Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dead Men Tell No Tales: PIRATES 3 Review ... and MORE

Hey, hope everyone had a great weekend. I had a pretty relaxing though slightly uneventful three days. Got in some good basketball playing with the Kaiser Roll, saw Pirates 3, and worked on some screenwriting that I'd been meaning to get into for a long while. Now it's back into the fold, but man, things are rarely boring here in the entertainment biz. I come into work today and all kinds of things are goin' on at NBC. Check the entertainment news sites and welcome to the craziness that is network television ...

I'd like to make a mention of a favorite actor of mine who passed away this weekend. Charles Nelson Reilly is not someone whose career I was very familiar with until I began reading some of the articles and obituaries over the last few days, but it's no surprise to me in reading them how beloved and influential the guy was. For me, Reilly was best known as Jose Chung, a role he played to perfection on Millenium and in the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." I've mentioned it before, but the latter is to me the greatest episode of television ever made. It's hilarious, brilliant, insightful into the human condition, and endlessly rewatchable, and it's one of the pieces of television that made me say "aha, I think this is what I want to do for a living." Reilly played Jose Chung with wit, humor, and an almost tragic sense of cynicsm. If From Outer Space is my all-time favorite TV episode, then the Millennium episode, "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" - an amazing critique of a Scientology-esque cult, is not far behind. Both, brilliantly written by Darin Morgan, present Chung as a feisty old writer searching for relevance in a world where he is known for his past successes rather than his current endeavors (even the usually business-like Agent Scully called his best-known book, The Caligarian Candidate, "one of the greatest thrillers ever written") . Chung, through his writing, is confronted with the darkest depths of humanity yet deals with them through his world-weary humor and knowing sense of truth. Reilly was simply brilliant in these episodes, and now, hearing about his long career of making people laugh, pushing the boundaries of acceptable humor, and his classic repartee with legends like Johnny Carson, I see that he was more than just Jose Chung, but a true icon of the stage and screen. Still, I can't help but remember him as the man behind two of the all-time great television guest-starring roles. Some classic Reilly-as-Chung quotes in his honor:

"I once knew your god. He worshipped me: he thought I was a literary genius. And I was then. Then he asked me what I thought of his writing and I told him: "Goopta, you stink." Because he did! I never saw a grown man cry so hard, for so long. I put my arm around him, I said, "It doesn't matter that I don't like your work! What matters is that you enjoy doing it, you must do what makes you happy." But what I didn't know was that what made him happy was to be a deity! So you are here to kill me because I once told God to not be dark. Isn't that funny? So feel free to use your Onan-o-Graph and your therapies, if that's what it takes to make you happy. And I truly mean that; good luck to you, buddy. But please allow me to wallow in my own misery in peace. And if I should look up from my "downbeat abyss" and find you a fool, that's no right of you to commit upon me a foolish act."

"I humbly add my own prophecy of what the dawn of the new millennium shall bring forth: one thousand more years of the same, old crap."

"Then there are those who care not about extraterrestrials, searching for meaning in other human beings. Rare or lucky are those who find it. For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways on this planet, we are all ... alone."


- What can I say, I love these Pirates movies. When it comes down to these flicks, I am reduced to a 12 year old fanboy chomping at the bit to once again jump into this wonderful world of rogues, wenches, fish-people, and high seas adventure. What can I say, Pirates are the definition of cool. They were rock stars centuries before Elvis Presley ever took to the stage. As a kid, I loved nothing more than riding the Pirates of the Carribean ride in Disney World. A Pirate's life for me! I looked forward to trips to Cape Cod just to go to Pirate's Cove miniature golf course. I read up on Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. The one thing I never really got was a good pirate movie to see in the theaters ... that is until the first Pirates film came along a few years back. Since then, I've totally loved this series. I enjoyed Part 2, with all its over-the-top, cartoonish action and comic book-esque plot as much if not more than Part 1. And yeah, for me, Part 3 was another great ride that left me more than satisfied, once again drifting off into dreamland dreaming of sailing the seven seas in search of buried trasure and untold adventure.

Really though, I don't think my fanboy love for these films, and for Part 3 in particular, is without merit. The negativity I've heard toward the third film in the franchise always focuses on the plot being convoluted and the movie overstuffed. However, I really think that those who dwell on this are missing the point. The meat of the movie is really quite simple - Will Turner, Elizabeth Swan, and Jack Sparrow. Two are star-crossed lovers thrown into the world of pirates and forced to adapt to its moral murkiness and crafty characters. The third is the classic rogue supporting character - there to cause trouble, stir the pot, and leave the other characters caught between grudging admiration for his villainous charm and weary contempt of his tendency to double cross a friend at the drop of a hat. That is Pirates in a nutshell - the rest is just color. But man, what color it is.

I can't help but be blown away with Pirates 3 for its sheer overflow of artistry and craft. Sure, this is a huge big-budget summer popcorn movie, but watching the imagination and detail on display reminded me more of the quirkier works of a Jim Henson or Terry Gilliam. Other blockbusters have beasts and creatures that look to have been designed by a marketing department. Pirates has characters that look like the product of someone's very fertile imagination - straight from the page, the pen, the brush - onto the movie screen. Davy Jones and his crew alone are just breathtaking to look at - eel creatures, men embedded in rock and stone, hammerheaded humans, and a captain with a tentacled beard who has more character in his face than most non CGI'ed actors. Everything in the movie - the costumes, the sets, the f/x - just bleeds off the screen with candy-coated visual artistry.

And of course, some of the credit for that has to go to the underrated Gore Verbinski, who directs these movies with so much visceral excitement that the action tends to grab you and not let go. Some of the action scenes here are just so well-staged, they leave you smiling ear to ear. Will and Elizabeth's climactic fight scene / dance-off / wedding was a prime example - frenetic action, impeccably staged, bursting with humor, character, and fun. I also give kudos to Gore for going a little eccentric on us in this one. The scenes with Depp in Davey Jone's Locker were wonderfully surreal and trippy, the last thing you'd expect from a mainstream Disney movie, that is, unless you have fond memories of things like Fantasia and that one acid trip scene in Dumbo. But yeah, for a guy to sneak in some kind of whacked-out modern art film into the third Pirates movie ... that's kind of cool.

Character is another area that Pirates 3 just gets right. I've heard people complain about the movie being almost overly obssessed with squeezing in literally every character from the previous films and giving each his or her own little subplot. To me, this WOULD have been an issue if each little character bit didn't turn out so consistently funny and/or amusing. I mean, I can't help but love all of the bit players that help round out the Pirates universe. Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg are hilarious as usual, with some particularly classic lines ("we can still use them as clubs!"). Watching the two of them stumble their way through these adventures is always a blast. I love Chow Yun Fat here. He doesn't have a huge role, but he and his band of Asian Pirates, along with all of the other international pirate lords that convene to fend off their extinction, add yet another layer of depth and coolness to this crazy fantasy world. Chow adds a nice bit of intensity and darkness to the preceedings, and it was cool to see him pop up here ("More steam!"). And even the most hardened of hearts has to smile when Keith Richards enters the fray in full-on Captain Morgan pirate garb. Just awesome ... I also love Kevin McNally as the oh-so-piratey Mr. Gibbs. He's like some great 1950's character actor transplanted from an Errol Flynn pirate movie into the present day. When he squints towards the horizon and bellows that the winds are in the Black Pearl's favor, signalling that the tides in the battle have turned the pirates' way, I mean, the kid in me wanted to jump up and clap. And then, of course, there's Bootstrap Bill, Governor Swann, Lord Beckett and the East India Trading Company, Calypso, the always great Jack Davenport as Norrington, and a wealth of other assorted pirates, fish-people, officers, and scoundrels. Is this a crowded movie? Yes, of course. But to me that's part of the delight - it's like being a kid and opening up some dusty 1970's comic book and marveling at all of the brightly costumed characters and wondering who they all are and where they all came from and how they all fit together. The details aren't so important, its the sheer spectacle of it all that makes a lasting impression.

Geoffrey Rush ... is just on fire in this movie. I said that all of these side characters were there to add color to the world of Pirates, and none so more than Rush, who is giving it 110% here, scowling the perfect pirate scowl, screaming the perfect pirate scream, saying things like "shiver me timbers" and "avast, me mateys!" with just the right amount of unrestrained glee, all the while never losing that villainous gleam in his eye. Make no mistake about it, Captain Barbosa is never having more fun than when the $#%# really begins to hit the fan, and his enthusiasm for it all is contagious. Rush's chemistry with Depp is also really great, and the two have a number of hilarious moments together, as they double cross, scheme, and compare the sizes of their periscopes.

Bill Nighy is once again great here, giving an outlandish character like Davey Jones personality and pathos in what is a remarkable performance. Of all the characters here, it is Jones whose story feels most cumbersome at times, as the nature of he and Calypso's history and curse is never quite crystal clear. Still, when Jones and his tentacled beard are battling with Sparrow atop the Black Pearl's mast as it circles a whirpool and chaos ensues all around ... well, sue me, all is forgotten.

I give credit to Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly - in Pirates 3, they take back the series as their own in spite of all the numerous peripheral characters that are circling around them. Knightly in particular kind of re-centers the series here and it is her journey that takes center stage. Kiera as Swann is commanding and, well, pretty kickass in this third go-round - she even gave a pretty great motivational pre-battle speech at one point ... not something a woman typically does or gets to do in a movie like this. Bloom is decent, slightly bland as usual, but he gets the job done and nicely portrays a character who has come a logn way since Pirates 1.

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, well, he deserves all of the credit he's gotten for just how well he's taken this character and made it his own. Here, Sparrow is presented as something of a genius, yet certifiably insane, talking with multiple versions of himself and encountering Sparrow in miniature, like something out of Evil Dead. Jack embodies this series spirit of comedic playfulness and adventure, and I loved where Jack ends up by movie's end - mostly alone, crew-less, left for dead - yet primed and ready to set sail on one more crazy adventure. A pirate's life for him, yo ho!

Okay, I've mostly had nothing but great things to say, and I feel it's important to say those great things, because I really genuinely love and respect what these Pirate movies have accomplished and I hate to see Part 3 lumped in with say, Spiderman 3, which missed the mark in as many ways as Pirates was spot-on. And yet, critics at EW, The Onion, and elsewhere seem intent on microanalyzing the plotline to death, since somehow to them the plot overshadowed everything else when to me, it was never the focus at all, simply the engine that gave momentum to the characters and the chaos of this fantasy universe. But yeah, the plot here is convoluted, and yes, at times I found myself frustrated with its seeming ambiguity. Calypso, for example - what was her deal, and what happened to her at movie's end? Did Davy Jones love her, hate her - did he want to see her set free? I couldn't rightly tell you, exactly. So there's that ...

The only other problem I have in this movie was the pacing. Part 1 was perfectly-paced from start to finish, with a potent mix of drama, action, and character. Part 2 was just nonstop over-the-top action and adventure that never let up, which turned off some but which I found vastly entertaining even if it was taking Part 1 - a fairly simple, straightforward pirate yarn, and making into something much larger that clearly, Part 1 was not originally intended to be the prelude to. Part 3 cuts back drastically on the bombastic action set-pieces from Part 2, but spends a bit too much time on the dynamics of the side characters (notably the Davey Jones - Calypso relationship and Beckett and the East India Trading Company). The Jones-Calyspo thing is just pretty muddled, and there's too much exposition that doesn't make things much clearer, instead just serving to really slow things down. Meanwhile, while the EITC's quest to destroy all piracy provides the impetus for much of the movie's conflict (since they are controlling Davey Jones), there isn't quite enough attention paid to this end of the story, leaving the EITC'ers pushed into the background by movie's end, lost among all the piratesand fish-people (except for the two officers who switch sides to Team Pirate, which is kind of a funny little side-plot). By about midway through the movie, things really do begin to drag a bit. But just when things are getting a bit dull, the action kicks in again in the last half hour or so and suddenly the movie hits its stride.

