Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Achieving Maximum Thrust: FUTURAMA Returns!, LOUIE makes me laugh!, and random rants.

... And I'm back. It's been a crazy couple of weeks, but I'm hoping to do a little more writing in the days and weeks ahead. What's been going on? Well, for one thing I went into total lockdown mode trying to finish this Modern Family spec script I've been working on. I was planning to use the script to apply for a writer's program, and the deadline for application submission was this week. So, as these things usually go, I got pretty behind on my writing and then had to really scramble to get everything together for earlier this week. I think I ended up with a pretty good script though, so, we shall see. I will say, in a way Modern Family is actually pretty easy to write for. The characters are already so well-defined that they practically write themselves, and the show isn't necessarilly too dense or multilayered. For a good MF episode, I feel like you need a solid plot and a good overarching theme, and then a couple of really funny scenes that the episode can sort of build out from. Also, the dialogue is fairly naturalistic, so that part tends to flow pretty easily. In any case, this whole writing program is somewhat of a longshot, but if nothing else, it forced me to sit down and write a new spec script, which will definitely come in handy, I'm sure.
However, the whole writing process was WAY more difficult than it should have been, mostly because of an ill-timed computer virus that was driving me INSANE this past weekend and into this week. I hate when there's anything wrong with my computer or other devices, and I tend to become obsessed with fixing these sorts of problems. It was especially painful because thevirus, or trojan, or malware, or whatever ... it was sending spam email from my Aerokid17 address to basically everyone on my contact list, and besides that it was doing all kinds of crazy stuff to my computer - interfering with Google searches, slowing things down, preventing certain programs from working correctly, etc. I tried a million things to kill the bug, and to be honest I'm not 100% sure yet if I succeeded. But, I seemed to be having some luck with this program called Dr. Web -- the only problem with it is that it scans for bugs in a protected mode during which you can't do anything else on your computer. And the full scan took like a full 24 hours -- WTF! Hopefully, it worked. Luckily, I had my trusty MacBook to write on while my desktop PC was scanning, but still, the whole thing was incredibly annoying and distracting. Lately I've really preferred doing writing while sitting at my desk using my desktop, so I was uber-annoyed at the whole situation.

THAT SAID ... I got the script done, so ... suck it, virus. Seriously though, who creates those things anyways? Like, who thinks it's a great idea to use a computer virus as a means to make money or whatever? "Okay, we'll send spam email to a bunch of people via a sabotaged email address, get them to click on a link to some spam website, and redirect their browser to go to all kinds of sketchy-looking windows." Like, does anyone get a browser-redirect and say "oh my, Google has pointed me towards this random but interesting website - let me use it to search the web and transact for goods and services!" NO! I mean, who are these people? And who runs these spam websites? Do they actually stand to gain more from a spam website than from a legitimate enterprise? I do not understand ... At least the people who just create viruses to cause anarchy I can sort of get - at least they accomplish what they set out to do. But for the people who actually use malware as some sort of underhanded business tactic? F you!

Anyways, it's pretty crazy ... tonight is the first time I've been able to just kick back and relax in a while. I barely know what to do with myself. Still, I've been trying to sneak in some quality TV time here and there. I generally try to avoid as much TV as possible during the summer - if anything, I like to catch up on things I've been meaning to check out on DVD / blu-ray / digital / whatever. To that end, I finally dove in neck deep to TRUE BLOOD Season 2 on blu-ray. I'm three episodes in and really enjoying things so far. It's funny because I bought Season 1 last year on a whim after a number of people recommended the show to me, and it took me a long time to warm up to it. The first several episodes were a bit too soapy for me, but then - bam - I was hooked. It seemed like the show just started to embrace its pulpiness and just started becoming crazier and more fun each week, with increasingly killer cliffhangers to end each installment. Season 2 seems to pick up right where S1 left off, and so far it's been a lot of fun.

Like I said, I try not to watch a lot of first-run TV in the summer, but, this summer is really laoded with some quality programming. First and foremost, one of the funniest shows of all time is - miraculously - back on the air. Yes, all hail the glorious return of FUTURAMA to the airwaves. Now, like many, I was a little bit worried about the show's long-delayed return. Would it be good? Would it be great? After the four direct-to-DVD movies, it was hard to say. The films were all decent to very good, but definitely lacked the same sharpness of the best TV episodes. Plus, look at a show like Family Guy. It was never the same once it came back from cancellation, never as funny (not even close) as it once was in its prime. Plus, there was a lot of messiness around Futurama's return - delays, false starts, and worst of all, rumors of the cast being replaced, which, luckily didn't end up coming to fruition. So ... it was a HUGE RELIEF to tune in to Futurama on Comedy Central and discover that ... HOLY CRAP ... one of the all-time great TV shows was back and possibly as good as it's ever been! Look, I think it will take a little time for the show to 100% get its groove back, but man, was it good to see Futurama back and back to being hilarious. Both back-to-back episodes had some of the best and biggest laughs I've seen on TV in a long time, and it was evident from the start that this was vintage Futurama. Maybe a bit edgier, sure, but this was the show we all loved (and that I named one of the BEST SHOWS OF THE DECADE) back in the day, the show that was brilliant and awesome even though it got screwed over again and again by FOX and their then-inept scheduling department. So, yeah, for those of us who scoured the airwaves to watch Futurama at 7 pm, who hung our heads low when the shwo wa preempted yet again for football, who spread the word and helped make this one of the all-time after-the-fact cult favorite TV shows - these episodes were, truly, one of those small little victories that can't help but make you smile. It's almost hard to believe that this show is actually back. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and hear some announcement that Bender will now be voiced by Gilbert Gottfried or something (KISS MY SHINY METAL AFFLACK!). But here it is ... and it is good. The humor was on-point, the characters spot-on, the wit and intelligence not dumbed-down for the braindead masses. Awesome. Just please, for the love of the lovely Leela, WATCH THE SHOW this time! Morbo commands you.

My Grade (for both eps): A-

- Also, I have to give a huge shout-out to LOUIE, the new comedy on FX featuring stand-up sensation Louie CK. I watched the two premiere episodes last night not quite knowing what to expect, and was fairly blown away. I loved the uncoventional format of the show - sort of a mix between a standard sitcom, sketch comedy, short filmmaking, and stand-up. It felt wholly unique and definitely came across as something different. But most of all, Louie was just plain funny, and it attacked your funnybone from a number of angles. The humor veered from observational to absurdist, and there were great bits in the stand-up segments as well as some laugh-out-loud moments in the shorts. I particularly loved the segment where Louie is on an awkward date that goes from bad to worse - it's well-travelled comedic territory, sure, but Louie has a way of taking standard sitcom-ish topics and nailing the inherent humor in them. Plus, the freestyle format of the show allows him to really let loose. That means the pacing can be whatever best fits the humor, and the humor can be fairly R-rated. Overall, I came away extremely psyched about this show -- this could be a real comedic gem, and I hope everyone gives it a try. Some of the funniest stuff I've seen on TV in a while.

