Sunday, November 25, 2007

First Time Ever -- LiveBlog From LONDON~!

Right now, as I type this -- I'm in London!!!

So far I've: 

- Stayed up for like 36 hours so that I could adjust to London time.

- Had a spicy lunch at a place called Nandos

- Waded through throngs of people from all over the world at Portabello Market

- Cheked out Picasso, Rothko, Lichtenstien, etc. at the Tate Modern and walked over the Millenium Bridge on the River Thames

- Ate dinner at Zizzi's

- Had some traditional English breakfast here at the K+K George

- Shocked and amused my parents by taking them to the punk-rock capitol of the world, Camden Town, and showing them the home of Twenty Twenty Television, where I interned during my semester abroad.

- Made many jokes with my brother about such London Underground stops as Cockfosters and Goodge Street, and such pubs as Ye Old Cock.

- Revisited my old favorite lunch spot, the park and fountain at Russell Square.

- Saw the Rosetta Stone and other famous treasures whilst exploring the British Museum

- Ate lunch at Garfunkel's near the Gloucester Road tube stop.

- Explored Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. Saw swans in the pond, British kids playing football / soccer, repeatedly tried my hand at various British accents and dialects. 

 - Roamed the halls of Harrod's. This time, no alarms went off when I entered (thank G0d). Ate some Gelato, drolled in the electronics section.

- Had dinner at Pizza by the Park, where I had some tasty food.

Alright, I'm exhausted and have to get up early tommorow for a tour of Windsor Castle, Bath, and Stonehenge. Cheers!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

THANKSGIVING '07: Fully Stuffed from Bloomfield - BEOWULF & SOUTHLAND TALES: Reviewed! - VAN HALEN: Concert Thoughts! - and LONDON calling!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I'm writing this from a cozy room here in Bloomfield, CT, where I am preparing to jet off tommorow for LONDON. Yep, it's going to be an adventure. But more on that in a bit.

So first of all, yikes, what a flight I had yesterday from Burbank to Hartford. It was actually pretty smooth sailing for most of the way - I made it to the airport on time (barely), but was good to go on the first leg of my trip, as I got on the Southwest plane at Burbank airport and quickly touched down in Las Vegas, where I grabbed a quick bite to eat and prepared for Part 2 of my journey. Despite it being a busy time of the year in terms of travel, Sin City seemed eerily vacant - I guess Vegas isn't the most popular spot for Thanksgiving dinner? But it was all good, because my flight to Hartford was not full in the least, and everyone had an aisle all to themselves if they so chose, so there was plenty of room to stretch out, relax, and continue to plug away at Stephen King's THE STAND, which I've now officially been reading forever. But yeah, like I said, smooth sailing. That is, until we hit Bradley Airport at around 12 am EST. A heavy fog was obscuring the New England night sky, and therefore, our aircraft was forced to fly in a holding pattern before ultimately being diverted to ... Baltimore, Maryland. Ugh .. So we go to Baltimore, land, refuel, and then head back to whence we came, tired, exhausted, and desperately calling relatives to let them know they'd have to come pick us up at 2:30 am on a dark and foggy night. Suffice to say, I was exhausted by the time I got home, and now I am headed for yet another long flight in only a few short hours ... Good times.

But, we had a nice Thanksgiving meal today at my Uncle Michael's in Longmeadow, MA at which much of the Baram / Wagner clan was gathered for hearty celebration. And yes, the stuffing was well-stuffed.

Anyways, I definitely have to speak for a moment about Tuesday night, in which myself, the G-Man, and L2 hit up yet another epic concert event for some pre-Thanksgiving rockin'. The venue of choice this time around was The Staples Center in downtown LA, and the band was none other than the guitar gods themselves - VAN HALEN.

- I didn't know quite what to expect going in to the show. While VH never earned the same place in my personal rock n' roll cannon as the likes of an Aerosmith or Tom Petty, I've been a fan since I was a kid and first heard "Jump." Back when MTV played videos, I would always pause and watch if I saw Hot For Teacher come on, and then later on I really got into the more guitar-heavy classics like Panama and Ain't Talkin' About Love. Ask me whether I prefer David Lee Roth's stuff or Sammy Hagar's - well, I'd definitely go with Diamond Dave, though I am partial to some choice Van Hagar cuts like Why Can't This Be Love, Poundstone, and Humans Being. Still, if I could only choose one lineup to see live, it'd be original VH all the way, and that's exactly (well, pretty much) what I got on Tuesday. Dave was as cheesy and over the top as ever, the songs sounded good, and it was a really fun show.

Really though, the greatest pleasure of the concert by far was seeing THE guitar hero, Eddie Van Halen, live and cranked to 11. I know the guy's had a number of issues of late, so it was freaking awesome to see him on stage and shredding his axe like a man possessed. I mean, I've been priveleged to see a number of the all-time great rock guitarists in concert - from Joe Perry to Flea - but there's only one Eddie Van Halen, and the things that the man can do with an electric guitar can only be described as sheer magic, baby. I don't claim to be any kind of expert on guitar-playing, but I stood there along with everyone else in the crowd in pure awe of Eddie as he tore up solos left and right, moving his fingers around the strings in ways that only a true master of his art can do.

It's funny to me though how the guy who is a true legend of rock, whose last name is the name of the band, for god's sake, has long been stuck in a group with larger than life singers who tend to overshadow the brothers Van Halen. I mean, someone more knowledgable than I would have to adress this, but it strikes me as odd that Van Halen songs have never been all that guitar-heavy for the most part. I mean, one of the band's most famous songs, Jump, is more well known for its synthesizer chorus than its guitar solos. My point is just that, with a guy like Eddie Van Halen in the band, you almost wish that there were more songs in the repertoire that showcased his ability, and didn't seem like mere extensions of Diamond Dave's traveling vaudville act.

Not to say that the songs are bad. On Tuesday, VH breezed through an all-hits lineup that was great for longtime and casual fans alike. Joined by Wolfgang Van Halen (yes, WOLFGANG - how awesome is that?), Son of Eddie (who looked like he might be more at home in Good Charlotte, but did a nice job on bass), the band churned out one VH staple after another. Unfortunately, a late day at work and typically terrible LA traffic caused me to miss the first song or three, but I made it for most of my faves (though I missed Running With the Devil, dammit ...). We got Beautiful Girls, Jamie's Cryin', Hot For Teacher ... with Dave high-kicking and prancing around like he'd just been shot up with adrenaline before the show (and who knows, maybe he was). This was definitely an energetic and lively David Lee Roth though, which was great to see. I love Dave's classic little asides in his songs - so cheesy but so awesome. In Hot For Teacher there's a ton of 'em ("I brought my pencil!"), but my fav is definitely in Unchained, where Wolfgang got to deliver the setup line ("Aw c'mon, gimme a break, Dave.") to which we get "One break - coming up!"). Gotta love it.

But despite DLR being on his game (even if he tended to ramble a bit at times, and perhaps delivered one spinning roundhouse kick too many?), the highlight for me, as mentioned, was the stuff that showcased Alex and most especially Eddie. Panama - still one of the catchiest rock songs ever and perhaps the one VH song that perfectly blends Eddie's licks at their most awesome with Dave's vocals at their cheesy best ("Ease the seat back ..."). Suffice to say, it rocked to hear Panama, one of my all-time faves, live. Same goes for Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, which benefited from an epic build-up in the form of a long and oh-so-suh-weet Eddie guitar clinic that culminated in Eruption and led right into the song.

The crowd at Staples was on fire all night, and on their feet for everything, giving huge ovations to Eddie and Alex especially. I think people were just happy to see such a classic band back and looking so good. Sure, the guys are a little worse for wear, but they still put on a clinic about how to rock and how to work a crowd. Extremely glad I got to see Van Halen live and in concert - it's not often that you witness a legend of rock performing at the peak of his powers. Once again, Van Halen had 'em dancing in the streets.

- Okay, time for some movie reviews. I've actually been chomping at the bit to write these up, but it's been a crazy week as I tried to wrap things up at work, took in Van Halen, and prepared for my upcoming voyage to the UK. But last weekend, I took in two much-anticipated flicks, both of which I now find myself deeply torn in terms of what, exactly, I think of them. Read on, and I shall explain all ...


- Like it or not, Beowulf might just be the future of cinema as we know it. Because regardless of what you think of the film in and of itself, the fact is that the technology behind the movie is unquestionably game-changing. I saw this one over at Universal Citywalk in IMAX 3-D, and the experience as a whole was pretty mind-blowing. And from the sound of things, it seems like all across the country, the word is spreading that you've gotta see this one in 3D, and people are coming out of the thing raving about what they've seen - and rightfully so. Beowulf is one of the coolest mass-market film technology showcases ever made. Forget those old blue and red glasses. Forget gimmicky 3-D in which a baseball will fly towards your head or a snake will jump out at you. Beowulf, the WHOLE movie, is in three dimensions, with an X, Y, and Z axis. Sure, there are moments that have that reach out and touch me effect, but the larger implication is a movie in which the world is all-encompassing - it really is quite something to behold. Now, the other technology at work here is the CGI motion-capture, the same stuff used in Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express, but here refined to photo-realistic levels of detail and movement.

Now, here is where some of the criticism out there for this movie tends to annoy me. Yes, the movie is supposed to look REALISTIC, and it does, moreso than any other "animated" movie to date. But is it supossed to look REAL? I think not - despite all of its painstakingly motion-aptured animation, Beowulf is more a comic book brought to life than an attempt to mimic reality. Despite the realism, there is still a stylization going on here, and to me, it 100% works, and I don't get complains about the eyes looking strange or particular shots where movement seemed jerky. Yes, some of this stuff is a result of a technology still in its infancy that is going through growing pains. But for what it is, this is a beautifully-crafted film, with some of the most amazing visuals ever seen on a screen. It's just that amazing from a visual standpoint.

Now, will it hold up on DVD, or even Blu-Ray or whatever? That remains to be seen, but I think the answer is clearly "no." Beowulf is as much theme-park roller-coaster ride as anything, and a large, maybe HUGE part of why it works as a film is the unique and stunning visual novelty of it all, a novelty which can only be appreciated in a theater with a giant screen and 3-D glasses.