And while things do drag at times, the sheer number of cool moments throughout the film is more than enough to make up for it. The opening, with pirates being hanged by the dozen as the somberly chant a pirate tune, is simply great - a dark, memorable, cool scene. Then there's Sparrow in pirate purgatory, Barbosa in full scene-stealing mode, a killer half-man half-eel, Chow and his Asian pirates, Keith f'n Richards, "Dead Men Tell No Tales," Will and Elizabeth's shotgun wedding, the dog (~!), some surprisingly racy pirate-on-wench action on the beach, and the nice little after-the-credits "ten years later" coda to cap off the big love story. And that's only the half of it. Coupled with the beautiful f/x and character / set designs, kinetic action, madcap humor, and the awesome Hans Zimmer score, I enjoyed the heck out of Pirates 3, and I thank all involved for giving me three films that were pure entertainment from start to finish, that I look forward to revisiting again and often.

My Grade: A -

Thursday, May 24, 2007

LOST - The Shocking Season 3 Finale - Reviewed! Plus - the HEROES finale.

LOST - Season 3 Finale:

- For the last two years, Lost has dropped the ball when it came time to close out its season. For some reason, the writers failed to put that all-important exclamation mark on the season, never delivering on the hype that was built-up to near boiling point levels.

Last night, holy crap, did they ever deliver. Last night's LOST was an insanely good piece of television, and I don't think it's hyperbole to say that it contained one of the most memorable narrative twists in the history of scripted television drama. I was very, very skeptical when Damon Lindeloff and co promised a true "game-changer" for last night's finale. But if there was ever a game-changer, then that was it. Dayum.

First, let's forget about the twist for a moment and just focus on the meat of the episode. This was, simply, one of those classic moments in a story when everything just comes together to deliver high adventure and pulse-pounding drama. For two hours, the tapestry of great characters, heroes, villains, and storyarcs seamlessly wove a riveting tale, and man, it was just a joy to watch.

Charlie has never been more entertaining or cool then he was last night. It was like suddenly, everything just clicked with his character and this was, right here, the Charlie that we've always wanted to see. Flippant, staring down danger with a smile, dare I say punk rock? If Charlie is really dead, then what a high note to go out on. No more angst or moping about for everyone's favorite ex-hobbit - he went out a hero, and with a character arc that had been brilliantly advanced and seen through to completion.

Everything with Charlie, Desmond, Mikhail, and the two VIPER Squad members in the underwater base was just 100% awesome. Classic James Bond-esque adventure and intrigue, I was eating up every second of it. I mean, how kickass is Mikhail as a second-tier villain? I actually hope he isn't dead because the PATCH must live on. I'm not sure what to make of the Penelope / Naomi thing. It's intriguing, I guess, but I need more info. But anyways, everytime Lost cut back to Charlie and co in the underwater hatch, I was lovin' it.

For a while now, Hurley has been kind of useless, even bordering on annoying. But dammit all, Hurley barrelling through The Others in his Dharma truck, after we thought he had returned to the group following Sawyer telling him to go back, was one of my favorite moments ever on Lost! That was legit smile from ear-to-ear stuff. The scene when Jack, after beating the snot out of Ben and picking up his walkie-talkie, was expecting to talk tough with some Others who had just murdered his friends, only to hear a victorious Hurley on the other end --- well, who didn't want to jump and cheer? Like Charlie, Hurley, the unlikeliest of heroes, saw his character arc come full circle last night and I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed it.

Locke ... Locke has been one of the most uneven characters on the show - the focus in some of the show's all time best moments as well as in some of its worst. But Locke, awaking from certain death in a mass grace, being urged on by the reappearing Walt to continue on with his mysterious mission, with Locke managing a knowing smile in reply as he gripped a gun ... that was classic Locke, and classic Lost. That whole scene of Locke's "resurrection" before Walt was just friggin' cool.

Like in the best ensemble stories, everyone had their great little moment. Think Sayid snapping that one guy's neck with his legs. Think Rose and Bernard, who were show-stealers despite this being their first real appearance on the show since last season! Think Jin and Sun, and the bond that Jin had formed with the other islanders. Think Danielle as she was reunited with her long-lost daughter, Alex. Her first words to Alex: "Tie him up." The man being restrained of course, was Alex's father Ben. Talk about a dysfunctional family ...

Sawyer, who has gone from villain to Han Solo-esque rogue to broken blank slate (after being manipulated into killing Locke's dad, aka the "real" Sawyer), got off the line of the night when he finally got one up on Mr. Friendly. "I didn't believe him." An instant classic.

The triangle romance between Jack and Kate and Sawyer saw some real developments as well. Jack told Kate he loved her, but before that kissed Juliette. Sawyer and Kate had some tense moments. All said, these characters are just the best on TV, and it will be a crime if people like Matthew Fox, Josh Halloway, and Elizabeth Mitchell aren't nominated for Emmys.

As always with LOST, a few things did bug me. Namely, the usual problem of characters (particularly Ben and Locke) speaking in riddles, which is totally counterintuitive when you're trying to win someone over to your way of thinking. Ben's M.O. has always been that of a liar and manipulator, and Jack and co are long since wise to this fact. So, why would Ben make a last-ditch effort to dissuade Jack from leading his people off the island by giving them more ambiguous warnings about how doing so would lead to their dooms? And the same goes for Locke. It's like, if you've got something to say, spit it out! What did Locke know that was so extreme that he killed a seemingly innocent woman?

Aside from these quibbles, I can't state enough how much I loved this episode. Now, about those "flashbacks ..."

First off, I freely admit that until the final minutes of this episode, I hadn't even considered that these might be anything other than standard-issue Lost flashbacks. Even with that mindset, I loved these flashbacks. Seeing the usually-composed Jack fall so far off the wagon was pretty jarring, and Matthew Fox did an incredible job with this material. The opening flash of him contemplating suicide was beautifully-shot and just so well done - it immediately drew you into the story in a way that many of the flashbacks fail to do, and set up a mystery surrounding Jack that I eagerly followed to the end. Of course, all through these flashbacks, something did seem off. Jack with a grey-speckled beard? Using a razor cell phone and wearing very modern-looking sunglasses? Whose funeral was he attending? What did the fact that a drunk, pill-popping Jack angrily referenced his father, as though his dad were still alive, imply about where in the Lost timeline these flashes were set? Still, I mostly just accepted that this was some as-of-yet unseen period in Jack's history, revealed to, as usual, parallel the events on the island and give some new insight into a dark period from Jack's past.

But then ...

HOLY $#%~!

This was an ending that I didn't see coming whatsoever, but one that left me with my jaw left hanging on the floor and my head buzzing on a euphoric high. Was this really Lost: One Year Later? So what we had just seen was ...? As in Memento or other similar fare, my mind was totally blown when I realized that what we had been watching all this time was in fact a Jack who had escaped the island with his fellow castaways and had been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to reintegrate back into the real world. Suddenly, the mystery of whose funeral he had gone to as the sole attendee took on a whole new urgency. Was it Ben? Sawyer? The blonde woman who was Jack's emergency contact had at first glance appeared to be his wife as previously seen in flashback, but it wasn't, was it? So, who was she? Why did Kate and Jack have such a strained relationship in this future timeline? Who was "him" that Kate had to get back to? Were allusions to Jack as being a hero solely in reference to him saving the woman from the carwreck, or did people know him as the man who rescued the survivors of Flight 815? And here's the big one - WHY did Jack want to go back to the island? Were some of the castaways still there? What became of Locke, Desmond, and the rest? Why weren't Jack and the rest supposed to escape, and what made Jack feel so wrong about leaving? And -- why had Jack been lying about the island - was he forced, coerced, unable to tell the truth?

DAMN. Like I said, my mind was blown.

But you know what - even without all these burning questions - how awesome was Jack's characterization in retrospect in those future-flashes? Knowing that this was a returned-from-the-island Jack, I was floored by this amazing depiction of a broken man who had just seen and experienced something so unbelievable that he held on to some hope of returning to that hell, because it was the only existence he could live with after all he had endured. Thinking about the episode's opening scene of Jack on the plane, with the reveal in mind, wow - what kickass characterization is that. In terms of narrative structure and intersecting plot threads and multiple layers of meaning woven into each scene - this was simply an amazing story, sci-fi at its best, scripted television at its utmost potential. And let me also mention some of the other aspects of the show's production. The direction and cinematography here was, as always, pretty spectacular. Truly a step above what you usually see on TV. The music here was superb as well - feature film quality scoring that really added to the drama and intensity.

I have no idea what the next season of Lost will bring - whether it will be set in the island's present with flash-forwards to the future, or focus on the newly-revealed future with flashbacks to how that future came to be, ala 52. But this is one of those cases where I simply cannot wait until this show returns. No longer am I saying "okay, I'll give Lost one more chance to impress me." That's it - they've impressed me, and whatever issues I had with the episode were far, far outweighed by the overall greatness of this finale. Congrats to the Lost writers, producers, crew and cast - you guys put on one hell of a show. This episode may need to be viewed in the context of what comes next to truly be judged in its proper context. But, as of now, I can, I think, fairly safely say, that this was one of the best and most memorable installments of a TV drama I've ever seen, and definitely and example of LOST at the top of its game. This one will be talked about for years to come.

My Grade: A+

HEROES Season Finale:

- I give Heroes a lot of credit. It brought comic book mythology to the small screen with a level of mainstream appeal that is certainly unprecedented. It introduced some great characters like Claire, the indestructable cheerleader, and Hiro, the humble office drone turned time-bending adventurer. Most of all, I give Heroes credit for getting better each week. When I first saw the pilot last year, I was disappointed that the greatness of the initial script had seemingly been lost in translation to the screen. And for those first several episodes, I couldn't bring myself to jump aboard the Heroes bandwagon. There were a few things I liked - Hiro, mostly - but many of the characters felt generic and thin, and the plot seemed to meander and get bogged down by angsty brooding and little sense of forward momentum. But somewhere along the way, business picked up. Sylar was introduced and brought a much needed villainous presence to the mix. The mythology of the show was broadened, and great actors like Christopher Ecclestion, George Takei, Eric Roberts, and Malcolm McDowell were brought in and brought much-needed dramatic chops to a cast that suffered from a few too many stiffs. And then "Company Man" happened. Suddenly, Heroes had shifted into another gear, with an amazing episode that narrowed the spotlight, focusing on HRG / Mr. Bennett / Noah and creating a dynamic, compelling backstory. With that episode, Heroes loosened the reigns and felt fresh, original, innovative.

All along, a certain contingent of fanboys, encouraged by the show's high ratings and breakout status, have been making noise about how Heroes, is, apparently, the greatest thing since sliced bread. While it wowed me with a few key episodes, Heroes has still never 100% clicked with me. There's too many plot elements and characters that feel ripped straight out of some other story. There's too many characters that feel thin and whose motivations seem contrived. Usually, I come away from Heroes having loved certain scenes, but rarely feeling like the show was firing on all cylinders.

