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Category Archives: Television review

I just heard that Fox has picked up The Punisher as a television program. I think that this could work, actually, because of his villains. Does anyone remember how much the TV series The Flash blew? How the only two episodes worth watching were Mark Hamill’s “Trickster” episodes, because he finally had a supervillain to face? Well, the Punisher has no such problems, as all his villains are mobsters or mildly superpowered mobsters. Few of them need special makeup or costuming outside of suits. I’d still rather see this on Showtime, though, being as gory and ridiculous as Punisher: War Zone. I’ll take Irish Rastafarian tumblers being exploded out of the sky over simple gunshots any day.

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Marvel Comics’ Thor suffers lately from rushed and uninteresting stories with no real degree of importance. I watched Thor in a theater and Thor: Tales of Asgard on DVD and neither seemed like more than a set up for another story. I got the feeling that both movies were made just to get Thor’s backstory out of the way.

 

In the case of Thor it’s simply to explain who the big blond guy with the hammer is in the soon-to-be Avengers. His story of a god fallen to hubris works well enough and his supporting cast carries their end of the deal, but star Chris Hemsworth contributes just enough to get by. His slipping Australian accent distracts from his lines frequently, though I know of no other actor better suited for the role physically. Huge, blond and gruff, he looks the perfect Norse Thunder God. He’s best when hurling Mjölnir into Frost Giants and screaming battle cries. Not coincidentally, so is the movie best when Thor is limited to doing so. The comedic elements on Earth, though, work well due to Kat Dennings contribution as an intern studying under astrophysicist Natalie Portman. Portman’s good enough in the role, far better than a Star Wars performance but the role hardly demands another Black Swan turn from her.

 

Again, my main beef with the movie is that from crater where the hammer was buried (Iron Man 2) in the beginning right through the stinger at the end, this felt a building block for Thor’s eventual membership in the Avengers. The origin story in the film’s center felt too bookended by the outside influence of other films both past and future. Thor’s movie never belonged solely to Thor in the way that Iron Man belonged to Tony Stark or The Hulk belonged to Bruce Banner. Maybe that’s just the nature of the character but he felt far too blank outside of his readily remedied rageaholic tendencies. Unlike Stark’s alcoholism or the Hulk’s ever present rampages, Thor has no personality issues he can’t resolve by stopping to think briefly or any external problems from that he can’t solve by hitting them with his hammer. With Thor almost every problem really is a nail. 3 ½ of 5 stars

 

Thor: Tales of Asgard suffers even worse as it functions only as a prequel to Thor. Everything presented in the latter is shown in the former but with the always annoying transformation of the lead character into a teenager. The preening young Thor learns humility and heroism through his folly, much like the older Thor of the theatrically released feature film. So, apparently Thor goes through this same transformation every few years, retaining nothing of the original lesson. I found the voice acting and animation dull and the story rehash since I had seen the other already. I’m starting to question whether or not the character even deserves better than this. A little frailty would go a long way with Thor, especially some moral questions about the use of his power that aren’t wrapped up inside one battle gone wrong or thrust upon him by his father’s judgment. 2 of 5 stars

Terriers is gone. That much we know. I’ve read a lot of online statements, ponderings and criticisms about just why the show failed to find its audience, particularly from the AVClub.com branch of the Onion. They’ve done some fine reporting of facts and offered many speculations but the chief one I don’t really get is the deriding of the name of the show.

 

I think that the name of the program, Terriers, may represent why the show didn’t catch on but it is not the problem in itself. One of the earliest things that drew me into the show was its title. What does it mean? Who are the eponymous Terriers? I wanted to know. I thought of the title as a challenge and a mark of confidence on the creators’ part. They didn’t need to tell me what it was so much as dare me to figure that out. I also missed out on the truly terrible advertising campaign, though. I just saw the thing on Hulu.com one day and checked into it. Once I saw Donal Logue I had a good feeling about it. Once I actually finished the pilot I was hooked.

 

But, as I said, it is gone. The network has caught flack, and its president, though I thought it was pretty brave of him to step out in front and say that they tried and it just didn’t catch on. You can blame the title, you can blame the lousy advertising, you can blame the network, but none of that is the real truth. This is another case of the viewing public getting the television it deserves. Farewell, Terriers, and thanks for the brief moment. I’m sure we’ll see you again on whatever the next version of Brilliant but Cancelled turns out to be.

DC’s animated releases have been really hit or miss in the last three years. You had the good Wonder Woman, the very good Green Lantern: First Flight, and the great Justice League: the New Frontier and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Then you’ve also seen such not-so-greats as Superman: Doomsday, the anime styled Batman: Gotham Knights, and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Now comes Batman: Under the Red Hood, which falls somewhere in the middle.