My Grade (both episodes): A-

- What else? Well, I caught the TEAM COCO WRITERS SPECIAL on TBS, and thought it was a solid hour of stand-up comedy. It definitely got me psyched for the return of Conan to TV this November, and it also reminded me just how talented his staff really is. It's funny, because the special didn't even include a lot of Conan's more senior writers / performers, and yet it was still pretty damn funny. Worth checking out if you haven't seen it.

- I also caught the Science Channel's new series INTO THE WORMHOLE WITH MORGAN FREEMAN. I mean, come on - it's Morgan freaking Freeman hosting a show about sweet psuedo-science topics like time travel - what's not to like? Well, what's not to like is that the show, while well-produced and educational, basically winds up being somewhat of a downer, essentially concluding that time travel is barely even possibly theoretically, and most definitely not possible in practice. Still, I enjoyed the show, and between this and the recent Stephen Hawking series on Discovery, I've been on something of a time-travel kick lately. Screenplay ideas have been percolating, so, who knows. I don't think there's ever been a truly great, dramatic, science-based time travel movie ... so, maybe I'll be the one to write it.

- Now ... as for movies. I really haven't seen anything since Karate Kid and Toy Story 3. Just about everything this summer has been so ... blah. I've been slightly intrigued by movies like, say, Knight & Day, but even that just seems like it will be only okay. The main reason I'd see it is just my OCD with regards to seeing movies. This summer has just been sad in a lot of ways though ... I mean, Jonah Hex just depresses me to no end, and I haven't even seen the movie! But seriously, WTF Hollywood - how do you screw up Jonah Hex? Just make a badass Western movie. There's generic remakes galore, lifeless sequels (I think even the Twi-hards are just seeing these movies as big-budget girl-porn at this point), and adaptations that look to be utter crap (the reviews of The Last Airbender would be hilarious if they weren't so depressing -- what happened to the M. Night who made Unbreakable?!). The good news is that the second half of the summer probably can't be any worse than the first, and ... there are actually some very promising movies on the horizon. INCEPTION will hopefully kick some summer-movie-season ass. It's Christopher Nolan doing a sci-fi thriller -- 'nuff said. The man made two of the best movies of the decade - he's a visionary - and this movie will most likely rule it. So, there's that. But, I'm also really looking forward to Predators (cautiously optimistic that it will be badass), Scott Pilgrim (again, it's a can't-miss director -- Edgar Wright = I'm in), and yes, motherfreakin' Sylvester Stallone and THE EXPENDABLES. I mean, come on - has Stallone ever done us wrong? Thought not. This movie shall truly be 'over the top', and I mean that in the best way possible. I also still need to see Cyrus, badly, and man, I can't believe Splice is already out of theaters - I was really curious to check that one out.

- Aaaaaaaaand that's about all I've got in me for now. I'm tapped out from my hardcore script-writing, what can I say. But -- I've been meaning to get down some more comprehensive thoughts on all things E3, so stay tuned for that. Until then, up and atom.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kung-Fu Fighting with the new KARATE KID


- No matter how good The Karate Kid turned out to be, it was always going to be an inherently problematic movie. In an underwhelming summer of remakes and bombs, the weekend that both The Karate Kid and The A-Team hit theaters was uniquely depressing. Both franchises were shoved down our throats, but really, was anyone clamoring for these movies? Did we really need a new Karate Kid as opposed to something NEW, something never-before-seen? Not only is The Karate Kid a remake and an almost beat-for-beat retelling of the original 80's film, but - guess what? - it's not even about karate. So why is a movie about kung-fu called The Karate Kid? In some international markets, it actually is called "The Kung-Fu" kid. But, god forbid us consumers don't instantly make the connection between this and the original film. So, as if to remind us over and over that this *is* just like the original, the basics of the story are essentially just repeated here, only with a different setting (China), a younger protagonist, and a different martial art. In the end, it's a pretty decent movie, essentially on par with the old Karate Kid except with way better cinematography and cooler, more exotic locales. But again ... you keep asking yourself "did we need this movie?". Are we as a society so ADD and lazy that we can't either a.) just watch the original movie, or b.) make a similarly-themed movie about kung-fu that isn't in any way beholden to the original Karate Kid? Again, I was reasonably entertained by this movie, but at the same time, I don't know that it ever in any way justified its own existence.

On that note, I read an article where Will Smith was interviewed, and he basically said that the idea to remake The Karate Kid came about when he and his son Jaden were tossing out ideas for what Jaden's next movie (and presumably big star-making vehicle) could be. So to that end, the movie becomes extra depressing when you realize that it doesn't exist because someone had a new, awesome idea of how to reintroduce The Karate Kid to a new generation (see the upcoming TRON: LEGACY as a probably example of how to do this right), or because this was a franchise that demanded a reboot (see: Batman Begins). No, this movie came about because Will Smith thought it'd be a good way to make his son a bigger star. Greaaaat ...

And that's honestly one of the reasons why this new Karate Kid never works as well is it might have under other circumstances. The original was all about an awkward, sort-of-geeky kid who learns karate and kicks some bully ass. In this one, I don't know that we ever buy Jaden Smith as any sort of underdog. I mean, he was practically genetically engineered to be a charismatic movie star. So, score one for Ralph Macchio. But, yeah, I get it - Jaden in this one is a stranger in a strange land - a kid from Detroit suddenly transplanted to China, and thus easy fodder for the local bullies to pick on. But, he's also just kind of persistently annoying, and the movie never really shows him trying to fit in much with his new surroundings. He's all hip hop attitude and brashness.

Also, the movie is oddly ambiguous when it comes to a lot of things. For example, we never really get is Jaden's school in China is some sort of English-speaking school or what. It's a semi-major plot point that gets totally glossed over. We also get a quick subplot about how the parents of the studious Chinese girl that Jayden has a thing for ... well, they don't approve of Jaden (why? because he's American? because he has lame-looking dradlocks?). But then, they suddenly do approve of him. Okay ...