For a show that has to some extent cruised along on hype (sorry, I'm not a fan of a marketing catchphrase becoming so integrated into a show's scripts), this finale was make or break.

Well, in the end, this one didn't really do either. It was a competent finale - some fun moments, a few cool twists, and a pretty great lead-in to next season that left you goin' home happy and excited with anticipation. But was this the huge, explosive finale we had come to expect? Not exactly. I realize this isn't a Michael Bay movie (and thank God for that), but I was still left wondering where all the fireworks were as things reached the climactic endgame.

Visually, I was kind of underwhelmed. These characters are fighting with superpowers in a public plaza in New York, and yet no one (in NEW YORK?!?! Come on!) is there to witness? The battle between Peter and Sylar could have been an awe-inspiring moment, with throngs of New Yorkers shocked at what they were seeing, filled with dread as they realize what's at stake in the battle. Instead, the heroes still exist in a vaccum despite all logic dictating otherwise. On a show whose conceit is that its superheroes in a real-world setting, I was disappointed at how unrealistic this version of New York seemed.

Meanwhile, the characters still seemed to kind of just get thrown around with little rhyme or reason. This was evident from the get-go, as new dialogue was thrown into the recap of last week to make it clearer what happened in the confrontaiton between Linderman and D.L. Then, Bennett is all over the place in terms of what he wants for Claire. Does he want her kept away from the bomb, or to be in the thick of things? Nathan Petrelli is still, to me, such a lifeless character. A character can't swing back and forth between being complicit in the murder of millions and being a hero - that's way too much of a stretch. That was the whole point of Watchmen - that Adrian Veidt believed himself a hero when in fact he was delusional - he couldn't be both a hero and a mass murderer. Nathan flying his radioactive brother out of harm's way was a twist that was neither here nor there - Nathan is such a blank slate that he could do practically anything and it'd barely register with me.

To add to that feeling of disappintment I had, the ep was just overwritten to the point of inducing extreme instances of eye-rolling. Did Richard Roundtree, in his fairly dull and confusing scenes with the younger Petrelli, really just tell Peter that all you need is love? What was that that Claire was crying about - fate and destiny not being written in stone? And the capper - the return of Mohinder's godawful narration, which basically was a lot of flowery prose that added nothing to the storytelling.

Don't get me wrong - there were a lot of fun moments, as per usual. Jessica / Niki's fight with herself was pretty cool, although she was useless later, randomly hitting Sylar with a pole despite not even knowing who he was.

Clearly though, Hiro, Ando, and Mr. Sulu owned this episode. They had all the best moments, with Ando's near-death at the hands of Sylar, Hiro's rescue, and then Hiro going Crouching Tiger on the brain-sucking badguy. I also loved the end of the episode, with Hiro transporting back to feudal Japan and being caught in the middle of some kind of battle between horse-mounted warriors. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes, and I am very interested in the whole "Generations" concept that looks to be the focus of Season 2. I mean, any good comic geek knows that you can't have a superhero universe without some generational legacy stuff (that inevitably ties into World War II in some way). Again, the problem is that this type of story has been told many, many times before, and very well (ex: Watchmen, JSA, The Golden Age, Planetary). It will be interesting to see what if any new spin HEROES has on this classic staple of superhero lore.

As for the episode - not spectacular like I'd hoped, but decent enough to keep me interested and reasonably eager for Season 2. I hope that this season was a kind of learning period and now, hopefully, the kinks have been ironed out. Let's hope that with season 2, Heroes really begins to live up to its full potential and that business really begins to pick up.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"A long time ago, we used to be friends ..." - The Final Case For VERONICA MARS.

- A few years ago, I heard about a new show called Veronica Mars premiering on UPN, a network not exactly known for quality scripted programming. I'm not sure why, but I watched the pilot on something of a whim, possibly due to some strong early reviews that placed it alongside ABC's Lost as one of the must-watch shows of the new fall season. I liked the idea of mixing film noir with high school drama, and the name of the show alone, Veronica Mars - there was something about it that to me screamed coolness. I tuned in, and was soon hooked - I mean, within the span of a few episodes, it was clear that this wasn't just another show. This was something special. This was a classic in the making.

Since I started this blog, one of my own little pet projects has been promoting this show at any chance I can get. I think I succeeded in turning at least a few people on to the show, and I'm glad that I could do my small part to spread the gospel.

But it wasn't enough. Despite an impassioned fan base, Veronica Mars could never find the kind of quantifiable success it needed to stay afloat in the cutthroat world of network television, and that, to me, is a total shame. Sure, it had many things going against it - it began its life on a network known for courting young, urban males, as a high school drama with a female lead. And yet, if fans of shows like 7th Heaven or One Tree Hill tuned in looking for another teen soap, well, they would have been shocked by what they saw - an uncompromisingly dark, unabashadly smart, neo-noir detective show that was unlike anything else on TV. For this reason, VM became that rare show that is elusive to the average viewer. There was little network-generated hype, and zero built-in audience. Like some indie rock band with a cult following, this was a show that had to be FOUND, by those actively seeking something new and different and BETTER than the usual network TV crap. But indie rock bands can toil away in obscurity for years before achieving their big break. In TV Land, prohibitive costs and the constant pressure for bigger and better ratings doesn't allow for this kind of growth period. You'd think, you'd THINK, that of all places, a fledgling, struggling network like the CW would give its best-reviewed show a shot to find that audience, but I guess they couldn't be bothered to make a move that would actually create goodwill with audiences.

But forget all that for a second, let's talk about the show.

24. Lost. Heroes. Pick a show. Over the last three years, Veronica Mars has been as good if not better. When the show hit its stride in seasons 1 and 2, every episode was a puzzle, a character drama, a film noir, and a high school melodrama wrapped into one thrilling package. Every episode had this stark, barren atmosphere that pulled you in and didn't let go. High school was Hell, and Veronica was caught in its depths.

Kristen Bell should have won an Emmy for this show. Other than the similarly unrecognized Lauren Graham, I can't think of another female lead who carried a show on her back like Kristen did this one. Bell played Veronica to perfection - a former cheerleader and Mean Girl who had, in a sudden turn, fallen from grace, and was left bitter and world-weary before her time. Bell's narration somehow had the weight needed to make Veronica Mars a modern day Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. One wouldn't expect that a high school sleuth could compare to those legendary private eyes, but Bell pulled it off - sly, witty, quick with a snappy comeback, handy with a tazer, and (almost) always one step ahead of the game. Bell convinced you that Veronica was pretty much always right. Except, sometimes she wasn't, and it was in those moments of vulnerability that Bell really turned in some award-worthy stuff. What can I say, the girl's got it.

Now, when I say that Bell carried the show, that is to take NOTHING away from this show's superlative supporting cast - one of the absolute best in the biz. First and foremost is Enrico Colantoni as Veronica's dad, Keith Mars, the best private gumshoe in all of Neptune, CA. Like most, I only knew Enrico as that guy from Just Shoot Me before he appeared on Mars. But wow, who knew this guy was such an amazing actor? Keith, like Veronica, was a fallen man - his wife had left him, he was relieved of his job as Sherriff after trying to bring down the wealthy and powerful Jake Kane - but he compensated with world-weary humor and a keen sense of right and wrong. Keith and Veronica had one of the best father-daughter relationships on TV. It was fileld with tension, humor, love, and mutual admiration. Percy Daggs III as Wallace - his introduction to the show, strung up on a flagpole, hazed as the new kid in school, Wallace became an instant fan favorite - the Dr. Watson to Veronica's Sherlock Holmes. Jason Dohring as Logan Echols was at his best as a psycho loose cannon - sure, his charms at times won over Veronica, but he was a guy who could never quite overcome his screwed-up upbringing as the son of a famous actor, and the sins of his father continually came back to haunt him. One of my favorites was Francis Capra as Weevil, the misbegotten gangsta who at times could have a heart of gold, but who too often feel back into old habits. Weevil was emblematic of how VM so cleverly dealt with themes much greater than who was hooking up with who. The show tackled themes like class struggle, morality, and justice with intelligence and complexity. And, it was just bursting at the seems with cool characters. In season 1, Amanda Seyfried was haunting as Veronica's best friend, Lily Kane - her murder the impetus for the great season-long mystery that at first propelled the show to greatness. Tina Majorino as Mac was such a great character - what started as a peripheral computer geek soon became a living breathing three-dimensional character that was another fan fav. You've got to love State alum Ken Marino as Vinnie Van Lowe. Charisma Carpenter was seemingly born to play femme fatale Kendall Casablancas. Harry Hamlin played one of the best villains in recent memory when he assumed the role of murderous actor Aaron Echols. Ryan Hansen was funny and tragic as Dick Casablancas, and Kyle Gallner was disturbingly-screwed-up as his younger brother Beaver.

And there's so many more great characters to mention ... for a show that only ran three seasons, it really is amazing. Chris Lowell was cool as Piz, the everyman fanboy who got a shot with Veronica. Ed Begley Jr. was great in Season 3 as Hearst College's Dean O'Dell, and Patrick Fabian was similarly superb as rival and murder suspect Hank Landry. There was Steve Guttenberg in a memorable turn as Mayor Woody Goodman, and Julie Gonzalo as Parker, who slowly grew into a great character in Season 3.

One thing about Veronica Mars is that it could, plain and simply, TELL A GOOD STORY. In an era when shows seem to meander endlessly yet never get to the point, Veronica Mars was so packed with meticulous detail, so filled with clever plotting and spot-on dialogue, that by each season's end the finales would be bursting at the seams as the writers tried to wrap up all of the expertly crafted loose ends. When this show featured a mystery, big or small, it was expertly told, with clues laid out, suspects lined up, and red herrings cunningly dangled before us as we tried to guess whodunnit. While watching VM, I was constantly blown away by the writing. The mysteries weren't just logic puzzles either - they featured interesting characters, genuinely surprising twists, and never failed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Forget the mysteries of a remote island ... Who killed Lilly Kane? Who was behind the Neptune High bus crash? Who killed Dean O'Dell? These were mysteries expertly crafted and resolved in thrilling and conclusive fashion.

And the dialogue. Now THIS was dialogue. Fact is, the guys behind VM wrote their asses off each and every week. Thanks to them, Veronica and co's words crackled with the rythm of classic films and the freshness of the best modern TV shows. Pop culture references that zinged, geek-out moments galore (Frak! Lebowski refrences up the wazoo!), and back and forth repartee that was a joy to listen to. As someone who aspires to write for TV, this was a show that I always felt like I should be taking notes on while watching, it was that good.

So here's to VERONICA MARS - a show that never quite got its due except from the select few who were cool enough to get it. An instant-classic with a finger-snapping theme song, a genre-bending joy with sensibilities that were truly too cool for school - it was aces, gangbusters, what more can I say - I'm just sad to see it go so clearly before its time.

VERONICA MARS Series Finale:

- Oh. man. This can't be right. I need to know how Keith handles this wrench in his campaign for Sherriff. I need to see if and how Veronica and Logan patch things up. Does Jake Kane seek revenge on Ms. Mars? What does Wallace do? Piz? Parker? Mac? Dick? What becomes of the amazing, surprising, soon-to-be severely missed world of Veronica Mars?!?!

