits the restoration of their planet within the fully automated comfort of massive starliners, including the Axiom.

WALL-E dutifully carries out his mission for hundreds of years, even after he's apparently been abandoned and forgotten. One fateful day he is visited by EVE, a much sleeker and more advanced robot with an unknown mission.

I don't really want to say more about the plot, its much more fun to watch it for yourselves. Suffice it to say the movie considers the nature of humanity, technology, and love among other light topics.

Awe: 10
May as well start here; the endless virtual mountains of trash were an indelible image of wastefulness and decay. Considering that cgi has a tendency to take me out of an onscreen moment and kill my suspension of disbelief, it is impressive that computer generated images like these were as powerful as they were. I think the secret is in the amount of detail Pixar animators put into these trash heaps. There didn't seem to be any shortcuts taken with the vast density of everyday objects that comprised them. These are images I'm sure I will be pausing on many times on the DVD just to fully appreciate.

Immersion: 9
The juxtaposition of the tiny protagonist amid the endless wasteland creates a vivid sense of loneliness. This film has almost no dialogue, and not a whole lot of action for the first 30 or so minutes, but it still had absolutely no problem drawing me into its world. One thing that struck me was how casual the movie was in showing us its environment. There are no people left on earth to be shocked and disgusted by the condition of the planet. The very casual attitude our robot protagonist has to his surroundings gave me chills, it completely sold this world to me.

Laughs: 7
WALL-E is not a laugh-out-loud comedy but the laughs that are there are big ones. They come from the personality quirks of the robots, and the scathing satirical look at what the human race has come to in the far flung future. The film Wall-E evoked most for me was Mike Judge's Idiocracy, which also had a comically bleak view of where humanity is headed.

Resonance: 11

After seeing WALL-E, I could not shake the experience for days. Can't say much more about how this movie affected me without some spoilers, so here comes a warning.


I am far from a luddite. I embrace the comforts and convenience that advancing technology brings us. However, even I was deeply moved by just how believable our descent into becoming comically ignorant, incompetent, lazy blobs was depicted here. In this universe, human civilization is not wiped out by machines, nor even by our intolerance of each other. Instead we just kind of devolve into ruin, simply because it's the path of least resistance. As a student of human behavior I find that possibility disturbingly easy to imagine.

Time for lunch . . . in a cup!

Like all the best satire, WALL-E takes our human frailties and exploits them for all they are worth. Those who take this movie as merely a cautionary tale about caring for the environment are missing the bigger picture. More essentially, WALL-E is a jolt of imagination and hopefulness to remind us of what we are capable of as a species, for better or for worse. Not directly a condemnation of technology, but a stark warning of what we may become if we allow ourselves to be too dependent on it.


Twists: 6
Did I mention this is supposed to be a family film? Its a family film in the best tradition of intelligent entertainment, enjoyable on many different levels. The ending is hopeful, oddly so in some ways, but it does not diminish the film's impact for me in any case.


Final Word:
In case I haven't gushed enough yet, I think WALL-E is an absolutely brilliant film. As some of you may know my wife and I have started a family in the past month, and we don't really spend a whole of money on DVDs any more. WALL-E, however, is one movie I cannot wait to buy and digest more fully. I very much hope to enjoy it with my son one day.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Guiltless Review: Flash Gordon


Wow its been forever since I wrote one of these, hope I remember how!

I got this DVD as a Christmas present but only got a chance to re-watch it a few weeks ago. Since then I've re-watched it quite a bit.

Say what you will about the 1980 ultra-camp version of Flash Gordon, it is a wonderfully crafted piece of comic book-inspired moviemaking for kids of all ages. Colorful, funny, sexy, and entertaining as hell.

In a way, Flash Gordon is the last gasp of old school, pre-Star Wars science fiction fantasy. Yes, technically it came out after Star Wars changed pretty much everything about sci-fi movies in 1977, but this film is a more direct reference to a much older tradition.

Star Wars itself was clearly inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930's, and embodies the same sense of fun and imagination. However, it takes these elements into a more stark and 'realistic' outer-space environment. Sure, its still pure fantasy, but Star Wars takes great care in not coating every spaceship and costume in a shiny, quasi-futuristic silver coating. Instead, it aims to show us weathered (almost dingy), believable technological trappings.

