Saturday, May 18, 2013

See Spock Run: “Star Trek Into Darkness” is Thrilling Escapist Entertainment

Critic Owen Gleiberman said it best, "It's has everything you could want in a Star Trek movie." And that's true because it's actually nothing like a Star Trek movie. Those old movies from way back in the 1980s were slow, cheesy, and underwhelming. This sequel to the hit 2009 reboot/prequel is anything but. It's intense, exciting, thrilling, and most importantly relevant to today. It is in fact, the second movie to come out this summer to have a subplot involving terrorism. It's a sad fact that it's something we have to deal with in today's world, but it makes sense that it's weaved into our escapist entertainment. It makes the movies more relevant and a reflection of the time. As a non-Star Trek fan I'm sure the original films were a reflection of their times, but times they are a-changing. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is an outstandingly fun and awesomely realized action adventure with thrilling set pieces and dazzling visuals. If the first movie was “Star Trek Begins,” this new film is certainly “The Dark Knight” level entertainment.

You don’t have to be a big fan, nor have to of seen the last Star Trek movie to enjoy “Into Darkness” though it certainly doesn’t hurt. You get a great sense of what director JJ Abrams was trying to accomplish with his Star Trek visions. He wants to take you on a super fun and incredibly thrilling adventure. He’s set up younger, dare I say cooler, versions of the trademark Star Trek characters including the charming yet cocky Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the half human-half Vulcan no-nonsense First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), the beautiful communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Russian navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin), chief medical officer Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), and helmsman Sulu (John Cho). It’s a great cast that works immensely well together. The villain this time around is played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing a guy named John Harrison. The plot is set into motion when Harrison perpetrates a bombing in London and eventually attacks a meeting at the Starfleet Command killing several important officers. The USS Enterprise is then deployed to find Harrison, who’s hiding out in Klingon territory, where he’s actually revealed to be a genetically enhanced human with a rather familiar name. Whether hardcore Star Trek fans will like this development I’m not quite sure.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof have crafted a wonderful story around these characters who interact so well with each other. Scotty at first refuses to partake in the mission because he only foresees disaster. And besides, the Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, not a warship. He’s quickly replaced by Chekov, but becomes instrumental later in the film. Abrams, who has publically declared he’s not really that much of a Star Trek fan in the first place, has opted for more frenzied action than the slow-moving drama most are accustomed to in these movies. It actually works much better as he explores the type of fun action and effects that can actually be pulled off with these terrific characters and modern effects. Kirk and Spock ever the best friends who never quite seem to get along, are wonderfully realized by Pine and Quinto. You could give them their own sitcom and it would be completely watchable. And Abrams, who’s always being influenced by the films of Steven Spielberg, even stages some great Spielbergian moments including an instantly memorable “Raiders” style opening sequence and an intense chase sequence in the final act that was something out of “Minority Report.”

The film’s production values are unsurprisingly top notch. The effects are simply astounding. There is simply no room for the cheese factor that marred the original films. The cinematography is beautiful, lens flares and all. The movie which was post-converted into 3D, doesn’t really need the extra dimension, but it doesn’t hinder the experience. However, the bigger the screen the better.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a completely enjoyable experience for anyone who loves big fun action spectacles. You don’t need to be a Star Trek fan to enjoy the ride; in fact, you’re most likely better off not being a Star Trek fan to get the most out of the experience. I simply cannot wait to see what they have in store for the third installment.  GRADE: A-

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

That’s What She Said: My Favorite Episodes of “The Office”

Forgive me one quick detour into television because “The Office” says goodbye this week after nine seasons on the air. Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s regional manager, the perennially buffoonish yet lovable Michael Scott, departed the series back in Season 7, but the show chugged along without him. The show was never quite the same, but it was as good as it could have been without him. As a tribute to one of the last popular NBC sitcoms (RIP Must See TV) here are ten of my personal favorite Office episodes. It’s always hard (that’s what she said) to come up with a list of ten episodes when there are 200 to choose from, but I found a nice mix of great episodes. Not all of them are necessarily considered the “best” episodes but they are ones I could watch over and over again.

10 Scott’s Tots (Season 6)

“I have made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that was the most generous.” – Michael

One of The Office’s most hated episodes is actually one of my favorites. Why? Because it’s the epitome of the show’s awkwardness involving the well-meaning but overwhelmingly horrible acts of stupidity by Michael Scott. It turns out that Michael Scott once promised a bunch of young inner-city children that he would pay for their college education if they successfully graduated from high school – his rationale being that he’d be a very wealthy future businessman. These kids, known as Scott’s Tots, praise Mr. Scott – and even sing him a song – in excruciatingly hilarious ways until he finally reveals that he can’t afford his promise, though he does buy them all laptop batteries. This is also a great showcase for receptionist Erin, first introduced in season five, who quickly became one of the show’s more recently hilarious characters. Also notable: Dwight’s disturbingly accurate impersonations of Kevin, Stanley, and Toby. 

