Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Words of Wisdom from a Now-27-Year-Old Man: Birthdays, Days of Atonement, and SMALLVILLE, GLEE, FLASH FORWARD, and More!

Back from a weekend of birthday festivities, Yom Kippur fasting, and leg injuries - now, for a little while, at least, it's back to the grind.

Okay, where to start? Well, first off, when I last posted here on the ol' blog, I wrote about how I was hobbled from an unfortunately-timed leg injury that resulted from a physical therapy session last Tuesday. The short version is that, for the last few weeks, I've been going to twice-weekly physical therapy to help strengthen my never-healed-quite-right ankle. So after a long day Monday where I was on a plane most of the day, travelling from Hartford to LA, I was pretty stiff and cramped heading into the following day's session. But, I still didn't really suspect that a routine leg excercise would so seriously mess me up. I left PT that day feeling a bit sore but mostly fine, but when I woke up on Wednesday I was in very bad shape. I could barely even stand up, let alone walk. By Wednesday night I was only slightly better, then I really began to freak out on Thursday and Friday when I was still very much limping around and unable to fully straighten my right leg. I had had muscle cramps before, but man, this was the monster of all muscle cramps. During Friday's PT session, they left my ankle alone for the day and went to work on my calf to try to help me out. Friday night, I stayed in and just spent most of the night lying down on my bed with heating pads on my leg. Saturday, I was slightly better but still really hurting.

And that kind of sucked, because Saturday was my birthday party (or my Mega-Atomic Birthday Meltdown, if you will - a name that tragically proved to be somewhat prophetic). I almost considered cancelling the festivities, to be honest. Not only was it hard for me to walk, but all of the hobbling around that I had been doing made me kind of exhausted overall. Aside from all that, LA tends to be a difficult place to get large groups of people together for anything. Not only is there the high-flakiness-factor at play, but on any given weekend in LA, you can count on the fact that any number of young Hollywood jetsetters will have several *very* important events pencilled in on any given weekend, or else, depending on their family's financial situation, will either a.) be off travelling to exotic locales around the world, or b.)working at their "pay-the-bills" second job. Suffice it to say, a humble, low-key birthday party is often forced to compete with any number of potentially more attractive options in the too-cool-for-school world of Hollywood. That said, Saturday's festivities still managed to be a lot of fun despite my bad leg and despite the fact that Hollywood etiquette states you can't RSVP to something until you've made a last-minute determination regarding its coolness factor. (And yet, I have this sadistic impulse every so often to send out mass-invites to various events - why, I don't know.) Seriously, I had a good time reliving my early days in LA, keeping things simple and local. A bunch of us had a nice, hearty delicious dinner at Buca Di Beppo, and then the celebration continued at Howl at the Moon nearby, which was a rockin' good time. I wasn't quite as mobile as I'd have liked to be, but hey, there was some great music, some good friends, and a couple of fun photo ops to boot. Unbelievably, this marked my FIFTH birthday celebration in LA. It's hard to believe, but I came here as a 22 year old and am now the big 27. Holy lord, how did that happen? The worst part is, when you're in your twenties you don't even know how you're supposed to react to becoming another year older. In theory, you should be getting older, wiser, more mature, more stable, and more adult. On the other hand, with each passing year you realize that you only have so much time left to be a "twenty-something," and that you'd be an idiot if you didn't take advantage of your relative youth. And then you realize that maybe you've *tried* to take advantage of your relative youth, but due to limited time, money, energy, and several dozen other factors not in your favor, you may have potentially tried and failed. And then you just get depressed and scared and freak out. And then you get distracted with TV and Facebook and laundry and groceries and work, and lose sight of the big-picture until something else snaps you back.

Um, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, so, Saturday was, in the end, a fun birthday celebration, and thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate!

Whew. Now, although my b-day celebration was on Saturday night, my actual birthday was on Monday (9/28). Which, of course, was also Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. So yes, I spent the majority of my birthday fasting. And yes, for the record, my break-fast included cake. I will say though that my brother found a pretty cool service to attend for the high holidays, put on by a group called Valley Ruach based out of Adat Ariel synagogue in Valley Village. The services that we went to for Kol Nidre on Sunday night and for Yom Kippur proper on Monday were very nice - a bit experimental, with guitar, flute, etc accompanying the prayers, but also filled with tunes that were very familiar to anyone with a conservative Jewish background. It was a good group of people, and everyone was friendly and welcoming. So, I came away feeling like I had one of the better high holiday experiences that I've experienced thus far in LA.

And maybe those good vibes helped my leg? After a couple of days of little to no improvement, Monday and Monday night I finally began feeling markedly better. Today, I am walking *a lot* better. Still limping slightly, but I can put almost full weight on my right leg now and can even stand on it alone on one leg. I'm really hoping that it is fully better by the end of this week, because I want to make sure I can continue to focus on getting my ankle to 100%, and I am already dreading the bill from all this physical therapy.

So. in spite of any passive-aggressive negativity from earlier in this post, it was a really nice weekend overall, with a fun birthday celebration and a good Yom Kippur. We even had a hearty break-fast afterwords that included bagels, brownies, lemonade, and birthday cake, and several episodes of The State on DVD. Not bad at all.

Alright, enough about me ...


- Let's talk about SMALLVILLE. It's funny, even though I had low expectations for this year's premiere, I still was slightly giddy and excited to watch it. I mean, this Fall TV season has not exactly been awash with high-concept action-adventures, so there was something about the idea of once again seeing the continuing adventures of the man-who-would-be-SUPERMAN that really appealled to me. And you never know - Smallville can be an unpredictable show - just when you think it's hit rock bottom, it can come out of the gates with a blockbuster episode. Would this in fact be one of the show's trademark high-octane, movie-like premieres? Well, the unfortunate reality was that this season premiere was a letdown. Not only did it not feel as big or important or as epic as past Smallville season openers, but it just was not that good of an episode, period. For a long time now, Smallville has felt like one giant treading-water tease, with no payoffs, ever, and none in sight. And this ep felt like more of the same. The black-clad, trenchcoat-wearing Clark here felt like a retread of the same emo identity-crisis crap we've already seen about 100 times on this show. Plus, Tom Welling just looked lame wearing a black T-shirt with an S-symbol and a 1997-era black trenchcoat ensemble. But more than that, it's just unbelievable that Clark is STILL grappling with the exact same emotional and moral issues that he faced YEARS ago at this point. Smallville is a serialized drama - the whole point is to have characters that grow and change, especially given the premise of the show. The show is supposed to be about how Clark goes from zero to hero, how he becomes Superman. But, since the show has to delay his heroic transformation each and every year, it constantly has to force itself to delay the inevitable. They *could* do this by coming up with new and unique plotlines - maybe send Clark glovetrotting around the world, or in space, or forced underground because he's hunted by the government. But no, instead we just go back to the same well over and over again. Even the big villain this year is simply a new spin on an old Smallville favorite - Zod. Now, Zod can be a great badguy. But this version was matched with an underwhelming intro. The whole thing was just confusing. I'm a longtime Smallville viewer, and I was struggling to understand where Zod and his army came from, when they came from, and how this younger version fit in with the one we've previously seen on Smallville. Also in the annoying category: Chloe. The character has had her ups and downs on the show, but she is quickly becoming pretty useless, and ultra-whiny too. Her plea to Clark to go back in time and save Jimmy was supposed to have been dramatic, but instead it was just groan-inducing. Like most Smallville fans, I am sick to death of Clark being only half-a-hero. For once, I want to see Clark on a big adventure where he knows what the right thing to do is, and simply uses his heroism and willpower to kick ass and save the day. You know, a good old-fashioned Superman adventure. And yet, we're back to conflicted, emo Clark on a misguided mission in which he loses touch with his humanity. Enough already! Thank the TV gods for Oliver Queen and Lois Lane - the two spark plugs that have kept Smallville watchable over the last year or so. And I did like the introduction of Brian Austin Green as John Corben, aka Metallo. Overall though, this was a very un-Super season premiere, and it was especially disappointing given how much opportunity there is for Smallville to really come back with a vengeance this year, as the playing field for action-dramas is currently wide open. For now, I want to just skip ahead past this Zod stuff and get to the Geoff Johns-penned JSA episode coming soon. Now THAT could be good.

My Grade: C-

- Quick thought about Thursday night comedies. First off, I've really been digging THE OFFICE so far this season. I thought Thursday's sophomore ep was pretty hilarious, and also a great character study of Jim and Michael. There were some very, very funny bits here, and Dwight's rage-filled reaction to Jim's promotion was classic. It's been great to see The Office back on track to start off this season, and I can't wait for the upcoming wedding episode - all indications are that it will be a classic. Meanwhile, PARKS & RECREATION has really rebounded from its somewhat shaky first season. It still has some kinks to work out, but I thought the second episode of S2 was another very solid effort. It seems like the cast is really starting to gel, and the characters are finding their voices. On the other hand, COMMUNITY still feels like it's missing something to me. There just seems to be a looseness to the show, like the premise of these people who meet via a Spanish study group is only barely holding the storylines together. Also, the jokes are just not 100% working for me. That said, there were flashes of greatness, like the ending montage that showed off Joel McHale and Chevy Chase's crazy Spanish presentation. But there will have to be more than one such bit of brilliance per episode for this one to really work.

My Grades:

The Office: A-
Parks & Rec: B+
Community: B-

- So how did I like ABC's much-hyped sci-fi drama FLASH FORWARD? Well, the short answer is that I'm hooked. I thought that this was an amazingly-done pilot that was Lost-like in how well it presented you with a compelling cast of characters and a mind-melting central mystery that has you dying to know where things go from here. The production value was top-notch, and the cast seemed very solid. I also liked some of the twists and turns of the pilot, and I think the episode went a long way to establishing that Flash Forward is more than just a pure character drama. I really liked the hints at the shadowy conspiracy behind the forward flashes, and to me we got just enough info to really make you wonder about what kind of craziness might be afoot. The sci-fi elements and the hints of shadowy villainy did a lot to satisfy my inner fanboy, but we also got some very nice character moments as well. The opening moments presented an intense sense of dread and foreboding, as all hell broke loose due to the world literally grinding to a halt while everyone was passed out from the flash. I also thought a nice sense of scope was established - the flash really felt like a *big* event. I hope that future episodes give an even bigger sense of scale. I'd love to see some science-based characters brought into the mix, for example. I also think the show could use an everyman type - it's own version of Hurley, if you will. I liked the main cast, but all of them were very serious and important types played by very Hollywood-ish actors and actresses. We need a loose cannon, a nerd, a rebel, etc to mix things up a bit. And we also need to very quickly take examine the implications of the flash from a logical point of view. For example, I hope that, soon, we see what happens if someone goes out of their way to contradict something they glimpsed in the flash. But really, this was one hell of a pilot episode. Time will tell how things go from here, but in terms of setting the stage for what could be a truly epic story, this one got the job done.