As a season finale, this was great, great stuff. It showed me that this show is still as good as ever, that it can still tell an intense, riveting mystery story better than anyone. As a SERIES finale, oh man, I just don't know ... it was such a downbeat, hard ending. Fitting with the show, which has never gone in for the standard sunny-side up Hollywood way of telling stories? Sure, yeah, of course. But was it the kind of closure I wanted for the show? Well, something tells me this isn't exactly how Rob Thomas and co wanted to go out, exactly. It just didn't have that final punch to give that real sense of finality, to give the show a real ending. But it's okay, I forgive 'em. I can only guess at what kind of uncertainty and jerking around by the network the show had to put up with in its final days.

As an episode ... this was two hours of classic VM. The ending to the first half, with a bloodied Logan approaching Veronica after having just wrongfully gone Mike Tyson on Piz - wow, talk about intense. And the first half's main mystery, with some classic Veronica sleuthing as the teen titan brought down a rich-kid conspiracy and exonerated Weevil once again, was just plain good stuff, a vintage VM caper. In the second half, we got an old-school Veronica and Wallace teamwork, as Wallace infiltrated a skull and bones-esque secret society in order to figure out who was screwing with Veronica. Well, the trail of corruption led all the way back to Jake Kane, in a mystery that really brought things full circle for the show. What we got then was the real kicker - Keith Mars having to make the hard choice - risk jeapordizing his daughter's future by following the letter of the law and allowing the Kane's to press charges, or else tamper with the incriminating evidence that would implicate Veronica, thus sabotaging his chances to win the race for Sherriff. Again, the ep brought some of the big themes of the series full circle - falling rom grace and rebuilding, rising from the ashes, coping with tragedy, and coping with a society that will beat you up and drag you through the mud. The ending here was tragic, dark - Veronica got her man and got off free, but at what price?

Two great hours - you couldn't ask for better quality storytelling from a show that rarely fails to deliver despite so many factors being against it. I guess I can find hope in knowing that the good stuff will live on. Long after the latest lame reality shows and sitcoms are gone and forgotten, people will still be rediscovering Veronica Mars. A curious consumer will buy the DVD or download an episode from iTunes, and spread the word to their friends - "Hey, you ever see that show Veronic Mars? Man, that was good stuff." Meanwhile, those of us who were in the know the whole time (who, likely, never filled out a Nielson survey, go figure), can take comfort in the idea that we were there to witness a great show in its prime.

Because damn, Veronica Mars was cool as hell.

My Grade: A

24: Season 6 Finale!

24! 24! 24!

- Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Will all of you 24 haters please regain some semblance of sanity? Once again, I am seeing all these idiots coming out of the woodwork, declaring 24 dead and comparing it unfavorably to the likes of Heroes, Lost, and any other show deemed as the next big thing in TV. Will people please stop being so melodramatic about this (I'm looking at you, MATT ROUSH). Duh, 24 struggled this season. But there is no way that a true blue 24 fan could have watched last night's finale and not had some genuine, only-on-24 "holy $%&" moments. So let me get to it ...

The TWENTY by-God FOUR Season 6 finale:

- Call me a 24 apologist or whatever, but I really enjoyed last night's finale. Sure, it had its share of flaws. But I think there's a huge double standard when it comes to certain genre shows. For some reason, 24 this year has gotten picked apart like no other, whereas Heroes, Smallville, and a few others seem to get free passes from some week after week. There was enough stuff last night that kicked ass that, for me, I was willing and able to just sit back, overlook some of the lame stuff, and enjoy the ride.

And yes, this episode was good enough that it prompted me to a.) keep watching FOX until well after 10 pm with the slim hope that something would be revealed about 24: Season 7, b.) immediately call my brother for the traditional post 24 call, which last night, as in the 24 days of yore, was initiated with a hearty cry of: "Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn!"

To paraphrase:

Me: That was awesome ...
Matt: Eh, it was okay.
Me: It was awesome.
Matt: The Chloe stuff was lame.
Me: Who cares ...
Matt: We never even found out anything about Jack's father!
Me: Yeah ... but still ... how could you not love Bill Buchanan saving the day?
Matt: Yeah ...
Me: It ruled ...
Matt: Dammit all.
Me: Dammit all.

(sadly, this is what many conversations between my brother and I actually sound like)

So as I so often gave you in those halycon days before 24 stopped consistently ruling it, here are some random thoughts:

- Bill Buchanan is back! Why is it that Bill is always kind of boring at CTU, but once he trades the suit and tie for civies, he suddenly begins to kick seven kinds of ass with an extra dose of gravitas?

- Okay, it was a pretty lame Part 1 cliffhanger to have Chloe collapse with no real build up or anything. But the moment was totally saved by the awesomeness of Morris' desperate cry for help. "Somebody help me! I said ... SOMEBODY HELP ME!!!!" Dayum.

- You've gotta love Vice President Grodd. One minute it's "I want Karen Hayes punished to the full extent of the law!" The next minute it's: "Well, I've mellowed out a lot in the last 22 minutes. I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive her ...".

- The most ridiculous thing in this whole ep was probably Morris calling the CTU doctor to check in on Chloe literally 30-seconds after he saw her in her room. What, do CTU doctors have to update agents about their patients' health in "real-time?" And does anyone in real life ever actually ask for anything to be done in "real-time?"

- What was with Milo's brother's sudden appearance and then random disappearing act? Mysterious ...

- Man, was Nadia ever a lame character. What a waste of space.

- Rena Sofer continues to be the Queen of Monday Night TV, appearing simultaneously on both 24 and Heroes! Hiro, is that you?

- Good ol' Subarov -- what a Prime Minister, always threatening to start World War III.

- So yeah, I do agree with my brother that, in the end, Papa Bauer turned out to be a disappointing villain. All through last season, the threads of some vast conspiracy were swen throughout the 24 mythology in the form of the man who would be Graem and his Bluetooth mafia. Then, the mastermind behind Graem's actions turns out to be he and Jack daddy dearest. So ... what exactly was his deal, anyways? We never found out, and Jack was so emotionless and devoid of curiosity by the time he found his father that he never had the chance to ask (also, the oil rig they were standing on was about to be blown up in like 18 seconds). I hope that the origins of this secret cabal are explored a bit inthe future, because 24 has a REALLY bad habit of introducing all these interesting conspiracy elements to its plotline and never following up on them at all (I'm STILL waiting to find out exactly who Naked Mandy was working for when she gave David Palmer that poison-tipped handshake).

- Looks like little Josh inherited some of the Bauer family badassery! He hit his own grandpa in the back of the head with a lead pipe - nice! His grandpa was a sociopathic weirdo though so, you know, it's all good.

- I will also say ... Karen Hayes' motivation for risking her entire career and reputation in order to help Jack save his nephew was pretty weak. After all she'd been through, one casualty in the name of stopping a World War would have been deemed an acceptable loss. That leads me to another problem with the season as a whole - th enormity of what happened during the day, like, say, a NUKE going off just outside of LA, was never really conveyed well at all. An event like that would change everything, and yet it felt like business as usual in the 24-verse.

- One of the best lines of the show - Jack and Bill taking the CTU helicopter to storm the oil rig and save Josh - Jack Bauer: "We're commandeering your helicopter. GET OUT!" Gravitas through a straw.

- And the best part of the whole thing - Jack and Bill suiting up for battle, during which time JACK was reunited with his SACK! Yes, in one glorious moment, the JACKSACK returned!

- Doyle is blinded! Nice little scene with him taking the fall, too bad his character was 98% LAME.

- And man, those action scenes on the oil rig were tight! Great stuff, and awesome direction here, that was big-budget movie quality, baby. Bill Buchanan piloting a helicopter as it swings around to pick up Jack, Josh and a bloodied Chang in tow, with F-18's poised to launch missles and blow it all to hell ANY SECOND, was pretty freaking cool.

- And the ending ... NICE. It sounds like people were somewhat divided over this, but I liked it a lot as a coda to this season, and as an ending that allows next season to go in a number of different directions. First of all, William Devane rules it, period. Secondly, this ending gave us 24 fans one of the best insights into Jack Bauer's state of mind we've yet seen on the show. FINALLY, things slowed down for a second and things were put back into context. This wasn't just Jack as a robotic anti-terrorist machine. This was the man we were introduced to in the opening minutes of this season - a man who had been broken and betrayed, who was left for dead by his friends and his country, who was just told by the one man he looked up to to stay away from him and his daughter forever. This was a pissed off, frustrated, self-doubting, loose-cannon who has just been pushed to the absolute brink. WELCOME BACK JACK F'N BAUER.

- Overall, this two-part finale inevitably had to deal with some of the same lame CTU and White House politics that have put a real damper on this season. Looking at the whole season, there were many lost opportunities. We lost good characters in Curtis and Graem Bauer - characters who really had zero opportunity to live up to the potential they showed to be staples of the 24 universe. In turn, we got a number of new characters who never panned out and failed to make us care about them in the least. Our main character, Jack, was introduced as having just endured years of torture and suffering, and yet, within MINUTES, he was back to business as usual, until the final moments of the season finale when the show FINALLY got back around to addressing what's been going on with the character. And the plot was a mix of retread devices, new threads that went nowhere, and endless revisitations of the same old stuff. How many times can Jack be taken into custody, CTU attacked, the President be compromised from within, or CTU infiltrated by a mole?

But as for THIS one episode - I enjoyed it. Great action, intense pacing, and an awesome ending that was beautifully shot and was on its own a great Jack Bauer character moment - something we've gotten way too few of as of late. Sure, there was no ZOMBIE ALMEDA as I had hoped for, and no twist ending a la last year. But this was solid stuff. Not save-and-redeem-the-whole season solid, but enough to elicit a respectable if not ear-splitting "DAAAAAAAAAAAAAMN!"

My Grade: A -

- Bring on SEASON 7.

- Just for the record, here is how I rank the seasons of 24:

1. Day 1
2. Day 2
3. Day 5
4. Day 4
5. Day 3
6. Day 6

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Out With VERONICA MARS, in with FARMER WANTS A WIFE?!?! Plus - LOST reviewed!

Today is a sad day for people with good taste.

As of this morning, it appears pretty clear that VERONICA MARS is done. While there was no official announcement and no great fanfare, it appears that the CW has unceremoniously dumped one of the very best TV shows of the last 5 years, as it retools its network lineup for next fall. Now it may be that in a few weeks there will be some surprise announcement about a retooled version of the show or whatever, but the chances of that happening now seem slim to none. In fact, I could barely contain my frustration this morning as I kept hitting "refresh" on TV Guide's website, reading Michael Ausiello's breathless quest to get to the bottom of what was up with VM's future. The worst part is that CW prez Dawn Ostroff kept sending mixed messages. She all but declared VM dead, yet at the same time kept hinting that there was some ambiguous plan in the works to bring back the show in a new form. So Ausiello forwarded a quote from Ostroff to VM showrunner Rob Thomas, to get his take on the idea that he, Ostroff, and series star Kristen Bell were all working on something together. Thomas replied, saying that he had never had ANY conversations with Dawn, and that at this point most of the show's writers and actors had already resigned themselves to accepting that the show was over and done with, and had begun the process of moving on to new projects (for her part, Kristin Bell is already provifing narration for CW's Gossip Girl). So barring a miracle, Veronica Mars, perhaps the best drama on television, is being kicked to the curb with none of the class or respect it deserves.

