Archive for December 2009

Peep Show

December 29, 2009

(Part Three of This Series)

The best writing advice I ever got was that you should stay away from all-encompassing adjectives.  Don’t call things “funny” or “interesting” – let the reader decide.  Just tell them what it is.  And I’m terrified to tell you about Peep Show.

The problem is that Peep Show is, in fact, incredibly funny (and realistic, and wonderfully dark), and I love this show so hard that I feel like it’d be better for a millstone to be put around my neck and be thrown into the sea than for me to pitch Peep Show wrong and have someone miss out, so I’ll start by appealing to authority and say that Ricky Gervais has said it’s the only thing on UK TV this decade he got excited about, and that The Guardian blogs every episode like they do The Wire.

Peep Show is the story of Mark and Jeremy, college friends, now in their thirties, who live together in London.  The show gets its name from its POV shooting style, and the fact that we’re privy to their thoughts via voiceover.  So it’s your basic codependent odd couple scenario, but it’s neither claustrophobic nor stale.  Mark and Jez are types to start, but the show is so well written that we quickly get to know them as very specific characters (and Jeremy, in particular, is a terrifically weird guy).  You aren’t stuck in the apartment with them either – there’s also a full workplace comedy at Mark’s job and the characters have their own friends and families and are often out and about in the world.

I particularly love how specific the show is about their ages, and it makes me think of myself generationally in a way that most media hasn’t caught up to.  After the first series, the theme song is Flagpole Sitta, which has fitting lyrics, but also represents the last point in time (mid-90s) when the boys had any idea what they were doing, as per the scene when they went back to their old university and Jeremy was so consumed with envy that by the end of the day he was drunkenly hectoring the kids about how much better it was to be young in 1994.  (Four Weddings had just come out –  Britpop was kicking off – It was brilliant.)

Another strength of Peep Show is that the female characters aren’t just girlfriends (i.e. thinly sketched objects of desire, whose only function is to pleasure or hurt out heroes).  The women on the show are as well drawn (and strange and venial) as the men, and Sophie (who is the female lead and who appears throughout every series) has grown into the most complicated character on the show.

It’s tough to find clips that don’t require context or spoil major moments, but here’s one that gives you a sense of Mark and of what the show looks and sounds like:

(embedding’s disabled so follow the link)

And, to be fair, we’ll let Jeremy give his take on drugs, too:

(same deal, here’s the clip)

Anyway, there’s a mysterious benefactor who has posted every episode of the first five seasons on youtube.   Just search “Peep Show s0x e0x” and there it’ll be in three easy parts.  Each series is just six thirty minute episodes, so if you fall in love like I did you will rip through these in no time.  The pilot’s all well and good, but since all pilots are kind of weak I’d suggest watching the second episode of the first series and making you mind up from there – episode 3 is fine and episode 4 is a total classic.  Watch those three and if you laugh at all, know that it keeps getting better, and that the fourth series (particularly the last two) is the best television I’ve ever seen.

League of Gentlemen

December 20, 2009

(Part Two of This Series)

The League of Gentlemen (1999, 2000, 2002) are Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Jeremy Dyson (who writes but doesn’t perform).  I remember seeing commercials for the first series on Comedy Central a lifetime ago and being completely put off by the title and by how ugly the show looked.  Boy, did I miss out!

The name of the show has nothing to do with the content – that’s just the name of the troupe, and the name is a joke.  British comedy has traditionally been dominated by Oxbridge types (which these guys are not).  They all grew up and were educated in the North of England (which is Hicksville to Londoners) so they call themselves “gentlemen” and perform in tuxedos as a kind of rebuke.

As for the show, the best way I can sell it is to say that it’s the closest you’ll get to new Kids in the Hall until the new Kids in the Hall project (Death Comes to Town, which Dave Foley compares to – you guessed it – League of Gentlemen) hits the internet:

There are, of course, key differences.  For one, there’s a strong element of horror to LoG projects, and for another, while the structure is essentially that of sketch comedy, the characters don’t “recur” in the usual sense (to circle around the same ideas and make similar jokes in different ways) because these aren’t static characters.   LoG uses a sketch comedy format to tell long stories, full of twists and reversals and development of characters and relationships, some of which span the three series and become really quite moving by the end.  It’s not a show to dip into – you really have to watch the entire thing in order (9 hours, total) but the more you get to know the people of Royston Vasey the more rewarding the show becomes, and the payoffs are enormous.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

Of course you won’t take my word for it right away – especially because the first series takes its time to get in gear, and, worst of all, series 1 and 2 have a (dreadful and incongruous) laugh track.  The best way to see if this might be your kind of thing would be to watch the very funny, quite scary, and seasonally appropriate Christmas special – which is an hour long and, along with their three series, available for streaming on Netflix.

