Thursday, September 27, 2007

Better. Stronger. Faster. BIONIC WOMAN - Pilot Review

Soooo ... who else is excited for the return of one of the best live-action comedies on TV tonight in THE OFFICE? If you like to laugh, and you're not watching, you're an idiot.

Haha, okay, that may be a bit harsh. But, look, I was the biggest doubter of them all at first, as the original British version of The Office still stands as one of the all time greatest comedies ever to air, and the first season of the American Office was little more than a pale shadow of the original. But in Seasons 2 and 3, things took a turn for the hilarious, and Season 4 is set to truly be must-see TV if it can continue the momentum of last season. Plus, once paired with the very funny 30 ROCK, Thursday nights are as funny as they've ever been.


- Okay, let me talk about BIONIC WOMAN. For some reason, there is a ton of hate out there for this show, and I cannot fathom why. I mean, not that the vocal detractors are necessarilly in the majority, seeing as how the show debuted last night as the #1 new show of the fall thus far. Now, sure, the pilot has its flaws and rough edges ... but to me this is far and away one of the most exciting new shows of the season, one whose potential to be a kickass action-adventure show far outweighs its weaknesses.

I really enjoyed the pilot episode overall. To me, the biggest weakness of the original version that I saw was the shoehorned-in subplot involving Jamie's (aka the Bionic Woman's) kid sister, who originally was deaf and basically felt like an unnecessary dose of melodrama, who didn't seem to fit into the sci-fi comic book world of the show and in all honesty kind of dragged things down. Luckily, the new version of the pilot recasts the sister and reduces her role, which in my estimation is a good thing. Perhaps later her story can be brought to the forefront, but for now there's way too much going on here to dwell on Jamie's family issues.

And there IS a LOT going on here. Which to me is a good thing. With shows like Lost and Heroes and 24, TV has been cluttered of late with serialized shows that feature long, drawn-out storylines. And usually, there's nothing wrong with that. But there's also got to be a place for shows like Prison Break and now Bionic Woman, that feature a more chaotic, information-packed style of presentation. I love how the Bionic pilot lays so many cards out on the table. In particular, the real gem here is Katee Sackhoff as Sarah Corvus, aka the "original" Bionic Woman.

Katee Sackhoff plain and simply rules it on this show. She has the perfect look to play a psycho-bitch cyborg - she reminds me a bit of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner - stone-cold crazy in the best possible way for a bigtime action villain. Say what you want about the show perhaps jumping the gun by quickly featuring a dramatic, rooftop fight between Sarah Corvis and Jamie Summers, but I thought this was THE geek-out moment of the Fall TV season thus far. Two bionic women, going toe to toe on a rooftop, in a fast-paced fight scene filled with comic book quips plenty of smack-talk? What's not to like?

As for Michelle Ryan as Jamie, well, I think it's about time that there was a female action lead who was kind of an every-woman. Jamie has a kind of average, down-to-earth, girl-next door feel that makes it all the more cool that she is the bionic woman, and not a Jessica Biel type who seems Amazonian from the get-go. The show offers up its share of larger than life super-women in the form of Sarah Corvis. But I think it's cool that Jamie is kind of a blank slate to start things out. I mean, most girls I know are, why shouldn't this one be?

The main problem here, aside from some clunky dialogue here and there, was the presence of a few plot holes that were probably the result of things being a bit rushed, and also some editing that didn't make things run quite as smoothly as they should. The act breaks seemed very abrupt at times, and also, the quick pacing, while great in terms of getting the plot moving, sometime made for some pretty rushed-seeming character moments - ie a kind of out-of-nowhere sex scene between Jamie and her scientist boyfriend, and Jamie rather quickly coming-to-terms with her new abilities and situation. But this looks to be a plot-driven show, and don't we already have Heroes if we want to watch 22 straight episodes of a character coming to terms with who they really are?

But, there is a lot of potential here, and I like the fact that we have a dark, stylish, over-the-top scifi show on network air that doesn't hide what it is and has a lot of fun with its premise. I don't think that this is a case where the show being "dark" means that it's not fun, by the way. Any show that has Katee Sackhoff deadpanning lines about being the first bionic woman is having some good fun, in my eyes. I said the same about Chuck, that it fully embraces its geekiness, and Bionic does the same. That will make it polarizing to many, but I was very pleasently surprised. this could have been a generic, homogenized show - part of the new trend of high-concept sci-fi that is about everything BUT actually exploring its own premise (see: Jericho). Instead, we got a pretty badass show, and I'm curious and excited to see where it goes from here.

My Grade: A -

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not a Secret, nor an Agent! Thoughts on CHUCK, JOURNEYMAN, REAPER, THE SIMPSONS, and MORE!

Man, these last few weeks have been pure craziness. I've got to stop over-booking myself so I can just chill a bit and relax. But, last night I attended a very cool program through the LA Jewish Federation's Entertainment Division. It was a small dinner that featured Larry Jacobson, longtime Tonight Show writer, as the guest of honor. Since the event was limited to a dozen or so guests, there was plenty of time for questions from the peanut gallery and for one-on-one questions following his talk. Having worked at the Tonight Show as an NBC Page and having seen Jay Leno perform so many times, it was really insightful to hear the thought-process of one of his top writers. Definitely a cool event, and everyone in attendance was really friendly as well, so the whole thing was pretty refreshing.

Anyways, a ton of TV stuff to talk about ...


So, most of the TV pilots that are running this week and next I saw way back when last spring, but I'll take some time here and review some of the ones that I'm planning to revisit and catch a few more episodes of over the next few weeks. Tonight is huge here at NBC, as BIONIC WOMAN debuts. It should be really interesting to see how it does in the ratings. I'll likely go more in-depth on that one tommorow, as I'm hoping to rewatch it tonight since there've been some changes to the pilot since I last saw it. Also, I hope everyone caught two really cool shows on Monday in CHUCK and Journeyman. I know I have the personal conflict of Chuck and Prison Break airing at the same time on Mondays, but I think everyone should check out Chuck whether you watch it on-air, download it on iTunes (yes it's on iTunes), Amazon Unbox, or just record it.

Before I talk about some new shows though - let me first talk about ...

THE SIMPSONS - Season Premiere Review:

- I mentioned in my Fall Preview that I was really anticipating this season of my all-time favorite comedy, if only to see whether a show that has been slumping for years now could rebound off the momentum from the generally well-received feature film. Unfortunately, this season premiere was pretty much a total dud - reminiscient of some of the weakest episodes from the past few years. The jokes largely fell flat, the premise (Homer making changes in his life to live a lifestyle of the rich and famous) was unevenly presented and brought to mind similar episodes that did the concept a lot better (ie the classic Max Powers ep), and worst of all, a potentially amazing guest voice-actor was totally wasted. Yep, Stephen Colbert appeared and played a completely forgettable character, a life-coach for Homer, in a role that gave one of America's funniest comedians precious little to work with. There were a few scattered moments where a joke worked, mostly in the show's opening featuring Mr. Burns, who was conspicuous by his lack of screentime in the movie. Mr. Burns and Homer had one or two great exchanges (Homer's reaction to Burns' dinner invitation was classic), but, after a pretty amusing opening, it was all downhill from that point forward. Look, there's no better TV comfort food then settling in to watch a new episode of The Simpsons on a Sunday night, and it's pretty remarkable that the show's now entering its 19th year. But please, Simpsons writers, inject some juice into this show - it's would be a true shame for the relative hilarity of the movie to be a mere blip in what has been a long, painful second act for what was once, undisputedly, the best comedy ever.

My Grade: C

- I still have to sit down and watch Sunday's KING OF THE HILL and FAMILY GUY. Stay tuned ...


- Reaper is undoubtedly a cool show. Kevin Smith directed the pilot, and the show brings that Kevin Smith slacker aesthetic, which was probably way ahead of its time back when Clerks first came out, to the TV screen where it's been absent for a long while. I mean, in general, it's just cool to see a show that is so different from your typical genre stuff, with a nice mix of action, adventure, and goofy comedy in the vein of a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure style movie. Odd then, that Reaper and CHUCK both debuted a day apart, as each feature a pretty similar premise about a geeky slacker who is thust into an extraordinary circumstance that throws them into a world of danger and intrigue. Both Chuck and Reaper's protaganists even both work at analog's of big-box department stores, with Chuck lampooning Best Buy while Reaper has a satirized version of Home Depot. But really, the show's have two very different sense of humor, lending each a pretty unique feel. Fans of The OC will immediately recognize the snappy dialogue and post-ironic sense of humor that creator Josh Schwartz brings to Chuck. On the other hand, Reaper feels a bit more traditional and sitcom-ish, even though it's premise is pretty unique to this kind of comedy.