So that begs the question - if you were to strip away all of the movie's visual oomph, are you still left with a great film? That's where things get a bit more complicated. I think that Beowulf deserves credit for having a smart script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, but it's also a bit of a messy script. On one hand, we get a lot of vintage Gaiman flourishes - some surprisingly complex religious discussion, some really fun off-color humor, and a hero who is refreshingly painted in shades of grey. It really is amazing how much was packed into this script for what is essentially an action movie and technology showcase. And also, I really do think that the movie is funny - and there are a lot of great, over the top, even satirical moments here that are MEANT to be laughed at, and are quite funny when recognized. From racy double entrendres to Beowulf's bloated ego, there is some really fun stuff going on. Where a lot of the movie comes apart though is simply a lack of compelling characters. Angelina Jolie's CGI'd seductress is as visually stunning as promised - but what is her character's deal, exactly? Gaiman and Avery spend a lot of time on Beowulf's soap-opera-ish relationship with his queen, but it comes at the expense of compelling villains or plot. The idea that the monster Grendel is in fact the product of an ageless demon who lures unwitting warriors into her lair, mates with them, then sics their demonic spawn to raise some hell - well, it's an interesting twist on the Beowulf legend, but it's never explored here in a very compelling way. The final action scene, for example, is stunningly choreographed, but there's never any real impact on our EMOTIONS, no moment of "holy crap, Beowulf is being forced to fight and kill his own half-demon son!" Instead, we just get caught up in the fact that there's a kickass, giant dragon coming at us in glorious IMAX 3D, but the lasting effect is a bit hollow and empty. There's little of the great character or emotion or real sense of epic drama of, say, a Lord of the Rings. Even compared to this year's 300, I'd say Beowulf falls a bit short in terms of storytelling. While 300 knew exactly what it was - a balls to the wall action movie - and delivered exactly what is was supposed to, Beowulf teases us with some deeper themes and a real sense of literary intelligence that is classic Gaiman - but it never follows through on that initial promise. You can tell that there were likely some behind-the-scenes shennigans here, as Beowulf feels like a cut-up version of a better movie, perhaps the one that originally existed on Gaiman and Avery's page. Whatever the case, there is a lot of fun to be had with the movie, but without giving us a lot to chew on, I question whether or not this one will eventually be regarded in the same breath as other grade-A fantasy-action flicks.

Overall though, Beowulf is simply a must-see. As a movie-going experience, its spectacular visuals raise the bar for what is to come, and I couldn't help but wonder at what other movies might look like in the future if they were to use this same technology. I mean, the possibilities are limitless - imagine an adaptation of Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga, rendered in Kirby's trademark art style, in stunning 3D. Or a new Star Wars with mo-capped Harrison Ford reprising his role as Han Solo. What about a whacked-out 60's style James Bond with Sean Connery de-aged and CGI'd. Things are about to get very, very interesting, folks. I mean look at what they did with Ray Winstone here - took a kinda tubby guy, but a great actor, and made him into a six-packed hero of legend. Winstone is part of a great cast that includes the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, and Crispin Glover - but frankly, all are outshined by the technology at work here, though certainly having such a pedigreed cast lends the necessary class and gravitas to the production. So yes, Beowulf is a must-see, and a fascinating movie from Robert Zemeckis and co. It may not hold up as well over time - I mean, this may very well be the Pong of motion-captured movies - but for now, it's a pretty good movie, (though a very good action movie), benefitting from the best whiz-bang tech in the biz.

My Grade: B+


- I feel like I've been waiting for this one to come out for years. Oh wait, I HAVE, actually, been waiting for it to come out for years. This is, afterall, the long, loooong-awaited second directorial effort from Richard Kelly, who wowed many people back in 2001 with DONNIE DARKO, the little flick that became a cult sensation and the favorite movie of goth kids everywhere.For my part, I distinctly remember watching the trailer for Donnie Darko on the 'net in 2001, and calling over my roommates to come take a look. I had no idea what the movie was actually ABOUT, but damn, it looked cool as hell. I never did get to see it in the theaters when it first came out, but I eagerly waited for the DVD and watched it as soon as I could get my hads on it. I remember watching it one late night with Chris A in my dorm at BU, and both of us IMMEDIATELY wanted to watch it again, to see if we could figure out what it all meant. Sure, the movie has been criticized by some for being a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing - but that's part of the fun. To me, Darko does a brilliant job of creating this dark, mysterious vibe that just totally compels you to obsess over it. Maybe I just saw it at the right age, or maybe the movie's 80's nostalgia thing just appealed to all the right sensibilities, but I still love Donnie Darko and it's one of those movies I'll happily watch again and again. I even saw the VERY limited director's cut theatrical release while in NYC in 2004 (with fellow Darko fan Erica C.).

So what I'm getting at is - I was dyin' to see Southland Tales, and curious as hell to see what else Richard Kelly could conjure up for us. Well, the man's been relatively quiet since Darko - he penned Domino (underrated, IMO) for Tony Scott - but, that's about it. So the man has obviously been saving up a lot of ideas and creative energy, and I get that. I suspect that me and Mr. Kelly may even have simialr artistic impulses - we like to do things big, messy, epic in scope. And I respect that. But while Donnie Darko was a clinic in controlled chaos - with just the right amount of logic to make the ambiguity work - Southland Tales is something else entirely.

The fact is, as much as I wanted to like or even love this movie, I have to say it: Southland Tales is one of the biggest cluster#$%&s of a film ever produced.

That's not to say that it's a movie with no redeeming value. In fact, the opposite is true - Southland is a film littered with flashes of brilliance. Certain moments, scenes, lines of dialogue, prove that Kelly is really a pretty brilliant guy, with a real knack for dark satire in particular, and an ability to shoot one hell of a visually-stunning sequence. There's a satirical TV car commercial in the midst of the movie, for example, that is a slice of sheer, mad genius.But holy hell, these moments live in a film that is simply a mess - a sometimes glorious, awe-inspiring mess, but a giant mess nonetheless.

Essentially, Southland is a satirical sci-fi film about an Americathat has, in 2008, fallen into World War III. In response, the government has moved ever closer to becoming a totalitarian regime, taking control of the internet and becoming ever more experimental in devloping strange technoligies that could help to supress the enemy. Meanwhile, an underground neo-Marxist movement has sprung up to revolt against the government, and included in its ranks are a number of celebrities / weekend warriors. Meanwhile, the public is less interested that the world around the mis going to hell, and mostly transfixed on an increasingly garish pop-cultural landscape, where porn stars host daytime talk shows and fight for the cause of "teen horniness,"and people check the news not for politics, but for news of Jericho Kane - an action movie star with political ties who's gone missing in the California desert.

Like I said - this movie deserves all the credit in the world for creating a wholly original vision of the future (or the present day that could be). For its first few minutes, as Justin Timberlake's narration lays out this world and how it came to be, well - it's pretty fascinating. Wait, you say - Justin Timberlake? Yep, there's a red flag right there. Because wow, Southland Tales has perhaps the strangest cast EVER assembeled for a feature film ...

I mean, I have to think that Richard Kelly was trying to make SOME kind of meta-textual statement with his oddball casting choices here. Maybe he's trying to say that comedians are our society's true revolutionaries, or he's trying to equate Saturday Night Live with modern social revolution ... How else to explain the abundance of random SNL ex-cast members who pop up in Southland, many of them in roles that contain some dark humor but are often quite serious. I mean, Jon Lovitz, JON LOVITZ, as a silver-haired badass cop with a homicidal streak? Three letters - W.T.F. Sure, the odd casting gives some under-used talents like Cheri O'Terri a chance to shine, but still, it's just WEIRD seeing a woman best known for imitating Barbara Walters cast as a bad-girl post-punk neo-Marxist ass-kicker on roller skates. Yep, pretty weird. Same can be said for Amy Poehler as a neo-Marxist lackey, John Larquette as the scheming vice-president, the dad from Donnie Darko as the bumbling Commander in Chief, Kevin Smith as a grey-haired old dude, the badguy from the Princess Bride as an over-sexed government-employed mad-scientist, Bai Ling as a random femme fatale, Mandy Moore as the President's snotty daughter, or director Eli Roth in a random cameo where we see him killed while on the can. Yes, this movie is one giant WTF moment nearly from start to finish.

The casting is no less strange with the leads. Sean William Scott, aka Stiffler, in a 95% non-comedic role, playing two twins who switch places and may hold the key to saving and / or destroying the universe. Scott actually does a pretty good job here, I mean the guy's surely got charisma - but again, was he really the best man for this role? I give Scott credit though, this is the most serious and challenging stuff I've ever seen him do, by a longshot.

Much more at home is Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn-star / celeb / talk-show host / neo-Marxist freedom fighter. Gellar's character provides some of the movie's most inspired satire, and she does a great job with the role.

Justin Timberlake has proven himself a pretty competent actor this year, with a great turn in Black Snake Moan among other things. He's good here as well, but his character is one of the film's most random in a movie filled with utterly random characters (it features ominous old-lady midgets from the future, for crying out loud). Timberlake serves as our narrator, but his narration often kills the movie's momentum, filled with tedious and usually irrelevant passages from the Book of Revelations and serving only to make things even more confusing than they have to be. However, JT takes center stage in a totally bizarre yet awesome sequence, in which he and a troupe of drugged-out dancers sing along to The Killer's (that "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" song). That scene to me completely exemplifies how Southland Tales is capable of these trippy, amazingly-filmed, far-out little moments, but is often unable to combine them into anything resebling a coherant film ...

But back to the cast for a second, the real star of this movie is most certainly The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. The Rock's larger than life persona translates perfectly into this movie, and his penchant for delivering lines with comic-bookish flair is a huge asset, since The Rock is given some very memorable lines to utter (an instant classic: "I'm a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide!"). I really enjoyed The Rock here, and one thing I'm definitely taking away from this film is that I want to see Rocky tackle more crazy sci-fi and action movies that really allow his funny and charismatic personality to shine. Belive it or don't - but The Rock delivers, by far, his best acting performance to date in Southland Tales.

Like I was saying though, Southland Tales has all of these characters, storylines, and themes running through it - and they're simply too much for the film to contain. By the movie's halfway mark, we've already flashed from The Rock to Cheri O'Terri to Justin Timberlake to that Princess Bride guy and back again so many times that it simply becomes too much to process, and the film's ability to tell its story simply breaks down. While Donnie Darko had one foot in the real world, and one compelling central character, Southland Tales has no anchor to keep it in any way grounded, no real footholds for the audience to grab on to. You WILL become lost while watching this movie, and it's so overstuffed and all-over-the-place that I don't know if anything less that an encyclopedia could ever hope to explain its mysteries.

Still, there is a certain sense of glee that comes when, towards the latter part of the movie, The Rock starts opining about a rift in the fourth dimension. It's the type of matter-of-fact absurdity that makes other famous sci-fi cluster#$%#s like BUCKAROO BANZAI so amusingly memorable. One one hand you wonder what the hell is actually going on. On the other, you just want to hear The Rock as Jericho Kane talk some more about the space/time continuum collapsing in on itself. If that kind of stuff makes you giddy as it does me, then it's worth navigating through Southland Tale's impeneterable fortress of a plot just to take in all of the craziness.