My Grade: A-

- I'm still kind of on-the-bubble about GLEE. I like a lot about it, but I also just don't fully buy into the show. It's weird - I love the show when it's being darkly humorous. Everything with Jane Lynch, for example, is pretty awesome. But other times the show loses me, and I feel like I'm watching a dirtier version of High School Musical. The tone of Glee is just so all over the place. It seems to at times poke fun at the absurdity of its characters, Arrested Development style, but it also tends to take them very seriously. Definitely sort of a schizofrenic show. I guess a small part of the show appeals to fans of offbeat comedy. But then the other parts of the show seem designed to appeal to young women who harbored proto-American Idol fantasies in high school. I am definitely not in that demo, and to that end, some of the characters in Glee I just find pretty off-putting. Like the main glee cub teacher, for example. He seems like a guy that exists purely as some kind of female fantasy. Now, countless female characters on TV exist only as the manifestation of male fantasies about women, so I guess it's only fair. Still, I'm not all that interested in rooting for an emasculated glee club professor who never stands up to his ice-queen wife and gets bossed around by a bunch of obnoxious high school kids. All that said, I thought this past week's ep was definitely GLEE's best yet. It had heart. It was fun. Despite the tonal inconsistencies, it built up to an exciting finish and a heartfelt epilogue. It went a long way towards fleshing out some key supporting characters. If Glee is this good every week, I could probably stay onboard ... because even when I feel like I'm not the show's target audience, there is something about it that I like. It's different. The fact that it is so all over the place can be anoying, but it's also kind of fascinating. Still very interested to see where this one goes.

My Grade: B+

- I really liked the 21st season premiere of THE SIMPSONS. The Seth Rogen-penned ep covered some familiar territory for the show, but the story of Homer being cast as a new Hollywood superhero, Everyman, was also a lot of fun and pretty hilarious. I mean, sure, I get slightly annoyed when The Simpsons blatantly covers well-worn territory, but I'm willing to forgive that if the writing is sharp. And this was a great script - a lot of memorable jokes, some classic one-liners, and some nice commentary on Hollywood's creative deficiencies as well. Plus, it's always nice in this day and age to see a new Simpsons ep that has a clear, coherant story that lasts from the beginning of the episode to the end, with no random subplots or diversions to interrupt the flow. This, to me, felt very old-school in that respect. Plus, I give it bonus points for plenty of awesomely nerdy in-jokes. And Comic Book Guy going Hollywood? Hilarious. This is definitely up there as one of the better Simpsons eps of the last few years.

My Grade: A-

- Family Guy was actually pretty decent as well. The show's season premiere was by no means a classic, but it was a funny, somewhat odd episode in which Brian and Stewie go Sliders and travel to several alternate realities, thanks to Stewie's latest scientific invention. The ep had a lot of fun with the premise. The visuals alone were pretty great, and there was a fantastic Disney-verse sequence that had some amazing animation done in a pitch-perfect parody of / homage to the Disney house style. I thought there were some clever gags, and none of the obnoxiously mean-spirited stuff that the show has become known for in recent years. Few of the jokes were true home-runs, but this was a good start for FG after a pretty abysmal season last year.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, more to come soon. Stay tuned ...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Honest-To-Blog, a Diabolic Review of JENNIFER'S BODY, Plus: Modern Family, Cougar Town, and More!

So I've been back in LA since Monday night, and it's already been a crazy couple of days. Monday, for one thing, was a loooong day of travel. I boarded a Southwest flight out of Bradley Airport at 2 pm Monday afternoon, east coast time, and arrived in Burbank at 9 pm, west coast time. In between, I stopped in Chicago and Phoenix (always weird, because both are cities I'd love to actually *visit*, but have only been to due to stopovers in their airports). The flights themselves weren't too bad. I did some sleeping, some reading (I made a solid dent in The Yiddish Policemen's Union), and even, finally, watched some of the stuff I've had loaded up on my iPod for months now (yes, I finally watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, all my Whedon-obssessed friends should be proud of me). But yeah, by the time I got back to CA, I was wiped. I thought the rest of this week would be easy by comparison, but then Tuesday happened. I went in in the afternoon for one of my twice-weekly physical therapy sessions for my ankle, and somehow, one of the excercises I did that afternoon really did some damage. They had me do this thing where I stood on a bar on one leg and kept going up and down on my toes over and over. Maybe it was stiffness from sitting on an airplane for several hours the day before, I don't know. But whatever it was, I woke up on Wednesday to find my right leg cramped up, bigtime. Like, I've had cramped muscles before, but this was crazy. And it kept getting worse throughout the day, to the point where some point in the late afternoon, I could barely stand up out of my chair at work, and was unable to keep my right leg fully stretched out. I hoped by today it would be substantially better, but instead I'm in Day 2 of crazy pain. I'm limping all over the place and my right calf is in bad shape. And I'm sure I'm not doing myself any favors by sitting hunched over a desk at work most of the day. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. As a wise man once said: dammit all.


- Well, I have some catching up to do with TV, but I will say this: Thursdays are just crazy now. Especially if Flash Forward turns out to be good. That would mean that you've got The Office, 30 Rock, Flash Forward, and Fringe (!) all airing on one jam-packed night. At least Flash Forward is on at 8 pm and not 9 ... but ... I wonder if Fringe will eventually move to a different night in the winter? I mean, how can you have Fringe and Lost on at the same time? That's just insanity.

- I've been singing its praises for a while now, but I think it's safe to say that MODERN FAMILY is probably my overall favorite pilot for this Fall. Not only does the show have a lot of great potential, but the pilot episode is just a great half-hour of TV, and one of the better comedy pilots I've seen. Traditionally, comedies have a tought time establishing themselves in their premiere episode. Great shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Office took a whole season to really find their footing. But Modern Family really impressed me with how well the pilot introduced the cast of characters, established the show dynamic, and did so with a sort of twist ending to boot. I'll say this: when I first saw the pilot a couple months back, I honestly thought for most of the episode that Modern Family was about several different, unrelated families. The reveal at the end that all of the character were related actually took me by surprise, and was a very clever twist, especially as far as comedies go. Most importantly though, the show is funny. No, it didn't have me rolling on the floor the way an Arrested Development did, but there were several legit laugh out loud moments. And the cast really sold it, top to bottom. Special mention has to go to Ed O'Neal, if only because it's great to see him back on a funny TV show. Anyways, I am really high on Modern Family thus far. Very curious to see if the next couple of episodes maintain this high level of quality.

My Grade: A-

- On the other hand, I am not very big on COUGAR TOWN. I liked some aspects of the show, and I thought there was a certain sharpness to the writing. I also think the cast is generally talented, and really want to root for Dan Byrd since I loved the underrated Aliens In America. But, I just thought that the overall tone was off-putting, and I also felt like there was a mismatch between the premise and the star. The show is supposed to be about an aging woman in her 40's struggling to deal with the impending onset of middle age. But it stars Courtney Cox, in full-blown sex-bomb mode, who never comes across like a woman who would ever have to struggle with much of anything. In fact, most women in their 40's would probably kill to look as good as Cox does on this show. I don't know, there just seems to be a weird disconnect on this show, where it seems to be simultaneously making Cox's character into a "woah-is-me" type of character, yet also shows that she is take charge, gets what she wants, and says whatever's on her mind. It makes the whole thing feel kind of obnoxious, like listening to a supermodel complain about breaking a nail.

My Grade: C+

- I thought Monday's episode of GOSSIP GIRL was a lot of fun, definitely more entertaining than the season premiere. I loved the fish-out-of water element of Blair and Dan at NYU, with Blair suddenly the snobby outcast. A lot of hilarity ensued as Blair's high-end sushi party lost out to Vanessa and Georgina's movies-and-pizza hang out. I also just enjoyed Georgina's presence in general. She is kind of a crazy wild-card in the whole Gossip Girl mix, and I love her little secret war with Blair. Anyways, I thought this ep was pretty solid.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, so yesterday, despite my semi-crippled condition, I hobbled over to the movie theater to check out Diablo Cody's latest ...


- Jennifer's Body, for its entire duration, walks a VERY fine line. It constantly teeters on the edge between witty and overbearing, between campy and cool, between winning horror-comedy and would-be wannabe. In the end though, I am willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. There was enough that I liked about it that in the end it mostly won me over. For every line of dialogue that made me cringe, another struck me as being pretty cool. For every attempt at too-cool-for-school humor that fell flat, there was a moment of punk-rock craziness that made me love the unique sensibility that the movie brought to the table. I know that Diablo Cody elicits strong emotions from people, but in this case, I think she's helped to create a movie that's flawed, but at the same time, very entertaining and well worth checking out.

As I've talked about before, I was a huge fan of Juno. I thought it was a seminal movie, and was surprised at the immense backlash that threatened to overpower the critical and commercial adoration. I don't get the criticisms about the hyper-stylized dialogue - to me, the unique cadences and oddball phrases fit in perfectly with the unique and oddball world of Juno and its characters. But, with Jennifer's Body, I began to look at Cody's signature dialogue in a different light. Because while it seemed a perfect match for Juno, that same style of overly-playful and fanciful dialogue often just feels forced in a movie like Jennifer's Body. It made sense that a quirky, smart teen like Juno would talk in this unique manner. But it makes a lot less sense that the main characters here would talk in the exact same way. And I give credit to Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, and the rest of the talented cast - they do well with the material and make it work. But at the same time, when the bursting-with-bad-attitude Jennifer tells Seyfried's character, mousy Needy, to "move-on-dot-org", well, sorry Diablo, but that's just too much. There are several dialogue exchanges like that that just do not work. At all. But sometimes, Cody does strike gold, and has some genuinely inspired, Sam Raimi-like moments of horror-comedy coolness. (And by the way, the movie makes no secret that it is inspired by Raimi's Evil Dead flicks - there are about 500 homages to Raimi's iconic films throughout Jennifer's Body).

I've talked a lot about Diablo Cody, and I think part of what hurts this movie is that it lacks a great director to counterbalance Cody's script. I don't know, I think Karyn Kusama is an interesting director. But her movies seem like they have moments of visual inspiration sprinkled among many more scenes that are just sort of bland. It was that way with Aeon Flux, and it is that way here. There is some great imagery in the movie, some real iconic horror movie shots. Some nice, creepy, atmospheric stuff. But there's also the sense that the movie doesn't live up to its full visual potential. It almost reminded me a bit of Twilight in that regard, in that I liked the creepy atmosphere but also wished there was some additional visual flair, and action that had a bit more, well, bite. I think Jennifer's Body also suffers a bit in comparison to this summer's Raimi-directed Drag Me to Hell. That movie was such a pitch-perfect, awesomely-directed horror-comedy, that this movie, being a sort of grrl-powered homage to Raimi, can't quite live up to the great movies it's paying tribute to.

But again, I do really like the cast. Megan Fox is actually really good here. She shows a previously unseen ability to chew up scenery and deliver one-liners with evil aplomb, and to look good doing it (okay, well, that last part was a no-brainer, but still ...). And while Fox does a nice job and gets top billing, I think it's the uber-talented Amanda Seyfried who ultimately carries the movie, as the memorably-named Needy Lesnicky. Seyfried pulls off a feat similar to Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell - she recites her lines and carries herself with conviction and 100% commitment to the material, but at the same time knowingly winks at the audience a bit, with jsut the right amount of deliberate campiness. It's a great acting job, to be sure. A couple of other actors have memorable appearances in this one as well. Adam Brody is fun as a lame-o emo rocker who instigtes the demonic ritual that turns Jennifer from plain-old high school badgirl into flesh-eating succubus. And JK Simmons, fresh off Extract, is hilarious as an overly-sincere teacher who happens to have a hook in place of one of his hands. Also, the fanboy in me must point out that the great Lance Henriksen makes an uncredited cameo that is pretty random but nonetheless awesome. Given that Henrisken is an icon of horror (and star of one of my all-time fave TV shows, Millenium), it pretty much ruled that he shows up here.

