Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Danny disects TWILIGHT! And also ponders PRISON BREAK!

Strap in, loyal readers, as I've got a lot in store for this pre-Thanksgiving post, including thoughts on PRISON BREAK and a review of the $70 million + behemoth known as TWILIGHT.


- Whoah momma, last night's PRISON BREAK was, in fact, a barn-burner. It was a crazy episode, in that it really almost felt like a series final of sorts. And given that I wasn't even quite sure how many episodes of the season were even left (I now hear there's actually about 10 more to go ...), I almost thought that this could, in fact, be all she wrote for Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows. For most of the episode, there was that real air of finality. And it was a strange feeling. Because in the world of serialized TV drama, it's rare to see an episode where the good guys actually win - especially in the typically bleak world of Prison Break.

But come on, what Prison Break fan wasn't cheering as Michael Scofield and his blue collar wrecking crew once again stuck it to the Big Bad? You kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but mostly, it never really came. Because, ladies and gentlemen, this episode delivered something that few serialized shows ever do, and it's called PAYOFF. It's a simple concept - that after following our heroes through thick and thin, through all manner of danger and villainy - that at that point we as an audience finally get the satisfaction of resolution, of seeing the good guys win. And Prison Break got to this point in a mere 12 episodes. Nothing was overly dragged out. Last night's ep was only episode 12 of 22, but man, it was a BIG one.

So many great scenes here - the centerpiece of course being Scofield's step-by-step outsmarting of The General and the entire Company, a Batman-like display of planning and forethought. Each time Michael seemed to be cornered, he pulled a fast one on the supposedly all powerful Company, including a great scene at an airport in which Michael and Lincoln brilliantly pulled a variation of the ol'-switcheroo.

I also have really enjoyed what's been done with T-Bag these last couple of episodes. While his role as corporate sales guru Cole Pfeifer was a bit cheesy at first, the new element of pathos these last few weeks has been a lot of fun to watch develop. I legitimately felt bad for T-Bag in this ep, as he lamented the life on the straight and narrow he could have led. It gives a new element of tragedy to his character, and when he eventually does commit his next vile act, it will be all the more dramatic because of the scenes in last night's episodes.

So then, as Michael procured Scylla and we seemed poised for a prematurely happy ending, I think all of us PB fans were beginning to wonder -- "so ... what happens now?" The answer seemed to be in the hints that the General had dropped about Michael's father and his previously unrevealed role as a Company hitman. The General ominously warned that the very men his father had trained would soon be coming for Michael. There was also the dangling thread of Michael's health - would he get the treatment he needs? Would there be further complications? Was there more to his illness than meets the eye?

Instead, when the other shoe finally dropped, it came waaaaaaaay out of left field. The big twist was that Agent Self, who had been portrayed as increasingly likable and trustworthy over the last several weeks, was in fact not so "selfless." He brutally shot the FBI agent who had been posing as T-Bag's secretary, took Scylla for his own, and set in motion a plan to betray his mission and sell the Company's secrets to the highest bidder.

To this I say: WTF? This is one of those twists that really makes little sense from what we know of Agent Self, and seems pretty illogical to boot. Here's a guy who's on the verge of being a national hero, almost singlehandedly exposing a vast global conspiracy, and he's going to throw that away for some cash? It just doesn't seem to fit, and they have also NOT shown any hints that Self was capable of cold-blooded murder. Plus, it's just a pretty annoying twist, as Michael Rappaport was becoming a fun addition to the Prison Break cast and his fidgety awkwardness was a nice counter to Scofield's cool and collected nature. Self as a villain? I'm still hoping that this is some kind of red herring, because it just doesn't seem to make all that much sense.

In any case, this was still an AWESOME episode aside from the final minute or two, so I don't want to harp too much on the final twist until we see how the aftermath is handled. The fact remains that PB is still kicking ass and, if this is in fact the end, it's going out in style.

My Grade:

98% of the Episode: A
2 % of the Episode: C+

- Alright, time to move on to my movie review, of one of this year's biggest and most buzzed-about films ...


- Twilight is kind of a tease. No, not like that. What I mean is, a lot of us guys, and maybe some girls, may go into the movie thinking "hey, sure, it looks like it's sort of a sappy romance, but it's got vampires, so it can't be *all* bad, right?" But the truth is, Twilight pretty much only works as a movie when it's focused on being a teen romance. Truth be told, it actually does a nice job of fleshing out our main character, Bella, and creating an entertaining, sometimes even pretty intense vibe of emo-style teen angst and longing. As a teen drama, the movie holds your attention and gets you invested in its main characters and their star-crossed romance.

But in almost every other way, the movie falls short. The action is pretty pathetic and it's poorly directed and edited to boot. The plot, well, there's not a whole lot going on here. There are some generic villains who seem to have to stepped out of an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, there's some vague hints about clan rivalries between the vampires and a Native American tribe who may or may not be werewolves, and there's a couple of hints that Bella is in some way special in that she is the only human whose thoughts her vampiric BF, Edward, is unable to read. But epic storytelling, this is not. The more plot-heavy elements tend to feel tacked-on and glossed-over. It's clear that director Catherine Hardwicke would much rather skip over all of that stuff and get back to sparkly scenes of Edward and Bella exchanging lusty gazes while on a romantic hike in the woods.

And yeah, despite being about a romance between an ordinary teen girl and a 90 year old vampire, the whole vampire thing seems almost an afterthought. There's not really a lot of mythology here to sink your teeth into (pun intended). The vampires are basically pale-faced goth kids who mostly happen to be stuck in teen bodies despite being in various stages of immortality. They also have super-strength and speed, for some reason, and some have random other X-Men-like powers (Edward can read minds, pixie-ish Alice gets precognitave flashes). The townspeople don't seem to question them much, not realizing they are vampires, just looking at the pale-faced Cullen clan as a bunch of strange, possibly inbred weirdos who are still likable enough. And oh yeah, for some reason, the Cullens really like to play superpowered baseball, especially in montage-form set to trendy rock music. Yes, you heard me.

There are a few fun and foreboding scenes of Bella slowly unraveling the mysteries of vampiric legend - going to creepy old bookshops and performing Google searches by lamplight to find out more about the secrets that Edward won't tell her. But again, we only get a few brief flashes of info that actually give weight to the Twilight mythos. Before we know it, Bella not only is hopelessly in love with Edward despite knowing he's a bloodsucking vamp, but wants to become undead herself so that she can spend all of eternity with the creepy guy she's known for like a week.

What keeps Twilight from flat-out sucking is a really great performance from Kristen Stewart as Bella. She makes ever furtive glance from Edward, every conversation with him, crackle with teenaged tension. And she really does sell the idea that this redheaded vampire guy basically owns her soul, and that nothing else matters to her but being with him. Stewart does a great job, even if she gets a little too mumbly at times ... but she does an amazing job in presenting Bella as this girl caught between two worlds - you see her slowly drifting away from her more normal friends as she gets increasingly caught up in the strange world of Edward Cullen.

Speaking of her friends, that's another thing that really kept Twilight entertaining. There's a fun group of high school friends that help ground the film and provide some decent comic relief. Anna Kendrick as Jessica is definitely a stand-out - she's giggly and nervous and awkward and kind of provide's a normal-girl's window into this whole goth world of vampires.

As for Robert Pattinson as Edward - I personally didn't think he brought much to the movie other than an uncanny ability to make girls and women visibly swoon while watching Twilight. He does have a good chemistry with Kristen Stewart - no doubting that. But from a guy's perspective he's not really the kind of lead that you really ever get behind or root for. He's just this kind of creepy dude who's just kind of there and never seems all that interesting or likable.

I thought there was some potential in the various other members of the Cullen clan, but we barely spend any time with them or really dive into them as characters, except in a very two-dimensional manner. We get the sense that there's the jock / frat boy vampire, the bitchy / ice queen vampire, the cool pixie chick, and the tortured emo kid. And then there's the "father" of the clan, who is a doctor and pale, and, um, yeah ... that's about it.

As far as the direction goes, well, I have mixed feelings. I thought Hardwicke actually did a nice job of giving the movie a dark, dank, moody atmosphere - she does a great job of capturing the grey skies and ominous forests of real-life town Forks, WA. There are times when the movie really does have a cool, creepy vibe. But it also tends to lack style - for a movie about vampires, it almost feels *too* grounded. And whenever there's action or f/x, and whenever the ultra-lame group of villainous vampires appears, the movie grinds to a halt and looks and feels like a really bad episode of Smallville. Hardwicke nails the more personal moments and establishes a generally creepy ambiance, but beyond that, there are simply too many ultra-hokey scenes that take you out of the movie or elicit unintentional laughter. It doesn't help that a couple of the actors, from the guy playing Bella's father to the three vampiric antagonists, are unfortunately pretty dreadful.

But I will say this - as many faults as I found with the film, it got me caught up in Bella and Edward's romance to the extent that, yeah, I am at least curious to see where the story goes from here. I can't comment on how the film compares to the novels, but I can see from the film alone how the story does such an effective job of creating a palpable intensity with regards to Bella and Edward's fateful romance. That romance, though, is the one aspect of the narrative that actually feels epic and substantive. And perhaps future sequels will address this - but, at least for now, Twilight lacks the creative vision or narrative imagination to live up to all its enormous hype.

My Grade: B-

- Alright -- stay tuned for more news and reviews soon - have a good one everyone.

Monday, November 24, 2008

JACK'S BACK: The Return of 24, Plus: Smallville, Office, 30 Rock, Pushing Daisies, and MORE

Dammit! I'm back after a GRAVITAS-filled weekend and there's lots to talk about. In honor of that fact, today's blog will be uploaded directly to your PDA in REAL TIME, baby.

Last night, countdown-clock worshippers everywhere had cause to rejoice, as after months and months of conspicuous absence ...

TWENTY BY-GOD FOUR (24~!) Returned ...!

- Yes, after an extended hiatus from the airwaves, Sunday brought not one but two solid Jack Bauer Power Hours, which comprised a special TV movie event known as 24: REDEMPTION. And let's face it: not only did Jack have some redeemin' to do, but 24 had to, to some extent, redeem itself to a fanbase that had been somewhat burnt out by a Season 6 that was not up to typical 24 standards. On the other hand, absence does tend to make the heart grow fonder, and when push comes to shove, 24 still stands as one of the great shows of the last decade. One off season isn't enough to make me substantially less excited for another round of 24-style gravitas. And all indications have pointed to Season 7 being a return to glory - there's a top-notch supporting cast around the always great Kiefer Sutherland (Jon Voight, Kurtwood Smith, the guy who played the Candyman ...), as well as the much-anticipated return of fan-favorite Tony Almeda, whose soul-patched presence instantly gives the show an extra dosage of whup-ass.

