Friday, August 21, 2009

The Simpsons: The Complete Twelfth Season

With so many seasons in the can, it’s become somewhat challenging to recall the highs and lows of any particular season of The Simpsons prior to rewatching the individual episodes. I’ve found that one good way to jog the memory is to check out the guest stars involved, so here’s the lineup featured in Season 12: Drew Barrymore, Edward Norton, Justin Timberlake, Stephen King, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Roger Daltry. OK, so maybe that approach doesn’t always work when the guest stars don’t contribute any truly memorable moments, as is the case here, but at least it’s a starting point.

Season 12 was…well, pretty weak. But hey, it’s still The Simpsons, so even on cruise control it’s still more entertaining than the majority of prime time network TV. The best episode is probably “HOMR” where Homer discovers that he has a crayon lodged in his brain and when it’s removed he becomes a super genius. The worst is too hard to choose, but a particularly uneventful episode is the tennis-themed “Tennis the Menace” with Agassi, Sampras, and the Williams sisters. The annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode features Homer as a ghost, the Simpson kids meeting the three bears and a wicked witch and a tale of when dolphins attack.

It’s great to see Comic Book Guy get some star treatment love as the featured cover character, a trend started with last year’s spotlight on Krusty the Clown for Season 11. Unfortunately, the series packaging also continues another much less desirable trend started with Season 11: the use of cheap and tight cardboard sleeves in an accordion configuration to hold the discs instead of the use of preferred plastic spindles. It may be more ecologically and economically friendly, but the design also makes it nearly impossible to remove or return the discs without scratching them on the cardboard. FOX: stop this inane design choice now!

The DVD set is spread across four discs and contains a robust assortment of bonus features as usual for the series. Each episode has a commentary track with creator Matt Groening along with various producers, directors, writers, and cast. There are also deleted scenes, original sketches, animation featurettes and showcases, and an introduction from Groening welcoming viewers to Season 12. The crew really does a fantastic and thorough job preparing the extra content for these DVD box sets, with only Fox’s poor internal packaging giving it a black eye. The Simpsons: The Complete Twelfth Season is now available on DVD.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Second Skin

I’m an avid gamer, and have been from the earliest days of the video game industry’s nascent home and arcade growth in the ‘70s through to today’s consoles. And yet, I’ve never understood the appeal of MMORPGs or their maniacal players who devote significant amounts of their lives to playing them. Second Skin attempts to lift the veil on these true gaming fanatics, offering a peek into their mindset as well as their attempts to balance their virtual lives with their real ones.

The filmmakers take a balanced approach to the subject matter, neither condemning nor praising the individuals who choose to escape into virtual worlds. They located an interesting mix of featured gamers and spend enough time with each of them during the course of the film to get a good feel for each person’s motivations and struggles. However, there’s an extremely limited scope to the games featured, with only reigning champion World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2 receiving any attention. Those are likely the biggest current online gaming communities, but far from the only ones out there, so the limited scope and in-game footage unfortunately plays out a bit like an unintended commercial for the games.

For most of the featured gamers, their virtual lives are at least as important as their real ones. Most of them spend at least as much time online each day as they do at their jobs, leaving precious little remaining time for sleep, actual human interaction, or any other activities. There’s clearly a health impact associated with this level of gaming, as shown by the generally pasty complexions and portly dimensions of the gamers, and yet their mental health seems fairly solid for all but one. These are not closeted teens living in their mom’s basements, they are intelligent 20-something career individuals who have their own homes of some sort.

The most intriguing gamer is probably the guy who moves from Huntington Beach, CA to Fort Wayne, IN for the sole purpose of living and gaming with three of his other clan members. Oddly, he also seems like the most well-balanced of all of the featured gamers. He somehow meets and falls in love with a girl while in Indiana, and the documentary follows their resulting pregnancy through to the birth of twins. There’s an amusing interview with him and his girl during the pregnancy where he tries to lay down the ground rules seriously stressing that his gaming will still be a top priority after the birth, later followed by her inevitable sniping about his need to rethink those priorities. This level of personal revelation gives the broad film appeal beyond just the gaming cognoscenti, making it easily accessible to any interested viewers.

Second Skin is now available on DVD. It includes a bevy of special features including more footage with the Fort Wayne boys, additional discussion about virtual worlds and avatar creation, production commentary, and SXSW world premiere vlogs.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Super Friends: The Lost Episodes

There were lost Super Friends episodes? The Warner Brothers marketing team has outdone themselves with the intriguing title of this new 2-disc DVD collection. As most children of the ‘70s can recall, the Super Friends were an integral component of ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup for many years. With a roster sporting the cream of the DC Comics crop including the holy trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the cartoon was a stellar platform for exposing the tots (like me) to the entire DC universe.