9 The Surplus (Season 5)

“How is it possible that in five years I’ve had two engagement rings, and only one chair?” - Pam

I haven’t been shy about my love for great standalone episodes of The Office. The Surplus is a prime example of a great episode that is classic for many reasons without really broadening the overall story of the series. Accountant Oscar finds the branch has a surplus so he encourages Michael to spend the money so corporate doesn’t trim their budget. But the dilemma comes with deciding what to spend the money on: Oscar insists a new copy machine while Pam insists on replacing all the office chairs. A war between copier supporters and chair supporters soon erupts. Watching Michael attempt to deal with the situation, – including being hilariously wooed and manipulated by both sides – and his ultimate outcome is truly rewarding. A subplot about Angela and Andy scoping out Schrute Farms as a possible wedding location is also great.

8 Women’s Appreciation (Season 3)

“Sometimes the clothes at Gap Kids are just too flashy. So, I'm forced to go to the American Girl store and order clothes for large colonial dolls.” - Angela

Michael Scott is never at his goofy, clueless best when he thinks he’s doing a good thing. Case in point, in “Women’s Appreciation” he’s never been more offensive as a guy trying to relate to women by taking his female employees to the mall after Phyllis is flashed by a guy in the parking lot. Dwight takes over the office by removing all phallic items, requiring women to cover up and making it his mission to find the flasher. A subplot about the male employees discovering the awesomeness of the ladies bathroom is simply hilarious as is Pam’s wanted poster sketch for the flasher that looks suspiciously like Dwight. This is a great episode for highlighting some of Dunder Mifflin’s female characters including a ride in Meredith’s van and the fact that Angela shops for clothes at the American Girl store. And Michael Scott’s flasher impersonation is as hilarious as it is obscene.

7 The Injury (Season 2)

“I want you to rub butter on my foot. Pam please, I have Country Crock.” - Michael

A classic early episode features Michael Scott burning his foot on a George Forman grill – because he likes to set up his grill on his bedroom floor to cook bacon in the morning. Dwight rushes to his aid that morning and accidently rams his car into a metal poll, giving him a concussion – though no one knows it. And here we set up a model Office scenario. Dwight is the real injured person yet Michael Scott makes everything about him and his burnt foot. Michael even forces everyone in the office to a seminar on disabilities - with a guest speaker in a wheelchair. This is a classic Dwight-centric episode that features Rainn Wilson’s true comedic skills, including a hilariously timed “that’s what she said.”

6 Golden Ticket (Season 5)

“I love candy, sweet sugary candy. From the second it touches my tongue to the moment it’s metabolized by my stomach acids. So naturally I liked ‘Willy Wonka.’”- Dwight

The Office was one of the last great shows to feature terrific stand alone episodes. Yes, the show featured overarching plotlines, but the show truly shined with it’s more character driven episodes. In “golden Ticket” Michael Scott takes a note from Willy Wonka and hides five golden tickets inside five boxes of Dunder Mifflin paper. Problem, is all five tickets wind up at the same client – their largest client in fact - which proves to be problem since the company will end up losing money. Michael ends up forcing Dwight to take the rap. But in true great television sitcom fashion things don’t always end up the way you expect. Michael Scott trying to emulate Willy Wonka is hilarious and Michael Scott trying to skirt the wrath of David Wallace and pinning it on Dwight is classic Office stuff.

5 Stress Relief (Season 5)

“I’ve got to make sure that YouTube comes down to tape this.”- Michael

The opening scene of this episode – involving Dwight’s staged fire drill – was extremely zany (but a truly wonderful highlight of hilarious physical comedy). And of course it was, this is the episode that premiered after the Super Bowl. Its gimmicky-ness aside the episode was a great highlight of the season’s wonderful fifth season. Michael’s discovery that he is the cause of his office worker’s stress is a truly wonderful - yet obvious - revelation. The scene involving a CPR training session, which turns into the employees breaking out into “Stayin’ Alive”- is pretty great – though the subplot about Jim, Pam, and Andy watching a pirated movie starring Jessica Alba and Jack Black is completely forgettable. But the real highlight is the roast Michael throws for himself – and his employees really let him have it: for instance, Kelly says she’d rather make out with Kevin and Lord Voldemort than Michael Scott. The show was always at its uncomfortable best when Michael Scott was being humbled.