I mean, if talking to Thomas and Bell is such a low priority for Ostroff, then that certainly does not bode well for an eleventh hour miracle. Mid-June is still, apparently, the absolute cut-off date for an announcement either way. But the damage has been done. People are angry, and it's these same people who are the same passionate, hardcore fans who can make or break a fledgling network like the CW. I mean, talk about a show with prominent fans. People like Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith were so passionate about Mars that they volunteered to guest star and help attract some new fans to the show. Go online, read any news report about today's CW upfront - the headline news isn't the new fall shows, no, CNN and Yahoo and TV Guide's headlines are about the future of Veronica Mars!

Ostroff needs to get on the ball here and level with the fans. She committed another blunder today when she quickly menitoned that she was sad to see Gilmore Girls go, only to quickly rave about how Beauty and the Geek did even better than Gilmore in the ratings when it came to attracting young adults! Is that any way to show respect for a show that helped launch your network and had a critically-acclaimed and beloved seven year run? Look, I applaud the CW for some of the pilots it picked up. ALIENS IN AMERICA is a comedy that has the potential to be great. REAPER is a fun, lighthearted show that reminded me of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure with its goofy sci-fi comedy. But can these shows replace two of the best dramas of the decade? The truly depressing thing, though, is that yes, CW has a few promising new shows on tap for the fall. But it also has crap on a stick in the form of "Pussycat Dolls Present," "Crowned: The Mother of all Pageants," and here's the kicker - "Farmer Wants a Wife." Yep, it's out with Veronica Mars and in with FARMER WANTS A WIFE. And we descend ever closer to the seventh level of hell ...

All I know is, Gilmore, amazingly, was able to go out with a great finale despite so much uncertainty about its future. I can only hope that Veronica Mars will be able to pull off the same trick this Tuesday - if any show deserves to get the royal sendoff - this is it.


- This week's LOST featured no disembodied voices, no shocking revelations about the identity of "Jacob," and no great mysteries about who was on who's side. With most of its cards laid on the table, Lost this week instead delivered a 100% solid episode that told a great story and was filled with fun moments, top-notch characterization, and a cool ending that left me dying for next Wednesday to get here already. This was good stuff.

Really, there's not much to critique here. This was essentially a Charlie story, a fairly personal one, about our favorite former hobbit coming to terms with his seemingly impending death as foretold by the prophetic visions of Desmond. As usual, Lost did it's typically amazing job of buiding up tension throughout the ep - once again, they had me hanging at the edge of my seat to see Charlie's ultimate fate. But since this was a personal ep with clearly defined storytelling, there was no room for one of Lost's typical underwhelming endings - the show's hand was forced, and it delivered with a great final sequence, in which Desmond offers to take Charlie's place as underwater scout on a potential suicide mission, only for Charlie to clock him with a paddle and take the dive (literally). We then got a tension-filled scene straight out of Tomb Raider, with Charlie desperately diving beneath the Other's sunken hatch, scrambling to hold his breath as he searched for an entrance into the compound. The build up and emotion of this episode had me all but convinced that Charlie was a deadman, so I was surprised that he surfaced and seemed to make it into the hatch unscathed. Next thing you know, the lead singer of Drive Shaft is cornered by two heat-packing femme fatales, cut to black, and business has just picked up. Nice.

There were also a lot of fun threads picked up on here. Rose and Bernard made a welcome return. Jack and Sayid had some nice exchanges that sounded like real, actual dialogue rather than riddles answered with mysteries. I got a kick out of Karl's scenes with Alex Rousseau and his subsequent arrival on the castaways' beach, screaming "they're coming NOW!" like some crazed kid out of a vintage Twilight Zone episode from the 60's.

On a quick tangent, it's funny that two recurring characters from Malcolm in the Middle, each of them quirky, funny teen girls on that show, are now costarring in two of the biggest scifi dramas on TV in Lost and Heroes.

But yeah, there was a lot to like here, and I found all the Charlie stuff to be well-handled and well-acted. Claire had some of the best scenes she's had in a long while, which was nice to see, and Desmond has quietly become Lost's coolest character over the last several episodes. Might Henry Ian Cusick's haunting performance as Desmond Hume put him in line for an Emmy nom, brother?

So yeah, great stuff from Lost last night. Can't wait for next week's finale.

My Grade: A

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Goodbye to Gilmore ... plus: Veronica Mars and Heroes - reviewed.

On the GILMORE GIRLS series finale:

I think most fans of this show realized that this season was probably the last. And I think that most fans were okay with that, on one important condition - that the show went out with a fitting series finale that felt like an ending that the show deserved after such a long, great run. Well, I don't think there's a single fan out there who could find much to complain about with last night's superb finale. For me - this episode, both as a standalone and as a series-ender, was darn near perfect. I honestly can't think of a single thing to complain about, and for me, that's saying something.

About five minutes into the episode, from the moment Rory walked into her grandparents' house with the announcement that she had gotten a job to follow Barak Obama on his campaign trail on a beat for an online magazine, they totally had me. From that point on, I was right there with the characters in Stars Hollow, just another one of Rory's admirers wishing her well as she rode off into the great wide open. That's how great and alive the characters and world of this show have always been. In my post yesterday, I talked about how this vividness serves to magnify all of your emotional attachment to everything that goes on in the world of Gilmore. Because the characters are so beloved, when you laugh at them and with them, it's a deep laugh that has you laughing until you cry. All the great little funny and quirky character moments that have made this show what it is were on full display last night - but the humor was so entangled with the happiness and sadness and emotion of the story that you really didn't know quite when to laugh, when to cry, and when to smile.

There were so many great, wonderful little moments. My personal favorite may have been Emily's constant nagging of Loreali about converting the Dragonfly Inn into a spa. For a while, you can't help but be frustrated with Emily - always such a pain in the ass at the most inappropriate moments! But Emily is such a great, well-acted, well-written character, Gilmore fans quickly knew what was up - the nagging was her way of coping with her life falling apart around her - she's such a stubborn old coot that she could never bring herself to actually ask Lorelai to spend time with her just for the sake of spending time. Lorelai finally caught on, as her mother went on about setting up appointments to discuss the spa idea (right in the middle of Rory's party!), and then there was such a great, sweet little moment that would make anyone with a pulse well up a bit. Lorelai just smiled, and reassured her mother that they'd discuss the idea - at their usual Friday Night dinners. With one line, and a rare moment of understanding between mother and daughter, a whole swarm of emotions and characterization came together. Emily had secretly feared that Rory was the lynchpin that had for all these years given her any kind of relationship with her daughter - with Rory leaving, might that delicately held-together relationship fall apart? It's just one more example of Gilmore having some of the best, most complex, most REAL depictions of family ever seen on television. Sure, the moment is sentimental and makes you smile - but its so nuanced and realistic and in character - it's no wonder it makes the most hardened cynic go soft.

Everything with Luke, I thought, was handled to perfection. Sure, the character has been down this road before - quietly showing how much he cares for Lorelai without wanting any undue attention or credit. Luke is always the guy standing in the back of the room, arms folded, trying to hide a smile in the name of preserving his crabby exterior. Any guy can relate to this. Guys don't give big speeches or talk endlessly about their feelings. Luke is a character that any guy can relate to - someone who believes in honest work and small dreams. So yeah, even though Luke's often done these grand gestures while trying to be modest and whatnot - that's just how the character is, it's what he does, and it was gratifying to see Lorelai finally be completely won over by that.

As for Rory's journey ... I feel like everyone can relate to this on some level. Everyone leaves their bubble and has that moment of freaking out when things happen suddenly and without warning, and all the careful planning and strategizing that goes along with having great expectations placed on your shoulders falls apart when you're in the real world - things just tend do happen - and that is both exciting and terrifying. Coming from a small Connecticut community, I can't help but see a lot of Rory in myself, and I couldn't help but think of how suddenly found myself going from sitting around in CT one moment worrying about my post-collegiate future to running around like a madman preparing to embark on a journey to California and the next phase of life. Rory's dealing with her new job and her future was handled beautifully - it was rushed but that was part of the point. There was the excitement, the panic attacks, the regrets, the goodbyes. Of course, most of us don't have an entire town come together to throw a party in honor of our leaving, but Stars Hollow has always been a great representation of all the quirky, weird, beloved, annoying, supporting characters that populate all of our lives.

Again - so many great little moments. Rory and Lane's goodbye. Sookie and Luke plotting the party, and Sookie's enthusiastic reveal of Luke's involvement to Lorelai. The town meeting scene was vintage Gilmore - hilarious yet filled with so much heart. Every little side character - Taylor, Kirk of course, Ms. Patty, Babette, Lulu - they all had their time to shine. Zack was a lot of fun as always - again I couldn't help but think that his and Lane's story has been so strong as almost a show within a show that it could very well be its own show. Richard Gilmore is one of those amazing characters that can make you laugh and cry in the span of one sentance. His speech to Lorelai, along with the previously mentioned moments between her and Emily, were memorable, sad, funny - classic Gilmore.

And that final scene of Lorelai and Rory in Luke's diner, a small slice of vintage Gilmore, was the perfect way to end things. That last shot, of Rory and Lorelai chatting endlessly about whatever random topic they happen to broach, with Luke quietly preparing their food in the background, as dawn breaks in Stars Hollow ... artful, classy, and a great ending to a wonderful episode.

In a world of crass reality shows, soulless dramas, and ineffectual comedies, Gilmore went out the way it came in - a show that felt real even as it was whimsical, that presented moving drama without ever being melodramatic, that elicited deep laughter without ever failing to be clever, witty, and classy. A great finale to one of the great shows.

My Grade: A+

- And isn't it a shame, that the CW's Tuesday night lineup is all but disappearing next season? When Gilmore was on its game, paired with Veronica Mars, this was perhaps the best one-two punch of TV anywhere on the network schedule. To think of it replaced by reality shows or generic soaps is truly depressing. And as of this morning, there is STILL no definitive word about Veronica's future, though it does seem to be looking pretty bleak ...


- I really enjoyed last night's ep, though I think I was still wiping my eyes from the Gilmore Girls finale for much of it and therefore couldn't give it 100% of my attention. Hahahaha ... um, seriously though ... This week's ep was much like last week's - a great ep of TV, but ultimately Veronica Mars-lite. There were no legitimately high stakes, no dark, noirish grit, and Veronica herself was never really in any danger. Still, for what it was, this was good stuff. I enjoyed the mystery of the Ugandan author at Hearst college, and as always this show is the best in the biz at weaving a compelling standalone mystery story that involves you in its plot twists and keeps you guessing until the end. As for the character stuff - I loved the reunion of Dick Casablancas with his skeevy father - man, was that ever a long time coming, and we finally got a bit of a bookend to Season 2's shocking ending. You gotta love Ken Marino as Vinnie Van Lowe, and his race against Keith to be Neptune's sheriff is a nice subplot with a mix of humor and darker intrigue. Parker is another character that has grown on me and Mac is of course great - it's just that their respective subplots are emblematic of how the show has gotten a bit too soapy, which isn't always bad, but that soap has replaced the overarching mysteries to some extent, which isn't an even tradeoff. I'm still not sure how I feel about Piz - I've been a fan of the character, but I like him as an every-geek who is fawining over Veronica. This episode, he seemed to slip a bit too easily into the typical boyfriend role. And I also wish we could see more of Wallace - the character has been woefully neglected after being so well-featured in Season 2. Still, I recognize that this season has seen its share of interferenct from the network, and I still have complete faith in Rob Thomas and co that they know what they are doing. If next week really is the series' last episode, and even if it isn't, I fully expect it to go out with one hell of a bang - the talent behind this show is way too good for it not to. As for this episode, a nice mystery, the usual stellar dialogue (Keith had a few classic lines here with his P.I test schtick) ... it's just you can tell the show is a bit schizofrenic as it waits to hear its ultimate fate. If there's any justice in the world, it will be back.