So really, last night's Redemption special was there to serve a pretty basic function - to rally the 24 base and get us revved up for an all-new season of real-time mayhem. In that regard, the movie worked like a charm. I'm now super-hyped for the actual season to begin so that we can get back to hour-by-hour installments of twists, turns, and gratuitous cries of "dammit!" The movie reestablished Bauer as the ultimate badass, planted some interesting seeds for Season 7 - establishing both a reinvigorated and pissed-off hero in Jack and a couple of scheming villains for him to square off against.

In the meantime, we got to see an interesting little experiment in playing with the conventions of 24, as we got a chance to break away from the 24-hour / 24-episode format, as well as from the usual LA setting. It was cool seeing a 24 adventure set in Africa, and it was likewise fun to see Jack operate sans all the usual technical wizardry and gadgets of his CTU backers. It was a little strange to see the show still operate in "real-time" despite being a 2-hour movie, but the familiar countdown clock is such an iconic element of 24 that it might have been even stranger if it had been absent.

As a standalone movie, Redemption could be considered pretty choppy and uneven. Whole stretches would shift from Jack's African adventures to focus in on the Washington DC side of the plot, in which President Noah Daniels from last season serves his last day in office even as a new, female prez is inaugurated. There were all kinds of little hints and teases in these DC-centric segments, as we met the new President's son and daughter-in-law, her husband, and a friend of her son's who may be on the verge of uncovering a typical 24-style shadow conspiracy within the ranks of the White House - a villainous group that seems to link Jon Voight's character, Tony Almeda (absent here but whose affiliations were hinted at in the S7 trailers), and the ruthless African rebels that Jack comes up against in Redemption. Still, while the DC stuff will ultimately come back around and tie in with the African segments of Redemption, there was still a pretty big disconnect between Jack's adventures in Africa and the DC parts, which were really more about setting up S7 than anything else. When you only have two hours for a standalone movie, you want as much Bauer-infused action as you can get, you know?

That being said, Redemption delivered plenty of vintage Jack Bauer violence. We saw Jack give an African captor the old head-scissors of doom, single-handedly take out an entire African rebel squadron, and help fend off an urban assault whilst leading a pack of kids through a village towards the US Embassy. You even had a decent turn from Robert Carlisle as an old special forces friend of Jack's, who played the part of sidekick / martyr in the good fight admirablly. Sure, his big scene was strangely similar to a trick Prison Break pulled mere weeks ago, but hey, it worked as well if not better here. My friends and I cheered, clapped, and let out cries of "daaaaaaaaamn!" as we watched Jack Bauer return to his unstoppable killing-machine ways - it was a sure sign that Jack was, in fact, back.

So yeah, as a whole, Redemption was decent when looked at as a big, super, awesome standalone 24 movie event. But when looked at as a sort of Episode 0 for 24 Season 7, well, like I said, it got the job done and then some. Because I can really only be objective on this one to a certain degree. This was TV's greatest action hero, Jack f'n Bauer, back in our living rooms kicking ass and taking names. And really, it feels like this was just the proverbial warm-up for what is to come, a prelim match leading up to the main event. After last night, all I can say is BRING. IT. ON.

My Grade: B+

- Speaking of 24's little cousin, PRISON BREAK, tonight's ep promises to be a barn-burner. But I have to say, all the talk of this being the end for PB made me wonder if we will get to see one more run for the now-legendary Monday Night Gravitas combo of Scofield and Bauer. With Terminator moving to Fridays in January, will the two most intense shows on TV partner up for one last go at sensory-overload?

- I also need to make mention of the really sad news that emerged late last week - that being that one of TV's best and most imaginative series, the great PUSHING DAISIES, is more than likely about as dead as its title implies. I can only hope that the show receives the Piemaker's patented magic touch of rejuvination, but in this new world of cutthroat, budget-constrained TV, it's not looking particularly good. If the show is in fact done for, I do hope that it at least gets a bit of narrative resolution. Especially with this season ramping up the ongoing storyarcs, it would be truly tragic if Ned and Chuck don't get the ending they deserve. I've already gone on about the merits of Pushing Daisies at length here, and I'll reserve a final tribute for when the last episode has aired. But suffice it to say, it's a scary world in which Dancing With the Stars and three CSI spinoffs can thrive while a wholly original, magical, and intelligent series is unable to find the audience it needs.

- On last week's SMALLVILLE -- well, this one came with a ton of hype and expectations. Fanboys everywhere were salivating at the prospect of an epic Clark vs. Doomsday smackdown, in what promised to be the kind of legendary hero vs. villain battle that Superman fans have demanded to see in live-action form for years and years now. And unfortunately, in this regard Smallville kind of dropped the ball. Sure, it was probably unfair to expect Smallville and its newly-slashed budget to be able to deliver a giant-sized fight straight out of the comics, but, the expecation wa there nonetheless. And what happened instead was, well, we got minimal action, more build-up than release, and what was in many respects simply a fairly typical episode of Smallville, with the focus squarely on the young adult romance and angst rather than superheroics. That said, this was actually a pretty good episode of Smallville. The build up to Chloe and Jimmy's long-awaited wedding was well done. The tension between Lois and Clark got cranked up a notch, and Erica Durance as Lois was great as always. In fact, she's been so good and developed Lois into such a fun, likable character that Lana's big return in this ep was pretty "meh." Lana has long been such a broken character that she is almost a walking punchline at this point. But, it's emblematic of this season's sharper writing that, in her appearance in this episode, Lana was probably the best-written and most likable she's been in years. The one thing I could have done without was the lame, Cloverfield-aping camcorder sequences, which just reeked of sucktitude and "hey look, we're cool and edgy just like that monster movie that the kids were talking about!" desperation.

I mean, look, the Davis Bloome / Doomsday buildup has been handled better than anyone expected, and this season overall has been a pleasant surprise - with sharper writing, better character development, and more cohesive plotting than Smallville fans have been accostumed to. But with this episode, I think we were all hoping for the show to step it up a notch and transcend the usual limitations of what Smallville has been and can be. If ever there was a time for the show to just say "screw it" and go all out to deliver a comic book style epic, this was it. And who knows, maybe that's what they are building up to, and the show is just biding its time until the season (series?) finale. But the fact remains, this wasn't really much in the way of wish-fulfillment for us longtime Smallville fans who have been waiting for the show to really kick into a new gear.

My Grade: B

- I'll just briefly mention that I thought both THE OFFICE and 30 ROCK were hilarious last week. The Office had one of my favorite episodes so far this season. I love the Toby-Michael relationship, and to me that weird dynamic has made for many of the flat-out funniest moments in the show's history. Michael's irrational hatred of Toby is one of the weirdest yet most hilarious quirks of his personality, and seeing it manifest in oddball acts of jackassery is always entertaining. As for 30 ROCK, it was great seeing Steve Martin back doing, you know, comedy. And Tracy Morgan's subplot, in which he was convinced that his little-seen children were out to kill him ("Stop patriciding me!") was gut-bustingly hilarious. While a lot may be going wrong for the Peacock, Thursday was undoubtedly an awesome night of comedy for good ol' NBC.

My Grades:

The Office: A-, 30 Rock: A-

- Anyways, I have a lot to more to talk about. I had a really fun weekend, for one. And I'd like to take a moment to give a shout-out to my adopted home here in CA, Burbank. While it at times gets a bad rap, I've always maintained that Burbank is a city on the up and up. For those of us who work in one of the nearby studios, it's a completely convenient place to live and has a number of shops, resturants, and parks nearby. Now, Burbank has never really had much in the way of nightlife, but the big B did take one small step towards coolness this weekend with the opening of its very own Barney's Beanery. I had the pleasure of visiting the new Barneys on Friday, and I have to say it's pretty darn impressive. Flat-screen TV's at every booth, a mini-arena-style setup centered around a giant-sized TV screen, etc. Sure, a pristine, new, deluxe Barneys will never have the same sleazy Sunset Strip authenticity of the original in Hollywood, but the fact that Burbank has one more cool spot to hit up after a movie is pretty sweet.

- I also had a fun night hanging out with a bunch of NBC and Paramount people on Saturday, coincidentally also in Burbank (aka the place to be in LA). It was cool to meet some of the new crop of NBC Pages and impart my great wisdom and personal success story to them. If they work hard, perhaps they too can have their own all-new, all-awesome adventures.

- Craziness! On Sunday me and the G-Man hit up the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood to take in an improv comedy show which featured Meghan B. amongst its troupe of performers. It turns out that the UCB theater is right across the street from the Scientology celebrity center, and it turns out that at the same moments that we were enjoying improv comedy inside, across the street some maniac wielding a SWORD charged the Scientology compound, where he was subsequently SHOT to death by a perhaps-overzealous security guard. I mean, WTF, mate? Only in LA, only in LA. Check out the link below for more:

- Actually though, Sunday turned out to be quite the funday. After the comedy show, we grabbed lunch at Mel's Diner, and I had a stupendous belgian waffle that really and truly hit the spot. We then went back to my place where we fired up my newest PS3 purchase, MORTAL KOMBAT vs. DC UNIVERSE, and proceeded to mash buttons for a couple of hours straight until we had played through the enitre epic story mode and led a band of DC Comic's greatest heroes and vilest villains on a cross-universe battle and saved the universe. I'll admit, at first I thought the game looked pretty lame - lacking the polish or sophistication of a Soul Caliber or Street Fighter. But after several rounds joy-buzzing suckers as The Joker of reigning down holy lightning as Captain Marvel, I was a believer in the simple joys of MK vs. DC. It may not be game-of-the-year material, but it sure was a fun way to waste a couple of hours.

- And of course, the weekend was capped off by a trip to Seth E's for pizza, drinks, and a solid two hours of TWENTY BY-GOD FOUR.

And, oh yeah, somewhere in between all of that, I met up with Abby W. and took in the pop-cult sensation that all the teen girls are talkin' about, Twilight.

Now, this has been a pretty long blog post and I don't want to overload it. So stay tuned soon to see what a 26 year old dude thinks of the goth-emo-mumblecore-vampire-romance known as Twilight.

Until then, I'm out. Here's to short weeks and Jack Bauer, dammit all.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Facts Are These: Keeping Up With PUSHING DAISIES, CHUCK, and FRINGE. Plus: Chinese Democracy Hype.

- If any of you rock n' rollers have yet to check it out, I definitely recommend giving Chuck Klosterman's review of Chinese Democracy, posted on the always-great Onion AV Club, a read. Funny and insightful, the article has actually gotten me pretty excited for the looong-awaited new album from Guns N' Roses.