Taken from a tale I only knew in passing, this one proves that even when you do see the body in comics it doesn’t mean it’s dead. Sparing you any of the films obvious spoilers, the Red Hood, an identity of the Joker’s in his earliest career moment (i.e. the one which made him the Joker), is back in town and muscling his way into the drug trade. His deadly methods coerce a number of gang members to side with him against main drug lord Black Mask (picture Tony Montana with his face burned down to the skull). In a double effort to use the history of the Red Hood character and provide a much more interesting protagonist, the Joke plays a substantial role in the plot.

Relying too heavily on flashbacks, the story feels a little meandering, and features too many characters for its own good. Nightwing, the original Robin now grown, shows up to basically do Batman’s talking so he can keep up his grim, silent shtick. The constant flashbacks disrupt the pace of the film and could have been better summed up in about half as many. While appearances like R’as Al Ghul work in a multi-part comic story, it just takes up valuable screen time in Red Hood. I know, too, that Batman’s rogues gallery contains so many, many more interesting antagonists than Black Mask that his appearance frustrates in its banality. He does next to nothing of interest.

The voice acting comes and goes. Bruce Greenwood as Batman seems to be doing a Kevin Conroy impression in most of his performance, begging the question why DC ever casts anyone else. The man has the definitive Batman voice. Warner Brothers should redub all of Christian Bale’s lines as Batman to get them right in the future. John DiMaggio’s Joker take was interesting but I felt he had it about 75% down. His laughter worked perfectly, though, and that’s such a significant piece of the performance that I believe he can perfect it on another try, since Mark Hamill has officially retired the voice. Neil Patrick Harris might be the sole reason for Nightwing’s inclusion in the film. Great though he was, the story portrays the character as nearly bumbling, asking obvious questions and barely keeping up with Batman at all. Harris, though, was great and should be kept on board future Batman or Teen Titan productions as Dick Grayson.

The story wraps up neatly enough, with an easy to spot battle and characters seemingly disposed of whom we know still to fight another day. Overall, though, Batman: Under the Red Hood only partially satisfies as a film, a Batman story or an action cartoon. While the fights moved well and provided some fun moments, there were too many with faceless goons, and even the main antagonists only seemed like minor threats half the time. The story revolving around mentor and student’s paths diverging plays well when not interrupted by brawls involving no one of importance. I would have liked to have seen a tighter, leaner story with fewer superfluous characters and a cleaner resolution, but the film has its number of high points, too, such as good voice work, fair animation and no punches pulled in the action. Hopefully they will give this cast and crew another chance to make their mark on Batman in the future. 3 stars

Like all other adaptations and even Sci-Fi’s (or SyFy’s, depending on its shooting date) similarly botched Man-Thing­, Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982) either didn’t get its source material or, more likely, never wanted it in the first place. The movie plays out the origin more or less faithfully but halts all similarity from that point. The grossly inaccurate misuse of Swamp Thing as a stand-in for Frankenstein’s Monster could have been forgiven if not for the utterly generic monster abilities he received. A lack of creativity killed this one right out of the gate.

Save a single moment of life-saving via his own Green Mile powers, Swamp Thing hurls men and machines around the swamp, lumbers about and carries around Adrienne Barbeau, as anyone around Adrienne Barbeau is wont to do. His abilities consist of being strong enough to crush a man’s skull, deflect (absorb?) bullets and immunity to ramming attacks via truck or boat. His immunity to blades equals that of any other grass, though, unfortunately. By the time the movie even gets around to revealing that Alec Holland still lives inside Swamp Thing’s rubbery exterior he’s wasted most of it battling may-as-well-be-faceless goons in vintage 1980s camouflage gear. One guy even sports the red Rambo headband, as if more note of the era was needed.

Holland’s nemesis, Anton Arcane, helps the movie little with his murky motivations and vaguely fleshed goals. He believes Holland’s formula to grow plants more efficiently holds his key to power somehow, though combined with his application of the formula once in his possession, his plan makes about as much sense as the “Underpants Gnomes” scheme on South Park. He feeds it to one of his goons, turning him into a pus covered midget. Holland explains that this is his inner nature being reflected, or some such drivel, luring the vain Arcane to believe it will make him powerful the way it did Holland. Keep in mind that he takes this advice from a sentient compost heap, and that becoming this also is something to which he aspires. Holland also became Swamp Thing by being blasted in his lab by an explosion, set aflame and dumped in a swamp. For a scientific genius, Arcane takes very little notice of his experiment’s test controls. What this amounts to is Swamp Frankenstein vs. Swamp Wolfman, as Arcane’ inner nature manifests as a werewolf burst from a cocoon. At this point, why not? And he has a sword. I should mention that. Grand battle behind him, Holland rides off into the swamp, leaving Barbeau behind to make sense of it all, telling her to “tell their story.”

