Steve Carell Tag

Space Force

Space Force

It’s not hard to figure out how this all began. Netflix had an unexpected boon when Millennials didn’t discover The Office until after it had migrated over to the subscription service but then seized on and devoured it as if they’ve just summoned up manna. As all that was playing out, NBC announced it would be bringing The Office back under its wing as part of its new Peacock streaming service, eventually depriving Netflix of what is probably its steadiest flow of viewers.

 

While they would never publicly admit it, Netflix found itself desperate for a new series that looked, walked, and smelled enough like The Office to retain a sizable portion of that show’s audience.

 

Enter Office creator Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell with an itch to do a service comedy—an idea as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristophanes)—and as fresh as today’s headlines. Or at least that’s how they would have presented it at the 

pitch meeting—assuming they even had to do a pitch before Netflix handed them a blank check.

 

To cut right to the chase, Space Force is nothing but a mess, way overinflated in every possible way, the most hackneyed of sitcom premises puffed up with a stupidly large budget and a random mob of a cast. If this had been made for a fraction of the money and with a little less latitude, the constraints might have brought some badly needed discipline to the exercise, yielding something tighter, funnier, and more watchable. Maybe.

 

What we have instead is the Netflix equivalent of It’s a Mad, 

Mad, Mad, Mad World—a too-big-to-fail comedy that puts a gun to your head and tells you to laugh because it’s desperate to justify its existence. There are some laughs, occasionally (I have to admit to falling for the space chimp bit), but far too rarely. Space Force is the sitcom equivalent of spending an evening watching a room full of monkeys perched at typewriters and waiting for one of them to randomly tap out a joke.

 

To go with another animal analogy, it’s a great, big slobbering Labrador of a show, utterly superficial, with no ideas or convictions of its own, desperately trying to please everybody and willing to do anything to get a little attention. If you’ve heard that it’s a spoof or satire, you heard wrong. Space Force doesn’t bite—it licks your face instead. It doesn’t have the creative courage to skewer a damn thing.

 

But enough of the generalities; let’s talk specifics. You get the sense Carell loves The Great Santini and decided, for some reason, to bring it up to date. But it would be hard to name another actor more different from Carell, with his extremely limited acting range, than Robert Duvall. That cognitive dissonance might help explain why he can’t get a bead on his character but constantly shifts between playing a pint-sized general, Michael Scott, and an ambiguous third being who might actually be Carell himself.

 

The cast is big and, almost without exception, unexceptional, the most offensive member being Ben Schwartz as Carell’s media manager. His every moment on screen is the comedy equivalent of waterboarding. Carell’s character fires him in the first episode, which seemed logical and felt definitive, and led to the hope we were rid of him forever. But this is a cliché-laden sitcom after all, so he keeps arbitrarily popping back up throughout the series, like a horror-movie villain or a rodent, even though his shtick is predictable, his actions implausible, and he fails to generate any laughs.

 

The biggest offense—although you can’t really blame the completely bland, inoffensive actress saddled with playing her—is the pilot who starts out as Carell’s whirlybird chauffeur and somehow ends up commanding a lunar mission. She’s not a character or the product of a legitimate creative act but a fashionable amalgam, born of checking off a bunch of boxes meant to suck up to contemporary sensibilities. As far as you can get from three-dimensional, she’s a direct descendant of the personified virtues in a medieval morality play.

 

More specifically, she’s only there to be the token tough-but-caring black girl who rises to a level of great responsibility because she has a massive father complex.

 

If there’s any glimmer of light in this black hole of a series, it’s John Malkovich as the lead scientist. He’s ultimately nothing but a stereotypically affected straw man, Alice to Carell’s Ralph, Felix to his Oscar. It’s only Malkovich’s ability to make something out of nothing that causes his screen time to add up to anything resembling creative redemption.

 

Pardon a little inside baseball, but I watched Space Force straight through when it debuted and planned to publish this review then. But my reaction was so strong, I felt the need to buy some distance before going public with my thoughts. Unfortunately, the weeks that have since elapsed have only reinforced my original impressions.

 

If you’re big on Anointed vs. Underclass fictions that come down firmly for the Anointed, this show is for you. If you find succor in a day-care center view of the world, you’ll probably actually enjoy the image of a military mission jubilantly jumping around the lunar surface like a bunch of infants. I didn’t. Space Force shows how far we’ve devolved since Metropolis, and suggests the Fredersens of the world have irrevocably won.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen

On paper, Welcome to Marwen should have been a hit. Helmed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact, Polar Express), starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, with supporting performances from Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, and Eiza Gonzalez, and featuring some fantastic visual effects, this could have been a call-back to the brilliance of Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.