Appetite for Destruction is one of my most-played albums of all-time - I bought the cassette tape as a kid after becoming obsessed with the GnR videos played on MTV, and it was kind of this forbidden fruit - with four grim-looking skulls on the album cover and a parenta advisory sticker, Appetite was dangerous, to be sure. But it was also just about the most rocking music I had ever heard. And from that point on, I was a GnR fan for life. I've seen them twice in concert over the last couple of years, each time with a different line-up, neither time with the original band intact. But even without Slash and co., both times I saw Axl Rose live, I went in expecting the worse and coming away, well, blown away. The sheer awesomeness of the GnR catalogue was enough to put the concerts over the top of the awesome meter, and it was clear that there was still a spark of life left in Axl and GnR - even the new material had a lot of promise. So, next week, CHINESE DEMOCRACY finally drops. Chuck Klosterman liked it. I'm cautiously optimistic. But at the least, it's great that people are once again excited about genuine, old-school rock n' roll music. AC/DC was recently a chart-topper, GnR is poised to be big once again, and kids everywhere are learning the classics via the magic of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. And hey, our new President is a fan of Dylan and The Stones. Might this be a new age of ROCK?!


- Dayum, I'm actually pretty excited / curious to see tonight's SMALLVILLE. As I said last week, Clark Kent vs. Doomsday doesn't have quite the same ring to it as does *Superman* vs. Doomsday, but tonight's much-hyped Smallville ep will be a real test for the long-running show, which has sometimes struggled to introduce truly epic villains aside from Lex Luthor. And it's rare that the show has delivered a legitimately Superman-worthy super-powered slugfest. We'll see if tonight's main event delivers the goods, but if tonight's ep is a smash, and next week's Geoff Johns-penned Legion of Superheroes-themed episode is as good as promised, then Smallville could be in the midst of one of its best-ever streaks of quality episodes.

- I also really want to point out how fun and entertaining last night's episode of PUSHING DAISIES was - I'd go so far as to say it was, potentially, this season's best installment yet. Again, it's crazy that a show that can deliver this kind of quality week in and week out is on the chopping block. It's hard to imagine many people tuning in to last night's ep and not liking what they saw, because what we got was a fantastical episode of magic, betrayal, and mystery that was a clear reminder of what makes this show work as well as it does. And man, the guest stars last night were absolutely perfect for the episode and the series in general. You had the great Fred Willard playing The Great Hermann, a stage magician who had served as a surrogate father of sorts to Ned's twin half-brothers. You had the great Kerri Kenney (of The State and Reno 911 fame) as Hermann's assistant. And you had typically-great performances from Lee Pace, Chi McBride, Kristen Chenoweth, and Anna Friel. Not to mention Stephen Root, who has been awesome in his recent guest appearances as an old and slighty-sinister friend of Chuck and Ned's respective fathers. This ep really had a great balance between the ongoing familial dramas of Ned and Chuck and a fun adventure / mystery of the week. In this case, the central mystery tied in perfectly with the ongoing storyarcs, so it really felt like a big episode that was jam-packed with plot and new revelations. Visually, the world of magic was a perfect fit for Daisies, and the sets, costumes, etc. were all top-notch. The visual creativity of this show is just unparallelled on TV, and this ep was further proof. So watch PUSHING DAISIES, tell your friends, tell your parents, grandparents, etc. Because the facts are these: this show deserves to thrive.

My Grade: A

- After a couple of weeks of Captain Awesome-level awesomeness, CHUCK got a bit formulaic this week, although a nice reveal at episode's end set up some potentially great plotlines for future episodes. I do think Jordana Brewster has been a fun addition to the cast these last couple of weeks. I do think the show sometimes overdoes it on the emo-ness (Josh Schwartz's THE OC suffered from the same problem), and the mopeyness of Sarah in this ep did get a little grating at times, as did Chuck's constant focus on his re-girlfriend, Jill even in the midst of all kinds of spy shenanigans. But on the other hand - Tony Hale (of Arrested Development fame) is flat-out hilarious, and was great in this ep. His interactions with Morgan were very funny, and I actually almost always enjoy Morgan's scenes and think he's gotten even funnier this season. Speaking of funny, Adam Baldwin letting out a choir-boy high-C note scream was friggin' classic. Likewise, the ending twist actually makes a ton of sense in the broader context of the show's mythology - I just think it was arrived at a little hamfistedly. Still, I have to bump up my grade a little if only for this episode's several shout-outs to Y: The Last Man (which from the get-go has seemed to be one of its creative influences). From mention of the Culper Ring to a big Y poster hanging over Chuck's bed, this ep was definitely feeling the Last Man love. And let's face it, the Chuck-Sarah relationship is very similar to that of Yorick-355. Now Chuck just needs a helper monkey and all will be right with the world.

My Grade: B+

- On FRINGE ... Fringe has yet to have that single, *great* episode that makes you stand up and say "well I'll be damned, this show is the real deal." But with this week's episode, I'll admit, they came pretty darn close. I think Fringe is both benefitting and hurting from the fact that John Noble is absolutely, positively ruling it this far as Dr. Walter Bishop. And this week was Noble's best performance yet on the show - bar none. While Walter had at times been relegated to comic relief in recent weeks, this time Walter was funny, scary, sad, mysterious, and tragic all in the span of an hour. To me, this ep locked-in John Noble as an Emmy favorite, because I've yet to see a better supporting actor performance on TV this season. I loved the scenes of Walter having to return to the institution where he had been confined, and try to prove his sanity to the warden and to his son and to his colleagues. His internal struggle here was absolutely riveting. And, plot-wise, the show just presented its most intriguing mystery yet. It was easy to suspect from the beginning that there was much more to Bishop than meets the eye, but this ep posited that there could in fact be *two* Walter Bishops running around. Was this a clone, a dimensional alternate, a figment of Walter's fractured psyche? Whatever the case, I'm intrigued. I also thought the central mystery here was pretty fascinating - I'm a sucker for the whole concept of some uber-equation that contains the mysteries of time and space within.

But, where this show has faltered is that it can't seem to keep its focus. I wish this ep could have stuck to the main idea of the equation and the villains' pursuit of it. Instead, that plotline was mixed in with a cool-but-random concept concerning hypnotic colored lights, the idea that people were being brainwashed into believing their dead relatives were alive (the villains' preferred method of information-extraction), etc. The show just gets too cluttered sometime with criss-crossing ideas and concepts.

Otherwise, Fringe is kicking ass when it comes to Walter Bishop, but the other two leads stil lfeel underdeveloped and lacking personality. This ep went a long way in developing Walter's relationship with his son though, I will give them that. Still, Ana Torv's character needs some kind of hook other than what's already been presented. Lance Reddick is kind of filling the Fox Mulder role of driving the action forward, but they need to make sure he isn't simply an exposition machine.

That being said, all the Walter Bishop stuff in this ep was awesome, and helped provide a sense that some of the show's lingering mysteries are about to really blow up. Greatness is definitely within reach.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, that's all for now. I'll be back tomorrow with more news and views, so cya then.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Agent Double-O-Blog - QUANTUM OF SOLACE Review, Prison Break, and MORE!

The name's Baram, Danny Baram. And I like my blogs shaken, not stirred. Yes, loyal readers, I'm back from a little place called the weekend and I'm here to share epic thoughts and gravitas-filled reviews.

What can I say, I'm a tad bit excited that, in less than a week, Jack Bauer is back. Normally Jack's out of time, but it's ABOUT FLIPPIN' TIME that Jack returned to show these new kids how it's done. But I'm not going to spend too much time speculating on what is to come, because I've got plenty of reviews to throw your way.

- First of all ... PRISON BREAK ...! Last night's ep was simply off the chain. PB has always managed to kick into high gear in the episodes where a heist or breakout is actually pulled off after weeks of build-up, and last night was no exception. After a season's worth of prelims, last night we finally saw Michael and co. break into the Company's inner sanctum which held Scylla - the holy grail of computer chips that contains all of the Company's most important secrets. The actual break-in operation was in and of itself thrilling. I loved that the show had the guts to present some of these intense scenes in virtual silence - the lack of background noise or chatter made ratcheted up the intensity factor to ridiculous levels. But even as the break-in itself was exciting, the whole episode was loaded with drama thanks to the convergence of several key plot points. For one, Scofield's sickness had reached deadly levels. Deciding at the last minute to postpone hospital treatment, Michael risked his life by participating in the break-in, as any mental or physical stress spikes could be enough to trigger a deadly siezure. Luckily for him, Scofield is one cool cat under pressure. But of course, his health is not all Michael has to contend with, as Gretchen and T-Bag put their own long-simmering plan to double-cross Michael and co into effect. Setting up Agent Self, Gretchen puts him in the line of fire of the Chinese (shades of 24!). And, oh yeah, just as Scylla is finally in his grasp, Scofield sets off an alarm, alerting the Company to his presence. At episode's end, Self is surrounded, T-Bag is waiting on Scofield with murderous intent, and Michael and his crew are seemingly at the mercy of The Company. Talk about a cliffhanger. All I know is, I don't know if, since I got a DVR, have ever fast-forwarded through commercials as frantically as I did during last night's Prison Break. Last night's ep kicked my ass.

My Grade: A

- Well, people say the characters of GOSSIP GIRL are cold, callous, and self-centered, and maybe they are. But I'll be darned if last night's episode didn't come down with a big case of the warm and fuzzys. Sure, Chuck Bass was still Chuck Bass, Bart was revealed as keeping secret files on all of his extended family members, and Serena's poseur artist boyfriend continued to be annoying and sleazy ... but ... if there's one thing Josh Schwartz knows how to do, it's how to make an ensemble of outlandish character oddly endearing, and last night he did just that. I mean, it's a testament to the show that I actually found Blair Waldorff's Thanksgiving dinner to be a heartwarming affair. Good stuff.

My Grade: A -

Up next: a look at last night's ANIMATION DOMINATION lineup on FOX ...

- I thought THE SIMPSONS had a pretty fun episode overall that had a nice father-daughter story at its core. But, a couple of critical flaws kept this from being an overly memorable episode. One was that the story was just too all over the place. It felt like a regression back to the nu-Simpsons trend of taking forever to introduce the main storyline, leaving little time for it to be resolved in a satisfactory manner. After a couple of episodes that did a solid job of introducing the main plot early on in the episode, the more Family Guy-style structure of this ep was disappointing. Secondly, I just didn't think the humor worked that well here. There were two or three pretty funny jokes (Moe taking Lisa's name, Homer's back and forth with the bartender / bookie), but there were loooong stretches in this one without much if any real humor. It's too bad, because I liked the cleverness of the crossword-puzzle theme, and thought there was some good potential there. But what could have been a great episode turned out to be pretty flat.