Part of what really gives Reaper its character and likability is its star, Bret Harrison. Harrison was a standout as a geeky high-schooler on the underrated sitcom Grounded For Life, and was also really good on FOX's The Loop. His character is a lot of fun in Reaper as well, and Harrison brings a funny everyman quality, which is necessary when playing an otherwise average character who happens to be chosen to be Satan's personal bounty hunter. Also good here is Tyler Labine as Harrison's trusty sidekick. Sure, Labine seems to just kind of channelling Jack Black, but he brings a lot of energy and good comedic timing to the mix. The other real standout is Ray Wise as the Devil himself. Wise is great, and really looks and acts the part - while he's funny and charming, you really buy that this guy also happens to be evil incarnate.

My biggest concern with Reaper is this: I'm not sure where it goes as a series. The pilot is played mostly for laughs, which is cool, but the show IS an hour long and does need some kind of ongoing storyarc to keep our attention. While Chuck did a great job of dropping some tantalizing clues about its overarching mythology in the pilot ep, Reaper presents a very one-and-done type of tale, and it's the kind of thing that was entertaining once, but promises to get very old if every episode plays like a comedic version of Smallville's freak-of-the-week formula. Because, here, other than the fact that he looks cool, the fiery pyromanic demon that Brett and his pals fend off is not very interesting, and their means of finding and tracking him down, resulting to the old cliche of searching through public records to determine his next move, was easily the lamest part of the episode. I like the random humor, but I'm concerned that there isn't enough meat here to keep my interest. So, very curious to see where this one goes, and hoping that episodes 2 and 3 present some compelling reasons to keep watching. For now though, this is a solid, funny show with a great cast and unique premise, that is definitely worth checking out.

My Grade: B+


Chuck is one of my favorite, if not my #1 favorite, new show of the season, and I really love a lot about the pilot and where the show seems to be headed.

For one thing, Chuck to me is great simply because it captures just about everything that made The OC such a fun show in its first few seasons. The snappy dialogue, the feeling that it's plugged-in to pop culture, the deft mix of humor and drama, the knack for showcasing fun, likable characters with a potent mix of geeky everymen (Chuck is, essentially Seth Cohen - one of the best TV characters of the last 5 years - transplanted into a new show) with over-the-top archtypes (Adam Baldwin anyone?). But here's the super-cool part: Chuck has all the stuff that made The OC click, but it takes that whole OC sensibility and transplants it into an action-adventure, sci-fi spy show. To me, the combination is like peanut butter and chocolate. If anything, the whole feel of Chuck reminds me a bit of one of my favorite comic books, Y: The Last Man. That book, for those who haven't read it (if not, please go do so at once), casts geeky hero Yorrick Browne as the sole survivor of a plague that killed all men on earth save him, leaving Yorrick to traverse a brave new world dominated by females. Part of the brilliance of Y is that it subverts the expectation that the world's last man would be some kind of Arnold Schwarzenneger-esque alpha male. Chuck follows the same type of formula, putting a geeky guy in the shoes that would ordinarily be filled by James Bond or Jack Bauer. It helps that lead actor Zach Levy is very likable as Chuck. Of course, I almost wish they had just gotten Adam Brody for the part since the character is essentially Seth Cohen, but, oh well, I understand why they didn't go that route.

Chuck is also surrounded by a lot of fun characters. His goofy friend Morgan is genuinely funny and has some scene-stealing moments. He and Chuck have a great scene of physical comedy, in which they actually battle a NINJA, that speaks to the show's geeky sensibilities but also speaks to the great comedic timing that both leads possess. Seth Cohen and Ryan Atwood would be proud. Then there's the beautiful-but-deadly Sarah Walker, a special agent who looks to have stepped straight out of the pages of a J. Scott Campbell-drawn comic book, and is not only great to look at but has some interesting chemistry with our hero Chuck. Adam Baldwin is fun as always, doing what he did to perfection on shows like The X-Files - playing a hard-nosed, badass guy in a suit. Finally, how can you not love a side character named Captain Awesome?

Maybe it's just me, but I feel like Josh Schwartz has accomplished something with Chuck that few other shows manage - he's made it feel genuinely cool. It has the kind of sensibility that one doesn't typically find in a network TV show - I mean in the first episode alone we get ninjas, car chases, a dance scene that turns into an all-out catfight, and a reference to Zork. And that's what's so cool about this show - unlike Heroes, which sometimes feels like it wishes it wasn't a show about superheroes, Chuck fully embraces its geekiness with a wink and a smile, and it's clear that Schwartz and co are having a ton of fun placing their unique stamps on the show. Basically, there's a reason why this one got a standing ovation at ComiCon. Really looking forward to seeing more of Chuck.

My Grade: A


Journeyman is a show that to me is exponentially elevated in quality thanks to the presence of its lead actor, Kevin McKidd. As time-lost traveler Dan Vassar, McKidd brings an intensity and charisma to the show that really carries it and makes the whole thing work. And what works best in terms of storytelling on this show is the strong character dynamics between Vassar and his wife, his brother-in-law, and most intriguingly, with his long-deceased old flame, who he encounters on his trips to the past. McKidd really does a great job of bringing an emotional intensity to these relationships, highlighted by a riveting, climactic scene in the pilot, in which McKidd makes a desperate bid to convince his wife that he isn't crazy, that he has, in fact, become unstuck in time.

Undoubtedly, Journeyman excels when it comes to dealing with McKidd and his love triangle with his wife and old girlfriend. Where the show falters a bit is in its plotting. Mainly, the show's whole time travel aspect is really exploited in terms of how it affects Dan and his various relationships, right from the get-go. It's clear that Journeyman is really a relationship-centric show and by no means hard sci-fi or tru action-adventure. But, this is still a show about time-travel, and I found it a bit frustrating that the whys and hows of Dan's journeys through time are barely touched upon at all, at least in the pilot. There are some very vague hints of a greater purpose to everything, but there weren't enough solid clues to really hook me in to any kind of broader mythology. And the truth is, this felt like a show that needed some kind of mythology, or at least SOMETHING to establish the premise. In a show like Quantum Leap, to which Journeyman has frequently been compared, there was a very basic and easily understandable structure to the series - Sam went back in time, inhabited someone's body, and manipulated the course of events to help out someone in need of a change in direction. With Journeyman, I am very curious what the grand cosmic purpose is to Dan's Vassar, but the show never seemed all that concerned with it. On the other hand, I think it's kind of cool that Journeyman, within the span of a single episode, dispatched with the inevitable storyline about how nobody believes Dan's stories about being a time-traveler, most especially his wife. In one dramatic moment, Dan convinces his wife that his time-traveling is legit, and - bam, we no longer need to deal with that conflict as a potentially annoying ongoing subplot. If only a show like Smallville had followed a simialr tactic and not dragged out the Lana-not-knowing-Clark's-real-ID subplot for year after agonizing year.

So, there's a lot to like about Journeyman. It has interesting characters and a dramatic weight and intensity about it that really draws you in. For me, I'm just much more inclined to be interested in the show if there turns out to be more of a hook to keep me coming back week after week. Time travel is a fascinating subject, and I want to see it explored more beyond the cheesy, obligatory "oh my god, he has an iPod, but it's 1985!" type moments that to me will get to be real old, real fast on a show like this. I want twists, turns, heroes, villains, a plot to sink my teeth into. Despite a cool cast and interesting characters that make for an overall excellent pilot episode - this, to me, is what will ultimately elevate this show from "pretty good" to "great."

My Grade: B+

- Alright, back with more later ... until next time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

PRISON BREAK Returns ...

Ahhhhhh ... after a few months of near-freedom from network television schedules, things are nearly back in full swing in TV land. Last night, FOX unofficially kicked things off with the debut of its new Monday night lineup, consisting of Prison Break and K-Ville. K-Ville was actually one of the few pilots I never saw over the summer, and for some reason it just doesn't interest me. Well, I guess I know the reason - I just don't really like cop shows, or lawyer shows, or medical shows. But, I was tres excited about the return of PRISON BREAK ... for two years now, it's been a weekly slice of pulpy goodness that features some of the craziest characters I've ever seen on a TV show, especially when it comes to the show's great rogues gallery of colorful villains. So, how was last night's Season 3 Premiere?


- So, Prison Break kind of painted itself into a corner with last year's season finale, as we left off with intrepid action-hero Michael Scofield locked up in a brutal Panamanian prison, along with dogged FBI agent / psycho murderer Mahone, thuggish former prison-guard Bellick, and serial killer T-Bag. This time around, Lincoln was on the outside looking in, desperately trying to find a way to free his brother. So ... would we simply get a repeat of Season 1, with Scofield plotting a breakout, except this time with his brother as his man on the outside? Well, after last year's on-the-run plot, it looks like this year we are very much back to Prison Break actually being about a prison break, which is cool with me. The nice thing about this show is that it tends to be pretty unpredictable, so while this premiere set up another prison escape, in three or four episode's time, who knows if that will still be what the show is focused on.

