Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Four Cups of Wine, Plus 24 and LOST!

Day 2 of Passover and already longing for bread. I think I have bread withdrawal. Mmm ... bread.

Overall though, it's been a fun Passover so far, and I participated in two fun communal seders on Monday and Tuesday night. Monday night, I went to a big seder put on by the Chai Center. I had attended their seder a few years back, and decided to give it one more go this year. The attendees were certainly an eclectic mix - people of all ages, young and old, and of many varying degrees of religious observance. The highlight of the event was this guy sitting next to my brother and I, who looked and talked like a young Jerry Lewis, except ... even louder and goofier. The guy was a true character, initiating spirited conversations about everything from movies to basketball. Occasionally, he'd react to the rabbi's words with loud exclamations of "praised be Hashem!". And when it was time to chant blessings or sing songs - whoah momma. This guy belted out the melodies with the cartoonish, self-assured wackiness of a Looney Tunes character. And he just kept going. In the interest of time, the Rabbi tried to sing a couple verses each of songs like "Adir Hoo" and "Hagadyah." But this man would not stand for the abbreviated renditions. As soon as the Rabbi paused, seemingly done with one song and ready to move on to the next, the man would counter by plunging full-steam-ahead into yet another verse - "ADIR-HOO! ADIR-HOO! BEEMHEYRAAAA, BEEMHEYRA!" It was quite a sight to behold.

For the second seder, I went to Atid's event at Sinai Temple. Atid caters to young professionals in their 20's and 30's, so it was a younger, very lively crowd. They also get a bit experimental at their events, and this one was no exception. A rockin' house band was jamming out songs and prayers, which I thought was pretty cool. And there were some interesting seder traditions, like throwing onions at each other, which led to a giant food fight in the middle of the proceedings. Overall, a fun event, with a good crowd and a lot of soul.

- Now, despite all of this, I did make time to catch 24 and LOST, both of which are now officially coming to an end in the next several weeks. I'll write a lot more about 24 in the coming days and weeks, but, yeah, the episode-to-episode stakes are definitely higher now that this is confirmed as being the final season. On that note ...

24! 24! 24!

- Man, I just want the producers of 24 to inject a nitro-burst into this season or something. I mean, this is IT. The final season. Of 24. One of the greatest shows of all time, and the show I named as the Best of the Decade. I don't want it to go out with a whimper. But that is where we are right now -- with the once-great 24 just sort of chugging along, giving us the occasional moment of awesomeness, but still desperately grasping to figure out what this season is really all about.

I mean, look, last week I talked about Dana Walsh's reveal as the CTU mole. I wasn't a fan of the execution of that "twist," but agreed that it was probably a necessary evil in order to redeem her character's lameness up to this point, and to use Katee Sackhoff in a way that didn't completely suck. Even if we had to arrive at Dana-as-villain in the most contrived manner possible, at least Dana was now, well, a villain. But holy lord, everything with Dana in this week's ep continued to induce uncontrollable spasms of eye-rolling. Come on 24, can we get A LITTLE realism here? Can we not have Dana leaving her post to be on the phone with her evil terrorist bosses every freaking second? And can we not have her openly conversing with terrorists right in the middle of CTU's hallways? I mean, at my workplace I can hear conversations on the other end of the hall. Could 24 at least make the effort to have Dana look like she MIGHT be trying to be a little covert here? Total laziness.

There were some real highlights in this ep though. We got some great action scenes, as Jack and Renee attempted to protect the Hassan family from a black-ops death squad. I liked the action in this one a lot better than last week's - there was some really intense choreography, and some interesting strategy employed by Jack. While last week's shoot-out just felt repetitive, this week there was a pretty cool scenario at play, with Jack being pursued in the UN's shipping tunnels. Also, Cherry Jones finally got a chance to shine in this ep, with probably her best scene so far this season, in which she delivered a stirring speech about the moral responsibility of the US. Sure, it was typical "USA! USA!" stuff, but hey, it worked.

On the other hand, Aaron Kanen's random heart attack was cheesy as hell. And the "we won't kill him, but we don't have to call an ambulance" angle has been done before on 24, and it's also just sort of lame. I mean, come on, within minutes these guys become heartless bastards who won't help a guy dying of a heart attack?

I think there's still just an overall feeling that everything this season is either rehashed or else somewhat half-hearted. We still don't have a great villain or even a very interesting threat. There are no great supporting characters. Certainly, an overall lack of gravitas. This was another solid episode, but man, knowing that this is the final season, solid ain't good enough - I want to be blown away! I want huge surprises and insane cliffhanger endings. I want Jack to go face to face with some badass mofo's who will give him the fight of his life. I want that feeling that anything can happen at any moment. I want Aaron Pierce to show up and whup some ass. Come on 24 - make these final hours count.

My Grade: B

LOST Thoughts:

It's funny, last night's episode wasn't particularly amazing, and I've heard some critics really lay into it after falling all over themselves over last week's Richard Alpert-centric ep. And yet, I sort of liked last night's episode for the simple reason that it felt like there was some actual, forward-momentum for a change. Something I think is almost always true about Lost: the best episodes are almost always the ones where there is enough plot and forward movement to make you forget about any nagging mysteries or questions. Episodes that explicitly exist to fill in gaps are never as compelling as episodes that have their own unique narrative purpose, that aren't tethered to convoluted continuity and backstory. This week, we didn't have to worry about how the statue broke or anything like that - this week, the main focus was escalating the tension between The Man In Black and Charles Widmore - a battle that we've been waiting a long time to see. I liked the scenes between Alan Dale and Terry O'Quinn a lot - two awesome, gravitas-infused actors going head to head. There was a real sense of menace and creeping dread to those scenes. I dug it.

The Jin/Sun flashes were alright, but to me the flash-sideways world still seems pretty boring. I'm sure there will eventually be some huge reveal as to the true nature of those scenes ... but still, for now, they just feel completely tangential to the main, on-island storyline. We didn't really learn anything new about Jin and Sun in this week's flash, and the overarching storyline is just kind of there. I mean, it's fun seeing Keamy again (he's a great villain), but it's hard to shake the feeling that the flashes are a somewhat empty distraction from the main story.

On the island, two twists stuck out to me, one good, one bad. The bad was Sun randomly hitting her head and forgetting English. Even if there turns out to be some mind-blowing reason for this down the line, it's still feels really lame and contrived. This felt like something too cheesy for a show like Lost. On the plus side, the cliffhanger ending was pretty awesome, I thought. DESMOND - finally! I don't know what the writers have in store for him, but Desmond's return is long overdue - he's one of the show's best characters, and Henry Ian Cusick is a great actor who's always been able to sell Lost's over-the-top storylines with wide-eyed wonder. He truly is the show's epic hero, so his return hopefully signals that things are about to get epic.

This episode stumbled a bit in places, but it seemed to be setting the stage for some really fun stuff. We'll see in another week, brother.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, that's all for now. Happy Matzoh-eatin'.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Remembering the 80's w/HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and MORE!

Hey everyone, and Happy Passover to all of my fellow Jews. I'll be honest, Passover has never been one of my favorite holidays. The whole no-bread for eight days things really starts to get to me after a couple of days. It definitely doesn't mesh well with my already-picky eating habits, which definitely tend to be heavy on Passover's forbidden foods. At the least, you would think that Passover would be an excuse to eat healthy for a week, but no. We Jews, being the junk-food lovers that we are, have decided that the go-to kosher-for-Passover foods sold at grocery stores around the country are such non-healthy items as chocolate, potato chips, and more chocolate. Passover is a veritable chocolatepalooza. Why, I don't know. But one thing about Passover - there's a lot of Chocolate. All I know is, someone could make a decent chunk of change by packaging kosher-for-Passover prepackaged meals. Like chicken-salads or things like that. Although, I don't think it's in Jewish genetics to think of a salad as a meal. Luckily, I live in LA, where many eat nothing but salads. So on one hand, I'll be eating lots of salads this week. But there will probably be some chocolate in there as well. And matzoh-pizza, can't forget that. The old Passover standby of cooking-impaired single Jews everywhere. Because hey, I may not have much in the way of culinary skills, but hot damn can I microwave up some tasty matzoh-pizza.

Anyways, this year I'll be in LA for Passover (last year I was back in CT), so that, as usual, will be an adventure. Stay tuned as my brother and I venture out into the Jewish wilderness in search of the perfect Passover seder. Tonight, we hit up the Chai Center. Tomorrow, Temple Sinai. Over freeways and under the proverbial dunghill (sorry, inside joke) we shall go so that we may recite the story of our people leaving Egypt for the Holy Land. Matzoh shall be eaten, Manischevitz consumed, horseradish swallowed, karpas dipped, and well-shanked shankbones shall be, well, admired from afar. So bring it on, Passover - I've got matzoh, tomato sauce, and grated mozzarella cheese in my fridge. I'm ready for ya'.

- And on that note, some thoughts on a little movie that came out this past weekend about hot tubs and time machines. I think it's called ... "The Whirpool That Travelled Through Time."


- How can you not be at least slightly intrigued by a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine? If that title doesn't scream "potential for hilarity," I don't know what does. At the same time, after Snakes on a Plane, you've also got to be a little weary of the high-concept, ironically blunt movie titles. There's so-dumb-it's-actually-genius, and so-dumb-it's-just-really dumb. Luckily, Hot Tub Time Machine mostly lives up to the goofy promise of its title, delivering tons of laughs and lots of moments of jaw-dropping gross-out comedy, coupled with lots of fun call-backs to all things 80's. As a certified afficionado of all things cheesy and 80's, I was onboard from moment one, as Autograph's "Turn Up the Radio" kicked up over the opening titles. If you are the kind of person who would immediately recognize Autograph's "Turn Up the Radio," then you may want to run out and see this movie. As you can tell, yes, I am that kind of person.

Hot Tub Time Machine is basically a parody of time-travel movies (think Back to the Future), a parody of the 80's, and a comedy about a bunch of guys grappling with getting older, and looking to recapture the days of their wild youth (Old-School, The Hangover, etc.). The plot is simple enough - three forty-ish friends (and one twenty-ish hanger-on) go on a ski trip in order to relive their glory days. However, upon arriving to the once-rockin' resort, they realize that it's now deserted and dilapidated. The guys plan a night of hot-tubbin' debauchery so as to have at least one night of old-school craziness, but, as fate would have it, said hot-tub is in fact ... (wait for it) ... a hot tub time machine! The guys are transported back to the 80's, and find themselves in their younger bodies, back in the middle of a particularly memorable and life-changing ski trip from twenty-five years earlier. While the youngest of the bunch worries about ruining the space-time continuum (after all, he wants to ensure that he is still born), the rest of the guys go about livin' it up, rockin' out, and righting the wrongs of their old lives. And hilarity ensues ...

