Parks & Recreation Is Awesome

parks and recreation castI sure have fallen for Parks and Recreation. This is a show that I went from writing off to enjoying to abandoning to now mainlining on Netflix. Thanks to a bad start that went way too The Office, my wife and I weren’t fans of the first few episodes. Eventually we came back around and watched chunks of various early seasons but fell off thanks to the many time slot changes and other shows popping up we were more into. Now, I can’t think of a better show on television (or that was on TV).

I know a lot of people call this the Golden Age of TV because shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and True Detective are telling these amazing, complex, dark stories, but the shows that I continue to be drawn to all revolve around friendship. I realized not long ago that, instead of watching mean teenagers get bumped off in horror films or henchmen get face-kicked in action films, comedies make me feel better when I’m down. Sure the laughs in Parks & Rec, but I can’t think of a show that’s a better example of what real, honest human relationships should and can be like than this one.

As a work-from-home dad who spends the majority of his time behind a keyboard partially below ground whose friends all have regular jobs in other parts of the state and country (who is also super-shy, but thrives on human interaction), it can be difficult for me being so isolated. I love my wife and kids and my folks moved here not long ago which was an amazing sacrifice on their part, but you start to miss your friends and wonder if you still even have connections to those people when you mostly exist to them as a person on an email chain.

Recently, I had the chance to be a good friend and was helped out by another. A friend-since-high school’s brother passed away a few weeks ago and I drove to Ohio to be there at the wake and the funeral before coming right back home. It was an important thing for me to do because being friends isn’t just hanging out, drinking beer and telling old stories, it’s being there for the hard times as well. Thanks to the support of my wife and parents, I was able to make this happen and I’m glad I did. Another longtime friend and his wife were nice enough to let me stay on their couch the one night I was in town, so the circle kept on going. This past weekend, another set of good friends came up for a visit. I can’t even remember the last time just the four of us hung out. It was a great recharge for my system.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying that friendship has been on my mind a lot lately and Parks & Rec exemplifies how I feel about friendship in all of it’s many forms. First of all you’ve got Amy Poehler’s Leslie who is such an amazing, positive person that she actually makes everyone around her better. Her peers and even superiors see this and do their best to help her in any way they can. They don’t just vote for her when she runs for city counsel, they run her campaign. You really get to see this intense friendship these people have formed in the Season 5 episode “Ben’s Parents” when just about everyone from the office threatens Ben (Adam Scott) harm if he hurts Leslie.

But, it’s not just that. Like I said above, being a friend involves wading into the bad times with them, but also moving way outside of your comfort zone to help them. The loner April (Aubrey Plaza) participates in government not just because Leslie and other characters believe in her, but because she knows they would help her out. Ron, the grizzled anarchist/libertarian often times breaks his rule of staying out of peoples’ business because he knows that no one has a bigger hear than Leslie. Or Tom (Aziz Ansari). Or Andy. And, at the same time, he’s grown a bond with April thanks to their shared interest in not liking most people. We also get to see the real talks that people have when they’re this close. Anne (Rashida Jones) might not have it together as much as Leslie does, but she is often the voice of reason when the overly enthusiastic government employ starts to lose her way.

The romantic relationships are also some of the best around. They’re real and complicated and feel earned even though you don’t necessarily spend entire seasons wondering if the people will get together or not. I worried that Andy (Chris Pratt) and April might be rushing into things too quickly when they got married, but the work so well together, it’s amazing! And how great is it watching Ben and Leslie? Sure there was some of that will-they-won’t-they stuff, but most of it felt real and honest instead of “Uh oh, Ross came back from Europe with a girlfriend just as Rachel realized she loved him!” (I love Friends, but boy did that relationship tumble around like a drunken gymnast.)