As far as the plot goes, it is sort of loose, and some of that is probably deliberate. But you also never get 100% invested in the movie just because there's not all that much rhyme or reason to what's going on. Megan Fox becomes a demonic flesh-eater, kills some guys, etc. But there's never all that much explanation of why she has to seduce 'em before she eats 'em. And that's justo ne example of how the movie tends to do stuff just for the hell of it. Like the much-vaunted make-out session between Fox and Seyfried. No, I'm not complaining about it, just naming it as an example of another moment that is there for no particular reason, except to sell millions of copies of "unrated" DVD's in a couple of months.

At the same time, I do kind of dig what Diablo is going for beneath the surface. There's a fun, not-so-subtle subtext here that high-school is just an earthbound layer of hell, with the delicious irony being that post-demonic transformation Jennifer is really not all that different from pre-demonic transformation Jennifer. The whole succubus thing really just calls attention to all the worst instincts of the at times all-too-demon-like beings known as high school girls. Jennifer's Body may falter a bit on the details (like some cringe-worthy bits of dialogue or some pretty random plot-points), but the overall package is a lot of fun. The soundtrack is excellent and sets the perfect mood (loved the use of 90's-era Hole to close out the movie). There is some really creepy-awesome imagery. And the cast does a great job. Plus, without spoiling anything, the ending is just plain badass. Give Cody and Kusama and the cast a lot of credit - for all its flaws, Jennifer's Body is unlike any other horror-comedy you've seen.

My Grade: B+

- And I'm out. Until next time ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

From BLOOMFIELD, CT: A Rosh Hashana Blog Featuring: EMMY Thoughts, FRINGE, THE OFFICE, and much MORE!

Well here I am, my last night in good ol' CT after a very quick visit made in conjunction with the Rosh Hashana holiday. It's funny, because Jewish holidays can be difficult to explain to people of other religions, and especially to those who don't have a religious background. People tend to think that big holidays mean sleeping late or getting presents or eating lots of great food. Most people don't quite grasp the fact that the Jewish High Holidays are a fairly somber, sober affair. If you're a conservative Jew, you tend to spend the High Holidays camped out at synagogue, listening to and chanting along with prayers about sin, sacrifice, and atonement. I guess my point is, I wouldn't really classify going home for Rosh Hashana as a "vacation" in the traditional sense of the word. That said, I did eat some good food, and I did get a gift or two (but only because we celebrated my birthday, which is coming up on the 28th - and not only that, but I had a delicious peanut-butter cup ice cream cake from FRIENDLY'S to boot). And I was able to relax a bit, being far away from the nonstop craziness that is LA. If nothing else, it's just so *quiet* here in suburban Connecticut. When I lay down to go to sleep at night, it's always a bit jarring at first just how silent it is. No freeway traffic outside my window, no shaky air conditioner rumbling, no noise from my apartment complex neighbors. The occasional bark of our dog Yofi, but that's about it.

Anyways, it's been a nice couple of days in Bloomfield. Like I said, a good chunk of my time here was just spent doing Rosh Hashana-y things, but I also managed to make time for a few other quick things. For one thing, I got a lot of reading done, and I intend to get even more done on my neverneding flight back to LA tomorrow (good old Southwest, where direct flights are clearly frowned upon). For another thing, I got the chance to have lunch with my former BU buddy and current poiltical bigwig Stephanie P. Not only was it good to catch up, but it afforded me the chance to visit one of my favorite east coast pizza chains, Bertucci's. I also unexpectedly participated in some impromptu basketball competition. I was lucky in that the weather here in CT has been very warm and sunny. And today, my dad of all people challenged me to a game of one-on-one. As we began to play, and as I put my new bionic ankle to the test, some neighborhood kids walked by and challenged the Barams to a game of hoops. Three energetic teens against one middle-aged man and one slightly past-his-prime twenty-something with an only recently-healed right ankle? The odds were against us, to be sure. In fact, one of the kids joined Team Baram to even things up a bit. Now, I won't lie to you. The two teens we were playing against were good. And I'll cut to the chase now and just admit that they ultimately beat us. Even though my dad unleashed a Kareem-esque hook shot that surprised me with its accuracy, it was not quite enough for us to triumph over our youthful opponents. BUT ... I will also say that the man once known as "Long-Range Dan", and to some as "Danny Basketball" busted out some moves that I wasn't sure I still had in me. The behind-the-back layup. The three-point money-shot. The no-look pass. It's true, a couple of my shots even had some of the kids sayin "daaaaaaamn!" For a moment, I may just have channelled the likes of "Thunder" Dan Majerle. For a minute or two, I may have been straight-up balllliiiin'. All I know is - Matt Baram - I am coming for you, and I am ready to whup you in a game to determine just who is The Man of the Baram household. Dammit all.

Aside from that, it's been a nice weekend here in CT. I spent some quality time with the family, saw my grandparents, uncle, cousins, etc., as well as the usual gang of family friends and Beth Hillel synagogue regulars. Now it's back to the grind in LA, and even if this was not, by any means, what you'd call a real "vacation," I hope that I can come back, refreshed, rejuvinated, and ready to partake in what should be an eventful couple of months.

- Now, sure, I spent the last few days away from LA, but hey, that doesn't mean I was living in a vacuum. To that end, here is some ...


- Don't worry, I'll get to the Emmys in a second. First though, some thoughts on a couple of season premieres:

- I really liked the season premiere of THE OFFICE, which to me was probably the best network sitcom of last season (even if the finale somewhat bombed, but still ...). But yeah, the 6th season premiere was a nice little episode that sort of encapsulated everything that makes for a great episode of the The Office. For one thing, I like episodes where the script doesn't pause too much for sentimentality. And I also like episodes where they keep Michael Scott as somewhat of an asshole. That's not to say that I don't want him to ultimately a guy that you can at times root for. And that's not to say that I want him to be overly cartoonish. But, I've always thought that it's in keeping with the spirit of the original British Office to keep things dark and unsentimental when possible, and to only get to those "awww shucks" moments when it's absolutely necessary and it's been totally and completely earned. The sixth season premiere of The Office, though, had Michael Scott in classic oblivious jerk mode, and it made for some hilarious comedy. Ed Helms as Andy had some memorable, very funny moments in this one dealing with his newfound sexual identity issue. Creed got in an awesome line or two. I loved the whole idea of these poor Dunder-Mifflin summer interns, and could only imagine the craziness they had to deal with working for Michael, Dwight, Ryan, etc. Kelly and Kevin had some great moments in this one as well. And I also loved how this episode dealt with Pam and Jim's preganancy situation. It wasn't sitcom-y or in-your-face. Instead it was subtle, somewhat in the background, and yet ultimately, a lot of advancement was made in their storyline - you just weren't hit over the head with it. Really good stuff -- welcome back, Office.

My Grade: A-

- My short review of COMMUNITY is that I think this one has crazy-good potential as a series. But, I think that the pilot episode has a lot of problems that will have to be ironed out for this to 100% work going forward. I love the show's cast. Joel McHale was born to play this kind of role. Chevy Chase could really be awesome here if given some great scripts to feed off of. And there seems to be a lot of talent in the rest of the supporting cast as well. But, I also came away feeling like I wasn't hooked in quite yet. There was never that one truly great or hilarious moment that made me say "yep, I might just love this show." And there was also never that moment where it felt like everything came together and the show, in effect, justified its existence. Some aspects still feel a bit flimsy. Why do all these characters hang out together every week? Is there depth to them, or are they one-joke wonders? I'm very curious to check out the next couple of episodes of Community. Right now, I'm cautiously optimistic.

My Grade: B

-PARKS & RECREATION is a show I only somewhat followed in its first season after the pilot failed to really grab me. But I was optimistic that, given the talent in the cast and creative team, the show could bounce back for Season 2. I think it really succeeded in coming out of the gate with a funny season premiere that, for me, really reignited my interest in the show. This one was easily the funniest episode of the series I've seen thus far. Immediately, I had a good feeling after I saw the classic "Parents Just Don't Understand" cold open. Great stuff from Amy Poehler - I always think she's at her best when she's doing the whole manic-child-like-craziness thing, so it was good to see her really let loose in this episode. She stopped being a female Michael Scott and really seemed like a more unique character. The supporting cast, with obviously talented people like Rasheeda Jones and Aziz Ansari, really stood out in this ep as well. A strong return for Parks & Rec.

My Grade: B+

- Finally, I thought that SNL WEEKEND UPDATE THURSDAY really hit it out of the park this week. The humor seemed unusually sharp. The Joe Wilson sketch was a lot of fun. The "Really?" segment was on-point. And Bill Hader doing James Carville was pretty awesome. Hader is easily up there as one of SNL's funniest cast members these days, so it's always great to see him get screentime. The Jimmy Carter segment was probably the show's weakest, but overall this one was a pleasant surprise - an extremely funny half hour of sketch comedy.

My Grade: A-

- Shifting gears for a second, let me talk about last season's best new show (easily) ... FRINGE. First off, I think it's ridiculous that Fringe received no Emmy awards love this year. I'm sure when the show is in its seventh season and on the decline it will win Best Drama, or something, but man, Fringe deserves a ton of credit for very quickly becoming THE must-see drama on TV. Certainly, there was no other Fall-premiering show that I was looking forward to more, especially following this summer's positively kick-ass first-season-finale. And I was not disappointed with what I got. The S2 premiere of Fringe had it all -intriguing sci-fi drama, great character moments, moments of comedy, action, horror, and yes, crazy extradimensional body-swapping super-soldiers. Awesome.

This ep provided some nic recap for those just tuning in, but it also served as a showcase for just how far this show has come from its somewhat shaky beginnings. I mean, for the longest time I complained how Joshua Jackson was the weak link of the show. His character seemed purposeless, and all he ever did was provide sarcastic retorts to his mad-scientist father's oddball, but usually correct, theories. My, how times change. Jackson's Peter Bishop was a legitimate highlight of the S2 premiere. Jackson did a stellar job of making us root for Peter. And, thanks to some killer plot-twists from the latter half of Season 1, Peter is now a truly fascinating, potentially tragic character, with a mysterious backstory that fans are chomping at the bit to uncover.

And Anna Torv ... I thought she was merely decent in the early episodes of Fringe. But now, I think she's absolutely great. She a unique actress and I found myself glued to her every word in the premiere. Somehow, Olivia Dunham has gone from boring blank slate to fan-favorite female agent who you definitely do not want to mess with. Sure, her tough demeanor and constantly-in-peril-due-to-strange-conspiracy circumstances make her more than a little Scully-esque, but hey, who doesn't love Scuuuuuuullyyyy?! At the least, Fringe gave some great tips of the hat to The X-Files in the premiere, as, for one thing, the classic series was playing on a characters' TV set during a critical scene.

Really though, the x-factor that makes Fringe sing is John Noble. Get this man an Emmy nom, stat! Noble once again ruled it as Dr. Walter Bishop in the premiere - he's scary, hilarious, and fascinating all at once as Fringe's resident mad scientist. Similarly, Lance Reddick was excellent here. I look forward to him hopefully getting a beefed-up role, Skinner-style, in Season 2.

What put this ep over the top for me though was just how great the storytelling was. It sounds simple, but few series know how to deliver key moments with just the right amount of "oomph." Fringe gets it. When Olivia hissed for her FBI cohorts to "get the bitch," after being attacked by an otherdimensional pursuer, it was was a great moment. When the ending scene revealed a shocking twist - that the body-snatching beings had assumed the form of one of Olivia's most trusted allies, it was a great, "holy-$#%&" moment.