In some ways, Hot Tub Time Machine is as random and out-there as you'll get in a mainstream comedy. The movie goes about as far as any comedy has in terms of shock-value gags. And yes, that means that much of the humor is often standard gross-out comedy fare. It's okay though, because the cast is uber-talented and fantastically funny. To me, the two real stars of the movie are Craig Robinson and Rob Cordry. Robinson (perhaps best known as Daryl from The Office) is one of those guys whose facial expressions alone are often enough to crack you up. He's just a hilarious guy, and here, his comedic timing and delivery are spot-on. Every time Robinson shows up in a movie, he's always very funny, so it's nice to finally see him get a semi-starring role. Meanwhile, I've been a longtime fan of Rob Cordry, so it was pretty cool to finally see him get the spotlight as well. I mean, this is a guy who basically single-handedly made the TV show "The Winner" watchable. He's very funny, and he's on top of his game in Hot Tub, to the point where I'd say he steals the movie.

John Cusack is also really good here as well - in fact, having not seen John Cusack in a good movie, in ... almost a decade? ... this is the best he's been in a long, long time. He's a lot of fun here, and it's nice to see him in a funny part that plays off of his star-power in such an entertaining manner. Clark Duke also does a nice job as Cusack's younger nephew - he isn't given a ton to do, but he steps up when called upon.

The main cast is great, but I did think that some of the cameos and smaller roles fell a bit flat. The great Crispin Glover appears as a one-armed man who is also basically a one-joke character. It's a funny recurring joke, but it also seems somewhat of a waste of a great actor. Similarly, Chevy Chase shows up as the mystical keeper of the Hot Tub Time Machine. With Chase really getting his comedic mojo back lately on Community, it was sort of sad to see him back in a thankless cameo role that wasn't particularly funny. Lizzy Caplan from True Blood shows up as well as a 1980's-era love interest for John Cusack. I like her a lot in general, but her character here seemed pretty shallow, and her star-crossed romance with Cusack felt rushed. Look, I'm not expecting some awesome, well-developed romance in a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine, but given that their relationship is a huge plot point, I would have liked more of a reason to care about their scenes together.

And I think that's where the movie somewhat breaks down in its second half. The movie doesn't seem content to just be a crazy, off-the-wall, and completely random comedy - which it does a nice job of at first. Instead, Hot Tub morphs into a much more by-the-numbers comedy with all sorts of more sitcom-y character moments. I mean, the movie is called Hot Tub Time Machine - I want insane humor and completely random comedy. And the movie delivers that in abundance. But ... the moments where it tries to elicit actual emotion from us, where it tries to tell a more conventional narrative ... well, those parts tend to feel rushed and ultimately fall a bit flat. I also thought the whole ending sequence was sort of lame. Without spoiling anything, the movie seemed to end on a somewhat clunky note, with some screwball time-travel shenanigans resulting in some semi-cheesy reveals.

Overall though, Hot Tub Time Machine had me laughing my ass off for much of its running time. Just the interplay between the four main actors alone was worth the price of admission - and that is in many ways a testament to guys like Craig Robinson and Rob Cordry. I loved the riffs on all things 80's - the movie made me want to do a little time-travelling myself, so I could spend some time wearing a jean jacket and fingerless gloves, and partying it up at a Poison concert (okay, so I've done that in the 00's, but still ...). Bottom line though is that a lot of the jokes were on the money, and many of the biggest gags were brilliantly-executed for maximum laugh-factor. The audience I saw this with - a packed house on opening night at the AMC Burbank, was roaring with laughter. I wouldn't quite call Hot Tub Time Machine a truly great comedy, but I'll say that I definitely got my money's worth in laughs.

My Grade: B+


- I wanted to love THE SIMPSONS from this week, in which The Simpsons family travels to Israel. But sadly, this episode mostly fell flat. I so wanted the Israeli tour guide character, voiced by none other than Sascha Baron Coen, to be hilarious. But aside from the general joke that he was really pushy, there wasn't much to him. Otherwise, the episode just had so much potential that was seemingly wasted. Especially once it devolved into a weird thing where Homer gets "Jerusalem Syndrome" and thinks he's the messiah. It's sad - some of my all-time favorite Simpsons episodes are the ones dealing with a.) religion, and b.) the relationship between Homer and Flanders. In the old days, a Simpsons ep in Israel, with Baron-Coen, with those themes taking center stage ... well, it prob would have been a classic. Now, the writing just couldn't quite pull it off. There were a handful of funny moments and sight gags, and we got a lot of random wackiness, but without any real heart or intelligence. Oy.

My Grade: B-

- Quick thoughts on Thursday's NBC comedies ... THE OFFICE was really funny. Nothing of super-high consequence, but Date-Mike Michael Scott, the random Japanese guy's story about his battles with the Yakuza, and Dwight's oddball love triangle added up to an episode rife with hilarity. And hey, it all took place at Jillian's at Universal Citywalk, which made me somewhat nostalgic for Jillian's in Boston. 30 ROCK was pretty great. Kenneth's random stories cracked me up, and all the Kabletown stuff was gold. I wasn't thrilled with the return of Jason Sudeki as Floyd though - not a huge fan of the character in general. Both PARKS and COMMUNITY felt slightly off this week after several weeks of awesomeness. Still two of my favorite comedies on TV though.

Alright, I'll be back with more soon. Happy Passover and ... l'chaim!

Friday, March 26, 2010

heymanyoushouldtotallyreadthisreviewof: GREENBERG


- Roger Greenberg is not a likable man. He's overpriveleged, needy, whiny, self-absorbed, and not exactly aging gracefully. He's He's bumming around LA, living at his brother's huge house, consciously trying to do nothing. He's still fixated on his life of fifteen years ago, when he and some friends were in a band and had a shot at a record deal, before Roger turned it down due to some sort of idealistic anti-corporate fit of youth-in-revolt. Since then, Roger moved to New York and became a carpenter, did time in a mental hospital, and basically lived in a state of prolonged arrested development. Now, he's back in LA, trying to reconnect with old friends, old girlfriends, and improbably falling into an awkward romance with his brother's 25 year old personal assistant, Florence (yes, his brother is basically the personification of LA douchebag). In any case, Roger Greenberg is a man who says he wants to do nothing, who acts like he yearns to be 25 again, and yet who is at a point in his life where he can't just ignore that he's a 40-year old man-child anymore. Greenberg, like it's title character, can be a hard movie to like. But its self-absorbed characters are the catalysts for some wry observational humor and some interesting insights into life and love. If anything, this feels in some ways like the spiritual successor to so many Woody Allen movies of old.

One of the key strengths of the film is how writer-director Noah Baumbach elicits some pretty stellar performances from his extremely solid cast. This is one of Ben Stiller's best-ever roles, no question. Especially given how stale his goofy, big-budget comic persona has gotten over the years, this back-to-basics part is a welcome return for Stiller to lower-key comedy - something which many people tend to forget he excels at. Here, Stiller is basically a walking personification of Gen-X slackerism at age 40. And some of his rants and raves and random observations are truly funny. For me, it was the little moments that were the best- Stiller's overly-analytical assesment of Florence's attractiveness, his repeated desire to know what others think of him, his little asides about life in Los Angeles. Sometimes though, I did feel like Greenberg just works as a sounding board for Baumbach, and some of the rants about things like today's twenty-somethings just felt pretty misguided and condescending. Baumback writes his forty-year old characters like teenagers, so his twenty-five-year-old characters come off as complete children. It's a little obnoxious at times. Overall though, the rant-y nature of the movie mostly works to its benefit, eliciting a lot of laughs and entertaining moments.

Greenberg also features a breakthrough performance of sorts for indie-darling actress Greta Gerwig. As Florence, Gerwig is fascinating to watch, definitely one of those actresses who's so distinctive that you have to sit up and take notice of her work. Childlike yet in some ways oddly wise, Florence seems like a strange match for Roger, except when you realize that in a weird way, they both compliment each other. Even the fact that Florence can stand Roger is a testament to their unlikely connection. Roger almost sabotages things at every chance - he assaults her with multiple verbal outbursts, and just seems like he'd be impossible to get along with. But even though you wonder about the somewhat sadsack Florence setting herself up for abuse, you still can't help but like her thanks to Gerwig. I don't know how many other actresses could have pulled that off.

The other standout here is probably Rhys Ifans as Roger's friend and former bandmate, Ivan. The only one of Roger's old crew who still tolerates him, Ivan serves as a nice counterpoint to Roger, because Ivan was once the troubled one in the group, but is now trying to embrace adulthood, trying to make his marriage work and to spend time with his son. Jennifer Jason-Leigh (Baumbach's wife, who also has a story credit on the film), is also good, as Roger's ex-girlfriend.

Greenberg is a well-done, slice-of-life comedy. It didn't blow me away or anything, but I did think there were some interesting observations in the script, and some really funny moments and scenes. Roger Greenberg isn't the most likable character, but I think most of us can relate to his various neuroses in some small way. Does the movie sometimes walk the line between quirkiness and self-indulgence? Yes - sometimes its point of view is just plain off-putting. But Greenberg doesn't need us to love or even like its characters (unlike, say, Funny People). The movie is, at its heart, a meditation on the importance of human connection, and it tells its story well, via some excellent performances, and with plenty of awkwardly hilarious humor. It's a small movie, but there are some big questions at the heart of its narrative.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"El Diablo!" - LOST's Epic Richard Origin, 24's New Mole, and Chuck's No-Kill Policy!

Some of TV's biggest, baddest shows have been fairly controversial of late, so ... let's get to it and talk about 24, Chuck, and LOST!


- I don't know, I was starting to really get into this season of 24, but then this episode came along and killed my buzz a bit. It wasn't a bad episode by any means - there was lots of action, some rare moments of humor (courtesy of Chloe), and yes, a big twist. And yet, there was a feeling that - if this was supposed to be 24's big, game-changing episode, then well, you couldn't help but feel underwhelmed at the overall state of the season.


... Dana Walsh is a mole. Ugh. Okay, let's put this in perspective. Katee Sackhoff as a badass villain is already a HUGE improvement from what she was before - an annoying distraction. At the same time, I am so sick of the character that it's just hard to care, at least right now, all that much about her turning to the dark side. It was a twist that probably had to happen for the good of the show, and yet, it also speaks to the size of the hole that 24 dug itself into with weeks of making Dana into one of TV's most reviled characters. 24 shouldn't have to play the "mole card" anymore - it's one of the show's biggest cliches, and is basically a running joke with fans. If it's going to be done, it should be ultra-dramatic, jaw-dropping. This was a mole-reveal that was less about dramatic effect and more about righting narrative wrongs. A good thing, most likely ... but, not something to get overly excited about.

Plus, that end reveal came only after we had to sit through yet more stupidity between Sackhoff and Stephen Root - aka the most persistent parole office in the history of humankind - a guy so annoying that he doesn't stop nagging about some missing street thug even in the midst of a national security crisis. Man, as much as I usually like Root, it was nice to see his character get offed. Good riddance.