In the end, this one has to be looked at as something of a disappointment for Richard Kelly fans. For all of its potential, the movie simply doesn't come together, doesn't work as a 2 1/2 hour film. Like I said, it's a total mess in many ways, and because of that, it's hard to really call it a "good" movie and easy to call it a bad one. But man, part of me wants to make sure that the parts of this film that ARE genius get their due. Because there is a real spark of brilliance here, an awesome jolt of originality, vision, and humor. You want to reward that, you want to praise it, and you wish that more movies would be made that had half of the creative spark present in Southland Tales. That's why it's such a shame, in a way, that this didn't come together like it should have, that Richard Kelly couldn't find a way to streamline his ideas and share his vision in a way that didn't come off like a feverish acid trip that sounds great to the one describing it but doesn't translate to the listener in its telling. This movie deserves to be seen, but also deserves its share of criticism. But to Kelly's credit, despite this mess of a movie, I'm even more curious than ever to see what he comes up with next.

My Grade: B -

- Alright folks - it's late, I'm tired, and tommorow I'm off to LONDON, baby. London is calling, so good day, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Daryl Works Here, Dumbass!" - The Office, Pushing Daisies, Heroes, More - Plus the magic of Facebook and MICHAEL CLAYTON - Reviewed!

Ah, the weekend is almost here.

I am so pysched to see BEOWULF tonight in IMAX 3-D. I've had a craving lately for a great balls-to-the-wall action movie, and this one promisies to be a true "next-gen" film with what looks to be some of the most inventive use of CGI and motion-capture in cinema to date. Plus, it can't be too shabby in the script department either, with a screenplay co-penned by the great Neal Gaiman of Sandman and Stardust fame. I'm hoping for a pulse-pounding experience at least the equal of 300 ... and I have a feeling I won't be disappointed.

And man, this is going to be a crazy week or two coming up. Let me summarize:

Tuesday: Seeing VAN by-God HALEN in concert at the Staples Center.

Wednesday: Flying to Connecticut for Thanksgiving with the family.

Friday: Flying to LONDON, ENGLAND to bring some anarchy to the UK and to visit my brother, currently studying abroad (or two ...) in jolly old England. Yep, four Barams will be in London, possibly three more than the country can handle. I very much look forward to revisiting the ol' stomping grounds, taking in the great atmosphere and bad food. Watch out London, here I come!

- Anyways, it will be a crazy several days ...!

- Just a quick note about how I am continually amazed by the power of the internet. So, every so often over the last few months, I've been checking in online about the status of THE STATE on DVD. A while back, it was announced that the cult-favorite sketch comedy show was FINALLY being released on DVD, and as you can see from my blog entries at the time, I couldn't have been happier that one of my all-time favorite TV shows would finally be ready for viewing in the comfort of my own home. So then, last week, I see on The State's official website that ... WTF ... MTV had abruptly CANCELLED the DVD's release. Are you kidding me? No. Freaking.Way. So in a rare moment of drive brought on by my comedy-geek rage, I spontaneously indulged in an activity that, until now, I thought was solely reserved for people far more annoying than I. What did I do, you ask? Well, I created a group on Facebook. Yes, I did it, and it felt good. My group was labeled, appropriately, "Why Is THE STATE still not available on DVD? Are you kidding me, MTV?" I wrote a brief description outlining my intent, and sent out a group invite to all of my Facebook friends who I believed might be sympathetic to my cause. Lo and behold - within two days the group was embraced by over 50 people! Fifty fine folks, many of whom I don't know, rallied to support this worthy cause, the simple cry of the unwashed masses who demand that The State be released on DVD. These are smart people. People who went to Harvard and NYU and other fine institutions of higher learning. People who have the rare quality of good taste in televised comedy. People who like The State.

So I implore you - if you too would like to see The State on DVD, well, write your senators, go on strike, etc ... but most of all, find me on Facebook and join my humble collective of like-minded comedy fans! Let's give 'em hell, people!


- Wow, where did this one come from? I had this vague notion going in that this might be a really interesting movie, and I was encouraged by some surprisingly glowing reviews from places like Entertainment Weekly. But with an admittedly terrible title and a real lack of hype, I still didn't quite know what to expect. What I got was one hell of a movie - a multi-layered thriller that features one of the best ensemble casts of the year, along with a script that not only places a strong emphasis on mood and character, but also really suprised me with how much of a punch it packed in terms of making a statement about modern life. I know, that sounds cheesy, but Clayton really hit the right notes for me in that respect. To me, it didn't feel preachy, as movies like Syriana have in the past. The reason was that the themes grew organically out of the characters. The message of the movie - a foreboding cautionary statement about the moral ambiguity inherent in modern life - built slowly scene by scene - and in the end I was left rather floored by the fact that this seemingly typical legal thriller was, in fact, making a pretty profound statement.

Getting back to the cast though, the actors here are universally outstanding. For me, George Clooney has only really begun to live up to his potential on-screen. Aside from his occasional comedic turn when working with the likes of the Coen Brothers, Clooney's career has been an odd mix of embarrassing mediocrity (Batman and Robin) and roles where he seems to be simply coasting along (Oceans films). To me, Michael Clayton is exactly the kind of part that Clooney was born to play - a throwback of sorts to the Hollywood films of old - where Clooney is able to play a compelling leading man, but without that annoying self-awareness that seems to say hey, we should all be really impressed with him. Clooney is great here in the title role - a guy who's both world-weary and on the verge of being broken, yet still kind of a badass. Afterall, he is a fixer, a go-to guy for a powerful law firm, the guy who cleasn up the messes that others can't. But, there's a great line early in the film, where a nervous guy who's gotten himself into a mess tells Clayton that he needs a miracle worker, he needs the best, and Clayton replies that he's no miracle worker, "just a janitor." From that moment on, it's clear this isn't going to be one of those crusading lawyer-as-superhero movies. This one is gonna be dark, gritty, with one foot firmly in the world of classic Hollywood dramatic filmmaking, but the other solidly placed here, in the real world.

Tom Wilkenson is amazing in this movie. He's one of those actors who's been around and I immediately recognized, but man, who knew he was this good? To me, Wilkenson's work here has to definitively put him in the race for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar time - it's just classic, powerful stuff. Basically, Wilkenson is one of the top lawyers at Clayton's firm, a brilliant mind and a mentor to many. But as he's getting older, the guy is on the verge of snapping, and his pills can only do so much to cure his escalating sense of paranoia and near-insanity. For years, he's been working to defend a heartless mega-corporation, a producer of chemicals used to treat crops, chemicals linked to all kinds of health hazards. Wilkenson's character has been defending these guys, but he's had an epiphany - he is working for the badguys and he can't take it anymore. He essentially snaps and goes off the wall - but in one of the film's most powerful statements, it really takes a guy going insane to get anyone to snap out of their big-money-induced stupors and see the forest for the trees. I was reminded a bit of Peter Finch's work in the classic Network - mad as hell and not going to take it anymore ... but where is the line between clarity and insanity?

The two other roles I want to mention are Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. Swinton is just superb - a woman who has become so brainwashed by corporate rhetoric that her moral compass is completely off-kilter. I hate to say it, but she's downright scary in this role because her brainwashing is not so far off from so many people in corporate America, people I see every day who do all kinds of things in the name of the greater good of The Company. Meanwhile, Pollack is one of those hard-nosed guys who reminded me of various characters I've seen my dad work with as an attorney - guys who are true realists and don't have the time or will to worry about all the greater implications of their actions - the bottom line is everything. As great as Wilkenson is in this one, Swinton and Pollack are terrific in their own rights - both truly give top-tier, Oscar-caliber performances.

In the end, this is a great directorial debut from Tony Gilroy. Very classical in feel, but at the same time, there is some innovative storytelling at work here. For example, the movie opens with an intriguing but slightly confusing set of scenes, culminating in Clayton running for his life following a bomb igniting his car. Then, we flash back to four days earlier, and spend the rest of the movie playing catch-up to the opening sequence. It really works well as a storytelling device, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how well everything comes together. Aside from the brief bit of time-shifting, there aren't a lot of fancy tricks at play here. In fact, some moments even border on the cliche. But everything is so solidly done that there are never really any groan-inducing moments, and the acting is so great that the drama always maintains an electric intensity.

I never would have expected this, but Michael Clayton is a great, great thriller with a lot to say - a perfectly-executed drama from top to bottom.

My Grade: A


- So, I'm really behind on my TV this week. I know, I know, it's terrible. I still haven't seen Sunday's Simpsons or King of the Hill, and KOTH in particular I really want to see ASAP, given that it's the big death of Cotton episode. Hve yet to catch Monday's Aliens in America, which I hope to view this weekend, and as per usual I need to catch-up on Smallville and Gossip Girl. I also didn't catch last night's Earl or 30 Rock due to going to see Michael Clayton, however, I did get to watch THE OFFICE ... so I'll work backwards from there with some quick reviews ...


- First, I have to say this: the scene from last night's Office, in which Michael abruptly topples over Toby's lunch tray after Toby had just confided in him some painful childhood memories ... it was, honestly, one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I was DYING of laughter, holy lord. I rewound and watched it like 3 times, I was in such hysterical laughter. Simply classic. Wow.

That being said, this was overall a strong episode of The Office, one that took a bit of a strange turn in that it really became a very dark look at Michael Scott and his relationship with Jan. It took a bit for it to grow on me, but I came away really appreciating this episode's black humor - it brought to mind some of the best moments of the British series, and it made some of the jokes, like the aformentioned tray-spilling scene, all the funnier.

On the other hand, the ping-pong subplot was slightly weak, and there was a disappointing lack of good Dwight humor this week. But in the end, I really felt like the whole Michael-on-trial thing, and how he ultimately chose the company over Jan despite both essentially demoralizing him, was really pretty brilliant.

My Grade: A-


- Hmm, this may have been the overall weakest episode of the show yet, but all that means is it wasn't quite 100% amazing, but still one of the best things in all of TV land. I think part of the problem was that the mystery of the week just wasn't quite as fun or compelling as previous episodes' (or maybe it's just my natural dislike for dog-related stories? haha). The other thing is that it feels like it's time for Chuck and Ned to just be a couple - not necessarilly still in their angsty, getting-to-know you stage. Sure, there should always be that undercurrent of tragedy surrounding their relationship, but maybe it's time to push it into the background a little bit, at least for now. Still, the dialogue and wordplay remains as fun and ever and totally top-notch, and Chi McBride gets funnier and more likable by the week.

My Grade: B+


- Okay, this one may have been the last straw for me. You know, I was really behind this show when I saw its pilot. Sure, it had its share of flaws, but it had this great sense of un-ironic fun to it - it seemed like the show was determined to be a 100% geeky comic-book fantasy, which was a great contrast to shows like Heroes that felt a little more measured in their restraint. But since then, not only have the scripts and characterization grown tangibly weaker (as have the ratings), but the show itself has changed from a dark action-drama to a lighthearted soap to ... well, this week, it felt like a really, really weak episode of La Femme Nikita. The show now has its own Madeline-lite, Berkoff-lite, and Operations-lite, and it's own lame ripoff of a Michael-type character. But unlike Nikita, wh owas the personifacation of femme fatale cool, Jamie Summers comes off as a total asshat. I mean, this is a grown woman, but she's protesting her therapy sessions like a spoiled twelve year old. I mean, when did Bionic Woman become the spy show by douchebags, for douchebags? Sorry to be so harsh, but I really want this one to rebound, and it's discouraging to see it falter so badly.