It's funny, too, because the new Karate Kid is so similarly structured to the classic version that it falls into a lot of the same traps, plot-wise. Things that you can kind of shrug off in a beloved-yet-cheesy 80's movie aren't quite as forgivable in a new, made-in-2010 film. The jumpiness of the original is very much present here. In the beginning of the film, we meet another American kid in China who seems like he's going to be a major character, until he disappears for the rest of the movie, only briefly rappearing in a quick cameo at the end. We get the same training sequences, which I find frustrating because it takes forever for Jaden to actually start legit king-fu training, so by the time he does practice actual moves and stuff, all we get is a quick montage. So we are forced to believe that within a couple of days or weeks this kid is well-trained enough that he can mix it up with other kids who have presumably been training for many years. And, just like in the original, once the actual tournament starts, all of the other subplots basically disappear as we get a whole final act of just kung-fu matches. It'd be one thing if there was more build-up to the tournament, but, just like in the original, our would-be martial-arts master arrives at the place without even knowing the rules of the fights until five seconds before his first bout. The whole thing feels all the more abrupt and jumpy in this one because so much of the movie is, at first, about Jayden's sense of culture-shock with being in China and the alienation he feels with being such an outsider. Does he eventually come to appreciate his new home? We don't know. He (spoiler alert!) wins his big fight (using decidely non-kung-fu-like maeuvers, no less), and - freeze frame! - we're done. I'm not saying the movie should have been longer (it's already an overstuffed two-and-a-half hours), but ... the pacing and structure definitely has some issues.

Now, I know I've been hard on the movie so far, but the thing is ... it's not actually that bad. For one thing, there are some truly inspired and fantastically shot individual scenes. Some great kung-fu montages are among the highlights, as well as some truly breathtaking views of ancient and modern China. Sweeping mountain ranges, ancient temples, bustling cities, colorful festivals ... all of these things are presented in jaw-dropping widescreen splendor. Despite it's other issues, The Karate Kid always has something interesting to look at, no question. It definitely serves as a living, breathing advertisment for Chinese tourism.

In addition, the movie actually has a really well-done, sweeping musical score, that seriously adds to the action. So much of this movie is designed to be crowd-pleasing, and I have to admit -- some of the better montage sequences, with their captivating editing and rousing music - were pretty damn effective at getting your adrenaline pumping.

Also, there's the Jackie Chan factor. Everyone else in this movie needs to bow before the legendary Mr. Chan, because he almost singlehandedly makes this movie awesome. I will say this: I actually got chills during the key scene in which Chan saves Jaden Smith from a gang of bullies, with some vintage Jackie Chan moves. Yes, I said chills. Why? Because let me tell you, the audience I saw this movie with - a lot of kids and families - was eating up this movie from moment one. They were cheering and applauding all the little cutesy moments and scenes up until that point. But, oh man, when Jackie Chan finally did his thing, there was a sense of awe among the young kids. They'd never seen anything quite like him before. THIS, my friends, was kung-freakin'-fu. And the thought that this otherwise unremarkable movie was, in fact, serving as a gateway into the awesomeness that is Jackie Chan, for a whole new generation of fanboys-in-the-making ... well, that justm ade me smile. I mean, us Gen Y'ers in the audience knew that a gang of tween bullies had NO SHOT against the frakking DRUNKEN MASTER himself, but the kids in the audience? They soon realized it as well.

Chan is, seriously, really excellent in this movie. It's one of his better dramatic performances, to be honest. But overall, it's fun having a true legend - a guy with unmatched charisma and comic timing - onhand to elevate this film. Truly, Chan takes what could have been a real mess of a movie and makes it into something much better than the script might indicate.

I know, this has been a somewhat schizofrenic review. But it's just that kind of movie. There is definitely a likability-factor to this film: the brilliant cinematography, exotic locales, great score, and Jackie Chan being awesome give this one just enough juice to be consistently watchable. But, it also has a flat script, a predictable and jumpy plot, and ultimately, doesn't exactly feel like the kind of story that necessitated yet another reboot of an old 80's franchise. If nothing else, this new Karate Kid made me want a better movie with Jackie Chan kicking ass in modern day China - I want one or two final hurrahs for one of the all-time great action heroes. This could have been worse, but, enough remakes already - new ideas, please.

My Grade: B

Monday, June 21, 2010

TOY STORY 3: The Summer's Best So Far

TOY STORY 3 Review:

- Toy Story 3 is another fantastic movie from Pixar. With spectacular animation, superb voice work, and surprisingly multilayered and adult themes, this is not only the best Toy Story yet, but the best movie of the summer so far.

First off, a confession: I had never seen either of the first two Toy Story movies until this past weekend. I know, it sounds crazy. But what can I say? I think I was just a year or two too old to be really into the original when it first came out. In 1995, I was 13, and definitely in a phase where I didn't want much to do with kids movies from Disney. I wanted movies with action, aliens, kung-fu, and explosions, and at the time a movie about goofy kids' toys like Mr. Potato Head didn't really appeal to me. It wasn't until much later that I came back around and got onboard the Pixar bandwagon - probably circa 2001 when I saw Monsters, Inc. in the theater and realized that these guys were the real deal. By that time, I'd missed Toy Story 2, and, well, I just never got around to seeing them until now. Even though over the years I've loved Pixar flicks from Ratatouille to Cars to Wall-E, I guess Toy Story still evoked the feelings of indifference I had as a teen. Just looking at the character designs from the movie, they always struck me as more goofy than cool. I mean -- Buzz Lightyear? -- he would have gotten the crap kicked out of him by my He-Man and Ninja Turtle action figures any day of the week.

So watching Toy Story 1 and 2 this weekend in a back-to-back marathon, I finally saw what all the fuss was about. And I will say this: the animation in those films is still spectacular even by today's CGI standards. Pixar films have always had outstanding direction, and those films embody that. And I could definitely appreciate the movies in the same way that I appreciate most Pixar films - on one level, they're really well done kids' movies. On another level, they have some pretty complex emotional depth that goes above and beyond what you'd see in other animated family fare. Still, I couldn't help but think that I'd missed out on the experience of seeing Toy Story as a small kid, seeing Toy Story 2 as a slightly older kid, and then, eventually, seeing Toy Story 3 as someone around the same age as Andy is in the movie. For those people, whose own lives have mirrored Andy's in parallel, I can see Toy Story 3 being more than just a great movie, but a real pop-cultural touchstone.

Even so, I was very quickly drawn into the world of Toy Story 3 to an extent that I hadn't been with the first two. Because, the Toy Story films do seem like they become a bit darker, more complex, and more sophisticated as its audience ages. Toy Story 1 felt like a kids movie. Toy Story 2 a little bit less so. Toy Story 3 feels like a movie that kids will still love, but that adults will appreciate just as much if not more so. In fact, it has some of the darkest and most harrowing moments of any film I've seen in a while.