My Grade: B

- I thought that KING OF THE HILL came back strong this week with an episode that offered up the kind of down-home social commentary that this show has always excelled at. I loved the premise of Peggy, Dale, and Mingh following hapless Bill around as part of their plan to make it big in the stock market, eyeing his every purchasing decsion after they decide that Bill's consumer habits represent those of an ordinary Joe Sixpack. Bill of course loves all the attention, but eventually cracks under the pressure of having his every move scrutinized. This one had a lot of sharp satire mixed in with a sizable dose of KOTH's usual pathos and strong characterization. Good stuff.

My Grade: A-

- As fo FAMILY GUY ... hmm ... this episode was kind of a mess, and really all over the place in terms of humor. There were one or two gags that really cracked me up - the joke where Peter accidentally burns down a hospital had me rolling (as wrong as that sounds out of context ...) - and yet, a lot of the episode seemed to fall flat. As soon as the ep became Billy Madison-lite, the episode, to me, lost a ton of momentum. I mean, look, just because you have a self-awareness or metatextual thing going where you acknowledge that a premise is absurd - that doesn't automatically make it funny. Sometimes Family Guy tries to say "hey guys, we KNOW this is stupid, and that's why it's funny!" But sometimes, there's no substitute for great joke-writing and clever set-ups. Between Peter re-doing the third grade and Brian and Frank Sinatra Jr buying their own big band club (only to have Stewie turn it into a trendy hangout), a lot of this ep felt like it was there just so the writers could dish out a couple of key jokes. Yes, the Andy Dick appearance at Stewie's club wa funny, but ultimately these stories were just kind of there, without any real arc or payoff. I'm not asking for Family Guy to be Shakespeare, but I wish it would get back to having episodes with a memorable and coherant premise, lots of great jokes, and an overall polish that was lacking in this throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks installment.

My Grade: B-

Alright, time for my review of the latest 007 extravaganza ...


- Quantum of Solace is a fun action movie, but I'm not sure what argument there is to make in favor of it being great or even very good. Sure, I understand that there is a vocal minority of Ian Fleming purists out there who are happy to see a darker, grittier James Bond franchise that more closely emulates the tone of the original novels. But, aside from the faithfulness to the source material, I just don't get the appeal of a 007 movie that strips away everything that made Bond a cinematic icon. Because now, what you're left with, is a movie that's somewhat entertaining, but to me mostly feels like a wannabe Bourne movie, or just a Bond movie that's trying too hard to crib from the back-to-basics formula of Christopher Nolan's Batman films or other such franchise reboots.

Aside from all of that big-picture stuff though, a few key problems really hamper the movie's pacing and execution. One problem is the issue of continuity with the last Bond film, Casino Royale. 007 movies are not particularly known for their narrative continuity, so I don't know how many went into Quantum expecting to have needed Cliff's Notes. But so much of this movie is a direct continuation of the earlier film that it really begins to become a frustrating excercise. I could barely remember, for example who Vesper (Eva Green's character in Casino) was, how she was killed, etc, and the movie is not edited or written in such a way so as to be particularly helpful in this regard. Vesper is mentioned dozens of times here, but we don't get a single flashback or bit of exposition to help jog our memories. I'm not coming out in favor of clunky, overly-expository storytelling or anything, but if you're going to tell a serialized story, you have to consider your audience, and you have to construct a narrative that both flows organically from the established plotlines, AND also stands alone as a self-contained narrative. I don't think Quantum really stands alone as a 100% cohesive film, and that to me is to its detriment.

Other than the plotting and narrative, the overall pacing of the movie suffers from choppy editing. In the big action scenes, this means that drama and excitement is sometimes sacrificed for Bourne-style rapid-fire cutting. It means that sometimes it's hard to tell who's chasing who, who has the upper hand, etc. At the same time, the movie's choppy cuts snip out a lot of the quieter moments that made Casino Royale stand out from earlier Bond films. There are not really a lot of memorable character moments to be found here amidst the action set-pieces. Even some scenes that would seem vital to the narrative don't make the cut - I found it pretty jarring, for example, when the movie cuts right from a climactic fight scene and time-jumps right past what could have been an important story point. We hear Bond reference that the big bad has spilled some of the secrets of global conspiracy Quantum to 007, but we don't see or hear it. Odd, to be sure.

I know I've been negative thus far, but with all that being said, I think I actually enjoyed Quantum slightly more than Casino Royale. The reason being that Daniel Craig definitely seems to come into his own here as a legit action star. Even if I didn't always know quite what was going on, it was just fun watching him engage in car chases, boat chases, foot races, and aerial maneuvering. Even though some key scenes were hampered by overly-quick cuts (particularly the final battle), many others worked pretty well and had me on the edge of my seat. Plus, amidst al the chaos there were a couple of genuinely badass sequences. My favorite was a cool scene set in a high-class opera house in which Bond exposes a secret meeting of the Quantum group. The main villain, while lacking in any over-the-top, Dr. Evil-style gimmickry, is still suitably slimy and villainous. But the supporting cast, other than Judi Dench, is really pretty bland and none too memorable. I realize that the lesson of Die Another Day was to not have a supporting character who tries to overshadow 007, but still, would it kill this franchise to craft a couple of memorable, recurring side characters? They've dispensed with Q and Money-Penny, so who's there to pick up the slack?

There's no doubt - Daniel Craig has what it takes to be a great action hero - he's a talented actor and a believable badass. Still, I just can't get too excited about such a pared-down version of an icon like James Bond, who now seems to have far less personality than the Bond of old or even the Jack Bauers of the world. As it stands, Quantum of Solace is just one more action flick in an overcrowded market.

My Grade: B

- Alright, and I'm out of here. Back soon with more, Agent Baram out.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday TV Roundup: SMALLVILLE Hits Back, Plus: 30 Rock and Office Reviews

Not to sound like a huge geek or anything, but man, last night was a pretty epic night of quality television.

Where to begin?

- I'll start with SMALLVILLE. Let me give credit where credit is due - because, holy crap, that was one badass episode of Smallville! At first, it seemed like just another episode of the long-running series, and I winced a few times during the first several minutes, because clearly, whoever wrote the episode was making sure that every line of dialogue was EXTRA SNAPPY to the point of ridiculousness. But, things slowly but surely took a turn for the intense. Soon enough I found myself in the midst of one EPIC episode of Smallville, an episode that truly made me feel like I was watching a classic Superman comic book playing out on screen. First of all, I've talked recently how this season of Smallville has done a really nice job of maintaining continuity week to week, allowing each episode to build and build, creating a pretty cool tapestry of ongoing storyarcs. In fact, I can't remember when Smallville has ever felt this tightly-plotted before, and the newfound focus on the ongoing narrative is really helping to crank up the drama. Like many, I questioned the introduction of the Davis Bloome character, but I have to admit - the build-up to his inevitable villainous transformation has been exceptionally well-done. I also have to give the show credit for its always-great visuals. It's amazing to me that, despite reported budget cuts, Smallville continues to look this good. I loved the f/x present when Chloe was being brain-drained by Braniac, and all of the fortress f/x were also similarly well-done. On the acting front, Alison Mack deserves some credit - Chloe can sometimes be a bit overbearing as a character, but tonight you really had to feel for her and her plight. I also really liked the flashback scene to Clark and Chloe's first meeting - it really hit home how important that relationship has been to the show - in a way, you could argue that Chloe has been Smallville's heart and soul, and that flashback really served as a potent reminder of that fact. But really, the big fanboy moment came near episode's end - because as much as fans complained that Davis Bloome was a poor substitute for the monstrous villain Doomsday of comic book fame, this episode set up the emergence of the vile and horrific creature that we all love to hate. Yes, I had chills when Jor-El ominously explained the grim origins of the Kryptonian beast known as Doomsday to Clark. Now that's what I'm talking about. Now, it was tough to tell much from the preview for next week, but the small snippets hinted at a truly giant-sized nemesis for Clark next week in the form of a straight-from-the-comics Doomsday taking on Clark in an epic smackdown brawl. If next week's ep delivers on the promise of the preview - then, wow, we could be in for quite a treat. I guess the one negative here is that you get the feeling that the new team of showrunners are doing all they can to make Smallville as fun and epic as possible, but it's still clear that they are inherently hampered by the limitations of the show's premise. Having an epic Clark vs. Doomsday showdown, as cool as that is, just doesn't have quite the same awesome-factor as it would if it were *Superman*. Clark's now been talking about the idea of superheroics for so long that every episode where he's still just a plain-old guy becomes increasingly frustrating. Still, I don't want to harp on that too much, because overall this was just a great episode of a show that clearly has some renewed life and sense of purpose. Keep it up, guys.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, got to talk about THE OFFICE, as last night's ep was definitely one of my favorites of the season so far. One reason: Ed Helms. The guy has not had a ton of screentime of late, but every time he's on-camera as hapless Andy, he makes the character all the more interesting. Finally, last night the focus shifted to Andy, and the result was a lot of hilarity and some of the most memorable moments that The Office has had in a while. Everything really clicked in this ep, from Andy's awesome drunk phone call to Angela, to his budding friendship with Oscar, to Michael's excitement and eventual disillusionment with his business trip to Canada. The Jim and Pam stuff I thought was handled much better than last week - more subdued and less melodramatic. I guess my one complaint is I'm not sure if I like the path that Dwight's character has been going on. The problem is that he used to be far and away the show's funniest character - now, he's been made into such an awful person that it's a lot harder to laugh at his antics. Overall though, a really good ep of The Office.

My Grade: A-

- Finally, 30 ROCK had yet another absolutely hilarious episode that had me laughing nonstop. Every plotline seemed to fire on all cylinders. I mean, first of all, I love how this series uses its high-profile guest stars in non-gimmicky ways. Last night's appearance by Jennifer Aniston was case-in-point - she fit organically into the plot and wasn't really playing to or against type - just simply cast in a funny part that gave Alec Baldwin some truly hilarious lines. Seeing the conservative Jack Doneghy unable to resist the crazy-appeal of Aniston's character was a lot of fun. But even more awesome was the subplot involving Tracy, Kenneth, and the cast of Night Court. Yes, Night Court. Upset by the Page Program's new and spiffier uniforms which have supplanted the ol' Blue Polyester theads (gotta love NBC Page humor - awesome!), Kenneth looks to Tracy to cheer him up. Tracy asks Kenneth what would make him happy, and the answer is, of all things, a satisfying conclusion to the long-running sitcom Night Court. Random? Indeed. Hilarious? Without a doubt. Tracy got in a few choice lines of dialogue ("A Court? At night? I'm already laughing!"), and hey, Harry Anderson and Markie Post showed up! (man, Harry was looking pretty old though, I have to say ...). In the end though, this was yet another great episode of 30 Rock. Definitely a great hour of TV between this and The Office.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, bring on the weekend. It may have been a short work week but I am more than ready for some quality R &R. And I'm out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

THE STATE Gone Mainstream? ROLE MODELS Review and MORE!