4 Goodbye, Toby (Season 4)

“Pass metal curvy piece, you will.”- Holly 

The season four finale is probably considered one of the best of the series’ season finales. “Goodbye Toby” said goodbye to HR Rep Toby Flenderson – Michael Scott’s nemesis – and introduced Holly Flax, Michael Scott’s quirky soul mate. Amy Ryan’s Holly instantly became a favorite and continued to be one of the show’s more popular guest stars. This episode has so many great moments: like Dwight hazing Holly by telling her that Kevin is mentally challenged – a prank that even carries over into the following season, Michael Scott seeing a pregnant Jan at the supermarket, and let’s not forget that brilliant final shot of Phyllis catching Dwight and Angela in the act – not long after Angela had accepted Andy’s marriage proposal.

3 Niagara (Season 6)

“I have painted a portrait of the two of them from memory. And I have another one of them in the nude. But that one is for me.”- Michael 

The whole “will they or won’t they” Jim & Pam storyline came to a spectacular head with this epic wedding themed episode about everyone’s favorite Office romancers (besides Angela and Dwight of course) finally walking down the aisle together. But not before some hilarious shenanigans involving Pam’s conservative grandmother, Andy tearing his scrotum, and Dwight hooking up with Pam’s friend Isabel. The wedding scene is terrific including a spoof of that popular wedding dance video circling the Internet at the time. It was the perfect series finale… except that the show went on for three more arguably unnecessary seasons.

2 Fun Run (Season 4)

“It is up to me to get rid of the curse that hit Meredith with my car. I'm not superstitious but I'm a little stitious.”- Michael

The “Fun Run” episode holds a special place in my heart because this was the first Office episode that really got me into the show. I had seen earlier episodes from season one and two that just didn’t do that much for me. There’s something about Michael Scott trying to do something good but doing it completely wrong and misguided that just made this show click. The idea that he would set up a 5k race to cure something like rabies (after running over Meredith with her car) was just a hilarious idea. This episode also finally introduced Jim and Pam as an actual couple, something fans had been waiting to see for almost four years.

1 Dinner Party (Season 4)

“You know, Pam, in Spain they often don’t even start eating until midnight.”- Jan

One of the real highlights of a sitcom like “The Office” was its surreal sense of awkwardness. And the show was never more uncomfortable then during the “Dinner Party” episode which featured Michael Scott throwing a dinner party for Jim & Pam and Andy & Angela, with his fired live-in girlfriend/total train wreck Jan Levenson. Michael and Jan’s rocky relationship literally disintegrates as the evening progresses and their guests watch in horror, and we watch in awkwardness and hilarity. This Emmy-nominated episode for Best Writing is an outstanding example of the show at a complete creative highpoint and most of the episode isn’t even set in the Dunder Mifflin office. I was always a big fan of Jan – Melora Hardin has great comic ability – and watching her seemingly well put together character slowly unravel as the series progressed. She reaches the pinnacle of insanity here and the audience is forever grateful.

Honorable Mentions:

Christmas Party (Season 2) The first of many Christmas-themed episodes is a real present. Michael turns the offices secret Santa celebration into a Yankee swap, which gets uncomfortable since everyone bought gifts for specific people and Michael eventually buys fifteen bottles of vodka to liven things up.

Email Surveillance (Season 2) This hilarious episode revolves around Jim throwing an after work party that Michael’s not invited to. But the company has just installed email surveillance software so he sees Jim’s email invites, so he awkwardly tries to get in on the party.

Murder (Season 6) This is a highlight episode during the plotline about Dunder Mifflin going under and eventually being bought out by office supply company Sabre. In order to distract his employees from possible bad news about the possibility of Dunder Mifflin going bankrupt, Michael sets up a murder mystery game with some wonderfully hilarious results.

Money (Season 4) This wonderful doubled sized episode features two terrifically entertaining plots. One involves Michael having to get a night job at a telemarketing company and Jim and Pam spending a night at Schrute Farms which Dwight has turned into a bed & breakfast.

Michael Scott Paper Company (Season 5) I simply loved Season 5’s Michael Scott Paper Company storyline. A new corporate boss comes in and changes things up which leads Michael Scott to quit and start his own rival paper company – in the same building. It’s really fun to see Michael, Pam, and Ryan squeezed into a tiny office and the ensuing complications. This episode also features the introduction of new receptionist Erin who replaced Pam when she left to work with Michael.

My All Time Favorite Office Moment:


Worst Episode:

The Banker (Season 6)

I hardly hate any episode of The Office, but this episode was bad for one main reason: after waiting six weeks while the show was on winter break, the show returned with a clip show. A banker hired by the new company owner Sabre arrives to fact check the office. Various clips from the past seasons proceed to fill a majority of the episode’s runtime. The clips are hilarious as a “best of The Office” type of episode, but this felt more like DVD bonus material than a real Office episode. There’s nothing really particularly bad about it since the clips are all funny, it’s just insulting and lazy, the true definition of a clip show in the first place.