That said, I don't think Toy Story 3 is a bleak movie. But it takes its characters to the very brink of darkness, to the edge of the abyss, and that really blew me away. Certain scenes in the film are pretty darn horrifying - and that's for me. For a wide-eyed kid, I can only imagine. But Pixar was very wise to push things so far. It makes the emotional payoffs that much more resonant, that much more earned. The sense of danger is real. And, all those toys that I thought were goofy and lame-looking for all those years? Well, I was sitting there in the theater, rooting for them, cheering for them, feeling sadness for them, and bracing along with them as they stared down danger and even death. Not many movies could make you care so deeply about a bunch of toys-come-to-life, but Toy Story 3 does it. And in that way, to me, it transcends the first two films because to me, the characters have never been better or more "human" than in Toy Story 3.

The movie as a whole deals with these overarching themes of aging and death and and letting go of a childhood gone by (heavy stuff, to be sure), but at the same time, there's an incredibly fun plotline at work about the toys being imprisoned in a day care center run by a tyrannical stuffed bear named Lotso and his gang of thugs. Lotso runs the day care like a prison, and this makes for a lot of fun riffs on movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape. Lotso the bear is a great villain - I loved his tragic "origin" story, and he has some of the best moments of pure villainy you'll see in a movie. I know, it sounds crazy to talk this way about a purple stuffed bear, but there is some really insane Darth Vader / Emperor style stuff going on here that's legitimately pretty epic. The whole prison break motif also lends itself to some absolutely killer action sequences - some of the best directed and best choreographed you'll ever see. Again, Pixar as a studio is so talented in this regard, but I can't overstate just how great some of the action is here. Lots of real Indiana Jones-style chase sequences that are completely absorbing and immersive. I know that a lot of people are weary of 3D, but I saw this one in IMAX 3D and, even though the ticket prices are kinda absurd, the big screen and 3D, I think, definitely added that something extra to the film.

There are also some really funny moments in the film. I loved the introduction of Ken, of Barbie and Ken fame. The fashion-obsessed doll who lives in a dream house is a consistently hilarious supporting character, and not only is he funny, but his slightly sinister ways allow for his counterpart Barbie to have some real kickass, girl-power moments. Meanwhile, there are some awesome visual gags involving a disembodied Mr. Potato Head, and a couple of funny bits involving Buzz Lightyear being reprogrammed into a Latin Lover version of himself. What's more, there are countless little bits and side characters that are just a lot of fun. I loved the old-school telephone toy who talked like an informant out of a classic film noir movie, or the sad and gruff clown toy who relays the origins of Lotso to Woody.

Speaking of which, I do have to point out just how stellar the voicework is here. The slightly more layered script really gives the likes of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and the rest a lot of great stuff to work with. These characters "come to life" in ways that most real-life ones in film rarely do.

The animation is the best yet from the series, and up there with the best CGI rendering you'll see. The animation quality, combined with the visceral and emotive direction, along with a stirring score, make Toy Story 3 an absolutely top-notch production.

And again, though this is in many ways an adventure movie at heart, the opening and closing acts that tie the movie, and the series, together are what likely make this movie into something really special. I've seen some of the debate online about Andy, the lead human in the world of Toy Story, who's grown from a small kid in the first film to a teen headed off to college in the third film. You can argue that Andy is either too sentimental about his old toys, or that he's not sentimental enough. But, I like that Pixar lets this aspect of the story be a little ambiguous. We never know exactly what special meaning Woody has for Andy. We don't know if Woody was a hand-me-down or a gift from Andy's never-seen father. We don't know a lot about Andy in general. But that allows us to fill in the blanks, to interpret things to our own liking. And I give Pixar a ton of credit for not saddling Woody with a long backstory about his ties to Andy's family. It's something for us to think about, and even to project our own lives onto. Anyone can relate to the end-of-childhood feeling that Andy and Andy's doting mom go through in the movie. And that transition from childhood - Andy and his mom's emotions, as well as those of Andy's toys - make for some genuinely touching and emotional moments (and I also like that Andy isn't given the typical teen attitude or anything that you usually see in such circumstances in movies). It's not just blind sentimentality either - by not letting us fill in a lot of the blanks, Toy Story 3 avoids hitting us over the head with the kind of sappiness that makes other such movies cheesy and pandering. Toy Story 3 is better than that, and it's a movie that will leave even hardened film fans a bit misty-eyed and choked up.

The only thing I'll add is that I do get a little weary of overpraising Pixar. I know, everyone has their Top 10 lists and personal favorites from the Pixar portfolio, and the consistent quality and craftsmanship in their films, now spanning over a decade, is unparallelled. But, I don't want to be too quick to hail Toy Story 3 as the best thing since sliced bread. There are a couple of moments where the film goes for easy humor (the Buzz Lightyear stuff, a couple of instances where the jokes are accentuated by a cliched pop song, etc.), and there's maybe one or two pop culture references too many. I look at Wall-E, and I see a movie that completely transcended the trappings of a "kids" movie and was just a great film, period. The fact that Toy Story 3 still has some of those sillier moments that are in turn kids' movie cliches keeps it, in my eyes, from being quite on that same level. It's one reason why I was able to get so absorbed by How To Train Your Dragon - it never had those meta-references or jokes that took you out of the movie's world. Also, the actual plot of the film can get a little bit flimsy at times. The level to which the various toys at the day care follow and support Lotso seems a little jumpy, for example. At times, they seem like his oppressed servants. Other times, like his willing conspirators.

Overall though, Toy Story 3 is definitely a landmark accomplishment from Disney and Pixar. The movie in many ways feels like the best big summer blockbuster of the year. There's action, adventure, great characters, and lots of moments to make you cheer. All the characters get their moment to shine, and again, the fact that the movie does go pretty dark at times really adds to the overall excitement and emotional punch of the film. It's been a pretty slow summer so far at the movies, but Toy Story 3 is the first truly great movie of Summer 2010 (and as an added bonus, the 2D-meets-3D Pixar short that precedes the movie is absolutely phenomenal - a true visual masterpiece). A great film that kids and adults can enjoy with equal enthusiasm, Toy Story 3 is another credit to the continued genius of Pixar and the creative, imaginative, and uber-talented people who've made it the standard-setter for modern animation.