I did think that the introduction of a new FBI agent was a tad hamfisted. And I also thought that the whole "Fringe division is being unjustly closed by the powers that be" thing was right on the line between homage to The X-Files and straight-up copying it. But overall, kudos to Fringe. With Prison Break and Pushing Daisies gone, and with 24 and Lost on hiatus until 2010, THIS is the show that keeps me excited for new episodes each and every week.

My Grade: A-


- This year, there's no denying that the Emmys themselves, as a show, were far better than the trainwreck that was last year. Gone was the unwatchable assemblage of reality TV personalities, and in was Neil Patrick Harris, who did a more-than-commendable job as MC. Harris kept the show flowing nicely, and got in some funny yet breezy jokes to boot. I also liked the short montages of key shows in different genres that preceded the major awards categories. Sure, they called attention to the fact that so many great shows got no actual nominations, but at the same time, it was a nice reminder of some of the gems that didn't make the cut for whatever reason.

Still, it was hard for me to get all that excited about the awards themselves. I've yet to really get into some of the critically-acclaimed shows like Mad Men or Braking Bad. At some point, I'lld definitely check 'em out, but as of now I had no real emotional investment in their awards-show chances. Plus, so many of my favorites were left off the nomination lists altogether. Fringe is one example. Eastbound & Down is another. Pushing Daisies only got a couple of token nominations. King of the Hill got no love for its final season. Late Night With Conan O'Brien inexplicably got left off the Best Variety list, despite a great final run before Conan moved to the Tonight Show gig. Flight of the Conchords I love, but it annoys me that it got niminated now, but not after its superior first season. Same goes for Family Guy - how it only now got nominated after several years of declining quality is beyond me. 24 had a merely decent season, and got only a couple of nominations. At the same time, it's funny to me how at any given time, a show like Prison Break coul produce an episode as exciting and action-packed as that week's 24, and yet 24 gets a pass from critics whereas Prison Break never got a shred of recognition for some of the great character actors that have pariticipated in the show. Both shows are over-the-top and campy action series. Why does one get recognized while the other doesn't? Who knows with the Emmys. If you look at the Emmy track record, the established, mainstream hits that appeal to an older voter pool with a very particular sensibility, do well year in and year out. Meanwhile, any shows that are a bit more fringe (like, um Fringe. Or Gilmore Girls. Or Veronica Mars.) tend to get left in the dark.

- Still, I was happy that Kristin Chenoweth of PUSHING DAISIES got a much-deserved award for Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. I don't really think of PD as a comedy, but yeah, whatever works. The fact is, PD was unique show that will be remembered for a long time to come. The whole cast, from Lee Pace to Anna Friel to Chi McBride to Kristin, was awesome, and I was glad to see at least one of 'em get some love.

- Similarly, how can you not be happy for Michael Emerson to win for LOST? Emerson kicks ass as Ben Linus, and no matter how frustratingly vague the words from Ben's mouth may be, Emerson makes him continually fascinating. One of TV's best villains got well-deserved recognition.

- I am definitely happy that 30 ROCK won Best Comedy and that Alec Baldwin won Best Actor in a Comedy. BUT ... as much as I've been a huge 30 Rock fan, I think this should have been the year of Steve Carell and THE OFFICE. The Office, I think, was the stronger of the two shows this past season, and the whole Michael Scott Paper Company storyline was one of the show's best and funniest of all time. 30 Rock got a little too conventionally sitcom-y for my tastes in Season 3, whereas The Office had a (mostly) brilliant run, with several instant-classic episodes that dared to go to some very darkly funny places. And hey, I also do want to give a shout-out to FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. I didn't think the music was as good in S2 as in S1, but man, the show still cracks me up more than almost any other. If anything though, I think it's crazy that the great Rhys Darby wasn't nominated for his brilliant portrayal of the Conchord's clueless manager, Murray.

- Easily the biggest WTF moment of this year's Emmys was Jon Cryer winning Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy. Um ... what? TWO AND A HALF MEN? Really?! Up against the likes of Jack McBrayer, Tracy Morgan, Neil Patrick Harris, and Rainn friggin' Wilson? That's just insane. Personally, I was rooting for Rainn. Like I said, The Office had a banner year, and Dwight Schrute was, as usual, responsible for many of the show's absolute funniest moments. But man, so much talent in this categogry and the award goes to Two and a Half Men? I am honestly stumped - if 30 Rock won best comedy, who were the voters who said "yeah, I love 30 Rock, but I've gotta go with that Cryer guy over anyone from that show."? Oy.

- And really, those were probably the only big prime time awards that I felt all that passionately about. Mad Men was an expected win for Best Drama. Lost had a great year, but not so great that I felt it 100% had to win. I'm a big Bryan Cranston fan, and even though I haven't really checked out Breaking Bad yet (I need to soon), I am always happy to see him win something after years of being unjustly ignored for his great work on Malcolm in the Middle. 24 is one of my all-time favorite shows, as any regular reader of my blog is well-aware, but I didn't feel like Cherry Jones did anything so memorable this year that she needed an Emmy. I think she's a great actress, and 24 is 24, but there's another one that kills me. It's crazy that Kiefer Sutherland, for example, never won Best Actor back in the early seasons of the show when he was at his best and most raw. I definitely can't argue with John Stewart cleaning up as usual. Especially in this past election year, The Daily Show was practically a national treasure.

- But yeah, the fact is, it's hard to take the Emmys 100% seriously. A great show is a great show, and nobody needs a panel of "experts" to tell them that. Sure, we all like the spectacle of the show, but ultimately the whole thing is a self-congratulatory love-fest. It's fun and frustrating to disect who won, who didn't, and why. But at the same time, I do so with the knowledge that these things are by no means authoritative.

Anyways, that's all for now ... tomorrow I make the long journey back to LA from Connecticut. But for now, I'm signing out from Bloomfield, wishing everyone a Shana Tovah. See you in LA.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goin' Stitchpunk: 9 Reviewed, Plus: Scribblenauts Thoughts and More!

Well, by this time tomorrow, I will be on a plane en route to Connecticut, where I will spend a couple days coinciding with Rosh Hashana. You've got to love it - sitting still in a synagogue all day (and occasionally standing for long stretches) listening to the rabbi and cantor methodically chant Hebrew prayers about guilt and sin. Talk about a happy holiday! Man, we Jews truly are gluttons for punishment sometimes. In any case, I'll be back here in LA Monday night, and hopefully I'll quickly be able to catch up on the important stuff ... you know, like the premieres of The Office and Fringe.

Anyways ...

- I haven't talked all that much here about gaming, but man, I have to give an early shout out to SCRIBBLENAUTS. This new game for the Nintendo DS is plain and simply groundbreaking. I've only played through a handful of levels thus far, but the central conceit is so amazingly original that you can't help but get sucked in. Basically, you guide your character through a series of puzzle-based levels, and help him reach his goal by typing in words - literally just about any object or thing you can think of - and having your ideas materialize right there on screen for your puzzle-solving use. You can create a horse, a cow, a dinosaur, a vampire, a stick, a baseball bat, a ray gun, a black hole, an airplane, a car, a venus fly trap ... anything. Just write the name of the object and marvel as it appears right there on-screen. Need to get a cat out of a tree? You could just create a ladder and climb to get it ... or, you could create a pterodactyl, give it a length of rope, and have it fly to the cat and rescue it. Or why not create a superhero to swoop in and save the cat? Crazy! Sure, the controls are occasionally a bit wonky, but the sheer inventiveness that this game allows for is just mind-boggling. All day, I've been thinking about weird combinations of things to create. A knife-wielding monkey? An army of vampires? A robot with a jetpack? Awesome!

- I'll also give a shout-out to BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM. This is another game that I've barely scratched the surface of at this point, but man, this is the rare licenced game that just bleeds quality. It's been a long wait for a Batman game that truly delivers, and this one may just have been worth the wait. On the PS3, the graphics are dark, moody, and ultra-detailed. Better yet, the voice-acting is absolutely top-notch, with alumni of Batman: The Animated Series reprising their iconic roles. Kevin Conroy is Batman, and Mark Hammil is The Joker. 'Nuff said. Plus, the game actually emphasizes Batman's detective skills and penchant for sneaking around dark alleyways. A lot of puzzle-solving, stealth combat, and environmental interaction is involved in the gameplay, which makes this less a standard brawler and more a combination of games like Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, and Metroid. I still have a couple of issues with the camera and controls, but the level of storytelling and overall depth here is pretty awesome.

- Speaking of BIOSHOCK, I recently completed that game after months of playing it on and off. I'm not normally a fan of first person shooters, but Bioshock's rep as a game more about atmosphere and storytelling than mindless blasting lured me in. I don't know, I did love the game's incredibly atmospheric level design and storytelling techniques, and rarely have I played a game this immersive. But, the actual gameplay never 100% grabbed me, and I felt like the combat got pretty repetitive after a while. And those freaking security bots - so annoying. I could see myself skipping out on the upcoming Part 2, depending on the reviews. I'm glad I played through the game, but I also didn't quite get the instant-classic vibe that others have. That said, this game would make one hell of a movie if done right. Get to it, guys.

And now for a movie review ... the latest from Focus Features, a computer-animated sci-fi dystopian epic known as 9.

9 Review:

- 9 is a movie that I really wanted to love. And at the very least, it's a movie that I will root for and respect. It's an ambitious CGI adventure NOT from Disney or Dreamworks. What's more, it's an animated movie NOT specifically aimed at kids, although it will likely have strong kid-appeal. Plus, the movie doesn't really look like anything I've seen before. Sure, there are all kinds of artistic influences that came to mind from videogames, comics, and sci-fi movies. But just the fact that it's a CGI movie NOT done in the house style of Pixar or Dreamworks is hugely refreshing. In fact, this movie just flat-out looks cool as hell. And on the whole, 9 is a pretty cool little movie. But unfortunately, the visuals are not really matched by much in the way of story or plot or character. It gives the whole thing the feel of a tech demo rather than a fully fleshed-out movie. It's almost as if you're watching the cut-scenes from a really cool videogame that you never actually get to play, because the story really serves as a very basic skeleton with which to prop up the action. It makes 9 a fun adventure to go on, one that's certainly pleasing to the eye, but it also means that the movie ultimately feels pretty hollow.

The basic premise of 9 is actually really cool. It's a post-apocalyptic story in which mankind has been decimated by technology gone awry, 1950's sci-fi style. In a last-ditch effort to preserve something of the human race before all is lost, the same scientist who created the machines that would later go Judgement Day on humanity conducts one last far-out experiment. He transfers his very soul into nine inanimate ragdolls, each doll containing a different aspect of his being. these patchwork creatures go on to awaken one by one, trying to make sense of the strange and dangerous world they find themselves in, and trying to elude the crazy, insect-like mecha-robots that still roam the scorched-earth wasteland, causing major-league destruction.

It's a pretty ambitious, epic premise that director Shane Acker presents us with. But what's weird is, we have this awesome world with an intriguing backstory, only to find that not all that much actually happens once we enter it. We mostly follow around "9" (each doll has a number corresponding to the order of their creation), the last of the group to awake, as he explores the world, runs afoul of the evil robots, and bonds and/or argues with his fellow stitchpunk beings. It'd be like if The Lord of the Rings plopped us into Middle Earth, but then just told us a story about dwarves bickering with elves and fighting the occasional cave troll ... or something.