Man, Subways in LA have the slowest service ever. A good Subway should be a veritable sandwich-making machine, with speedy and efficient employees and patrons who know exactly what they want before they even get in line. But here in LA, each trip to Subway seems to have an incredibly high percentage of people who have apparently never been to a Subway. And the servers, though they tend to be friendly enough, take about five minutes simply to put a couple of turkey slices on a piece of bread. Where's the hustle, Hollywood?

Anyways, I do have a movie to review, but first, a quick rant:

- Has Hollywood lost it's freaking mind lately?! In the last few days alone, a wave of news stories have come out relating to new film developments, each one more cringe-worthy than the last. Will Smith's son as the next Karate Kid? All I can say is "aww HELLS no!" Same sentiment applies to a Will Smith remake of the great movie Oldboy. I have seen Oldboy, and Will Smith is no Oldboy. Steven Spielberg himself is attached to direct ... and this is sad, because Spielberg is too talented to waste his time remaking a movie that came out less than ten years ago. Give us something, oh, I don't know, ORIGINAL? Then there's Brett Ratner directing a new Conan flick? Understand the words coming out of my mouth: please lord, no. And then today ... this can't be true, can it? Ridley Scott, he of Blade Runner and Alien and Gladiator, directing a Monopoly movie? That can't be right, can it? When I saw the headline I was convinced it was an early April Fool's joke, and I'm still waiting for the punchline. If true, all I can say is Why, Ridley, Why?

Hollywood - it's been the fanboy rallying cry for years, but come on already - stop remaking stuff that doesn't need to be remade. The entire point of Oldboy, for example, is that it details a personal nightmare that is incredibly %&#'ed up. Are Spielberg and Will Smith going to preserve that? Even if they somehow did, why does that particular story need to be retold? Why not just come up with something new?

Stop the madness, I say!

- STOP THE PRESSES ...! It has just come to my attention that PRISON BREAK may soon be given the death penalty from the overlords at FOX. Here's what I think: I think that I could accept the fact that TV's most fun action-adventure show may say goodbye after four great seasons, provided that the show goes out with a huge bang and a fitting send-off. IF and only if that is the case, and we get a giant-sized finale that ties up loose ends and provides proper closure for Michael Scofield and co. - well, I could then be content with a great run coming to an end. But ... if FOX messes with storylines and cuts the show short prematurely - I will not be happy. The cast and crew of PB have created iconic characters and larger than life storylines, and they deserve a great wrap-up. I want one final Scofield vs. T-Bag smackdown, one final feat of badassery for Mahone, and an ending that creates a new status quo for our perpetually on-the-run protagonists.

Now, if it were up to me, I could certainly see relaunching the show with a new name and new premise. Scofield and Mahone as a pair of special-unit FBI or black-ops government agents? Perhaps tasked with containing a supermax prison break? Perhaps in pursuit of the increasingly dangerous Gretchen and her re-established Company? These characters are so great ... they could certainly live on past Prison Break ...

But I'll wait and see what happens. Certainly, if PB goes, then Monday nights will have a little less gravitas.

... Alright, anyways ...


- As many friends and readers of the blog are well aware, I'm a huge, huge fan of the cult-fave 90's-era sketch comedy show THE STATE. Since the premature death of that modern classic, I've closely followed the careers of many of its alumni, and looked forward to any projects that seemed to represent a revival of the random, crazy, and absurd sense of humor that characterized The State back in the day. So far, the best post-State project from the group, by far, has been Wet Hot American Summer, which was one of those movies that screamed cult comedy classic from the moment it hit theaters in 2001. To me, Wet Hot is plain and simply one of the funniest movies ever made. And yet, it's one of those movies that's pretty difficult for critics to wrap their brains around - because it's strength isn't its plot, characters, or anything that can really be objectively judged. It's just hilarious, and that's why it rocks.

Since Wet Hot, there've been a handful of major comedy projects from State members - Stella on Comedy Central, Reno 9-11, The Baxter, and last year's The Ten are the standouts. But STATE and WET HOT fans can rejoice, because while not apparent from the trailers, ROLE MODELS hits the sweet spot in terms of channelling the same kind of humor that put The State on the map. In fact, directed by David Wain and co-written by Wain and Paul Rudd, Role Models is almost a seamless merging of Wain's random sketch comedy stylings with a traditional Hollywood comedy formula.

Because, like Wet Hot, the premise of Role Models sounds pretty lame on paper. Two immature guys who get in trouble and are forced to atone by mentoring a couple of problem children. Under normal circumstances, this could be a by-the-numbers recipe for disaster. But the actual result is a random, subversive, geeky movie that followes the broad outline of a mainstream comedy, but in the details, is anything but mainstream.

I mean, the movie spends a ton of time on the in's and out's of live-action role playing, staging epic LARP battles as if they were D-Day. There's a running joke about the band KISS that is central to the movie's climax. And the lovable kid in this movie? He's a prematurely pervy, smart-mouthed ten year old who singlehandeldy uses more swear words than The Big Lebowski.

The point is that, sure, some of the movie is devoted to telling a story about immature guys being forced to accept their adulthood by caring for misguided kids, and in doing so realizing what's important in their lives. And you know what? The schmaltzy stuff is up there with the best of Hollywood comedy. As cheesy as it is, the ending makes you want to cheer in appreciation of the geek getting the girl, the underdogs winning out, and our heroes finding their happy ending.

But the second part of my point is that a lot of Role Models is simply devoted to the art of being funny for the sake of being funny. It helps that the cast is so talented. Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott are great as the leads - it's not just them alone though - the real highlight is their interactions with all the crazy characters they encounter. Rudd is great as a burnt-out guy bitter at the world, but he's even funnier when he's interacting with Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin') - a nerdy and awkward but well meaning kid who obsesses over a medieval reenaction / live-action combat game called LAIR. Similarly, Sean William-Scott is funny and likable as usual, but his interaction with Bobb'e J. Thompson is priceless. Thompson is absolutely hilarious as an uber problem-child, and despite being a young kid, his character takes full advantage of the movie's R-rating. This is definitely NOT your typical watered-down kid character. Ronnie as played by Thompson is profane, shocking, and sometimes just plain wrong. And the funniest part is that for most of the movie, Sean William-Scott is perfectly happy to encourage the kid's behavior, to be his Obi-Wan Kenobi of behaving badly. Very funny stuff.

The supporting cast though is just loaded with talent. For one, a ton of State and Wet Hot vets appear, so you know they will bring the funny. The best might be Joe Lo Truglio, who stole the show in THE TEN. Here he plays a hilarious character who is the leader of Mintz-Plasse's LAIR tribe - basically a grown man who gets off on dressing in medieval garb and greeting people with a hearty "good morrow." Like I said, hilarious. Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney show up as McLovin's disapproving parents - I was actually surprised that they were not only funny, but actually pretty effective as semi-dramatic foils for our young here. I guess I should have remembered how well Marino can do sleazy from his stint as Vinny Ban Lowe on the late, great Veronica Mars. David Wain pops up for a small role (no signs of Michael Showalter or Michael Ian Black, however), and Wet Hot's A.D. Miles is great as a Ned Flanders-esque goody two-shoes. And hey, Elizabeth Banks is in the mix too, marking the third theatrical movie I've seen her in a the last month. But if there's one actress who deserves to be overexposed, it may be Banks. She's solid here even if it's a pretty underwritten role.

Two supporting players who really stand out though ... Jane Lynch, for one. Lynch has to be one of the overall funniest people in film today, and she doesn't get enough credit for stealing scenes in every movie she's in, from A Mighty Wind to The 40 Year Old Virgin to Talladega Nights. She's at her best and funniest here, as the former-addict who now runs the Big Brothers, Big Sisters-like organization that's at the center of the film's plot. Lynch's fearless delivery lends itself perfectly to David Wain's absurdist style. Ken Jeong is also pretty awesome in this one. He's been popping up in everything lately it seems, but as the "king" of Lair, drunk on power, he's a riot.

If Role Models has any real fatal flaw, it's just that it still kind of has that feeling of being a movie that started out as a generic paint-by-numbers comedy, that then went on to get a giant makeover from Wain and Rudd. Beneath the surface, you can sometimes see the skeleton of that original, way less cool movie showing through its shiny new paint-job. But it's a testament to the talent involved here that they made the movie wholly their own. When I saw the film at a screening, some of those with less, shall we say, out-there taste in comedy came away from the movie confused and disappointed. They had expected a nice, simple, Hollywood comedy and what they got was an off-the-wall, unabashadly geeky, David Wain style movie. As for me, the fact that beneath the predictable facade of the movie's trailers lay a kickass, subversive comedy was an awesome suprise. That the movie did so well at the box-office was similarly cool - might the cultish comedy of The State finally be going mainstream? As long as these guys get to keep churning out great comedies like this one, I'm game.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, that's all I've got for today. Rock on!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Random Thoughts of the New Obama Era, Plus PRISON BREAK, OFFICE, 30 ROCK, SMALLVILLE, and Even More TV Reviews!

Welcome to the first real post of the new Obama era. Yes, it's already a different America, and personally it's pretty exciting. Say hello to stem cell research, electric cars, and free jumbo pretzels for everyone! Okay, maybe not that last one (I guess I'm just hungry and in the mood for a giant NYC-style pretzel? hmm ...), but, you get the picture.

So, I have a lot to talk about, but I'd be remiss if I didn't start things off with some random politically-oriented thoughts that have been brewing since last Tuesday ...

- I thought Obama's first post-election press conference last week was pretty compelling to watch, if only to see just how different it was from what we've seen over the past eight years from George W. Bush. And I have to say, I liked what I saw. I think people who wrote off Obama as a guy who only deals with grand ideas and hyperbolic speech are going to be surprised by just how pragmatic the guy is. I mean, it's only been a couple of days since the election, the guy isn't even President yet ... but already I feel like we are getting stuff done.

- As I alluded to in my previous, post-election post ... I do admire what John McCain did in his concession speech, but at the same time, I also see it as too little too late. The amount of negative campaigning in his bid for office was just indefensibly hypocritical. The fact that McCain used the same Rove-ian tactics that had been used against him, even down to the same robo-calling agencies that hurt his campaign in the past - well, that's just unbelievable to me. Personally, I am proud of the fact that the guy we elected to our highest office is the one guy in this campaign who didn't get to the top by being an ass.