 

Unfortunately, what we got was an estimated $50-60 million loss for Universal Studios, largely due to a bevy of poor reviews spurred by clumsy and disjointed storytelling that makes it difficult to connect with, learn about, or even care for any of the characters. Also, Zemeckis seems to have gotten too caught up in relying on the effects-laden scenes rather than telling a great story.

 

Marwen is based on the tragic real-life events of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Carell. (The acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol also examined Hogancamp’s life and art.) Back in 2000, Mark was out drinking one night when he casually admitted that he likes to collect and wear women’s shoes to feel closer to their essence. This admission was overheard by a group of five guys (portrayed as white supremacist, neo-Nazis in the film, but actually homophobes in real life) who took him outside and brutally beat him, leaving him for dead.

 

The beating left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days and brain damaged, with absolutely no memories of his life before. Barely able to even write his name following the incident, it also robbed him of his ability to draw. Hogancamp turned to photography instead, where he created the elaborate, fictional World War II-era Belgian city Marwen where he stages dolls in elaborate sets and situations, all to perfect 1/6-scale.

 

The film begins a few years after the beating, where Mark is established in his photography career, and has an upcoming exhibition. Also looming over him is the trial of his attackers, which his lawyer wants him to attend to read a victim’s impact statement to ensure it’s entered into the record so they don’t get off lightly.

 

On the one hand, I understand what I think Zemeckis was going for in his story. Mark can’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, so we’re given only very limited information about him from before. What we do glean is from quick snatches of images flipping through old scrap books, or snippets of conversations overheard from others. Old Mark apparently drank a lot, served in the Navy, and was an illustrator for some comics.

 

Current Mark suffers pretty severe PTSD from the beating. He is shy, awkward, afraid, closed-off, and fairly heavily medicated. We get the sense he could die in his home and no one would notice for days. He also leads a very controlled and structured life, with his only pleasure coming from photographing Marwen and wearing his massive—more than 280-pair—collection of women’s shoes. Carrell does a great job in the role, rising above the uneven storytelling, showing us Hogancamp’s pain and vulnerability, with nary a trace of Michael Scott to be found.

 

To compensate for his sad reality, Mark creates the alter-ego hero, Cap’n Hogie, who is a dame-lovin’, Nazi-killin’, lady-shoe-wearin’, alpha male of Marwen, a town populated entirely by women representing important people in Mark’s life. Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Marwen, as it comes under repeated attack from Nazi SS soldiers, and any women that Hogie gets close to are zapped light years into the future by the Belgian Witch, Deja Thoris (voiced by Kruger), who actually represents Mark’s growing addiction to pain medication.

 

Further complicating our ability to connect with Mark is the fact that the scenes in Marwen-town are so unlike his real-life that they end up feeling disjointed from the rest of the film. These random scenes are filled with action, humor, and life, along with Nazi ambushes and brutal gun fights where Hogie frequently finds himself captured and nearly killed by a band of Nazis that continually comes back to life. The Nazis clearly represent his real-life attackers regularly returning to Marwen to inflict damage and re-enact the trauma of Mark’s beating, where ultimately he is always saved by his women of Marwen. 

 

Whereas the real-life scenes are a bit soft by design, the doll scenes are all fascinating visually and razor detailed. You can see every pebble-grain of texture in Hogie’s bomber jacket, along with the intricate outfits of the women. These scenes are often filmed up close—like Mark’s photographs—so we see every articulated joint and intricate movement from the dolls along with the fine detail Mark puts into his set decoration. It all looks great.

 

Audio here is presented via 5.1 DTS-HD Master, with the all-important dialogue well recorded and intelligible. The battle scenes in Marwen provide some sonic excitement, as does the film’s opening plane crash, with my processor’s Dolby Atmos upmixing doing a nice job of placing flak explosions overhead.

 

Ultimately, Marwen is an interesting but forgettable film, but it’s not a total waste. Its effects scenes look fantastic on the home screen, with a truly unique visual style somewhere between animation and stop motion. And the story was interesting enough to keep me curious and watching to see how it concluded, and to turn to the Internet to find out more about the actual events behind it. Also, due to its dismal box office performance, it currently appears that Marwen’s 4K disc release has been scrubbed, meaning the only way to enjoy it in better-than-cinema quality is to get the 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape, available now for a very reasonable $19.99.

John Sciacca

Welcome to Marwen

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Breeding “The Office”

making The Office

Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.

 

I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.

In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.

 

(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)

 

Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatowwho would rewrite the American-comedy rule bookhis first big break.

 

Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.

 

Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.

Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”

 

Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreakingand at the time unappreciatedseries, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.

