Monday, November 24, 2008

Two Guys Email Review of: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

About a week to ten days ago, my friend Jamie and I went to see the Kevin Smith/Seth Rogen film "Zack and Miri Make A Porno". We went sorta late (9:00 pm show -- how edgy of me!) so when we left the theater we got into our respective cars and drove home without really discussing the movie.

I like to talk about movies, TV shows, sporting events, books -- any sort of medium a lot. This is obvious because I'm writing a Blog about these sort of things. So, the next day I emailed Jamie and asked him for his thoughts. We went back and forth for a little bit and this is what we had to say.

From: Byron
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:28:43 AM
Subject: Zack and Miri

You've had a night to think about it, what's the final verdict?

From: James
To: Byron
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:44:17 AM
Subject: Re: Zack and Miri

I still like the dialogue of kevin smith moives. I know it sounds like i'm 12 but I get a kick out of hearing new terminology (rudder...Shit! now i forget)

Over all it was a weak story with some pretty funny shit in it. If offensive humor wasn't my thing I probably would have hated the movie. I also felt like I was watching 40yr old virgin 2 becuase of the dialogue and similar actors. I'm also feeling an odd sense that it was missing something, but I don't know what. I can't explain it.

What did you think?

From: Byron Magrane
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 11:36:22 AM
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri

I liked the flick because I like most of Kevin Smith's stuff and I like Seth Rogen going all the way back to his "Freaks and Geeks" days. However, that's also a reason why I didn't love the flick. It seems like Smith writes the same scripts over and over and over again. And Rogen seems to play the same characters--the sarcastic, nerdy slacker who eventually finds his true calling.

It's really a double-edged sword for me because I like what both guys bring to the table and I'm happy with their work, but it seems like I've seen this movie before. Which is why I agree with you saying that it's like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin Part 2".

I guess that's what Hollywood is all about though, actors/directors get into cycles and don't break them until it's too late. Will Farrell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen all play their characters. Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith write their same movies. The only thing that really changes is the leading actress.

Having said all that though, Rogen was perfect in the role. I'm not sure if I could see anyone else playing Zack. I guess I'm just conflicted as I liked it, but I wanted more.

BTW, there was a scene after the credits: Zack and Miri get married and start a business: Zack and Miri make your porno.

From: James
To: Byron
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri
Date: Thursday, November 13, 2008, 12:15 PM

Curses! We should have stayed. I could see it in your eyes - you were itching to get to bed. You make me really want to watch what little of freaks and geeks came out. Which reminds me, that's where that lanky dark haired dude was from in that star wars heist movie we saw the trailer for last night.

I disagree with you about writing the same movie. I think Dogma was different than, say, Clerks or Jersey girl. On the other hand I can see a similar thread running through all of them. I guess that may be what you mean. It's the same thing with all art, I think. When a band comes out with a certain sound the seem to corner that sound. The songs may be different but you can channel surf and know that it's Rush, or Coldplay or Tool by only hearing a second of the song. Picasso's style is the same but the paintings are different.... you get my point.

I also think that them casting the same actors for all the movies they do doesn't help to keep it fresh.

I liked the movie. I'd recommend it to Kim and I will certainly watch the next movie that Kevin Smith does.
What was the Rudder thing called. I'm drawin a blank. I've been thinking about it too hard for too long so I can't even think straight about it anymore.

From: Byron Magrane
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 1:25:44 PM
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri

I agree that it wasn't like "Dogma" and I never saw "Jersey Girl", but it is very reminiscent of his other flicks, "Clerks", "Mallrats", etc. And my point was mostly about how the dialog is written. Each character has times where they speak in one long monologue, which is ok, but after nine movies, it's sort of predictable.

Like I said, when that technique was first used in "Clerks" I thought it was brilliant. Now, it's getting pretty stale.

But you're 100% right about artists/bands having the same overall theme but riffing on that theme. And that's what I was trying to get across in my last email and what's got me so confounded about this movie. I like what Smith and Rogen have done. I went into the movie expecting exactly what I got. I don't think that I would have it any other way. But, yet I'm still a little disappointed. I thought that the movie could've been a bit more.

I don't think that the each man was lazy when it came to his craft, I just wished that they tried something different. You brought up an awesome point though, hiring the same actors to play essentially the same roles doesn't help. I'm not really a huge Jason Mewes fan, so maybe his role could've been taken by a different actor. I do like Randal though, but truthfully, they should have used a different actor for him too.

BTW, the answer to your questions:

1. The stringy guy in "Fan Boys" was the lead in "Undeclared" which was essentially "Freaks and Geeks" part two. BTW, it's an awesome show. Get it. He was also in "Knocked Up" and that movie "Million Dollar Baby".