- Speaking of which ... please lord, let Sarah Palin disappear from the political scene. I know it's not going to happen, but I really, really wish it would. I mean, can't we get back to the days where both political parties are represented by candidates who aren't scary zealots? I realize this is tough for Republican - afterall, McCain was, amazingly enough, probably the least horrible of the main Republican contenders. But Palin - what does she bring to the table in terms of qualifications? Minimal intelligence, minimal experience, maximum crazy = NOT GOOD. I guess the one good thing is that if, somehow, she were to be a Republican candidate for prez in 2012, I now have more than enough faith that the American people would reject her as being viable. But as much as I'd love to see a more liberal America trample over shoddy conservative candidates like a Palin, in the spirit of optimism and bipartisanship, I do hope that both parties produce leaders who are actually intelligent, capable, and not scary.

- And how about Joe Lieberman? Talk about a guy who ended up on the wrong side of history. Joe - you were wrong. Swallow your pride and admit it.

- I guess Rory Gilmore made a good choice at the end of Gilmore Girls when she went to work for the Obama campaign?

- I wonder to what extent our pop culture will revert to 1990's-style Clinton-era movies, TV, and music in the wake of the Dems once again being in control of the White House? It's funny, because the first post-Obama comedy hit at the box office was Role Models, which - who knows - may not have done quite as well had it been released a week or two earlier. It's interesting, Role Models contains the sort of absurdist, random humor that seemed to peak in the 90's -- and guess what, Jim Carrey has an old-school Jim Carrey movie on the way soon to boot. I guess I am just wondering if comedy will soon return to being less biting and more random once the mood of the country gets a bit less dire and a bit more hopeful.

- I guess 24 just likes to be ahead of the curve ...? Way back when, the show introduced much of America to the concept of a kickass black president, in the form of the late great President David Palmer. Now the new season promises a female President ... fine with me, as long as it doesn't translate to a Palin presidency ...

- Random question: what's with AOL's userbase appaently being uber-conservative? They always have those attention-grabbing headlines on their main page, usually accompanied by an opinion poll of some sort. Throughout the election, the polling questions almost always had very conservative-leaning results. But just today there was an article and accompanying poll that really shocked me. The article was about a Republican senator who directly compared Obama to Hitler. Okay, I'm already offended from the headline alone - but then the poll asked if the Senator "had a point," or "sounded foolish." And the "had a point" choice was actually ahead by a decent percentage! WTF?! Finger of shame!

- Also, I honestly think the worst lobby in America might be the gun lobby. Why do these crazies think it's a violation of their rights to ban assault weapons? I mean, how far do you take this? Should anyone be allowed to own a nuclear missle? Obama had a damn good point when he made his "controversial" comments about people clinging to their guns - I swear to god I don't understand why second-amendment zealots think that restrictions on gun ownership are a bad thing. Oh no, we'll all be screwed when the aliens invade and we don't own machine guns!

- But, to end on a positive note, I am still shell-shocked at just how big of a moment the Obama win was. Last week, there was just a feeling in the air of positivity and celebration - it really was amazing. As much as part of me wanted to be grumpy for various reasons last week, it just wasn't happening. People, at least here in LA, were just plain happy. It hit me on Wednesday when I walked to my car to go out and grab some lunch. This young black guy was walking to his car, and he was just walking with a bounce in his step and a big smile on his face. He walked faster to catch up to me, and blurt out: "So, what do you think?" I didn't have to ask him what he was referring to. "About the election? I'm excited, really excited." I replied. "I just can't believe it," he said. "I never thought I'd live to see this."

A stranger being friendly in LA? Making small talk? Genuinely happy about something? This must be the dawn of a new era afterall.


- Let me start with today's TV Roundup by talking about last night's PRISON BREAK, which yet again owned. Last week I still ahd some misgivings about the way Bellick was offed, but I thought this week's ep was a fitting tribute to everyone's favorite thug. It was kind of funny how everyone acknowledged that they were surprised at how upset they were about the guy's death, but at the same time, the point was made that through Bellick's death they got a firsthand idea of how they themselves might be treated if they were to fall in the line of duty. But anyways, last night's ep had it all - more absolute craziness from T-Bag ("Scofield is a needler!"), who delivered one of the most awesomely nonsensical speeches ever when he impressed his fellow salesman with an absurdly random speech about Bellick. This ep also had a solid gravitas-factor thanks to the newly-revenged Mahone, and some nice bits with Gretchen as well. Call me crazy but for some reason I'm convinced she'd make an awesome Lois Lane. Finally, we had a small bu noteworthy appearance by the man known on 24 as MIKE NOVICK, who seemed to have reprised his role as a smarmy henchman type. I can only hope that he worms his way up to main event badguy status ASAP.

- And speaking of former 24 cast members - awesome news that Reiko Aylesworth (sp?) will be joining the cast of LOST - seems like a perfect fit, and who knows, if Michelle Dessler is on that island, perhaps ZOMBIE ALMEDA will appear to seek unholy soul-patch communion with his lost love. Suffice it to say, who among us will not be happy to see Reiko back on our TV's?

My Grade: A-

- Let's talk for a second about this week's FOX Sunday night: Fist of all, this week's SIMPSONS was what you'd call a very mixed bag. On one level, I thought there was some funny writing here and at least a couple of jokes that really worked. I admired the episode for at least trying something different in terms of structure, using a parallel series of interweaving flashback to show various scenes from Homer and Marge's teenage courtship. But, really?!? Yet another hamfisted story about Marge and Homer's marriage being on the rocks? The same plot of The Simpsons Movie, and the same plot of seemingly every other Simpsons episode from the last five years? AGAIN?!? Enough already! Cant' we get a ban on this? Unless a writer simply has the most brilliant Homer-Marge-marriage-in-peril script *ever*, then cut this crap out already!

My Grade: B-

- KING OF THE HILL, however, rebounded from last week's subpar episode with a pretty well done installment. The ep pitted Hank against his son's school, when a bunch of students, including Bobby and Joseph, are put into a special ed class simply to raise the school's test-score standings. It was a solid ep all around, and I'm hoping this is a sign of good things to come in what may be the show's final season.

My Grade: B+

- FAMILY GUY came back from a really awful episode and also had what I'd consider to be a much better effort this week than last. I thought the new-Brian subplot had some pretty hilarious moments, and even if it felt like well-worn territory, the ep definitely worked overall (there's just something funny about Stewie's oddball pronunciation of "cool whip" as "cool hwhip"). I can't help but wonder though - I made mention above of a potential shift in the comedy paradigm now that we've entered the Obama era. I can't help but wonder whether this might mean that Family Guy will ditch some of the mean-spiritedness that has been its trademark the last couple of years. Personally, I miss the days when Meg was a real character, and when not every episode had three jokes that existed only to tear down random celebrities for no apparent reason other than to be mean. Because as relatively funny as this episode was, did it really need to end with Stewie murdering new-Brian and stuffing him in a sack? I think not, people.

My Grade: B

- I know I'm late in talking about Thursday's TV lineup, but I have to give a huge shout-out to 30 ROCK, which roared back after a pretty good premiere to have an absolutely hilarious second episode. I mean, wow - this one was a classic, the highlight being Alec Baldwin's attempt to teach Kenneth the Page about moral ambiguity, which resulted in some funny-as-all-hell scenes. Seeing Tracy Morgan in white-woman drag (with claw-hand accessory) was priceless. Even the Oprah stuff was pretty hilarious. Still the best comedy on TV? Without a doubt.

My Grade: A

- As for THE OFFICE, I got a kick out of the somewhat oddball conspiracy storyline, but got annoyed with the growing creepiness of the Pam-Jim relationship. It'd be one thing if the show seemed to be encouraging us to dislike them, but instead The Office insists on showing its schmaltzy side whenever Pam and Jim are involved, even as they are being kind of sketchy by talking to each other 24/7 on the world's tiniest bluetooth.

My Grade: B

- I really enjoyed this past week's SMALLVILLE. As much as I've badmouthed the inherent lameness of having Doomsday be an angsty Metropolis teen, having Davis Bloom actually be a genetically engineered son to General Zod is kind of a cool twist. While the episode did contain about the five millionth time that someone has been mind-controlled on this show, I give some credit to Erica Durance for pulling it off much better than we've seen in the past. There was also some real drama here with all the Phantom Zone and Kara stuff, with Tom Welling putting his working boots on and delivering one of the best performances we've seen from him in a long while. Even if there were a few of the typically clunky moments here that Smallville is known for, I give this season credit for having a compelling, overarching narrative that has been slowly but surely been building momentum episode to episode. Just, please, enough with the mind control already.

My Grade: B+

- Finally, I don't think I've talked enough on this blog about the great PUSHING DAISIES. While I've had a couple of nitpicks with the show so far this season, I can't emphasize enough how smart, funny, visually unique, and imaginative this show is, consistently, each and every week. The fact that this show is on the cancellation bubble and not one of TV's top-rated series is, basically, a travesty of epic proportions. I know, it's a tough sell. It's one of those shows that I think is mostly being watched by younger viewers, simply because they tend to be more open to unconventional series. And yet, it's a show that I think older viewers would also love. I feel like my parents and even grandparents would be into it if they gave it a shot. It's just hard to explain to people what the series is - it doesn't look or feel like anything else on TV, not in the slightest. I would tell people it's like a Tim Burton movie meets a 1990's LucasArts computer game meets an old film noir meets The Princess Bride, but I don't know if that would register with most people. Suffice it to say - WATCH PUSHING DAISIES. It's one of those shows that is hard not to love once you've seen it, and when I think about the quality of the show compared to so much of the crap on TV, it boggles my mind that it isn't a better performer.

- Alright, I still need to get down my review of ROLE MODELS (short version: hilarious). But for now, I'm out.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Obama Era Begins: Welcome Back, America!


You know, for those of us who move out to Hollywood with big dreams, well, we tend to have a soft spot for great stories, for underdogs, for tales of the seemingly impossible becoming possible. And as much as I've tried to be acutely aware of *reality*, in an era when the President of the last eight years has lived in his own private Fantasyland, there are moments when one's inner Hollywood dreamer can't help but frame things in the context of a big-screen narrative. And tonight, as the glass shattered and the bomb dropped, as Barack Obama was declared as being the next President of the United States - it was indeed a Hollywood-like moment. Because as much as I usually hate to put politics in these kinds of terms, I couldn't help but feel that tonight was a night that the good guys won.