The other weird thing is that this movie contains an absolutely stellar voice-cast, and yet ... they never have much in the way of dialogue to sink their teeth into. You've got Elijah Wood as the reluctant hero 9, Jennifer Connelly as the badass warrior 7, Christopher Plummer as the crotchety, self-appointed leader of the group, 1, Martin Landau as 2, John C. Reilly as steadfast sidekick 5, and Crispin Glover as (what else?) the oddball artist, 6. It's an impressive roster, to be sure. But this is one of those movies that's so sparsely written. There's not a ton of dialogue, and when there is, it tends to be recycled cliches from countless other sci-fi and action movies. You half expect someone to mutter "I've got a baaad feeling about this." at any moment.

Again though, this movie thrives on its visuals. There is so much loving detail in every shot, it really is a remarkable movie to just look at and take in. There was clearly A LOT of time and effort put into crafting this dark and fascinating universe. I also loved the segments that paid homage to old sci-fi films and posters and stuff like that. There is some really cool retro-y stuff here that reminded me of things like Bioshock, Sky Captain, etc. And the character design is pretty awesome as well. I loved the subtle visual signatures that distinguish each of the stitchpunk dolls. An the robotic villains are truly creepy and imposing. This is definitely a film that will startle smaller children - this isn't sanitized Disney character design - its dark, bleak, grotesque at times. And this isn't a safe movie either. Characters die. They make really bad decisions. There is some genuine moral ambiguity.

But again, the plotting is relatively clunky and heavy-handed. There are also some quasi spiritual / supernatural elements that seem pretty hamfistedly that get inserted into the story - they don't quite seem to fit with the otherwise science-based universe. There's also not a whole lot of depth here. I would have loved to see the details of the fascinating premise more fully fleshed-out, to really explore the world here and learn more about its backstory. Instead, like I said, there's not a lot of meat here. There is that very videogame-like feeling that you're kind of just along for a visual ride (and a number of the action scenes, dynamic though they are, seem lifted right from various games - platform jumping, anyone?). For the movie's visual uniqueness alone though, I'd say that 9 is definitely worth checking out. It's an original, creative vision, and I would love to see what Shane Acker could do if pared with a quality script that could match his astonishing visual talent.

My Grade: B

- Alright - next stop: Connecticut.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting on the Soapbox: MTV's VMA's, Kanye West, and the Leno Effect. Plus: Gossip Girl Returns, and a Swayze Tribute.

- First off, I want to take a second to mention the passing of PATRICK SWAYZE. Amidst all of the talk lately about controversial celebrities and out of control egos, Swayze seemed like basically a regular guy who had a love for performing. Everything you read talks about his easygoing nature and good humor, and that is refreshing. What's more, the guy fought a valiant battle with cancer, and worked through the worst of it, committing to a TV series and working hard to try to make it a success, even though he could have been sitting at home. I'm sure many could attest to Swayze's character, but for most of us, he was just one of those actors who you couldn't help but root for, who appeared in a number of memorable roles in some all-time classic movies. Sure, most will site the likes of Ghost or Dirty Dancing as his biggest mainstream hits. But ask most guys of a certain generation for their favorite Swayze movie, and the answer will be unanimous - Point Break. One of the most fun action movies ever made, Point Break was one of those badass, R-rated flicks that made the rounds at many a grade-school sleepover party when I was a kid. It was one of those gateway movies that just seemed so awesome back then, and still holds up today. A lot of that is thanks to Swayze's iconic performance as surfer/thief/all around rebel Bodhi. Swayze had a number of other memorable roles. Road House, of course, the late-night cable classic. Red Dawn, To Wong Foo, and his late-career comeback in Donnie Darko, which cast him against type as a creepy motivational speeker. And by the way, clearly the guy had a sense of humor about himself. Who can forget his classic turn as guest host of SNL, in which he and the late Chris Farley engaged in an absolutely hilarious dance-off? So, thank you Mr. Swayze - thank you for a great film career, and thank you for providing an example of how to fight illness with bravery and dignity.


- Okay, how 'bout them MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS? So much has been discussed in the last day alone, it already feels like old news at this point.

But let me start at the beginning. Because, sometimes, I feel stupid for even talking about the VMA's, and I find myself getting annoyed by my friends who rushed to Facebook or wherever else to voice their opinions on the show. I did the same though, so I'd be hypocritical if I called them out on it. What can I say? MTV is terrible right now, it has been for years - it's more self-parody than anything, and it's so driven by marketing and hype (mostly aimed at the tween and teen girl crowd) that anyone with a brain can tune in to something like the VMA's and see how little substance or credibility actually finds its way onto the show. At the same time, most people my age were raised on MTV, and came of age in a time when MTV seemed like to coolest thing ever, a gateway to a dangerous world of edgy rock n' roll music. To some extent, the VMA's are the last remaining vestige of the good old days, when MTV actually was about music. And so we watch, because, for me at least, it's a once-a-year chance to tune back into the channel I once loved and try to pretend that it's still 1997 and MTV is still cool and still plays music videos and all is right with the world.

All that being said, this year's VMA's were probably the best in at least a couple of years. Of late I usually skip through half of the musical performances, but this year I fast-forwarded a lot less than usual. The opening MJ tribute was interesting, and it was cool seeing Janet Jackson back on stage, even if her time there was pretty short. Lady Gaga, I thought, put on a spectacular performance. I'm not a huge dance-pop fan or anything, but Lady Gaga has some ridiculously catchy tunes, and I admire her for being unabashadly insane. Her performance at the VMA's was wonderfully grotesque. With so many straight-laced, vanilla pop stars currently topping the charts, it was fun to see someone who still likes to push the artistic boundaries a bit. After having just seen Green Day live and in concert, it was no surprise to me that Billie Joe and co brought the house down. It was nice to see MTV prominently feature the world's biggest rock n' roll band and treat them as such, sort of. MTV, for whatever reason, is still so much about hip hop music and culture, to the extent that they are about music at all. But this year's VMA's, at least, seemed to turn the tide at least a little. Green Day was huge, Muse was somewhat featured (even though a. their performance was kind of weak, and b. they were mostly there for their loose connection to Twilight), and hey, the show even randomly had a short collaboration between Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Katy Perry, inexplicably playing Queen's We Will Rock You. Sure, it was kind of lame, but it was JOE FREAKIN' PERRY on TV and it was rock n' roll, so I'll give it a pass. The rest of the performances were all good to excellent - I liked Jay Z and Alicia Keys' closing number, and you had to be impressed by Pink (or is it P!nk?) simultaneously singing and performing a high-wire trapeze act.

So there was a good performance line-up this year, I'll give MTV credit. But it was the rest of the show that once again tanked. Russell Brand was sort of fun last year just because he was so different. But this year, well, let's just say that MTV should probably go in a different direction next year. Meanwhile, the awards themselves continue to be a joke. And that is epitomized by the whole Kanye West incident. I mean, others have already analyzed the whole thing to death, so I won't spend a ton of time on it here. But what I will say is: how much stupider did Kanye ultimately look when Beyonce ended up winning the biggest award of the night for Best Video? It was just a reminder that the VMA's are all about catering to the biggest stars and keeping it all within the MTV family. Did anyone NOT expect Beyonce to win that award? And yet there was Kanye West, taking something deathly seriously even though everyone else was well aware that the MTV awards are about style over substance - the actual awards are basically an afterthought. In doing so, he played right into MTV's hands - he created a buzzed-about "moment" that is exactly the kind of thing MTV lives for. In the end, his jerk move was just another ratings point to the suits at MTV. Just another news item for the women of The View to buzz about. Just another oh-so-current item for Jay Leno to feature on his debut episode the following Monday. This isn't the Oscars, Kanye. Nobody had VMA ballots or pools. Nobody remembers, days later, who actually won an award. That part is meaningless. Instead, everyone from country music lovin' teens to Jay Leno-watching grandmas knows only that some guy named Kanye West made an ass of himself. Winner: MTV. Winner: Jay Leno. Winner: Twitter and Facebook. Loser: Kanye West. Ironic that a guy trying to "keep it real" has now perfectly played his part in the corporate media machine. Asshole move. Tearful apology. Internet chatter. Prerequisite article in newspapers and magazines about how this incident refelcts racial tensions in America, is a response to Joe Wilson's "you lie!" comment, etc., etc., etc. Man, we really do live in a circus sometimes. But it's also a boringly predictable one.

In any case, MTV, enjoy your annual moment of relevancy, and congrats on putting together a show that was admittedly above par and pretty consistently entertaining. But, unless there are music videos or edgy animation or rock n' roll in the schedule, I'm out for now. See you next year.

- I'm not going to go in-depth about the new JAY LENO SHOW, but I do want to follow-up on my previous point about Kanye West. The whole thing is really amazing, in terms of timing and in terms of its cultural relevancy. Because really, the whole thing was just an example of a probably-drunk guy, with a history of acting out, staying true to his M.O. and doing something pretty obnoxious on live TV. BUT ... jesus, Kanye, could you have planned this out any better? (and who's to say how much of the whole hullaballoo was staged ... but that's a whole other topic). So of course, the girl whose acceptance speech Kanye happens to interrupt is a wholesome country music singer. It's not hard to see how people have suddenly taken this and blown it up into something bigger than it should be. I mean, only days earlier, a Southern senator interrupted our African American president. Sure, it's a tenuous parallel at best, but you can't help but draw it. But the clincher was this: Jay Leno has been fighting his own culture war of late. He represents older Americans, middle-Americans, the disenfranchised masses in the flyover states, who feel neglected by the media and don't get that confusingly ironic Ivy Leager, Conan O'Brien. So here's Jay Leno, on his first show, on which Kanye West just so happens to be a guest. And on the show, Leno interviews Kanye, and makes him cry by scolding him about his actions and invoking his recently-deceased mother to boot. Holy lord. You could practically hear middle America stand up and cheer at that moment. Here was nice old everyman Jay Leno, scolding that big mean rapper guy (who dared to interrupt that nice little country music gal) with some good old fashioned down-home guilt - "what would your (dead) mother think?!" The moment simultaneously made Leno into the voice of disapproving grannys everywhere, and in a weird way humanized Kanye, reminding people that his mother recently died, and that yes, he had had a mother! The whole thing, I have to admit, was a sort of calculated brilliance, rallying middle-aged moms and dads everywhere to the Jay Leno cause. So much for comedy at 10 pm - here was a guy crying thinking about whether his dead mother would approve of his scandalous actions! Now that's funny for ya'!

I'm not trying to sound above it all, but I wonder if people see the bigger picture here. Do they get that they are being played? That this is all part of one big cosmic joke being played by the media gods? I mean, this incident started because a drunk guy hopped on stage to protest an award at a show where the "awards" are essentially meaningless to begin with. It'd be like if Danny Boyle rushed the stage at the MTV Movie Awards to protest Slumdog Millionaire losing out for "Best Kiss." And yet, because journalistic integrity is basically a thing of the past in this digital age, every news outlet reports on this stuff like its real news. And older people take their news very seriously. And then they watch Jay Leno at 10 pm, after reading about him in Time Magazine. And by-gum, Leno tells some jokes about health care, talks to Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah, and tells off that Kanye West guy everyone's been talking about. That's a knockout punch right there at the senior center. All hail Jay Leno, your new lord and savior, or as I call him, "the man who reaffirms everything you already know." God bless America.