Meanwhile, Jack and Cole were involved in a seemingly never-ending shoot-out with the terrorists. 24 usually does great action scenes, but this one felt a bit flat to me, like I was watching someone play a videogame shooter. The whole thing where the young redshirt dies trying to save one of his CTU colleagues was just cheesy enough to be entertaining, with Jack's assurances to the dying kid that his partner pulled through (he didn't) serving as the icing on the cake of GRAVITAS. This action sequence also led to a whole thing where Chloe was squabbling with NSA security guys at CTU about how best to get CTU's systems online. Chloe, concerned about reestablishing communication with Jack, wanted to try a faster but riskier method. All the infighting was frankly getting pretty annoying, but it led to a funny, over-the-top moment where Chloe actually pulls a gun on the NSA guy. Not quite at the level of Chloe having to go out in the field a few seasons back, but, yeah, sort of amusing.

We also saw the return of Renee after a brief absence. Her return felt a bit forced (would Chloe really call her, of all people, after all that she'd just been through?), but we'll see where it goes from here.

Overall, I am really waiting for 24 to up the ante a bit here. Last year at this time, we had rebel forces INVADING THE WHITEHOUSE, and the combined gravitas of Jack, Bill Buchanan, Tony Almeda, Kurtwood Smith, and Aaron by-god Pierce. And some great villains to boot (Tony Todd, anyone?). Flash to a year later, and the big twist involves the show's worst new character, who we all hated anyway, turning mole (a turn which barely makes sense upon thoughtful analysis to boot). A couple people told me that they thought this was an episode in which business really picked up. And hey, going into this ep, I was optimistic that things were about to get really good. Sorry though, still not sold.

My Grade: B-

- I thought CHUCK had a somewhat weak episode this week as compared to other, stronger eps of late. While there were some fun moments with Casey adjusting to his new life as a full-time civilian and Buy More employee, everything with Chuck and his first solo mission just felt pretty contrived. I mean, we know that Beckman calls the shots and that her agents are obligated to follow her orders, but the idea that Chuck might have to suddenly up and relocate to Rome was fairly out-of-nowhere. It just seems like, even at a place as crazy as the CIA, they'd at least give you a little warning when you're going to have to uproot your entire life. Plus, the whole thing where Chuck won't / can't kill anyone played out in just about the most predictable way possible. Did we really need the whole "looks like Chuck pulled the trigger, but then we pan out and see it was really Sarah" scene? Why not just have Chuck kill someone? It would make for good drama. I mean, Chuck is a CIA agent, not a superhero - it's amazing that he hasn't killed dozens of dudes by this point. Not only did we have lots of emphasis on Chuck's no-kill policy, but we also had a ton of oh-so-emo moments between Chuck and Sarah. Adding to this episode's streak of lame cliche moments, we got the "Chuck and Sarah almost kiss, but are interrupted by danger" moment. Gag me. Again, lots of fun moments with Casey and Big Mike, and Morgan got in some funny bits as well. But ... Chuck is at its best when it covers NEW ground - ie the awesome episode from a few weeks' back in which Morgan learns Chuck's secret. But this was an all-too Smallville-like episode, with an overreliance on tired cliches and well-worn, dragged-out plot points. Next.

My Grade: B-

LOST Thoughts:

- Well, I watched this episode of Lost twice. The first time, I was exhausted and struggling to stay awake, so I decided to rewatch the episode in order to make sure I took everything in, and that I really had a good feel for what the episode did or didn't accomplish. I know that many are absolutely raving about this one. Many, including myself, have been waiting for this episode for years. Ever since the introduction of Richard Alpert, Lost fans have wondered about his origins, and what if any secrets his backstory may reveal about the nature of the island. And as I spoke about last week, this was in many ways a true litmus test for Lost. Because the show has always sent mixed messages about the way it unravels its narrative. Is it a show that poses specific questions with the expectation that all will eventually be revealed? Or is it a show that revels in ambiguity and mystery, letting the audience interpret things as they so choose? I've talked about it a lot, but Lost oftentimes tries to have its cake and eat it too - specifically addressing certain mysteries while ignoring others, trying to downplay the importance of certain "answers," even as the show's marketing - and its own characters - consistently talk about when and how certain things will be revealed. So here we have an episode that promise to unravel the big mystery of Richard -- or does it? That was the question - would this episode set the expectation for the final remaining episodes that all would and should be revealed? Or does it make a statement about the very nature of Lost by affirming that the show, despite what the marketing would have you believe, has no intention of being a traditional "mystery" serial, but that its very vagueness is an integral part of its identity?

Well, as longtime viewers have come to expect, this episode was a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. The episode revealed the "origin" of Richard, but did so in a way that left dozens of questions still lingering. We found out that Richard was originally Ricardo, living on the Canary Islands with his wife, Isabella. When Isabella takes sick, Ricardo goes to find a doctor, but ends up meeting one who stubbornly refuses to help treat his wife. In a fit of rage, Ricardo accidentally kills the doctor, landing him in prison, facing a possible death sentance. However, a slave trader recruits Ricardo, forcing him into captivity. Ricardo and other slaves are taken on a ship - The Black Rock (long a staple of Lost lore) - and are on their way to parts unknown, when a storm steers the ship off-course. The Black Rock crash-lands on The Island. In a fit of fear and rage, one of the traders kills off all of the slaves except Ricardo - before he gets the chance, the Smoke Monster arrives and offs all of the traders. Smokey spares Ricardo, and frees him from his shackles. In return, Ricardo agrees to serve him. Of course, Smokeys first request is that Ricardo kills "the devil," aka Jacob. But Jacob subdues Ricardo, and convinces the freed slave - who thought that he was actually in hell - to serve him and not the Man In Black. Ricardo agrees, and thus begins his tenure as Jacob's emissary on the island and elsewhere.

It's funny how Lost works sometimes. This episode took the time to specifically show us how The Black Rock crashed into The Statue and shattered it - explicitly answering the semi-intriguing but only semi-important question of "what happened to The Statue." And yet, it didn't tell us a thing about Richard's time on the island once he agreed to serve Jacob. How did he come to be an "Other?" Why was he sent to test Locke again and again? Who did he think Jacob was, and why did he only know question him, 130 years or so later?

Again, the fact that the episode took the time to show exactly how The Black Rock crashed into the Statue sort of amazes me. It answered that mystery in almost obsessive detail. And yet, a question like "how and why can Hurley talk to dead people?" is left wide open.

And here's where I wonder about Lost's storytelling methods. I mean, was it really better to wait *this* long to give us Richard's origin? Now you only have a handful of episodes to expand on it. I don't know, I just question the merits of building up a mystery for years and years, and then addressing it - after crazy amounts of buildup and expectation - just as the story is about to wrap up. The mystery of Jacob and the Man in Black is a similar example. If we just knew who they were and what their motivations were from the outset of the season, then we'd have so much more invested in them and their battle by this point. Now, Lost just creates this crazy level of expectation that the final reveal of their identities will be something positively mind-blowing. Maybe it will be. But most likely not. And even if it is an awesome reveal, then there'll be no time to explore its ramifications - the show will be over.

It's this kind of disjointed storytelling that has soured me overall on this season of Lost. As much as I loved certain things about this episode, I still wished that Richard's storyline was playing out in a different context, and not wrapped up in this whole Jacob battle of the gods. I just don't think that the concept of two omnipotent beings waging a cosmic chess game is all that intriguing - certainly not as an uber-premise of Lost. Now that every storyline, even a potentially standalone one like Richard's, is tied in so tightly to Jacob's, it just, to me, makes those storylines inherently less compelling.

And man, Richard's storyline did have a number of very compelling moments. First of all, this episode looked amazing. It felt huge, it felt grand, it felt epic. You just don't get this kind of sweeping, cinematic storytelling on any other TV show. Secondly, Nestor Carbonell kicked serious ass in this episode. Who knew he had it in him to play a ragged, wide-eyed Spaniard channelling the ghost of Inigo Montoya? His acting was melodramatic, but it worked. It was something completely different, stylistically, for Lost, and yet the episode had the same sort of epic-romance feel as classic episodes like The Constant? I didn't think this episode was half as clever or tightly-scripted as The Constant, but still, it was undeniably memorable, entertaining, and just plain fun to watch. Just to rant about the aesthetics a bit more - the music here was awesome - loved the new theme, one of Lost's best. And the editing was great - there was a real momentum to each scene that just made the story that much more captivating.

The episode looked amazing, Carbonell was great - just awesome stuff. But the script still felt pretty weak to me. We couldn't care about Isabella all that much - after all, we met her while she was on her deathbed. And then we had to see she and Richard's big reunion play out through a crazy combination of weird plot devices - Hurley can talk to dead people, sort of, and Isabella has chosen this moment to make her voice heard after all this time. Seeing this big romantic scene essentially boil down to Richard gazing lovingly at, well, Hurley, was odd to say the least. And then, as I said, Richard's story had to get the shoehorned into the Jacob stuff. More vague talk, more questions answered with vague non-answers. A metaphor about the island being the cork that keeps evil bottled up, preventing it from spreading out into the world. So after all this, the island is a cork. Cool beans. Yes, The Man In Black (and for the love of god, can they just give him a name already?) smashing the wine bottle as we cut to black and the Lost logo was a sweet visual. But it wasn't much more than that.

I don't know, it just seems that the more we learn about Jacob, the less interesting he is, and the less his involvement as the great puppet-master makes sense given what's come before. So he's just trying to prove that people are inherently good, but he's trying to do so by interfering in their affairs as little as possible? Wait, didn't he play a role in all of the "candidate's" lives? And didn't he deliberately crash-land them on an island and expose them to all sorts of danger - a situation that tends to bring out the worst in people? And isn't he sort of a smug asshole for someone who we're supposed to believe is a force for good?

Look, maybe there is some drop-dead amazing explanation for everything, some giant reveal on the horizon that retroactively makes all of this awesome. But if Lost is all about the journey and not the destination, then shouldn't the journey be a great story in and of itself? There were elements of that greatness in this episode - Richard's story had hints of the epic, sweeping storytelling that's characterized some of Lost's best standalone installments. And on it's own, this was an amazingly-produced, very well-acted, extremely entertaining episode. But, it came in the context of an overarching narrative that is losing steam when it should be going full steam ahead. Let's hope things pick up for the final leg of the race.

My Grade: B+

Okay, that's it for now. Leave your comments below!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Cherry Bomb! THE RUNAWAYS - Reviewed!


"Can't stay at home, can't stay at school
Old folks say, ya poor little fool
Down the street I'm the girl next door
I'm the fox you've been waiting for
Hello Daddy, hello Mom
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb
Hello world I'm your wild girl
I'm your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb!"