Better yet, those relationships have grown and changed over the seasons (I’m towards the beginning of five as I write this). If you saw a first season episode with April being snotty and then a fourth season one of her being nice to Chris (Rob Lowe), you might think the character had been radically altered for some reason, but watching the whole thing shows you all the good things that she’s done that have changed her in various ways. Some people balk at the idea of changing. They think that however they are is the way they are and that’s that, but my parents instilled in me pretty early on that people go through life and a lot of different things can happen that result in changes. Basically, nobody’s perfect, but there are ways to better yourself and P&R shows that without being preachy or even that obvious about it.

All of this might sound like I’m talking about a serious show, but it’s also one of the funniest around. How can you not like Ron? Or cringe-laugh at all of Jerry’s nonsense. Or just love (and pity) Tom at the same time? I laugh so loud at some Andy-related incidents that I worry I might wake the kids up.

And a lot of those laughs come from the show’s own sense of continuity and history. I’ve always been drawn to narratives that give readers or viewers or listeners little easter eggs. The world of Pawnee Indiana is filled with insane sugar companies, wildly literal newcasters, the oddest assortment of residents this side of Twin Peaks and people who adore a tiny horse simply for existing. These more out-there elements get balanced so well with the heart-based ones that you almost don’t notice. The little nods here and there to previous storylines and episodes probably would have gone unnoticed by me were I watching this series when it was on, but I’m catching and appreciating a lot of them this time around.

All in all, I’ve had an amazing time re-watching this show and can’t wait to see how it ends. I’ve seen that the last season isn’t on Netflix Instant yet, so I just added them to my disc queue and will pop them up top when the time comes.

Best Double Feature Ever: Expendables & Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

How weird is it that on April 17th of last year, I wrote a post about how excited I was about Expendables and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and now, lots and lots of months later, I got to see both flicks in the theater on the same day? At least sort of weird.

I actually cleared my work schedule earlier this week so I could go see Expendables at the first showing in my town. It was the 11:20 show at the Destinta and I had an amazing time. The movie, which combines all the best action stars ever (okay, maybe there were a few folks not in the movie, but there’s never been a movie with this many of them) as a team of mercenaries doing jobs. The actual Expendables consist of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Stahtham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren. They’re going up against a drug kingpin (played by David Zayas of Dexter fame!) who’s working with Eric Roberts who has Steve Austin as a body guard. Stallone got the job from Bruce Willis when Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t want the job. Oh and Mickey Rourke used to be an Expendable but he retired. I think that covers everyone.

I’m not going to get into the plot too much because, let’s be honest, who cares? If you haven’t seen the movie what you’re wondering is “Is it a solid action movie or a bunch of old men playing war?” It’s a solid action movie. Period. I had a ridiculous amount of fun sitting in the theater watching the flick. There’s all kinds of cheesy one-liners (to be expected), awesome team-ups and fights I never expected to see (seeing Stallone and Statham pall around is like a dream come true) and, as I hope you were expecting, tons of blood, explosions, punches, bullets, knives and body slams (not in a cheesy “hey look we’ve got wrestlers in the movie!” way, but it a way that makes sense).

Speaking of the fighting, I really like how each guy has his own specialties and sticks to them for the most part. Li’s obviously the martial artist, but Statham’s got moves of his own mixing knife and gun play. Stallone uses an array of weapons, Lundgren uses his caveman bulk and Couture just kicks ass. It’s fantastic. I will say that the fight scenes get a little shaky/jumpy, but I just kind of opened my eyes real wide and absorbed as much as I could. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, but I still want to watch the movie again so I can absorb even more of it.

It’s funny because a few years ago the ToyFare guys and I created a group called The Manly Men of Action which was a generational grouping of action heroes starring Arnold, Dolph, Stallone and Bruce as the 80s team. We also dreamed up groups from the 60s and 70s, skipped the 90s and went on to the 00s which was the whole plot of the first story (check out some rad wallpapers here). So, it’s pretty awesome that Stallone reads ToyFare and turned our idea into a movie, but would it have been so bad to ask us to cameo? Just saying. Oh, also, the movie hints at a long history for this team and previous incarnations and I would be completely down for sequels and prequels and comic book adaptations and an animated series and anything else.