Already, we've gotten a number of swerves that, sure, were a bit predictable, but also kind of fun. The main thing the episode needed to do was establish a reason for Michael to stay in Sona prison and feel the need to escape rather than just wait out his sentance or get let off following his brother's exoneration. So now we have a somewhat intriguing setup where Michael is being blackmailed into using his skills as an escapist to free a particular prisoner from Sona, likely at the behest of the mysterious Company, Prison Break's very own Big Evil Conspiracy.

There were some very quick allusions in this ep to the bizarro scifi-ish stuff that was hinted at last season - that Michael is some kind of genetic test-subject or something? I'm kind of curious to see just how out-there this show would go with that whole subplot, though the results could be pretty disasterous.

As it is, the show is awesomely over-the-top. The new villain, a Duke of New York-esque self-appointed king of Sona prison is an instant classic, delivering all of his lines with foreign-accent flair and sprinkling plenty of "how you say ..."'s into his speech for just the right amount of comic-book flair. T-Bag was also in fine form, proving to be, as ever, a true snake in the grass. "Call me ... Friend." Hahahaha ... I also love Bellick - he is the classic down-on-his luck B-list badguy. While he started as just a peripheral character, Bellick was one of the highlights of last night's ep. His expression as his fellow inmate attempted escape, only to get mercillessly shot down by the guards, was priceless.

William Fichtner has also been awesome on this show as Mahone, and it's cool to see him stripped of his FBI and Company allegiances and potentially forming an uneasy alliance with Michael. The scene where he comes to Michael's aid during Scofield's to-the-death street fight was a classic. "No weapons. That's the rule." = daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

The main thing that dragged this ep down was Lincoln on the outside trying to navigate the Company's attempts at extorting he and Michael. LJ kidnapped yet AGAIN? An unseen Sarah Tancridi in mortal danger (shades of FOX Mulder on Season 9 of X-Files when David Duchovny was oft-mentioned but never seen). Lincoln is a character who works best when he's kicking ass and taking names, so hopefully we get more of that soon and less of him being jerked around by mysterious members of a black-ops consortium. The conspiracy plotline on this show has been cool at times but more often than not it's felt like retreads of stuff we've already seen on shows like The X-Files and 24. If the whole Company thing is going to be a major plot point this season, they've got to do somehting to really make it pop, because having 22 episodes of lame text messages from LJ crying for his dad, and assuring us that Sarah (just off-screen of course) is also there and in trouble, is going to quickly become a bit of a drag.

But overall this ep was a lot of fun. Seeing Scofield square off with the savage inmates at Sona was pretty cool, and seeing familar faces like Mahone, T-Bag, and Bellick adapt to their new, dog-eat-dog environment was interesting. Count me as excited to see where things go from here. This is a show that, even though it looks to be getting back to its more serious roots a bit, is best taken with a grain of salt and just enjoyed for what it is - a serialized B-movie that wears its cheesiness with a badge of honor.

My Grade: B+

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Blog gets ROCKED LIKE A HURRICANE! The SCORPIONS in Concert, EASTERN PROMISES - Reviewed, and Emmy Awards Thoughts

Okay, it's been way too long since I updated, and that's mostly been to craziness at work. Actually, the last time I posted, last Tuesday, I had a whole rant ready to go about all things political, mostly centered about Larry "Wide Stance" Craig and the hypocricy of all thes right-wing social conservatives who are, in fact, the last thing from morally-sound themselves. In fact, Jonathan Alter wrote a great editorial for Newsweek documenting the history of Republican leaders who have not exactly practiced what they preached when it comes to morality. Check it out:

Basically, there's such a long history of these right-wingers being exposed as morally-questionable hypocrites, that for anyone at this point to call themselves a Republican in the name of Family values is themselves being fairly hypocritical. As for Larry Craig, he needs to stay away from political office, and likely deserves all the embarrassment that he has coming.

- Anyways, I want to take a moment and say "Shana Tovah" to all of my fellow members of the Jew Crew. May everyone have a happy and healthy new year.

- As for my Rosh Hashana, I had a decent time participating in J-Connect's services. The crowd, as per usual with these things, was a bit of a motley crew, with an eclectic mix of very religious Jews with many who were much more secular. It's funny how us middle-of-the-road conservatives (Jewish-ly speaking, not politically) seem to be few and far between here in LA, where everyone is apparently either a beard-sporting super-Jew or else one of those people who asks "wait, which one is Yom Kippur again?" Thursday night I had a nice time with my great-uncle Josh and aunt Liana, at their friend Hannah's home for a Rosh Hashana dinner. It was exhausting though, driving from Burbank to West LA through terrible traffic, then back to Burbank, then back to Beverly Hills for dinner. But it was a nice way to break up the week, and a good way to get re-focused. I love that us Jews have a time of the year where we basically are forced to evaluate our own behavior and think about how we can better ourselves in the new year. Especially here in LA, all of us need a little self-reflection now and then.

- Okay, on to the EMMY AWARDS.

Basically, I thought the awards this year were decent, with most of the nominees consisting of the usual suspects, with a few left-field choices thrown into the mix. Of course, shows like VERONICA MARS and GILMORE GIRLS were shafted as usual in the nominations, and surprisingly, LOST was left out of the Best Drama category in favor of Heroes, which had a good first year but is not necessarilly one of TV's five best dramas. The Emmy show itself was okay, nothing spectacular. Ryan Seacrest had a few decent jokes and was suprisingly servicable as host. the Family Guy opening was pretty funny, and I enjoyed the tribute to Roots. Other than that, Stewart and Colbert were hilarious as always, but noting else really stood out except for Sally Field's trainwreck of an acceptance speech. UGH. Why do all these Hollywood stars feel the need to use a crappy awards show podium as their personal pulpit? It's one thing if the star in question is coherant and concise. But it's emotional crazies like Field who give liberals a bad name. Doesn't she realize that her rambling mess of a political statement does nothing but SET BACK whatever anti-war cause she's trying to advocate? GET OFF THE STAGE, says I.

In terms of who won, the main things that stood out to me are these:

- First off, a huge congrats to LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN, whose writing staff won a well-deserved Emmy that was a looooooooong time coming. I can personally attest that Conan and his writing team are all bonafide comedic geniuses, and they've had some of the best comedy-writing on TV for years and years now. I think the tendency is simply to give the award to a Stewart or Colbert, since their shows have a perception of prestige and highbrow humor. But nobody does random, Mad Magazine-esque Ivy League lowbrow like Conan and his crew, and it's 'bout time they got some recognition!

- I personally was really happy to see Ricky Gervais win Best Actor in a Comedy. His work on Extras was simply phenomenal, and Gervais has the rare ability to portray a character who is both hilarious and sad - like The Office, EXTRAS is a miniature comedic epic that is amazing in the scope of its storytelling.

- I was also really happy to see 30 ROCK win Best Comedy. I quickly became a huge fan of the show last season, and really wish more people would watch. Midway through last year, 30 ROCK began to hit its stride and really began to strike that perfect balance between having a likable, well-rounded cast and being packed to the brim with crazy, random humor. Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin are freaking hilarious, and Tina Fey is the perfect straight-woman. Personally, I'd give the edge to The Office in terms of being the better overall comedy this past season, but 30 Rock is gaining a lot of creative momentum, and hopefully the ratings can catch up as well.

- Finally - Terry O'Quinn gets an Emmy! O'Quinn is an amazing actor who brings a depth to his characters that is simply remarkable. He's helped to elevate LOST to another level with portrayal of John Locke, and even if his character's arc has had its ups and downs, O'Quinn is undoubtedly Emmy-worthy for his overall body of work on the show, including the instant-classic "Walkabout" from Season 1, perhaps one of the best episodes of a dramatic program ever aired. The award couldn't go to a cooler actor.

- Also congrats to Jamie Pressley for her Emmy for Earl. What an unlikely success story. Before Earl, Jamie was probably best known for less-than-respectable roles in movies like Poison Ivy 2. Just last week, the DVD of DOA dropped, featuring Pressley in the B-movie videogame adaptation. And yet, she has proven on EARL that she's a talented comedienne who plays one of the breakout characters on a show filled with great actors like Jason Lee and Ethan Suplee.

And really, those are the awards that stood out to me. I've yet to see much of THE SOPRANOS, but I'm sure it's deserving of the recognition it got. But plenty of people will tell you that it's a crying shame that shows like THE WIRE, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA got little to no recognition. As I've said before on the blog, the nominations process for the Emmys really has little merit. It's a bunch of industry insiders who likely DON'T WATCH many of the best programming on TV. I know for a fact that people I've talked to who had Emmy ballots have barely heard of Veronica Mars, and sure as hell aren't about to put it on an Emmy ballot. I mean, half of the people in Entertainment only watch whatever shows their husbands or wives TIVO for them - hence all of the love for things like Ugly Betty, Grey's, etc. It's a miracle that someone like Ricky Gervais made it onto any ballots in the first place, let me tell you.