And now, I leave you with some Creed Thoughts:


“I'm not offended by homosexuality. In the '60s, I made love to many, many women, often outdoors, in the mud and the rain, and it's possible a man slipped in. There would be no way of knowing.”

I sprout mung beans on a damp paper towel in my desk drawer. Very nutritious, but they smell like death.”

“The only difference between me and a homeless man is this job. I will do whatever it takes to survive. Like I did when I was a homeless man.”

“I've been involved in a number of cults both as a leader and a follower. You have more fun as a follower but you make more money as a leader.”

“I'm a pretty normal guy. I do one weird thing. I like to go in the women's room for number 2. I've been caught several times, and I have paid dearly.”

“That’s Andrea the office bitch. You'll get used to her. [shakes hand] Creed.”

“You don't go by Monopoly, man, that game is nuts! Nobody just picks up ‘get out of jail free’ cards. Those things cost thousands!”

“When Pam gets Micheal's new chair, I get Pam's old chair. Then I'll have two chairs. Only one to go.”

“If I can't SCUBA then what's this all been about?? What am I working toward?”

“You ever notice you can only ooze two things? Sexuality and puss. Man I tell ya.”

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Man of Steel: The Rousing “Iron Man 3” Soars to Great New Heights

Great movies are always a product of their time. And Marvel’s “Iron Man 3” is no exception. It’s an odd idea, to be frank, to have a realistic terrorist as your comic book superhero movie’s main villain but that’s what “Iron Man 3” gives us. And what a villain he is. But great movies also have tricks up their sleeves. And so does “Iron Man 3.” Robert Downey Jr.’s fourth time in the flying Iron Man suit (counting last year’s Avengers movie if you’re keeping track) might just be his best yet. If you’re a diehard fan of the comic that may be up for debate, but as someone who’s never even glanced an Iron Man comic I can say I was particularly thrilled with this third installment; it certainly rivals the terrific first film, and is spades better than the somewhat forgettable second film.

There’s a new director in town and his name is Shane Black. His stamp on the third Iron Man film (he takes the helm from actor/director Jon Favreau) is an admittedly noticeable change in tone and feel. And that’s ok. The film begins with Downey’s voiceover as Tony Stark. We get a glimpse into Tony’s pre-Iron Man days and we’re introduced to a nerdy Guy Pearce as a scientist looking for Stark Industry’s financial support. Stark turns the guy down and you can bet that this won’t be the last time Tony has to deal with him. In the present day Tony is dealing with some post-traumatic stress from the events in The Avengers movie. His relationship with his former assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow in arguably her best role ever) has been strained because he spends so much time in his man Iron Man suits. He’s now even calibrated them to fly over to him, in pieces, on command. And it doesn’t help that an evil terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley in, at least, a Golden Globe worthy performance) keeps causing chaos by setting off bombs and baffling the authorities.

The first thing you’ll notice right away in this entry is the admittedly darker tone.  And it’s inevitable that in these darker times we’re living in it’s going to be reflected in the movies. But the screenwriters including Black and Drew Pearce have something so cleverly deceptive and fun up their sleeves I simply cannot spoil it. The twist might likely anger longtime fans but fan boys are very hard to please these days unless the film is directed or written by Joss Whedon. It’s rather difficult with literally superhero film after superhero film (and there seems be one released every other month these days) to have something fresh and new but that’s definitely what we get with Iron Man 3. Even with so many Marvel films released, it just feels so different.

Black, whose claim to fame is the cult crime comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and writing “Lethal Weapon,” stages some truly magnificent action sequences. The attack on Stark’s Malibu mansion is so wonderfully realized it gave me chills. Another sequence involving a midair attack on Air Force One is just as breathtakingly amazing as it is in the film’s trailer. But Black succeeds in the movie’s quieter, character-driven moments including a subplot involving Stark’s relationship with a young boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins) that could have easily become corny or melodramatic, or even completely unnecessary, but grounded the film and gave it a nice touch of humanity and even some touching humor.  The choice to set the film around Christmas seems odd for an early May release but somehow that works too. Stark’s relationship with his pal Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is great too. And Downey was simply born to play this role and he’s never been better.   

The film has everything you could want in a big summer action movie and the best part is it’s not dumb or clunky. While it’s the third in a popular series it remains rather grounded and isn’t afraid to take big chances, some that will in fact make you question whether there could be a part 4 and 5. I couldn’t enjoy Iron Man 3 more; the music, sound, images, actors, and effects are all top notch. The summer movie season now has a lot to live up to.  GRADE: A-