Monday, September 29, 2008

The SIMPSONS Turns 20! The Return of FOX Sunday Night - Reviewed!

Okay, time to take a break from self-serious birthday reflection and acknowledge that yesterday was indeed signifigant for reasons other than being the glorious day that brought one Danny Baram into this world. Afterall, yesterday was the TWENTIETH season premiere of the greatest TV show of all time, The Simpsons. Say what you want about the show in its latter years, but that is still a pretty signifigant achievement. It's probably been at least a good eight years since the show was it's old self, and in the last decade or so the show has swung back and forth between being mediocre, mildly funny, and at its best, refreshingly reminiscient of the good ol' days, when seemingly every Simpsons episode was an instant classic, immediately entered into the pop-culture lexicon of awesomely hilarious TV.

But you have to wonder, have the Simpsons fans become so jaded in their old age that they can't even recognize when a good episode comes their way? Afterall, many of us twenty-something fans saw many of the classics when we were in elementary school. There's no way we'll have the same reaction to a great new Simpsons episode now that we're out of college and workin' the 9 to 5. Now, that's not me being an apologist. The classics do tend to hold up brilliantly in a way that many of the newer episodes don't. They were amazingly written, hilariously voice-acted, and contained classic premise after classic premise.

More than once on the blog, I've provided lengthy disections of why exactly nu-Simpsons episodes don't possess the old-school episodes' brilliance, so I won't spend too much time on that here. But I will say this: between the not-amazing-but-still-pretty-funny movie from last year, and several episodes from last season that fell in the good-to-very-good range ... well, any true Simpsons fan has no excuse to not check out new episodes. No, the show has not made some miraculous return to Season 4 quality, but it has undeniably upped its game a bit over the last several months.

I think that was evident in last night's 20th (!!!) season premiere. The premise - Homer and Flanders becoming bail bondsmen - was nothing revolutionary, but on the whole the writing felt sharper and the jokes felt more on-point than many Simpsons detractors might have expected. For those who dismiss this ep as just another new-school, mediocre Simpsons, let me provide a few reasons why that simply isn't true:

a.) A singular A-plot that goes from start to finish: A hallmark of later-era Simpsons eps was that many episodes would start out dealing with one premise and then finally get around to its primary premise with only 10 or so minutes left in the episode. To many, this kind of sloppy storytelling was a clear sign that the show's writing had gone down the tubes. Last night though, we saw an ep that seems to be more emblematic of more recent Simpsons ep structures - an opening that leads directly into the main A-plot, which then lasted all the way through the episode. Nice.

b.) A plot that was NOT centered around Homer trying to win back Marge: and thank God - that has to be the single most overused premise in the last 10 years of The Simpsons. If it never pops up again, no one will mind.

c.) Some mild continuity when appropriate: nice reference to Maude Flanders' death (to be fair, it's one of the few continuity points the show has continually referenced over the last several years)

d.) Jokes that actually hit the mark: some of the one-liners and set-ups from last night's ep plain and simply made me laugh ... the gag with Skinner and Chalmers having dinner, Homer being upset that Marge would withhold sexy cakes from him, the Irish parade with the empty float for straight Catholic priests, Ned and Homer's Christian-rock version of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds." Good stuff.

Now, was this a modern-day classic or a flat-out amazing episode? No, def not. It felt like a retread in many ways and there wasn't much build-up behind the twists that the Homer-Ned relationship took. If you compare it to the eps where they go to Vegas, or when Flanders first opens the Leftorium ... those classics gave a lot of depth to the Flanders - Homer rivalry. Compared to those, this one was pretty lightweight. But - the ep made me laugh, entertained me, and had no real groan-inducing moments. And it was the best show on Fox on Sunday. Overall, good show for a twenty-year old series.

My Grade: B+

- KING OF THE HILL was solid, but felt overall a bit bland. We've seen Bill-centric episodes that delved deeper into his tortured psyche, and funnier overall Bill episodes as well. The Bobby B-plot was barely there to boot. But man, I love these characters - even a mid-range Bill episode still has its entertaining moments, and only Bill would voluntarily confine himself to a wheelchair as a preemptive measure, and then enjoy the resulting pity from his friends. Overall, a decent opener, but not the best that this still-great show is capable of.

My Grade: B

- Meanwhile, FAMILY GUY was a very new-school style episode, meaning that it had this weird need to try to prove that the show is smarter and more adult than people give it credit for. I don't know, I liked when Stewie was an insane baby who wanted to take over the world, and Brian was the family dog who was smarter than everyone else in the room. Stewie as a creepy, effeminate gay baby and Brian as a sexually-frustrated bohemian dog is just a bit much for me. I miss when this show was random and fun - now it just seems like its trying too hard. I'm not saying I want a return to the random cutaways every 10 seconds, but I also don't want any more shows centered around Brian's moping and lousy luck with the ladies. Sure, the ep had its moments - Cleveland's exclamations whilst getting busy with Brian's flame were kind of hilarious - but, overall, this was yet another Family Guy ep that I wanted to like but just didn't find much to laugh at.

My Grade: B-

- Alright -- SHANA TOVAH and Happy New Year!

No Time For Tricks - I'm TWENTY-SIX!

Wow, what a weekend. I barely made it through work on Friday, feeling sick and about ready to drop. I sat at home and watched the debate, sipping on chicken soup and praying to the gods of sudafed that I'd be feeling better on Saturday, in time for my big birthday festivities. I was still a bit anxious on Saturday morning and into the afternoon - but luckily, about 10 hours of sleep, 3 bowls of chicken soup, and 1 chocolate milkshake later, I was at least on the road to recovery. I was finally beginning to feel like my old self as the evening hours approached, and as we headed over to Miceli's for my 26th b-day dinner, I was ready to roll.

Overall, Saturday was pretty awesome - good friends, good food, and then even more good times at Skinny's in NoHo. Bradd K. made the trip up from Newport Beach to celebrate. The G-Man, Seth E., Scott C., Kyle O., and The Kaiser Roll were in the house, as were Fowzia, the Brothers Eich, Steve R., Meghan B., Lauren S., Becca S., and more. Dinner was served with a healthy dose of political debate and summer movie analysis (two of my favorite topics), and court was in session, while we were serenaded by Miceli's trademark showtune-singin' staff. Later at Skinny's, we made fools of ourselves to the tune of a healthy selection of 90's hip-hop hits, the occasional 80's flashback, and an only-fitting finale of Sweet Child O' Mine.

Today (my actual b-day), was mostly just my day to be lazy and recover from the previous night's festivities. I slept late and read in bed until I forced myself to get up and get out. I cashed in a few gift certificates and picked up a few key DVD's / CD's / Blu-Ray's. I talked on the phone to my parents, grandparents, and brother. Uploaded my b-day photos. And settled in for the Sunday night tradition of watching The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Family Guy. Not a bad way to spend a day.

But yeah, sometimes on my birthday I'll get a bit reflective and feel the urge to wax nostalgically about the year that was. But this is now my 26th year, baby. If anything, it's time to stop talking and get walking. Time to reconnect with what I'm passionate about, what my goals are, and reevaluate where I'm at and what I'm doing. Because I'm on a mission, a mission I started almost 4 years ago when I made the move from Bloomfield, CT to Burbank, CA. And if anything, turning 26 means that PHASE 1 is over and done with. And PHASE 2 begins now. Phase 1 was getting my foot in the door, finding my start, learning, observing, getting settled. Phase 2 ... well, I don't quite know what Phase 2 is ... yet. But it's time to stop coasting and to get back to thinking BIG.

This is when it's all going to happen. It's time to be the man. So watch out, Hollywood. There's a new kid in town, and he's ready to rock.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Main Event: Obama, McCain, Debate #1, Paul Newman, and My Last-Ever Post as a 25-Year Old!

Well, last night I lay shivering on my bed trying to fight back the mother of all colds, downing Chicken Soup and hoping that I'd be feeling better for tonight's epic birthday festivities. And don't worry, I'll be back soon for one of my annual birthday posts where I go all emo and get refelective. But for now I'll withhold the cheesy song lyrics and whatnot and throw in my quick 2 cents on last night's big Presidential Debate:

- Objectively, I thought it was a great debate. While things occasionally got testy, the first head-to-head meeting between Obama and McCain was mostly a sober, well-contested affair that placed the focus on the issues and showed the clear differences between the two candidates in a number of key areas. I give McCain credit - he displayed an energy and persistence, a level of focus, that I haven't often seen from him in debates. However, to me, Obama easily went toe to toe with his more experienced opponent. Especially in the area of foreign policy - Obama hit McCain hard, clearly laying down his case for why he had displayed better judgement when it came to the war in Iraq and how best to deal with allies and adversaries - including North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran. Obama had a clear case of precedent backing up his premise - he pointed to the failure of the Bush administration - the lack of diplomacy, the misguided and mismanaged war in Iraq - and elegantly showed why McCain's policies would in essence lead to more of the same. No matter how much McCain wants to tout the effectiveness of the surge in Iraq, he still never produced a single justification for the war in the first place. In fact, he actually ADMITTED that he had been wrong about taking focus off of Afghanistan and missing the potential opportunity to nail Bin Laden and dismatle Al-Queida. McCain's continual evocations of the Nixon and Reagan eras showed his experience, but also belied an outdated attitude. McCain was so focused on not "losing" the war in Iraq that he never stopped to ponder the wisdom of the war in the first place. I cringed whenever McCain talked about not losing the war as if it were simply a game of football - and Obama had a great counter to that bad logic, when he explained that a soldier is always out to "win" a war and accomplish a mission - but that doesn't reflect on the wisdom of the mission in the first place.

I do think Obama could have hit McCain harder on the economy, but I guess its long been Obama's style to let his opponents defeat themselves in some respects. And the current bail-out plan is not exactly something that either candidate was especially eager to talk about. It's still too early to know exactly what its ramifications will be, and neither wanted to speculate on which parts of their agenda will suffer due to fallout from the current economic crisis. But, I think McCain did look a bit foolish in constantly citing earmarked bills as his big, great item that he intends to reform. Pretty much every politician promises to eliminate earmark spending, but Obama is right - even if you eliminate all earmarks and porkbarrel items - that's still merely putting a bandaid on a gaping wound. The reality is that McCain is still in favor of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and still opposed to universal healthcare, and still has yet to prove that he's committed to saying "screw you" to the big oil companies. So while Obama could have been a bit more relentless in his economic attacks on McCain, I think McCain may have been his own undoing.