2. And the move was the Dutch Rudder.

And that's that. Are you more or less informed?

Friday, November 14, 2008

34.Original Adult Swim

At the dawn of time, man did not possess the power of automatically taping his favorite television programs and watching them whenever he felt. Thus, if a program aired during the later hours of a night before that man was to wake early, two choices had to be made: stay up late, watch the show and be tired the next day or skip the program entirely. *

* Of course, the man could buy a VCR that taped on a timer, but as stand-up comedians have told us time and time again, these things are IMPOSSIBLE to figure out.

This is the backdrop of the four 15-minute shows that were began airing on Adult Swim, a late-night block of cartoons on Cartoon Network, in late 2000. The four shows are: “Sea Lab 2021”, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (ATHF), “The Brak Show” and “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” and they usually began airing at about 11:30 at night. For a late 20-something-year-old with a 9-5 job the shows had to be pretty good to get me to watch them.

Fortunately, they were. As an aside all four had awesome opening themes that were distinctively different but awesome in each sense.

Each show was different, but they all shared the same surreal, absurdest type of humor where continuity means nothing (except in certain cases) and absolute destruction of the characters or their homes was usually the punch line and ending to a majority of the episodes (except for Harvey Birdman).

“Sea Lab 2021” was a continuation of the Hanna-Barbera early 1970s eco-friendly and very serious (and quite boring) cartoon “Sea Lab 2020”. In SL2021, a year has past since the crew has been underwater and they have begun to go mad. Usually their madness was started by some ridiculously trivial pursuit by Capt. Hank Murphy and ended in the total destruction of Sea Lab. In the initial episodes, cells and frames from the old cartoon were used and manipulated with new dialogue and story lines. These were a lot more cutting and crude than the benign originals and were a terrific send up of the placid, boring (I mentioned that it was boring before, right?) original.

“The Brak Show” also took a chapter from an old Hanna-Barbera character, the space-cat pirate arch enemy of Space Ghost, Brak. In this program, Brak was reimagined as a typical naïve sitcom son with a wholesome 1950's-style mother (who looked like him) and a miniaturized Spanish father that sounded a lot like Ricky Ricardo and gave terrible advice. Brak was joined by another Space Ghost villain, Zorak, who is a gigantic preying mantis with the personality of a psychopathic Eddie Haskell. Each episode centered around Brak getting involved in various sitcom-esque scrapes and getting out of them by strange and often violent means.

“Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” was probably my favorite show of the four. Like Sea Lab and Brak, the vaults of Hanna-Barbera were mined and there the creators found a fairly lame, late 1960s hero—Birdman—had him retire and transformed him into an over eager defense attorney. Instead of faceless clients, Birdman would defend Hanna-Barbera characters against very adult charges—such as Shaggy and Scooby Doo getting busted for marijuana or Fred Flintstone being the head of an organized crime syndicate. Villains from the original Birdman show would play the opposing prosecuting attorneys and judges. In this series, continuity mattered more than the other three.

“ATHF” is probably the most popular of the four original shows (a movie and two video games were made of the series) and centered around three anamorphic burger stand foods: a shake (Master Shake), a box of french fries (Frylock) and a meat patty (Meatwad) and their next door neighbor, Carl. Master Shake was the antagonist of the program and his obnoxious demeanor was the one that fueled the show's adventures, whether it was cruelly picking on Meatwad or finding another get-rich-quick scheme. Frylock was the conscious of the group, while Carl and Meatwad were the pathetic recipients of Shake's insane plots.

I'm going to look at these shows through one prism, as going through show-by-show-by-show is a bit time consuming. As a whole, the first two seasons of each of these shows are awesome, some of the greatest examples of absurd comedy that you're going to find. It featured a few retro-cool voices that were able to take shots at themselves (the real voice of “Fred” played Fred in the Shaggy and Scooby get busted episode of “Harvey Birdman” and Erik Estrada constantly poked fun at himself as one of the main characters on “Sea Lab”) and there were a lot of comedians who lent their voices to various characters (David Cross in an episode of “ATHF” and Stephen Colbert in “Harvey Birdman”). The shows all stayed really close to their original ideas and while the plots could be considered “out there” there was some tether to a sort of reality.

Another thing that all four of these shows had going for them is the references to pop culture. They all seemed to strike on the askew side. For example, "ATHF" had an episode built around a belt that contained the powers of the forgettable "super group" Foreigner. Hip hop and other "slacker" touchstones, not normally woven into other shows, were prominently featured in the many of these cartoons. It's as if the producers were one of us.