- If you love rock n' roll, then you just might love The Runaways - a movie that bleeds, sweats, and vomits rock n' roll grit, style, and attitude. The Runaways as a movie completely succeeds at evoking a specific time and place, at capturing an era - and it tells a story that's both inspiring and at times tragic. But there is rock n' roll magic here. There are some absolutely amazing performances from the young cast. There's some awesomely stylized and artistic avant-garde direction. And there are moments that make you just want to pump your fist, bang your head, and rock the %$#& out.

The movie tells the true-life story of The Runaways, the trailblazing all-girl rock band that emerged onto the Hollywood music scene in the mid-seventies. Consisting of teenaged girls, none older than 16 at the time of the band's founding, The Runaways mixed sleaze and sex appeal with legit musical chops and proto-punk attitude to make waves here and abroad - launching the careers of grrrl power icons like Joan Jett and Lita Ford. The movie is in some ways a standard rock biopic, but to me it's about more than just pop-culture history. In some ways, this is a film about daring to be different - about breaking glass ceilings and having the strength of will to go against the grain.

Sure, The Runaways began as a manufactured concept-band, but the film shows us that its members had a special x-factor that couldn't simply be engineered. They were outcasts, rebels, girls who wouldn't conform and couldn't ignore that inner demon calling them to the dark side, the side of rock. We see Joan Jett in a hip Hollywood clothing store circa 1975. "I want what he's wearing" she says to the bemused clerk, pointing at a too-cool-for-school male patron. She dumps a pile of saved-up change on the counter, and walks away with a studded leather jacket. We see Cherie Curry leaving her high school classmates speechless as she gets on stage for a school talent show, and, with streaks of red and blue makeup on her face, covers David Bowie in a full-on glam-rock spectacle. We see Joan Jett taking a guitar lesson - her instructor tells her that girls don't really play guitar, let alone electric. But Joan doesn't care. She plugs into her amp and wails, channelling the rock n' roll gods with each thrash of the strings. There's one scene late in the movie that kind of bookends that initial setup. Joan is at the end of her rope. The Runaways, after having blown up , after becoming icons and sex symbols, have broken up - their lead singer out of the music biz. Joan has fallen in with a bad crowd. She's messed up and strung out. But she puts her head down, grits her teeth, and remembers that it was supposed to be about the music and not everything else. She writes lyrics. She sings. She plays. And she jumps up on her bed, screaming out lyrics as a lightning bolt of divine (or satanic?) inspiration hits her in the form of "I Love Rock n' Roll." It's an amazing sequence - it gave me chills. And it convinced me that The Runaways, as a movie, was the real deal.

Part of what makes things work so well are the kickass performances in the movie. I know some people tend to dismiss Kristen Stewart, but they shouldn't. She may not be someone who can play any role, and she may have little tics and quirks that find their way into a lot of her movies. But ... the girl can act, and she does an awesome job here as Joan Jett. This was a part that Stewart may well have been born to play, and she knocks it out of the park. The toughness, the pent-up anger, the sadness, the willpower of Joan Jett - it's all here, and Stewart is completely compelling in the role. Meanwhile, I think this is the movie that propels Dakota Fanning into the next stage of her career. Sure, she was already a remarkable child actress, but now it's safe to say that she's a remarkable adult actress. Well, almost. Sixteen-year-old Fanning is a powerhouse as troubled singer Cherie Currie, but her playing Currie is also a clever bit of stunt casting. The fact that we've seen Fanning grow up on screen makes the sexuality and exploitative nature of Currie's jailbait persona that much more real and unsettling. And it makes her descent into drug use and other vices that much more disturbing. But Stewart and Fanning are both stellar - definitely two of the best performances so far this year, from two actresses who I think will soon be in the conversation as two of the best of their generation.

The other real standout here is Michael Shannon, as the group's hotshot Hollywood-scenester manager, Kim Fowley. Shannon is a total scene stealer, both funny and menacing as the man with the vision of an in-your-face girl group that could rock harder and louder than any of their male counterparts. Fowley's rock bootcamp sessions with the girls are a lot of fun - he transforms Cherrie Currie into a snarling frontwoman, and insists that the girls rock with reckless abandon.

I also really enjoyed the overall look and feel of the film, courtesy of director Floria Sigismondi. At times it's more straightforward, but as the girls descend into the abyss, the movie takes on a hellish, dizzying, almost surreal vibe, full of sex (much of it between the various girls in the band), drugs, and rock n' roll. It's like a great powerballad that starts out slowly but eventually erupts in a sea of noise. Sigismondi also does a great job of highlighting the music - tracks from The Runaways, Joan Jett, and other acts that evoke the time and the rock n' roll spirit of the movie. And Stewart, Fanning, and the rest of the cast does a surprisingly great job of covering some of the classic tunes as well. They really rock, and both actresses seem to channel the spirits of the women they're portraying. I can say that after seeing the movie, songs like "Cherry Bomb" and "Crimson & Clover" have been on constant replay in my head. If you already love the music, I think you'll be appreciative of how it's used in the film. If you don't, I think you'll be heading home and burning a mix CD pronto. And by the way - give credit to the movie's costume designers and others who establish the grimy 70's Los Angeles setting. The movie really does transport you to that era, feathered hair and all.

I think the main thing that bugged me about the movie is going to be the most common complaint from audiences - it just seems a little lopsided in terms of how it tells its story and who it chooses to focus on. Obviously, the spotlight is shone on Jett and Currie, but other Runaways members like Lita Ford and Sandy West seem somewhat unfairly ignored. I know there were a lot of issues around approvals and such, but still. Lita Ford went on to become something of a rock icon in her own right, so it would have been interesting to see more of her story. And just this week, LA Weekly ran a great article on the tumultuous life and tragic death of drummer Sandy West. Oddly, Ford and West don't even get post-scripts in the film (Jett, Currie, and Fowley do), so I didn't even realize she had passed away until I read the LA Weekly article. It also seems a shame to have some talented actresses in the cast (like Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) who barely get a word of dialogue in. Again, I understand that the focus was kept on Stewart and Fanning, but it would have added to the film, I think, to flesh out some of the other characters a bit more.

Still, The Runaways left its mark on me. It really impressed me, pumped me up, and had me ready to rock. I love the music, I love this period of rock history, and hey, who doesn't love all-girl rock bands? The movie is dirty, grimy, and revels, to an extent, in self-conscious exploitation. But that is sort of the point. It's edgy and uncomfortable, a teenage wasteland of raging hormones and a burning desire to rock. The movie captures that sense of rebellion and attitude, that sense of danger. But I loved its overall message - that someone like Joan Jett rose above all that noise, and by sheer force of will, carved out her own niche and did things her way, paving the way for countless others to follow. There's a message of girl-power there, sure, although it's more than that. It's a lesson in perseverance, a tale of tragedy and triumph, and a modern day-fable for anyone who's ever wanted to be (even a little bit) rock n' roll.

My Grade: A-

Monday, March 22, 2010

Anatomy of a Box-Office Bomb: a REPO MEN Review

Okay, I'm on a blog-writing hot-streak, despite it being one of those Mondays where I feel like I'm struggling. Overall though, it was a fun weekend, and there was some much, much-needed rest and relaxation following an insane week. I think I slept about 14 hours or something between Friday and Saturday. Yep, I was beat. And yes, if I don't set an alarm, I can easily sleep 10+ hours after a long week. But yeah, activities this past weekend included hitting up a Shabbat dinner, seeing The Runaways (which rocked!), and having dinner with my visiting-from-the-east-coast cousin. Now it's back to the grind, but I've got one more movie review for ya' before I call it a day. So here we go - buckle up, because this one ain't gonna be pretty.

REPO MEN Review:

- Repo Men is a pretty bad B-movie. It somewhat skirts the line between being one of those *entertainingly-bad* B-movies, and one of those flicks that's just so bad as to actively piss you off. Honestly, I think that while Repo Men has a couple of cool moments and ideas, the fact that it just seems to blatantly rip off other, better movies pushes it over the edge. I know some people tend to glorify bad movies. But this is not something to be celebrated. Instead, Repo Men falls into the realm of flicks that just plain aren't worth your time. At the end of the day, Repo Men is a mess. It doesn't know if it's trying to be campy or serious, and neither do the actors. It's ultra-violent and gory, but the carnage is handled in such as way so as to completely undermine the basic point of the story. It's futuristic, sci-fi world is never explained, never given a set of rules or logic or any sense of context, not even in shorthand. We never buy into it as being in any way plausible, and in sci-fi, that's just lazy, and basically unforgivable. Worst of all, as I mentioned above, Repo Men pays "homage" to the likes of Blade Runner, Oldboy, Brazil, Logan's Run, and several other genre classics. Hell, even Crank. And oh yeah, by paying homage, I mean blatantly rips off in a way that just plain made me cringe. At the end of the day, Repo Men is nonsensical yet predictable, cheesy yet self-serious, and not half as clever as it thinks it is. So yeah, commence your "Repo"-related joke of choice ... now.

Repo Men takes place in a gritty future where, for some reason, everyone is buying up artificial organs and other body parts to replace faulty or undesirable ones. All of these mechanical hearts and livers and such come from The Union - a, you guessed it, sinister conglomerate. A sinister conglomerate that apparently has free reign to BRUTALLY MURDER YOU should you be unable or unwilling to pay up for your artificial parts. How this is condoned and seemingly accepted by society I don't know - it's never explained. But I do know that this is a dystopian future a la Blade Runner, because - hey! - there's big video billboards in a dark cityscape and Chinese characters on street signs! Just like, yep, Blade Runner.

From minute one on, you can basically predict every story beat of the film. Ever seen a movie where the hunter becomes the hunted? Where the good employee is betrayed by the very company / organization he works for? Where his very own (gasp!) partner is sent to track him down and bring him in? Then yep, you basically know where and how this movie is headed at all times. At some point in the movie, you begin to think that we are being set up for a big twist of some sort, an M. Night-style reveal. And without spoiling the movie, I will just say that the end reveal is cool for about .5 seconds for shock value alone ... until you realize that it is absolutely pointless to the overall story, and basically just negates a good 50% of the film in one fell swoop.

Repo Men can't even keep it's characters and their motivations straight - because god forbid characterization gets in the way of hardcore action! The whole thing with Jude Law's character is that he's supposed to be a vicious thug who has a change of heart - who doesn't want to be a murderer anymore, and so forsakes his ways for nonviolence, etc. Hmm, funny that about five minutes after Law's game-changing epiphony, he proceeds to brutally slaughter dozens of people as he goes on the run from The Union. Jude Law is okay here, but again, he seems confused about what the hell the tone of the movie is - and rightfully so. Sometimes it tries to be tongue-in-cheek, Guy Ritchie-esque action. They even rip Ritchie's trademark camera tricks and narrative style in certain scenes. Other times, the movie wants to be a grand epic - a meditative Blade Runner-style piece of sci-fi. Other times, the movie is just cartoonishly over-the-top, and might as well be The Transporter or Crank. Like one of the characters in the film, it really does feel like a cobbled-together monstrosity that freely borrows from other movies, other directors, other stories. And while I'm on this topic, let me just say: if you've seen Oldboy (and you should, if you haven't), there is a climactic action scene in the movie that just straight-up rips off Oldboy's trademark action scene. Yep, it involves a narrow corridor and a hammer. And look, it's a fun, well-directed action scene. But for me, it was the final straw, during which I realized that Repo Men had barely an ounce of real creativity in its DNA.

