The Muppets

Make way for the return of The Muppets, Disney’s attempt at reviving the wacky Jim Henson puppets that have laid dormant for many years.  The writers know it too as star Jason Segel helped pen this pet-project of his.  His infatuation with the clan is a little more than hinted at in the recent Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The story focuses on Segel’s character’s brother, Walter, a puppet and die-hard fan of the Muppets which were hugely popular in the 1970s.  Now in 2011, the Muppets have disappeared and scattered across the states finding cheap venues to perform in.  When Walter tours the run-down Muppet studio, he discovers the maniacal plot of a wealthy investor (Chris Cooper) to turn the studio into rubble and drill for oil on the property.  Walter seeks out Kermit the Frog to regroup the old band once again and put a show together within a matter of days to save their contract by raising $10 million before they lose all rights to their studio.

Much of the film builds up to the clan reuniting, showcasing a slew of celebrity cameo appearances. Witty zingers bounce off the walls.  Outrageous musical numbers abound—chief among them Chris Cooper’s rapping and the chicken-ized version of Cee Lo Green’s ‘Forget You.’  This is all good fun.

However, I wanted The Muppets to return loud and proud, and despite an admirable effort on the part of everyone involved, I can’t shake a slight feeling of being… underwhelmed. However, I enjoyed the film more often than not. It’s witty and clever in most of the right places. The film simply lead me on the entire time, as though it hinted that something big and amazing was about to happen, but never actually surfaced. Still, this is good fun for what it is and a welcome return for the Muppets.

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Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and GeeksFor all of the movies and TV shows that have tried to capture the high school experience, it’s rare that one truly succeeds.  Most come off as brazenly exaggerated, overly simplistic, or too silly to be taken seriously.  Sure there’s a few gems here and there, but for the most part movies that attempt to encapsulate the high school experience are far from authentic and easily forgettable.  Same goes for high school TV shows: there’s a dizzying array of shows set in the high school years, and only a couple are anything close to relateable.  But like that quiet kid in the back of class, Freaks and Geeks rises above the bottomless chumbucket of modern TV shows with intelligent writing, deep and interesting characters, and plenty of moments that genuinely ring true for anyone who has ever been through those four strange years of pubescent confusion.

The show is more or less about two siblings, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother  Sam, who go to the same high school in suburban Detroit on the cusp of the 1980s.  Lindsay is hyper intelligent but, sick of spending her time with fellow nerd herds like the Mathletes, seeks a new group of friends with whom she can just enjoy herself without judgement.  Her younger brother and his friends are social misfits who know nothing of dating, sports, or even pop culture, but try their hardest to carve out a niche for themselves in the complicated social networks of their school.  A cadre of compelling characters round out the cast: near-dropout Daniel (James Franco) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim (Busy Philips), the pair of slackers Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), would-be comedian Neal (Samm Levine), and hopelessly awkward smartie Bill (Martin Starr).  Throughout the season Lindsay and her friends, the freaks, form relationships, get in trouble, argue, start a band, and try to make it through their junior year of high school.  Similarly, Sam and his friends, all quintessential geeks, experience the ups and downs of their freshman year while bonding over comics, late-night TV shows, and trying to figure out the most complicated aspect of any young man’s life:  girls.

Freaks and Geeks: Bill Haverchuck

Bill Haverchuck, erstwhile geek complete with gigantic specs. Gotta love it.