As the seasons went on and stories and plot lines were becoming harder and harder to come by and experimentation was growing, many of these shows began to lose their way. The first show that saw a downgrade in quality was “The Brak Show”. This show was originally centered on Brak and Zorak, his father (simply named Father) was used as comic relief through his non sequiturs of advice but was never the main star. Somewhere between the second and third seasons, the roles shifted and Father became the star and Brak was more of a supporting character. Like Ari Gold in “Entourage”, too much Father became a bad thing and the series limped to a close, hardly resembling the original show.

This also happened with “Sea Lab 2021” when the producers decided to abandon taking the old cells from “Sea Lab 2020” and synching up new dialog. Instead they created new animation that had its pros and cons. The main trade-off was that the characters were able to get into new situations outside of what H-B originally had done, but I'd argue that was made the original seasons so interesting. It was cool to see what the producers could do with such a lame show. Also, Barry Groz, who did the voice for their best character Capt. Murphy passed away during the show's run and was replaced by his real-life son who did a completely different character. This character never really seemed to fit into the crew and the show was cancelled a season later.

As far as “ATHF” goes, there are a lot of things that are great about the show but now in it's eighth season, things are a bit stale. The characters haven't really changed too much, though the situations are a bit more bizarre. I'd say that out of all four shows, this is the one that broke the tether to some sort of reality and strayed the farthest. And really, there's not a lot of reality when you're watching a show about a talking milk shake, but the pop culture jokes that were rampant in the first few episodes became lost as the series wore on.

“Harvey Birdman” didn't lose its way until maybe the last season, but that's because one of it's stars, Steven Colbert, had to leave the show for his own show, “The Colbert Report”. Also, with over 50 episodes, it seemed as if they were running out of characters to spoof. I'd say that this was probably the most entertaining of all four shows and the one that kept the quality up from the beginning of its run to the end. I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

The one thread that seems to run through all of the shows is that in my perception the quality went down hill as they became more accessible to me. Around the second or third seasons of these series, I got a DVR for Christmas. The first shows I set up to record were these four shows, mainly so I didn't have to stay up until 1:00 am on a Monday morning to watch a bunch of cartoons. I was now able to watch them whenever I felt like it.

I guess that some of the shine was taken off when watching these programs in the light of “normal hours”. Also around this time, more and more people were finding out about them and enjoying them. Every person who “finds” a band or television show feels a twinge of sadness when the “mainstream” finds out about them. And eventually the sadness turns to a form of bitterness when “original” fans lecture to the newbies that things aren't the same as they used to be.

The fact is, maybe they are still the same—the viewer is the one that has seen his tastes and life change. By the time I stopped watching the first runs of these shows, I wasn't a slacker bachelor living in a Wakefield apartment with two other guys that I had never met before. I was a married man with a wife and a career. Wondering whether a french fry would fire lazers at a robotic rabbit (called Rab-bot) was getting to be the furthest thing from mind.

That being said, those cartoons are still being recorded on my DVR and every once in awhile, when I'm feeling nostalgic for a time where I didn't have as many responsibilities, I'll watch them. And if it's the first few seasons, you bet that I'm going to laugh my ass off. Because these aren't just shows about space cat pirates or insane members of an underwater laboratory, it's an often overlooked part of life—those strange, confusing years between college and marriage.

EDIT: The last two entries have been about shows that I once liked and now found fault with. I've been thinking about these past two entries and their negativity for a few days now, and it hit me why I'm being so uber-critical. It has to do with a lot about what I referred to in the pervious paragraph.

The reason why I like these shows is because they mean something personal to me, not in the specific “this-episode-was-so-awesome” or these characters are the best,. When I watch an old episode of “Entourage” or “SeaLab 2021” it takes me back to a time when I was just married or I was a person without a clear future. It's a nostalgic trip to the recent past where I get to relive a good part of my life.

Lots of people have this sort of nostalgic, moment in time connection with music and I have it with television. Every show on this list is a mile marker for a point in my life. As I still pass these markers, I can still see the chipped paint or their irregular shapes as I pass by and I feel that I need to point them out. The ones in the past, I forget about their imperfections and gloss over their inadequacies, instead remembering them in an ideal—almost perfect—form.

I'm sure when I revisit this list in a few years, I induct new shows and raise current shows on to a pedestal of perfection. So please take any new criticisms with a grain of salt.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

35. Entourage

When I put this list together about a year ago, “Entourage” was coming off of an uninspiring extended season and I was a little concerned at how the rest of the series would play out. However, I wasn't deterred for a one main reason.