My Grade: C -


- On the other hand, Chuck has really been hitting its stride of late. I'm loving the peanut-butter and jelly like mix of spy intrigue with OC-style emo-ness and self-aware comedy. I mean, the banter between Adam Baldwin, Chuck, and Sarah this week (sorry Adam Baldwin is just Adam Baldwin), each under the influence of truth serum, was hilarious. I like that they are slowly building out Chuck's backstory as well, and starting to integrate his sister and the always-awesome Captain Awesome into some of the main storylines. As long as it's not done in a really forced way, I look forward to the day when the good Captain is sent on a top-secret mission of his own - surely, that would be tres-awesome. Meanwhile, Rachel Bilson is a great addition to the cast. We already know her as nerd-bait from The OC, and I look forward to seeing how she interacts with Chuck and throws a much-needed wrench in his budding relationship with Sarah. Finally, I know there are haters out there, but I get a kick out of the Morgan / Buy More subplots. I hope Tang is only temporarily gone, as his rivalry with Morgan was a source, at least to me, of much hilarity.

My Grade: A -


- Heroes this past week was, in some ways, the episode that should have been the season premiere. I mean, dramatically, there was really no good reason to do the whole "four months later" time jump following the conclusion of Season 1. Instead of a lot of intriguing "oh my god, how did THEY get THERE" moments, instead we simply got many a dull reintroduction of all of our principle players from S1, along with an overflow of new heroes. This week though, we finally got the thrilling secret origin of our South American wonder twins, and, guess what? - the shocking incident that marked the first use of their powers, while semi-interesting, was basically the exact same thing we've seen every week thus far in S2 - eyes go black, lots of panting and lip-quivering, screams of guilt, tears, and the brother desperately screaming "Dios Mio!" at his sister over and over again. Ugh, please, make it stop!

Anyways, the highlight, by far, was Kristen Bell's Elle finally getting a bit of the spotlight, revealed as a somewhat demented woman who remains childlike-yet-deadly thanks to years raised in the confines of Company facilities (in another Heroes idea that is decent, but has that ripped-off-from-something-else feel). Bell did well with her part, as always, and it must be said that, well ... it was clear in this ep that young Veronica Mars has, um, grown up quite a bit since her time in Neptune.

On the other hand, the Nikki-DL stuff felt very forced. Look, DL is alive! Oh wait, he's dead! It'd be one thing if there was some grand poetic irony to his sudden re-death, but really it just felt pretty pointless. We still got no real explanation of why Nikki is now a hired gun for The Company. In fact, is it just me or is The Company itself pretty weak as a concept? At least last year, we had a sense of hierarchy with Linderman, Eric Roberts , HRG, etc. Now it's all Bob, all the time, and truth be told, ol' Bob tends to come off as a pretty generic bad guy with no real depth or intrigue about him.

So right now, Heroes has some random storylines going for it that have a sense of mystery and cool-factor, but it is still mired in a number of plotlines that just feel ambling and empty. Here's hoping those last two eps can leave us hanging on a high note.

My Grade: B -


- Man, so sad that FG is pretty much done for the forseeable future in light of the writer's strike. Because the show has really found a new groove these last few weeks, and this past Sunday's ep, "Lois kills Stewie," was, dare I say, the first real "classic" ep of the show in quite some time. A ton of memorable gags, from the vintage FG over-choreographed extended fight scene, to the clueless housekeeper at the Fortress of Solitude gag, to the hilarious recurring joke of Stewie forcing Brian to alternatively compliment then insult Joe at gunpoint - awesome. Even the ending, "it's not a dream, it's a simulator" had me laughing. I could go on, but the bottom line is that, sadly, this ep got me more excited for Family Guy than I've been in a long while, right as the show is going off the air for the winter.

My Grade: A

- Alright, that's a wrap for now. Off soon to take in Beowulf. I'll probably have one or two more blogs before the journey to London, so until then, bugger off!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

No Blog For Old Men: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN -- Reviewed!

Hola, amigos.

Man, how great was it to have a rare 3-day weekend. Somehow, NBC decided to give us Monday off even while most of Hollywood was back at work as per usual (well those of us not laid off due to the strike, or on strike). Monday was a pretty productive day for me. I got a lot done, did some excercise, worked out some screenplay ideas, and assembled and used my new vaccuum cleaner ... which was so, do great. Haha, I know, I know ... but my old one had been slowly failing for a while now, and I had forgotten what it's like to have a fresh, clean, awesomely-vaccumed floor. Aw yeah.

But ... Sunday night, I had the privelege to head over to LA's swanky Arclight theater to catch a show of what had been one of my most-anticipated movies of the year - the Coen Bros. latest, No Country For Old Men.


- In college, most people who are movie-lovers usually go through a number of movie-related rites of passage. Whether it's via film classes, midnight movies, or just that one guy down the hall who had the kickass DVD collection, there comes a time when any budding film fan begins to really expand their horizons and develops the tastes and sensibilities that will stick with them always. My freshman year at BU, me, my roommate Chris, and a bunch of other people on our floor all had a common interest in checking out as many cool movies as we could, and in those days before flat screens and such were commonplace, we'd often be huddled around a computer monitor or a small TV, watching some friend of a friend's worn-out VHS tape or DVD, or even just some grainy movie we had procured by searching online on BU's shared network, just before the powers that be realized that the school's shared drives were quickly becoming a vast repository for movies and music to be freely traded. It was in those days, huddled up in some dank, cramped dorm room, that I first discovered a little movie called THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

I was in awe of The Big Lebowski, blown away. I know that many who consider themselves hardcore Coen Bros. fans don't rank it as the brothers' best, but to me there may be no more perfect comedy that this. Each line is so rich with meaning, humor, and rhythm that, even after having watched the movie dozens of times, I still find something new to appreciate in it each and every time. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, the movie instantly made me curious to find out more about the guys who wrote and directed it. Over the next few years, I watched movies like Fargo, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the list goes on and on. I remember dragging a bunch of friends to see Intolerable Cruelty in the theater, reassuring them that this wouldn't be just another George Clooney movie -- after all, this was the Coen Brothers.

So man, was I excited to see No Country For Old Men. Especially since all indications pointed to this being a return to form of sorts for the Coens, not to mention a return to their darker roots, something more in the vein of Blood Simple - a hard, dark, violent, uncompromising movie. A long way away from The Ladykillers, to be sure.

I'll admit, I was somewhat prepared to be blown away by No Country, so it stands to reason that the movie might not have lived up to my lofty expectations. But as I sat in the expansive Arclight theater, I realized that I was indeed watching yet another Coen Bros. classic.

No Country For Old Men succeeds so well in telling its story thanks to a combination of superb acting, a wonderful screenplay / adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel, and some beautiful cinematography, that, like The Assasination of Jesse James, brilliantly captures the desolation of the American West (not exactly a coincidence - both movies name Roger Deakins as their Cinematographer).

The first thing though that comes to mind when talking about this film is undoubtedly Javier Bardem's iconic turn as psychotic serial-killer for hire, Anton Chigurh. This is one of those movie roles that will be remembered and talked about for a long, long time, and in the end, I think Bardem's work here will rank amongst some of the all-time most memorable movie villains. I know that I've been unable to get the image of Chigurh out of my mind since seeing the movie - he is a stone-cold killer with a heart as black as coal. With a Prince Valiant haircut, an unnervingly evil smile, a hulking figure, and a most unusual weapon of choice (a compressed-air cattle sticker, that leaves no bullet and makes a horrific sound when fired, like a paintball gun on crack) ... Bardem's Chigurh is, as Josh Brolin describes him, pretty much "the ultimate badass." But what makes Chigurh so damn fascinating is how the other characters in the movie react to him. Firstly, there's Josh Brolin, who does spectacular work here following his scene-stealing role in American Gangster. The guy is definitely on a roll. Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a rugged, scrappy loner who gets in over his head when he stumbles onto a drug deal gone bad, sees the money lying unclaimed, and decides to try his luck, sieze the moment, and run away with the cash. In most other movies, the resourceful Moss would be the top dog, maybe even the villain. But here, Moss finds himself suddenly hotly pursued by Chigurh, and it's a David vs. Goliath game of cat and mouse, with Moss running for his life but all the while stubbornly refusing to give up the money. Brolin really acts the hell out of this part. For the first portion of the movie, we are almsot solely focused on Moss, and there's almost no dialogue as we are shown how Moss stumbles onto the money and initially eludes the drug dealers who have come to search for it. Brolin is all bottled-up intensity here, and there is one scene towards the beginning of the movie in particular -an absolutely amazing chase in which a vicious attack dog is after Moss - that is just sheer awesomeness on film. Later on, Moss and Chigurh finally confront one another after their prolonged game of cat and mouse, and though each remains just out of the other's line of sight, what ensues is one of the most intense, badass shoot-outs I've ever seen on film. This is the Coen Brothers at the peak of their filmmaking powers.

The third part of the equation is Tommy Lee Jones, who does the best work in this movie that I've seen from him in a long while. Jones plays Sherrif Bell, an aging lawman who looks at all of the violence and depravity around him and sees a world that's passed him by. To him, Chigurh is the very embodiment of a certain brand of evil that is simply more than Bell knows what to do with. We open the movie with a mood-setting narration from Bell, and we close on him. And though he has less screen time than Brolin and Barden, this is in a way the story of Tommy Lee Jones' character - he is a man on the verge of being an Old Man, and like the title of the movie says ...

Now, I haven't read the book by Cormac McCarthy, but I'm now very curious to see how well the film blends his writing style with that of The Coens. Personally, the Coens are perhaps my all-time favorite screenwriters. Their style is ... well, I'd almost call it painterly. They sketch their eclectic characters in broad, pulpy strokes, and yet define them so well in terms of their quirks and eccentricities, that they seem to leap off the screen. But there is always a real music to the Coen's dialogue, too - it's always such a pleasure just to listen to their characters speak, to hear the ebb and flow of their conversations. No Country For Old Man is yet another superlative script from the Coens, with scene after scene of character bits so richly written, and dialogue so carefully chosen, that, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, you almost don't want to see these scenes end. But it really is the best of both worlds here. In one scene we witness a hilarious back and forth conversation between Chigurh and a hapless old shopkeeper who is clearly not long for this world, though his fate depends on a matter as arbitrary as a flip of Chigurh's coin - this is classic Coens', with laugh out loud humor that is nonetheless black as night. Gallows humor, to be sure. And yet, at other times, we have largely wordless scenes that are equally brilliant - the aforementioned dog chase and shootout between Brolin and Bardem, and another memorable one in which Brolin realizes that, thanks to a hidden tracking device, the monstrous Chigurh is hot on his trail. From dialogue-rich scenes to evocative, silent scenes of the West, this one has it all.