Obvious cheapness aside, (the suit’s rubber actually wrinkles at times) there’s an air of just not giving a fuck around Swamp Thing. I got the sense that as Arcane, Louis Jourdan was just doing what he does, an old hand just giving his typical performance. Ray Wise isn’t bad as Holland for his rather brief time in the film. Barbeau carries most of the film but she spends it running from and being caught by the same goons in a less than one mile radius. The plot just runs in circles like that until Swamp Thing allows himself to be captured, presumably just to get the shit over with. The movie has been called, or retracted as, campy, but that’s not even remotely accurate. This is just a shitty movie. Basically it’s The Toxic Avenger without a sense of humor. 2 stars, for the bathing Adrienne Barbeau

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989) is true to its claim of campiness, which it embraces whole heartedly. Outside of a quick recap of the first, Return dives right into establishing its primary goal: thing-on-woman relations, with Arcane’s innocent stepdaughter Abby introduced as said woman. Heather Locklear wastes no scenery as Abby either; she chews it right down to the marrow, or roots in this case (I know, I couldn’t help it). Returning also are Dick Durock who would manage to ride out quite a number of appearances as the title character, more than I think anyone could have imagined, and do a fair job if it at that, and Louis Jourdan as the now not-a-werewolf Arcane. His casting was one of the few things from the first that ain’t broke, so why fix it?

Made a long seven years after its predecessor flopped, you’d supposed the producers and studio wouldn’t have much hope or care for the follow up. When you notice they replaced an apparently unmotivated Wes Craven with the generally incapable Jim Wynorski (Deathstalker 2, Chopping Mall) you’d have to believe this is true. Maybe that lack of faith led to the freedom that allowed this to be better than the original. You can call it “horror-camp” if you like but all semblance of horror has been tossed out in Return. If anything it’s a meet-cute rom-com with the man made of sticks, mud and sargassum. His suit has improved noticeably, though.

Arcane, having learned from his staff of paint-ballers playing commando in the first film, has a staff of scientists, including one bumbler and the great Sarah Douglas. His chances improved thousands of percents just by hiring Ursa. He also creates his own Monster Squad of genetically manipulated messes. They aren’t much more effective than his goons but at least they look more like something Swamp Thing could have a little trouble defeating. He really doesn’t, but that’s hardly the point.

One thing that isn’t improved from the originally is the use of child actors. It made little sense in the first one but at least Jude wasn’t used as a comedy act, unlike the two kids from Return. One is fat and Southern, as if one or the other was too subtle. This movie cuts out most of the hemming and hawing on SW’s part, too, getting right into his romance with Abby. It’s handled with the proper silliness, including all of the jokes about Abby’s vegetarian convictions that you could possibly stand. All in all, Return is fun and harmless, a go-for-broke, camp take on a franchise that could hardly sink any lower if it had tried. 2 ½ stars

I also recently revisited the pilot to the USA series, Swamp Thing (1990), again starring Durock. I had fond memories of this from the era and, as usual, looking back tarnishes even the fondest of them. The opening scene is as jarring as I remember, with Swamp Thing meting out justice by turning a would-be-murderer into a tree, albeit a tree with eyes and teeth which can moan low. The series would follow his constant thwarting of Arcane’s plots with occasional sidebar adventures. Rather like the Highlander television series of the time, Swamp Thing had much more flexibility in establishing itself, allowing characters to build over time and plots to slow burn more frequently. If anything, though, this pace is too slow and the action drags for it. It was a fairly cheap looking show, but this was the USA network circa 1990-1993 or so. You can’t ask or expect much. Plus, it was a place to find post-Remote Control Kari Wuhrer, so it had that. As a series it was fairly lackluster, though it had its moments. 2 ½ stars

Allegedly, according to co-creator Len Wein, a new script is all ready to go (http://www.comicbookmovie.com/fansites/rorschachsrants/news/?a=20982). Hopefully this one will take the nature of the character into account a little more.