Law tries, he really does. And geez, the supporting cast here is ridiculously high-caliber. Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Carice Van Houten. Forest is entertaining - he's in full-on CRAZY mode. Problem is, he's supposed to be a character who we like, who we wonder about. Will he turn on his friend in the name of the job? Um, the guy, as played by Whitaker, is bat$%&$ insane - of course he'll turn on Jude Law! Schreiber also gives it his all as a smarmy executive at the The Union. He has some fun moments, but never transcends the role of "stock corporate sleazebag." And oh man, Carice Van Houten was so, so good in Black Book. Here? She does nothing but scowl at Jude Law. Definitely a waste.

Speaking of Black Book, apparently Repo Men was going for a Paul Verhoeven vibe. Well, it doesn't succeed. When there's no internal logic to a movie, no context to help set up the world, it's tough to be satirical, you know? Repo Men is no Robocop. Not even close. A couple of the action scenes are entertaining enough, but as far as satire? social commentary? - the movie feels mostly brainless. And aesthetically, it's bland as hell. Blade Runner is in large part a classic because of its immersive, cyberpunk aesthetic. Brazil had Terry Gilliam's surreal sense of unbridled imagination. Even recent B-movie action/sci-fi flicks like Doomsday (awesome!) and Daybreakers (surprisingly solid) had a highly-developed sense of time and place - a visual and stylistic vision. Not so here. Repo Men is generic and lifeless all the way, taking place in nondescript parking lots, darkly-lit slums, and stock corporate offices.

Very few things in this movie make any sense, starting with the premise, continuing to the character dynamics, and ending with the lamely-executed twist of a finale. There's one climactic, oddly sadomasochistic scene that is visually striking, and the one that people will probably be talking about after seeing the movie, but that makes no sense given what's come before. Just a random, quasi-artsy scene inserted more for shock value than anything else. The movie is lucky to have Law, Whitaker, and Shreiber. Otherwise, it would be a total trainwreck. But those guys make it watchable when they can. Whitaker's craziness keeps things interesting.

And yeah, Repo Men is periodically interesting. Interesting enough that I laughed a bunch of times when I probably wasn't supposed to. Interesting enough that it inspired heated debates over its merits among friends and I. Some thought it was entertaining enough to recommend. I didn't. When a movie's most entertaining moments are entertaining because: a.) they add shock value but contribute nothing to the story, or b.) they shamelessly and only semi-skillfully rip from other movies, then sorry, but that's epic fail in my book. Okay, maybe not fail, but ... you get the picture. My main point is this: there are great genre movies out there. There are great, pulpy, B-movies out there. Movies with style, movies with imagination, movies with a vision. This, my friends, is NOT one of those movies.

My Grade: C-

- Coming Soon: 24 thoughts, and a review of THE RUNAWAYS!

Through The Looking Glass: ALICE IN WONDERLAND - Reviewed!

Back from the weekend, and yeah, still way behind on my blogging. So let me get right to it and talk about a film that I saw LAST weekend, one that I've been meaning to write about ever since. So without further ado ...


- I love most Tim Burton films, but I have to admit: Alice In Wonderland is not the director's finest moment. In some ways, it does feel like a parody of a Tim Burton film - overly-stylized to the point of excess, weird for the sake of being weird, Johnny Depp along for the ride as a pale-faced eccentric, Helena Bonham Carter as a pale-faced eccentric, and a goth-yet-bouncy Danny Elfman soundtrack. The thing is, typically these elements work. For those who say they don't, I point you to Sweeney Todd, which was absolutely terrific. So what makes Alice feel less like a great movie and more like a marketing tie-in with Hot Topic? Well, aside from the marketing tie-in with Hot Topic? It's tough - I don't want to flat-out bash the movie because I actually did really enjoy parts of it. There ARE sparks of greatness. But, the movie is also sort of a mess. The art-direction is often ugly and just plain odd. There's a strange mix of abstract weirdness and traditional, hero's-journey, action-adventure narrative. And some of the actors just don't seem lost trying to play to the movie's surreal aesthetic. I think Alice is interesting, and worth checking out - but it's also probably my least favorite Burton movie other than Planet of the Apes (which flat-out sucked).

Like I said, I do think there's a lot to like about the film. I actually found the premise pretty intriguing - the idea of Alice, now 20, summoned back to Wonderland (er .. Underland), to help save the magical kingdom from the Red Queen's reign of terror. Basically, it takes the traditional Alice storyline and gives it an epic spin similar to Oz or Narnia. Very cool concept, and much more interesting than one more retelling of the same old story. It's funny that the premise wasn't really advertised as such in the movie's marketing, for whatever reason. But I loved the opening scenes that help reestablish Alice as a precocious young woman in early 20th Century England - an outcast and outsider who'd rather keep herself occupied with daydreams and stories than with the trivialities of the British aristocracy. The scenes in which Alice, at a garden party in her honor, publicly turns down a marraige proposal from a snooty young chap were a lot of fun - my favorite parts of the movie, in fact. It's too bad that the rest of the film didn't live up to the great setup - which was, I think, classic Tim Burton in the best way possible. And by the way, I think that says something about Burton - that he's often at his best when he's artfully mixing the outlandish with the mundane, the fantastic with the ordinary. Once Alice goes to Wonderland, there's no tether, and it feels like Burton goes off the rails.

Luckily though, Mia Wasikowska is pretty great as Alice. Girlish yet smarter than you'd think, Mia makes Alice a classic, archetypal character who's fun to follow and easy to root for. And it's funny, because on paper the casting of the film is pretty great, and yeah, sometimes in practice. I think Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter give it their best shot, for example. Few other actors could have done as much with the material as those two. But Depp's Mad Hatter is never all that memorable or even fun. It just feels like a character that was conceived by saying "let Johnny Depp act crazy", and, well, that's about it. Given that this is something of a reimagining of the Alice mythos, you wish that there was perhaps some added twist to the character - and I think I kept waiting for that twist to come. Instead, like I said, it was a character that was basically just a vessel for Depp to get experimental - and I don't know, did he really need to change accents every couple of minutes? Again, this felt a bit like Burton and Depp going off the grid without much rhyme or reason. Just looking at Bonham-Carter's Red Queen, there's a similar feeling of annoyingly purposeless randomoddity. I mean, her character just looks lame. Not creepy or cool or anything. Just weird. The randomness by which some characters in the film are human, some inhuman, and some odd mixes of real and CGI, again, just makes for a movie that oftentimes looks ugly. This is unusual for Burton - his movies, from Edward Scissorhands to Nightmare Before Christmas to Batman to Sweeney Todd - they all, always, look amazing. But here, the Red Queen with her giant, CGI head just looks off. Same with Crispin Glover's character, Stayne, who's body is CGI-enhanced and elongated for no good reason. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb are cartoonish CGI characters. Anne Hathaway as The White Queen just looks ugly and strange. Not "ugly" ugly. Just aesthetically, a bad-looking character design. Hathaway just seems lost as well - she tries to be whimsical and otherworldly but just comes off as unintentionally comical. There's an overabundance of other great actors who lend a hand via voicework. Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, etc. All do a fine job, but I also don't think that they did anything particularly memorable with the iconic storybook characters that they play.

I think you get the picture. There's a ton of mismatched aesthetic and narrative elements at play here. On one hand, the movie wants to recapture the trippy, hallucinagenic, meandering vibe of the book and of the original Disney toon. On the other hand, it's trying to be a more conventional fantasy-adventure film. But the two styles don't quite gel. We're never that invested in the action or the conflict between the two Queens, because there's not much depth to their rivalry. We know that alice is the chosen one who must topple the Red Queen and slay the mythical beast known as the Jabberwocky, but beyond that there's not much meat to really give these events any weight. When Alice does her tearful goodbye to the Mad Hatter at movie's end, as she prepares to head back to the real world, I have to say that I barely cared. The characters were too thin to ever really grow very attached to. Tonally, the movie is also pretty all over the place. The darkly comic, mischevious opening really works well. But then the movie veers wildly from dark melancholy to trippy weirdness to cutesy comedy. When the Mad Hatter gets his groove thang on at one point, it was a moment akin to Peter Parker disco-dancing in Spiderman 3. All I could think was ... "whyyyyyy?!"

Still, there are those little moments that Burton really nails. Again, that great opening - Burton does young-adult alienation better than most. I liked the humorously grotesque visual of the moat full of decapitated heads, victim's of the Red Queen's rage and proclivity for beheadings. I liked certain moments of Depp's performance - when he has brief moments of sanity that shine through the madness. Again, Depp does something with the role that few others could. He really does give it a go. And there are certain moments of visual brilliance - even if the character designs are pretty wonky, there are still some really cool, eye-popping sequences.

I hope that Tim Burton can get his mojo back going forward. I don't get those who seem to flat-out bash him and his body of work. He's a brilliant director. But I think it's time for him to stop recycling old stories and give us another Big Fish - something that truly feels like his own, original vision. I think that there's a danger in studios going to Burton with properties just so he can "weird-them-up" for the Hot Topic crowd. And given Alice's huge box-office success, I'm sure that will happen. But Alice is an example of Burton's trademark aesthetic amped up to excessive levels, for no particularly good reasons, stylistic or narrative. There are definitely moments, sparks of genius, hints of great ideas. But the movie never quite 100% works the way it should.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, stay tuned for looks at REPO MEN, THE RUNAWAYS, and More!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Pretty ... Pretty Good Post. CURB! LOST! 24! Chuck! and MORE!

Oh man, it's been an absolutely crazy couple of weeks. Long hours at work, a bunch of random events and birthdays, etc. Plus, every spare moment I've had has been spent working on the screenplay that will ROCK THE WORLD of comedy once it's unleashed on the public. And I am happy to say that my brother and I have completed said screenplay, and that it's awesomeness can no longer be contained. I will say writing it was a lot of fun, but also a pretty grueling process. I will be happy to have at least a short break before I get to work on an encore. Unfortunately, all of this has somewhat derailed my blog-writing attempts over the last week or so, but, hey, I'm back, and I've got a lot to talk about.