Again, I give McCain some credit - he was focused and cunning in the way he went after Obama on certain issues. But Obama was, as usual, cool, collected, and able to deflect a lot of McCain's criticism with relative ease. And it helps that, plain and simply, Obama finds himself in most cases on the right side of the issues. And this debate focused on foreign policy - which is supposedly McCain's biggest area of expertise. When the subject turns to social policy, healthcare, the environment, and technology ... well, McCain may have missed his one big chance to dominate a debate. And as for the upcoming vice-presidential debate ... wow, that's going to be some must-see TV. If Palin's interview with Katie Couric is any indication, Palin is going to be out of her element.

- Finally, I'd like to say RIP to the great Paul Newman. One of the great actors, and the rare Hollywood role model, the world of entertainment has a giant void without the great talents of Mr. Newman. While I've yet to watch some of Newman's best-known films, I look forward to eventually going through his award-winning catalogue. I do know that even in his later years, the man who became an icon with Cool Hand Luke and The Sting was still stealing scenes in movies like Road to Perdition and Cars - movies which made younger fans of my generation a fan. I was lucky enough to see Newman in person on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and I was floored that even in his 80's, Newman challenged Jay to a race around the NBC Studios, where Newman zipped around a custom race-track like he was born to drive. The fact that Newman did so much charitable work with his food products, and was such a solid personality, despite being a Hollywood star, is a testament to his greatness.

- Alright, time for some birthday celebrations~! I'm taking my vitamins, saying my prayers, and ready to kick some ass!

Here's to my last post as a 25 year old. Yikes!

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Great Debate: Political Rants, Plus: THE OFFICE and SMALLVILLE

Thank you, John McCain, for going ahead with the debate tonight. I know the concept of multitasking is a tough one to grasp for some in McCain's generation, but I think that McCain realizes that to back out of the debate at this point would only make him look foolish. I mean, come on John -- this is it! This is the real, substantive moment of the campaign after months of YouTube ads, sound bytes, and gossip columns. This is the moment to put your agenda on the table for all to hear, and to directly compare and contrast it to Obama's. On the other hand, you could be sitting in a meeting room with dozens of other senators, uttering one sentance in a 45 minute span. Yeah, that's what we need from you right now John ...

I think the reality is - McCain is on his way to being pwned in this debate. I'm not sure if the focus will shift at all from foreign policy to the economy given the circumstances, but on either issue McCain is going to have a very tough time defending his previous positions. I mean, what of substance can he say beyond his usual soundbytes about shaking up Washington and being a maverick? I think in the last few weeks it has become especially apparent - Washington under the reign of George W. Bush is broken. Now, is McCain enough of a maverick to fix that? Is the guy who's voted with George Bush 90% of the time really the one to shift gears and stear the ship in the right direction?

Obama has been thoroughly tested over the last several months - from Hillary, from McCain, from the media. He's now primed and ready to obliterate McCain in their first debate, and I'm happy we'll get to see that moment.

Think about it: McCain's first virtual act as a would-be President was to select Sarah Palin as his running mate. It's now clear that Palin makes George W. Bush like like Stephen Hawking. All one has to do is watch Palin's recent interview with Katie Couric -- Palin is like the kid being called into the principal's office trying to stammer her way through the principal's questions. Palin's performance in the interview was absolutely cringe-worthy. She seemed incapable of intelligent analysis of any of the big issues, either repeating the same old, tired, scripted lines or else talking in circles whenever she didn't have the script to rely on. Just embarassing.

Tonight though is going to be about Obama vs. McCain, and I think it's going to be quite the contrast. It's going to be the beginning of the end for the McCain-Palin ticket.


- THE OFFICE: Last night's Office season premiere had a lot going against it, potentially. It was an hour long episode, for one, and it's been established that The Office always struggles a bit when it has to sort of artifically elongate a premise to stretch over the course of an hour. The other potential strike was that last season's finale established a lot of very soap opera-ish threads that this premiere was now going to have to address. Traditionally, I'm an Office fan who much prefers when the character / soapy stuff is kept IN THE BACKGROUND, and most importantly, kept subtle. With the premiere, even going into it, all of this stuff, from Jim and Pam's will-he-won't-he-propose drama to Michaels' love triangle with Jan and Holly - it was all put so front and center that there was the danger of the premiere being all plot and no comedy.

Overall, I thought the premiere had a nice balance. There were plenty of funny moments, and somce classic lines. I particularly liked Ryan's arc of coming back full circle as a temp. His interactoin with Kelly was really funny, and his line about how he had previously just been a dumb kid in his mid-twenties who had yet to fully process 9/11 ... hilarious.

Phyliss had a great line about her jugs, and Andy's hapless quest to woo Angela post-engagement was alternately sad and hilarious. But when he rattled off the name of his Cornell acapella buddies, I couldn't stop laughing.

But yeah, I don't know, I felt the Jim-Pam and Michael-Holly stuff was a bit contrived. I mean, sure, Michael Scott is totally clueless, but is he really so clueless that he'd buy Holly's concert tickets only to rip them up rather than ask her to go with him? It was a moment so random as to be slightly funny, but ultimately it feels like a somewhat forced way to drive even more of a wedge between the two would-be soul mates. Similarly, everyone could see it coming - Pam would go away to school and a rift would form between her and Jim. A slight monkey wrench was thrown into that with Jim's sudden proposal, but still, we were given quite the roller-coaster ride of emotions between the two. And again, I know there are fans for whom the Jim-Pam soap is the highlight of every Office episode. And I do enjoy the characters. In fact, I thought that the whole scene with a virtual Pam beamed into the office via Skype or iChat or whatever was pretty great.

I guess I just prefer my Office episodes in half-hour doses, with each installment loaded up with laughs. Still, last night's premiere was one of the funnier things I had seen on TV in a while, and overall it's great to have The Office back.

My Grade: B+

- I fully expected SMALLVILLE to disappoint after a surprisingly pretty good premiere. All indications were that last night's ep would be a run of the mill, freak of the week episode, and a potentially big letdown following the more epic premiere. While the ep was a fairly formulaic Smallville story, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it anyways. The same momentum from the premiere carried over here - everything just felt a little big sharper than it had the last few seasons - better dialogue, bigger drama, and more well-rounded characters. Everything felt more iconic and less cheesy than usual. Even the much dreaded introduction of The Boy Who Will Be Doomsday was handled with a lot more flair than I had anticipated. Was this groundbreaking TV? No. But Smallville once again seems to be good, solid, fun TV - and that's great to see. Plus, next week's Green Arrow secret origin episode looks way cool.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, brace yourselves for the debate tonight - as Obama takes one giant leap towards the White House!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

FRINGE Benefits ...

Five Reasons FRINGE Just Might Be Sort-of Awesome:

1.) John Noble - this guy freaking rules. His delivery as mad scientist Walter Bishop is 100% spot-on, and he is BY FAR the best thing about the show. In Episode #3, he was better than ever, and had a number of great lines.

2.) Cool Pseudo-Science Stuff - I love the whole idea of fringe science, and I think the show does a pretty decent job of presenting interesting sci-fi concepts as applied science. Episode 3's premise of a walled-garden psychic network controlled by metallic implants in the brain? Sweet.

3.) Lance Reddick - another kickass actor - he's already established himself as a badass on LOST, and now he's also a standout on JJ Abram's other network project. Unfortunately, Reddick is often given somewhat lame lines and exposition, but he's one of those actors with the gift of making even kinda-lame dialogue sound cool.

4.) Sweet Cold Opens - while Fringe is not yet in the same league as The X-Files, it has done a nice job so far of opening each episode with a pretty gripping intro, setting the stage for the case of the week to follow. So far, this is the aspect of the show that compares most favorably to X-Files.

5.) Potential for Crazy Plot Twists - So far, the mytharc of Fringe has been revealed only in very small doses - we know there's something called The Pattern, we know that Massive Dynamics is up to no good, and we know that there's more than meets the eye with regards to the Bishop family history. So far, the show's overarching plot isn't all that intruging. But, it could be. There's all kinds of potential - could Walter Bishop secretly be running Massive Dynamics? Is Joshua Jackson some kind of crazy cyborg mandroid? Is Ana Torv some kind of chosen one? Hmm ...

Five Reasons Why I'm Still Iffy On FRINGE:

1.) Non-Walter Bishop Characters are Boring - I want to like Olivia, but give me some characterization I can chew on. Pacey from Dawson's Creek, meanwhile, needs some personality other than "guy who makes sarcastic quip after everything his father says."

2.) Needs More Globe-Trotting - Part of what gave the X-Files' monster-of-the-week episodes their allure was the fact that they would see Mulder and Scully traveling to some new exotic (or not so exotic) locale with each new case. So far, all of Fringe has taken place in Boston. Which is cool, as Boston rocks (!), but the show has yet to create much of an epic scope with its distinct lack of diversity in locales.

3.) WTF is The Pattern? - Right now, this concept of The Pattern is too gimmicky - the idea that all of these various paranormal events are related and triggered by some all-encompassing consipracy is a bit much, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense to boot. And the way that people speak about The Pattern is often unintentionally funny - like it's this Big Idea that everyone kind of takes for granted. Olivia in particular needs to have a few Scully-esque freakouts where she questions the sanity of everyone who keeps talking about this magical Pattern.

4.) Already Too Formulaic - I'm sincerely hoping that Fringe doesn't begin to suffer from Smallville syndrome, where the same cliches are used in every episode. It got old fast on Smallville when every episode had the obligatory scene of Clark Kent waltzing into Lex's office no matter how improbable it was given the context of the story. Already, every ep of Fringe has seen Olivia ominously conversing with the cagey CEO of Massive Dynamics, who are improbably directly involved in every case Olivia has thus far investigated in her new role. Now, this week's ep actually addressed this, but in a very roundabout, inconclusive, "isn't that funny?" kind of way. Whether there's some grand mysterious reason for it or not, it will get old quickly if every episode falls into the same patterns (so to speak), without at least a strong sense of self-awareness of this on the part of the characters.