My Grade: A -

- I also caught Monday's HEROES. One word can describe why this episode kicked some ass: Sulu! George Takei friggin' ruled it in this ep, and his campy sense of melodramatic timing made his scenes with Hiro unbearably fun to watch. When Hiro asked "What do you know about killing?" only for his dad to whip out a samurai sword and wield it like freaking Ninja Gaiden, any geek worth his or her salt was smiling from ear to ear. And by the way, nice to see the show acknowledge some of the guys who made its premise possible, with the action centered at KIRBY plaza, and Micah looking through some old Silver Surfer comics. Hail to the King, baby.

Unfortunately, some aspects of this episode still felt contrived and just plain off. Nathan Petrelli still feels like a hollow shell of a character to me. If he is complicit in nuking New York, that would make him a sociopath mass-murderer, but there's nothing we've seen from his characterization that would indicate that Nathan would REALLY be willing to go this far. Sure, he's been shown as slightly sleazy and underhanded, that I'll buy. But mass-murder? It just seems way outside the realm of plausibility for this character as he's presented.

With Nikki / Jessica, the show seems to be all over the place. I couldn't remember if they were separated, merged, or what, and now it just seems like Ali Larter goes back and forth between compassionate Nikki and ruthless Jessica at the drop of a hat, without any real explananation. Does she or doesn't she care about her son or about DL? This aspect of the show is pretty frustrating, especially in Monday's ep.

Finally, like I said last week, the buildup to the Nuke in NYC has been kind of boring. Everyone could see that Sylar would absorb Ted's powers and go on to try to become a human bomb, so everything leading up to that just becomes a matter of aligning the chess pieces so that our Heroes are all in place for their big "Save the World" finale. They could have thrown in some clever twists to counter our expectations, but instead everything pretty much just proceeded as we were led to believe it would, with character bumping into each other seemingly at random in order to set things up for the finale. The Mexican standoff between Mohinder, HRG, and Professor X, I mean, Molly - was similarly contrived with no real logic as to why all these guns were being waved around.

Of course, I do have to give props to Malcolm McDowell, one of the greats, as always doing a nice job as Linderman. I was shocked to see DL lobotomize him in such gruesome fashion though - kind of excessively violent for a show like this, in a way.

So yeah, I'm excited for next week's finale, and enjoyed this ep primarily for the awesomeness that Takei brought to the table alongside Hiro and Ando, who once again gave this episode its only real moments of heart and soul. Still, I just don't like the feeling that I'm watching a show simply spin its wheels to get from Point A to Point B, without this progression coming via the depth of the characters and the cleverness of the story.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Penultimate 24! And: A Gilmore Girls Final Salute.

24! 24! 24!

Well, what can I say - last night's 24 was pretty darn good.

But first - a preamble. Obviously, 24 is struggling this season. It kicked things off with an exciting but somewhat mishandled opener (killing Curtis so soon was probably jumping the gun a bit), then built momentum as Jack's brother Graem was revealed as the shady mastermind behind last year's events. And yet, just as Graem seemed to be established as the next great 24 villain, he too was suddenly offed. From that point on, 24 became, well, boring. We saw Jack move away from his family problems and get tossed into an all too standard terrorist take-down. Meanwhile, the season was dominated by inter-office politics at the White House and CTU, and lame romances between characters we had no emotional attachment to. So yeah, 24 was kind of just chugging along, by no means recapturing its usual level of intensity and gravitas.

And yet ... I can't help but be disappointed with the way people all of a sudden dismiss the show because of some rough patches. This is TWENTY-by God-FOUR we're talking about - probably the greatest television drama of this decade. My point is - Heroes is pretty good, sure, but talk to me when it's had FIVE of the best seasons of TV ever. THEN and only then can we put it in the same category as 24. And that goes for any upstart show that people rush to proclaim as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yes, it's a shame to see 24 not be as good as it was last year. But it's still PRETTY GOOD, if at times frustrating. I just hate to see people be so extreme about it. I've been critical, of course, but I'm not about to revert to saying "24 sucks!" just because it's slightly below par.

Anyways - 24, last night, had lots to like. Plenty of great action, for one thing, with Jack Bauer front and center. for the first time in a while, we saw Kiefer Sutherland stretch his acting muscles a bit. We got pissed off Jack going after Cheng, desperate Jack reaching to save Josh from certain doom, comforting Jack reassuring Rena Sofer that everything would be alright, and yes, CRAZY Jack, being carried away by the CTU white coats at episode's end, screaming "Josh! Joooooooooosh! JOSHHHHHH!"

My point is that last night, the CTU stuff was downplayed and Jack was in turn finally given some room to breathe and be a three dimensional character again. Not to mention, he was given ample time to kick ass - be it orchestrating a daring escape from Chinese captors, trading fire with Cheng over a hanging walkway, or running in a sewer leading a team of agents. Nice.

In the White House, we finally got some high stakes again instead of just petty bickering over who's in power. The little bit of drama out in the field was nicely done, and Powers Boothe was yet again walking the fine line between cheesy and awesome, but mostly did a nice job.

My big complaint is that we STILL know too little about Philip Bauer. Until we know more about his background and motivations, he just isn't coming off as a credible enough villain, just some loopy old guy. I think his eventual confrontation with Jack next week will be MUCH more satisfying if we get his full story as soon as possible.

But in the end, I enjoyed 24 this week, and can't wait for next week's hopefully kickass finale, which may or may not see the surprise return of Zombie Almeda. Seriously though, when 24 is still. even if only sporadically, this entertaining, it's not right to declare it dead in the water.

My Grade: A -

An Ode to Gilmore Girls:

Tonight marks the final episode of one of the great television shows, the final episode of Gilmore Girls.

In one of my college writing classes, in which we all wrote a sample script of a favorite TV show, one of my classmates wrote a Gilmore script which we then read aloud and analyzed. At the time, as I restlessly waited for my X-Files script to be read, I remember thinking that nothing could be more boring than that lame show about the mother and daughter on the WB. I had ZERO interest in the show - and why would I? A whimsical story of a mother and daughter who were best friends was far from being anywhere near up my alley. However, every week, when I met with my fellow wannabe comedy writers at our meetings for Overexposed (BU's premiere sketch comedy TV show!), fellow writer, and current REAL writer over at The Onion, Mike DiCenzo, persistently extolled the merits of all things Gilmore. I think we all had a laugh at his enjoyment of the show, but that was probably because the rest of us didn't actually watch it. At some point though, and I don't think it was until after I graduated college, I found myself sitting at home, suddenly addicted to the Gilmore reruns on ABC Family, and the next thing I knew, I was watching new episodes on the WB and then CW. Somehow, the show that I once thought I couldn't be more disinterested in had won me over, and the guy who gravitated towards things like 24 and Prison Break was a full-blown Gilmore fan.

The funny thing I discovered though, was that Gilmore wasn't really a chick show. Okay, in many ways it WAS, but it was also a geek show, littered with pop culture references and filled with quirky, non-traditional characters like Lane and Zach and Paris who were cool and smart and far from typical of Hollywood teen casting. I mean, for years eager internet geeks lined up to discuss this show on Ain't It Cool News' talkbacks, alongside Lost and 24 and Battlestar Galactica - that should clue you in on the show's broad appeal and unique sensibilities. It was a SMART show, always bursting with clever dialogue, never talking down to the viewer, and holding up icons of literature and journalism and culture on a pedestal - how often do you see THAT? It was a genuinely FUNNY show - characters like Kirk and Paris and Babette and Taylor would crack me up and have me rolling in laughter - not cheap laughter either, but the kind of laughter that only comes from truly great, hilarious characters. Keep in mind, my favorite comedy is in shows like The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm - the fact that Gilmore appealled to someone with that sensibility is a credit to its cleverness. And it was one of those shows where liking it kind of spoke to someone's character. If you were a Gilmore fan, then hey, to me that is something of a badge of honor.

Gilmore is one of the few shows that is all of these things - smart, funny, clever - and yet also manages to really get ya'. I mean you are made to invest so much in the characters, and they are brought to life so well by the outstanding cast, that their little ups and downs, their moments of humor and absurdity, their tragedies and triumphs, all feel tangibly real. Give some credit to the writers and producers for their ability to be emotional without being cheesy. Give lots of credit to Lauren Graham - who unbelievably was never even acknowledged in the Emmy race even though she made Lorelai one of the best and brightest female lead characters in TV history, and to Alexis Bleidel - who played Rory to perfection as the embodiment of her mom and grandparent's hopes and dreams and fears. How about Scott Patterson as Luke Danes? He made the show in many ways as much about Luke as it was about anyone else. The character of Luke grounded the show in a way that few others did - and Patterson did an amazing job of making you see Luke's pain and happiness and anxiety beneath the stoic exterior, which is pretty remarkable for an actor to do if you think about it. Of course I've talked at length about the greatness of Kelly Bishop and Edward Hermann as Richard and Emily Gilmore. Alternatively hilarious, infuriating, and lovable, Rory's grandparents provided some of the best moments of the show, and were the very definition of upper-crust Connecticut society. Keiko Agena as Lane was such a great character -- Gilmore dealt with her struggle with her Asian heritage with so much humor, depth, and wit that Lane and her mother could have carried their own show. Add Todd Lowe as Zach and the rest of Hep Alien, and suddenly the show has this whole other hipster, rock-band, pop-culture dimension. Liza Weil as Paris evolved into one of the best, drop-dead funniest characters on TV. Paris is like the embodiment of New England puritanism - she's that voice inside you that tells you to work, strive, succeed at all costs personified, with hilarious results. I don't know if any character has provided more quotable lines on this always quotable show than Paris Geller. And of course you have to mention all the random, quirky characters who populate Stars Hollow - Sean Gunn as Kirk was often hilarious, and one of the chief sources of humor on the show. Same can be said for great bit players like Sally Struthers as Babette, Michael Winters as Taylor, Danny Strong as Doyle (the character both lucky enough and unfortunate enough to be Paris' one true love), Yanic Truesdale as effiminate Michel, fast-talking bubble of energy Mellisa McCarthy as Lorelai's confidante Sookie, her happy go lucky husband Jackson, and Liz Torres as Ms. Patty. And that's only scratching the surface of the show's outstanding supporting cast, which is pretty incredible. Two characters who I never really liked were David Sutcliffe as Christopher, Rory's Dad, and Matt Czuchry as Logan Huntsberger. But in a way, they were supposed to be unlikable, and yet, it's a tribute to the depth of the writing and the actors that I could never bring myself to really hate the characters - even though I never wanted Lorelai to end up with Christopher or Rory with Logan, you could see how the Gilmores saw something in those two - things were never portrayed in black and white on the show, there were always many textured shades of grey, and that's something I really admired about it. And finally, I know that the character of April, Luke's estranged daughter, has gotten a ton of flack since being introduced last year. But I think this criticism is a bit unfair. While the storyline may have been slightly shoehorned into the series,
Vanessa Marano has done a wonderful job as April, and totally won me over to the point where the scenes between her and Luke, tinged with just the right balance of humor and sadness, are some of my favorites of the last few seasons. April to me was a character perfectly within the grand tradition of Gilmore - too smart for her own good and desperately seeking her place in this strange world.