- There have been a lot of random adventures that I've wanted to write about, though. One in particular I do want to mention is that last Sunday, I was fortunate to attend the CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM event at The Paley Center, as part of the annual PaleyFest. The event was pretty ... pretty ... pretty good. Okay, it was pretty freaking awesome. Live and part of the panel discussion were Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, Richard Lewis, and Bob Einstein. Honestly, it was such an amazing assemblage of comedy genius that I could have probably listened to these guys banter for hours and hours. Richard Lewis and Bob Einstein (Super Dave!) were show-stealers. Lewis' neurotic ramblings and Einstein's deader-than-deadpan jokes made for an absolutely hilarious evening - especially when coupled with Larry David's bemused reactions and Jeff Garlin's uncontrollable, high-pitched laughter. I've been a fan of Curb for a while now, and I rated it very highly in my list of BEST TV SERIES OF THE DECADE. But I have to admit - seeing so many amazingly hilarious, brilliantly funny clips play in rapid succession during the highlight reel that kicked off the panel - well, I came away floored at just how incredible the show was, and is. Definitely an amazing event.

- I also have a couple movies to review, including ALICE IN WONDERLAND and REPO MEN. It's funny, I saw Alice in the midst of such a busy week/weekend that I've barely had time to fully process it in the days since. My quick reaction is that it was an interesting movie with some memorable scenes and characters, but that it was definitely not Tim Burton's best effort. As for Repo Men, well, it was just a mess of a movie - in more ways than one. I'll get into more specifics when I review it in an upcoming post, but yeah, not one of the better sci-fi flicks I've seen.

- Meanwhile, I have a ton of TV thoughts. I've been jotting down some reviews throught the week, so here they are - finally! Scroll through for reviews of 24, Lost, Chuck, and more!


- Okay, so business definitely picked up on Monday's episode of 24. EMP bombs, CTU infiltrated, and a general sense of craziness made last night's ep one of the best and most enjoyable of the season to date.

AND YET ... the episode was seriously almost ruined by the Dana Walsh stuff. Like, really. Ruined. It's not funny, anymore, people. When I want to punch one of my favorite actors, Stephen Root, for his character being so ridiculous and annoying, you know something is very, very wrong. There is NO WAY Root would have been let into CTU at 3 am during an emergency situaiton. There is NO WAY Dana would actually humor him in the middle of a national security crisis. And there is NO WAY that Root's character would be this persistent at this ungodly hour. And it just kept getting more absurd from there. He wants Dana to pull surveillace file for him? Now? Really? And she's actually going to do it? And she has to stop and call Cole while he's in hot pursit of nuclear materials to tell him about this?


This storyline needs to die, and it needs to die now. But what kills me is that the storyline doesn't HAVE to be this bad. It could be handled in a way that makes more sense. But at every turn, the writing just insults our intelligence and has the characters act in the dumbest and most illogical way possible. 24 works when its unique format is acknowledged and implemented well. Things are supposed to be ultra-intense at the 3 am and 4 am hours because we know that by all rights everyone should be at home and asleep. The fact that Jack and co. are still pressing forward is a great way to up the ante, to make it clear that this is no ordinary day, these are no ordinary circumstance. But this Dana Walsh stuff basically spits in the face of 24's established logic. It's 3 am? Who cares? There's a security crisis? Who cares? Not only is it a lame storyline, but it completely takes you out of the show's reality.

Otherwise, this was a damn good episode. I know, hard to believe after all that, but really, it was. Just lots of great action, intensity, and unpredictability. The pursuit of the terrorists was pretty badass, as was Jack's interaction with the NYPD. The scenes in which Hassan's daughter was held captive were suitably nail-biting. And the cliffhanger ending, in which CTU gets completely owned thanks to an EMP bomb, was one of the better and cooler endings we've seen from 24 in a while. And man, the preview for next week got me pumped: CTU is down, and only one man stands between us and total annihiliation: Jack Bauer, beyotch. As it should be.

The fact is, this was a darn good episode. But PLEASE LORD, end the awful subplots.

My Grade: B+

- CHUCK had a nother very good episode this past week. No, it didn't quite reach the heights of awesomeness of last week's landmark ep, but this one was a very well done, Casey-focused episode that shone the spotlight on Chuck's eternally gruff mentor. We've gotten the occasional hints about Casey's life pre-Chuck, but this one went furthest in terms of revealing hidden truths about Casey's heretofore unrevealed origins. Turns out, like Sarah, his name was never really John Casey afterall. After faking his own death for a military operation, the soldier who would become Casey was born. Of course, this transformation meant that Casey had to bid adieu to the love of his life, who, like everyone else, assumed he had in fact been killed. In this episode, Casey goes rogue in order to help his old army leader, played by Robert Patrick - when Patrick threatens to kill his wife if his old charge doesn't help him in his new role as member of The Ring.

It was sweet seeing Robert Patrick on Chuck. From T2 to The X-Files, Patrick is one of those great, badass, no-nonsense guys who always adds something a given production. And he was cool here as a rival for the always-great Adam Baldwin.

My one complaint about this episode is that it got ultra-angsty at the end. Last week was nice in that it finally took a break from all the Chuck-Sarah stuff. I'm honestly pretty sick of all the melodrama involving their relationship, so it was annoying to see it back in full force as this episode wrapped up. Same goes for everything involving Chuck's sister, Devon, etc. I can already see it coming a mile away - they go to Africa to escape the danger of being wrapped up in Chuck's spy adventures, only to get kidnapped as Chuck has to go save them. Just have them go or don't go - don't make it into such a sob-fest. Again, Chuck's emo-ness is fine in small doses, but this episode started out with lots of cool CIA intrigue, but then devolved into an OC-style pity party.

Overall though, another fun episode of Chuck.

My Grade: B+


- Man, this past week's episode of THE SIMPSONS just depressed me. It just felt so ... blah. There was nothing horribly, offensively bad about it, but it just, well, wasn't funny. The plot was a retread of some of the most overused Simpsons tropes - Bart as attention-seeker, and Homer and Marge developing a rift in their relationship. The latter in particular is just ridiculously played out at this point, and I just cringe whenever it's recycled (which is basically every other week, apparently). Anyways, a fairly uninspired episode. Bart plays Homer and Marge against each other, thus convincing them to put less effort into parenting him for the sake of their marriage? That's the big Simpsons plot? It's a far cry from the days of monorails and burlesque houses.

My Grade: C+

- FAMILY GUY, meanwhile, was yet another episode that seemed to be all about pushing the limits of the show and the characters. Okay, fine - but sometimes the show is simply semi-shocking without actually being funny. Because you have to have the characters have some semblance of normalcy, otherwise they can't surprise or shock you. Case in point: Lois. Recently, we've seen her almost cheat on Peter with Quagmire. And now, she does cheat on him with Meg's teenaged boyfriend. I guess, maybe, if done right this could be funny. But it just felt cheap. Meg is such a non-character now, and Lois is quickly becoming that way. This was one of those episodes where the writers never seemed to worry about characterization and just said "ohhh, wouldn't it be crazy / sexy / weird if Lois tried to sleep with Meg's new boyfriend?" Umm ... not exactly. Same goes with Stewie doing the whole Tootsie thing and dressing up like a girl in order to get a part on a kids' TV show, where of course he falls in love with one of the actual girl babies also on the show. Isn't Stewie supposed to be gay? Oh, right, FG just does whatever it wants for the sake of being random.

My Grade: C+

LOST Thoughts:

- Lost was a lot of fun this week, and I think a lot of that was due to it being a Sawyer episode. Sawyer is always one of the show's most interesting characters, and, at this point, he's one of the few real wildcards still left. Because, he's one of the few characters who has really grown and changed over the course of the series. He's gone from roguish antagonist to rougish hero, and yet, there is that sense that he could still be nudged back towards the dark side if the story dictated. His status as a conman also makes him a good foil for Not-Locke. We've all seen the story before about the roguish trickster type who manages to pull one over on the devil himself. And it looks like that's where Lost is going with Sawyer.

And that's cool, because so much of this season of Lost, at least so far, has just been "Lost's Greatest Hits," methodically shining the spotlight on each character, one at a time, and sort of reminding us what they're all about, even if it means recycling tropes that were played-out two seasons ago. At least in Sawyer's case, there is some genuine intrigue as to where his character will end up when all is said and done. If he ends up the hero, it's a natural progression of the character over time. If he ends up the villain, it's a cool / dark twist. So Sawyer is one of the few characters who's arc is currently a win/win. And seeing Josh Halloway and Terry O'Quinn face off is always cool - definitely two of the best and most charismatic actors on primetime TV today.

That said, this episode contained some of the same issues as others this season - namely, when all signs point to some sort of big reveal, instead we just get more ambiguity - and for no great reason other than to deliberately keep things murky. I mean, Not-Locke's story about his mother - that's an intriguing tease, but it's something we should have heard a long time ago, to build up mystery before we eventually learn the full story. Again, Lost tries to have its cake and eat it too. Richard Alpert is a great example. Next week, we will get a WHOLE EPISODE detailing Richard's origin and history. That's great. But it also draws attention to the fact that yes, there are SOME mysteries that Lost will give a lengthy, satisfying explanation to, but others that it won't. And yet - if we never found out anything more about Richard, ever, it wouldn't really affect the story. In fact, he's kind of interesting as a mystery character. But, Dogen and Lennon's motivations were absolutely crucial to the first several episodes of this season, but we never learned one relevant thing about them. Ugh.

One other observation, this time about all the Widmore stuff. I was really looking forward to Widmore's return, but he felt a bit off in this episode. I loved the callback's to his earlier appearances, and to the pulpy sci-fi feel of those episodes (the sub, the ominous henchment, etc.). But, there's also this sense that an entirely different group of writers and creatives (Brian K. Vaughan) fleshed out Widmore in the past, and now the current team doesn't quite know what to do with him. Which is too bad, because personally I like the idea of a rich but sinister industrialist, with a squad of B-movie science villains and James Bond-style gadgets out to take over the island. I like it a lot more than the concept of two ill-defined, near-omnipotent deities fighting over the fates of the castaways. So I want the Widmore stuff to be great - I just think it's now kind of lost its way though.

But again, this was a very solid episode of Lost, with an entertaining if not mind-blowing flash-sideways, and some very intriguing on-island action. Good stuff from Sawyer, some intense Kate-Claire scenes, Widmore and the sub, etc. Really looking forward the next ep, as I think it will be a defining one for Lost. If it reveals a lot, it sets a precendent for the final remaining episodes. If it doesn't, it basically signals that Lost will keep its biggest secrets carefully guarded until the bitter end.

My Grade: B+

- THE OFFICE was an odd one this week. The episode just felt really random - sometimes that meant it felt disjointed, other times the loose feel of the story allowed for some great bits of comedy. The overarching plot here was that Michael is feeling like he's losing whatever authority he had over the office. The sales team in particular is out of hand - since Sabre pays on commision, the sales men and women have become hyper-competitive and increasingly driven by the bottom line. Of course, since Michael has never really viewed Dunder-Mifflin as a business so much as his surrogate family, he isn't crazy about the whole thing. And so when new, valuable leads come in, Michael pulls a Kevin Spacey-in-Glenngary Glen Ross and refuses to hand 'em out. I thought the highlight of the episode was the oddball relationship between Michael and Dwight, and their fight in the middle of a garbage dump was so absurd that I couldn't help but laugh. However, the good bits in this one were scattered, and the overall pacing just felt off. Kind of a filler episode, but still decently funny.