5.) Lack of Great Theme Song / Music - First off, I do wish Fringe had a slightly better opening that didn't just feel like a blander version of The X-Files. I also wish its musical scoring didn't feel like leftover musical scraps from LOST. Better and more distinctive music please - it's very necessary in this type of show.

What do *you* think?

- Check back tomorrow for lots more. Politics, movies, TV (THE OFFICE is on tonight! Whoo!), and more.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Super HEROES? S3 Premiere Reviewed, Plus PRISON BREAK and GOSSIP GIRL

With burned-out retinas and a fried brain, I come to you today as a man who watched approximately 517 hours of television last night. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration ... but only slight. Because with a warrior's mentality and nerves of steel, I parked myself on the couch last night to take in a night of primetime television mayhem, as multiple networks did their best to attract my trendsetting 25-year old eyeballs. So here's my Monday night roundup, raw and uncut, baby.

HEROES: Third Season Premiere Review:

- Okay, the big premiere last night was that of HEROES. For some reason, I was really optimistic about the start of Season 3. Maybe it was the positive buzz from Comic-Con, maybe I had just been drinking too much of the NBC kool-aid, I don't know. But I was somehow convinced that the premiere truly would live up to its title and be a "second coming" of sorts for Heroes. And while there were moments of coolness, and some reminders of what made the show so likable in the first place, there was still way too much of the kind of sloppy writing, poor acting, and hair-pulling pacing that made Season 2 such a bust.

Because let me take a second to sum up what I've written many times before here on the blog: I want to like - scratch that - I want to love Heroes. When I first read the pilot script I was blown away - the possibility of a primetime TV show that would create a living, breathing, comic book world with a real-world twist was music to my ears. That first script has so much potential and promise ... that it's been tough watching the show struggle to live up to its epic premise. Season 1 had a handful of the kind of "holy $#%&" moments that should, in theory, be a part of every episode of Heroes. There was the first time we saw Future Hiro, the alternate-future episode that brought shades of Days of Futures Past to the Heroes-verse. There was "Company Man," which finally brought the same kind of narrative drama and character-building that makes shows like LOST so involving to Heroes, in an episode that redefined the show and made Noah Bennet its new de facto star.

But those truly great moments have been few and far between, and the show's drawn-out setups have yet to have truly rewarding payoffs, with two consecutive season finales that failed to provide satisfying closure, or exciting build-up to the next wave of storylines. Similarly, many of the show's characters have yet to grab us. Everyone loved Hiro and Ando when they first debuted, but the pair of would-be world-savers has yet to have that big, great adventure that we've seemingly been promised since Day 1. Sylar debuted as the next great potential TV villain. Two seasons later, he's still got the same old schtick. In last night's season premiere, Claire was till moping around videotaping herself. When is she finally going to kick some ass or do something toreally make us cheer her on?

So back to last night's two hour premiere ... I was ready to have my mind blown but instead had to fight back a headache from all of the plot holes, inconsistent logic, and off-kilter pacing. First, let's talk plot - an area where Heroes has always struggled. We still don't know who exactly the older-generation of heroes are and what exactly their motives are, which makes Hiro's quest to keep some secret formula out of the wrong hands all the more mystifying, since we still don't know what his father's agenda was or how in-league he was with the sinister-seeming Angela Petrelli, Company Bob, etc. Then there was the big reveal that Future Peter travelled back in time and shot his own brother to prevent an apocalyptic future where heroes are hunted down, experimented on, etc. This reveal makes almost no sense. Why travel to that specific moment in time? Why SHOOT and nearly kill your own brother? Why randomly trap your past-self's conciousness in the body of Weevil from Veronica Mars?

One huge problem that has developed on Heroes: time travel. Rather than really having fun and letting loose with the concept, the show has been picking and choosing where and how Hiro and Peter use this ability. And the selective use of the power has already created tons of gaps in logic. For example - Hiro needs to get back his half of his father's formula? Why not travel back to the moment before it was stolen and warn his past-self not to open the safe that held it? Or - Peter feels torn about not being there for Claire when she was attacked by Sylar - an attack which left Sylar near-omnipotent now that he has absorbed Claire's powers. Why not travel back to that moment and intervene? Now, it'd be one thing if the show established clear rules for time-travel. But so far, it's been nothing but a plot-device used only at the writers' discretion. And it makes the storylines feel flimsy and not well-planned-out. They need to fix this soon.

But time-travel is just the tip of the iceberg. The show needs to simply focus and zone in on its most compelling plot points, which it rarely seems to do. Last year, the fact that there was a deadly virus out there affecting people with abilities got totally lost in the shuffle. So far this year, we have a season called Villains. We have a breakout of the world's most sinister super-powered beings. THAT should be the focus. Let's see Claire, Noah, Hiro, Peter, etc. team up to take down the badguys. It's not complicated, and it'd be a lot of fun. But already, the prison break out seems to be getting lost in the shuffle.

Part of the clutter, is, as usual, thanks to an already-groan-inducing subplot featuring Mohinder. Long the show's most annoying character, he's now teamed with Maya, last season's candidate for new most annoying character. I guess their scenes at least kill two birds with one stone, but man, were they hard to watch. We get Mohinder prancing around like Spiderman thanks to a serum that gives anyone who injects it superpowers (but with horrifying side-effects yet to be fully revealed! never seen THAT before!), and the start of a pretty sudden romantic tryst with Maya, who we can only hope soon joins her brother as a victim of Sylar's evil, brain-snatching ways. And ... holy lord ... is this show STILL doing that godawful pretentious narration from Mohinder? I mean, seriously, WTF was he talking about at the end of Hour 1? Something about the lambs of Bethlehem? Oh man, for the love of all that is sacred, please never subject us to Mohinder's narration again.

Meanwhile, Ali Larter is back, but with a new identity. In a mere two seasons, Larter's characters on Heroes have had to endure so many crazy twists and turns that the effect is now numbing. I can't imagine many Heroes fanboys out there are chomping at the bit to find out the mystery of Tracy Strauss. And it's too bad, because Larter has done an admirable job playing so many characters ... she's just a victim of the show's tendency to lower all interest in a given character by subjecting them to an endless series of confusing and ultimately pointless twists.

Case in point: Nathan Petrelli. I mean, wow, I think his personality and physical state shifted about 30 times in this season premiere alone. First he was dead, then alive but barely, then walking around in a suit looking healthy, then back in a hospital bed looking sickly. He went from going to theb rink of causing annihilation last season to fighting for the cause of good to muttering something about being an angel of God to signing up to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. When Future-Peter revealed to Nathan that it was him who had shot him to prevent a horrible future, the revelation landed with all the intensity of a typical episode of Ghost Whisperer.

Now, what did I like? I liked most of the scenes with Hiro, Ando, and their new speedster nemesis. Light and fun, these were the kinds of moments that allowed Heroes to first capture people's imaginations. The cameo from George Takei was hilarious - it's too bad they killed him off because he added a TON to the show. The new speed-freak villain seems ripped straight from SMALLVILLE, but you know what, with so much of the premiere being a relatively bleak mess, it was a welcome change of pace, so to speak.

I know for me this is stating the obvious, but Kristen Bell kicked ass as usual with what small screentime she had. It's clear that her character, Elle, is pretty underwritten, but it's cool to see Bell making the most of what she's got to work with. She singlehandedly made the big confrontation between Elle and Sylar the premiere's coolest and most kickass moment, by FAR. And yeah, it warmed this still-in-mourning fan of VERONICA MARS happy to see Veronica and Weevil reunited via Heroes. GREAT chemistry between the two actors, and you could feel the shared history between them on screen.

Also great in that scene was Jack Coleman as Noah. Long the show's MVP, Coleman was given little screen time but immediately brought some MUCH-NEEDED GRAVITAS to the precedings. The show seriously needs to remember which characters work best for it - and their go-to-guy should clearly be Coleman.

Speaking of great actors, it's almost sad to see the great Malcolm McDowell pop up and proceed to be completely boring and useless. In all the time I've watched Heroes, I still have no real idea who Linderman is and don't know why I should care about him.

I thought the Sylar-Claire confrontation was interesting, but honestly I don't see why they had to go so graphic with it. And Sylar is really wearing thin as a character, especially by episode's end. Him being a long-lost Petrelli brother is kind of interesting, but Peter and Nathan are now so broken as characters that it's hard to get too excited about either of their storylines. Again - SIMPLIFY. We'd all love to see Sylar leading a band of supervillains. Just skip to that already and give us some epic hero vs. villain battles. The intense action of the Elle vs. Sylar scene was the one moment that truly had that super-powered spark (pun intended).

But the show needs to avoid the kind of meandering pointlessness embodied by Greg Grunberg being teleported to Africa and wandering around aimlessly for an hour. I cringed along with everyone else in America when he promptly meets random African Guy who wastes no time in making a crack plugging Sprint cell phone service. Come on, Heroes, give us some credit as an audience.

It's interesting, because in a way a LOT was packed into the first two hours of Heroes' third season. But a lot of it seemed to just go in circles. I didn't sense a lot of real, forward momentum. The kind of legitimate drama that makes you rally around the characters and really root for them, the kind that makes you anticipate the next episode with bated breath. Heroes needs to stop, take a breath, and figure out what its grand plan is. Give us a plot we can sink our teeth into, powers that leave us awed rather than scratching our heads, characters we root for or love to hate. So far, it looks like a "second coming" is still a ways away.

My Grade: C+


- All hail to the still-reigning king of adrenaline-fueled Monday night TV: Prison Break (well, at least until Jack Bauer makes his glorious return in '09 ...). While the first two eps of Season 4 have been fun but a bit bland, Ep #3 really kicked things up a notch, and I finally felt like I was watching the same Prison Break that has kicked my ass so many times before. Yes folks, I'm still sore.

What more can one say about William F'n Fichtner? Last night's ep shifted the spotlight a bit more to Mahone, and once again everyone's favorite psycho-Fed-turned-Con-turned-black ops agent looks ready to take names, with his sights sent on the Company's big bad SBD hitman. Mahone's single-minded pursuit of his son's killer brings me back to when the character was first introduced in Season 2, and there's that same feeling of anticipation as we watch Mahone teeter on the edge and go all out in his quest for unholy vengeance. Awesome. As my brother pointed out ... where is Fichtner's Emmy? Do they even give an award that honors Most Badass Actor Ever?