So tonight, I salute a show that was both edgy and wholesome, falling-down hilarious and eye-wateringly sad. A show that was one of those great examples of a show that was in many ways too good for TV actually succeeding and finding an audience, even if it was never recognized with big awards and even if many dismissed it as merely a chick show. I was one of those people, but I'm glad I came around and saw Gilmore for what it was, at it's best: smart, funny, quality storytelling that is a rare instance of a TV show rising above the limitations of the medium, and being able to stand on its own as art.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

LOST - "Ohhhh, man I wish I could go back in time. I'd take state."

On last night's LOST ...

- I've been down this road before, but I'll say it again: Lost does so much right, it's so well-done, it's just a shame that it never seems to come through in the clutch. Last night, Lost delivered an episode that, in nearly every way, was simply outstanding. In many ways, I'd go so far to say that last night was Lost's best episode of the season. Superb acting from Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn. Tension that, pardon the cliche, was so thick you could dut it with a knife. I mean, wow, I was completely on the edge of my seat for the entire episode, right up until the final moments. As Locke and Ben got closer and closer to the old, isolated house that promised to hold the secrets to the identity of the mystrious leader known as Jacob, I was practically screaming at the TV in anticipation. I couldn't wait a moment longer to find out just who this Jacob was. The intensity was off the charts.

It's just too bad then, that Lost so often fails to deliver on the big reveal. As Locke and Ben entered Jacob's house, I kept thinking "please tell me this isn't going to be another ladder." I was referring, of course, to the now infamous Season 1 finale cliffhanger, where after weeks of anticipation as to what was in the Hatch, the episode ends as the hatch is opened, and inside is ... a ladder. And suddenly a year's worth of built-up tension and anticipation deflated like a popped balloon. This wasn't quite on that level of disappointment, but couldn't they have thrown us SOME kind of bone here? Sure, I realize that internet fans have already posted screen caps that show an etherial old man sitting in Jacob's empty chair - some have even speculated that Jacob is Locke himself. And that's all well and good - but for the viewer at home, the reveal of Jacob came off as something of a mess. There was Ben talking to himself, some Poltergeist-y stuff going on with the room shaking and whatnot, and that final plea of "help me." It was one of those scenes that I wanted so badly to be cool, but after I saw it I just couldn't help but feel dissatisfied. And the funny thing was, I actually kind of liked the idea we were initially presented, which was that Ben was going Norman Bates and that Jacob was some aspect of his twisted psychosis. To be set up for a big reveal, and then have that reveal simply be another mystery on top of the already-existing mystery - well, when are the Lost producers going to learn that that particular tactic is not really a good or fair way to tell a story.

At the same time, as I said, so much of this episode was simply phenomenal. Up until that one moment of letdown, I really thought I was watching one of the all-time best episodes of the series, a flat-out "A." The flashbacks here were extremely well done, some of the best we've had in a long while. As we watched Ben Linus' backstory unfold, I couldn't help but be struck by how perfect of an origin this seemed to be. Like so many great villains, Ben was a tragic figure, whose birthday was never celebrated because it also marked the day his mother died. Brilliant. Seeing the beginnings of Dharma and the odd life of its members on the island was a lot of fun, and the kid actor who played young Ben was really great, as was UNCLE RICO as Ben's broken-down dad (see the title of this post). These flashbacks still left me with some questions - (Who were the "hostiles?", why did they need to be "purged?", why was that one Other guy who was a Hostile in the flashbacks seemingly older in the flashback than he appears in the modern day, and what's his deal anyway?). Overall though, these were the type of questions that I can live with, that can be addressed in further flashabacks. It's the ambiguity of the storyline in the here and now that gets me.

For a while, I was reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Old Man in the Cave," in which a postapocalyptic society is led by one guy who claims to receive orders from a mysterious, omnicient Old Man. When the vilalgers grow restless and demand to see the Old Man, it turns out that the Old Man is simply ... a computer! (This blew my mind when I first saw it back in the day). But what you see here is a classic mystery - a setup, a growing mystery, and a satisfying, thought-provoking reveal as the final twist. I realize that Lost is an ongoing serial and not an anthology, but still, the writers could take a lesson from that classic bit of televised storytelling.

Again, this was in most ways a superlative episode. The pacing, atmosphere, and tension was built up perfectly. The ending, in which Ben seemed to betray Locke and left him to die in a mass grave, was shocking and perfectly executed. The flashbacks, as I said, were handled with great care and thought. Even the growing subplots on the island leading into the finale, as Jack and Juliette stand on the verge of showing their cards to the rest of the castaways, was an improvement over last week, and set the stage well for the season's endgame. I almost don't want to complain about this episode, it was so well done. But the elephant in the room is this: the reveal of Jacob, after so much build up, was a letdown - with a whole new mystery offered up in place of any answers or cool, Old Man In the Cave-style moments. If not for that, this episode would have been an A.

My Grade: A -

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

HEROES Thoughts and a KTLA Rant.


- HOLY LORD, the CW affiliate here in LA, KTLA, deserves the finger of shame to end all fingers of shame. Last night, one of the last ever Gilmore Girls and maybe (hopefully not!) one of the last episodes of Veronica Mars were completely preempted here in LA, for news coverage of the fire in Griffith Park!

Now, I understand this is a serious story and in some cases may need to be reported on to inform people of where the fire is spreading to and if any evacuations might be necessary. BUT -- KTLA was the ONLY station in LA spending time on this with continuous coverage, and, within minutes, there was NOTHING TO REPORT ON. The fire is bad, it's still burning, and so forth. WE GET THE POINT. Since all of us were indoors, tucked away, since outside everything smelled like freakin' fire and brimstone, the least KTL and the CW could do was to give us some quality dramatic entertainment. Did I really need to hear the droning of the anchorman as he ruminated on the storied history of the Los Feliz area, its historic portrayal in Hollywood movies, and the ongoing status of the fire, as if sometime in the next two hours there'd be any breaking news? This was flat-out ridiculous. And, it makes me sad because Veronica Mars needs every ratings point it can get. The LAST thing it needs is to be preempted in one of the country's biggest markets right at zero hour for the show.

- I'll also go on a tangent here ... Though I hated that KTLA felt it needed to spend TWO hours playing images of a fire burning with no new news to report (for pyromaniacs everywhere, it was the greatest night of TV ever!) - I'm also unbelievably shocked that this fire is going on in the first place. Because, supposedly, this was a man-made fire. I don't know all the facts yet, but will people PLEASE stop starting fires here in LA? I mean, what the hell is wrong with people. All those annoying people who are always flicking cigarettes and playing with lighters should be locked away. WHY DO THEY DO STUFF LIKE THAT. Now, most likely thanks to some fire-starting idiot, all of LA smells like it just got charbroiled, not to mention that one of the nicest parks and outdoor areas in the region is UP IN FLAMES. Thanks guys!

- But on another TV note ... one more Finger of Shame to FOX. I had been wondering why KING OF THE HILL wasn't on lately, replaced at 8:30 with Simpsons reruns. Now, much to my surprise, I find that FOX has indeed been running King of the Hill, unceremoniously dumping it in its old timeslot of 7:30 pm. Why would they do that? And why with such little fanfare? I had NO idea this was the case, and have now missed a bunch of episodes of one of my favorite shows, a show that despite being a long standing hit for FOX, seems doomed to perpetually be banished to the worst spots on the network's ever-changing joke of a schedule. Man, who did Mike judge piss off at FOX to be treated like he has by them in the last year or so. First the travesty that was Idiocracy's shelving, and now this.

- I caught Monday's HEROES, and it was a little bit of a letdown after last week's watermark episode. Now, there was a lot to like. Everything with Sylar and his mom was great stuff, and the inclusion of Hiro and Ando in those scenes was a lot of fun and made for a great face-off between Hiro and everyone's favorite super-powered brain-eater. Micah being held captive was also a pretty cool storyline, although Ali Larter didn't seem as sharp as she's been the last few weeks. Whenever they make her this kind of wobbly, conflicted woman she starts to drag as a character. They had a good thing going with her dual personalities being fully revealed. This week, Nikki / Jessica resumed her domestic squablling with the typically-bland DL, and things once agai nwent downhill. Meanwhile, the Mohinder stuff was also kinda lame. Explain to me again why his DNA contains the antibodies to cure the little girl? I will say though that Eric Roberts is great and a nice addition to the cast. Finally though, the Claire-Peter-Nathan storyline, leading up to the big NYC gets nuked payoff, came off as very contrived. Instead of thinking anything true, all the characters are just warbling away about destiny and faith (it's these same kind of ambiguous non-conversations that have often hurt Lost). As it stands, either Ted is predestined to go nuclear, or else it's Sylar or Peter who acts as a human bomb. So why is Peter rushing to be present at the scene, when it's him who could very well be the catalyst for armageddon? All I know is, at episode's end, somehow all the major players converge at the same time in New York, which seems to be somewhat of a cop out in place of a tight, logical scenario where everyone is cleverly and organically set up to come together. So yeah, the Sylar scenes here were the real standout, most everything else seemed to be a lot of filler that somewhat awkwardly put the pieces in place for the season finale.

My Grade: B

Saturday, May 5, 2007

SPIDERMAN 3 - Reviewed! Spiderman: Unstoppable Franchise No More?!?!


I have to ask: What the hell happened here?

I remember going to see Spiderman 2 in New York City upon its release a few years back. From the opening credits, I had a giddy smile on my face that didn't leave until the end of the film. Everything clicked. They did it - they nailed Spiderman.

Going into Spiderman 3, the same magic SHOULD have been there. The cast was back, acclaimed director Sam Raimi was back, and new additions to the cast like Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, and Bryce Dallas Howard all seemed promising. Somewhere in the process of making this film however, it seems that the great Sam Raimi was body-snatched and replaced with Joel Schumacher. At least, that's what I'm telling myself. How else to explain the fact that Spiderman 3 turned out to be an overstuffed, uneven, goofy mess of a movie?

Look, a lot of reports seem to indicate that this movie had some behind-the-scenes problems. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst never really seemed all that enthused about coming back for a Round 3. Sam Raimi seemed to perhaps be burnt out on these mega superhero epics, and frustrated with studio interference that saw fan-favorite comic book villain Venom shoehorned into the script at the behest of then-Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad. But whatever did happen in the making of this movie, something went very wrong.