My Grade: B

- 30 ROCK though ... whoa baby. The show is positively on a hot streak right now, and last night's ep was mostly brilliant. I'm sure I'm getting an added kick out of the whole "Kabletown" storyline since I'm sort of in the thick of that in real life, but - wow! So hilarious. 30 Rock was just on the money this week, with every subplot really clicking, and the number of great jokes and the amount of quotable dialogue being through the roof. Tracy being exposed as a good husband, Liz debating whether she should "settle" for Michael Sheen, and Jack's depression over the Kabletown takeover followed by his determination to be a mover and shaker within the new regime.

But yeah, the episode had a real depth to it in a weird way. People keep saying to me that the Kabletown storyline is too "insider-y" for most people to get. Personally, I don't think so. I mean, how many people are in jobs or work for companies that make them wonder: "um, do I/we actually DO anything of any real, tangible importance?" Jack's longing to be an innovator to me rang true - that's the American way, afterall, not to simply sit back and let the money roll in.

Kudos to 30 Rock though. This episode reminded me of Season 2 eps where the jokes just kept coming a mile a minute, to the point where watching via DVR was a necessity in order to stop, rewind, and catch all the great quotes in full.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, that's all for now. Coming up soon: lots of movie reviews!

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Hi Pacman, I'm Jewish!" - 30 ROCK, OFFICE, and PARKS thoughts!

I just posted my review of Green Zone (check it out!), but wanted to get down some thoughts on Thursday night comedy before heading out for the weekend ...

- It's amazing how these various pop-cultural mass-consensus ideas spread in the internet age. A couple months ago, everyone was saying that 30 ROCK had gone down the tubes. It was hurting beyond repair. It was a shell of its former self. Was there some truth to the idea that 30 Rock was not living up to the quality of earlier seasons? Sure. But ... was the show still funny and one of the better comedies on TV? Yes. Look, as a longtime 30 Rock fan, I too was feeling a little disappointed with the show lately. At the same time, I knew that all it would take was one great episode to help turn things around. And guess what? Last night, we got that great episode. This was a stellar ep of 30 Rock, with every storyline generating several genuine, laugh-out-loud moments. From Jack grappling with the death of Don Geiss and the takeover of NBC Universal by a cable company from Philadelphia (hmm, not based on reality, right?), to Kenneth's donkey spasms, this was a great half-hour of comedy. Liz's dating situation, Jenna training Tracy to become a genuine actor, Elizabeth Banks as a cable news maven who's dating Jack. Everything in this episode clicked, and there were probably a dozen if not more classic quotes to be found. Kenneth's Fatal Attraction reference, Tracy's flashbacks to his diverse acting career, Jack's lament about a New York company being bought out by one from Philadelphia - all gold. Great episode of 30 Rock - probably the best of the season to date.

My Grade: A-

- Meanwhile, one week after everyone was praising THE OFFICE for it's funny and emotional baby episode, everyone is now back to trashing the show as being unfunny, a shell of its former self, etc. Sound familiar? The fact is, last night's episode was definitely not the show's best effort. And the heavy emphasis on the Sabre storyline did kind of draw attention to the fact that that particular plotline has been something of a bust. Kathy Bates' character is cartoonish and a little bland / generic, and hasn't really brought much to the table. And the whole thing feels like a less-exciting retread of the much better, much funnier Michael Scott Paper Company storyline from last year. Meanwhile, I really liked the Andy-Erin romance at first, but in this episode it took an odd turn, as Erin now seems to be morphing from quirky-yet-likable girl next door into a genuinely weird character. The whole thing with her live-in foster brother was just out of left field. I'd much prefer just watching an Andy-Erin relationship go through the natural awkwardness of those two getting together and not have some other "wacky" plot elements thrown in. Similarly, I definitely think the show would benefit from more Daryll, but having him randomly promoted from the warehouse was a bit much, and very sudden.

That said, I'm not all that worried about The Office in general. Even at its somewhat advanced age, the show is clearly still capable of greatness (see: last week). And there are still plenty of great character moments, throwaway gags, etc. that keep me hooked and keep me entertained. This episode was not a high point for The Office, but let's not write-off the show just yet. And even this episode, which seemed off at times, featured the glorious return of Todd Packer. So yes this one, certainly, wasn't all bad.

My Grade: B

- Now, here's a pop-cult meme we can all agree on: PARKS AND RECREATION is pretty awesome now. This entire season of the show has been knocking it out of the park, and the show just feels more confident, more sure of itself, with each passing week. This week's ep didn't crack me up quite as much as other recent installments, but it did serve as further evidence that the show is just in a really good groove. In fact, this ep showed that even with an only so-so main plot (Leslie assembling a task force to catch a pesky opossum that's been plaguing Pawnee's golf courses), Parks has now built up its supporting cast so well that there are any number of places where the comedy and ongoing plotlines can come from. I mean, April and Andy is now being compared to the early days of Jim-Pam, and while totally different, there's a similar sweetness and "will-they-or-won't-they?" vibe. Chris Pratt is funnier every week, too. And Ron Swanson - the "Swanson Code" was just hilarious and awesome. Man, Nick Offerman and Alec Baldwin need to work together. Crossover, anyone? Yep, there was so much going on in the periphery of this episode - it really did have the feel of a great Simpsons episode or something. Hmm, mere coincidence that this episode was written by former Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully? Probably not.

My Grade: A-

- I haven't seen this week's COMMUNITY yet, but it's another show that's been on a hot streak of late.

Alright - I am officially ready for the weekend. Should have an ALICE IN WONDERLAND review ready soon, and a lot more. Stay tuned!

Get in the Zone: GREEN ZONE - Reviewed!


- I think Green Zone is one of those movies that is doomed to be underrated, for any number of reasons. It's Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, but it's not a new Bourne movie. It's both an action/war movie and a political thriller. It doesn't shy away from recent politics - namely, the Iraq War and the controversy over the existence or lack thereof of WMD's. Personally, I thought Green Zone was great, for all of the above reasons and more. It's an exciting, visceral movie with some absolutely stunning action set pieces. It's intense, and it doesn't shy away from the issues. It makes its points effectively and dramatically. And it features a great cast of uber-talented actors that really gel, making for a great ensemble. Bottom line: Green Zone is a damn good film - one of the better movies of 2010 to date.

Green Zone is a slice of recent history. It follows the US effort to gain control of a very unstable Iraq in the days and weeks following the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Things have stabilized enough that journalists, businessmen, etc. are living rather comfortably in the US-controlled "green zone." But, on the ground, there is an increasingly dangerous and chaotic war effort still very much in effect. The Pentagon is pressuring the army to capture or kill top insurgency leaders, and, most importantly, to find evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But with each new search mission, the military is coming up empty. Some are beginning to question the legitimacy of the intel. Chief among the skeptics is Roy Miller, played by Matt Damon. Miller begins to look for answers, and he finds a small group willing to help him as a means to expose the truth about falsified intelligence. And that's when things really heat up - because in addition to all the other dangers of being a soldier in a chaotic, war-torn Iraq, Miller must now deal with people from the military and from the US government who don't want him getting close to the truth.

It's an intriguing story, to be sure. And the script by Brian Helgeland is strong - with enough deep characterization and intense action that the politics don't feel overwhelming. That said, I can see where some might find the script to be heavy-handed. And yeah, maybe the term "WMD" is thrown around a bit too much. But - this is one of the most controversial and important American issues of the last decade. I found it fascinating to see a film that really raised questions, that made you think. And again, the political drama is there in the context of a badass action movie. This is certainly not just a bunch of talking heads.

Speaking of which, one of the first things you'll notice about Green Zone is that it features director Paul Greengrass' trademark shaky-cam and "you-are-there" aesthetic. I know this style has some detractors, and I'll admit, it can be annoying and distracting when lesser talents utilize it. But Greengrass is no ordinary talent - he's a master at immersing the viewer in chaos. The editing is just right, and the overall effect is that you feel like you're right there with Matt Damon's character as he navigates through some absolutely riveting chase sequences. There is definitely a feeling of viewer involvement that is on par with playing a great action videogame. Greengrass knows how to ensure that his action scenes have maximum impact.

Green Zone also benefits from a pretty great cast. Personally, I think this is Matt Damon's best role in a while. No, this isn't as deep or iconic a character as Jeremy Renner's in The Hurt Locker - but this isn't the same type of movie, at all. That was an action film / character study, this is an action movie / political thriller. But Damon really helps carry the movie here. He isn't Jason Bourne - he's much more a regular guy. A good soldier but also curious and questioning. His life and his men's lives are seemingly being risked for the sake of political theater, and he wants to know why. The supporting cast is stellar. Brendon Gleeson (In Bruges) is always great, and here is no exception. Okay, his American accent is a bit dicey, but the guy is such a kickass actor that it's hard to care. He's a scene stealer as an intelligence official who's been a longtime presence in Iraq, and who has strong reservations about the Bush administration's wartime policy. Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear is suitably smarmy as a neocon Pentagon official intent on carrying out administration policy, even if the intelligence is questionable. Amy Ryan is also a solid presence as a journalist investigating these same anomalies in the WMD intel. All three have some memorable scenes with Damon. Also in the mix is a great performance from Khalid Abdalla as Freddie, an Iraqi local who helps out Miller but who is himself a complex and emotionally-conflicted individual. Freddie is an interesting look at the turmoil that many Iraqis have surely faced during the war. Again, a really great turn from Abdalla.

I don't think Green Zone is political in the sense that its lecturing. It's a movie that does ask legitimate questions though. Even if we went to war under false pretenses, was it ultimately for the betterment of the Iraqi people? Do we always need a reason to justify international actions that ultimately help serve American interests? Or does the truth always matter? And if our actions were based on lies, then at what point do you stop worrying about the truth, about the past, and just focus on the here and now? Do you ever? I think these are important things to think about, and even if you are 100% convinced that we went to war for vaild reasons, it's still an interesting hypothetical - if, *if* we didn't, then what does that mean, what precedent does that set?

Most of all, Green Zone is an exciting, action-packed thriller that mixes intrigue and explosive intensity with some real, meaty food for thought. Another great film from Greengrass. I'd definitely recommend it.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

TV's Big Guns: LOST! CHUCK! And 24!

Lots to talk about today, so I'll get right to it. Keep reading for reviews of this week's episodes of: CHUCK, 24, LOST, and MODERN FAMILY!

