The Middle (2009-Present)

The Middle

(TV-PG)

Plot Summary: The daily mishaps of a married woman and her semi-dysfunctional family and their attempts to survive life in general in the city of Orson, Indiana.

Creators: Eileen Heisler, DeAnn Heline

Stars: Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (White Noise) Every once in a while, you’ll get a chuckle out of this show, and there are some insightful commentaries about life in general. However, watching Frankie & Mike Heck schlep through life in their crappy jobs, in their crappy house, and with their ungrateful kids is way too often depressing. After Season 1, I will only be watching further episodes of this show if it happens to come on TV while I’m doing something else. That being said, Heaton and Flynn are charismatic in their roles; Frankie is a much better character than Debra Barone. Also, Atticus Shaffer is an excellent little weirdo.

Marco Polo (2014-Present)

(TV-MA)

(TV-MA)

Plot Summary: In a world replete with greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry, “Marco Polo” is based on the famed explorer’s adventures in Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China.

Stars: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Joan Chen

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Watch it Live)  Martial arts, political maneuvering, military strategy, philosophy, sex, romance, culture clashes, and issues of family, dynasty, and pride…amongst more.  This series has it all.  Wonderfully acted and masterfully directed.  Storytelling at its top level.  This show makes me want to research history to learn how close to the real events this series depicted…but not until after the show is over.  Wouldn’t want to spoil any future episodes for myself!

The Joneses (2009)

(R) 96 mins

(R) 96 mins

Plot Summary: A seemingly perfect family moves into a suburban neighborhood, but when it comes to the truth as to why they’re living there, they don’t exactly come clean with their neighbors.

Director: Derrick Borte

Writers: Randy T. Dinzler (story), Borte

Stars: Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Worth Watching)  A different concept and pretty good acting, even if the plot twists were sometimes predictable.  This film is a clever dramatic social commentary, but even calling it a dark comedy is a stretch.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

(R) 158 mins

(R) 158 mins

Plot Summary: A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Writers: Anderson (screenplay), Upton Sinclair (novel)

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Don’t Bother)  Put quite simply: theatrical blueballs.  The acting was masterful (especially by Day-Lewis and Dano), the cinematography was great, and the score was captivating, but, 2 1/2 hours in, I was still wondering what this movie was about.

Garden State (2004)

(R) 102 mins

(R) 102 mins

Plot Summary: A quietly troubled young man returns home for his mother’s funeral after being estranged from his family for a decade.

Director & Writer: Zach Braff

Stars: Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Must Watch)  This film is about Braff’s character, Large, but it is a reflection of Portman’s character, Sam.  Sam is beautiful, unique, witty, funny, and fun.  She is also quirky, talks a mile a minute, and wears her flaws like a fur coat…Large can’t figure out whether she is openly insecure or incredibly self-confident.  But he is overwhelmed by how…alive she is.  She excites him…and she excites the viewer.  Portman really brought the Girlfriend Experience in this flick, and it really strikes a chord with me, because Sam’s aforementioned characteristics are what attracted me so strongly to my current girlfriend.

As I said, though, this movie is about Large.  He is perpetually numb, floating through life without a defined purpose, and he doesn’t even understand what happiness is.  He is in a profession and in a city that reward superficiality, self-centeredness over community, and wearing a metaphorical war mask to cover one’s vulnerable emotions.  His sudden trip home reminds him that you don’t have to make a ton of money or be in an exotic place to find happiness…the happiest moments come unexpectedly when you’re in great company.  Happiness lies in self acceptance and appreciating the present…making the most of who and where you are, and who you are with, right now.  I believe that most of us have learned or re-learned this lesson the hard way, or have yet to learn the lesson…that’s why I believe that most of you will relate to this film, even if you don’t necessarily relate to Large.

As I also said earlier, this movie is a reflection of Sam.  Like her, it is unique, witty, funny, and fun…you often wish you could step through the TV screen and hang out with some of these strange-but-interesting people, even if you don’t do drugs (and I don’t).  It is also quirky, dark, and deep.  Living in the moment is a constant theme of this film, as it puts a microscope on 4 days that potentially changed a young man’s life.  Taking control of your life is another theme, as it cautions the viewer about how something as seemingly-trivial as a quarter-inch piece of plastic can determine the majority of your life, if you let it.

While the movie is titled “Garden State,” and it is filmed in New Jersey, it doesn’t feature landmarks or many aspects that are uniquely Jersey (according to IMDB, the site of the swimming pool scene was chosen for its view of the Manhattan skyline, but fog on the day of filming obscured the view).  Having grown up in Jersey, I would have liked to have seen the Garden State Parkway or Turnpike featured at least once, but I guess the flick as is makes it more relatable to people from other states.  This movie is not necessarily about coming home to Jersey, it’s about coming home.

Honestly, though, I’ve always said this to people: what makes New Jersey a great place to live is not landmarks, a grand list of things to do, or a good tax situation; instead, it is the people.  For the most part, the people are genuine.  They speak their mind, and although they may have a rough exterior, loyalty is a common trait; they can rag on their friends mercilessly, but don’t you dare rag on their friends or you might find yourself in a fistfight.  I felt that this flick did a good job of representing that.