- Moving on to slightly lighter topics ... so, um, who saw GOSSIP GIRL last night? Not many of you, according to Nielson. But Gossip Girl is an interesting show - the on-air ratings are low, but people are watching it, somehow, someway. Online, on iTunes, on DVR. Who knows how many people ACTUALLY watch the show? But hey, I respect it. It' a teen show that has fun with the conventions of the genre, and delivers its melodrama with a wink and a nod at the audience. It's in on the joke, and the clever writing reflects that. It's both smart enough to be self-aware, and dumb enough to present us with an increasingly ridiculous series of over-the-top plotlines. You've got to love it. That said, last night's Season 3 premiere was only okay. The whole thing was a somewhat subdued affair, more a prelude to the rest of the season, in which a couple of the leads are off to college, than anything else. The whole dynamic of the show at this point is still kind of weird though. Dan, Serena, Jenny, and Eric all living under one roof with Lilly and Rufus is just plain awkward. I mean, how must Dan feel seeing his ex-girlfriend / current step-sister eating breakfast every morning in slinky sundresses? As an aside, it's always funny on a show like this when actors come back from summer break with a new look. The guy who plays Dan was crazy-buff in last night's premiere, very fitting (not) for a character who is supposed to be a geeky bookworm. Meanwhile, there was weird stuff going on with Chuck and Blair, who were doing weird role-playing stuff with an ease not quite appropriate for 18 year olds, no matter how sophisticated they might think they are. But, it was nice just seeing Chuck Bass again - still one of TV's most entertainingly sleazy characters. After enduring dreck like the new Melrose place, with its cast of dull automotons, it was fun seeing a real pro like Ed Westwick ham up every scene to goofy perfection. But I guess the problem here was that none of the new storylines really popped. Serena acting out to draw the attention of her estranged dad? Ehhh. Vanessa dating the guy who happens to be the long-lost lovechild of Rufus and Lilly? Has potential, but Vanessa is always soooo whiny. Still - it was nice to have the standard bearer for teen drama back in action, and next week should be interesting. Blair and Georgina as college roommates? Sign me up.

My Grade: B

- Alright - stay tuned for a review of the CGI-animated 9.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hail to the King! A Final Tribute to KING OF THE HILL, I Tell You What!

KING OF THE HILL Series Finale Review:

- I've written a lot about King of the Hill here on the blog, through many ups and downs. The show has been, throughout its thirteen year run, a true survivor. Many times, it got shelved, preempted, tossed aside, ignored, or just plain neglected. It even got cancelled, more than once, but came back from the dead. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I don't know if any long-running series in the history of TV has taken as much abuse from its home network as KOTH. FOX rarely if ever gave this show the respect it deserved, and even now, at the end, the show goes out unceremoniously in the early Fall. For all this - for the 7 pm timeslots, the lack of promotion, the misguided cancellation attempts ... I hereby bestow FOX with a FINGER OF SHAME that's been some thirteen-odd years in the making. King of the Hill deserved better, plain and simple.

Because it took a while for this consensus to build, and it took several years for even I to realize it ... but the fact is: King of the Hill will go down as one of the great TV comedies. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever contained such well-realized, fully-formed, and downright *human* characters. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever portrayed America with such an observant and good-humored eye for detail. And few, if any other series have ever had, as Hank Hill might say, so much danged heart.

King of the Hill is one of the few shows I can think of that actually got better and better as the years went on. I remember at first, I wasn't crazy about it. It seemed like just another Simpsons wannabe, and I remember being put off by the then-crude animation. But by the time KOTH debuted, I was already a big Mike Judge fan, mostly due to Beavis & Butthead, and so I kept watching. Afterall, FOX's Sunday night lineup in the mid-90's was sacred ground. Any show that aired between The Simpsons and The X-Files had my attention, no questions asked. So I continued to tune in, and something funny happened ... the show just kept growing on me, and that's in large part because it kept getting better. Several years into KOTH's lifespan, The Simpsons was experiencing a sharp decline in quality, but KOTH was finally in its prime. Right around the time I was in college, I think, was when KOTH was relly hitting its stride, where every week new episodes were alternatively hilarious and oddly touching.

Some people say that KOTH wasn't funny. Well, not every episode is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The show has Mike Judge's sense of subtle, subdued humor. It's one of those shows that sometimes doesn't make you break out in laughter, but it always makes you smile. That said, King of the Hill can be uproariously funny. I remember sitting around with my roommates at BU watching the now-classic episode where Bobby takes a women's self-defense course. His yells of "I don't know you - give me back my purse!" had us all doubled-over in laughter. KOTH could be very, very funny, and it's also up there as one of the most quotable shows ever. There are so many classic lines from Hank, Dale, Peggy, and Bill scattered throughout the series. The show has had consistently sharp writing for years.

During that period when I was in college and when the show was really firing on all cylinders ... I think that's when I started to fully appreciate how well it captured a sort of timeless sense of the American family. So many sitcoms come out of the gates trying so hard to seem cool and current. Oh my god, these kids are like totally texting! Or whatever. But King of the Hill was different, and it's a lesson to so many comedies that immediately date themselves beacuse they are so concerned with being "cool." The fact is, KOTH always just felt "real" to me. The Simpsons is known as the ultimate animated satire, but KOTH has long had a very sharp satirical eye. It was a show that commented on things that you wouldn't have thought of, but that sparked recognition. The writers of the show were known for actively seeking out trends to comment on in the show, and so many times, there was a pretty biting commentary on American culture at the heart of a given episode. So many episodes made me smile in recognition - both because of the concept and the characters. The central relationship of Hank and Bobby always felt to me like the realest, truest father-son relationship in the history of TV. Peggy was a bit more of a cartoonish cahracter, so to speak, but she's a character type that rings completely true. So many times, I've met someone and thought "that was such a Peggy Hill thing of them to do," or "wow, she is a real Peggy Hill." The same can be said for Bill - brilliantly voiced by Stephen Root, Bill was a sadsack character you couldn't help but love. Some of KOTH's best episodes were Bill episodes - and the show was never afraid to go very, very dark with Bill. Bill is like the embodiment of every guy's worst fears about themselves, the guy you do not want to end up like. Although everyone knows a Bill - that one friend who you look at everytime you think you've got it bad and think "nope, he's got it worse."

I was just thinking tonight, as I was watching the final episodes, how Bobby Hill might be one of the most realistic kids ever on TV. I love that, unlike other shows, KOTH always kept Bobby as a realistic kid. Bobby had a unique personality, and sure, Hank was often convinced that "that boy ain't right," but Bobby's adventures at school - with Joseph, with Khan Jr., - and his relationship with his family always reminded me of what it was like to be thirteen or fourteen years old, where you're never quite sure what "normal" really is.

I love that KOTH had many self-contained episodes, but it also had its own continuity that progressed quite a bit over the years. It gave the show a dramatic weight that no other animated comedy has ever had. There was real story and real emotion that ran through KOTH's thirteen years. We saw Hank's relationship with his father, Cotton, go from bad to worse. Cotton's death made for one of the best-written but most heartbreaking episodes of the show. When KOTH started, we saw Hank's niece Luanne move in with the Hills. First, let me state that Brittany Murphy gets a lifetime pass from me for the awesome voicework she's done over the years as Luanne. Second, it really is amazing to look at the characters story progression over the years. When all was said and done, Luanne was the show's true success story - she ended up married, with a kid, and happy. And by the way, who says you can't teach an old show new tricks? Late in its run, KOTH introduced Luanne's future husband Lucky, voiced by Tom Petty, no less, who proved to be a fun and oftentimes hilarious addition to the show. Luanne and Lucky's wedding was another high point - when the usually stoic Hank choked up during the ceremony, well, I'll admit it, I just about lost it. The series' most long-running ongoing plotline involved Dale and his wife Nancy. For the longest time, conspiracy theorist Dale was, ironically, oblivious to the fact that Nancy had been in a long-term affair with her "therapist" John Redcorn. Even worse, Dale's son, Joseph, was clearly a product of that extramarital affair, even though Dale either didn't realize it or refused to believe it. Dale, Nancy, and John Redcorn went through all kinds of ups and downs, and like I said, the show was never afraid to go to some fairly dark places with the storyline.

And that's something that a lot of people forget about King of the Hill. Sure, it was often a feel-good, heartfelt show. But it also had moments where it went dark, offbeat, or just plain weird. There are some truly oddball episodes of the series, that's for sure. One high point was the series' gloriously zany two-parter in which the Hills take a trip to Japan, and meet Hank's long-lost half-brother, who turned out to be practically an exact doppleganger of Hank. So hilarious. But even more than that, the show always had a very interesting moral center. Sometimes, KOTH did kind of use the "Hank vs. the World" type of episodes as something of a crutch. But the show never let you forget that ALL of its characters were flawed. Hank had a solid sense of right and wrong, but he could also be pigheaded and obsessive and close-minded. Peggy was a supportive wife and mother, but she was also somewhat stupid and borderline delusional. Dale was oblivious and selfish. Boomhauer was a womanizer. Bill was just pathetic.

Still, King of the Hill almost always left you with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside by episode's end. I hate sitcoms that try to force-feed you emotion, shows that don't truly earn their "aww shucks" moments. But like I said, KOTH's characters are so well-realized, and its plotlines so authentic-feeling, that its emotional payoffs worked. It sounds cheesy to say it, but I find that I'll watch King of the Hill and come away reminded of what really matters in life. Whether I was caught up in the craziness of college or the oftentimes upside-down world of Hollywood, King of the Hill took me back. Back to quiet suburbs and freshly mowed-lawns. Back to awkward adolescence and down-home values (whether they be right or wrong). It made me look at things from a simpler, clearer perspective.

Bobby and Hank in many ways couldn't be more different. Hank lives for sports and fixing things and propane, Bobby for comedy and junkfood and videogames. But they are similar because they are both characters who have a joy for the simple things in life. They both share a sense of common decency. They both cherish those little moments where all is right with the world. Sounds good to me.

As for tonight's episodes ...

- The first episode was a pretty decent Bobby-centric story in which Bobby befriends a group of spunky popular girls just in time for the upcoming Homecoming Dance. While Bobby loves all of their attention, the girls don't respect Bobby, they see him as a "project." Basically, he's there group mascot, not their real friend, and definitely not "boyfriend" material. Indeed, a perfect example of how well KOTH portrays random situations in a realistic, relatable manner. You had to feel bad for the naive and desperate-for-attention Bobby. Where the ep faltered a bit was that Hank's reaction to the whole thing was a bit much. Hank got legitimately mad at Bobby for "acting like a girl" (seemed sort of sexist, even for Hank) and letting his new friends walk all over him. Hank's point was valid, but his reaction seemed a bit over the top, as he ended up grounding Bobby just for not acting as manly as he should have. That said, the episode rebounded towards the end, with a nice father-son moment, after Bobby finally does man up and tells off the girls for using him and not respecting him. Overall, a solid episode, but it seemed to overplay the Hank vs. Bobby conflict a bit.