But yeah, I guess maybe it's just third time's the charm, but I thought this week's break-in plot was ultimately a lot of fun. Everything gelled well, and it was fun seeing Michael Rappaport get a bit more hands-on with the action. Although he was introduced as the generic obnoxious boss type, I'm really liking Rappaport more and more with each passing episode. It's a fun dynamic seeing the scrappy Jewish guy from New York teaming up with a bunch of hardened ex-cons.

Also, this week saw even more vintage, over-the-top dialogue from T-Bag. His story to his secretary about Leprachauns was hilariously random yet awesome.

I'm also liking that the show is finally addressing my earlier complaint - that we still don't know much about The Company or its goals. It looks like the curtain is finally being pulled back, and we're getting into the bigger picture of what the Company's nefarious plans actually are.

The Scofield-is-sick subplot ... hopefully they won't leave us hanging too long on that one.

Also: Gretchen's escape = awesome. Most badass female character on TV.

My one complaint is really just that I feel like two of the show's former best characters, Bellick and Sucre, seem kind of wasted this season so far. And also, that computer hacker guy is still pretty lame and annoying.

But overall, this was a fairly badass episode that, to me, signalled that PB is back.

My Grade: A -


- I know some people lump in Gossip Girl with other teen shows like One Tree Hill or the new 90210. But what I love about GG is that, like The OC, it's both teen drama as well as self-aware satire of teen drama. Sure, the show has its share of soap-opera twists, but oftentimes, it's just hilarious.

I was completely cracking up last night over Chuck Bass' manipulative antics. He is such an over the top character, and seriously one of TV's best antagonists. Every line of Chuck's had me laughing - has there ever been a more flamboyantly Machiavellian high school student in the history of primetime?

Anyways, I thought this was a really fun episode of Gossip Girl that finally returned the show's setting to high school, thus taking it back to basics a bit. I wouldn't call it a guilty pleasure, because the show always offers up its melodrama with a wink and a smile.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, back with more soon. Let me know what you think - Heroes: soared or sunk? Prison Break: still a powerhouse or a shadow of its former self? Gossip Girl: should I be ashamed for watching or are you also on the bandwagon?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Burn After Blogging: BURN AFTER READING - Reviewed! Plus: Fringe, Terminator, SNL, and EMMY thoughts!

Ahh, where did the weekend go? Monday already? Noooooooo!

So okay, I'll talk for a second about the Emmys. Now, I'm not really a huge fan of the Emmys, in that I feel like they don't often reflect what is truly the best television out there. So many great shows have been continually ignored by the Emmys, that it's hard to really take them seriously. Even in just the last few years, to see shows like Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, and other franchises that fall outside the typical Emmy voter's radar get snubbed again and again ... while the same old sitcoms are always nominated ... it's difficult to really imagine that the Emmys truly represent a legitimate showcase of TV's best. I mean, this year there's an award for best reality show host. Not talk show host, not game show host - but reality show host. Yes, finally, a category that honors the unmatched hosting talents of the Howie Mandels and Heidi Klums of the world! (sarcasm hopefully obvious ...) Yep, last night's Emmys were truly a showcase for the talent that these reality hosts possess - when called upon to be funny or entertaining in any way, the Emmy hosts completely bombed, turning in one of the most embarassing awards show hosting gigs I've ever seen, with nearly every attempt at humor greeted with complete and utter silence. I don't know if I've ever seen an awared show where more presenters took the opportunity to rib the show hosts - but here, Howie and co deserved it. Totally unwatchable. But hey, let's give them an award for all of their talents! And yet ... there's still no award that properly honors sci-fi or other genre TV, no award catered to shows like Pushing Daisies that don't neatly fall into traditional ideas of comedy or drama. No new awards that actually, you know, acknowldege the stuff that's worth acknowledging.

That being said, seriously, congrats to 30 ROCK. I named it my best TV show of 2007 and it will surely be at or near the top of my 2008 list as well. It's become bar-none the funniest show on network TV, with the best writing and probably the best cast as well. The awards it received tonight, including trophies for Best Comedy, Best Writing, and individual awards for Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, were all incredibly well-deserved (why no love for the hilarious Tracy Morgan though?!). And hey, Tina Fey even plugged iTunes in her acceptance speech! Sweet! (quick plug from me: log on to iTunes now and download 30 Rock: Tina's Top 5 - the top 5 episodes of 30 Rock as selected by Tina Fey herself!)

I was also really happy to see Brian Cranston win the Best Actor award ... I've never seen Breaking Bad, though I hear it's really good ... but the guy is a great, hilarious actor who may have been the best part of Malcolm in the Middle for many years. Well-deserved.

And thank you to Ricky Gervais, for providing one of the show's few genuinely funny moments when he took to the stage and had some hilarious back-and-forth with his OFFICE counterpart, Steve Carell. Unfortunately the great EXTRAS got no Emmy love this year for its send-off special ... oh well. When you created and starred in one of the top 10 funniest TV series of all-time, I guess you're probably abouve the Emmys in many respects.

Some other random EMMY thoughts:

- I know, I know -- everyone and their mother constantly raves about how great MAD MEN is. And I will have to check it out eventually. But, I'm sorry, it's amazing to me that anything other than LOST could have won Best Drama. This was the year of LOST, in which the show churned out one classic episode after another, providing some of the most edge-of-your seat television I've ever seen. Sorry Mad Men fans, but LOST was robbed.

- The comedy category was way overcrowded this year. As great as 30 ROCK was, it was a shame to see its win come at the expense of great shows like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. I guess it was cool to even see Flight nominated - its first season really was one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV. And I can't forget THE OFFICE. While the show was slightly up and down last season, I remain very excited for its season premiere this week. When The Office is on its game, it's right up there with 30 Rock.

- As I said earlier, it does annoy me that, with so many shows no longer fitting neatly into drama or comedy categorization, so many great programs pretty much get snubbed come Emmy time. Pushing Daisies is the prime example - arguably last season's best new show, it's too bad that it was only minimally recognized (although congrats to Barry Sonnenfeld for a much-deserved directing award for his work on PD). On the other side of the coin, you get a show like Desperate Housewives that is continually nominated for Best Comedy when it's not exactly a true comedy. If DH wasn't included in the comedy noms, there might have been room for a deserving underdog to get some recognition. How about one of last year's best new shows, the under-the-radar ALIENS IN AMERICA?

- Hey, what's up with CONAN not getting a nod for best talk / variety show?

- Finally, how did Michael Emerson not win for LOST, and how were there not more actors from the show nominated? Terry O'Quinn? Henry Ian Cusick? Matthew Fox? Anyone? McFly?

Anyways, that's about all I have to say about the Emmys. Certainly not a must-watch show, but again, congrats to the very deserving and very hilarious 30 ROCK.

- So, check out my last where I began to run through the first batch of big Fall TV premieres - I gave my thoughts on last night's SMALLVILLE season premiere, as well as the sophomore episodes of GOSSIP GIRL and PRISON BREAK, and also bid a fond farewell to SWINGTOWN.

A few more series to talk about ...

- I'm still not quite sure what I think of FOX's latest supernatural drama, FRINGE. I thought the pilot had its moments, but I was really anxious to see the follow up episodes to get a better feel for what a typical installment would be like. Now, after seeing the second episode of the series, I stil have mixed feelings. On one hand, I can't deny that the show grabbed me with its creepy cold open - very X-Files esque, and it set up an intriguing premise - that of a genetic defect that causes extreme, rapid aging, and in turn a killer who is desperately seeking a cure for his condition. It wasn't a totally new, mind-blowing idea, but it was executed well, and there was some interesting pseudo science here. To me, that may be the most fun aspect of the show so far - the fact that John Noble's character is this modern day Dr. Frankenstein who puts his stock in all manner of crazy theories. I loved the notion of scanning a murder victim's eye on the hunch that the last image she saw before death would be burned into her retina. The little details like that are what give the show its flair. But ... while the overall atmosphere and premise of the show is so far a lot of fun, the characters are still woefully bland. Clearly, John Noble is the standout, but the problem is he has no one interesting to play off of. His son, played by Joshua Jackson, is already a pretty useless and annoying character. Obviously there's some larger mystery hovering over him, but on an episode by episode basis, he seems an odd choice to be out in the field investigating these paranormal cases. Same goes for Ana Torv - so far, I like her as an actress, but her character is much more CSI than X-Files. That is to say: bland. With The X-Files, Mulder and Scully each brought a wholly unique perspective to each case, and their contrasting viewpoints made for the perfect yin and yang scenario. So far, there's none of that with the priciple players on Fringe, and it's definitely something that needs to be fixed to keep up interest longterm. Same goes for the overarching mythology. All this talk of "The Pattern" ... well, so far at least, it seems not to amount to much. It almost seems like a misguided attempt to shoehorn a Lost-style "everything-is-connected" mystery into a show that doesn't need it. Hopefully, this whole Pattern thing quickly evolves into a more solid sci-fi concept, otherwise it too will become tedious sooner rather than later. Now, I know that's a lot of criticism, but the fact is ... Fringe is a new sci-fi drama from JJ freaking Abrams. It has that weight on its shoulders, that expectation that it could be the next Lost, the next X-Files ... so far, it is definitely not in the same league as either of those modern day classics. But I am definitely in for at least a couple more episodes ... very curious to see where this one goes.