Is G.I. Joe: The Movie the pinnacle, the apex, the very zenith of modern filmmaking? In a word, yes. With voice talent ranging from Sir Don Johnson to 17 time Emmy Winner Burgess Meredith (16 separate episodes of the Twilight Zone and one for Batman’s “A Penguin for All Seasons”) no cast has ever been more celebrated. The story of nature’s struggle against the military-industrial complex, only to be crushed, burned and mutilated over and over, is presented in rich layers of ninjitsu, genetic mutation, laser gun shootouts and, of course, professional wrestling drill instructors. Golobulus fights on in his hopeless cause only to be thwarted time and again by the cruel General Hawk, spurred on by the grief instilled in him by the fall of his lover, Duke, thanks to a misplaced Cobra-La snake-javelin. What in another film would be the catalyst of farce in this fans the great flame of a war of extinction, with both sides growing more bitter and hardened with each shot fired, each satellite launched, each machine gunner blinded and saddled with a creature whom was “once a man,” to quote just one bit of the brilliant dialogue. Let not a dry eye remain at the end of this tragedy, lest you surrender your very humanity in a gesture on par with that of Cobra Commander himself. 10 stars, perfection doubled

The end of the first season of Party Down left some gaping holes in the staff of Party Down Catering as Jane Lynch and Ken Marino seemed to be leaving the show. Lynch, of course, found even higher stardom in the cast of Glee, but even at the time Marino’s Ron was obviously headed for failure in his “Soup and Crackers” enterprise. He naturally comes crawling back to the safest place he can, the catering company. Megan Mullally, though, ably replaces Lynch as a stage mom new to Los Angeles and looking to make her own little Miley Cyrus or whatever pop starlet is currently coasting the horribly manipulative “’tween” market.

While most of the peripheral cast remains status quo in the show, Adam Scott’s Henry and Lizzie Caplan’s Casey had a real relationship and career paths they were carving. I say were because the series has since been sadly canceled. Regardless, the slow burning tension of the second season reunion of Henry and Casey carries the show, giving it a sense of real time, something more than job to job. Perhaps the biggest underlying plot is the tease of Henry’s return to acting, including showing some footage of a film Scott did years ago. Henry’s metamorphosis plays out nicely with the revelation of his ties to arch rival Valhalla catering as well, in some great “showdown moments.”

Of particular quality this season were the episodes where the group parties with a very game Steve Guttenberg, who’s eager to help them all explore their career options, and is very free with his wine. Once you get past the “it’s really Steve Guttenberg!” factor, you can see how good he is in this role, as what I presume to be a parody of himself. It’s a great set up and very important to get Henry back on his feet as an actor, with some real quality Roman moments (including his previously unseen writing partner, Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse).

One of my other favorites is the catering of a theater’s opening night. The show has possibly it’s most fun with this one, having no mercy on a single theater trope, and turning it‘s guest stars completely loose. Perhaps it’s that this is Martin Starr’s best episode (maybe tied with Guttenberg) as the actors shower him with praise as a writer (though not a playwright, nor do the read anything by him) and a glorious Kerri Kenney-Silver and Rob Huebel get utterly blitzed with him. The way the whole script plays around the idea of a farce is perfectly followed through, right up to the big, masterfully done ending.

The worst part of the cancellation of Party Down is the groundwork that has gone into the show being now lost. These characters have so much more left to do and to say and to become. It’s really a shame that the show didn’t attract more viewers, but I actually have to admire Starz network for taking a chance on it in the first place. They likely thought they had the next Entourage on their hands, except that millions already subscribed to HBO when that started. Too bad the same wasn’t true for Party Down. 4 ½ stars

Whether you admire or loathe him, Andy Kaufman’s often times polarizing act caught people’s attention. This two part collection shows off a great deal of what people loved or hated in the man’s performance. While not personally a fan of what Kaufman did, nor would I remark on it as genius, he displayed an interesting way of connecting with and getting under the skin of his audience, in this collection using professional wrestling as both a stage and a tool.

First he skewered the film My Dinner with Andre in his own My Breakfast with Blassie, where he takes retired pro wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie to breakfast in a plain Los Angeles diner; no five-star restaurant, just rush hour eggs and bacon. Blassie, whose age begins to show as the video wears on, puts on either a fantastic performance as a cranky old man, or simply is one and the video catches him at his best. He harps on Kaufman for his nutritional disregard, flirts with waitresses and goads Kaufman into nearly starting an altercation with some pushy fans, and remains a fascinating subject all the while. In between these actions he proudly tells of being so good at his job as the bad guy that he has been repeatedly stabbed by overzealous wrestling fans through the years. While it is entertaining, this is basically where the piece ends and it feels like a lot of Kaufman’s work to me: a big fuck you to a segment of the population (fans of pretentious film in this case) while offering little else in terms of comment. Or maybe his comment was simply that eating with a wrestler is at least as good a subject as theater’s Andre Gregory, if not better, which I would agree with having seen his evidence. I would like to have had breakfast with Freddie Blassie; it looks like a great time.