My Grade: B

- The second episode, and the series finale, was a nice ending to what's obviously been one heck of a run for King of the Hill. I don't know if this episode was planned as any kind of real finale, but it seemed like maybe the ending was altered a bit to provide more of a true "farewell" for the series. This one was another Bobby-centric ep, in which Bobby is recruited to join a competitive meat-judging team due to his previously unknown knack for evaluating the exact quality of a slab of beef. Hank, of course, is thrilled to see Bobby participating in any sort of competitive team. Plus, Hank is thrilled that he and his son now have something in common - a shared love for the finer points of meat. Bobby is at first gung-ho about the team, but soon discovers that his teammates are a bit too gung-ho - they have a bitter rivalry with a competing squad, one that's getting absurdly intense, with both teams intent on sabotaging the others' chances at the State finals. Bobby quits the team, much to Hank's horror, but Hank soon realizes that Bobby was right - the rivalry had gone too far. Despite that, Bobby returns to help his team win the State championship, and Bobby and Hank bond over the grill, with a who's who of Arlen's favorite residents joining in for a quality BBQ, Hill family style. The bulk of this episode was pretty standard KOTH fare, and again, it almost seemed like Hank's eventual conflict with Bobby was a bit forced and overdone. But ... what made this episode special were the numerous shout-outs to KOTH's illustrious history. Every major character got in a nice line or two - Dale, Bill, Nancy, Joseph, Khan, Luanne, Lucky, etc. - and there were also many references to the show's past. Chuck Mangione made a cameo, we finally found out what Boomhauer's job is (!), and Khan Jr. showed up after being MIA for way too long. Lastly, the final exchange between Hank and Bobby was indeed a perfect ending to the series, a heartfelt summation of everything that the show's always been about - that awkward but powerful bond between father and son. Sure, we know that Hank all too often thinks that Bobby is from another planet. But in the end, Hank can't help but be proud of what a good son he's raised. And that, King of the Hill told us in its final farewell, is what's truly important.

My Grade: A-

So thank you, King of the Hill. It's been a remarkable run, and Sunday nights won't be the same. It's the end of an era - the end of the last remnants of the glory days of FOX Sunday nights. The Simpsons is now the sole remaining flagbearer, and I of course hope that the upcoming 20th season of that show will mark a return of sorts to greatness. But even though The Simpsons will always be the king of animated comedy, I can't help but hold a special place in the pantheon for King of the Hill. It had a long, memorable run, despite the fact that it was never treated with respect from the network or from critics. It had some of the best-realized and best-written and best-voiced characters on TV. It had hilarity and it had heart. It was a darn good show, I tell you what.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rockin' and Rollin': IT MIGHT GET LOUD Review, plus: 9/11 Remembered, TV Round-Up, and More!

Happy Friday!

A lot to talk about today, but first of all I'd feel strange if I didn't acknowledge today's national day of service and remembrance in honor of 9/11. I've written a lot on the topic before, so I'm not going to go into any great detail now. For now, I will just say this: I think we've come a long way from the first few post-9/11 years. Even though I've complained in recent days about some of the deep divides that still plague this country, I am proud that we've to some extent moved on from the reactionary days of the early 00's. Yes, there were some brief moments of national unity and togetherness, but all too quickly we became a nation dominated by fear and conservatism. I am proud that it's those of us who "came of age" in this era that are in turn the same generation that helped elect Obama and is helping our country to move past so many of the old ideological battles. That said, we also can't ignore or be naive about the legitimate threats that still exist in this world. We can't underestimate just how twisted the various terrorist-supporting regimes around the world really are.

For some reason, I keep thinking about the song "We Built This City (On Rock n' Roll)".

Because America, really, was built on rock n' roll. It was created on the concept of arguing with authority, of questioning the status quo. Throughout our history, we've been a country that thrives on debate, on disagreement, on challenging ourselves. This is a place where we have politicians, artists, musicians, comedians ... who challenge us to think differently and not simply fall in line with any given dogma.

So that's part of what I'm celebrating today. I'm remembering the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, but I'm also somewhat optimistically thinking about what I wrote about yesterday and how that applies on a global scale. About how when you have smart, articulate, clear-minded people leading the way against ideological crazies, their arguments are rarely able to win out in the longrun. We're in a global culture now, and it's increasingly difficult to keep people out of the global loop, out of the global debate. So the ball is in the terrorists' court - why is your way better? What tangible, longterm "wins" have your tactics ever actually produced?

I don't want America to be an empire. But I do look forward to the day when the basic ideas that represent our country at its best ... freedom, democracy, equality, and maybe even a little rock n' roll, infiltrate and spread throughout the darker corners of the world.

Switching gears ...


- So I watched the second episode of GLEE, and, I don't know, I still have very mixed feelings about the show. I really do admire it though. It's original and unlike anything else on TV. And it definitely has an energy and a spirit that you don't typically find on a network series. And despite all its brightly-colored bubbliness, it's also a pretty dark show. Really dark, in some ways. It's almost a jarring mix of tonalities, perhaps Pushing Daisies is something you could compare it to. But I will say this: I previously said that I wanted the show to be funnier, and I think that this episode was an improvement. For one thing, they took advantage of the great Jane Lynch at every opportunity, which is a great thing, because Jane Lynch is funny as hell. The question now will be if any of the other cast members can match her comedic chops. So far, it's clear that most everyone can sing and dance like pros, but we've yet to really see just how funny they can be. I also still think they need to move quickly to give some depth to the supporting characters. Because right now, having a sassy African-American girl in the glee club who pretty much just says "Aw hells to the no!" is lame and borderline offensive. Give Mercedes some depth asap, please. Same goes for the main teacher's wife. She is almost cartoonishly horrible at this point where it's hard to fathom why the couple has even stayed together all this time. But like I said, there is a lot to like here. The cast is a lot of fun, and you can tell that there are a ton of talented supporting actors and actresses just waiting for their moment in the spotlight. I love the cheerleader girlfriend - she was awesomely bitchy in this ep, and her musical number was pretty impressive. Anyways, I'll keep watching.

My Grade: B+

- I'll also weigh in on THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, the CW's attempt to capitalize on the teen-vampire craze that is sweeping the nation and creating a generation of teen girls who like their men to be dark, brooding, and born in the eighteenth century. I watched the pilot about a week ago so forgive me if I'm a little fuzzy on the details. But the main takeaway here is that this one is pretty bad. It's like a really bad episode of Smallville, except with vampires and less action. The acting is almost universally atrocious, the dialogue is pretty awful, and the overall tone is so much like Twilight that it hurts. Yes I know, the books on which this is based came out first, but make no mistake - this show wants to be Twilight with every fiber of its being. You even get the movie's same annoyingly prolonged and melodramatic shots of the girl protagonist gazing longingly at her brooding vampire crush in class. At least he doesn't sparkle. But this is the blander version, if you can imagine that. The main vampire here has the personality of a tree trunk. And the f/x, oh boy. You can practically see the smoke machine just off-camera creating "spooky" fog of the kind you'd see at Knott's Scary Farm. And oh yeah, you get every overplayed pop song played melodramatically over every scene. Because don't you get it, this show is kewl, kids! To make things even worse, there's an annoying from-my-diary narrative device that is up there with Mohinder's babbling on Heroes in the annoying column. This show is almost, *almost* in the category of so-bad-it's-good. But not quite. As of now, it just plain bites.

My Grade: C-


- Excited to see 9 this weekend. I know reviews have been slightly middle-of-the-road, but I think it's cool that an animated movie that is so different, and aimed at a slightly older audience, is getting a wide release. Between this and Coraline and Up, it's been a good year so far for animation.

- I'm disappointed to see how bad the reviews have been for WHITEOUT. I was rooting for this one to be good, as I am a big fan of Greg Rucka, who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie was based. Oh well, maybe the newly-formed DC Entertainment will pave the way for a Gotham Central TV show based on Rucka and Ed Brubaker's seminal comic series about beat cops in Gotham City. Man, that would be awesome.

- And finally, I talked about rock n' roll earlier, so in keeping with that theme, I've got a review for you of ...


- 2009 has already seen one landmark rock-doc, that being the absolutely awesome ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. After that film, I was primed and ready for even more behind-the-music movie watchin', so I was at least semi-psyched to check out It Might Get Loud - a portrait of three true-life guitar heroes: Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge. The movie takes these three virtuosos, each representing a different generation and a different era of rock history, and brings them together to swap stories, trade techniques, and jam out some tunes. In addition, we spend time with each of the guitarists on their home turf, hearing bits and pieces about their personal stories, their musical beginnings, and the origins of the guitar riffs that made them rock gods.

There is a lot to like here, and director Davis Guggenheim artfully crafts a constantly-shifting montage of images and sounds, slowly bringing you into this world of rock n' roll genius embodied by the three protagonists. The one problem may be that Guggenheim is a bit too artful. Because for a movie about rock n' roll, It Might Get Loud can sometimes be oddly subdued, and at times downright slow. Guggenheim inexplicably includes long, idling shots of his subjects meandering through city streets and parks. He has lingering images of trees blowing in the wind and hazy skies. I get that he's trying to establish a mood, but, I was never quite sure why he chose such serene imagery, or why he paced things so slowly, given that he's documenting guys known for music that's fast, loud, dangerous, and in your face.

The other problem is that the movie includes scattered bits and pieces about all sorts of things. There's moments that touch on the personal biographies of Page and White and The Edge, moments that allude to their early musical careers, and other moments that focus solely on the raw technique that each artist employs in their guitar-playing. It's fascinating to see how The edge, for example, turns basic chords into complex sounds using various modification devices, or how Jack White customizes his own guitars to achieve unique sounds. But at the same time, it's frustrating to get these glimpses of Jimmy Page's early musical career, but then to get no follow-up, no continuation of the story in terms of the formation of Led Zeppellin and the band's rise and fall. I know that the movie couldn't possibly document the careers and personal lives AND guitar techniques of all three subjects with any kind of thoroughness. But it's frustrating, because the movie does touch on all of these things. And unless you're a true guitar afficionado, the personal stories and career histories of these legendary rockers will ultimately prove more tantalizing than endless ruminations on their relationship with their guitar.

To its credit, the movie did pick a fascinating trio to focus on. There's the stately Jimmy Page, who even in advanced middle age still shows glimpses of the demonic guitar god that he once was, and is still a master of the axe. There's The Edge, who is an obsessive tinkerer and student of music, a guy who grew up in wartorn Dublin and somehow became part of the bigges band in the world. And then there's Jack White - a real eccentric who wows you constantly with his musical talent even as he weirds you out a bit with his insistence on going against the grain. All of these guys are true iconoclasts, and again, that makes the movie interesting and funny but it also makes your mind wander. You start to wish for a full-blown doc about Led Zeppelin or The White Stripes or U2. Also, all three are fascinating individually, but when they come together, it's a bit forced. There is one nice moment where White and The Edge are geeking out over Page playing "Whole Lotta Love." But otherwise, there's not a ton of chemistry between them, and their jam sessions are alright, but nothing mind-blowing. And this comes from someone who is a sucker for multi-generational rock collaborations.

In the end, the sheer musical power of the collective trio is enough to keep you watching. You hear many a legendary song throughout the course of the movie, even if it's just snippets. Everything from Stairway to Heaven to Hotel Yorba to The Streets Have No Name. The movie definitely rocks. But it is also a pretty mixed bag in terms of working as a cohesive, fully-realized film. Worth checking out for would-be guitar heroes, but not the must-see it could have been.

My Grade: B

Alright, have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hehehehe .... Cool! Mike Judge's EXTRACT Reviewed! Plus: Obama's Speech, Melrose Place, DC Entertainment, and MORE!

I have a lot to talk about in today's post, but first off I do want to make mention of President Obama's speech on health care reform last night. Personally, I thought he nailed the speech. Not only was it elegantly and passionately delivered, but it really was pretty brilliantly-structured. Obama laid out the reasons for why reform is urgent, explained the guiding principles of his plan in a clear and matter-of-fact manner, directly addressed the leading concerns about the plan - both legitimate worries and those that have come about due to misinformation spread by the opposition - and then spoke about the means by which he planned to pay for the reform. Finally, he made a plea for bipartisanship and appealed to the audience of congressmen and women, as well as those at home, by referencing the late Ted Kennedy and the "character of our country" of which, for him, healthcare was a leading measuring stick. Obama delivered his speech with conviction, with humor, and with clarity.