My Grade: B
- I was a little iffy on the season premiere of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES ... but I have to say, the second episode from last week really kicked things up a notch, with lots of action and intrigue. The interplay between Lena Heady and Brian Austin Green has become surprisingly interesting of late, and Summer Glau is still pretty awesome as Cameron, the teen-girl Terminator. The show's done a nice job of establishing Cameron as both an ally and a potential enemy, and there's now a palpable sense of danger whenever she's on screen. Now that it's been made clear that she has the potential to snap and go rogue, there's a new dimension of menace added to the series. I still think the show gets a little too angsty, which can at times make it boring. I'd love to see it go more over-the-top, add in a little more fun and adventure, give some its characters a little more personality. But I am definitely interested to see where things go, and the addition of Shirley Manson as a red-haired ruthless business woman / deadly T-1000, is certainly a nice-twist.
My Grade (Ep #2): B+
- On SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Well, I have to say I've been pretty disappointed with SNL over the last two weeks. Both shows were very much a mixed bag - each started out with a promising and timely politically-oriented sketch, and then quickly took a nosedive, with sketch after sketch that fell flat. At this point, every time I see a new sketch that's a gameshow or talkshow parody, I cringe, because SNL at this point has completely driven these two concepts into the ground (The Charles Barkley Show sketch from last week was the epitomy of this point -- and I say this as a giant Charles Barkley fan!). At least the season premiere had the excuse that Michael Phelps was the host, and clearly there were not high expectations for him to be the next Steve Martin or anything. But this week, James Franco was someone who could have been a great host, and yet that potential seemed mostly wasted. The obligatory pothead sketch, a totally awful James Bond parody, was one of the worst sketches I've seen from SNL in years. Really, almost every sketch was devoid of laughs save for the final bit where Bill Hader broke out a funny William Dafoe impression. And you have to wonder: where's the political comedy at? It's clear SNL is struggling to step up the political humor. Aside from the always-reliable Darell Hammond as John Mccain, we've yet to see a the show do decent Obama, and we haven't seen a regular player take a stab at Palin or Biden as of yet. It's crazy, because in this election season there is simply SO MUCH to poke fun at - from the cable news nets (someone has GOT to do Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow parodies to compliment Hammond's classic Chris Matthews ...), to the conventions, to, well ... can anyone in the cast even do a halfway decent George Bush? SNL has a series of politically-themed Thursday night special planned, so they are really going to have to retool if they want to be ready and be relevant. And in the meantime -- Andy Samberg, your digital shorts of late have been way lacking. There was a ton of potential in doing a Gossip Girl parody this week, esp with James Franco onboard. And yet, the short was just one more disappointing sketch.
My Grade: C
- And wow, tonight is the night that Monday's become sheer craziness for TV fans everywhere, especially for us guys - as both NBC and FOX go head to head, each programming their primetime lineup with action-driven, high-concept series. Tonight, HEROES is back. I'm definitely excited for the season premiere, even after a very lackluster 2nd season. Everyone I know has been raving about how great that first hour is, and it seems like Heroes may have finally gotten its $%#@ together. I definitely predict some bigtime ratings for tonight's ep - the hype for Heroes has been unbelievable, and I think people are hungry for some big, fun, epic entertainment. All I know is, my DVR will be working overtime tonight.
Okay ... I've been meaning to review this one for a long time now, so finally, here it is: one of the best movies of 2008 so far ...
- Many critics who like to take the movies very, very seriously really liked No Country For Old Men. After all, it was a movie that had all the same genious of prior Coen Brothers films, but by-god, it was dark and it was violent and it was a return to the kind of dramatic filmmaking that first put the Coens on the map with the likes of Blood Simple. And don't get me wrong - I loved No Country For Old Men as well - so much so that I named it my favorite film of 2007. But what puzzled me later on was how so many seemed to express disappointment that the Coen's follow-up to No Country was scheduled to be a satirical comedy. Had people forgotten that the follow-up to the more serious, Oscar-baiting drama Fargo was one of the funniest films ever made in The Big Lebowski? Oh, that's right, Lebowski was critically panned upon release and was a box-office failure. Only later did it receive the giant cult following that it so rightfully deserved ... although I have to wonder what all of those critics think of it now. Admittedly, the Coens' films are often of the type that almost require multiple viewings to fully appreciate, and they tend to lend themselves to DVD's that can easily be rewatched, disected, and analyzed over a long period. But my point is really this: a great comedy or satire is just as worthy of critical praise as a great drama, and it annoys me that there's this inherent critical bias that just because a movie is funny, it can't also be great and Oscar-worthy and all that good stuff. To me, The Big Lebowski ranks right up there with any other work of The Coens. Its script may be there most genius, and John Goodman and Jeff Bridges rank alongside William H. Macy and Javier Bardem as having turned in Oscar-worthy Coen-directed performances.
So that brings us to BURN AFTER READING. Right off the bat, I'll say that I wouldn't put this one up there in the absolute top-tier of Coen Bros. movies (alongside Fargo, Lebowski, and No Country), but it is certainly a much better effort than their lesser works like Ladykillers, for example. But it is a movie that will need to be rewatched, because as is typical of the Coens, the devil is in the details. After only one viewing though, I can say that Burn is a hilarious film that is on one hand absurdist and quirky, but on the other hand, an interesting satirical comment on Washington DC and the world of Intelligence.
I'm really glad that I finally got a chance to watch the Coens' BARTON FINK a few weeks before seeing Burn though, because in many ways, Burn most reminded me of that previous effort. Because just as Barton is this kind of quirky look at Hollywood and the characters who inhabit it (albeit a Hollywood from a bygone era), Burn is similarly a look at Washington (modern day Washington though), and all of its oddities and absurdities. Burn After Reading never plunges into the surreal and abstract depths that Barton Fink does, but in some ways it has a similar feel - a movie with moments of obvious and over the top humor, but also moments of real darkness and violence and tragedy (unusual for any other filmmakers, but familiar territory for the Coens). Burn however does have that same attention to detail that is so apparent in movies like Fargo and Lebowski - those little things that immerse you time and place. As Arby's is to Fargo and In N' Out is to Lebowski, Jamba Juice is to Burn After Reading. Fans of those movies will know what I mean. For others, it's just another example of how the Coens can take these little everyday details and make them into the quirky color of their film universes.
To sum up - Burn basically follows a seemingly disconnected group of DC inhabitants whose sole commonality is their mutually colorful names (a Coen trademark, to be sure). What eventually brings the various characters together is a computer disc that allegedly contains all kinds of top-secret, classified information. The disc falls into the hands of one Linda Litzke - Frances McDormand playing an aging, online-dating gym instructor hellbent on raising money to get some long-desired plastic surgeries. McDormand partners with her gym buddy, Chad (Bradd Pitt), to try to somehow profit from their chance discovery of the disc. The disc, they think, belongs to one Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a recently retired / fired homeland security operative who thinks that the disc contains his memoirs. In fact the disc is a record of his financial statements, procured by his scheming ex-wife-to-be, played with coldhearted aplomb by Tilda Swindon. She's sleeping with a womanizing guy named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) on the side - and he's also engaged in an online romance with McDormand's Litzke. This bothers Litzke's boss, the hapless Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who harbors a bigtime crush on Litzke. Meanwhile, as the tangled web begins to unravel, and as the chess pieces are moved around by the cruel hand of fate, a frustrated CIA operative (JK Simmons) tries to make sense of it all, with a vague awareness that there might be some kind of breach in national security, but ultimately clueless as to who's involved (everyone), and what's at stake (pretty much nothing).
Like some of the Coen's other films, Burn has an almost film noir-like sensibility in that it's a movie where the characters seem almost trapped in their celluloid universe, at the mercy of the whims of fate, or in this case, The Coens. But what really makes it all work is the potent combination of a great script with an incredible cast.
If I had to pick one star of the movie, it would have to be Malkovich. A total scene-stealer, Malkovich's Osborne Cox is just a great character - a true intellectual in a town of hacks, Cox's patience wears increasingly thin as he reaches his breaking point. It's totally hilarious to watch Cox's downward spiral from frustrated government drone to raging lunatic, and Malkovich gives each of his lines just the right amount of melodramatic oomph. It's no surprise then that some of the absolute funniest scenes in the movie come when Malkovich interacts with Bradd Pitt's Chad. Pitt is also great and very funny as the sexually-ambiguous, workout-addicted, iPod-obsessed Chad. More proof that Pitt is the man when it comes to playing off-kilter characters. The rest of the cast, from the always-awesome McDormand and JK Simmons, to Clooney and Jenkins and Swindon, is universally great as well - and there's a real dynamic between them.
In some ways, Burn After Reading has to struggle at times to overcome the feeling that it's ultimately pointless or inconsequential. There are times when it seems to drag or unnecessarily diverge towards random tangents - but by the film's end, when everything comes together, you realize that that was exactly the point. I do think though that the script is not as consistently funny or clever as, say, The Big Lebowski, and there are lulls in between some of the really hilarious scenes (usually involving Malkovich or Pitt). But mostly, this is another great effort from the Coens, and another movie from them that is a strong reminder of how unique and unconventional they are as filmmakers. Nobody else is making movies like this. No one else shares this particular sense of off-kilter humor or eye for darkly absurdist satire. While I can't quite rank Burn After Reading among my absolute favorite Coen Bros. movies, I can say that it's one of the fall's must-see films - another unique and memorable work from the best in the business today.
My Grade: A-
- Alright, that's all I've got for today. Check back soon for much more, including thoughts on tonight's HEROES premiere.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Blog of Steel! SMALLVILLE Returns, Plus: Big TV Roundup, VMA's, and More Politcal Rants of Doom!

The blog is back!

It's been a looooong time coming, but finally, I have returned with more of my usual blogtastic goodness. To explain myself ... well, it's been a really busy several days. Big things going on at work - namely, you might have heard that NBC Universal is back on iTunes! I haven't really spoken about or plugged anything from work of late, but this is a biggie. If you use iTunes, log in ASAP and take advantage of all the free content being offered. Whether your TV viewing preferences include The Office, Heroes, 30 Rock, Battlestar, Monk, or The Rachel Zoe Project, there's likely something for you on iTunes right now, for free! And not only is there a bunch of free content from last season, but as of this moment there's free, pre-air premieres of the all-new Knight Rider, Lipstick Jungle, and soon, pre-air premieres of Life, Chuck, and Kath & Kim. And - many of these free episodes are also available in HD - if you have an Apple TV in particular, or just a great computer monitor - the shows are guaranteed to look great. Plus, if you download TV shows from XBOX Live, Zune, or Amazon Video On-Demand, you'll find a lot of the same special offers and pre-air premieres. So log into your Amazon account and load up on Microsoft points - what better way to kill time between marathon Gears of War sessions than with a pre-air premiere of Knight Rider in glorious HD?

So yeah, work has been busy, and I have neglected the blog. But there's a lot to talk about so let's get to it.

First up: POLITICS.

- I don't want to spend too much time on this, but all I want to say is that I echo the chorus of people who saw Sarah Palin's ABC interview last week, and shuddered as I watched, because it only confirmed my worst fears about John McCain's vice-presidential candidate.

Basically, the interview confirmed that she is not exactly an intellectual.