- So ... totally shifting gears here, let me talk about this weekend. Good times yesterday at El Guapo in celebration of Jule's big b-day, and man, myth, legend - Aksel - was in town as well. But, the big highlight was that me and the Axe-Man saw legendary rock band, THE SCORPIONS, live and in concert!


So, the Scorps have long been a favorite band of mine. Many people only think of them as an 80's one-hit-wonder, but in fact, The Scorpions have had a lot of hits over their long career and are really a pretty accomplished band with a great sound and a huge catalog of cool rock songs. And they are still kickin', with a new album set to hit soon and a band that, if Saturday was any indication, is only barely showing any signs of age. Because this weekend at Gibson Ampitheater, the Scorpions unleashed hell and rocked like a hurricane!

I really wasn't sure what I was going to get from The Scorpions. I mean, as far as I know they haven't toured in years, and prior to a few months ago I didn't even necessarily realize that they were still together as a band and making new music. But lo and behold, what I got on Saturday was a couple of hours of straight-up rock n' roll - not many bells and whistles - just classic tunes from start to finish. The band itself was in great form. Clean vocals and shredding guitars, sick drums, and plenty of energy. These guys were running and jumping around like it was 1986 ... I mean, a few weeks back I talked about Poison seeming well-preserved, but they had nothing on the Scorps, who pranced and jumped around the stage like middle-aged men-possesed. Their drummer in particular was INSANE, looking like a 1980's-era Ozzy and playing some ridiculous solos. The banter was kept to a minimum, and when the band did talk it was often unintelligible thanks to the German accents. That's what was so impressive - they played for hours with barely a pause for breath.

Now, the setlist was pretty good, but I would have liked to have heard more of the classics that I'm familiar with from my well-worn copy of Best of Rockers and Ballads. We got about three or four songs off the new album, Humanity, and while they were unfamiliar, the new stuff was actually pretty good, with the title track being particularly rockin'. On the other hand, there was plenty of time for a number of vintage Scorpions. The band opened with a new song, but quickly broke out two of my all-time favorites, with a kickass rendition of The Zoo followed by an undeniably epic version of Holiday, that drew out the power ballad well past its normal length, with plenty of crowd participation along the way. Some other favorites that got played were Black Out, Still Loving You (perhaps, in my mind, the undisputed King of Power Ballads), No One Like You (a must-play), Big City Nights (one of the all-time best songs to listen to while driving through LA or Boston or wherever at night), Send Me An Angel (Aksel's fav) and of course, Rock You Like a Hurricane, which served as the penultimate closer to what was an epic evening of all-out Rock. The strangest thing though, was that they never played Winds of Change! I was sure that that would close out the night, but it never got played. So odd, and the crowd was dyin' for it. Even without Winds though, there were plenty of great songs, and the concert was an awesome time, with even the newer material sounding pretty much like vintage Scorpions. I would have liked to have heard Winds, and other favs like Rythm of Love, Love Drive, Hey You, and one or two others from the Greatest Hits catalog, but, overall, I didn't have much to complain about. But I came away a believer that The Scorpions were in fact the real deal, and delivered bigtime. I went in looking to be Rocked Like a Hurricane, and Rocked Like a Hurricane I was! Another concert for the record-books.

- As a bonus, here are my all-time Top 10 SCORPIONS songs:

1.) STILL LOVING YOU - to me this is the quintissential 1980's rock n' roll power ballad. Epic, melodramatic, and building from a slow thump to a thundering cresecendo, Still Loving You has gotta be my all-time fav Scorpions song.

2.) ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE - the lyrics of this song are so hilariously kickass ... you can't go wrong with songs about rocking and rocking hard, and you can't rock much harder than a hurricane!

3.) NO ONE LIKE YOU - Similar to Hurricane, this one is power-chord infused arena rock at its finest.

4.) HOLIDAY - The build-up in this power ballad is so over the top it's totally awesome. There's like three minutes of operatic singing, when all of a sudden there's a thunderous power chord as the tempo picks up, "LONGING FOR THE SUN! HERE WE COME!"

5.) WINDS OF CHANGE - Okay, I think the Scorpions are the undisputed masters of the power ballad. Winds is another one that is almost comically over the top but kicks all the more ass for being so.

6.) THE ZOO - Best opening guitar riff ever, followed by an awesome song about ditching yer dayjob and rocking out like an animal!

7.) BIG CITY NIGHTS - Is there anything more rock n' roll than a song about crusing through the city at night? Nope! This is like the Scorps' version of GNR's Night Train, except cheesier and with a chorus that's repeated about 5 million times, growing awesomer each time! Big City! Big City Nights!

8.) HEY YOU - I can never quite tell if there is a woman singing backup in this song or just some dude from the band. But the effect is that of a guy and girl having a back and forth pick-up line session. Great song.

9.) RYTHM OF LOVE - "It's the rythm of love! Keeps me dancing in the night!" Cheesy, classic, sugary goodness.

10.) LOVE DRIVE - Did I say cheesy? "It's a love drive, on wings of fire, a love ride, just one desire!" Yeaaaaaaaaaah. 80's rock at it's over the top best. Scorpions rule!

- Okay, so not only did I see a classic band this weekend that rocked, but I saw the latest film from David Cronenberg which also rocked me like a hurricane! So let's get on with it ...


- I won't come here and pretend to be an expert on the works of David Cronenberg, but I can say that he's a director who I am already an enormous fan of even though I still need to catch up on some of his most revered works. Seeing films like Videodrome, Scanners, Spider, Dead Ringers, and Crash is something I need to do soon. I've always loved The Fly, and I was totally blown away by A History of Violence, which I named the best film of 2005 right here on the blog. So, I was really excited to see EASTERN PROMISES this weekend at a screening held on the Universal lot, in which director Cronenberg reteams with Violence star Viggo Mortenson, and covers similar thematic territory. What I got was pure Cronenberg - dark, brutal, graphic, and more than anything, a thought-provoking character study - a film that is less about plot and more about characters, ideas, and the big questions of human nature and WHY it is that these people behave the way they do. This is no mere crime drama. Eastern Promises is, like A History of Violence, a psychological film that is far removed from the typical genre piece that another director might fashion from this material.

The plot takes many unexpected twists and turns as the movie takes shape, but the basic setup is this: Naomi Watts is Anna, a London-based midwife who delivers the baby of a young, dying prostitute. Watts finds the girl's diary, written in Russian, among her possessions, and becomes obsessed with retracing the girl's steps. As the mystery of the girl is unraveled, it becomes clear that she was hopelessly embroiled in the strange and violent world of London's Russian mob. Anna herself, hoping to discover if the orphaned baby has any relatives in London, becomes wrapped up with Semyon, the godfather of a Russian crime family. Semyon has an unstable son, Kiril, and both the father and son seem to be concerned that the diary that Anna has may implicate them as participants in any number of criminal acts. Enter Viggo Mortenson as Nikolai, a rising star in the criminal underworld who has become Kiril's #1 man and the mob's designated Fixer. Nikolai appears cold and vicious - a killer with no concious. but there is something more to him - he is strangely sympathetic towards Anna and seems to have some kind of hidden motive. And this is where the plot begins to get interesting ...

The supporting cast here is great, but the real star is easily Viggo, with a total knockout of a performance that may even top his great turn in A History of Violence. As in that film, the characters here have a pulpy, almost B-movie quality to them, but the magic is how Cronenberg creates these archtypal, almost stock movie characters (in Viggo's case here, the standard mob-movie cold-blooded killer), and subverts them so that they defy our expectations. Viggo has some scenes in Eastern Promises that are just ridiculously intense. The much talked-about nude fight scene sounds almost funny on paper, but rest assured, it's one of the most brutal, intense, and just plain f'd-up action sequences I've ever seen on film. It takes a brave actor to partake in such a scene, that's for sure. Ultimately, I think Viggo's performance here is so good because it's all about gradually revealing new layers to the character. Like I said, Nikolai initially appears to be just like every badass enforcer-type in any number of crime movies. But the layers peel away, figuratively and literally, and we are left with a complex character who is nothing like the man we initially think we are being presented with. This is a remarkable, Oscar-worthy performance from Viggo Mortenson, and I hope that it gets is due recognition when the time comes, especially after the lack of kudos given to A History of Violence.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast is also great and filled with a number of welcome character-actor-types who bring a lot of color and vibrancy to what is a very dark tale. Naomi Watts is perfect. She always excels at playing seemingly ordinary women who get sucked into a much darker and depraved world than they are used to (see Mulholland Drive for Exhibit A). She is similarly great here, though her character is really pretty basic in that she's our eyes and ears into this dark world of crime and vice. It reminded me a bit of Laura Dern in Blue Velvet.