 

Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. AbramsFeig probably had the biggest impact.

 

Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.

 

And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.

 

Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.

 

To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.

—Michael Gaughn

making The Office

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Office

It could be argued that nobody needs to sing the praises of The Office. But it depends on what you’re praising it for.

 

Mass perception says that more than a decade of “quality” series has led to a TV renaissance, with a lot of the shows being more sophisticated and satisfying than movies. There’s nothing to that.

 

Almost every “quality” series is a fetid gumbo of convoluted, smartass plots, affected stylistic ticks, and a giggly fascination with perversity and nastiness amplified by a masochistic eagerness to wallow in the muck, handled with all the tact and subtlety of Gilligan’s Island. The only reason these shows seem cinematic is because movie cliches have become so deeply embedded in our DNA that any film-school nerd can ape them, and the culture has become so fundamentally adolescent that the bar for sophistication is so low it barely exists.

 

The Office tends to get lumped in with that renaissance. But as its reputation continues to grow, it becomes even clearer it has practically nothing in common with its “quality” brethren.

 

I’m not saying it was perfect—the Dwight stuff sometimes got so cartoony it threatened to rend the fabric of the series, there was way too much fawning product placement in the early seasons, the attempts to “flesh out” Pam ultimately just made her seem like a bitch, there was an unfortunate predilection for “message” episodes (remember “Gay Witch Hunt” and “Secret Santa”?), the camerawork got so mannered over time it started to telegraph the jokes, and the writers sometimes succumbed to obvious sitcom “wackiness.”

Netflix The Office

And it was obvious to everyone on the planet that the series should have ended with Steve Carell’s departure, and yet they decided to slog on through two and a half more pointless and embarrassing seasons.

 

But when it worked—which it did almost all the time—it was better than just about anything that’s ever been on TV. There was a fundamental generosity to the show it’s virtually impossible to find elsewhere—in its characterizations, ensemble play, vast bounty of jokes and gags, adventurousness, and general tone, which rarely talked down but instead pulled you up to a level where TV’s hardly ever bothered to go.

 

Given how much of this drained away after Carell left, it would be easy to attribute most of the show’s virtues to him. And it would be hard to adequately assess and praise everything he brought to The Office. But it’s more like they’d created an organism that needed every one of its major parts to thrive, and taking Carell out of the equation threw it so far out of whack it eventually wound down and succumbed to entropy.

 

So, to “see” The Office, you need to consider it separate from any so-called renaissance, or even what’s supposed to work on TV, and judge it on its own terms, which were so bold yet, somehow, modest, that it really was exceptionalas in, one of a kind.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS

The Big Short

Netflix The Big Short

The Big Short is episodic, top heavy with stars, blatantly political, shamelessly didactic, feels a lot like an economics lesson, doesn’t have any romance or sex, doesn’t have any violence, doesn’t have any role-model female leads, and is sometimes just plain ineptin other words, it’s everything a big Hollywood film’s not supposed to be. But it worksand it works so well that you wish Adam McKay would swear off Will Ferrell comedies for a while and make more serious, flawed, I’ll-try-anything-as-long-as-it-works films like this one instead.

 

I guess it’s a good thing mainstream audiences will now accept heavily fragmented movies about process. (There’s a steep downside to that that I won’t go into right now.) But there’s nothing radical about The Big Shortit’s basically an old-fashioned men-at-work tale filled with lovable losers that reaffirms some traditional values that probably haven’t had a meaningful presence in American society in over 30 years. But it does get you to consider the country’s financial and moral bankruptcy, how pervasive they are, and how deeply they’re intertwinedsomething well beyond the means of almost any American filmmaker.

 

Ryan Gosling does his Ryan Gosling thing, Christian Bale does his “No, I’m an actorreally” thing, Brad Pitt turns in another solid performance that makes you wish he’d take more chances, and Steve Carell, as usual, steals the show. McKay seems to be good at handling actors, but it’s hard to tell because the action’s so disjointed and, for the most part, superficial, and Carell is the only one who goes anywhere new.

 

It’s almost impossible to put your finger on why this film works. It’s like somebody put on a shaggy dog costume to tell a deeply serious tale, and you can’t ignore it because it won’t stop slobbering all over you. (That’s not a criticism, by the way, but said instead with a kind of awe.)

 

The cinematography is nothing spectacular, varying between undistinguished and standard-issue contemporary pretentious, so streaming doesn’t do it a lot of harm. That doesn’t mean The Big Short isn’t cinematic, but it’s one of those films you could watch on your cellphone and maybe lose only 5% of the impact. Maybe.

 

And that, in this case, is a good thing.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

REVIEWS