Back in those simpler non-Wikipedia times, news didn’t really get publicized to the suburbs that there were missing Super Friends episodes that were produced but never aired during the Saturday morning run. We got whatever they decided to show on tv that Saturday (and only Saturday!) and hoped we could remember them because dammit, there was no way we were ever going to be able to see them again when the show finally went off the air. However, as the Friends moved into the ‘80s and weekday afternoon syndication deals, an odd confluence of events led to the production and mothballing of the 24 shorts contained in this DVD set. The shorts were intended to be broadcast during the ’83-’84 Saturday morning lineup, but ABC dropped the show rather than compete with the previous series in weekday syndication. Three of these episodes were aired when Super Friends returned to Saturday morning ABC television the following year, while the rest finally appeared in syndication as part of the Superman/Batman Adventures show a year later. So in effect, none of these episodes were really lost, the majority just never appeared during Saturday morning broadcasts.

In addition to the three core superheroes, the main team as described in the show’s opening credits included Robin, Aquaman, the Wonder Twins and Gleek, and D-list losers Samurai, Apache Chief, Black Vulcan, and El Dorado. Interesting assortment of utility players from a United Nations perspective, not so much for the actual characters. Luckily, the writers felt free to borrow liberally from all corners of the DC universe, so the Morts really weren’t featured very prominently in this collection. Unfortunately, the Legion of Doom is a minor presence as well, appearing in only one short. You may notice the intentionally misleading inclusion of Green Lantern on the front DVD cover (trying to ride the coattails of the new Green Lantern: First Flight direct-to-DVD movie, Warners?), but he was not part of the core team and only pops up twice in minor supporting roles throughout these episodes.

The 24 shorts contained here are around seven minutes each and are grouped into three shorts per episode, so it’s probably more correct to say that the set is eight “half hour” episodes rather than 24 individual episodes. Regardless, it’s a decent helping of Super Friends fun at a fair price.

The writing ranges from pretty great to so bad it’s good. Among the best are the return of the Legion of Doom and a time-travel plot to destroy Superboy by three Kryptonian criminals escaped from the Phantom Zone. The worst? Probably Bizarro’s entrapment of the three stars in a videogame (shades of Tron) where they have to battle asteroids and escape from a Pac Man clone. No, the worst one may be where they battle ridiculous-looking animal baddies with even more comical monikers such as Hippohulk and Superfrog. I think that might be the same one where Superman and Batman get transformed into a giant eagle and bat. Really. But good or bad, the shorts are all fun in their own way and well worth watching.

Super Friends: The Lost Episodes is now available on 2-disc DVD. There are no special features.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man sounds like a bro-medy from the Apatow school of laughs, so it’s somewhat surprising to find that he’s not its creative force. Instead, writer/director John Hamburg holds the reins here, and if that name leaves you scratching your head you’re not alone. Turns out Mr. Hamburg has writing credits on such yuk-fests as Zoolander and the Meet the Parents trilogy (yes, including next year’s Little Fockers), and was the writer/director behind the poorly received Along Came Polly. His comedy stylings give this film a more conservative and sweet approach than might be expected, which works to the film’s benefit.

Paul Rudd stars as a straight-laced yuppie type on the verge of marriage to his girlfriend (played by Rashida Jones). He’s completely happy with his life until his fiancée’s friends point out that he has no male friends, making him seem like an oddball and forcing him to reevaluate his priorities. This leads him to begin a search for male companionship and a potential best man for his wedding, which initially leads into an inevitable gay encounter and other poor matches before he discovers what appears to be a perfect friend candidate played by Jason Segel. Of course this being a movie, things are not entirely as they seem, and the ensuing actions as they try to find common ground lead to most of the film’s biggest laughs.

Surprisingly, Segel’s character is a fairly decent match for Rudd’s, so what could have been an over-the-top exploration of an impossible friendship instead becomes a sweet tale of two characters learning about each other and reaffirming their budding friendship. There’s friction with the fiancée, but even that isn’t played up too much. There’s barely any gross-out humor, the language is far from objectionable, so in short this is a mainstream comedy confection with no sharp edges. Rudd and Segel seem a bit straight-jacketed and subsequently underutilized compared to their typical film roles, so it’s a bit of a letdown for fans of their work looking for their unique talents, but they’re both good sports and completely convincing in their roles.

The DVD and Blu-ray contain a standard but sizeable selection of bonus features that include deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, and a making of featurette. I Love You, Man is available on August 11th, 2009.

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