Flash Gordon '80, on the other hand, gleefully ignores the general paradigm that Star Wars established (and that just about every sci-fi fantasy since has followed). Basically, this movie makes no attempt to 'update' Flash's environment from what appeared in the 1930's, nor does it try to explain any of the technology in this universe. Instead, Flash Gordon (bless its campy soul) says to heck with 'realism' and gives us a booming, tacky, 'modern' (well, modern for 1980), re-presentation of garish costumes, cheesy looking spaceships, completely impractical weapons, general tackiness, and hawkmen! LOTS of hawkmen!

Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets (Sam Jones) is flying back from vacation while chatting up travel agent/hot babe Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Meanwhile, Emperor of the Galaxy Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) is borrrrrred, and decides to have fun by causing all sorts of natural disasters on earth from what appears to be a sound mixing board.

Well yadda yadda yadda, one thing leads to another and eventually Flash, Dale, and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) end up on Ming's home planet of Mongo, trying to save earth. Will they succeed?!?! Well, I don't want to spoil it for you, but Flash is, after all: (que the Queen music) SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!!!

Laughs: 7
A very high score for a sci-fi fantasy flick. This film is pure camp; these are not 'so bad its good' laughs, these are very intentional, very goofy laughs with a surprisingly adult sensibility. My favorite laugh comes from Ming's wedding vows at the end ("Do you promise not to blast her into space? . . . . . until such time as you grow weary of her?").

Immersion: 10
Once our heroes' rocket travels to Mongo, the film's color palette basically explodes. The landscapes and palaces on Mongo are obviously fake and aggressively tacky. This is a film environment that is truly unlike anything seen before or since, and it has a definite, transportive quality.

Investment: 7
The main characters never behave like anything other than 2-dimensional plot devices, but the places they go and the things they do are so much fun, I still ended up wanting to see them succeed.

Twists: 9
Flash Gordon's serialized origins come through here, and many of his adventures in this movie are episodic in nature. If you think about everything that happens in the span of a few days in the film, its a bit mind boggling. Better yet, don't think about it and just enjoy the various daring deeds and narrow escapes.

Bizareness: 9
Wow! Producer Dino DeLaurentis really went all out on this one. The aforemetioned costumes and settings are spectacular. The various races, creatures and technology of Mongo comprise a hyper-real alternative universe. This is a place where bad guys melt when they die, guns shoot shiny golden hands, and hourglass sand runs the wrong way.

Also, did I mention that this movie has a very erotic undercurrent? For the lead bad guy in a movie that is at least partially aimed at children, Ming is a straight-up pimp! I mean its generally assumed the Emperor of the Galaxy is gonna have a harem stashed away somewhere, but Ming is really up front about it. First, he hauls away Dale "For our Pleasure!" after fondling her telekinetically with his ring. Then there are numerous references to date rape drugs he uses.

I haven't even mentioned Ming's daughter Aura yet (Ornella Muti). Aura is a kinky, manipulative, skank completely guided by her lust for sex and danger. She gets away with it because she's drop dead gorgeous and half-naked much of the time.

Thrills: 9
There is moderate violence and action throughout Flash Gordon, but the climactic battle sequence featuring a battalion of hawkmen assaulting a spaceship is what really brings this score up. Having seen it several times recently, I can honestly say there is no movie scene that matches its sheer awesome-ness. Its a triumph of imagination, art direction, editing, and that insane Queen soundtrack. Its paced beautifully, with a slow build-up, carefully presenting the elements involved. Then the intensity is driven up, punctuated by Prince Vultan's (Brian Blessed) booming voice. By the time the guitar riffs kick in, there is absolutely no way you can stop watching. Oh, hell, there's no way my description can do it justice so watch it for yourself here:

Most awesome scene in movie history

Final Word:
There are people who just don't get this version of Flash Gordon. People who must always look for everything to be explained and cannot suspend disbelief even for the sake of a brilliant camp classic (and if you read geeky film sites, these people are getting more and more annoying all the time). With the right attitude though, there is no movie as purely entertaining as Flash Gordon; thats right, I said it.