In stark contrast though was the jeering section of Republican congressman. Un-be-lievable. I was shocked at the constant cutaways to Republicans jeering, smirking cynically, smugly text-messaging, etc., during the President's speech. Joe Wilson's spontaneous shout of "you lie!" might have almost been funny, if not for the sad irony of the fact that Obama was forced to dedicate a significant portion of his speech to debunking lies spread by Republicans. Like David Vitter, junior senator from Louisiana - a guy who was caught in a prostitution scandal after running on a family-values platform, who is basically a disgraced politician, and yet who keeps sending out viciously-worded emails to his supporters claiming that Obama's reform is part of some evil socialist agenda. Ugh. I was watching Rep. Barney Frank of Massachussetts on TV last night, and he made some great points about the state of the Republican party - basically, the crazies are now running the show. The GOP has resorted to hurling baseless accusations at Obama for the sole purpose of undermining his presidency. It's the whole Rush Limbaugh "I want Obama to fail" policy in action. The problem is, these accusations don't hold up to scrutiny, so when you've got a smart, articulate guy like Obama in charge, such tactics ultimately fall flat. Case in point: the Republican response to Obama's address last night. The whole speech was basically moot as it raised questions that Obama had, only moments ago, *specifically* addressed. It exposed the inherent weakness of the opposition.

But I loved how Obama named names last night. He called out people like John McCain and Orin Hatch, specifically citing some of their shining moments in the senate, where they crossed party lines in the name of reform. Doing so specifically highlighted the absurdity of the current Republican position - to be contrary and stubborn just for the sake of putting up a united front of opposition. You could see the look on John McCain's face when Obama addressed him - it was clear that at that moment, McCain knew the score. I loved Obama's determination - it makes me optimistic that reform will get passed. It just makes sense, and when you have a guy like Obama speaking so plainly and in such common-sense terms, it makes it difficult to argue with him without resorting to stubborn ideological points. I think this will happen, and I think that when it does, it will be a great testament to the triumph of basic decency and common sense over idealogical extremism.

Anyways ...


- I know, I know, I forgot to mention GLEE in my Fall TV Preview from earlier in the week. Well, I have retroactively added it to that post. The quick version: I sort of get where all the rabid enthusiasm is coming from for the show, but at the same time, I won't be that impressed if it's just a weekly mashup of High School Musical and American Idol. A well-staged rendition of a Journey song alone does not make a great show. Glee needs to get funnier, so let's see if that happens. I've yet to watch last night's episode, but will report back soon.

- One other quick note: I forgot to mention that FOX's THE HUMAN TARGET is in fact a mid-season show, not a Fall-launching one. We'll see if FOX can tweak it a bit between now and then.

- I did, however, watch last night's premiere of MELROSE PLACE, the CW's latest 90's revamp. For a while there, I was sort of into it. I was curious about the murder-mystery. I was pleased with the inclusion of a Seth Cohen-esque, comic-book readin', cool-yet-geeky guy as a lead character (although, geez, could his geekiness been any more forced? "I should know better than to give you errands during your weekly comic book run." gag). But, as the hour progressed, things got increasingly craptacular. The characters were just too devoid of intrigue, and the actors too devoid of charisma, to really sell the cheesy plotlines. Especially in the post-OC, post-Gossip Girl world of young-adult drama, it's hard for me to watch a show like this that doesn't really wink at the audience, that doesn't semi-acknowledge it's own cheesiness. This lack of self-awareness made many of MP's craziest moments eye-rollingly lame. I mean, you've got OG-character Michael and his playboy son in the car, with the son bragging to his dad that Sydney, who both have slept with, claimed that the son wa better in bed. Come on! If Chuck Bass had said something like that, it likely would have been a classic moment of over-the-top fun. Here, it was played so seriously that it was unintentionally hilarious. The moment that finally killed me on the show is when the smart, tough med student decides at the drop of a hat to sleep with some sketchball millionaire for money. She goes through with the indecent proposal only moments after rejecting him in disgust. The sudden and inexplicable change of heart was an early jump-the-shark moment. So, yeah, despite the fact that the show hooked me early with its intriguing murder-mystery setup, I was quickly turned off by the braindead writing and mostly lifeless cast. Josh Schwartz, you remain the current king of the TV teen scene.

My Grade: C-

- Okay, I also want to talk for a second about yesterday's big announcement about the formation of DC ENTERTAINMENT, a new division at Warner Bros. focused on exploiting DC Comics' properties like Superman and Batman across movies, TV, videogames, and comics. Basically, the move organizes DC so that it is much more akin to how Marvel's been structured for the last couple years - as an entertainment company in which comics publishing is part of a larger organization that also directly controls those same properties in movies, TV, etc. You might remember that last week, when I wrote about the Marvel-Disney deal, I suggested that a reorganization of this kind was exactly what DC and WB needed to do to compete with the increasingly multimedia-savvy Marvel, and their new, even more multimedia-savvy parent company, Disney. For too long now, DC's properties have been completely hit and miss, and there hasn't been strong, aggressive development of potentially lucrative franchises. The fact that DC has yet to launch big-screen versions of some of its biggest characters (Wonder Woman, anyone?) speaks to the fact that there has been a real disconnect over at Warner Brothers. Still, DC has had some monster successes. The Dark Knight, anyone? There's Smallville, the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum videogame, and various animated series that have been very popular with kids. But Marvel has upped the ante of late, and DC needed this change to compete, and to better integrate its publishing business with its film and TV and digital businesses. The fun part of all this is that there are so many DC Comics characters that would make for super-cool film and TV properties - DC's library of characters rivals that of even Marvel's, especially when you remember that DC Comics also includes the prestigious Vertigo imprint (Watchmen, The Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, Swamp Thing, etc. - and how cool would it be to see some of those turned into series for the Time Warner-owned HBO?) and the Wildstorm imprint (Planetary, Ex Machina, Wild C.A.T.S.), as well as the Minx line of female-oriented graphic novels. The DC Universe proper is home to thousands of great characters and stories, even beyond Superman, Batman, The Flash, etc. There's ... The New Gods, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, Hawkman, The Doom Patrol, Plastic Man, Sgt. Rock, Shazam!, Adam Strange, The Demon, Zatanna, Booster Gold, The Blackhawks, Hitman, The Phantom Stranger, Manhunter, Animal Man, and Stargirl ... just to name a few that would make for kickass movies. In any case, this is a lot of fun - the old DC vs. Marvel rivalry has just been taken to a whole other level, and it will be exciting to see it play out.

Finally, one of two movie reviews I've got on tap for this week ...


- You've got to give Mike Judge credit. Everything he's created for movies and TV has been a singular work of comedic vision. Some of his stuff has has gone on to hit big (Beavis & Butthead), and some has completely bombed, only to later find a degree of cult success (Office Space, Idiocracy). But the guy takes a licking and keeps on ticking, and he's back with another low-key, wryly humorous movie in EXTRACT. Like Office Space, Extract isn't flashy or too over-the-top. But like Office Space, there is a lot of memorable, ultimately hilarious humor to be found. Extract isn't quite the sublime work of comedic genius that Office Space is, but I'd still say that any fan of Judge or any supporter of good comedy owes it to themselves to check this one out.

It's funny, Extract is in some ways like Office Space, but it also seemed like Judge's most King of the Hill-esque movie yet. It shares KOTH's down-home sensibilities, its subtle humor, its stong characterization, and its undercurrent of sentimentality for the common man. The story in Extract is a bit all-over-the-place, but all the various threads kind of come together to portray a sort of slice-of-life story. The plot concerns the plight of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a vanilla extract factory who is proud of what he's built from scratch, but who is also considering an offer from General Mills to buy out the plant. This dillemna is complicated when a freak accident at the plant causes an employee to suffer a pretty horrific fate involving his "family jewels," and said employee then considers bringing a lawsuit against the plant. He's being influenced by Cindy (Mila Kunis), a young con-artist who's taken a temp job at the plant in hopes of getting a piece of that lawsuit money. Where things get complicated is that Joel almost immediately falls prey to Cindy's charms. Given that he's in a sexless marriage to his rather shrill wife (played by SNL's Kristen Wiig), Joel becomes desperate to take advantage of Cindy's seeming interest in him. One night, while under the influence of various illegal substances thanks to his dealer friend Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel agrees to a radical idea: hire a male prostitute to seduce his wife, this opening the door for Joel to have an affair of his own with Cindy. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues from there.

Extract works so well because it's a funny script matched with a very talented and well-cast group of actors. Jason Bateman, for one, is in fine form here. He plays the same kind of well-meaning but put-upon type of character he's known for from Arrested Development, and few other actors are so good at playing the everyman surrounded by crazies. Ben Affleck is more enjoyable here than in anything he's been in in a long while. This movie will remind you that the guy is capable of being very funny, and he's a lot of fun here as a chronic bad influence in Joel's life. There are a couple of scenes with Affleck and Bateman econtering a very passive-aggressive stoner that are some of the funniest, laugh-out-loud hilarious moments I've seen in a movie this year.

The rest of the cast is also great. Mila Kunis has a ton of charm and pulls off the whole street-smart con-artist thing to a T. Kristen Wiig is excellent and surprisingly subdued - I think she may have some real acting chops beyond the crazy characters she is known for on SNL. JK Simmons is basically always awesome, and he is awesome yet again in this movie as Bateman's second-in-command. Dustin Milligan is a scene-stealer is the idiotic male prostitute Brad. And Judge regular David Koechner is hilarious as an annoying neighbor. There's also Gene Simmons (!) as a loudmouth lawyer, and even Judge himself makes an incognito appearance as a Hank Hill-esque factory worker. Sweet!

I also give a lot of credit to Judge's uncanny ability to capture the soul-crushing doldrums of everyday life. Few others have that ability to film everyday suburban settings and make them seem both frighteningly mundane and also epically imposing. My freshman year of college, I used a clip from Office Space in a class presentation on a favorite film scene, talking about how it was an example of how to find humor from the mundane. I am still bitter that my clueless T.A. at the time thought I was an idiot for choosing said scene, from a movie she had never heard of, and gave me a lower-than-deserved grade. Suffice it to say, I stand by Mike Judge's ability to mine both comedy and tragedy from such everyday settings and situation. Like I said, he also brings some of that KOTH-style heart to the movie, and there are a couple of moments where I got that same feeling I so often do while watching the long-running animated comedy, where you just want to smile and cheer at the story of the little guy having his moment in the sun.

Extract has a lot going for it, but it also suffers from a somewhat all-over-the-place script that never quite comes together in a satisfactory manner. The movie ends with a lot of loose ends, and a lot of the characters never quite feel properly fleshed-out, particularly Kristen Wiig's somewhat ambiguous role. We never fully get the relationship between Bateman and Wiig, and it's hard to tell if we should be rooting for them to end up together or not. We never quite get why Bateman is ready to drop everything and take up with Kunis. And we never delve too much into her character either - what's her deal, exactly? Again, Judge is more focused on assembling this sort of collage of scenes and funny moments, but it leaves you feeling a bit unsatisfied in the end.

Still, there are a lot of funny moments here, and a lot of highly-quotable exchanges that are vintage Mike Judge. To me, this is another Judge movie that deserves to find a bigger audience on DVD than it got in the theaters. And I hope that Judge continues to churn out more stuff like this - he really has a unique talent for finding hilarity in the mundane.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, that's it for now, PEACE.