I believe that the show got really popular very quickly, so HBO asked for more episodes to run alongside the last season of “The Sopranos” giving them a solid Sunday night line-up that did very well in the ratings. The way I looked at it, HBO saw that Sunday rotation as the 1986 Boston Red Sox starting rotation: you have one of the all-time greats as your number five starter (Tom Seaver in “The Sopranos” role) and you have a future all-time great as your number one (Roger Clemens as “Entourage”), a torch was going to be passed.

Fans of the old show would watch the new show and vice versa and HBO would keep it's strangle hold on Sunday nights. And to a degree it worked. The one unintended side effect is that the writers for “Entourage” couldn't keep up with the extended season, so there were a couple of clunker episodes and they were starting to believe their own hype. They were throwing everything at the wall and they didn't seem to care because “they're the new hot show”. At the time, I thought that cooler heads would prevail and that it would be no big deal.

But it is a big deal, the show is currently in its eighth episode of the new season and aside from some better scenes and marginally better episodes, this season is maybe a half-grade better than last. Chances are if I was creating this list this year, “Entourage” would have ranked much, much lower.

The question that I look to answer is whether two great early seasons outweigh one crappy and one meh season?

Let me first state that I never got into the whole “Entourage” scene with the first episode. I had heard that Mark Wahlberg was producing a show that was loosely based on his life and experiences when he and his buddies moved from Boston to Hollywood. I thought that it was going to be a vain ego project detailing how great he and his pals are and how every decision he has made is unquestionably the correct one. So I ignored it.

About a year or two later, I was talking to a friend and he was telling me about the show and when I gave him my uneducated opinion of an unwatched show, he told me that the show wasn't like that at all. It was an interesting look at the life of a young star, his washed-up half-brother and their two friends. He pleaded me to watch it because it was well-written, well-acted and there wasn't a lot of heavy lifting. Plus, he said, Jeremy Piven's character (super agent Ari Gold) steals every scene that he's in.

Intrigued, I Netflixed the first season and my wife and I were instantly hooked. We buzzed through the first season in about a week (curse Netflix and their slow deliveries) and we were going so fast through the second season that we weren't waiting for Netflix any more, we were going from Blockbuster to Blockbuster trying to find the discs that we hadn't seen yet. We were like crack heads—actually, that's too much of a boring cliché now. What's the popular drug that kids are doing now—methamphetamine! We were like meth heads looking for the next hillbilly to turn us on.

We cruised through the first half of the third season and were more than pumped for the second half of the third season and fourth season which ran back-to-back. That's when the bad times began.

Here's a hard and fast rule, the more that a show is hyped, the suckier it will be. And “Entourage” stuck to that rule.

The show was becoming trite and predictable and worse yet, there wasn't much of a direction. Yes, the over-arching plot of the season is that Vince (the series' main star and de facto Wahlberg) becomes the number one movie star in the world and bets his entire career on a project (the life and times of Pablo Escobar in a flick called "Medellin") that most studios didn't want to touch. Add to that mix that Vince wants his director, the obnoxiously demented Billy Walsh, to film the piece and you have the ingredients for a new star's abject failure.

And it was.

This wasn't the reason why the show stalled. Having Vince knocked off his pedestal was a stroke of genius and a bit of realism. However, the writers couldn't seem to come up with anything fresh.

Vince's best friend, manager and conscious of the show, Eric is becoming more and more of a Hollywood player and becomes one of the movie's producers after sinking everything he owns into the flick. He and Vince have their squabbles, as do he and Billy. The fights become more and more repetitive as the weeks go by. Billy calls Eric a “suit”, Eric gets his panties in a bunch and says something to Vince about the way Billy treats him and what his negative opinion of the movie. Vince says “If you don't believe in me or the script, you can have your money back”, Eric says he believes in Vince and they make up. Until the next week. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Problem number one: repetition.

In many of his fourth season scenes, Ari isn't interacting too much with the boys any more. This is a big problem because Ari by himself is boring. The best part of Piven's character is when he's losing his mind, yelling and screaming at people and acting like an uber-prick. For some reason, this is very endearing to the watcher (myself included) and Piven won an Emmy for this character. I think that he went to the writers and told them that he doesn't want to be a one-trick pony and to flesh out his character, or maybe they came up with this idea on their own. I don't know, but they did do this.

Instead of an alpha agent dick, we get an alpha agent dick at work and a neutered puss at home. I guess this dichotomy is supposed to add some layers to Ari's personality. It doesn't. It just makes him tough to take seriously. And I'm not blaming the writers one bit for this as Ari Gold is easily the best character on the show and they needed to expand his role. They couldn't go for the always yelling, always obnoxious character at home and at work because that would get annoying after just 10 minutes and for some reason sympathy (we wouldn't have sympathized with a constant screamer, I guess) equals character depth. So they went the other route.