Some other standouts are definitely Vincent Cassel as the on-edge Russian Mafia Prince, Kiril, who is one of those classic villains who always seems to be on the verge of a breakdown. Armin Mueller-Stahll is really great as Semyon, Kiril's father, and one of those great elderly-types who act kindly but are really old-country-style brutal SOB's. One actor who's always cool to see is this cracy looking dude named Mina E. Mina. I first noticed him on The X-Files back in the day and he is just creepy as hell in general. He's good here as a longtime henchman of Semyon.

The cast really is great, especially considering that it takes a special kind of actor to pull off Cronenberg's unique style of characterization, in which many things are painted in broad strokes and there's a kind of abstract, almost overly-simplistic quality to the dialogue. Like History of Violence, Eastern Promises has an almost Lynchian, surreal quality to it. This isn't a Scorcese-esque street-level crime saga, it's off-kilter, dreamlike, and more about the bigger picture than the details.

This is, in turn, the film's one flaw. Some major twists are introduced as the plot unravels, and it's a credit to Cronenberg that he's not heavy-handed about them, and never talks down to the audience. But he's almost too casual about some of the movie's big revelations. I like a movie that leaves some things to the viewer's imagination, but the last act of this film is simply a bit too abrupt, leaving too many fascinating questions posed by the various twists very much unexplored. This is one that leaves you with A LOT to think about, but you get the feeling that if only one or two more key tidbits of backstory had been dropped, it would feel like a much fuller and more satisfying movie.

Otherwise, this is another must-see from Cronenberg. Cerebral, engrossing, and memorable - this is a film that will burn many of its powerful images into your brain for a long time to come. Eastern Promises is well worth checking out, and a movie filled with ideas and performances that you won't soon forget.

My Grade: A -

- Alright, once again, Shana Tovah, congrats to everyone at Conan on the big Emmy win, and here's to the next rockin' edition of this here blog.

BTW - Tonight, PRISON BREAK Returns~! Oh man, I can't wait! T-Bag liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiives ...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Tuesday, September 11th ...

Man, today was such a busy, crazy day. And I wonder how many people even stopped to take note of today's date - Tuesday 9/11 - six years after the 2001 attacks on our country. I know that it was somewhere in the back of my mind, but until now, with the clock about to hit midnight, I haven't really had a chance to just it back and think about it ...

More to come ...

Monday, September 10, 2007

3:10 TO YUMA and SHOOT EM UP - Reviewed! Plus: One Mo' MTV / Britney Rant of Doooooooom

MTV suuuuuuucccccccckkkkkkkkkks.

Man, anyone who watches and enjoys this channel at this point in time is either a twelve year old girl or braindead. Back in the day, hell, even as of a few years ago, the VMA's were a highlight of the awards-show scene. You could count on some edgy humor, some great up-and-coming music acts doing career-making live performances, and usually a nifty surprise or two. Over the years the show has had many highlights and memorable moments, from Madonna in the bridal gown to Pearl Jam and Neil Young to Britney and a python. Last night however, for the first time ever, the show was UNWATCHABLE. Literally, I turned it off after about 30 minutes of (T') pain. Pure, unadulterated craaaaaaaap.

Kurt Loder, if you're smart you would high tail it outta there and never have your name associated with MTV again. Man, it used to be like "hey, good ol' Kurt Loder. He's legit." Now it's "WTF is Kurt Loder still doing on MTV."

John Norris, what a freak. He's like 50 years old and trying to look like a member of My Chemical Romance. How in the blue hell does MTV still trot this guy out for hosting duties? Part of the problem is that they don't play videos anymore, and therefore don't have VJ's who can serve as MC's for events like the VMA's. Hence John freakin' Norris gets dusted off and brought out year after year, along with no-talent "personalities" like Sway. WTF. Someone needs to knock that beanie cap off of Sway's head. Sway makes Pauly Shore look like Johnny Carson. I mean, Sway makes me wish that Jesse Camp was still employed by MTV.

Now, the actual VMA's. Who thought it was cool to take the performances off of a main stage and have them held in hotel rooms? Nobody wants to see a performance done from a freaking hotel room.

And how about featuring some, I don't know, bands? I'm sick of seeing a watered-down Foo Fighters be the token rock band at every awards show. It's a telling sign that most of the big names in music couldn't even be bothered to show up for the VMA's. Not that MTV even wants them, per se, they seem to be content to feature washed-up trainwrecks and the latest one-hit-wonder rappers who nobody will remember in two year's time.

In fact, it is ridiculous that MTV would even have Britney in the first place. Why not promote someone like Gwen Stefani who has actual talent as a musician? I've been hearing a pretty kickass band on K-Roq lately called Flyleaf, with a female singer with some serious pipes. Why not feature a band like that who is hungry for an opportunity and would likely do everything they could to tear the house down? Why not feature some musicians who are actually, you know, COOL? Remember when MTV was about being cool? Last I checked, washed-up trailer trash who spends more time on supermarket tabloids than she does making music? Not very cool.

And as for Ms. Spears ... who are her managers that aren't telling her she looks and sounds terrible? She wanted to make a comeback? How about coming out in sensible clothing and SINGING a SONG?

So MTV got its buzz-worthy moment. But this isn't buzz, really. It's just one of those low moments, one of those oh-god Signs of the Apocalypse. When Justin Timberlake of all people is calling for you to play more music and have less reality shows, it's time for a reality check. MTV, meet Rock Bottom.

My Grade: F

- Anywaaaaaaaaays ... it was a fun, packed-to-the-brim weekend. Friday, former page and fellow NBC colleague Megan P celebrated her b-day at the swanky Falcon in Hollywood, where a wide mix of NBC page alums and other fine folks gathered for some fun. Saturday, I was invited to a prom-themed birthday party at the Hollywood Canteena that was a lot of fun as well. Howeeeever, what I will talk about now is a pair of movies I saw over the weekend, so read on to see what I thought of SHOOT 'EM UP and 3:10 to YUMA.

SHOOT 'EM UP Review:

- For those who like their action movies to play out like hyper-real anime movies on crack, SHOOT EM UP should be right up your alley. This is a nonstop roller-coaster ride that serves as a kind of deadpan sendup of the action genre, from the same kind of school of over-the-top anything-goes film-making that includes flicks like The Transporter, Crank, and most recently Grindhouse. In fact, Shoot Em Up could easily be called a true modern-day Grindhouse flick -- it's dark, lurid, nihilistic, with an acid-tipped sense of humor and a sensibility that revels in its own implausibility and outrageousness.

The story here isn't really important. Clive Owen is a badass dude called Smith who has gotten himself mixed-up in the plans of a brillaint crime lord, played by Paul Giamatti. There's something about a crooked Senator and the gun lobby, but really, all you need to know is this: Clive Owen is pissed off at the world, and he is ready to deliver some double-barelled justice on anyone who gets in his way.

Our two leads are pitch-perfect, and both have just the right amount of theatricality and tongue-in-cheek delivery. Clive Owen basically plays every lone-gun action hero rolled into one over-the-top package. If John McLane, Dirty Harry, and The Punisher were cloned and had their DNA mixed, you might get Smith. Owen delivers each of his obligatory one-liners with a suitable mix of "don't mess with me" attitude and self-aware comedic timing. Meanwhile, Giamatti is awesome as a criminal mastermind who almost seems like a modern twist on one of those old Batman TV villains. He also brings to mind all of the crazy action villains from campy 80's movies like Tango & Cash or any number of Jean Claude Van Damme movies. He says each line with a smirk and a snear, and man, Giamatti just looks to be having a blast with this role, and it shows. The movie has a lot of fun with the fact that his character just won't die, and seems to come back for more hurtin' again and again.

So ... I can't stress enough just how INSANE this movie is. In one memorable scene, Clive Owen is getting it on with Monica Belucci, who plays a hooker with a heart of gold (what else?). In the heat of the moment, so to speak, Smith is assaulted by a battalion of armed thugs. So, Smith flashes his own piece (so to speak) and begins going one-man-army on the goons. But he's kicking ass and taking names, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME ridin' space mountain with Ms. Belluci, even timing his gunshots in a way that ensures her maximum pleasure. So, yeah, that's something I can't say I've seen in a movie before.

In another scene, Smith parachutes from a plane, as dozens of thugs jump out in pursuit. We then get a MIDAIR shootout that spans the horzontal and vertical. Yiiiiiiiikes.

And man, the climactic showdown between Owen and Giammati is one for the ages. I won't spoil what happens, other than to tell you that it's yet another "holy $#@%!" moment in a movie that's chock full of them.

Now, like I said, there's little plot to speak of here, and what plot there is barely makes sense. But this is a movie where the fact that Smith has a love of eating carrots is more important than messy things like plot. This is grindhouse, baby. Barebones and all about the action, about saying "hey, thought THAT was cool? Well check THIS out." Not a "great" movie, not one that will win any awards. But for an action movie that simply grabs ya', hits ya' with a steel chair, and then flings ya' from a moving truck ... well, Shoot 'Em Up gets the job done with style.