However, there are a few editing choices here that are sure to be controversial, and that is understandable. Certain moments in the film, and I won't go into spoiler territory, very abruptly jump right past certain key plot points, and you find yourself as a viewer momentarily disoriented, confused, and even a bit annoyed. How could the movie simply skip past one seemingly crucial scene as it does? How could it end so suddenly, on such a seemingly random note? I know that as the credits began to roll, people in the audience looked confused, curious, and at times even angry, myself included. But this is one of those endings, and one of those movies, that I think will ultimately only prove 100% rewarding on repeat viewings. It's a movie that takes time to comment back on itself, and it's almost too much to take in in one sitting. But for that same reason, the more I had time to think about No Country For Old Men, the more I had time to ponder WHY these choices were made ... Well, for one thing it makes me respect the Coens all the more, for daring to try something different, and for another, you begin to realize just how much thought and deliberation had to have gone into these admittedly unconventional narrative choices. These aren't simple "let's mess with the audience" type cuts, a la a Grindhouse missing reel ... these are substantial, meaningful choices and I respected them as such.

In the end, this is another slice of greatness from the Coens, and a watermark movie for the trio of Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. Hopefully all parties will be recognized come Oscar time, because this movie - a dark, comedic, mind-melting look at evil, violence, and America - is surely amongst the best of the year thus far, and a movie that I think time will judge very kindly indeed.

My Grade: A

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Now In I-Max 3D: 30 Rock, The Office, Smallville, and a DARJEELING LIMITED Review!

Happy 3-Day weekend everyone! Yep, I said 3-Day weekend, as that's what I'm currently enjoying. Why or how I miraculously have a day off on Monday, I'm not sure. I mean, sure, it's Veteran's Day, but when has a little holiday such as that ever interfered with the grind of corporate America? I guess someone at NBCU decided to take pity on us poor working stiffs though, designating this Veteran's Day a company holiday for the first time, this year. To which I say - well done, well done indeed.

So I'm writing this blog on a weekend, which has become a rare thing of late ... and yes, I know the quality of writing has suffered a bit for me trying to shoe-horn blog-writing in the middle of random weekdays as I multi-task writing with all of the many other, more mind-numbing things on my plate at any given moment. But lately I have been fortunate to interact with a number of people who love writing and being creative and doing so has started to remind me again that nwo is the time to strike when it comes to writing and doing all of this creative stuff. So hoepfully that means the creative juices will begin a-flowin' a bit more and I can really have some good output. Whether that output materializes here on the blog or elsewhere I can't be sure, but anyways, here I am (rock you like a hurricane).


30 ROCK, aka ... the funniest show on TV?!?!

- Man oh man, have I been itching to talk about Thursday's superlative episode of 30 ROCK. I just can't say enough about how great of an episode of TV this was. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it the funniest episode of television of the season thus far - this was just pure gold from start to finish. Seriously, I haven't hung on every line of a comedy like this since the heyday of Arrested Development. From the hilarity involving Kenneth's party to the greatness of Greenzo to the scathing satire of corporate politics to the funny Al Gore cameo ... this was great, great stuff that didn't let up for a minute. It all reached a brilliant crescendo with the flashes to Kenneth's party, which just had me rolling on the floor in laughter. Some other highlights:
- Alec Baldwin talking about how well Greenzo tested with "commies, pinkos, hippies and broads" then offhandedly saying how they've got to get a new form ...
- Alec Baldwin reacting with amazement when he heard that T.I. would be at Kenneth's party "You mean Texas Instruments will be there?" Classic.
- Tracy Morgan randomly holding a snake when Liz Lemon goes to find him.
- Pop tarts .... 'nuff said.
- "He just talked to me like I was ugly."
The list goes on and on. this was one of those great, great episodes of a show that converted me from fan to superfan. If this is what I can expect from the show from this point on, then I, without hesitation, hereby crown a new king of television comedy, and it's name be 30 ROCK.

My Grade: A


- I also really enjoyed the latest episode of The Office - continuing a string of great episodes since the show returned to its usual half-hour format. Now, I know many people have complained about Michael being too dumb and random on the show, and turning into Homer Simpson, and I have been among those who got annoyed with that trend, which was really evident in some of this season's first batch of episodes. But ... here's where I differ from the peanut gallery. The Office, as it stands now, is to me totally at its best when it allows the humor to be random, quirky, and out-there. Whether it's Dwight, Creed, or Michael, I get a kick out of seeing them do and say things that no actual human being would ever do or say. As long as it all eventually derives back to office-inspired humor and satire, I'm fine with it, and usually its a random Dwight or Creed line that gives me the biggest laughs of any given episode. Where I do have a problem is when Michael Scott as played by Steve Carell is just given this kind of free reign. We've seen that of late where the character feels loosely written, with storylines and scenes that feel rambling, meandering, and pointless. We saw a little of that this week with the Survivor Man stuff, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The addition of Dwight to the mix made for a lot of funny scenes, and even if the camera at times stayed on Carell for too long, there were a lot of funny jokes to break things up. Dwight's "Would I let him die?" line for example ... totally hilarious. Meanwhile, there was some really good stuff with Jim this week, and I like that the show is now focusing on his realiziation that he may be stuck in somewaht of a professional rut, doomed to end up just like his much-mocked boss Michael. This echoes Tim's storyarc on the British series, and there's a lot of potential in going down this road with Jim. In particular, the final scene with Jim and Michael comparing notes was simply great - awkward, funny, and a little bit sad -- exactly what I want in an ideal episode of The Office.

My Grade: A -


- I never got around to watching last week's hour-long edition of Earl, and for a moment there I was kind of considering giving up on the show ... I have very conflicting feelings about it, as in general EARL is usually a pleasant enough half-hour of TV, with a few funny lines and reliably appealing turns from Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, Jamie Pressley, and the rest of the uber-talented cast, many of whom I consider amongst my absolute favorite comic actors out there. It's just that, well, the material never quite lives up to its full potential. The writing often feels too obvious, too bland, or too dumbed-down to really make a big impact with me. Again, I usually find two or three great dialogue bits scattered throughout each episode, and Jason Lee is consistently great ... there's just a sense of slightly squandered potential that I get with most episodes of Earl. Still, I enjoyed this past week's installment. Randy and Earl's relationship is a reliable source of entertainment, and it's a funny twist to have Randy as a prison guard with Earl locked up behind bars. I was also pretty surprised and amused to see Earl take such a blatant swipe at the whole NBC Goes Green thing at the same time that it adhered to the "Green is Universal" theme-week on NBC - on a generally play-it-safe show like this one, it definitely gave me pause and elicited a knowing smirk. I am too much a fan of these actors and character to simply give up on Earl, especially when it delivers with a totally solid episode like this week's ... but at the same time, I wish the bar could be raised just a bit.

My Grade: B+


- The streak continues! Yet another very entertaining and well put-together episode of Smallville. Of course, as with last week, this is all relative. These last few eps have been great in relation to the shoddiness that we've had to suffer through for most of last season and the early part of this one, but, they are still plagued by some recurring problems which I'll speak of in a minute.

First, I'll take a minute to praise this ep for delivering more greatness in terms of even more grea scenes from its two MVP's - Lex and Lionel Luthor. Lex had some superb scenes this week with Clark and Lana, and his kiss with Lana was both creepy and shocking. If there's one thing the writers of Smallville have consistently done a great job with, it's bene in giving Lex a unique voice where there are hints of evil but always a convincing sense of self-righteousness. This week was no exception, with, as I said, a number of intense moments for the junior Luthor. And, I'll give Kristen Kreuk (sp?) a lot of credit this week - this marked some of her finest acting to date on Smallville - she did a nice job of selling the sense of possibility that comes with a sudden infusion of supoer-powers, and I loved her intensity when confronting Lex. We also got some fun scenes with Lois and the new EIC at the Daily Planet - I'm finding their relationship a lot more natural-seeming and well-written than that of Lois and Oliver Queen from last year.

On the down side, as much as I was impressed with Kristen Kreuk this week, Lana is still a broken character in so many ways. The tension with Clark this week only served to emphasize how little actual chemistry the two have enjoyed for the last few years - in fact, until this episodes over-the-top super-sex scenes between the two, I wasn't even sure if Clark and Lana were actually a full-fledged couple again following her leaving Lex. Which is why it's kind of a "meh" situation when the two seemed to break up at the end of this episode - their relationship has been so all over the place for so long now that all of the sparks they had in the early seasons have pretty much already evaporated, and Lana has become more and more unlikable with each passing year as she's transitioned from sweet girl next door to depressingly-forlorn girl-with-a-grudge.

The other problem that's really bothered me of late is Lionel Luthor. As I've said, it's always great to see John Glover pop up - but what's his deal already? I mean, in this ep, Lana finally reminded Clark that Lionel had threatened to kill him ... so we still have no explanation as to a.) whether Lionel is the "real," evil version or still the more benevolant version from the last few years, or b.) why Clark of late seems to be so buddy-buddy with a guy who only recently appeared to be his mortal enemy.

Finally, this was YET ANOTHER episode where all of the usual, annoying Smallville cliches seemed to be trotted out one by one ... Lex getting knocked out cold just as Clark enters the scene, allowing Clark to make timely use of his abilities ... Clark waltzing into presumably secure locations like the Luthor mansion and LexCorp as easily as he might stroll into a Macys ... the obligatory weekly appearance of oddly-colored the Smallville hospital (why would Lois end up there if she's living in Metropolis?) ... I hate to nitpick but Smallville just always seems to rely on these storytelling short-cuts that just tend to bug the hell out of me, because they take away from the cool and well-told stuff that is going on.

Overall though, a good episode with some memorable Lex-Lana scenes, some interesting developments in the Clark-Lana saga, and a fun, continued emphasis on Clark's slow but steady realization that a larger destiny awaits him outside of the confines of Smallville.

My Grade: B

Okay, movie review time ... this time out I've got a look at Wes Anderson's latest ...


- It's funny, I was looking back at my old blog entries and found my Best Movies of 2004 list ... Right near the top was The Life Aquatic. Man, talk about a blast from the past. I feel like being out here in LA, one of the biggest perks has definitely been the access to so many great movies via company screenings, great indie-flick-friendly theaters, and friends who share an interest in catching the latest and greatest. Of late, I've had more of a desire than ever to try to catch as many top-quality films as I can, espeically since they're usually so easily accessible here in Hollwood. Just last night some friends and I ventured down to Pasadena, where there is a great art-house theater. Our mission: to finally catch Wes Anderson's new movie - The Darjeeling Limited. In 2004, Wes Anderson movies were for me a rare departure from the usual multiplex offerings of big-budget blockbusters and assembly-line comedies. But here in 2007, I've made it more of a point to catch smaller films of note. So, I had to wonder, would Anderson's latest still stack up?