This brief description could apply to almost any high school show, but what sets Freaks and Geeks apart is the characters and pitch-perfect writing.  No single individual can be pigeonholed, and every one of the teens in the show has multiple facets that display much more than one-dimensional high school cardboard cutouts.  There’s a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You in which we are introduced to each and every single clique at the school:  the jocks, the cheerleaders, the wannabe rednecks, and so on.  Mean Girls similarly divides the student population of North Shore High School into easily-classifiable bite-sized nuggets of social strata, most notably the antagonists of the film, the Plastics.  Freaks and Geeks is far more subtle, and the creators wisely understand that high school, and life in general, is not so easily classifiable. Even though the title of the show seems to create division and distinction, the lives of these students are as complicated and un-classifiable as can be.  To wit: the “freaks” mostly just want to be normal, have friends, and fit in.  Same with the “geeks.”  They just have their own way of doing it.  Lindsay’s struggles with friendships and her relationship with Nick come across as genuine instead of forced, and Sam’s coming-of-age experiences with his friends, the tortuous 50 minutes of daily gym class, and the perpetual pursuit of the hot girl who is just out of reach are as real as anything anyone could have experienced in high school.

Freaks and Geeks: Nick, Lindsay, Daniel

Nick, Lindsay, and Daniel, navigating social perils and locker problems.

But in Freaks and Geeks, as with real life, there are rarely simple answers or happy endings.  When Sam finally goes out with Cindy, the cute cheerleader he’s been longing for, he finds that there is far more to relationships than just physical appearances–a fact the willfully ignorant Neal refuses to believe. Lindsay also realizes through the course of the show that friendships and relationships are much more difficult to maintain than she thought, and struggles to find a balance between her old nerdy friends and her new near-dropout pals. It’s a social melting pot that keeps the focus on characters front and center, fitting in situational jokes and lighthearted moments where there’s room.  But always the characters get front billing, and though nearly all the actors were long past the age of their Michigan-based counterparts, they pull off the role of high school students more convincingly than almost any other show or movie I have seen.

Along for the ride is an outstanding supporting cast, most notably Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker, who play Lindsay and Sam’s parents.  Their depiction of not-quite-clued-in paternal authority is just slightly caricatured, but it’s all in good fun.  Same goes for school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) who, despite being a burnt-out ex-hippie, actually comes through in a pinch and, like most school counselors, really does help the kids out when they need advice or a listening ear. And then there’s the brilliant Tom Wilson who appears in a handful of episodes as the meathead gym teacher Mr. Fredericks who, like most individuals in this show, really does care for the kids and at the end of the day just wants to be a good teacher.  For all the wounds of those high school years laid bare in Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredibly warm center to it all, an acknowledgement that while this time in a young person’s life might be fraught with melodramatic social turmoil, life will go on, people will change, and every little thing is gonna be alright.

Freaks and Geeks: Sam and Neal

Sam and Neal, pondering the mysteries of the universe and striped shirts.

Freaks and Geeks is an immensely entertaining, thoroughly funny show, but there is nary a one-two punchline to be found.  Humor comes naturally from the characters just being themselves, and the few situations in which setups are required or outlandish situations are established, such as when Neil takes the reins as the school’s mascot during a pep rally, come across as forced and a little too over the top.  Life doesn’t have convenient setups and easy punchlines, and neither does Freaks and Geeks, and the charm of the 1980s is on full display, from horrendous interior decorating choices to cringe-inducing everyday fashion, this was also a simpler time before cell phones and facebook updates added layers of confusion to an already complicated time of any young person’s life.  The only major letdown of the show is that it is over all too quickly, a victim of network cancellation and a public audience weaned on schlock like 90210 or Boy Meets World.  But perhaps that’s a good thing.  Freaks and Geeks was a flash in the pan, but it means we never see these kids grow up. And perhaps it really is better to burn out than fade away.


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Rating: 4.8/5 (6 votes cast)

Despicable Me

About a year ago I came across the first teaser trailer for a film called Despicable Me. It was a computer animated film, made by a studio other than Pixar, so that’s always hit or miss. Some non-Pixar films I enjoy – Monsters vs. Aliens – some I could have called the rest of my life complete without having seen – Ice Age 2.

Now I realize that I am not the target audience for the majority of these films. Pixar has spoiled the world by creating films which universally resonate between all age groups. An 80-year old man could walk out of the film Up pining for his departed wife, while an 8-year old boy could walk out quoting his favorite lines from the character Dug. While I’ve yet to find a non-Pixar film which hits me on this kind of emotional level, I have at least found a couple which amuse and entertain.