The tone is just all over the place. There's moments of real darkness mixed with complete camp. Right in the middle of big, climactic showdowns, there's cornball humor. It almost felt like Raimi was looking to do the B-movie camp of an Army of Darkness but knew he couldn't go all the way with it. There's moments in this movie, many of them in fact, that are just so off. There's a whole period in the film where Peter Parker, under the influence of the alien symbiote, inexplicably goes goth, to groan-inducing effect. I know Gough and Miller had nothing to do with this movie - their involvement was limited to the superior Part 2 - but man, this Spiderman had all the same lame plot devices as the worst episodes of Smallville. Amnesia. Yes, AMNESIA is randomly used as a key plot point in the film, and the weirdest part is that it is only a fleeting condition, so ultimately it's pretty pointless. But really? Amnesia? And to continue my Smallville comparison, the whole sequence where Peter is "possessed" by the symbiote and starts acting like some kind of wannabe badass goth tough guy, is just plain laughable. I mean, at one point Peter Parker struts down the streets of New York, looking like some goth-nerd version of Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, dancing and flirting with random ladies. Totally cringe-worthy material. Of course, Peter's possession leads to all kinds of sitcom-esque misunderstandings. The romantic ups and downs of Peter Parker and Mary Jane are so hamfisted and contrived that even Stan Lee, who doesn't know the meaning of the word subtlety, was probably shaking his head while watching this all play out. The stilted dialogue doesn't help things much either ...

Now, so much time is spent on Peter and Mary Jane, as they go from almost-married to on the rocks to broken up to reluctant allies to reunited by tragedy, that it's easy to forget that this movie has three villains to deal with. I think Sam Raimi forgot this too, because all three badguys get the short shrift. Okay - the most promising villain here is, surprisingly, the Sandman, played cooly and with great pathos by the excellent Thomas Haden Church. His story starts out promisingly with some interesting backstory, something about a sick daughter. Then, after a tres-cool transformation into a sand-powered freak, thing start to go downhill for ol' Sandy. He's retroactively made into the killer of Peter's Uncle Ben, adding a fairly unnecessary and not-fully-explored element to the story. And soon enough, the daughter is mostly forgotten except for the many times when Church gazes into his locket that holds her picture. What seemed to be a classic Spiderman villain-in-the-making in The Sandman quickly degenerated into just another guy for Spidey to fight. And like just about every other plotline in the film, Sandman's story ends not on a bang, but on a whimper.

Next we have Harry Osborne, whose story has been building and building throughout the series. James Franco is a great actor, but here he's relegated to replaying every stock villain storyline there is. He gets amnesia and goes back to being Peter's friend ... for a bit. He steals our hero's girl. Then he does the typical Han Solo last minute change of heart save thing. And that last one, that big heroic save? Well, there's no great scene of Harry having a change of heart, no traumatic event that forces him back to the side of the angels. Nope, out of nowhere, his crusty old butler emerges from God knows where, yes, I said his BUTLER, playing the part of Exposition Man, and walks onto stage left and proceeds to fill in Harry about the truth of his father's death, which we the audience have known since Spiderman 1. Cue sudden change of heart for Harry! Sure, part of me wanted to cheer when Harry Osborne swooped in to save his buddy Spiderman with a well-placed Pumpkin Bomb, but part of me was just put off by how crappily-set up this potentially climactic scene was.

Now, Venom. Venom is the one that all the fanboys were drooling to see. Even if you weren't a comic reader, Venom was everywhere back in the 90's, when an artist named Todd McFarlane reinvigorated Spidey with his coolest-looking villain to date. Venom, in Spiderman 3, I'm sorry to report, pretty much blows. Sure, he looks cool, kind of, for all of the 5 minutes we actually get to see him. But just when Venom is kicking ass, his face mask CGI's away to reveal a fanged Eric Forman from That 70's Show, who it turns out, is just some lame photographer who's pissed at Peter Parker because he exposed his photos of Spiderman as being fakes. Eddie Brock, aka Venom, is completely shoehorned into this movie and its obvious from the get-go that Raimi never really wanted him to be there. His story is completely underdeveloped, and his motivations basically nonexistent. And the brief glimpses of Venom in all his alien glory are ruined whenever we're reminded that this cool-looking monster is just some skinny geek with frost-tipped hair. Venom in this movie never feels scary or dangerous in the least.

By the way - a slight tangent. I don't get why this movie, even more so than the first two, seems totally terrified to show Spiderman or even Venom in full costume. Spiderman looks awesome in his full getup, pulled right from the pages of a Marvel comic. And yet Raimi or the studio heads or whomever feel like we need to be reminded every five seconds that "hey guys, in case you forgot, that's BONAFIDE MOVIE STAR, TOBEY MAGUIRE, under that sweet-looking Spiderman mask. Well guess what, Tobey is kind of goofy-looking. Spiderman on the other hand, wears one of the greatest superhero outfits ever designed, thanks to the great Steve Ditko. Give us Spiderman, dammit, not Tobey Maguire in a red and blue leotard. The same goes for Venom. Everytime I began to think - hey, Venom actually looks kinda sweet - they rip away his costume to remind us that it's really just Topher Grace under there. WTF. Imagine if in Alien they kept having H.R. Giger's horrific creatures peel back their outfits to reveal that they were really just a bunch of stuntmen in rubber suits. I mean, unlike most superhero movies, the Spiderman guys managed to design a kickass costume for our hero that looks great AND is true to the comic. Why not show it off?

But getting back to the short shrift that the villains of this movie recieve ... so, yeah, the whole backstory of the alien symbiote that turns Spiderman's costume black and transforms Eddie Brock into Venom? Yeah, guess what? YOU WON'T FIND IT IN THIS MOVIE. All that happens is that a random meteor crashes next to Peter's apartment. We get a few scenes where Dr. Connor explains that the presumably alien compound is like nothing he's ever seen. And. That's. It. Look, I get that they don't have time to go into some epic outer space saga here. But to leave the major plot element of the whole movie totally unexplained is kind of absurd, dontcha think? Not to mention - all that talk about how the black suit gives Peter this newfound power ... well, what that translates to is Spiderman doing an extra backflip or two while swinging around New York. Niiiice .... And how about the anticlimactic final face-off between Spidey and Venom? What should have been a knockout, dragout brawl is instead anything but.

And it's not just the villains that find themselves squeezed into the movie with little build-up or development. Comic book staple Gwen Stacy appears here, but plays a mostly inconsequential role. She's mostly just there for a few key scenes, essentially as a walking plot device to make Mary Jane jealous. There's never any real relationship between her and Peter. We never really care about her. She adds nothing to the movie, which is too bad as Gwen is a pivotal character in Spiderman lore, and Bryce seemed up to the task of doing something interesting with the character.

As for the two leads ... Maguire here, well, the word I keep coming back to is "goofy." Marvel comics characters, Spiderman especially, have always been angst-ridden. But here, Maguire goes beyond angst and elicits much unintentional laughter with the oddball nature of his performance. Who thought it was a good idea for Maguire to don goth eyeliner and slicked-down hair as an aftereffect of wearing the black suit? Who thought it'd be funny or right for the tone of the franchise to have him do a Fonzie impression and break into impromptu disco-dancing as a sign of his newfound, carefree attitude? Who thought it'd be a good idea to have multiple closeups of Maguire's double chin as he bawls like a baby into the camera in what is surely one of the most "emo" superhero representations to date? Maguire has been great in this franchise, but in too many scenes in this one, he really overdoes it - he's so often oddball, goofy, and melodramatic that when the time comes for him to don the costume and be the kickass superhero, it's almost impossible to take him seriously. Case in point: in Spiderman 1, post 9/11, the image of Spidey posing before the American flag was powerful, iconic, resonant. When the image is repeated here, thanks to how cheesy so much of the movie has been to that point, it has little of the same power.

Kirsten Dunst is okay here, but some of the negative attitude that is exuded in some of the actresses' recent interviews seems to come through on screen as well. Mary Jane seems too hard in this movie. She's abrasive, moody, and never all that likable. We never get the sense that MJ is justified in being so cold towards Peter, and we never quite see what Peter sees in Mary Jane.

Okay ... all that being said, there is a lot, in fact, to like in the movie. Let me run down some of the positives:

- The action, for the most part, is stellar. The opening face off between Spidey and Harry is pretty spectacular, and sets the pace for the rest of the film. In fact, it may well be one of the best comic book movie action scenes we've seen to date. Similarly, when Spidey rescues Gwen Stacy from the Sandman's rampage, its fun, kinetic, and looks great.

- BRUCE CAMPBELL. He is, as always, awesome in his obligatory Spiderman cameo, and is a true show-stealer. Seeing The Chin steal scenes with Maguire and Dunst makes you wonder why Bruce can't get his own big budget action movie franchise. Sure, he isn't getting any younger, but man, can you imagine a young Bruce as Spiderman?!?! Ah, what might have been ...

- There is one scene in this movie that to me was, plain and simply, INCREDIBLE. It happens early on, so it got me really excited for what was to come. Unfortunately, no scene from that point on came close to matching this one's beauty, imagery, or style. The scene in question is the one in which Haden Church, as Flynt Marko, gets caught in some kind of device, which, in classic comic book fashion, scrambles his molecules and leaves him a being of living sand. After being reduced to a pile of grains, what transpires next is simply awe-inspiring, as we see the grains of sand shift and take form, grasping to reclaim their once-human shape and functionality. This, my friends, was vintage Sam Raimi. If only every scene was as great as this one.

- Following up on that, the CGI in this film really was top-notch, and rarely has CGI been used to such great effect in both action scenes, and in quieter scenes like the one mentioned above. The sand and rock fragments that made up The Sandman's earthy texture were particularly impressive. One more complaint though - the final, CGI-heavy battle is a step down from earlier action scenes, with an over the top looking Sandman flailing away at Spiderman in a visually busy but ultimately hollow climax.

- The bit players, the ones who get none of they hype but are the glue that holds the series together, were great here as always. JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson is once again great, the one guy in the film who pulled off all of the humor and cartoonish craziness to perfection. Rosemary Harris adds a touch of class yet again as the sagely Aunt May. And fans of 24 should be on the lookout for James Cromwell, aka Papa Bauer, as a police officer and father to Gwen Stacy.

- Once again, Danny Elfman and co's score is top-notch. Great, mood-setting music throughout.

- A nod to all the True Believers as Stan "The Man" Lee gets one of his best Marvel cameos to date, in a nice little scene that made me smile. Excelsior! 'Nuff said.

As you can see, there WERE some little hints of greatness sprinkled throught Spiderman 3. But those moments were overpowered by the weaknesses of the script, which helped to produce a film filled with half-baked ideas and underdeveloped characters, and a tone that was truly all over the place, with some nice moments of epic superhero drama but many more of pure cheeseball goofiness with humor that fell flat. I mean, let's look at this, it's not hard to figure out. Spiderman 1 had a script by David Koepp - a proven talent. Spiderman 2, now clearly established as the best of the trilogy, had a great script by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of Smallville, and by the great Michael Chabon, one of the preeminant writers of his generation. Only Alvin Sargent remained onboard from Part 2 to Part 3. Sam Raimi, a great director to be sure, wrote part 3 with brother Ivan. Aside from the cult-fave Evil Dead movies and Darkman, the Raimis do not have many screenplays to their credit. Putting them behind the typewriter for Part 3 was a huge risk - and I'm sure it didn't help that their original vision was later changed by the studio to include characters like Venom, who, though cool in the comics, had no real place in the story that the Raimis wanted to tell. The result? A third Spiderman movie that can be considered nothing less than a creative disappointment. A surprisingly uneven movie that doesn't live up to the high standard set by Part 2. Judging from the Galactus-sized numbers this film is set to do at the box office, one might be led to believe it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, and man, I wish that were true. Stan Lee himself couldn't have hyped this movie any better, but this summer season has started with a surprising twist - not one that Stan would approve of, as Spiderman 3, seemingly a sure thing, fails to meet expectations, and a once-dominant franchise runs into a creative brick wall.

My Grade: C+