My Grade: B+

3:10 TO YUMA Review:

- The Western movie -- for decades it was a staple of the cinema, a mainstay at the box office, and an iconic genre of American filmmaking. But ask many people who are, like me, in their 20's. How many of us have even SEEN a Western, let alone seen one in the theater? For myself, I am not sure, but I'm pretty confident that I was one of the Gen Y masses who somewhere in my subconcious had a fascination with cowboys and six-shooters and the Wild West, but who had rarely experienced such things of young male daydreams on the big screen (and no, I'm not sure that Back to the Future, Part III counts). So I was excited for 3:10 to Yuma. Not only was it a very promising entry in this long-neglected genre, but it was exciting to me simply as a movie fan. It was Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, maybe the two best actors working today, and surely two of the msot badass, going head to head, mano e mano, in an Old West showdown. If any two actors could make me interested in a Western, it was likely these very two. So yeah, I was excited for this one, but not quite sure what to expect.

What I got was a very well-made, action-packed movie that was elevated thanks to the high calber of its cast. While the characterization was a bit jumpy, the movie was a joy to watch simply because of the greatness of Bale, Crowe, and a well-rounded suporting cast that included the likes of Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, and Grethchen Mol.

The plot here is in fact pretty basic, although it is a bit over-complicated in the telling. Essentially, Bale plays Dan Evans, a down-on-his luck rancher in the Old West. Evans has fallen on hard times, and the local railroad company repeatedly threatens his home so that they can use his land to build on, even as his wife (Mol), and oldest son begin to question him as a father, husband, and provider. When Evans stumbles across the outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe), he sees it as a bit of a financial opportunity. Evans volunteers his services to join the party that will bring Wade to justice, knowing that there's a $200 reward waiting for him if he can succesfully bring Wade to the prison train that will send him packing to Yuma prison. Wade, however, is a charismatic villain. He makes men tremble and women swoon, and even inspires Evan's son to look up to him a bit. So Evans' quest becomes not just about the money, but about proving himself to his wife and son.

And this sets up the essential conflict - Evans, a guy who's worked all his life to make an honest living, and struggled all the while (with nothing but a bad leg due to Civil War friendly fire to show for it), versus Wade - a guy who uses fear and intimidation and cunning to live a life of crime and debauchery.

As was expected, both Bale and Crowe are excellent. Bale has just been on an absolute roll lately. I was only weeks ago that he turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in Rescue Dawn. Now he's kicking all sorts of ass again as Dan Evans. It really is amazing - in Dawn, Bale was a happy go lucky guy who is forced to revert to survival mode while in the jungles of Vietnam. Here, Bale is pure bottled-up intensity from the get-go - he's a man who's been beaten down and wearied, one of the few honest men in a land ruled by lawlessness. Bale is great here yet again - give this guy an Oscar already. Crowe is also pretty spectacular. He's an outlaw who knows how good it can be to be bad, but who may just have a shred of decency in him, if only he didn't have a posse of bad apples ready and willing to jump at his every command. Crowe's performance as a leader of men reminded me of his period-piece greatness in Master & Commander, except this time he was less do-gooder and more eeeeeeeeevil. But in any case, Crowe and Bale - both exceptional - and it's a little slice of movie geek heaven to see them squaring off.

However, the supporting cast is also excellent. Ben Foster in particular stands out as Charlie Prince, Crowe's right-hand man who will unleash hell at a moment's notice for his boss / leader / idol. Prince is one nasty SOB, whose loyalty to Wade borders on pathological (or else just a bit of Brokeback-style forbidden longing, as is strongly hinted at). In any event, Foster is great in the role, bristling with intensity and unpredictability - a loose cannon waiting to go off. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda is seven kinds of badass as McElroy, a grizzled old bounty hunter that might even give Jonah Hex a run for his money. Fonda gets many of the movie's best lines, as he takes a bullet like it was a tap on the shoulder, calls outlaw Dan Wade's mother a 'ho, and generally rules it as only a badass old cowboy can. Logan Lerman also does a pretty good job as Crowe's eldest son, and Gretchen Mol is good, but isn't given much to do, as Bale's worn-out wife.

The biggest problems with the movie are in the areas of plotting and characterization. Without revealing anything, things begin to unravel towards the end of the movie, and one of the major characters has a pretty major change of heart that never seemed to receive a proper build-up. Part of the problem may also lie with the direction by James Mangold (Walk The Line). Mangold seems to draw out the movie with a very deliberate pace, and yet skimps a bit on the character-arcs until the final act. The direction is very competent, but could have used a bit more grit and style. There are lots of cool set-ups, whether its an attack by hostile Apaches or a daring escape from a small mining town. But amidst all those cool scenes there are a lack of true iconic shots that really get burned into the brain. It's like the movie stuggles with whether to embrace its pulpy Western roots or to be a sleeker, more modern-feeling period-piece, and comes out as something in the middle that is ultimately a bit pedestrian-feeling at times.

But Crowe, Bale, Foster, and Fonda make the movie special. These commanding presences own the screen with a dramatic intensity that few other actors could have elicited, and help to make 3:10 to Yuma a ride well worth taking. All in all, this is a welcome return for the mainstream Western to the big screen - so saddle up and board the 3:10.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, that's it for now - congrats on surviving Monday!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Danny's Must-See Returning Fall TV Shows

So, if you haven't already checked it out, take a look at yesterday's posting which contained my list for the Top Movies of the Summer.

And now, as we head into the weekend, I'll turn my attention to the world of television and present to you:


- So, a few days back I shared my insight into what is and isn't worth watching in terms of new Fall TV. I ruminated on the potential awesomeness of CHUCK, and expressed my disdain for such soon-to-be cancelled crap as Big Shots and Cavemen (apologies to my friends at ABC). But really, with a new show, there's only so much excitement you can have. It really takes a few episodes for most shows to really grow on you, to build that sense of loyalty that all the great ones cultivate. So, sure, I'm excited about the POTENTIAL of Chuck and Pushing Daisies and Aliens in America, but TV is a comfort food and there's no better comfort than curling up with an old favorite (of course, some old favorites like Veronica Mars are now gone ... why, CW, why?!?!). Now, 24 of course won't be back until January, as per usual, and this year neither will LOST, which is really a shame given last season's awesome cliff-hanger finale, which capped off one of the best episodes of the show to date. So, aside from those two, what shows can I not wait to see come September and October ...? (Note: I'm not including CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, which I can't wait to see, but will probably not catch until Season 6 comes out on DVD, or FUTURAMA, which, thank the gods of TV, is set to return sometime down the line. And I'm not including KING OF THE HILL, which as far as I know, as per usual, isn't set to return until mid-season). Here ya' go:

1.) HEROES - Regular readers of the blog know that I had very mixed feelings about Season 1 of Heroes. To me, the show started with a bit of a whimper, but eventually picked up momentum that culminated with "Company Man," an episode that proved that Heroes could compete with shows like Lost in terms of storytelling and characterization. However, even despite an uneven season and a slightly underwhelming S1 finale, I'm pretty buzzed about Season 2. Any fan of comics and superheroes knows that the best stories usually come AFTER the origins are over and done with - that's when we can finally get to the good stuff and play around with the universe that has been created. It feels like now that the pieces have been put into place, Act 2 of Heroes might be when the show really begins to hit its stride.

2.) PRISON BREAK - Here's a show that has its detractors, but for me, Season 2 of Prison Break was pure awesomeness. This is just such a dark, down-n-dirty, pulpy show, you've gotta love it and just leave your seuspension of disbelief at the door. I'm not sure how I feel about the setup for Season 3. On one hand, we have Michael in a Panamanian prison that promises to make Fox River look like Disneyland. Then, we have this emerging sci-fi angle where Michael is the product of some kind of Bourne-esque conspiracy thing. Since this show takes place in some kind of parallel universe where basically anything goes, count me as curious as to where the hell all this is leading. But I don't think there's a character on TV whose grand entrance I wait more than the vilest, most evil villain on TV, T-Bag.

3.) THE OFFICE - The Office, in Season 3, became bar none the best sitcom on broadcast TV, and I can't wait to see what the writers come up with for Season 4. As long as we get more Michael Scott-isms, more Dwight freakishness, and more generally crazy office shenannigans, I am pretty confident that we should get yet another season of workplace hilarity.

4.) THE SIMPSONS - Last year, The Simpsons had yet another season of subpar humor, with most episodes failing to come close to the high standards set by the show's long-past glory days. But this summer, Simpsons fans got a ray of hope in the form of the Simpsons Movie. Sure, the film was so funny in large part due to the return of many of the show's best writers to the fold. With those guys still MIA from the regular show, it remains to be seen if The Simpsons can ride the momentum of the movie into this season (19?!?!). But hey, one of the first fall eps is about an upstart comic book store that competes with the Android's Dungeon, and features a guest appearance by Alan Moore! Consider me psyched.