As much as some will want to frame this as just another cyclical election, as much as some will want to get right back to business as usual ... I know it, you know it - this was a special moment in American history. A transformative moment that marked a new chapter in the narrative of a nation that has always struggled to live up to its lofty ideals. As much as our patriotic tendencies make us want to, at times, declare America to be the greatest country in the world - over the last eight years there haven't been a lot of moments to inspire such enthusiasm. But tonight might just be one of those nights - where the majority of Americans embraced progressive change and actively voted to shake up the status quo. There are still plenty among us who are stuck in the old wars, the old culture clashes. But the good news is that the old ways of thinking are becoming an endangered species.

Over the last couple of days I've tried to really hammer home how crucial it was for younger voters to be a big presence in today's election, and looking at the numbers so far, it looks like we were. More than two-thirds of the young vote was pro-Obama, and to me that sends a huge message to the pundits out there - there's a new generation that's here and eager to be heard, and we're going to be around for a long, long time. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

And I don't mean to say that in a mean-spirited way. But I can't help but want to say "I told you so" to a certain contingent out there. I think back to a dinner I attended several months ago at an older relatives' home. Surrounded by a number of men and women in their 60's and 70's, the talk turned to politics, and clearly, I was the only Democrat in the room. But what really caused jaws to drop was when I quietly stated that I was an Obama supporter. I was quickly bombarded with all the reasons why Obama was essentially evil incarnate. His middle name was Hussein. He was black. And so on ...

But here's what's great about America: most of us don't give a crap about any of the above. Worrying about someone's middle name? About their race? That's the old way of thinking, the same garbage that Karl Rove resurrected to help elect Bush. That's why I say that this is a transformational moment. It's a nail in the coffin for that old way of thinking, it's an excorcism of the old demons that have haunted America throughout our history.

Still ... let me interrupt that thought of optimism for a second with the ugliness that was on display during John McCain's concession speech tonight. The hostile crowd's negativity was embarassing, and is emblematic of the monster that McCain and Palin have helped to create in their losing effort. A huge part of me wants to give McCain all the credit in the world for going out on a high note, with an eloquent speech that called for unity across party lines. But I won't let him off that easy. McCain betrayed his own stated values in this campaign, and never wavered when things got ugly. If he had won the election, few could have said with a straight face that he took the high road to get there. I'm glad that tonight we got a glimpse of the old John McCain. But to me this is a man who has permanently tarnished his political legacy - one speech is simply too little, too late.

Back to Obama though, it really was amazing to see this already-iconic figure take the stage tonight and deliver a speech that was not simply self-congratulatory, but actually served as a real call to action. It seamlessly took Obama's campaign themes and transferred them from sales-pitches to agenda items. Pretty amazing.

What's really amazing though, is that for those of us who have long felt like there's been something seriously wrong with America for the last eight years, now there is just this sense of relief -- finally, the burden is lifted off our backs - finally, we can get down to business and turn a corner - finally, we can actually deal with the big issues at hand.

People were excited about this election, and finally, the enthusiasm of the people for change reached its boiling point. As strange as it sounds, it was awesome to see the constant status updates and postings on Facebook today. It's been even more fun talking and bonding with people during the last several months over our shared enthusiasm for political change. It's been encouraging to see my friends and peers taking an interest, getting involved, reading up on the issues, sharing opinions and ideas, and going out today and voting and getting excited about the results.

Five years ago, while studying abroad in London as the War In Iraq was starting, the American ideal really began to ring false to me. I struggled to explain to Londoners why we were preemptively at war with Iraq, and struggled to justify a nation that had elected a leader as incompetent as George W. Bush. It was unbelievable to think of all the goodwill we had squandered abroad in a matter of months following the attacks of September 11th. Despite Bush's Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil mentality, I often thought of the book Heart of Darkness, which shows how even the most idealistic and "civilized" person is capable of savagery. In that book, the hero Marlow, having witnessed the horror that civilized man can perpetrate, returns to Europe from the savage lands of Africa and thinks that this, too, is one of the dark places of the earth. Under Bush, you couldn't help but wonder if America was also one of those dark places.

Tonight though, tonight I feel different. We did the right thing, and the light is once again shining. We're living up to our legend, and there is that sense of hope and possibility again. And as some commentators pointed out tonight - we got here without a war, without violence, without upheaval. We simply made a choice. And it's a stark reminder that America is actually pretty great. And seeing Obama up there giving that speech, realizing the moment we have now arrived at, well, you want to wave Old Glory, blast some Rick Derrenger, and proudly chant "U-S-A." Or maybe, in this case, it's "Yes-We-Can."

Because tonight may just be the night that America is Back. And it's about time!

Monday, November 03, 2008

On Stuff That Has Nothing To Do With Politics: Halloween Recap, Treehouse of Horror, Prison Break, Chuck~!, and More - Plus: ZACK AND MIRI - Reviewed!

What's this? Two posts in a mere matter of hours?

Well, yeah ... I wrote my last post with the intention of it being some kind of super mega-post, but instead got sidetracked with a political RANT OF DOOM, which I felt was better off as a standalone entry.

But I had a lot more to talk about other than politics, so, here we go.

First of all, I need to talk about this past Friday's annual Halloween party hosted by fellow former NBC Page Carlos M., at el Casa de Carlos in Pasadena. Unbelievably, this has now been my FOURTH Halloween here in LA, and every year since I moved out here, the whole month of October has been a highlight. It's so much fun to be around tons of people who love Halloween as much as I do. This year, the event formerly known as Page-O-Ween was another huge success. I personally had a lot of fun dressing up as SLASH of Guns N' Roses fame - definitely one of the best Halloween costumes I've ever come up with. I thought it might be cool once I picked up the obligatory long-hair wig, top-hat, and GnR t-shirt. But the capper was found at a costume shop in Burbnk at the last minute - a pair of studded, fingerless gloves that gave the pefect accentuation to my rock-star look. Who can blame me for brandishing said gloves proudly with a raised rock star-style fist in the majority of my Page-O-Ween pics? Suffice it to say, it was fun to be Slash, if only gor one night. After all, if one nice Jewish boy can grow his hair long and change his name from Saul Hudson to Slash, then why can't another?

Credit also needs to go to a number of friends who came up with some great costume ideas. Seth and Sarah as Speed Racer and his gal-pal Trixie. Lauren and Jenny as Jane the Plumber and Alaskan Beauty Queen Sarah Palin respectively, and Kyle O. for his admirable portrayal of AC/DC's schoolboy-outfitted madman Angus Young. I saw lots of other great costumes on Friday - from He-Man to the Ninja Turtles to Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and yes, more Sarah Palin's than I could count - scary! Strangely, didn't see a single Joker at the party ... why so serious, people?

But yeah, overall, Friday was a great time and in some way the icing on the cake for what was an October jam-packed with ghoulish coolness. I won't run through it all again for the umpteenth time, except to say here's to another spectacularly spooky Halloween (and of course, see my Facebook or MySpace pages for the photos).


- Okay, I will start with a quick mention of last Monday's episode of NBC's underrated but always-entertaining CHUCK. So far this season, I've kind of glossed over Chuck here on the blog, mostly just because it comes on during a jam-packed Monday timeslot during which 3 cool shows all air at the same time (Chuck, Terminator, and Gossip Girl). At some point, I fell very behind on my Chuck viewing, and it took me until this weekend to finally get caught up and up to speed. Well, I'm glad I did, because (and why did nobody tell me of this?) - Monday's CHUCK was perhaps the best-ever episode of the series, a solid hour of comedy, action, adventure, and one of the greatest montages set to a RUSH song ever aired. Readers of the blog know that I was a huge fan of last year's cult-fave documentary, The King of Kong ... and this ep of Chuck was a brilliant riff on that film, with the added twist that by reaching a fabled kill-screen in retro-game Missile Command, one would see a code that actually controlled a missile-defense system. This ep not only told a great King of Kong-like underdog story of a past-his-prime nerd, but it was chock full of geeky grooviness. How could you not love the fact that the key to reaching the Missile Command kill screen was by blasting Rush's Tom Sawyer and timing one's missile-blasting moves to the beats of the classic prog-rock epic? One word: badass. Every actor was pitch-perfect in this ep, and it was both funny (a Zune joke!) and made me want to stand up and cheer. I know that it's hard for an inherently goofy show like Chuck to get it's proper critical due, but the fact is that this was one of the most fun and memorable episodes of TV so far this year. All hail CHUCK - and go blast some Rush!

My Grade: A

- Alright, moving on ... we all know that you can't fully close the book on Halloween until FOX has aired the storied SIMPSONS TREEHOUSE OF HORROR special. As we all know, Simpsons-style humor and horror are as potent a combo as peanut butter and chocolate. And after years and years of classic Halloween-themed episodes, the annual Treehouse episodes still hold a special place in many a Simpsons fan's heart. I know that for me, I have and will always look forward to a new Simpsons Halloween special - the potential for awesomeness is always there, and like Fox Mulder I so badly want to believe that this will be the year that we finally see a return to greatness for the Simpsons staple. And if any year was that year, it seemed like this year could be it. So far this season, we've seen a steady stream of good to very good Simpsons episodes, eps that in some ways harkened back to an earlier and better period in the show's long and illustrious history.

So color me disappointed that last night's Halloween ep may have actually been the worst episode of the season thus far.

Oddly, I'm seeing some surprisingly positive reviews for this one online, and I'm not quite sure where that's coming from. Let me say this: last night's ep did have a number of visually-dazzling moments - from a beautifully-rendered take on the Mad Men intro to a spot-on tribute to the animation style of the old Charlie Brown cartoons. But here's the thing: who among us really cares how visually-dazzling The Simpsons is? Sure, it's cool and adds flair to already-great episodes, but The Simpsons is first and foremost a writer's show. If the writing isn't working, then I could care less if a sequence is well-animated. I mean, case in point is the classic 3D Homer segment - for it's time, the computer animation was brilliant, sure - but the ep is still best-remembered for its abundance of classic lines. without the sharp writing, it would have simply been a cheap gimmick.

And man, the writing in last night's ep was almost universally LAME. First off, the whole spirit of the older Treehouse eps seems to have been lost. These used to be stories that were hilarious but actually kind of spooky. It was bad enough that last year there was a Mr. and Mrs. Smith parody, now we get Transformers?! How is that in the spirit of Treehouse of Horror? Ugh. The Transformers bit was easily the weakest part of the show - just pretty useless, boring, unfunny, and not even really appropriate for Halloween. At least the segment in which Homer goes on a celebrity killing spree so that an ad agency can use the dead celeb's likenesses without paying royalties .. at least that one had a couple of chuckle-worthy moments. But still, not exactly what you'd call a Treehouse classic. Finally, I was almost won over by the artfully-done animation of the Great Pumpkin parody, but was turned off after a couple of minutes when I realized there had yet to be a single funny joke in the segment.