For the most part, Darjeeling is yet another great film from the Master of Quirk. The bottom line is that I don't know if it comes together quite as well as some of his previous efforts, but then again, the thing with Anderson's films is that each seems to be largely a matter of personal taste. For me, something about The Life Aquatic just instantly hit home, and appealled to me in all the right ways. On the other hand, while I'm a big fan of Rushmore, there's still something about it that feels a little off to me - its themes just seem a bit too insular and not as accessible as Life Aquatic. But anyways, about Darjeeling ...

For one, Anderson's visual artistry as a filmmaker is as strong here as it's ever been. Many scenes in the movie are just beautiful in their intricacy and framing, in that trademark Wes Anderson way. Now, some deride Wes for returning to the same quirky visual style in each of his films. To me, I have no problem with repetition if the end product is always so breathtaking. I mean, do we deride a painter for having a unique style that they stick to in each of their works? Do we rail on a Hemingway or a Raymond Chandler for carrying over a distinct writing style from book to book? Wes Anderson has a visual style that is unique to him and is now virtually inseparable from his overall voice as a filmmaker. Personally - I welcome returning to that world he creates every so often - it's a world where certain visual motifs and thematic material resurfaces in movie after movie, but I'm fine with that, because that's part of the fun - seeing how Wes Anderson transplants his signature style to each new set of characters and storylines he chooses to tackle.

And India, where Darjeeling is set, is a perfect match for all of Anderson's fetishes. In a place with so much bustle, color, and contrasting details, Anderson flourishes. To the point where it's hard to tell how much of this India Anderson is creating to fit his own stylistic desires, and how much of the real India he's simply repurposing for his own movie. As usual, we get all of Anderson's signature shots, from painting-like still scenes to tracking shots of exteriors - in this case the chugging train called the Darjeling Limited, with the camera moving steadily along the outside of the train with each of the windows of the train serving as a fishbowl-glimpse into a myriad of self-contained worlds and characters. Sure, we got a lot of Anderson revisiting old filmic tricks, but when his arsenal contains so many great little visual motifs, I'm not complaining.

As for the story, Darjeeling deals with three man-child brothers who gather together for the first time in a year, followign the death of their father, to go on a misguided spiritual quest through the holy sites of India. Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman all do a great job here. They're a bunch of proto-Wes Anderson hipsters, to be sure, but each fits into the Wes Anderson mold while still possessing a distinct personality. The movie does a wonderful job of playing the three brothers off of one another, with a lot of entertaining and hilarious scenes resulting from their weariness of one another. This is the Owen Wilson that I love - the guy who does this kind of understated humor to perfection while deftly projecting an undercurrent of real tragedy. Seriously, I wish the guy all the best and hope he's back on his feet soon, as when he's on top of his game as he is here, he's one of the best comic actors around. Owen's character here - a control freak who plans each day of the trip with laminated itineraries, orders meals for his brothers much to their mutual annoyance, and sports a heavily-bandaged head and a cane as a result of a near-deadly auto accident, is the heart and soul of the movie, in a way, and certainly the character who elicits the most laughter, and to a dgree the most pathos. A great performance from Mr. Wilson. Schwartzman and Brody are also great here ... what Anderson does so well is that he gives the brothers all these little quirks and hang-ups, and then later on in the movie we meet their mother, played by Angelica Houston, and in a single scene we get all thi fascinating insight into where all these characteristics came from ... it's quite aneat little trick.

As always with an Wes Anderson movie, Darjeeling really is driven by its characters and themes. We get a lot of interesting insight into brotherhood, family, arrested development, the quest for meaning and spirituality, and finally accepting adulthood. I love how Darjeeling kind of touches on these themes but leaves so much open for interpretation ... it has the effect of almsot beign a kind of quest in and of itself. Because as you watch, you realize that the brothers could be in India or Spain or Podunk, USA - they go on this train ride through purportedly spiritual land, but really its the mere fact that they are together and hashing out their problems, not that they are in India, that has a real effect on them - all of the surrounding praying and visiting of shrines and whatnot is really just window dressing. And as we begin to realize that as viewers, we begin to see how much time we waste LOOKING for meaning, instead of creating it out of our everyday lives.

So yeah, this is definitely a movie that leaves ya' thinking. And it's a movie peppered with great scenes, from the opening with a cool cameo by Bill Murray to a hilarious scene in which the brothers get into a fight involving a liberally-used can of mace. I guess what did drag things down for me was the fact that while many of the scenes were gems, there were a handful that seemed extraneous. Particularly towards the end, there were literally five or six isntances where I was sure the movie was over, with a scene wrapping up complete with carefully-selected background musical track seeming to signal that that was a wrap, only for the movie to continue on long after I felt its point had been made. By the time the credits finally rolled, it definitely felt a bit anti-climactic. In some ways, the movie just didn't come together as tightly as I would have liked, and part of that may have had to do with an ending that didn't quite tie things together in a totally satisfying manner.

That being said, I really loved a lot about The Darjeeling Limited. From the trademark visual brilliance to the little details of characterization that elude so many filmmakers, this was another winner for Wes Anderson and co. I'm also giving the movie points for the wonderful short film that preceded its release as a free iTunes download and is currently accompanying the movie in its theatrical release - Hotel Chevalier. The short is a visual marvel that shows Wes Anderson's talent for design and staging on full, despite the fact that the action is mostly confined to a single hotel room. It's really pretty remarkable. The short, which features Jason Schwartzman's character from Darjeeling and takes place prior to the events of the movie, features Natalie Portman as a love-her-but-she-drives-you-insane ex-girlfriend of Schwartzman's who pays him a visit while he's playing the role of expatriot in a hotel in Paris. The whole thing, from the sharp dialogue to the visuals to the great music, is strikingly well-done, and subsequently added a lot to Darjeeling, which referenced the short on more than one occasion.

My Grade: A -

Alright, have a good weekend everyone. PEACE.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Write On, Dude: HEROES, BIONIC, and FAMILY GUY - Reviewed!

What's up, blogger nation. Man, what strange times these are here in Hollywood. Overall, I have to say it's kind of depressing. Left and right people are losing their jobs as production ends on most scripted primetime, daytime, and late night programs. Frankly, it truly sucks. It's one thing that the writers are striking in order to make their point - but think of all the writer's assistants, PA's, crew members, assistants, etc who are about to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The fact is - most of these writers are decently well-off if not downright loaded. That's not to say I don't support their cause in principle, but man, if I happened to be a PA right now I'd be seriously bummed. I could go on and on about this whole issue, but it's obviously a pretty sensitive area right now so I'll leave it at that for now ...

Now, some TV Stuff to talk about:

- I finally caught Monday's HEROES last night ... overall, I agree with the consensus that this was one of the better episodes of Season 2 thus far. But was it really that much of a step up from the last few sub-par eps? I'd have to say there were indeed some slight improvements, but overall I detected the same plodding pacing and lack of action that has thus far plagues the show's sophomore season. At least, however, things really picked up with Hiro this week. Finally - a decent sword fight! However, while it was a huge relief to finally see Hiro's time-lost storyarc resolved and in somewhat dramatic fashion, I was still left pretty cold by the whole thing. I mean - it still felt like there was a lot left unexplored in terms of the ramifications of Hiro's time-travel. The big reveal at the end - it was one of those things where it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped. Having Kensei / Adam appear i nthe present seemed like an obvious move, but what could have been a huge cliffhanger was rendered pretty ineffectual. For one thing, Peter's storyline is just dead-in-the-water at this point ... I mena, what happened to Kristen Bell, for one thing? And could that Irish lass be any more useless and annoying? And ... why was he in an apocalyptic future again? Someone tell me, please, because I honestly had no clue. I mean, last year, Heroes had a GREAT episode set in the future. What made it so compelling was seeing where our favorite character ended up in this alternate timeline. In this latest vision of the future, it is practically walking cliche 101. There was a bad plague. Everyone is dead or quarantined. And we get scene after scene of Peter doing all the typical "What's happening? What's going on?" routines. What, indeed. Claire's emo-boy-toy continued to be annoying as all hell this week. 'Nuff said on that one. What did work was the confrontation between Parkman and his father, HRG getting desperate, and the convergance of a number of characters at Company HQ. On the other hand, what up to this point had been a highly intriguing mystery of "what did the Company Founders do to provoke our mystery killer to off them one by one" devolved into a cliche-ridden "we got too cocky, thought we could play God" let-down of an explanation on the part of Company Bob.

This episode did feel a bit tighter, a bit more action-packed than many so far this season, but at the same time, those slight improvements in a weird way only served to hint at the potential that was being squandered. Now that we've kind of closed the book on some of these plot threads, here's hoping the show can really start to rebound.

My Grade: B -


- It really is amazing how many tonal shifts this show has had in its short lifespan. On one hand, the inconsistency has been totally frustrating. On the other, it is interesting if only to tune in and see which version of Bionic Woman we'll be getting this week. The dark, comic-bookish tone of the pilot? The more soap-opera-ish tone of later episodes? Or the lighter, jumpier tone of the last two episodes - feeling a lot like NBC's other spy show, Chuck (except not as smart or funny or entertaining). Last night's ep at least seemed solidly-put-together, but man, just really nothing very exciting going on, and nothing, plot-wise, to really sink your teeth into. Part of the problem with making this into some kind of free-wheeling romantic comedy is that Jamie is simply not all that likable. To be honest, she feels like someone who'd be completely annoying to hang out with in real life, and her lame banter last night about her views on guys and dating was yet another indication that this reimagined Jamie Summers is kind of that girl who you hated in high school. The show now feels less like Bionic Woman and more like Mr. and Mrs. Smith-lite, and it's decently entertaining, but I feel like this isn't what I signed up for.

My Grade: C+


- Well, if you check out my last post there were some pretty negative reviews from the peanut gallery concerning the 100th episode of Family Guy. After watching ... I thought it was decent. Nothing spectacular, but some funny jokes scattered here and there, and a certain fan-service thrill in actually seeing Stewie do the deed and kill Lois, following through on what has now been a running joke since the series' inception. And seeing as how, all those many years ago in the early days of FG, I thought that the Kool-Aid man jumping out and saying "Oh yeah!" at random was about the funniest thing I had ever seen, I was more than happy to see this classic gag revisited, if only for this one time. Some of the cutaways did fall pretty flat (dissing on Kate Winslet and calling her ugly? Kate Winslet?!?! That's kind of a big reach ...), there were a few gems as well (I liked Harrison Ford running around asking people where his family was). I still feel sad that, in general, FG is only a shadow of its former self, but I still get a kick out of it for the most part. And by the way, the bonus special in which creator Seth McFarlane poses as a PR guy, asking random viewers their thoughts on the show, was pretty damn funny.

My Grade: B

Okay, out of time for now. Back later with more.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

From a Picket Line Outside of NBC: Writer's Strike,TV Roundup (Prison Break, Simpsons Treehouse of Horror ...) + AMERICAN GANGSTER & 30 DAYS OF NIGHT!

No strike here, baby. The blog must go on ...