My Grade: A-

Friday, June 18, 2010



- Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of my favorite comedies of the last few years, so I was hoping that its spinoff of sorts, Get Him to the Greek, would recapture some of the humor and heart that made FSM such a hilarious and entertaining film. Get Him the the Greek is plenty funny, but at the end of the day, it's too generic and predictable to truly be considered great. Entertaining? Yes. Very funny? Also yes. But not quite at that top-tier level of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Nothing that reaches the comedic high of Dracula: The Musical.

That said, GHTTG is squarely in the Judd Apatow mold of vulgar-yet-sweet comedies about guys suffering from serious arrested development. It's a premise that's made for some great movies, but also one that is beginning to wear a little thin. I think a real turning point for me was Apatow's Funny People, a movie that seemingly failed to realize just how unlikable and self-absorbed its main characters were. It wanted us to root for them even as we increasingly began to dislike them. Now, Greek is a much more broad, over-the-top comedy than Funny People, and so it can get away with a lot more. And yet ... a little of that same self-indulgence creeps in. It's one of those movies that is made by entertainment industry people about entertainment industry people, and therefore feels very insider-y at times in a way that's somewhat off-putting. At certain points, you can practically hear the studio execs chuckling in the background at jokes that most others will probably not be as into. The movie can come off as slightly smug.

But, it's also, quite often, really funny. There is some spot-on dialogue that's performed by a really funny cast. Jonah Hill is in top form here. His comic delivery seems to get a little better and sharper with every movie he's in. And he gives his character an empathetic, relatable, and likable quality above and beyond what's in the script. Russell Brand is also on top of his game here, reprising the character of Aldous Snow to hilarious effect. I like Snow because, I think, part of the joke is that he's like a 70's rock star transported into 2010. I don't know in what world a guy like Aldous Snow would ever have been a chart topper, but it's definitely a funny world. Brand gets some absolutely killer lines and comedic moments in the film, and he makes the most of them. The big surprise though is P. Diddy. I'm not saying he's the next comedy superstar or anything, but the guy has some pretty great delivery and timing. It helps that his character - a music industry exec - is totally off the wall and insane, but Diddy does well for himself and is definitely a scene stealer. There is also a constant parade of cameos from people who are both actually funny (ie Aziz Ansari) and ironically funny (ie Mario Lopez) -- but, the end result is a fun atmosophere in which you never know who will show up for some screen time.

Basically, the movie follows the adventures of Aaron (Hill), a young record company employee, as he tries to successfully escort wild-child rockstar Aldous Snow (Brand) to his big comeback show at the Greek Theater in LA. Aaron is trying to keep Snow from self-destructing and not blowing his once chance at career rehabilitation, all the while trying to figure out his relationship with his girlfriend Daphne and trying not to succumb to fall prey to the vices of the rockstar lifestyle himself.

The various hijinks that Hill and Brand get themselves into make for some really funny scenes. At the same time, the movie overall feels a bit jumpy. The plot never quite flows as smoothly as it should, and certain big character beats seem to basically come out of nowhere. The movie is predictable enough that we all know where things are heading, and so there's that effect where a lot of the movie seems comprised of amusing little detours on the way to the inevitable conclusion. I guess my point is that, as funny as the movie is at times, it's also pretty by-the-numbers. And that's fine, sometimes, but this also isn't a movie with a lot of heart, per se. As I alluded to earlier, this isn't a movie with super-likable, empathetic characters - so basically, we don't care necessarilly that they all get their happy ending, we just want want to see them in crazy, funny, ridiculous situations. The fact that the movie ultimately tries to be sentimental and Hollywood-happy is, perhaps, to its detriment.

I'm also not quite sure how I feel about Elisabeth Moss as Hill's live-in girlfriend. She seems likable enough at first, but their relationship is given the short shrift for much of the movie. Later, one raunchy sex scene in particular comes off as completely awkward and disturbing given the character that Moss had been playing up to that point. By the end of the movie, it's hard to care much about the central relationship given all the weirdness that's gone on between the two characters. Again, it's sort of that Funny People syndrome, where the script wants us to forgive and root for these characters even after they do some pretty off-putting stuff, in scenes that aren't even 100% played for laughs.

At the end of the day, Get Him to the Greek is a very funny comedy, although it never quite lives up to the potential of its funniest jokes. There are moments of true hilarity in the movie, but the plot and characters are never all that appealling, and there isn't that undercurrent of authenticity that made Sarah Marshall so great. Director Nicholas Stoller clearly has a real knack for this sort of comedy, but I'd love to see him tackle themes and characters that don't feel like such a product of a guy entrenched in the Hollywood scene. But hey, it's been a pretty bleak summer, and Get Him to the Greek is a movie that's worth checking out in the curent box office wasteland, despite its flaws. Not amazing, but admirably funny.

My Grade: B

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back in LA: NBA Finals, My E3 Experiences, East-Coast Wrap-Up, and MORE!

Wow, it's been awhile.

So ... let's see, last I wrote, I was still in CT, having just returned from a midweek excursion to the Big Apple. That was last Thursday. After that, I relaxed on Friday, went to a shabbat dinner at our synagogue in Bloomfield, and played videogames until way too late into the night. Then, Saturday was a big day - my ten-year high school reunion. I met up with my old high school buddy Matt S. for a quick pre-reunion dinner, and then headed over to the campus of Kingswood-Oxford for the big event. It was definitely strange being back at my old high school. I was briefly there for my brother's graduation in 2004 - other than that, I haven't been back in years. There were a lot of fancy new buildings, although the whole place seemed smaller than I remembered as a teenager. At the same time, a lot of memories definitely flooded back as I walked on the green and past the various buildings. Meanwhile, I had no idea what to expect from the actual event. I had these visions of everyone sitting at some long table and trying awkwardly to make polite conversation. Luckily, the event was nowhere near as stuffy as I feared. We were all packed into the dining hall alongside other class reunions, but there was a festive atmosphere in the room and everyone was super friendly. Lots of jokes about old teachers and whatnot, although there were some teachers actually there and it was nice to see them as well. Seriously though, I had a blast seeing old faces, and everyone seemed to be doing really well for themselves. Lots of people married or engaged, which was cool yet scary, and everyone mostly looked similar as in high school. Obviously in this day and age of Facebook, it's easier to keep track of people, meaning you get less big surprises than you would have back in the day. But, the X-factor for me was less about how people would look and more about what the overall vibe would be at the reunion. The good news was that it was a really fun night - we took the party from K-O to a nearby bar in West Hartford center, and overall it was a memorable evening, even if it starting absolutely pouring rain right as we were getting ready to leave. It was really cool to see a group of a few dozen people, all of whom were probably in different cliques or whatever in high school, hanging out together and sharing jokes and reminiscing about old times. A good time - I'm glad I was able to attend.