5.) 30 ROCK - 30 Rock was the surprise comedy of last season - while Studio 60 got a lot of the hype, 30 Rock quickly usurped Sorkin's show as THE show to watch about the backstage goings-on of a sketch comedy TV show. Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and the rest of the supporting cast are all hilarious, and I'm very curious to see where the show goes in Season 2. I'm hoping that the show gets back to the more random humor and de-emphasizes the relationshippy stuff to a degree - to me, many of the show's best moments have occured when Fey, Morgan, and Baldwin (and Kenneth the Page, of course) just go off on random tangents. I am a Jedi!

6.) FAMILY GUY - To me, Family Guy mostly sucked last year. There was one great episode (the time travel one) which hinted at a possible return to form, and I'm curious to see if that is the case this season. I'm excited about the season opener, an extra-length Star Wars parody that sounds potentially hilarious. It seems like everyone has an opinion about Family Guy - mine is that, before it was originally cancelled by FOX, the show was one of the most hilarious things ever on TV. Since it's returned from TV purgatory, the show has only occasionally been as good as it once was. With the Simpsons movie making bank and other animated shows on the rise, I'm hoping that Family Guy will up it's game come this fall.

7.) SMALLVILLE - For the most part, I wasn't thrilled with Smallville last season, and it's been several years now since the show was actually good on a consistent basis. However, Smalliville does usually manage to open each season with a bang, often bringing its A-game for the movie-like season premieres. This year has some potential. The fates of Lois, Chloe, and Lana are all in question. Lex is under arrest. Bizzarro is on the loose. And ... Supergirl is set to debut. That's a lot going on, and even if the show drops the ball on one or most of these plotlines, it's always worth checking out just for Michael Rosenbaum's great portrayal of Lex Luthor.

- And those are basically the returning shows on my must-watch list, and of course, LOST and TWENTY-BY-GOD-FOUR will be top that list come January.

- Alright everyone, have a great weekend. I know the next few weeks for me are going to be packed. Birthdays, holidays, concerts, and more. Not to mention work, other creative endeavors, etc. Stay tuned for more, Cheers.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Danny's Summer Wrap-Up - The Best Movies of the Summer~!

Ah, summertime, when the living's easy ...

Man, I really wish that I still had summer vacations. Many a time throughout these last few months, I'd walk outside to grab a hurried lunch, and just get the urge to take off and relive the good ol'days, when summers were spent playing basketball, tennis, swimming, and spending the days in the great outdoors. And then I'd realize that I was not doing these things, but wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, sitting in a corporate office, hunched over a computer.

But ...

... dammit all ...

... the spirit of summertime lives on.

Way back at BU, I wrote an editorial for the Free Press that I'm particularly fond of. It was about, how, even as the days when we enjoyed an actual summer vacation disappeared, even as we find ourselves with little to differentiate July from October, August from March, the spirit of summertime does, indeed HAS TO, live on.

So with that said, one of the great indicators of summertime remains the Summer Blockbuster season. The time of year when Hollywood forgets about the Oscar bait and bombards us with sequels, epics, and adventures. To me, this was a summer where the usual blockbuster franchises mostly elicited a giant feeling of "meh." I stopped caring about SHREK after Part 1. I had no real desire to see a PG13-rated Die Hard after we already saw a subpar Part 3 several years back. I don't think most people saw much to get excited about in a third Rush Hour. And even some of the big movies that I was really pumped about failed to deliver. Spiderman 3 was completely underwhelming, esepcially coming on the heels of the superlative part 2. Transformers had a lot going for it, especially visually, but ultimately it was just another hackneyed Michael Bay film. Oceans 13 was a bit of a mess, another excercise in star-driven pointlessness.

Some of the big guns did prove pretty enjoyable though. Bourne Ultimatum was an action-packed film that was a lot of fun even if it missed the mark of being great. The Simpsons elicited plenty of laughs even if it was a long way from Best. Movie. Ever. And Harry Potter produced what was to me one of the best films in the series yet - still not a fully satisfying movie by any means, but a well-acted and directed film that set things up nicely for the next installment. Ultimately, I know the series has its detractors, but PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, to me, was the one true sea-worthy blockbuster sequel of the summer. I have the utmost respect for what Gore Verbinski and his team of amazing artists and actors have done with the Pirates franchise, and I've rarely had more fun at the movies over the last few years than I have had with the Pirates films. Of all the sequels that we saw this summer, this is the ONE sequel to which I wouldn't mind seeing one more installment. The films have done a spectacular job of creating a world so visually rich and interesting that it's one I want to visit again and again.

But despite an overabundance of over-hyped blockbusters and unnecessary threequels, this was truly a great summer for movies, and a lot of that was due to the amazing quality of this summer's crop of comedies and other unlikely winners that really provided texture to the summer movie landscape. Just last week, I saw a little movie that has been slowly gaining buzz - THE KING OF KONG, which was of all things a documentary about competitive Donkey Kong players. And yet, this indie gem turned out to be an amazing film, a great capper to a summer of unlikely hits. Super-producer Judd Apatow had two hilarious comedies in Knocked Up and most especially with Superbad. As a huge fan of good comedy, it was great to see unlikely stars emerge in Seth Rogan, Michael Cera, and Jonah Hill. The first two I've been big supporters of since Freaks and Geeks and Arrested Development, respectively, so it was awesome to see them step into the spotlight in a big way. Meanwhile, there were some great smaller-budget comedies out there spotlighting some of the best groups of comedians making films today. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright delivered an awesome follow-up to Shawn of the Dead with HOT FUZZ, which is destined to become a long-lived cult classic. The guys from The State brought back their trademark absurdist humor with THE TEN, and Jermaine Clement, who later in the summer would become better known as one half of Flight of the Conchords, was hilarious in EAGLE VS SHARK. Plus, we had THE TV SET, a dead-on satire of Hollywood that provides a clue, for the uninitiated, on how some of these crappy movies get made in the first place.

Rounding out the summer were some excellent films that at times got lost in the shuffle, simply because they did not have a 2 or 3 in the title. RESCUE DAWN was a mind-blowing movie, yet another Oscar-worthy performance from Christian Bale, who is quickly becoming one of THE best actors out there. STARDUST was the most unique fantasy film in a long while, a throwback to the funny and far-out fairy-tale films of the 1980's. And Pixar ... Pixar can seemingly do no wrong. RATATOUILLE was yet another A-level film from them, bursting with amazing animation and a classic story.

So all in all, there were plenty of great movies this summer, and many that will surely be included in my Year-End Best List. Sometimes, you just had to think a bit outside the box to find the great ones.

And by the way, in this day and age there's barely a beat skipped between Summer and Fall. I can't wait for two, count 'em two movies that hit this weekend, unofficially kicking off the Fall season at the box office. 3:10 to Yuma looks like a classic Western, made all the more awesome by its stars, perhaps my two favorite actors today - Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Talk about a dream team, it doesn't get much better than Maxiumus and Batman. And then, Shoot 'Em Up looks simply kickass, balls to the wall. Clive Owen, Monica Belluci, and the craziest action scenes this side of Crank? I'm there.

So, without further ado ...



- For more, you can read my review posted earlier this week. But to me this was, looking back, THE must-see movie of the summer. It was a classic underdog story, an amazingly put-together documentary, a hilarious character study, and a movie that introduced us to a man - Steve Wiebe - who might just be the Rocky for the digital age. I know some of you may be skeptical that Kong is truly the best movie of the summer. But do yourself a favor - go see it - you too will become a believer.


- This may have been released in the midst of the summer, but everything about Rescue Dawn screams Oscar. Intense, you-are-there direction from Werner Herzog, another transformative performance from Christian Bale, and incredible supporting turns from Steve Zahn and Jeffrey Davies. This is one of those movies that takes you on a journey. You feel the jungles of Vietnam, you feel the suffering of Bale and his fellow POW's, you feel the rush as survival mode kicks in and every moment becomes a life or death struggle. Intense.


- Cars is still probably my favorite Pixar movie, but Ratatouille is another amazing film from the studio that is single-handedly preserving the legacy of Walt Disney animation. The CGI here takes the art of animation to a new level, with direction that is a total rush while at the same time painting a vivid portrait of Paris as seen through that classic Disney lense. Another one of the must-sees of the summer.


- High school is the perfect place to set a comedy, but few movies fully take advantage of the setting or the potential for laughs and character. Superbad, more so than most teen comedies, has both an abundance of hilarious, over the top gags, as well as characters and dialogue that feel totally authentic. It never feels like anything has been toned down for the sake of the audience, so as with movies like Knocked Up, there's a sense of the humor being genuine, which is what makes it so freaking funny.