Well, it's been another crazy week here in Hollywood. The Writer's Strike is now in full force, and right outside, by NBC Burbank's various entrances, numerous picketers are rallying for their cause. As a TV and film fanboy, I'm tempted to peruse the picket lines just to see if I can spot any of my favorite writers - I mean, right now, anyone from Damon Lindeloff to Brian K. Vaughan to Chris Carter to the Coen Brothers could be outside our offices, snacking on a sandwich and hoisting signs towards the corporate suites in protest. Pretty crazy, huh? And here I am, working in the much-talked-about area of New Media, an aspiring writer myself, very much caught in the middle and with an insider's view of both sides of the coin. Interesting times to work in entertainment, though not a very good time to be working in or on a production. All of my friends working on such shows as Leno, Ellen, etc. are very much screwed, as are many of the NBC Pages, who suddenly find themselves with a signifigant part of their job cut out of the equation (working at The Tonight Show). As if that wasn't enough, from a TV fan's perspective we may be headed for very dark times indeed. No Conan, SNL, Daily Show, etc starting NOW for the forseeable future. In the next several weeks, virtually all scripted shows from THE OFFICE to HEROES to PUSHING DAISIES will burn off their last five or six episodes that have already been shot - meaning, come January ... get ready for a distinct lack of quality television ... and I shudder to even think that the highly-anticipated new seasons of LOST and 24 might be delayed or even postponed until NEXT year. I think the TV nets have a lot to be afraid about. Anyone remember how long it took Major League Baseball to recover from its strike? In the absence of new scripted television, you can bet that those X-Box's and Playstations are going to be flying off the shelves - Heroes might be in reruns, but Mario, Solid Snake, and Master Chief will be there to consume hours of downtime - and what better time is there to catch up on older series on DVD (I can finally finish up my PRISONER box set, and man, I've been dying to finally watch TWIN PEAKS) or expand one's film horizons? Like I said ... TV's success in this day and age of so many entertainment options is in large part based on the quality of its programming realtive to everything else that's out there (film, games, internet, etc). Without that key content, expect hard times ahead for television.

- Before I forget, I never had a chance to properly congratulate the BOSTON RED SOX on their World Series victory. Like I've said, lack of time and lack of enthusiasm due to being so far removed from everything kind of kept me out of the baseball loop this year, but still ... BOSTON, baby.

- Speaking of sports, on Sunday (Sunday, SUNDAY!) I was lucky enough to go see a Lakers game, for free, thanks to two tickets procured by the G-Man. And these weren't any old tickets, but $200 courtside seats, baby! Awww yeah, rollin' VIP style. Ironically enough though, the game in question pitted the hated Lakers against my other all-time most-hated team, the Utah Jazz. Now, some of you know that my brother Matt is a DIEHARD Jazz fan. As youngsters, the two of us would often sit down in a state of sibling on sibling warfare as we buckled in to see our respective teams square off in on-court combat. Even as I always rooted for the Charles Barkley-led Suns and then the Rockets, my brother was a devout deciple of the Stockton-Malone Jazz, and remains a hardcore Jazz Man to this day. Back in the day, the Jazz vs. Suns / Rockets rivalry led to many epic showdowns and playoff duels. Who can forget Stockton's infamous 3 that shut down the Rockets en route to another NBA Finals push for The Mailman and co.? Or what about Eddie Johnson's half-court shot at the buzzer? Or the classic Sir Charles vs. Mailman showdowns? So anyways, it was interesting to see the hated Jazz in person, even if at this point they are a somewhat likable team in my eyes, led by the likes of scrappy underdogs like Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. I was actually rooting for the Jazz to defeat the Lakers, as I freaking hate Kobe and his whiny moaning all the time. What we got was a good back and forth game, even if I couldn't bring myself to really get behind either team. But thanks again to the G-Man for the tix - always a good time to see some live NBA action. Next mission: to see the re-tooled CELTICS live and kicking ass!

- Otherwise, good times were had this weekend. In addition to the Lakers - Jazz game, Saturday was a fun night as a large crew gathered to celebrate the birthday of our fellow former Page, Ms. Whitney. Many crazy dance moves were busted out, and many an 80's rock classic sung along to. Other than that, I've been knee-deep in the finger-busting awesomeness that is GUITAR HERO III. And when I say finger-busting, man do I mean it. With a revamped look and feel thanks to new developer Neversoft (of Tony Hawk fame), the latest GH iteration has a strong emphasis on rapid-fire sequences that have you pushing your fingers to the limits of hand-eye coordination. There are less of the clean chords of Guitar Hero II, and a lot more songs like Ozzy Osbourne's Paranoid and The Rolling Stones' Paint It Black, which have quick, button-mashing notes that fall all over the guitar. But man, the song selection this time around is pretty great - everything from Poison's Talk Dirty To Me, to The Killer's When You Were Young, to Sunshine of Your Life by Cream. I'm still waiting for The Ramones, the Donnas, Green Day, and AC/DC, but overall this is another addictive entry into one of the most fun game franchises to come along in a while. In the meantime, I'm still plugging away on ZELDA: The Phantom Hourglass for DS, Daxter and Castlevania for PSP, and I still have to get all the way through God of War II as well. On second thought, maybe this writer's strike isn't such a bad thing after all ...


Once again I'm way behind, so I'll work backwords and go quickly:


- Last night's two-hour Prison Break event ... well, it was pretty freaking riveting. In a season filled with angsty heroes and gossipy teens, it was nice to finally be sitting on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, wondering who would live and who would die, taking in the intensity of the moment and soaking in the gravitas.

One thing about last night's ep was that we really got to see some different sides of Michael and Lincoln. We saw Michael come unglued after realizing that Sarah was dead. We saw Lincoln go through moments of desperation, trying to keep his aggression in check as he did everything he could to ensure that LJ would not be killed at the hands of the Company. And sorry, I don't know the actress' name, but, let's call her Company Woman - dayum, she was downright EVIL last night ... I couldn't wait to see her get her what-for (haha, that phrase needs to be used more). Fichtner as Mahone - awesome as always. Bellick - still a kickass character. Lechero had some great moments here as well. Even the much-neglected Sucre had a key "save the day" scene which was pretty cool.

Here's the thing - the whole build up to the escape attempt was off-the-chain intense. I was totally into it, from the spiking of the guard's drink to the precise moment when the sunlight caused the other guard to squint. On top of that, Mahone was taken into custody and Whistler got himself into a to-the-death brawl with Scofield. Like I said, off-the chain. My only complaint is that, by episode's end, the reset button was essentially hit, and all the cool escape plans, all of the intense scenes with Lincoln vs. The Company that had a "now or never" feel to them ... they were all rendered somewhat of a moot point since it's now back to square one. Typically, this is not a show that treads water, so it was a bit deflating to see that happen. Don't get me wrong though, for two solid hours, this was some highly entertaining TV that showed again why PRISON BREAK is TV that hits you like a punch in the mouth.

My Grade: A -

NOTE: I have not yet watched HEROES, as I was engrossed in the 2-hour PRISON BREAK. I've heard that last night's was the best of the season thus far though, so I'm eager to check it out, along with one of my favs, CHUCK.


I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Saturday's edition of SNL, hosted by the always funny Brian Williams (yes, you read that right). Sure, the show was, as is usual of late, fairly inconsistent, but it had several sketches which really hit the mark - from a dead-on iPhone commercial parody to a scathing lampoon of network execs. Brian Williams was dryly funny, and there were a number of enjoyable sketches. My main complaint - the show's political humor continues to be very flat, with weak writing and not enough performers outside of Darrell Hammond who can do servicable impressions. Still, this was the best overall ep of SNL I've seen in a long while.

My Grade: B

- I also have not yet seen FAMILY GUY due to the Lakers game, but did manage to catch the annual ...


- ... And holy lord, this was just sad, pathetic, and horrifying in the worst sense of the word. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I saw over on IGN they gave this one a VERY generous 7.5 or so out of 10 ... but when I looked at the comment section I saw many postings that echoed my own thoughts. This was one sorry excuse for a Halloween episode. The opeing intro was unnecessary - it's bad enough that the show now regularly airs after Halloween is over and done with - but did we need to be reminded of that sad fact by Marge's opening banter? Instead of some kind of creepy / funny intro, all we got was a stale parody of all the network bugs that pop up on FOX. Ugghhh. The first short, an ET parody (kind of) featuring Bart taking a liking to a marooned space-alien (forget if it was Kang or Kodos), was pretty tired and weak, with one or two good lines but really, nothing to get very excited about. And that was kind of the theme of the night ... this whole ep was VERY short on laughs, or even on clever writing. Things got even worse, okay, make that WAY worse, in the lame-as-can-be Mr. and Mrs. Smith parody that followed. Yep, you heard right. A parody of a sub-par film from three years ago, that is not horror or Halloween-related in any way. WTF. I'll say it again: WTF. Seriously? Just bad. Emabarrassingly bad. Finally, we at least got something Halloween-related with the Heck House segment. Only problem was, this was once again much more trick than treat. Few if any laughs, a boring concept, just a total lack of wit or sharpness, with the exception of some nifty visuals once Bart and Lisa and co. enter Flanders' version of Hell. Otherwise, it was a disappointing capper to what was a total disappointment of an episode. It was flawed from the subjects chosen to parody (again: Mr. and Mrs. Smith!?!?) to the decidely unfunny execution. Better luck next year kids, I guess this is what rock bottom looks like.

My Grade: D


- I've heard from a few people that I've been pretty hard on The Office of late. Well, hold up, dudes. Like many, I jumped on the "Office at one-hour is a shadow of The Office at half-hour" bandwagon. And it was a cause that I believe had and has merit. For the first few episodes of the season, The Office felt watered-down in terms of jokes and humor. Characters like Michael Scott began acting strangely and getting increasingly annoying. And the show began taking a turn into the melodramatic that soundly violated its usual "show don't tell" style of fly-on-the-wall storytelling. But wait! The last two episodes of The Office have, clearly, been a full return to form. In particular, I felt like Thursday's ep was a bonafide classic - downright hilarious, while at the same time giving us a slightly different look at Jim than we usually get, showing him getting stressed-out, nervous, and awkward when confronted with having to see Karen again. Meanwhile, the interplay between Dwight and Michael was classic (Dwight is always great when playing Michael's child-like cheerleader), and hey, who doesn't love fake mustaches? A great episode that re-affirmed The Office as one of the best, funniest shows on TV.