- I'm going to kick things off by talking about Monday's episode of CHUCK, aka one of the series' all-time best, and one of my single favorite episodes of any TV show in a long time. To me, Chuck has been pretty good this season, but at times has gotten a bit too bogged down in the neverending angst stemming from Chuck's leftover feelings for Sarah. It's felt like some of the real fun, excitement, and heart of Chuck at its best was missing. But, last night was an absolutely *awesome* episode. For nearly the entire duration, I was just watching with a goody grin on my face, and yeah, I'll admit, it even choked me up a bit as well. To sum up - Morgan's long-awaited discovery of Chuck's double-life as a spy was hilarious, heartfelt, and just plain fun. It really was the perfect payoff to a storyline that's now been years in the making.

The fact is, Morgan finally finding out about Chuck's secret could have been terrible. It was a moment I was anticipating but also dreading. But going into this episode, I didn't even know that such a huge game-changer would go down. It was a nice surprise, but it also didn't feel contrived - it felt like the time for this had come. But really, the episode brought back the old Chuck, the geeky Chuck, and reminded us how fun he and Morgan can be together. Morgan is one of those characters who can be annoying if overused, but the fact that he's been less prominent on the show this season made his part in this episode all the more satisfying. But hey - every hero needs a trusty sidekick, and yes, a best friend - and this episode finally featured the unlikely dynamic duo in action together.

I loved Morgan "firing" Chuck as his best friend. I loved Morgan's giddy reaction upon hearing that his best friend was a spy. I loved his triumphant entrance as he proudly told Walker and Casey to "bag 'em and tag 'em," after he and Chuck took down the villainous members of The Ring on their own. In fact, there were so many great little moments in this episode that it's hard to keep track. Everything came together in a perfect storm of awesome-sauce. Chuck "flashing" on Duck Hunt. JEFFSTER singing "Fortunate Son" to the bewilderment of The Ring agents. Big Mike's reaction to the Buy More being "saved." Jeff taking out the Ring agent with chloroform. Morgan taking out a Ring agent, and saving the day, with a Kendo Stick to the head! "Dancing with Myself" and Chuck's villain flashcards. Sarah coming through for Chuck and convincing Shaw that Morgan was the one man who'd never turn his back on Chuck and the team. Awesome getting his awesomeness back. Casey getting assaulted with Nerf guns. And did I mention JEFFSTER?

Seriously, this was one of those rare, classic TV episodes that makes even a hardened TV cynic want to stand up up and cheer. Awesome episode of Chuck, and seriously, thank you to all involved. I sat down to watch this one after a long and soul-crushing sort of day. I was tired, not feeling well, and not in the greatest of moods. This was some great TV entertainment - just what the doctor ordered.

My Grade: A


- So Monday's 24 had some decidedly kickass moments. Moments of intensity. Moments of coolness. Moments of ... gravitas. Everything with Jack and the would-be suicide bomber in the hospital pretty much ruled it. Yes, we've been down this road before on 24, in which Jack tries to coerce information out of a target, but ultimately resorts to threatening to harm their friends or family in order to get the info he desperately needs. But, watching the kid squirm as Jack threatened to kill his poor mother slowly and painfully ... well, it was intense and yes, vintage Jack Bauer.

There were also a lot of other nice little touches that seemed to indicate that business had picked up. Chloe back in charge of ops at CTU and seeming to assume a larger role. Hastings continuing to become more likable and more take-charge. People actually listening to Jack, giving him free reign to save the world like only he can.

Even the reveal of the Head of Security guy as a terrorist conspirator, while not exactly shocking, at least gives some added intrigue to the otherwise boring Hassan subplots. In fact, I could have cared less about his daughter running off with her forbidden boy toy before, but now, there is definitely some potential there, especially given that Jack and CTU are on their way to their hotel for a big confrontation next episode. I do still think that this season is sorely in need of a great villain to serve as the ultimate badguy behind the terror plot, but hopefully such a worthy adversary will emerge in the coming weeks.

But, this episode was once again brought down a notch by the increasingly insufferable Dana Walsh storyline. I actually thought the seeming-resolution to this last week was fairly well-done, and it seemed to pave the way for a clean break away from what has easily been the lowpoint of the season so far. I was optimistic, too, that bringing in Stephen Root as a new foil for Katee Sackhoff could give her character a fun new direction. Afterall, Stephen Root is great, and he's shown in series like True Blood that his quirkiness can translate well to over-the-top drama. But, this week's new chapter in the ongoing Dana Walsh melodrama was handled in the same craptacular fashion as in previous episodes. It just feels so ... forced? As in, the entire conversation between Root and Sackhoff was terrible - like, it's 2 in the morning, Dana's in the middle of a national security crisis, and has just gotten reprimanded by her boss - she's on thin ice. There is NO WAY she agrees to meet her old stalker's parole office that night. No way. Now, if Root perhaps tracked her down and paid her a surprise visit, okay, MAYBE I'd buy it. But the scenario that the show presented to us was just totally unbelievable and lame. They need to do a slightly better job of making Dana, and in turn us, believably invested in this subplot. Or better yet, get rid of it altogether, or somehow fold it into the main terror threat (ie maybe it's all a calculated distraction by the powers that be to take Dana out of the game). Something. Anything. But please, no more annoying scenes of Dana clandestinely roaming the halls of CTU on her cell and making half-baked excuses to leave (because in CTU, it may be 2 am, but that's primetime for those guys).

I'm complaining about the Dana Walsh stuff, but overall this was a darn good episode of 24. Everything with Jack pretty much ruled it, from Jack's first over-the-intercom convo with the kid to the kid's harrowing (and quite messy) demise. And overall I do feel like the season is gaining momentum, enough that I'm genuinely excited to see next week's promised huge surprises and twists.

My Grade: B+

LOST Thoughts:

- On paper, I don't know if this week's Ben Linus-focused episode of Lost was all that much better than the last couple of week's worth of eps. Again, we got a kind of greatest-hits style look at one of the series' key characters, flashing sideways to an alternate, island-free version in which many of the key character-defining traits and issues are reiterated and reemphasized in an off-island setting.

But, in practice, this episode was a step up. And the reason is simple: Michael Emerson is and always has been amazing as Ben Linus.

There was a great LA Times article the other day that sort of summed it up - Ben could easily have been one of TV's all-time most annoying characters. He lies so much that even Emerson likely has no idea how much of what his character says is truthful. He's a character who is manipulated by the writers to divulge or withhold information on a whim. At times he seems to hold all the answers, at other times he seems to be in the dark. But Emerson has made him fascinating - endlessly captivating and entertaining. He's made Ben into this creepy, pathetic bastard who somehow, you can't help but root for ever so slightly, if only because he takes so much abuse from everyone else. And yet - we know he's a mass-murderer, a liar, selfish, and pretty much irredeemably evil. But again, Emerson has made the character work - almost too well - to the point where he's often overshadowed some of Lost's other central characters.

In this ep, seeing Ben's flash-sideways, in which he evolves from merely creepy into downright treacherous (in a somewhat compressed version of his previously-established origin story), was interesting and disturbing to watch. Interesting to see Ben as a teacher, plotting (as usual) to bring down the school principal via blackmail, so that he can usurp him and gain power. Interesting, sure, but again, it's basically just a "what-if" version of character arcs we've already seen. Although, I guess the twist here was that, perhaps surprisingly, Ben does NOT go through with his plan. When the principal counters Ben's blackmail scheme by threatening Ben's prize student (his on-island adoptive daughter, Alex Rousseau), Ben decides not to harm her and gives up. This contrasts, of course, to Ben having done the reverse back on the island, getting his daughter killed after refusing to turn himself in to Keamy and the rest of Widmore's invading army. At the end of the episode, Ben does something similar. After plotting to escape Ilana and the rest of the castaways and go off to join The Smoke Monster and his makeshift legion of doom, Ben has a change of heart. When he gains the upper hand on Ilana, he decides not to kill her. He drops his weapon and decides to go back with her to the beach, to turn a corner and try to fit in not with Not-Locke, but with the likes of Sun and Jack and Miles.

To be honest, not sure how I feel about this. I think Ben is too far gone for redemption, and too evil and creepy to be some sort of convert to the side of good. From a narrative perspective, I think it makes much more sense for Ben's story to end not with heroism or benevolance, but with hellfire and brimstone, so to speak. Whether or not Ben has one last bout of treachery in him remains to be seen. But I wouldn't be surprised.

And I will say this - I was very excited with this episode's ending. After weeks of mystical mumbo-jumbo and plot progression that's amounted to "character A walks to the temple, character B leaves the temple", etc., it was awesome, that - finally! - business is about to pick up. Since, what - two seasons if not more of Lost have basically been building to Widmore's attempts to regain control of the island - it was a big, huge, "ABOUT TIME!" moment when we ended on a sinister-looking sub approaching, as, inside, Widmore and his crew braced for battle. Now that's what I'm talking about. Enough Jacob and Smoke Monster (and by the way - can the character have a NAME already?! I mean come on!). Enough with wheels and candidates and temples and such. We have 9 episode left. I want WAR, baby.

This ep also had more with Jack, Hurley, and Mr. Guyliner himself, Richard Alpert. The Richard stuff to me is a bi frustrating. We know there's a Richard-centric ep on the way, so it felt like something of a time-waster to have even more teases from him as relates to his true identity, origin, etc. Similarly, there was a lot of Jack doing that passive-aggressive nodding-and-smiling thing, convinced that he could not die because Jacob wouldn't let him. I don't know, I liked the tension of the dynamite scene and such, but at the same time it feels a little cheap when they do these sort of "I believe this is true! How do you know? I just do!" moments. I feel like if you want to dramatically convey the fact that Jack can't die due to Jacob's protection, there are cooler and less contrived ways to do it aside from him risking suicide, all of a sudden and at the drop of a hat.

Overall though, this episode of Locke was a notch above other episodes this season thanks to one more stellar performance from Mr. Michael Emerson. In addition, there was a killer cliffhanger that gave me a lot of hope for next week and beyond.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, I'll include a quick MODERN FAMILY review as well. Last night's ep was very funny. I'm a huge fan of Judy Greer - loved her on Arrested Development, loved her on the underrated Miss/Guided - so it was great to see her guest star here as an old girlfriend of Phil's looking to rekindle the old flame. Phil's naive attitude towards the whole thing was hilarious - and even funnier was his frenzied reaction when Greer comes to visit, and he realizes that she is, in fact, into him - bigtime. Just great physical comedy from Phil as he tries to escape his old flame's lusty intentions. And more Greer on TV, please! Meanwhile, the other subplots were decent, but not quite on the same level. I enjoyed Mitch quitting his job - it was an interesting wrinkle to the show dynamic and made for some nice, funny moments of freaking out between Mitchell and Cameron. Manny was also good for a few laughs, and some "aww, shucks" style moments - when Jay accidentally kills his pet turtle and tries to cover it up. Standard sitcom-y stuff, but still done well thanks to Modern Family's unique take on these kinds of things. Phil and Greer made this episode though.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, that's all for now - stay tuned tomorrow for an early review of GREEN ZONE.