She may be street-smart, she may have some political savvy. But this is not a woman who knows her foreign policy. This is not a woman who knows the intricacies of the economy. This is not a woman who has nuanced and carefully-considered views on social issues. In short, whenever Sarah Palin was unable to defer to "the script," she came off like the kid in school who didn't do their reading the night before. And anyone who thinks that Charlie Gibson was unfairly quizzing here on "tough" subjects like The Bush Doctrine - well, I invite them to go to (gasp!) Fox News' website and check out the clips of Obama's recent multi-part interview on The O'Reilly Factor. During the course of that interview, O'Relly grilled Obama and went after him tooth and nail on any number of topics, and Obama responded eloquently and intelligently. Obama was so poised and articulate that he even got O'Reilly to concede on a number of key points, including on how to fix the economy. To contrast that interview with Charlie Gibson's relatively softball questions to Palin is like night and day.

The fact is this: Palin can repeat the same, already-tired lines about shaking up Washington all she wants. That kind of empty talk is quickly going to wear thin, and it won't hold up when she debates Joe Biden.

More to come on the Presidential Election soon, so stay tuned.


- Man, the Fall season is already nearly in full swing, and I still hope to do a slightly belated Fall Preview of sorts here on the blog. But let me run through a few items that I've been meaning to talk about for the last week or so:

SMALLVILLE: Well color me surprised. I went into tonight's 8th-season premiere of Smallville hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Almost all of the buzz leading up to this season had been bad - the show's two best actors, Michael Rosenbaum and John Glover, were gone, some new unproven actors were joining the cast, and the old showrunners bolted, leaving Smallville in the hands of their proteges. So, I was in slight disbelief that this was actually a pretty entertaining, well-done premiere. And it's funny, because back in the day, Smallville could always be counted on to deliver one hell of a season premiere. But I was resigned to the fact that at this point, the show was running on fumes. I was not expecting a season premiere that lived up to the standards of the show in its heyday. And while this wasn't a mind-blowing episode, I came away excited about the show's new direction, and cautiously optimistic about its ongoing potential. I don't know, the writing and acting just seemed a little bit sharper and more mature than the cartoonishness we'd become accustomed to. Even the obligatory scenes of someone being mind-controlled (why, Smallville, whyyyyy?!?!) didn't feel quite as clunky as usual. The dialogue seemed to have a bit more bite to it and a bit less cliche. And maybe it was my imagination, but Tom Welling seemed slightly reenergized, and seemed to give a little bit more nuance than usual to his performance. I liked that you could see Clark begin to separate and create a distinction between his Clark Kent and Superman personas. I liked the Lois-Clark dynamic, which seemed a little more mature than what we've been used to. The Jr. Justice League was fun, and the action was fast. I'm always impressed with how Smallville is able to do some really epic shots and nicely-done f/x, and tonight was a reminder that this really is one of the best shows on TV when it comes to conveying a big scale. In addition, there were some uncharacteristically gritty and cool-looking scenes when Clark was held hostage in Eastern Europe. Now, was the ep perfect? No, there was still a good deal of classic Smallville-style cheesiness, with a hefty helping of deux ex machina. J'onn J'onzz has been a walking plot device since he entered the picture a few years back, and he was equally pointless tonight. But man, it was great to see the show take an apparent step forward and have Clark finally ditch his family farm and take up residence at the Daily Planet. About frigging time (even if Clark never graduated college and has zero experience - perhaps he called in a favor from Perry White?). And finally, nice geeky shout-out when Oliver Queen gave the false name of "Roy Connor." Very cool. So yeah, I thought this might be my last-ever episode of Smallville ... but turns out, just when I thought I was out ...

My Grade: B+

SWINGTOWN: I never got to give one last shout-out to the one summer show that was actually worth watching this year - CBS' SWINGTOWN. The season (and sadly, probably series) finale wasn't quite the epic send-off that I had envisioned (in my mind's eye I imagined an ambitious narrative that flash-forwarded five years into the future ...), but, it was yet another quality episode and a clear reminder of why I'll really miss this show, assuming it won't be returning. But it really was a fun prime-time soap, with tons of great characters. It's a testament to the cast and the writing that the characters who emerged as favorites by season's end were really only background players in the premiere. I mean, the conservative couple of Roger and Janet really were the breakout characters when all was said and done, and I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to them once unassuming Roger ultimately ended up with Susan (his wife's best friend). And it shows ho cleverly the plot defied expectations that the crazy swinger couple, Tom and Trina, ended up being the most sympathetic, stable, and "normal" characters on the series when all was said and done. Again, I don't know what the exact breakdown on the ratings was for CBS, but I've GOT to figure that Swingtown delivered very un-CBS-like demographics for the network. As I've said before, for me, it was the first series I've EVER regularly watched on the network. And I'm a demographically-desirable 18-34 year old white male. Anyways, I give the Swingtown season finale a grade of "B+", but as a whole this was definitely an A-level show.

- I wasn't sure about the GOSSIP GIRL season premiere, but since then the show has really stepped up its game. I thought this past week's ep was a nice return to form, with the drama ratcheted up and the pieces put into place to make for an exciting initial story arc or two. And Chuck Bass had some absolutely classic lines - showing that GG's wicked sense of self-aware humor was still very much intact.

My Grade: A-

- PRISON BREAK is still on slightly shaky ground in my book as its fourth season ramps up. I thought S4, Episode 2 did a decent job of building on momentum from the season premiere, but there is a sense that the show has finally begun to lose a bit of its edge. There is definitely a certain appeal to the idea of Michael Scofield and his rough-around-the-edges mod squad using their skills to act as a secret government task force. But there's been no real justification for having the likes of Sarah or Bellick or even Sucre on the team, It weakens the premise a bit when so many characters seem shoehorned into the plot. The one guy who's really been clicking is, not surprisingly, Mahone, played with the usual gravitas by William Fichtner. The stakes are personal for Mahone, and I can't wait to see him confront the show's latest villain - the soft-spoken assassin who may soon get his just desserts. But, overall, there is still that thrown-together feeling that this season is going to have to overcome as it progresses. We need The Company and their motives to be fleshed out, and we need more of an overarching plot to drive the season forward.

My Grade: B 

- Okay, I never got a chance to talk about this year's MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS, so I'll take a second now to comment. It's now become practically a yearly tradition for me to rant and rave about how far downhill MTV has gone since it's glory days, so I won't waste time at this point talking about the general state of TV's most pathetic cable net, which went from being at the center of a cultural movement to being home to all manner of lowest common denominator cultural junk. But I will say this: last year's VMA's, best remembered for Britney Spears' epic fail of a "performance," were so horrific that this year's could have only been an improvement. And there were bright spots. Russell Brand, while not exactly hilarious, was at least something different - kind of a British Jesse Camp, so, in a weird way, a bit of a throwback to the MTV of old. I actually really like Rihanna. I give her credit - she's been the best thing going in pop music for the last few years. That "Disturbia" song of hers has been in my head and on my mp3 player for weeks now. Pink and Christina Aguilera both put on decent performances, though they were probably more notable for their elaborate costumes and choreography than for the actual strength of the music. Musically, and for sheer kick-ass factor, the highlight of the VMA's this year was definitely PARAMORE, who rocked and rocked hard. Amazing that MTV actually allowed a genuine ROCK N' ROLL band to perform, since they apparently hate all non-hip hop music at this point. I mean, there are so many rock bands out there, both up and coming and established, who could and should be on MTV. And with games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero so huge at the moment, I think it's clearer than ever that, at this point, MTV is just totally missing the boat when it comes to capturing the musical zeitgeist. I mean, The Jonas Brothers? Are you serious? There used to be a distinction between MTV and Nickelodeon - no longer, I guess. I don't know, it just still strikes me as strange that you can watch the MTV VMA's and NOT see any of today's biggest or most popular bands. Even Katy Perry, who had one of the absolute biggest pop/rock songs of the summer, was relegated to a shortened interstitial performance. MTV - stop kissing Britney Spears' washed-up ass and start putting the spotlight back on the hungry artists who deserve it. And geez, at least you always used to be able to count on the VMA's for a cool surprise or two. This year, biggest surprise was some off the cuff remark from an American Idol winner ... yeah, American Idol - a show that the MTV I grew up with would have nothing to do with.

My Grade: C

- Okay, I still need to review BURN AFTER READING, which I saw last weekend. Stay tuned for that review - coming tomorrow!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Late Night Ramblings on 9/11 ...

Man, what a week. I've been so busy with work the last few weeks, and so focused on all the big stuff going on, that as I got home today and collapsed on the couch and turned on the TV, expecting to see the usual political back-and-forth ... the footage being shown on MSNBC hit me liek a frieght train. The network was devoting its primetime hours to replaying the early-morning NBC news coverage from September 11th, 2001. And though I tried to resist, reminding myself that I had hoped to use the evening to relax, to take care of a few things I'd been putting off, to veg out ... I couldn't help but remain glued to the TV screen. It's been 7 years since 9-11-2001, and in many ways watching that footage feels like historical, archival footage from another era entirely. And yet, in many ways, it's all too relevant, all too immediate. Watching Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw attempt to maintain some semblance of composure in those chaotic broadcasts, those old feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion began to hit me all over again. I looked back at my blog from two years ago, where I wrote a lengthy entry in rememberance of the 5th anniversery of 9/11. At that time, two years ago, I cited a Boston University column I wrote in 2001, and I said that at that time, 5 years later, we seemed to STILL be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Two additional years later, and I think we are STILL waiting. The world feels quieter and safer, but the silence can also be eerie. And yet, the issue of our security has now been so heavily politicized that it's had a numbing effect. As usual, we're so caught up in our own little cults of personality that we foreget the real issues of substance, the real pressing problems both new and holdovers from earlier times. It's amazing, because re-watching that footage of George W. Bush from 9/11, he was so clearly confused, disoriented, in over his head. Not that you can fully blame him, because obviously on that day everyone was in a bit of a shock-induced waking coma. But that sense of muddled confusion that Bush emitted on 9/11 has never quite gone away. Seven years later, there is STILL no clear picture of how to combat organized terrorism, of what the real threat level is, of how exactly these organizations are tied to the nations that we go to war with, trade with, or negotiate with.