A little more straightforward is the second feature on the disc, I’m from Hollywood, an account of Andy Kaufman’s time spent actually working in professional wrestling. Declaring himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World,” Kaufman defended his championship by wrestling random women from the audience. Given how ugly and non-choreographed these “matches” looked, and Kaufman’s love of blurring reality with his audience (he allegedly spent weeks in traction to sell a faked injury) my gut reaction is to believe he just did pull random women out of the audience to wrestle. On the other hand, it is wrestling and everything is premeditated, and it took Kaufman’s death for Jerry Lawler to break his silence that the Letterman incident was staged. Either way Kaufman isn’t the draw in these scenarios; it’s his audience and the way they eat out of his hand. Using the cheapest possible tactics (showing the Southern people what soap is, suggesting no one knows how to read, the eponymous “better than you” claim of the film), Kaufman had people howling for his head. He really knew how to work his audience, though I‘m not sure what kind of feat that amounts to really. Looks like Blassie had a perfect student in Andy. 3 stars total, a good look at this period of Andy Kaufman’s career.

Adam Reed’s (adult swim’s Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) Archer seamlessly blends a number of spy tropes, sampling liberally from the James Bond catalogue, with weird family issues and a workplace setting, all while actually providing a good deal of action. It’s tricky but Archer’s first season pulls it off while neither being neither too flat, too ridiculous nor lacking genuine character.

Reed makes excellent use of his talented cast, featuring the voice of H. Jon Benjamin as the eponymous Archer, a spy, misogynistic frat boy, mama’s boy, emotional cripple and general asshole. His mother, Malory (Jessica Walter essentially reprising Lucille from Arrested Development) runs ISIS, the spy agency that employs Archer and she still runs his life. In fact, on several occasions he attempts to “run away from home” only to have his mother drag him back. The creepy dynamic of mother and son bleeds into a number of plots but stays interesting partially due to the nature of the dialogue.

The series real signature is a rapid-fire rhythm to the dialogue, with the characters generally speaking faster than they can think, leading to a number of confusing, though hilarious, exchanges. Awkward lines like “Why don’t you try shutting up?” end equally awkward conversations by cutting off any further response. There’s just nowhere to go from there. Banter during suppression gunfire is common, as well, trapping two characters who would otherwise not wish to stay together. Archer’s wordplay confusing ex-lover Lana (Aisha Tyler) to keep her from shooting him come off perfectly between the balance of writing and the voice acting.

Archer’s style recalls the heyday of the spy film, the 60s and its Cold War sensibilities, including a paternal Russian counterpart to his mother, appropriately voiced by her television husband Jeffery Tambor. His surrounding staff, including HR exec Pam, suicidally sexed up receptionist Carol (or Cheryl… or Cristal, depending on the day and who she’s sleeping with- Judy Greer!) and Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) generally either get in the way or provide side plots about cheating on partners or workplace issues such as sexual harassment and pay raises, or just weirdness. All of this comes together in an incredibly absurd and funny mix of seemingly incompatible elements bolstering each other, though, and when Archer is on it is really on. 4 ½ stars

Even though I had fairly little idea about what he made the show, I greatly looked forward to Louis CK’s new comedy series, Louie, on FX. I managed to catch the first two episodes over the holiday weekend and found it even greater than I expected. There’s nothing like this on television now, nor can I recall anything similar in any recent year.

While I expected a sitcom in the vein of his lamented HBO series Lucky Louie, the actual format is far more interesting. Opening, closing and separated by bits of his standup are two short films by Louis CK. His stamp couldn’t be more evident on these, though the dozen or so times his name appears in the credits don’t hurt either. He even edits the show himself. That epitomes fanatical dedication to me. The first short, about an aborted trip to the Bronx Botanical Gardens with his child’s class, falls a little flat with its jokey ending but has a number of very funny moments. The second, though, about a horrible blind date, is amazing. It’s hilarious and filled with genuine, ugly, awkward moments and the greatest over the top ending I’ve seen on television (at least outside of Arrested Development).

The second episode features a great short involving his comic friends and a poker game, getting slowly more and more deeply into the nature of language and the political power of words, all without letting up on its central goal, being funny. The second short in this episode is so close to perfect it’s amazing. It features Louis CK, in a fit of post-divorce loneliness, looking up an old girlfriend on Facebook. It’s bursting with childhood gawkiness and late life regret. The kid who plays the young Louis nails it, too, without saying ten words in the short.

Louis CK has found a way to bring his art to television while keeping his creative vision clear and free. I greatly look forward to seeing more of this series and anticipate great things. So far, 5 stars