So that was last Saturday. Sunday, my grandparents came over for a brunch / lunch, and then, my brother and I began our long journey back to Burbank. I listened to the entire third season of the Ricky Gervais Show podcast on my iPod, and, dozens of oddball Karl Pilkington anecdotes and musings later, I was back in California. Upon returning, I realized that my cable box was fried (and, apparently, on the verge of exploding). Otherwise, my apartment was mostly in good shape.

All in all, it was a great trip back east. I saw my parents and grandparents and family friends. I saw friends in CT and in NYC, attended my 10-year KO reunion, and had at least a couple of delectable slices of east-coast pizza.

- Of course, Sunday evening our flight prevented us from seeing the Celtics game, but I watched the highlights a couple of times on my computer. That was an awesome win for the C's. Tuesday night was a different story, as I ran home from the E3 convention in downtown LA, swarmed by Lakers fans, only to discover when I finally got back to Burbank that the Celtics were down by like 30 points, and in the process of getting annihilated by the Lakers. Ugh. Still, the one upside to the Celtics' loss is that it means that we got a Game 7 - a rarity in the NBA Finals. A Game 7 gave the series that extra bigtime feel, and here in LA, fans were going nuts for the Lakers. I was obviously rooting for Boston to crush the Lakers, but I definitely was also the first to admit that the game could have gone either way. And what happened? It was a grinding, ultra-physical game that ultimately saw the Lakers come out on top. The Celtics had momentum going into the second half, thanks to some truly tenacious D, but, soon into the third quarter, I could sort of tell that the Celtics were headed for a fall. Pierce and Rondo looked worn out and exhausted, and Ray Allen couldn't buy a bucket yet again. All three were playing tough defense, but really nothing was popping on the offensive end. In the fourth quarter, the Celtics made a couple of hail Mary plays to to keep them in the game, but Kobe, Gasol, and Artest were just too much. Boston had no consistent offense whatsoever, and they just seemed to run out of gas. Still, I give the Celtics team credit for playing hard and for even getting this far in the first place. They certainly defied expectations and had an outstanding run in the playoffs. I still can't stand the Lakers and Kobe in particular, but they were definitely the NBA's best team this year, and Kobe is still the NBA's most singular superstar, even if he is oh-so-easy to hate. Congrats to the true-blue Laker fans out there, but to all the bandwagoners ... let's see how you feel about the Lakers in a few years when it's time for them to rebuild. I don't hate LA sports in general, I just strongly dislike this current incarnation of the Lakers. Maybe one day I'll come around. But, I enjoyed watching this Celtics team. From Big Baby to Rondo to Ray Allen, from Pierce to (dammit all) Scalabrini, they had heart. And even though no one thought they'd advance into the playoffs or make it to the Finals, they proved that coach Rudy T's famous saying was correct: "never underestimate the heart of a champion."


- What? Did I say E3?! Indeed I did. This week was all about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, aka the mecca of all things videogames, aka heaven on earth for anyone who's ever wielded a joystick. And, praised-be-Mario, I was able to attend a lot of this year's festivities. Honestly, going to E3 is one of the coolest things I've ever been able to do. It's frustrating trying to talk about it with those who aren't in the loop, because they don't quite understand that those of us who grew up with games in the 90's basically dreamt about going to E3. Every year, I'd eagerly turn through the pages of GamePro and Diehard Gamefan to read their E3 reports, and I'd marvel at the pictures of the monolithic booths and read, wide-eyed, about all the new games and consoles and other surprises at the show. So, to actually attend E3 and walk around the show floor and attend some of the press conferences ... it was definitely me being in total geek nirvana. Sensory overload, to be sure, in the best way possible.

My first E3 experience this year actually came on Monday night, just one day removed from flying back to LA from CT. Suffice it to say, I was exhausted. But, how could I pass up an opportunity to attend a sure-to-be-insane party thrown by Microsoft in honor of their new KINECT motion-control device (formerly known as Natal). So, my friend Kyle and I drove to the Galen Center at USC's downtown LA campus for what would surely be an epic event.

Turns out, epic doesn't even begin to describe it. We stood in line with all sorts of interesting videogame industry and media industry people, and while in line, we were surrounded by all manner of crazy Cirque de Soleil people dressed in native, jungle-style garb, playing drums, doing acrobatics, etc. So far, so good.

But, when we got inside, well, that's when things got wonky. Everyone who entered the arena was given a white poncho to wear - like something that you might wear if you were in an alien cult about to be taken up to the mothership. Okay ... this was getting pretty weird. Then, we sat in the arena, and waited for something to happen. And waited. And waited some more. For a full hour, Cirque de Soleil performers performed little tricks in the audience and entertained us in a sort of pre-show, but everyone in the arena was getting tired and impatient and probably hungry as well. When was the actual show going to begin?! Finally, after that hour long wait, the lights dimmed and the show began. And, holy lord, it might have been the weirdest and most mind-boggling display of ostentatious advertising-as-performance-art I've ever seen. For a mind-numbing hour and half, what seemed to be the most expensive and artiest commercial ever made played out in front of us. Wood nymphs danced around and bowed before a giant, spherical XBOX logo that descended from the rafters. A melodramatic intro played, describing how, "from the dawn of time," man had struggled to master machinery, and how Kinect was the turning point in human evolution in which machines would finally cater and adapt to the whims of man. A young boy climbed up the gian XBOX sphere and up a mountain and found himself in a suspended, futuristic living room that rotated and spun above us, affixed in the middle of a giant wheel. Inside the living room, a family that looked half-robot and not-quite-human played all sorts of motion-control Kinect games, as the wood nymphs danced below in tune with their movements. Giant video screens that circled the arena projected the games that were being played, as blaring music that sounded like stuff they'd pump into a Disneyland ride-meets-the music of Blue Man Group, blared from the speakers. Each new experience and game was treated with such pomp and circumstance, with flying acrobats and video effects and bombastic music, that you'd think you were witnessing the second coming of Jesus. As the show reached its apex, curtains were dropped from the ceiling, revealing that several ADDITIONAL living rooms were suspended from the rafters, each containing a similarly eerie nuclear family (each from a different ethnicity, of course). There were giant puppet elephants, people flying, walking on ceilings. At one point, a giant Disney logo flashed as Tinkerbell flew around the arena, for no apparent reason. And the ponchos? Their reason for being was that, at a few points during the course of the show, the big shoulder pads in the ponchos were remotely lit up, forming hundreds of glowing green X's in the crowd. Wow. I had never in my life seen anything like this, and the whole crowd was seemingly in a smiliar state of shock, awe, and confusion. Craziness.