Changing the show's focus is never a good idea, it ruined “Happy Days” when it went from being about Richie and his buddies to Super Fonz. Fonzi was once the coolest guy in Milwaukee, he didn't have a back story because he didn't need one. All of a sudden people were obsessed with Fonzi and wanted to know what made him tick. When the writers pulled back that curtain, they showed that there's an awful lot of stuff you don't want to know about Fonzi. To make up for that vulnerability, at the same time they made him even larger than life.

The writers did the same thing with Ari. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if Ari jumped four buses on a motorcycle out front of Arnold's hamburger stand.

Problem number two: Blowing up the ancillary characters and giving them contrasting depth.

Another thing that was done way too often in this and last season is the establishment of plots that died quick and anonymous deaths. For example, for two episodes, Turtle (a neighborhood friend who acts as a gofer for Vince) spends considerable time buttering up the father of a girl he wants to date. He finally gets the dad's blessing and after another episode gets date. The two have a good time and it seems as if the perpetually loveless Turtle has found his woman. Next week, we hear nothing about her. Nothing is said about this girl for the next three weeks. She's completely dropped from the show without explanation. To use another “Happy Days” analogy, she's the Chuck Cunningham of “Entourage”.

The other member of the group, perpetually clueless Johnny Drama (Vince's half-brother struggling actor) unexpectedly becomes a big television star. His story lines are even more infuriating as there are three or four plot lines that dropped off the face of the earth for him too. Same thing with Ari's assistant Lloyd.

As “The Sopranos” proved, not every plot needs an ending. As in real life, some times things just fade away. I completely understand that, but when you spend a better part of a season building up story lines and don't follow through that's not artistic license, that's giving your viewers blue balls. And after a while, when you do begin new plot lines, fewer people will care because they've been conditioned to believe that it doesn't matter. Who is going to invest time to care about a character when there isn't a pay out?

I've read that the reason for the dropped plot lines and the choppy story telling is due to the fact that there has been a lot of turnover in the writing staff and the producers were bringing in people who didn't understand the characters very well or don't really know the show's history. Whether that's true or not, there should be someone who has been there since day one going over scripts to make sure that everything fits into the Entourage universe.

And it's not just in the plot, there is no consistency in character development. One episode something significant happens and the next episode it's forgotten. The writers bring all of the characters back to square one, and this year Drama even said, “Well I guess everything is the same as its always been ... we're all back to where we started.”

Problem number three: lack of consistency.

With all of these complaints you'd wonder why I'd even watch this show week after week after week. The reason is simple, the show was awesome when it first began. There was a sense of fun and levity, a great way to end the weekend. Not a lot of thinking, just the continuing story of a few lucky friends that are going through life much like every one else—albeit in a very heightened material state of existence. Add in a bit of “I-may-have-been-able-to-do-what-they're-doing-too-if-I-really-worked-at-it-and-took-a-chance” escapism that also came with each episode.

I watch every week to get that feeling back. Yet, aside from a few glimmers here and there, I've never seen it.

The show can be saved. It just can't be done lazily. The show was on the teetering verge of being completely shaken up this year when Ari was going to accept a $10 million dollar a year salary to be a studio head. Yet, he turned it down because he likes Vince too much. Never mind that for 40+ episodes we've been conditioned to believe that Ari was a take-the-money-and-run agent who thought of his wallet first and everything else a distant second. In two seasons filled with questionable character traits, this is the biggest one. It almost seemed as if the writers looked at themselves and thought that they had written themselves into a corner. They didn't, they wrote themselves into a new room, but couldn't find the light switch, so they went back to their old, safe room.

Back to my point, it was on the verge of changing and then the writers reeled it back in to where it began, which is where Drama's line came from. The writers need to stop writing lazy and move things forward. I am no Hollywood insider, but I'd be shocked if a star's life is as stagnant as Vincent Chase's. After the Escobar debacle, the writers tried to have him start from the bottom but they brought him back too quickly.

They also have to understand what they have, the viewers like the characters, don't turn them into caricatures of themselves. Let them grow. Each week that Turtle and Drama find themselves in a sitcom-y situation, cheapens what the show has done. The writers shouldn't be afraid to allow Turtle to find some self worth or for Drama to stop acting liking a jackass.

After awhile the viewer starts questioning why the characters like each other and from there it's only a short jump to the viewer asking himself, “Why am I watching this show?” and turning to Sunday night football.

Tom Seaver would not approve.