I was actually less excited about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, but that’s only because my love of 80s action movies goes back further and is much deeper than my love of Scott Pilgrim. In fact, I’m not that huge a fan of the series and haven’t even read the last installment yet. I was really more excited to see what director Edgar Wright would do with the source material and how he would bring a comic book aesthetic to film. And he did it using some crazy jump cuts, lots of sound onomatopoeia on screen, lifting elements from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s panels and creating some truly epic fight scenes.

The story, as most of you probably know, is about clueless Canadian loser Scott Pilgrim falling in love with Ramona Flowers and having to defeat her seven evil exes to be with her. Like aside, the fights are numerous as are the video game references (coins fall from defeated enemies, weapons appear from seemingly nowhere and people glow red when they’re close to death). But I wonder if that makes the movie a little too inside baseball for your average viewer. I went with the missus to see the flick and she hasn’t read the books nor did she play Nintendo much as a kid, so a lot of the elements I was laughing at along with my fellow audience members (there were actually more people at the mid day Expendables than the 7:50pm Scott) went right over her head. She said she dug it and I asked her to write a post about it, but we’ll see.

But, you might be saying, “Who cares what the newbies think, if they don’t get it, screw ’em.” Okay, fair enough, I guess. But, from a business standpoint, you’ve got to imagine that people like me were already pretty much guaranteed to see the movie, but people like her (norms as I call ’em) aren’t. If she goes to work and tells her friends she didn’t really get it, then they might not go. What I’m saying is that it might have made a little sense to explain some of the video game elements earlier in the movie so that EVERYONE gets the gag. There’s even a scene where Scott and his then-girlfriend Knives play a Dance Dance Revolution-type fighting game, but if the elements were foreshadowed there, I didn’t notice. I was just watching the crazy game.

Another complaint–though a minor one–I had while watching the movie is that sometimes, the fight scenes seemed a little stagey, like Michael Cera (playing Scott) was responding to the next move in the series of moves before the attack was coming. It’s a minor complaint because, frankly, the fight scenes mostly moved pretty quickly, but I definitely got that vibe a few times which was a bummer.

Speaking of Cera, I really had my reservations about him playing Scott in the movie. Like I said, I’m not a die hard fan of the books, but in them, the character is kind of an infuriatingly dull loveable loser who just doesn’t understand most of what’s going on around him, while Cera’s awkward movie persona didn’t really jive with that. I’m still not 100% sure on it, as the movie sometimes felt wobbly as far as Scott’s characterization, but that’s how things were in the book. You really like him one moment, then he does something stupid and you want to give him a wedgie. Overall, I dug his casting and everyone else, so good on Wright and Company for that.

Two more quick complaint and this one actually goes back to the books. First off, like in the first volume, I think it takes too long for the rules of the world to get established. You go from normal people to crazy superhero/video game fights in the blink of an eye without much of a warning. The other problem is that the books felt like they were running out of steam and rushed towards the last couple volumes (I can’t speak to the 6th volume). I mean, come on, two of the exes are twins? I guess it’s not necesarrily a bad thing that we spend time with the character of Scott before he and Ramona start dating, but some of the exes just feel rushed.

Okay, enough bitching. The effects are awesome as is the music. I think I might actually go out and buy the soundtrack (though as a music geek I’ve got to call bullshit that Scott can afford one of the most expensive basses around–the kind you have to call Musician’s Friend just to get the price off–and Steven gets such a good sound out of an acoustic that doesn’t look to have a pick up anywhere inside it). I LOVE the bass battle.