Anyways, the next day, Tuesday, I got to go with some work colleagues to E3 proper during the show's first official day. It was a crazy/awesome scene in downtown LA, with giant banners promoting new games, and a general sense of fun and excitement in the air. I have been to a couple of other "trade shows" but E3 is definitely the best. There's a minimum of stuffy corporate types. Instead, the convention center is overflowing with people who love games. People with passion. People who cheer and boo at press conferences, who proudly brand themselves as hardcore gamers, who are happy to be surrounded by others who share their passion. I said this last year, but I do wish that E3 could find a way to be open to the public. It already has a Comic-Con vibe, why not blow it open and make it equally for the fans?

So, our first stop on Tuesday, after picking up our badges, was the big Sony press conference at the Shrine auditorium. Hey, I've been a Sony fanboy since middle school and the PS1, so I was uber-psyched to attend. While there weren't any games shown that rocked my socks in the same way that Uncharted 2 and God of War III did last year, there was still a ton of cool stuff on display. Some quick highlights included Sorcerer, a cool looking motion-control game for Sony's Playstation Move peripheral, and of course, Twisted Metal, a revamp of the Playstation classic for the PS3. The new game was introduced in grand fashion, with the game's notorious ice-cream truck vehicle driven onto the stage, with a gang of evil clowns at the wheel. Awesome. A couple of other game reveals, like Infamous 2, Portal 2, and Little Big Planet 2 were also really kickass.

But, the real highlight of the press conference was Sony's famous pitchman, KEVIN BUTLER. The fake "CEO of Everything" made a surprise appearance on stage and delivered an absolutely awesome / hilarious speech that took some funny digs at the competition (including Microsoft's white ponchos from the previous night), and then transitioned into a funny yet surprisingly impassioned rant about gaming. Kevin was a mouthpiece for many of the longtime gamers in the audience who were feeling jaded by motion controls and 3D and such. Kevin B did something that many have been afraid to do - he defended gaming as we know it today. Because all of these new devices imply that there might be something inherently wrong with the way videogames have always been. But to those of us who have grown up loving the feeling of sitting on a couch with a controller in our hand, and diving deep into a great new game, Kevin preached the gospel. Great stuff.

After the press conference, we headed back to the LA Convention Center to walk the E3 show floor. There was so much to take in, it was overwhelming. Sights and sounds everywhere, and even aside from the games themselves, there was a lot to see - a wrestling ring set up with lucha libre fighting going on, G4's crew broadcasting live from the show, tons of booth babes (including a caged zombie bikini girl promoting Capcom's Dead Rising 2), lots of big music and dance game demos, celebrity sightings, and much more. Unfortunately, some of the big ticket items had incredibly long lines to gain access to. The craziest line was definitely at the Nintendo booth, where there was a multi-hour wait to get your hands on the new 3DS - the 3D update to the huge-selling DS portable system. Meanwhile, some companies like Lucasarts and Activision had no booths on the show floor, and only demo'd their new games (like Star Wars Force Unleashed 2) behind closed doors to the press. Still, there were hundreds of cool looking new games to take a look at and play. From Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to Twisted Metal to Zelda. I spent the afternoon walking the show floor and trying to take in as much as I could. And of course, I snapped a lot of photos.

I'll do a follow-up post soon going into more detail with my E3 thoughts, including my picks for games of the show. So keep an eye out for that.

I also have some long-gestating movie and TV reviews ... this week has been crazy though - between getting back in the swing of things at work and E3 and the NBA Finals, I haven't even fully unpacked yet from my east coast trip.

That said, it's good to be back in LA. Keep reading!

Friday, June 11, 2010

A New York State of Mind ...

Hanging out in CT after a fun couple of days here on the east coast. Most notably, I spent a couple of days on an NYC adventure that took me from Times Square to the upper east side to 30 Rock to the Village and back again. I hopped on a bus to the city with only a vague plan of action, but luckily, things mostly worked out and I got to spend some quality time with a couple of old friends. Of course, on Wednesday, when I got to NY, it was pouring rain. This made things a little nuttier (and colder, and wetter) than I would have liked. But, it was worth it to brave the elements in order to spend some quality time catching up with Daniella G. and Liz L. It was a really fun time - from dining with aliens at Mars 2112 to being served high-quality vegan cuisine at Caravan of Dreams (by the best waitress ever, no less). I of course got in a slice or two of genuine NYC pizza, had a bagel amongst the yarmulke-wearing jews at a local upper-east-side establishment, accidentally offended a highly-sensitive Greenpeace girl, and yes, made my customary stop at Midtown Comics in order to pick up some new reading material. Even though I was only in NY for a short time, I felt like I packed in a lot and, most importantly, got to spend time with some of my most favorite people. Not to sound cheesy or anything ... but, well, probably too late. In any case, being in New York definitely made me draw mental comparisons with life in LA. On one hand, you can't beat the energy of NYC. There's a freedom and a rush to NYC life that can't be replicated in LA. I love the diversity of people. I love that people in NYC tend to be smart and witty and opinionated. I like the fast pace. I like that people hurry up when they're in line and walk fast on the street. At the same time, I've grown to appreciate the LA way of life, at least to some extent. Everything in LA feels more open, less constrictive. There's more space. Overall, places tend to be cleaner, more colorful. In it's own weird way, LA feels more "normal" whereas NYC still feels daunting to some extent. I like both places in their own way - and I love other cities I've lived in like Boston and London as well - but, NYC definitely has a special quality to it that nowhere else on the planet can quite replicate.

Thursday afternoon, I got on a bus at Port Authority and a few hours later, I was back in CT - exhausted but satisfied. I did get home in time to watch the CELTICS game though, and man, Game 4 was a blockbuster. Congrats to the Celts on a huge win, tying up their series with the Lakers 2-2.

I also finally caught the season finale of JUSTIFIED. It's pretty amazing - the show has evolved into an instant classic in a very short time. The finale was quite simply badass - chock full of great characters, intense action, and some very interesting plot twists. This one will be right up there near the top when I compile my year-end best-of list.

I also saw GET HIM TO THE GREEK last weekend, which I believe I mentioned in my last post. I'll hold off on reviewing for now, suffice it to say it's decently funny but not quite on the level of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Okay ... tomorrow is my ten year high school reunion. Better rest up! I'll be back with more soon, but for now, signing off from BLOOMFIELD, CT.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

EAST COAST blogging ... Back in CT - Plus: Very late CHUCK thoughts.