The whole thing annoys me, because ironically, in a season of The Simpsons that has actually gone back to the show's roots a bit in terms of style an pacing, here was a Treehouse episode that felt like a really bad installment of Family Guy rather than a great Halloween episode of The Simpsons. All of those classic Treehouse eps had stories that were great and spooky in their own right, with tons of great humor and satire mixed in. Those eps are among the all-time great pieces of Halloween-themed animation ever done. It saddens me to see a Treehouse ep that is so far away from those classics in terms of the quality of humor and storytelling.

My Grade: C

- As for FOX's other two animated entries last night, well, first I'll talk for a second about KING OF THE HILL. As many know, KOTH is one of my all-time favorites, a show that has really grown on me over the years. Unlike The Simpsons, which really hit its quality peak relatively early on in its fourth or fifth season, KOTH to me was a show that just kept getting better and better well past middle age, perhaps not even hitting its real stride until Season 8 or 9. When all was said and done, last season, when the show returned from the brink of cancellation, may have been one of the series' best to date. So far, however, this season has seen a bit of a lull in quality. It's not that the show's been bad, just that it has lacked some of the spark that has made the last couple of seasons of KOTH amongst the best comedy on TV, period. So when word came that the show was set to end its run, I actually wasn't too upset, provided that at the least the show get a proper send-off, with marketing from FOX and a finale that brings some real closure to the series. Because let's face it - of late KOTH has at LEAST been respected enough to stay planted in its original 8:30 pm timeslot, but - the fact is that FOX hasn't given the show a marketing push in about 10 years, and over the years has used and abused the show to no end. It still annoys me that for a couple of years KOTH suffered the indignity of being aired at the ridiculous 7 pm timeslot, meaning it didn't even air in most markets during football season. My point is, FOX still has a lot to atone for in terms of treating one of its venerable series with its due respect.

Now, Sunday's ep was kind of typical of many of this season's episodes - solid, but nothing we haven't seen before. If The Simpsons and Family Guy had been on their game, the ep wouldn't have disappointed as much as it did, but with those two being off I was really counting on KOTH to come through. Personally, I'd go so far as to say that last night's ep was below average - the plot required Hank to be uncharacteristically naive (in this case about the internet), and the subplot with Dale and Bobby and a pig was just plain boring. Sure, the episode did have its moments, but the good bits were weighed down by the constant mentioning of MySpace, which was made all the more odd since ultimately the episode was kind of bashing the (FOX-owned) site. Anyways, not one of King of the Hill's best.

Now, rumor is that ABC may try to purchase the rights to the show from FOX, so it can serve as a companion to Mike Judge's new ABC animated series. It'd be hard to imagine the show on another network, and it seems like after years and years of quality, the show might finally be running out of steam. That being said, I love these characters, and when KOTH is on its game, it really is one of the all-time great sitcoms, animated or otherwise. I can only wonder what Hank Hill would think about his oft-overlooked show's seeming inability to go out quietly.

My Grade: B-

- Next up: FAMILY GUY. I won't spend too much time talking about this one because I thought it was a pretty weak effort overall. Like The Simpsons this week, the drop in quality was extra disappointing, because to me FG has had a bit of a creative resurgance over the last couple of weeks. But man, this one was mostly a clunker, with an almost non-existant plot that seemed to be a half-hearted riff on Home Alone, and one gag after another that fell flat. I mean, some of the stuff here was just half-assed, like a Back to the Future cutaway that was emblematic of Family Guy at its worst. It was a random call-out to the movie that had no actual joke - just a random bit from the movie and THAT'S IT. Yes, I remember Back to the Future. Reminding me of its existence is NOT FUNNY and is just plain lazy. Better luck next week, FG.

My Grade: C -

- Okay, getting back to tonight's TV, a quick word about tonight's GOSSIP GIRL: good stuff. The show continues to entertain, and is easily one of the best shows going today. The show is moving full steam ahead, similar to The OC in its heyday, except that GG has the better cast and maybe the sharper writing to boot. Anyways, another good episode.

- Finally, though - the main event. (SPOILERS ahead!) Yes, ladies and gents, PRISON BREAK was back tonight and whoah boy, it kicked ass! Yes, even as those ads for the 24 special continue to tantalize, there be no need to wait until the 24th to get a weekly infusion of 100% pure gravitas. Because gravitas has a name, and it is FICHTNER. I mean, hot damn, does it get any more intense than Fichtner as Mahone coming face to face with the man who killed his son?! Tonight, PB delivered enough hardcore action, blood, sweat, and torture to make Jack Bauer jealous. Gretchen playing both sides of the coin and getting back in with The Company? Scofield getting ever closer to a breakdown? T-Bag using all kinds of crazy phrases that only he could get away with? All the ingredients for awesome. And ... Bellick? DEAD?!? Say it ain't so, Joe! Can our favorite momma-lovin', prison-guard-turned-con, corn-fed troglodyte actually be a goner? Well, in fiction you can't say for sure until you see a body, so I wouldn't count ol' Bellick out just yet. And I definitely would not count out Prison Break. For one hour tonight I forgot all about presidential politics - and the only issue that mattered was whether Mahone's revenge on The Company Assassin would come in the badass or super-badass variety.

My Grade: A

- Okay, I do have a movie review for ya', of Kevin Smith's latest, so here. we. go:


- Back in college, seeing Clerks and Mallrats for the first time was one of my big moments as a budding film fan. The simplicity of those movies, the way they wore their snappy screenplays on their sleeve, made a generation of aspiring filmmakers ready to pick up a camera and get cracking on their own low-budget indies. But more than that, the cultural effect of Kevin Smith's first wave of movies was the precursor to the modern age of Geek=Chic. Because the likes of Dante, Randall, and Brody, and even Jay and Silent Bob - they were some of the first examples of the new breed of nerd. Foul-mouthed, obnoxious, and able to talk comics and Star Wars with the same degree of sophistication as they dissected the ins and outs of everything else - from women to politics to philosophy.

With Zack and Miri, however, we're seeing the first real post-Apatow Kevin Smith movie, and suddenly Smith finds himself competing with a guy who made the niche of Smith mainstream, in a fashion. And it's funny, because you can see something similar happening in both the works of Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow. Smith started out making movies about losers who reminded him of dudes he knew when he was just a nobody hanging out in Jersey. Apatow made his mark with Freaks & Geeks - a painfully accurate depiction of the plight of high school outcasts. But later works of both Smith and Apatow began to reflect changes in the director's own lives. Smith is no longer a loser from Jersey - he's a fan-favorite director with a disproportionately attractive wife who's living the fanboy dream. Same goes for Apatow. Both guys have cast their wives as leads in their movies, and both have made movies where, increasingly, they are about sad sack loser types almost effortlessly ending up with beautiful starlets. It happened in Knocked Up, it happened in Clerks II, it happened in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and it happens again in Zack and Miri.

Now, the first three movies I mentioned are all great comedies, so I'm not complaining. All I'm saying is that when you start telling Hollywood fairytales that reflect Hollywood fairytale lives, you lose some of the authenticity and geek-cred that put you on the map in the first place. Because, look, Zack and Miri is a pretty hilarious movie - it has some of Kevin Smith's funniest-ever dialogue, keeps you laughing from start to finish, and has a stellar cast. All I'm saying is that I don't know if it has that same geek-does-good magic that made Clerks and Mallrats something special to a generation of college kids.

So I'm not here trying to rag on the movie - in fact, I thought it was overall extremely entertaining and up there with the funniest movies of the year. I'm really just trying to verbalize why I can't say I loved it and why I wouldn't quite put it on the same level with Smith's best work. The little details here are all classic K. Smith - the random geek references (Highlander gets a particularly nice shout-out), the sudden outburts of vulgarity (poor Jeff Anderson redefines the term $%#%-faced), and the back-and-forth dialogue that elevates the art of guy-talk to high art. It's just the overall plot and structure that feel a bit too manufactured. It almost reminded me of something like Girl Next Door - funny, but founded on an absurd premise that never quite feels plausible. Here, it never quite feel right that Zack and Miri would actually go through with starring in a porno together. Sure, I could see them directing and producing one - but the conceit that they themselves would go at it in the featured sex scene never stops feeling a bit contrived. And yes, most comedies are by nature contrived, but not Smith's, not really. I mean, this is the guy who made a whole movie about two guys hanging behind the counter of a Quick Stop. Kevin Smith doesn't usually do contrived.

And that's why this movie isn't quite among the top two or three best of Kevin Smith's. But it is one of his overall flat-out funniest films to date. Like I said, the dialogue, the jokes, the raunchy humor are all spot-on. And the cast might be my overall favorite in a Smith film to date. As much as Rogen is now becoming a walking cliche of scruffy n' chubby guy who overachieves with the ladies, you can't deny that his deadpan delivery is perfect for this kind of movie. The guy is just plain likable, and always surprises me with just how much he can make you care about his typically slacker characters. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks has got to be one of the most versatile young actresses out there. Only weeks ago, I was watching here playing Laura freakin' Bush (and doing a nice job of it), and now she's similarly great as a free-spirited, hard-drinkin' girl next door who's just crazy enough to make a porno for money.

Another standout is The Office's Craig Robinson, who steals almost every scene he's in with his spot-on delivery of every line he's given. The guy is simply really, really funny, and it's great to see him get such a substantial part here. There are some great smaller roles from the likes of Brandon Routh (yes, Superman himself) and Justin Long, playing against-type (?) as a gay couple who befriends Zack. I loved seeing Tischa Campell, who used to be hilarious on MARTIN, as Craig Robinson's firecracker of a wife. I wish Jeff Anderson would show up in more movies, as he really is funny. But he has a unique ability to recite Kevin Smith's dialogue with the perfect blend of "I'm an obnoxious wiseass" flair. Similarly at one with the ways of Smith is Jason Mewes, who steals scenes here with ease despite not being abel to fall back on the usual Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) mannerisms.

In the end, I'd call Zack and Miri a must-see for fans of Kevin Smith, as well as for fans of good comedy with a high tolerance for swear words and gross-outs. Like I said, the inherent absurdity of the main plot device keeps this one from feeling as authentic as a typical Smith film - the central romance never quite feels as real as Smith wants it to. But, as a pure comedy, Zack and Miri will keep you laughing. That Kevin Smith is still one funny $%&$.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, I'll be back tomorrow with one final call to Barack the Vote. Until then, goodnight, and good luck!