My Grade: A


- Over the last few weeks, Smallville has been on a relative roll. Storylines seem to be gaining a lot of momentum, and the addition of Kara to the mix has certainly made for some interesting plot possibilities, especially as far as Lex Luthor is concerned. The return of Lionel to the mix has also been great for the show, as we get to see John Glover do his thing and act circles around most of the cast members on the show. We also got a cool glimpse of Kara's Kryptonian family life, with her father Zor-El revealed as not being all he was cracked up to be. Plus, Helen Slater, aka Supergirl from the camp-classic 1980's SUPERGIRL flick, was on hand as Clark's mother Lara, in yet another nice tip of the hat to those who have previously contributed (okay, I guess Supergirl counts, barely, as a contribution), to the Superman legacy. Still, there were a few hiccups along the way. Lana continues to be pretty irritating as a manipulative puppet-master who is not being honest with Clark about her various shady dealings. Enough already! Let's just see Lana as a normal girl for once and keep her on the sidelines while Clark has his adventures. Her character has just become too damaged for anyone to really care at this point. My other big issue is that I'm still totally confused about Lionel. In this ep he hugs Clark ... but hasn't Clark long been aware that Lionel is an evil bastard out to kill him? The show needs to take an episode and establish once and for all what the real deal with Lionel is. This "is he or isn't he evil" thing is getting pretty annoying. Otherwise, this was a good ep with some fun bits and some interesting backstory revealed as far as Kara is concerned.

My Grade: B


- Last week's Halloween ep was another gem. I found it a bit odd that the episode's mystery turnedo ut to be less Headless Horsemen and more Scooby Doo in nature, but as always the real meat of the episode was the relationship between Ned and Chuck, which has yet to get stale thanks to clever writing and the great chemistry between the two leads. Of the many shows just getting into the swing of things, this might be the biggest casualty of a strike-shortened season. Pushing Daisies is a potential classic-in-the-making, and I'm sad to see it facing a potentially prematurely-cut-short run.

My Grade: A -

- That's about it for TV stuff for now - but remember, show your support for shows like CHUCK, PUSHING DAISIES, and ALIENS IN AMERICA now ... it might be your last chance!

- Okay, I've got some long-gestating movie reviews for you guys as well ... so strap in, you're in for a ride ...


- I went into American Gangster with a near-guarantee that this powerhouse of a movie, starring two iconic actors and directed by a legendary director, would be a movie of note. The question was - would it be a great movie, or merely a very good one? The answer to that is not simple, but the fact remains that what we have in American Gangster is a quality film that ranks among the most enjoyable crime flicks in quite some time.

This version of the Mafia rags-to-riches fable concerns Frank Lucas, a real-life figure who, in the 1960's, defied the odds to become the unlikely crime boss of the New York drug-trade. Because he was African-american, few believed that Lucas wielded as much power as he did, though he was eventually targeted and taken down by a particularly driven cop. From the outset, all of the ingrediants are here for a classic film. You've got two of today's most charismatic and convincing stars going head to head in Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. You've got one of the all-time great film directors in Ridley Scott at the helm. And you have a quintissential American story that seems tailor-made for film, following in the footsteps of other great crime sagas, from The Godfather to Goodfellas.

On most counts, American Gangster delivers on its promise. A lot of that is thanks to Ridley Scott, who makes a movie that feels perfectly paced and looks stunning from start to finish. Even at two and a half hours long, the film races from scene to scene, quickly showing shades of The Godfather in the way in which it documents Lucas' rise to power, in a story that spans a number of years and is fairly epic in scope. However, in the midst of all of the heavy plotting, there's plenty of time for Scott's trademark visual brilliance. Nobody does moody lighting, atmosphere, or ambiance like Scott, and each scene here takes on a visual life of its own. From shadowy sillhouettes in backlit country homes to dank drug-dens, this movie teems with visual style.

As far as the leads go, both do an admirale job, but I'm not sure if this is necessarily career-defining work for either Washington or Crowe. Washington as Lucas gets most of the film's juciest scenes to chew on, and Denzel does a great job as always. However, Denzel does a bit too much Denzel-as-Denzel here, in a role that calls for something a bit deeper. While watching the movie, I didn't realy consider this, and simply enjoyed watching Washington as a cool and ultra-confident criminal who always went the extra-step to ensure success, no matter how dirty he had to get his hands in the process. Undoubtedly, Lucas was and is a fascinating character - the entire story of how he traveled to the jungles of Vietnam, at the height of the War, and imported heroin himself in order to cut out a middleman - is attention-grabbing in and of itself. But Lucas is also portrayed as someone capable of shocking violence ... and yet, there's somthing a bit lacking in Denzel's performance in that he makes it very difficult to reconcile the usual Denzel persona with a character who kills mercilessly in cold blood and profits from the suffering of others. As I said, the character of Lucas is fascinating, and Denzel does a great job with what he's given, for the msot part. But we never really get that hint of weakness, that sign that sure, this guy SEEMS like he has it all together, but doesn't quite.

And that ties into the script. I guess that part of the problem with this movie is that it doesn't seem to know, exactly, whether it wants to be a straight-up drama or a more over-the-top genre piece. Last year, Scorcese created a crackling crime drama in THE DEPARTED which was so memorable partly because it relished its own pulpiness and genre roots. Even in films like the Godfather, there is that certain sense of heightened reality, that idea that this is reality with an edge. By seeing this exaggerated art, we also see truth, and that's why many classic films are also films that dare to be stylized, with a unique vision of the world filtered through the eyes of their creators. In American Gangster, there seems to be a conflict between Ridley Scott's desire to do his own Godfather and the script's desire to play things straight. Simply put - the script here does not afford Scott, Denzel, or Crowe enough opportunities to let loose, go wild, and indulge in the type of over-the-top, cinematic moments that make crime movies like this so entertaining. This movie does all of the small scenes to perfection ... but ... for a movie this big, this epic, this filled with charismatic stars, there are surprisingly few big, grand moments of sweeping cinema on display. And that's ultimately what keeps it from being a GREAT, classic movie - for all its strengths, when the end of the movie hits, it still feels like we're in the build-up phase - those expected moments of passion and intensity never quite came.

Now, again, there is so much to like about American Gangster. I've touched on Denzel's performance, but Russell Crowe is also really great here. He doesn't get as many fun moments, but his character is a bit deeper and has a bit more going on below the surface. He is, essentially, the ying to Denzel's yang (which sounds pretty weird when said aloud, but whatever ...). While Frank Lucas is professionally a ruthless crime lord, but personally a man who always puts family and loyalty first, Crowe's Richie Roberts is a by-the-book cop who cheats on his wife and can't make time to see his young son. Personally, Richie is a trainwreck, but professionally, he is about the most driven guy you'll find, to the point where he once gave up a huge stash of unclaimed money, becoming the butt of countless jokes in the police force. Both experience prejudice (Frank for being black, Richie for being a Jew), but one is living the high life while the other is struggling in the trenches. Crowe gives a very strong performance, and really tones down his alpha male tendencies for the sake of the character. Now, aside from the big two though, Josh Brolin nearly steals the movie, as a crooked cop who plays both sides of the fence. Brolin is great here - his is the type of over-the-top villain that this movie seems made for, menacing 'stache and all. Carla Gugino does a nice job as Richie's beleagured wife, and the rest of the cast is uniformly strong. Of particular note is Ruby Dee as Frank's elderly mother, who has one scene in particular that maight just be the movie's most memorable and resonant.

In the end, American Gangster surely falls among the year's best films to date. A superb cast and visually brilliant direction makes this feel like an epic crime saga in the grand tradition of cinema's best. But is American Gangster to be considered in that same canon as the all-time greats? I'd have to say it falls just short. For all it's craftsmanship, the movie just seems to be missing that certain perspective, that certain punch, to give it a truly lasting impact. I won't give away the ending, but I did really like the final shots of the film - they hint at an idea - a very intriguing one - of Frank Lucas as relates to the modern struggle of African Americans. I wish that these types of idea had been more thoroughly explored. As it is, this one is completely watchable and in many ways fascinating, but just short of a home-run. With a movie as good as this one, with so much talent and potential, that is, I hate to say it, slightly disappointing.

My Grade: A -

30 DAYS OF NIGHT Review:

- So, I saw this just before Halloween and have been meaning to write a review. I was eager to see 30 Days because I had recently read the graphic novel it's based on, and was curious to see how it was adapted for the screen. Basically, the best thing about 30 Days of Night, both the movie and the comic, is the tres-cool premise: In a small Alaskan town, every winter there's a period in which the sun doesn't rise for a full 30 days. Having recently become aware of this, a clan of vampires decides this is basically a dream scenario for them - without any of that pesky sunlight to get in the way, it's feastin' time for the undead. It's a damn good idea for a horror story, so kudos to comic writer Steve Niles for that ...

Now, the graphic novel is an interesting beast. It's a cool little story, sure. But in the comics world the thing has been pretty hyped-up, and reading 30 Days, I couldn't help but feel a bit let down. The story mostly cruises on the strength of its concept, and is pretty minimalist, with little in the way of backstory or characterization. In this respect, the movie actually improves on its source material (how often can you say THAT?), with some decently fleshed-out characters and a bit more meat to its plotting than the comic has.

What I liked in the film was how it took time to let the suspense build. With some stylish direction that evoked the moody art of illustrator Ben Templesmith, I really got immersed in the movie as it introduced us to the various residents of Barrow, Alaska, as they prepared for a month of darkness. In his lead role as the town sherrif, Josh Hartnett does a good job. No, he won't win any Oscars for this, but Hartnett is a good leading man and does a nice job of carrying the bulk of the movie on his shoulders.

As for the vampires - they border the line between looking menacing and overly cartoonish. When standing still, they're pretty freaky. The best is emerging star Ben Foster as a particularly gruesome vampire lackey. But when the vampires attack ... well ... they look like hungry beavers gnawing into a wooden log - it's a bit over the top, even for a movie of this nature. Also, the vampires talk in some weird vampire language, which was a little off-putting to me, and also tend to howl and growl a lot in affirmation or anger ... I think that vampires are one of the most enduring horrror creatures because of their paradoxical blend of danger and elegance. To portray these vampires essentially as beastly killing machines with no real motive or purpose - well, it makes them a bit less interesting.

And that's the other area where this movie doesn't seem to hold up. I mean, what exactly is so great about the vampires' plan to swarm in on Barrow? It sounds good at first, but they basically descend on the town and kill everyone, save a few elusive stragglers, within a matter of hours. How then is Barrow any better than any other town that could be wiped off the map in a single evening?

Despite some logic gaps, the movie is a pretty well-done, straightforward creepfest for most of its running time. In the final act though, the movie devolves into a totally over-the-top, crazy acid-trip that plays out like some high school kids' vampire fan-fiction come to life. At first, I was kind of amused by how crazy the movie was getting as it drew to a close, but after several miutes of nuttiness, enough was enough - what had started as a legitimately eerie gothic horror flick had turned into a totally ridiculous piece of crap in a matter of minutes. I won't reveal what happens, but I don't recall this movie's ending being present in the comic, and it's a clear example of a case where the book's more minimalist approach would have worked best.

So overall this was an enjoyable pre-Halloween flick, but some logic holes and a final act that left me cringing made it not quite Drac-worthy. No, it didn't totally bite, but 30 Days of Night was not as sharp as I had hoped.

My Grade: B -

- Alriiiiiiiiiiight, it's been a big blog and I'm outta time. Stay tuned for more.