Well, here I am, in scenic Bloomfield, CT.

I know, I know, it's been a looong time since my last blog. What can I say ... knowing that I'd soon be chillin' in Connecticut, I tried to have a productive week or so in LA before heading home for a bit. I won't lie - I attempted to write a couple of times during the past week, and each time I started I ended up getting sidetracked, and had to abandon ship before I could actually publish anything. But hey, time moves a bit slower here in suburbia, so, away from the sounds of LA traffic and the craziness of life in Hollywood, I feel like I have all the time in the world.

In any case, I'm currently writing from my trusty MacBook in my old room in my parents' house. On Friday, my brother and I took an early, 7 am (!) flight out of Burbank, meaning I woke up the earliest I had in probably a few years in order to get to the airport on time. I don't know how people who have to travel constantly for work or whatever do it. I guess having first-class flight accommodations could alleviate the pain of flying somewhat, but sitting on those cramped Southwest flights for hours on end is a special kind of terrible. Even drifting in and out of sleep, I couldn't wait to get off that plane. We only had one stop, in Vegas, so overall travel time wasn't too bad. But yea, it was nice to touchdown in CT and take a shower and eat dinner with the parents and grandparents, and then go on to sleep for like 13 hours or so.

Come to think of it, this is my first post-Memorial Day Weekend blog post. Looking back, it was a fun yet productive holiday weekend. One thing that's tough in this age of Facebook though - actually hunkering down and getting things done, all the while compulsively sifting through friends' oh-so-fabulous status updates. When you've got boring-but-necessary errands to do, or a project to finish, reading about dozens of people enjoying exotic vacations or having what is apparently the best, most fun day of their entire lives ... well, it kind of gets to be a drag. Damn you Facebook - the best mechanism for mass bragging ever invented.

Anyways, my holiday weekend included some basketball, some burgers, some shopping, and a hardcore movie marathon with friends during which we watched Tron, Over The Top, and The Karate Kid all in a row. Epic hardly suffices to describe it. I had never seen Over The Top before, and all I can say is, good lord, what an awesomely cheesy 80's movie. I never knew that such an epic tale could be constructed around the high-stakes world of competitive arm-wrestling, but Sly Stallone, you wily bastard, you have shown me the way.

Also, I've got to give a shout-out to the BOSTON CELTICS, baby. Tonight, LA vs. Boston, NBA Finals Game 2. After a disappointing loss in Game 1, I hope to see the boys from Beantown crush Kobe and the Lakers this time around. Hey, I may be an LA county resident for five+ years now, but as long as the Lakers are built around Kobe Bryant, I cannot and will not support the Lakeshow. I mean, look, I used to like the Lakers back in the day. I rooted for them when they had Magic, and then in the Eddie Jones / Nick Van Exel years. But ever since the Kobe reign began, I have hated LA. They eliminated my Houston Rockets from the playoffs, ensuring that my all-time favorite player Charles Barkley never made it to the Finals as a Rocket. They prevented my other all-time favorite, Reggie Miller, from winning an elusive NBA championship. Plus, I just don't like Kobe, or Phil Jackson, or Derek Fischer, or Ron Artest. Meanwhile, I am liking this year's CELTICS. Rajon Rondo has emerged as a star and a huge talent, and it's going to be fun to see him mix it up when he's under the spotlight. That said, Rondo really needs to step it up tonight. His Game 1 showing was underwhelming, and I hope to see the Celtics Big 4 each bring their A-game to this crucial Game 2. But yeah, I'll be watching from here on the EAST COAST, baby, so all I can say is: let's get it on!

So, I wanted to talk a little TV, as I'm pretty late in weighing in on a couple of big season finales.

- CHUCK capped off a great overall season with a really well-done, two-part season-ender last Monday. In the wake of a 2-hour Lost finale and a 2-hour 24 finale, I'll admit, it was a little hard to get properly revved up for a double-dose of Chuck, especially given that, for once, we know that the show is safe and sound (for the moment, at least), and poised for a fourth season in the fall. Plus, Chuck's season ended up rolling out in a semi-strange fashion. After a midseason ender that was conceived as a potential series finale, we eventually got six additional episodes that continued the story past what had seemed to be a pretty logical endpoint - if not for the series, then certainly for the season.

To that end, those final six episodes of CHUCK were largely entertaining, but definitely had a bit of a tacked-on feel. Luckily, the two-part season finale upped the ante, and delivered a really fun, satisfying close to that was, overall, a great season of the show.

At this late date, I won't bother to get into all the specifics of the finale. But I will say that the show crafted a satisfying showdown between Chuck and a returning Shaw, and Brandon Routh was suitably slimy as the CIA's golden-boy-gone-bad. Also, I think a recurring theme on Chuck over the years has been that Chuck's relationships might, to some, make him weak, but many times it's his friends who are there for him in his most dire moments. In fact, some of the show's most memorable moments have been those scenes in which the proverbial underdogs save the day. This finale played that card one more time, but darn it all, it worked -- Morgan and Captain Awesome saving a captured Chuck, Sarah, and Casey, with the help of Casey's tricked-out battlecar, was a great moment indeed.

There was a lot of fun stuff in this ep, but it was dragged down a little by the whole angle of Chuck once again vowing to quit being a spy. Um, didn't we just go through this whole character arc? Would Chuck really agree to drop his spy career just as he's finally becoming a legit agent? And can his sister Ellie be anything other than whiny / annoying?

That tired plot point aside, there was much to love in this ep: Morgan's budding relationship with Casey's daughter (and Casey's heated objections to it), the return of Scott Bakula as Chuck's mad-scientist dad, and Chuck's final discovery of his dad's secret files.

In fact, that mind-warping ending was just about enough to make you forget about Chuck's earlier decision to quit the spy-life. If the alternative is to have Chuck going rogue with his own squad of underground vigilante spies-for-hire, then, hey, that could make for some pretty cool storylines down the road.

In any case, it looks like the death of Chuck's dad may very well have opened the floodgates to some really cool plotlines to come. In this episode, the death also made for some emotional drama, and really helped to build up Shaw as a big bad.

Chuck had some real high points this season, and luckily for fans, the season ender was right up there among the best episodes of Chuck that we've seen all year. Sure, there may have been a bit of a lull in getting to this point, but still, it's nice to see CHUCK go into its next season with a full head of steam.

My Grade: A-

Okay ... so the skies have been grey and ominous all day here in Bloomfield. There were tornado warnings and heavy rain and thunder and lightning. Yep, definitely not in Kansas (or LA) anymore.

From Bloomfield CT, I'm out ... for now.