All in all the movie’s a lot of fun (at least for 20-something dudes) and, from what I can remember, follows the comics pretty well (though I wonder if deviating a little more might have helped make the story more accessible to non geeks). Anyway, if I had to choose one movie between Scott and Expendables to see again this weekend, I would definitely go with Expendables. I walked out of that movie just feeling awesome all over, but I’m really glad I got to see both movies in the theaters on opening day. I haven’t done that for just one movie in quite a while!

Quick Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

I mentioned a week or two back how I had recently enjoyed several Judd Apatow-related DVD commentaries and how I was looking forward to seeing Funny People. We’ve been sitting on the DVD since before Thanksgiving, but didn’t get to it until this weekend. It was definitely worth the wait.

I can’t think of a movie I’ve enjoyed more than Funny People in a while. I went into it knowing about the basic plot details: Adam Sandler plays a big-time comedian who finds out he has a kind of cancer, takes fellow stand-up comedian Seth Rogen under his wing and starts hitting the club circuit again. Sandler tries to make amends with some people, including Leslie Mann, who is the one who got away. He eventually finds out that the experimental treatment he’s been taking has worked and he’s got a second lease on life which sends him out after Mann who is married to Eric Bana and has two kids (Mann’s own kids with Apatow).

I’m a big fan of 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and most of the movies Apatow produced, so it’s probably not a huge shock how much I liked this movie. What I liked most about Funny People wasn’t just the comedic aspect of it (which were hilarious), but also the dramatic side. I’d seen Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and didn’t like the movie, but I’ve always figured he could do something more dramatic and this movie proves it. In fact, everyone in the movie is hilarious. Aside from the main three, you’ve also got Jonah Hill, Jason Schwarzman, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari, RZA, Bana and the Apatow children all tossing out great lines left and right. Sure, it’s long at 146 minutes, but I think it’s worth the time investment.

What’s The Opposite Of Jumping The Shark?

I have no idea, but tonight’s episode of Parks and Recreation has actually been pretty funny. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is still Michael Scott-ish, but the other people in this episode seem to like her more than people generally like Michael (which is, understandably, not much).

Could this be a further sign of the apocalypse? I can’t even put my finger on what’s different, maybe it’s that her co-stars Aziz Ansar, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones, Rashida Jones and Chris Pratt (Bright from Everwood, an over-dramatic, but still kind of addictive teen drama that Em got me watching) got more screen time and showed how funny they can be. I even liked Leslie’s boss played by Nick Offerman, a character I’ve kind of hated since the first episode (he’s a government employee who hates the government).

I still have a problem with the whole idea of a mock reality show in which normal people do anything they want on camera. For instance, while Pratt is in a kid’s pool in his back yard, is neighbor comes in and takes Pratt’s boombox while the camera is on him. The dude seems like a fairly mild mannered fellow, so it rings a little false that he might do something like this on camera. As viewers, we’re not sure how long the crew has been following them or what the deal is. There are plenty of nods and looks towards the camera, but why are the cameras staying at Pratt and Jones’ house? Are they there to document the filling in of the pit? These are all logical story questions I have that I hope will eventually get answered. Actually, if the episodes continue to be this good, I’ll let is slide, like with The Office, which is on right now!!!

Oh, Kevin, you poor sunnovabitch.

Parks and Recreation

So I checked out the new offering from the guys who make The Office tonight and wasn’t too impressed. Even from the commercials for Parks and Recreation during tonight’s first episode of The Office, I noticed that it already looked too much like The O with the whole fake documentary style of shooting and interviewing. But that’s not where the comparisons end as Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope character seems like a female Michael Scott. But, I’ll continue to give PAR a shot, partly because I already watch NBC on Thursdays and partly because the combination of Poehler, Office alum Rashida Jones and Aziz Ansari are enough to keep me coming back for now. Oh, plus, their intern is played by Aubrey Plaza, a name I recognized, but couldn’t place. Well, she’s playing Julie in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim flick! Look for a post on Scott Pilgim coming soon.

Anyone else check it out?