BONUS:  This sketch has actually replaced the KiTH poker one as my favorite sketch about cards.  I am so crap at games that this barely registers as parody:

I’m Alan Partridge

December 17, 2009

(Part One of This Series)

Alan Partridge is a character Steve Coogan has written and performed across a variety of media since the early nineties, including a faux variety show which Alan hosted for the BBC.  I’m Alan Partridge (1999, 2002) is a sitcom that takes place after the character has lost his television show (and his wife and kids) and is reduced to working as an overnight DJ on a local radio station and living in a motel.  It’s very funny, ultimately depressing, and essentially the missing link between the (broad performance, laugh track) traditional sitcom and the (single camera, emotionally complicated) style of television comedy that emerged over the last decade.

The character of David Brent owes a lot to Alan Partridge, and the international television juggernaut that is The Office got much of its DNA from this show, right down to the pair of young co-workers who fall in love through their shared interest in egging the fool on and smirking behind his back.

Check it out:

None of that is to take away from the achievement of The Office (UK), which is, I think, a perfect series and overwhelmingly superior to this show – it’s just to acknowledge that it didn’t emerge out of nowhere.

If you love The Office (UK), you’ll probably really like this show.  The first series is here.

Introducing, the UK Comedy Decade Retrospective Introduction!

December 17, 2009

So you long ago watched and loved The Office, but the last decade in British television comedy is so much more than that!  In the coming weeks you will benefit from my comedy nerdery and raging anglophilia as I introduce some amazing, internet-available shows from the land where “seasons” are called “series”, two guys can write a whole show by themselves, and the f-word is a-ok on taxpayer funded primetime.  You’re crazy for this one, guys!

A better best of the aught list..

December 10, 2009

…than I could ever write is slowly wending it’s way towards #1 over at Reverse Shot. They’ve always been my #1 place to go for the most astute film crit on the web and, thus far, are not disappointing with their first 4 films on their list. Check it.

Jeff’s best films of the decade

December 6, 2009

I like lists. Here’s one to reinvigorate the blog!

Now, keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily what I think are the best films of the decade but rather my own subjective opinion of what I liked best and was most impressed by. For example, I think I’m Not There is probably a much better film in most ways that film scholars care about than Sean of the Dead, but fuck it – Sean was much more enjoyable and I liked it better. So there.

And this is a list of 40…the following 35 are in no particular order. Top 5 of the decade are at the end. I’m going to try to keep my explanations to one sentence. Wish me luck.

I Heart Huckabees – Because of Mark Whalberg’s scene outside his house with his wife and daughter and his scene at the dinner table arguing with Richard Jenkins.

Old Joy – Because I’ve never seen a more beautiful and sad film about how hard it is to deal with old friendships once you’ve grown up and grown apart.

Children of Men – Because of how well thought out and plausible it all seems.

The Hurt Locker – Because among all of the overwrought and preachy films about the Iraq War, this one rings the most true without having some serious agenda.

The Wrestler – Because Mickey Rourke’s character is such a fucked up dad but you can’t help but pull for the poor old guy…and, of course, for Mickey Rourke.

Wendy and Lucy – Because as a film about how easy it is to fall into poverty it struck a nerve when it was released in the fall that the US financial markets went boom (and in year when most people saw Marley and Me as the “I love my dog movie,” this one came along and made me cry for reals…a whole lot.)

Waltz with Bashir – Because of the visual gimmick that worked so well for the story and the superb use of pop music throughout.

In Bruges – Because it made me stop hating Collin Farrell and for how he delivers lines lines like “One gay beer for my gay friend and one normal beer for me because…I am normal!”

The Dark Knight – Because of Heath Ledger’s reinvention of the joker…duh!

Burn After Reading – Because I never knew Brad Pitt could be such a fucking riot!

Zodiac – Because I love police procedurals and I don’t think a 2 and 1/2 hour movie has ever seemed so tightly put together.

There Will Be Blood – Because of the first 25 minutes sans dialogue and Daniel Day Lewis chewing the scenery.

No Country for Old Men – Because Javier Bardem made a killer with a prince valliant haircut so bloody terrifying.

Margot at the Wedding – Because I’m a huge sucker for Noah Baumbach films and for Nicole Kidman’s incredibly underrated portrayal of borderline personality disorder mixed with narcissistic personality disorder.

Lake of Fire – Because in a decade when Michael Moore gave documentaries about political hot button issues a bad name, Tony Kaye is able to show the incredible complication involved in the issue of abortion in America from all sides of the issue without judging or pushing an agenda.

Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple – Because of how incredibly chilling and real it was able to make a tragedy that had always seemed so abstract.

Man Push Cart – Because it shows quite well how the American dream is a fucking lie no matter how kind and hard working you are.

The Squid and the Whale – Again, because I love Noah Baumbach and it struck a real chord as someone whose parents split during my childhood and for the crack in Jeff Daniels’ voice when he says “It’s torture Joan. It’s fucking torture.”

Michael Clayton – Because it’s the best corporate crime drama I’ve ever seen and it definitively shows that George Clooney is by far the greatest leading man of the decade.

The Proposition – Because I love dark anti-westerns and for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ amazing soundtrack.

Mutual Appreciation – Because I was a white, middle class 25 year old college graduate hipster living in a major American city when it was released and I feel like it encased a very close approximation of my own cultural milleu in amber for posterity.

The Descent – Because, in spite of it’s rather slow first 1/2 hour, it develops the most incredible tension and somehow keeps it going for the next hour giving the viewer not a moment to catch their breath.

Shaun of the Dead – Because nobody could ever make a horror/romantic comedy work so well.

Mysterious Skin – Because nobody thought Gregg Araki had it in him, it introduced the world (well, the few that saw the movie at least) to the new indie leading man of the next 10 years and dared to examine the complicated emotions that may occasionally be involved in child sexual abuse – something that is usually treated as such a black and white subject.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Because it’s the most creative love story of the decade and Charlie Kaufman is a genius.

Time of the Wolf – Because I love how Michael Hanneke showed what a collapse of 1st world society would most likely look like.

Lost in Translation – Because it’s a beautiful story of a very very complicated type of May-October romance that isn’t at all creepy and has the soundtrack of the decade.

Inglorious Basterds – Because of two scenes: the French farmhouse and the basement bar.

Spirited Away – Because it’s like an animated Disney film without everything that makes Disney so cruddy to people like me.

May – Because it’s by far the funniest dark comedy of the decade.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Because this trilogy is almost perfect and never fails to take my breath away.

28 Days Later – Because I love depictions of the zombie apocalypse and it’s just a thrilling and very well told (and well acted) story.

Tape – Because it demonstrates that sort of small, intense, dialogue driven actor centered films that Soderbergh is still capable of making (and are capable of being made on the cheap due to the evolution of digital video) and because Robert Sean Leonard is an underused film actor these days.

Mulholland Dr. – Because when David Lynch is able to make a well focused and tightly-storied film, keeping his most confusing idiosyncrasies in check, he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Ok…and now for my top 5 of the decade…two of which I guarantee you will never see on anybody else’s top 5 list!

5) The Others – I just love Nicole Kidman. There, I said it. It’s a crime that she hasn’t won an Oscar yet. And this film, a twist on the ghost story that, IMO, puts The Sixth Sense to shame in that category, is just so fucking terrifying at points and gorgeous in it’s tone. It’s use of darkness and it’s ability to demonstrate that it’s atmosphere and the unknown and un-shown that can create the biggest scares thing are second to none. It’s by far my favorite horror film of all time.

4) The Wind that Shakes the Barley – This film really flew under my radar in 2006 for some reason and I was in awe when I finally caught it on DVD. If nothing else, this film is incredible for the power of the scene in which Cillian Murphy’s IRA leader must execute a poor boy who, because of his fear, gave up an IRA safehouse to the British. It’s a film that, like Zodiac, has an unusually long running time but not a moment is wasted.

3) The Believer – This film introduced us to Ryan Gosling – like Jospeh Gordon Levitt, an actor who is destined to be a great leading man of his generation (though Gosling hasn’t gotten as good a role as this one since.) The story of the boy raised in an orthodox Rabinnical school and who later becomes a neo-Nazi, struggling with the fact that his great faith and love for the religion continues but is at great odds with his shame at what he sees is the weakness of the Jews. It’s the complicated story of anti-semitism and is everything that a preachy and ham-fisted film like American History X is not.

2) Synecdoche, New York – “I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.”

1) Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – It’s hard to separate this from the other two films and I’d love to just nominate the trilogy as the best of the decade but that’s not how this list works, so I’ll just choose the best of the three. This is the definition of epic. Everything is put together amazingly. I can watch the 3.5 hour extended edition and want it to last longer. I mean what can you say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It’s way more than the Star Wars of it’s generation. The Lord of the Rings films are nothing more than the greatest Hollywood blockbusters ever made.

Honorable mentions: Casino Royale, Pan’s Labrynth, This is England, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Street Fight, Match Point, Grizzly Man, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Before Sunset, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Ocean’s 11, The Piano Teacher