And the movie’s director seemed to really understand that, as, also according to IMDB, the film was based partly on Braff’s own childhood in New Jersey (he attended Columbia High School in Maplewood), as well as his days as a struggling actor in Los Angeles before the success of Scrubs.  He also hand-picked the songs for the soundtrack.  In effect, Braff kind of bared his soul to the world through this flick, and I think that if you like him or Portman, you should set aside time to watch it at some point.  My respect for Braff has definitely increased after seeing it (and I already liked him as a comedic actor before).

The Descendants (2011)

(R) 115 mins

(R) 115 mins

Plot Summary: A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident.

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne (screenplay), Nat Faxon (screenplay), Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

Serious Jest: animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd)animated beer mug 25% (transparent bkgrd) (Worth Watching)  Movies are a great way to escape your normal life, and travel to different places, situations, times, etc.  This one takes you to Hawaii.  The state is pretty much a character in the film.  You get to witness the day-to-day life of one particular family.  Unfortunately, that family is going through a terrible tragedy, and just trying to get through it, one day at a time.  The scenery and acting are awesome, and the film really inspires deep thought about family bonds, but don’t watch this unless you’re ready for some depressing subject matter and an appropriately-slow pace.

Bob’s Burgers (2011-Present)

(TV-PG)

Plot Summary: Bob’s Burgers centers on the Belcher family (consists of Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene and Louise) who own a hamburger restaurant. Bob’s burgers are really delicious and appear to be better than his rivals’ but when it comes to selling burgers, his kids aren’t really helpful, as more customers head over to Jimmy Pesto’s restaurant. Written by Campbell Talaepa

Creator: Loren Bouchard

Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz and Eugene Mirman

Serious Jest: (Casual Watch)  This animated comedy is witty, and it will leave you with a silly grin on your face, although the ROTFLYAOs are fewer and farther between.  Benjamin is definitely one of my favorite voice actors on TV today, and I’ve liked Kristen Schaal ever since The Flight of the Conchords.  I’m impressed by the writers’ ability to keep thinking of creative names for specialty burgers; the board even changes multiple times every episode!  It’s also interesting to see what establishment goes out of business next door during the opening credits every episode, kind of like the ever-changing couch sequence in The Simpsons‘ opening credits.  Additionally, it’s kind of funny that most of the female parts are played by men.  So far my favorite episode is Burger Boss (Season 2, Ep 4), featuring Aziz Ansari.  Catch this show when it’s on, and you’ll get some laughs out of it.

Splice (2009)

(R) 104 mins

Plot Summary: Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast hope to achieve fame by successfully splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use.

Director: Vincenzo Natali

Writers: Vincenzo Natali (screenplay & story), Antoinette Terry Bryant (screenplay & story), and Doug Taylor (screenplay)

Stars: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley and Delphine Chanéac

Serious Jest: (Must See)  This is not your typical lab-experiment-gone-wrong sci-fi thriller…nor is it exactly a horror film.  Quite fittingly, this movie merges various different themes into a unique, suspenseful examination of scientific morality, corporate meddling, humanity, family, and psychology.  The writers really stretched their imaginations impressively on this one.  Brody and Polley deliver solid performances, but Chaneac steals the show as Dren.  Warning: don’t go in expecting constant action; sometimes it’s a slower burn…but the payoffs are worth it.  I’m not a big science-fiction fan, but I’d call this one a must-see movie because it’s intelligent, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Inventing the Abbotts (1997)

(R) 106 mins

Plot Summary: A light-hearted story of two brothers courting three sisters.

Director: Pat O’Connor

Writers: Sue Miller (story), Ken Hixon (screenplay)

Stars: Liv TylerJennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix

Serious Jest:  (Must See)  This film masterfully illustrates how closely intertwined human lives are within and between families in a community.  I ended up relating to these mid-20th-century white people from a small Midwestern town much more than I expected.  There are some aspects of the human experience that are simply universal.

All kinds of love are examined.  Don’t worry, it’s not all romantic…this is a good date movie, but you will also enjoy this on your own.

I was initially surprised at the casting choices.  I’ve never seen Connelly play the wild, promiscuous role, or Phoenix act like such a shy, awkward geek.  At first, I thought Tyler and Connelly should have switched parts.  I thought the same about Phoenix and  Billy Crudup.  But I guess that’s why these actors are so highly regarded; they all played their roles to the hilt, defying anyone who would typecast them.  I have singled Connelly out before as a great example of an actress who brings The Girlfriend Experience to her films.  This time, she gave us a glimpse of how that sweet, classy girlfriend can transform into a mind-blowing sex goddess behind closed doors…lucky Paul Bettany.

Red Riding Hood (2011)

(PG-13) 99 mins

Synopsis: Set in a medieval village that is haunted by a werewolf, a young girl falls for an orphaned woodcutter, much to her family’s displeasure.

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Writer: David Johnson

Stars: Amanda SeyfriedLukas Haas and Gary Oldman

Serious Jest:  (Don’t Bother)  Forget about the well-known folk story…at most, this movie merely offers scattered homages to it.  That would be just fine, except that the film’s actual story is pretty boring and slooooooow.  There is a scary werewolf (thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t try to overdo it; it doesn’t look ridiculous), and Oldman as a power-drunk, self-righteous, pompous hate-monger (which I would usually enjoy, but his awesomeness is limited by a weak script).  However, this movie is basically about a teenage girl torn between two boys.  The whodunit aspect takes a backseat…but by the end of the movie, you really don’t care who the wolf is anyway…unless you’re a teenage girl…then maybe you love this film.