It's still unfathomable that someone would willingly fly a passenger plane into a building in the name of fundamentalist Islam. And yet for all the bravado of the last seven years - from hunting down our enemy to smoking out Bin Laden's cave to "mission accomplished", there's a discomforting sense that in many ways, we've yet to truly deal with the larger ramifications of 9/11.

Because, let's face it - it's a lot easier to politicize terror, to turn it into one more newsbyte that fits nicely alongside Obama's "lipstick-on-a-pig" comment or Palin's daughter's baby. It's easy to invoke 9/11 whenever you need a quick justification for war in Iraq or drilling in Alaska or whatever the issue of the day may be. It's a lot harder to confront the fact that this giant battle of ideologies is still being waged - that there are still all of these people out there who hate America and everything it stands for and wish that every day was 9/11. And I don't know if it's a problem that has any easy solution.

But I do think there's hope. The fact that New York City is still New York City. The fact that we are resillient enough to debate the economy, the environment, and all the other big issues of the day - the fact that our Democracy is still very much intact. The fact that thanks to the diversity of the Presidential campaign, the US is once again showing the world that we blaze trails. The fact that the youth of our country is once again active and engaged. The fact that there's been no great attack on US soil since 2001, that in some ways we've gotten wiser, more alert, more prepared.

I feel like the last 7 years have been the knee-jerk reaction to 9/11. In some respects it's been ugly and wrong-headed. But these 7 years have paved the way for the next era, the era when we can hopefully put that event behind us. When we can stop invoking it whenever convenient. When we don't forget it, but we move on, obtain resolution, and figure out the next steps. Tonight I was reminded of just how dark a day 9/11 really was. But more so than I have been before, I'm hopeful of a bright future ahead.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Movies of Summer 2008: The Good, The Great, and the Just-Plain-Awful.

Okay, so I know my blog has been overrun lately by daily political rants. And don't worry, there will be many more of those to come over the next several weeks - count on it. But ... as Summer turns to Fall, and as we get into September ... there comes a time when it is my sworn and sacred duty to present you, the loyal readers, with the definitive list of the Best Movies of the Summer. Because yes, there will be other lists at other blogs, but don't kid yourself - if you want to know the real deal on the Summer that was, this is the place to be.

- When I think about this summer at the movies, it is kind of a double-sided coin - and that's not just a reference to Harvey Dent. Because, on one hand, this was undoubtedly a summer that had a few high-profile disappointments, in terms of big, blockbuster, franchise films that ultimately failed to deliver on the promise of their potential. But on the other hand, to me, those few disappointments were VASTLY overshadowed by several awesome, memorable movies that in many ways raised the bar for the blockbuster. More so than any summer in recent memory, there were several big films in Summer '08 that were so good, so complete, that come December they will most likely be near the top of many year-end Best-Of lists. Especially in this upcoming strike-affected fall and winter, we will surely see some great films, but I think there is definitely that palpable feeling that many of the summer's best will also be among the *year's* best. And that's not something that is always the case, to be sure. I think you can see it in the last few week's record-lows at the box office - there were literally so many must-see films this summer that there is definitely some serious box-office fatigue setting in. But hey, in only one week we get the next film from the Coen Bros. and another potential Coens classic - Burn After Reading. And soon after that, the next wave of big Fall and Winter movies will really begin to kick in.

But back to this summer - yes, this was undoubtedly the Summer of the Bat. THE DARK KNIGHT was a genuine phenomenon, and all other films took a back seat to the epic sequel that pitted Batman against his arch-nemesis, The Joker. Meanwhile, WALL-E may have been the best overall Pixar movie yet, which in and of itself speaks volumes. HELLBOY 2 was a visual feast and another great achievement for Guillermo Del Toro, and IRON MAN kicked off the summer season with a huge bang - an amazing effort from Robert Downey Jr. and co. But not all of the summer's best films were also box-office sensations. SPEED RACER was a total tour-de-force. It bombed at the box-office but it was likely a bit ahead of its time. I can only speculate that it will eventually find the following it deserves on DVD and as a showcase for Blu-Ray. And huge, action-packed blockbusters were not the only genre that thrived this summer - we got several great comedies as well - TROPIC THUNDER, STEP BROTHERS, and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS each had me laughing from start to finish. Also, even if the summer movie season is defined by the giant blockbusters that rake in the big bucks, you can't forget the smaller movies that give some depth to the summer movie scene. This summer, SON OF RAMBOW was an instant-classic coming-of-age movie, AMERICAN TEEN was one of the most engrossing docs I've seen, and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA was one of Woody Allen's best in ages. Were there duds this summer? Sure. INDIANA JONES showed that George Lucas may in fact have hit a creative wall, THE X-FILES had its moments, but wasn't the movie that fans had hoped would reignite a beloved franchise, and HANCOCK ... well, Hancock pretty much blew chunks. But really, it's amazing just how good some of the big blockbusters were this summer. When you look at last summer, which had not one giant action movie that fully lived up to the hype (sorry fanboys, Transformers sucked), it's "incredible" that movies like HULK and IRON MAN and DARK KNIGHT more than satisfied even the most hardcore comic geek's wish-fulfillment, even as movies like KUNG-FU PANDA and WANTED delivered surprisingly fun thrills.

Before we start, some movies I haven't seen: The Mummy 3, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Get Smart, Death Race, Mama Mia, The House Bunny, Hamlet 2 ...

So here we go - the good, the great, and the downright awful of summer '08.


The Best:

1.) The Dark Knight

- Like Batman Begins, TDK is a flawed movie in some respects, but the various continuity gaffes and head-scratching moments are almost completely drowned out by the sheer force and intensity with which this film comes at you. It grabs you from the first moment and doesn't let go, and even months later, so many of its scenes remain burned into my brain, now a part of my mental rolodex of amazing movie moments. When 2008 is over and done with, I think we'll still be talking about The Dark Knight. We'll still be talking about Heath Ledger as The Joker. We'll still be holding up Christopher Nolan's film as the best superhero movie ever made. In terms of Summer '08, The Dark Knight is king.

2.) WALL-E

- It took me a while to process Wall-E, but forgetting all of the moral and environmental messages for a moment, what's truly suck with me about the film is simply the amazing future-world it creates. I want to visit that world again, I want to marvel at its details, speculate on how it came to be. Because this is a great kids movie, and a great love story, but it's also pretty great science fiction - the stuff of Bradbury and Asiimov. Another crowning achievement in the still-fledgling legacy of Pixar.

3.) Speed Racer

- I can't wait for more people to discover Speed Racer. It's a breakneck, candy-coated acid trip of an action movie that is also one of those rare, stand-up-and-cheer, good vs. evil stories. Visually, SR is like nothing that's ever come before, and to me marks the Wachowski's greatet directorial achievement yet - a perfect marriage of Japanese anime, next-gen videogames, and old-fashioned characters that are just plain cool. Because yes, this movie has heart. If you don't cheer when John Goodman socks it to the badguys with a big ol' right hand, it's time to turn in your "I Love Movies" badge.

4.) Son of Rambow

- I loved this movie, because it's the kind of film you don't see much of anymore. It's a kids movie, about kids, but it isn't afraid to be smart, dark, tragic, and complex. This isn't Hannah Montana, it's an emotionally affecting and hilarious look at boyhood friendship, and a nostalgic reminder of all the stuff that winds you up and makes you go when you're a kid. It's enough to make you want to go out, grab some friends and a camcorder, and create your own D-grade tribute to badass 80's action flicks. I am the Son of Rambow!

5.) Iron Man

- This one was a no-brainer, because from the moment I first saw the trailer for this last July in San Diego, it was clear that Jon Favreau knew what he was doing. As few others have ever done, Favreau captured the spirit of Stan Lee and Marvel comics and caught lightning in a bottle, with an all-star cast headlined by a rejuvinated Robert Downey Jr. Like a repulsor ray to the gut, Iron Man kicked all kinds of ass, and gave birth to a new version of the Marvel universe that lives and breathes not on the page, but on the screen. It's exciting, "Excelsior!"-worthy stuff.

6.) American Teen

- I've heard the criticisms and critiques - American Teen was staged, the subjects were manipulated, the storylines were scripted. I don't know all of the behind-the-scenes stories, but what I do know is that rarely have I ever seen such an engrossing and authentic-feeling look at life in highschool. To me, this was as far away from all the glossy, MTV-style stuff that you can get. American Teen was a non-glamourous, zits-and-all portrait of a teenage wasteland, and it was both heartbreaking and inspiring. It reminded you of the moments when everything looked bleakest and when anything seemed possible. I hope the movie is remembered come Oscar time.

7.) Pineapple Express

- While we got a few extremely well-done comedies this summer, to me, the best of the bunch was Judd Apatow's Pineapple Express. As a huge, huge fan of the late, great Freaks & Geeks, it brought a tear to my eye to see James Franco back doing comedy and reteamed with his old TV buddy Seth Rogen. And the two of them proved to be an instant-classic comedic duo, carrying a movie that went from laid-back stoner comedy to full-throttle action-satire with a combination of wit and charm. With a number of hilarious supporting turns from some of today's best comedic actors, and a script chock full of great lines, Pineapple Express was the best comedy of the summer, the one with the most heart, and the one that I'm most likely to revisit again and again.

8.) The Incredible Hulk

- In a summer that saw the superhero bar raised thanks to Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it's easy to forget that, in its own right, The Incredible Hulk was one badass comic book flick. And I emphasize - comic book flick. Because while I was a fan of Ang Lee's version of The Hulk, this update undoubtedly delivered the kind of giant action, fearsome villains, and yes, FUN, that Lee's version lacked. I thought Edward Norton was great as Bruce Banner, and he was surrounded by a talented cast. The action was intense and satisfying. And the script had all the little details, geek-out moments, and hearty cries of"Hulk Smash!" that a fanboy could want. A perfext follow-up to Iron Man, and a great sign of Marvel mayhem to come.

9.) Hellboy 2

- Building on the foundation of the first Hellboy, this sequel finally allowed Guillermo Del Toro to lay all his cards on the table. This was Del Toro unchained, and the result was a spectacular visual feast, with characters and monsters and worlds that harkened back to the epic fantasy heyday of master imagineers like Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam. With iconic performances from underrated actors like Ron Perlman and Doug Jones, Hellboy 2 delivered with humor and action, but mostly, it impressed with the sheer force of its director's unbridled imagination.