So when the first teaser for Despicable Me came out, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. To be fair, it was a teaser in the finest sense of the world, giving little to no information about the plot, just a quick flash of some words, some music and a slew of famous names who would be providing voice overs. (Which also tends to be a bad sign. If you have to sell your animated film by the fact that Julie Andrews is playing a bit part… not generally a sign of confidence.) But as subsequent trailers came out, more details became available, and my interest level was at least somewhat stoked.

Then came the infamous “fluffy” trailer which came out this past spring. This is, of course, the trailer where we see the main character, Gru, and his girls at the amusement park. They step up to one of those shoot-down-the-object games in order to win the smallest of the girls a large stuffed unicorn. When the carnival game bests them, Gru uses his own device, destroys the booth, and the little girl is handed her unicorn. She then utters the line which overloaded the cuteness-radar of my fiance, and therefore locked in my plans to see this film – “It’s so FLUFFY!!!”

"Light bulb!"

So about the film. Despicable Me is about the world’s number-one super-villain, a large man with a heavy accent and pointy nose named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell). Gru is a villain in every since of the word, from popping the balloons of children, to cutting in line at Starbucks, and driving a vehicle which emits copious amounts of greenhouse gases, not to mention an army of loyal minions. All is going well until suddenly another contender enters the competition for number-one villain, a character by the name of Vector (voiced by Jason Segel). In an effort to reclaim his title as number-one villain, Gru concocts a plan to steal, what else, the moon. This plan becomes more complicated when three orphan girls come into his life. Now Gru has to balance the demands of being a villain with the new-found responsibilities of being a parent.

The line sure to boost the adoption rate - "It's so FLUFFY!!!"

Ironically, my favorite part of the trailer sums up this film – “It’s so FLUFFY!!!” This film is a lot like cotton candy. It’s filled with fun-colored fluff which is enjoyable, but ultimately the substance is a bit lacking. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this film. I laughed almost throughout the movie, and it did have a pretty solid core to its plot. It just lacked that emotionally gut-wrenching essence that tends to exist in a Pixar film. Whereas Toy Story 3 gave me pause to reflect on my own life and find deeper connections to the characters and story, Despicable Me gave me some time to laugh and forget about the world for an hour and a half of simple entertainment – a valid purpose as well.

I don’t want to downplay that this film does have an emotional and moral plot line. That’s all good. There is something a bit saddening in that probably 75% of the funny moments are captured in the trailer. But that’s the state of our world today. Trailers give away all the funny moments and when you get to the theatre you end up watching the trailer with 10-minutes of filler between each joke. Despicable Me still proves to be entertaining, and adds some good moments on top of those presented in the trailer. Plus, it throws in a few zingers only adults will pick up on, so keep an eye out for those.

Random Untrue Fact: Every minion has a dollar sign tattoo somewhere on his body.

The minions steal a bit of the limelight of the film,  much like the penguins of the film Madagascar. They provide much of the humor which resonates with smaller children, and the part of all adults that wants an excuse to laugh at silly sounds and goofy antics. In a lot of ways they remind me of the Rabbid characters from the “Rayman Raving Rabbids” series. They were a nice addition to the film, and since they’ve already greenlit both a sequel to the film, and a spin-off for the minions. The question will be if they can stand up on their own without something of substance to back them up.

I heartily endorse seeing this film. It won’t tug very hard at your heart strings, but you will be entertained, you will laugh, and you may want to run out and adopt the smallest child that can utter the phrase “It’s so FLUFFY!!!” as soon as the lights come up. Also, stick around through the first part of the credits, especially if you’re seeing it in 3D. The minions come out and play with the 3D effect. We saw it in 2D, so this wasn’t quite as amusing, but I still don’t feel it would have been necessary to spend the extra money to walk out of the theatre with my depth-perception temporarily altered. But that’s just me.

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Rating: 4.4/5 (7 votes cast)