10.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona

- Woody Allen's latest presents a series of stunning scenes set in scenic Spain. It's a long way from his usual NYC setting, but the movie is also trademark Woody, in that it's a thoughtful look at life and love, bursting at the seems with neurotic energy. Penelope Cruz is on fire in this one, Scarlet Johaanson and Rebecca Hall are terrific, and Javier Bardem continues to be on a roll. This is a movie that's uniquely Woody Allen's, but in a manner that reminds you of the classic stuff that put him on the map in the first place.

The Next Best:

11.) Tropic Thunder

- A hilarious satire of overblown Hollywood productions, Tropic Thunder was a nonstop laugh-fest. At times, its "mock everyone else but not ourselves" humor kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but I can't deny that the movie was packed with classic bits of comedy gold, some legitimately impressive action choreography, a great soundtrack, and yet another awesome, scene-stealing, Summer '08 performance from Robert Downey Jr.

12.) Step Brothers

- In the grand tradition of smart comedies about total morons (think Dumb & Dumber ...), Step Brothers may not have been the most ambitious comedy, but it was still one of the funniest I've seen this year. There's just something about these Will Ferrell / Adam McKay collaborations that produces comedic gold, and it doesn't hurt that, between this, Talladega Nights, and Walk Hard, John C. Reilly has developed into one of the funneist guys out there in his own right.

13.) Wanted

- Talk about badass, Wanted was hardcore to the extreme. Ultra-violent and no-holds-barred, Wanted showed that comic book adaptations can be about much more than tights n' capes. Even if it ocassionally got bogged down by its own over-the-top mythology, Wanted featured a great turn by James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman ensuring that even the movie's most ludicrous lines went down smooth, and Angelina Jolie pretty much playing the kind of role she was born to play. Wanted was a great example of how a mature-audiences graphic novel can be adapted, and I hope it's a sign of more projects like this to come.

14.) Kung-Fu Panda

- Proving that Pixar is no longer the only game in town, Dreamworks animation stepped it up a notch with Kung-Fu Panda, a visually brilliant and supremely fun flick that is a great kids' film but also a nice tribute to the kung-fu classics. A nice voice-cast, cool and stylized animation, and some legitimately riveting action set-pieces made this one of the summer's most pleasant surprises.

15.) The Foot Fist Way

- This is one of those rough-around-the-edges movies that, depite its unevenness, you can't help but root for. And the reason, in this case, is that The Foot Fist Way is a veritable coming out party for the comedic talents of Danny McBride, who later in the summer appeared in some big budget comedies like Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder. McBride creates a hilarious character in this film - a delusional karate instructor who is so into his own hype that he fails to realize when his life is falling apart around him. And while the movie gets too dark for its own good at times, it's still a breakout comedy heralding the arrival of some really promising new talent. You've got to like this little movie that could.

Mixed Emotions:

* Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

- This long-awaited fouth Indy flick had its moments, especially in that it signalled a return to action-hero icon status for the long MIA Harrison Ford. But: Shia LeBuff swinging around the jungle with a bunch of monkeys? Nuking the fridge? Are you kidding me, Spielberg and Lucas?

* The X-Files: I Want to Believe

- While it was admirable that this low-budget film took The X-Files back to basics, you couldn't help but feel underwhelmed by the been-there, done-that plot and lack of memorable villains. It was great seeing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back as Mulder and Scully, but the movie felt more like a quiet epilogue to the series than the epic rebirth that was needed to give new life one of the 90's biggest franchises.

* Don't Mess With The Zohan

- All in all, this was probably the best and funniest Adam Sandler movie in years. But, seeing as Sandler has set the bar pretty low, that isn't exactly saying much. While the movie had a number of groan-inducing moments, especially when it tried to lecture and moralize about the middle-east, Zohan was a funny character and Sandler went all-out to bring him to life, giving him more than his fair share of Austin Powers-style quotables.

*The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

- I really thought that this movie had its moments - from some surprisingly violent action scenes to some great character bits to boot. But the movie just felt very uneven, and rushed in parts - even visually, some scenes shone while others underwhelmed. As much as I like the Narnia series and want to see it continue, and as much as I liked certain things about Prince Caspian, you know there's something a bit off when a short Tilda Swindon cameo overshadows the entire rest of the movie.

Flat-Out Sucked:

* Hancock

- You know, this summer had too many great movies to waste time with the clunkers. For that reason, I avoided most of the probable time-wasters like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Mummy 3, and yes, The Love Guru. And Hancock, well, I thought Hancock looked like crap fro mthe moment I saw the first trailer. But when I began reading reviews, I noticed a strange pattern of surprisingly positive write-ups. I got curious, and one day I decided to see and judge for myself. It turns out that Hancock was a godawful mess, a strange mix of lighthearted comedy with oddly dark and self-serious drama. It was a reminder of the kind of crap that Will Smith is capable of when at his worst, and a textbook example of a big-budget Hollywood movie gone wrong.

- Alright, leave your comments and let me know what you think. I'm sure there are those of you reading this who think The Dark Knight wasn't all that, that I severely underrated Tropic Thunder, and that I'm nuts for praising The Incredible Hulk. But just remember: no, I am right, you are most likely wrong. See, that's the beauty of having your own blog!

Seriously though, I'll be back soon with more on movies, more Fall TV, more politics, and just more in general. If you're not checking the blog daily, get with it!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

RNC Wrap-Up: Doing the Time Warp With John McCain

Well, that wraps things up at the RNC. And the one kind thing I can say about the GOP's convention is this: I admit, they had some pretty sweet musical selections tonight - from Heart's "Barracuda" to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin," 80's hair bands were alive and well at the Republican National Convention. If only Barack Obama could commission some Twisted Sister for his next big rally - either "We're Not Gonna Take It" or "I Wanna Rock" would be more than appropriate.

Seriously though, McCain's speech tonight was quite the oddity - a mostly personal speech that preached change, right in front of a crowd of hardcore Republicans who would probably be mroe than happy with eight more years of George W. Bush. McCain is now both a party leader and a candidate trying to position himself as anything other than a Bush, so it's going to be quite the tightrope walk for him to manage. I mean, just last night, we had Sarah Palin brazenly declaring that it was well within our rights to torture terrorists, even as it's been John McCain who was one of the Bush administration's most outspoken critics when it came to the blind eye given to torture at Guantanomo Bay.

Look, the fact is, I really do think that at one time, McCain was in many ways the real deal. Even if you didn't agree with him, you had to give him credit for not always conforming based on party loyalties, and for reaching across party lines on issues like the environment, campaign finance reform, etc.

But John Kerry said it best in his speech last week - Senator McCain has been a far, far different person than Candidate McCain. And that's not just hyperbole, it's fact. Just look at where McCain's stood on the issues - where he stood three or four years ago as opposed to today. Look at the McCain who fought a bitter primary battle with George Bush and the McCain who is now desperately appealling to the Republican base.

The fact is this: John McCain now leads the party of George W. Bush, and he's yet to concretely spell out how a McCain presidency would differ from that of his predecessor. Four, five years ago, we might have guessed. But now, the line between the "maverick" McCain and the msot unpopular president in recent American history is a fine line indeed.

Now, McCain's account of his time as a POW was in fact moving ... it was nearly as moving tonight as it was the 5,000 other times we've heard it from Republicans who have little else with which to advocate him. In all honesty though, McCain's biography is an amazing, fascinating, and tragic story - it's the stuff of inspirational movies and heroic tales. But here in 2008, in a world that is now generations removed from Vietnam, a fascinating story does not by default mean that someone will be a great president, and it certainly does not mean that someone is on the right side of the issues. The same thing goes for Sarah Palin - aww, she's just like us - she drives her kids to school, has a family, goes to her kids' games. Well gee whiz, that makes her just like millions of other Americans, so that must mean she's qualified to be vice president! I mean, Joe Schmoe drives his kids to work and goes to soccer games, lets make him vice president too!

But really, what I don't get about McCain is that he speaks about how he was tranformed by his POW experience, and how the experience made him hate war. And yet, everything McCain says makes it sound like war was the best thing that ever happened to him. Only through war and tragedy did he learn about friendship and dedication and overcoming adversity. War was the single most defining thing in John McCain's life, and though he claims to hate it, it colors his entire worldview. And McCain talks about change, yet all of his foreign policy attitudes are rooted in a soldier's mentality, in that same "good vs. evil," simplistic world view that so many Republicans share. It's us against them - even tonight, McCain assured us that HE knows how the world works, HE knows evil! It sounds to me that what he knows is fear. Because when you're too afraid to hope for a better world, the easy thing to do is to simply reassure yourself that hey, at least we have the bigger guns and better bombs.

When you're a soldier, you're putting your own life on the line, and because of that there's no choice but to create a narrative that you're fighting for something worth dying for. You have to have that good vs. evil mentality, because if you don't then how do you justify fighting and dying for a cause that may not have legitimacy? Everyone wants to believe that they are part of a greater purpose, that they are on the side of good. And sometimes, they might be, and sometimes, there might be shades of grey. And a president has to recognize those shades of grey, because he's the Commander In Chief who's actually determining whether it's worth it to send Americans to their deaths for a given cause. When the orders come down the officers and soldiers - they don't question - that's their role, to do as told and assume that their mission is in fact a righteous and worthy one. But that IS NOT the role of the President. The President needs to see all sides of an issue, to see all strategies, to be ABOVE the soldiers and not one of them. The soldiers don't question the nature and premise of the mission ... but the President always does and always must. I don't get that from John McCain. He still sees things in terms of victory and defeat, as if those two terms are always absolutes. That's a mentality left over from Vietnam, where the need to "win" overshadowed the bigger picture and the realities and horrors on the ground. It's a mentality that doesn't play in a world where we're not attacked by nations, but by terrorist cells, where rising powers like China and India demand a different kind of diplomacy, and where a strong and united international community is more important than ever, as the world gets increasingly smaller due to technology and globalization. And McCain and his obsolete worldview of military absolutes, of us vs. them and victory vs. defeat and good vs. evil? As Joe Biden said - that's NOT the change we need.

As we head into the debates, I think that gap will become very apparent to the American people. At least those of us who know to think not like players on Team America, but like citizens of a global community.