- As I mentioned, to me this is a franchise that is always enjoyable, that earns respect for the sheer sense of fun and adventure that permeates each of the films, not to mention the eye-popping visual design that brings the fantasy world to life with style and craftsmanship.


- Sheer hilarity from The State, and a worthy followup to cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. This is a movie that will find a second life on DVD and will be watched over and over, and quoted ad nauseum. In a summer filled with realistic, conversational humor, The Ten was a welcome return to pure random craziness as only The State can do this well.


- While Superbad has it beat for sheer laugh-a-minute ration, Knocked Up earns points for deftly weaving a rather sophisticated story into its Apatowian humor. Seth Rogan is awesome here, and the movie is a veritable love-letter to the entire cadre of Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks alumni club. If only more comedies could combine earnest emotion with so many laugh out loud moments.


- The genius of Hot Fuzz, is that like Shawn of the Dead, it not only serves as a brilliant parody of action movies, but is itself a pretty damn good action movie. Classic British humor, some hilarious, grindhouse-style over-the-top action, and even a dash of heart make this a bloody good time.


- This one is a little rough around the edges, but it's one of those movies that wins you over because in the end, it's just too damn likable. The movie is just really fun, funny, and features a lot of people giving great performances, especially Michelle Pfeifer as an evil witch who might just be the summer's best villain (take that, Megatron).


- A movie that got mixed reviews, but to me was just hilarious, Eagle Vs. Shark is a must see for all of you who of late can't get enough of Flight of the Conchords. The humor is deadpan and quirky, think Napoleon Dynamite meets Punch Drunk Love, and the characters are just great to watch. This is another one that I hope finds a second life on DVD.



Alright, with that I'm out. ROCK.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Blog Full of Quarters: THE KING OF KONG Reviewed, and MORE

What's up? Back again from a 3-day weekend that was nice and relaxing, with the only asterik being that it was about one million degrees hot here in LA, specifically in Burbank where it was a freaking inferno all weekend. Yes, the temperatures went well past triple-digits in the Valley, and man, being on the second floor of an outdoor apartment complex ... well, there's only so much a small wall-unit A/C can do to combat the blistering heat. Luckily, I got out and went on a number of mini-adventures this weekend, including a trip to Pasadena on Friday with the G-Man to see King of the Kong, a Santa Monica pier / beach / promenade escapade on Saturday tduring which I got to hang out with Abby W for the first time in a long while, and a mini-movie-marathon with the Kaiser Roll and his crew on Sunday. So, good times. Gotta love Mondays with no work.

Meanwhile, what else is going on? Well, work has been nuts, as you might expect if you keep up on entertainment / technology news. If you haven't heard about all the NBCU-Apple stuff, look on Google and see what the fuss is about and why this week will probably be a bit crazy for me.

How's that badly-sprained ankle I suffered the other week? Well, thanks for asking ... It's doing okay, better than last week, without a doubt. Still, it's pretty swollen and sensitive even after 3 weeks - hoping it will be more fully recovered by this week's end. At least my right foot is no longer purple ...

Also, never had a chance to file a report on last Thursday, when I participated in a BU Young Alumni panel over at BU HQ, aka Park LaBrea in LA. I really enjoyed the panel, and it was pretty interesting to hear the other panelists' stories (many of them of the horror variety). To be honest, it was pretty jarring to hear some of them try to sound oh-so-Hollywood, with "insider" accounts of celebrity and executive behavior and advice that centered more around LA's party scene than the actual ins and outs of making it in the industry (I guess for some, "making it" just means getting invited to some cool parties ...?). So during the panel, I of all people was kind of the down-to-earth, voice of reason. But afterwords, I got a number of positive comments from the students and have since gotten a few nice emails, which really helped to make the experience worthwhile (well that, and the complimentary food from the Cheesecake Factory). There is hope for the future, it's more the present that I worry about ...

In all seriousness though, thanks to Michael G and Katie P at BU for getting me onto the panel -it was a great time, and very informative and enjoyable.

- Saw a few Spring / Early Summer movies this weekend that I had missed out on the first time around. I caught DISTURBIA, which I thought was extremely cheesy and overall pretty lacking. There was some decent humor, but zero mystery or real sense of tension, and I remain pretty clueless as to why this movie actually did well at the box office. I also saw the Korean import that was a modest hit a few months back in the US. I'm talkin' bout THE HOST, which had to be one of the oddest and most bizarre movies I've ever seen, and that's even in comparison to other similarly-quirky Asian imports. This modern monster-movie played like a bizarro update of Godzilla, with a totally out-there mix of humor, action, and sheer insanity. The art-direction and cinematography was utterly amazing, but the plot was so all-over-the-place that its quirkiness eventually overshadowed its story and characters. Recommended, but be prepared for weirdness.

- Anyways, I am dying to talk about a movie I saw on Friday, that I haven't stopped thinking about since ... so without further ado:


There are some stories out there in the world that are so good, they could only be true, because man, you just couldn't write this stuff. I mean, finding humor in the obscure world of competetive niche sports is all the rage in movies these days. Ice skating in Blades of Glory, ping pong in Balls of Fury, and dodgeball in, well, Dodgeball. But prior to seeing King of Kong, what aspiring screenwriter would have dared to dream of a movie that featured the heroes and villains, the heartbreak and drama, the sheer testicular fortitude - that embodies the competitive world of vintage arcade gaming? In THE KING OF KONG, it must be said that director Seth Gordon has crafted not just a movie about Donkey Kong, but a movie that embodies the spirit of films like Rocky - it's a film about one man trying to prove something to the world, trying to buck the odds, trying to show himself and everyone else that The Dream to be The Man is never fully out of reach. So what if our hero, Steve Wiebe, has made beating the all-time high score on Donkey Kong his pursuit of choice? Seth Gordon transforms this man's tale into a human-interest story of epic proportions. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be standing up and cheering for Wiebe as if his race for a high score came with an Olympic gold medal on the line.

In short, this is one of the finest, funniest, and most interesting documentaries I've seen, and surely one of the must-see movies of the year thus far.

The most amazing thing about KONG is the memorable cast of characters, each proving more fascinating than the next. Let me provide some background:

In 1982, LIFE Magazine did a story on the emerging world of videogames, profiling some of the arcades' best players. At this time, at the dawn of the golden age of arcade gaming, some players took their games a little more seriously than most, and the ability to attain high scores on games like Q*Bert, Pacman, Missle Command, and Asteroids became not just a badge of honor, but a status symbol that was the videogame equivalent of being a World's Heavyweight Champion. However, amongst all the games that emerged at this time, perhaps the most notoriously difficult and hardcore was the oddly-named Japanese title Donkey Kong, the first game to feature that lovable plumber known as Mario from a then-fledgling publisher called Nintendo. In 1982, when LIFE did it's story on the world's best gamers, one man - Billy Mitchell - was heralded as the King of Kong, the man with the all-time best Donkey Kong score, and the guy who was widely considered the world's best arcade-game player.

Fast forward to 2007. Since 1982, no one had even come CLOSE to beating Billy Mitchell's old Donkey Kong record. Mitchell went on to become a quasi-celebrity in the world of gaming, doing numerous appearances and becoming the public face for Twin Galaxies, an organization devoted to monitoring competitive gaming and giving official recognition to the top score-holders. Meanwhile, Mitchell opened his own restaurant chain, and lived in Florida where he sat atop a rarely-challenged throne of arcade-game supremecy. Mitchell is an absoultely fascinating character. He is egotistical, the king of the nerds, obsessed with preserving his outdated rep as the Best in the World, and a shameless self-promoter. He sports a vintage 1980's mullet alongside a well-trimmed beard, and wears too-tight all-black ensembles given color by an assortment of patriotic ties. He compares himself to George W. Bush, struts around with a siliconed-out trophy wife, and enters his initials as "USA" whenever he achieves a new high score. I'm telling you, you could not make this stuff up.

Enter Steve Wiebe. Wiebe is a quiet family man, married and with two cute kids. Wiebe had a potentially-promising baseball career ahead of him until he injured his arm, and he then went on to take a job at Boeing, where his dad had worked before him. Wiebe was also something of a musical and artistic prodigy - skilled on the drums and a talented artist. But there is a sadness about Wiebe - a sense that he is a decent, average guy who always dreamed of being more than decent and average. One day, after being layed off from his job at Boeing, Wiebe took up playing Donkey Kong, and found that his almost savant-like mind made him a natural at it. Soon, he realized that the scores he was racking up would likely be worthy of a world-record. So Wiebe videotaped his games and sent them in to Twin Galaxies to be looked at. And suddenly, the world of vintage gaming is turned upside down. Without realizing it, Wiebe has broken Billy Mitchell's old-record, and upset the status quo in a videogaming clique that was not used to an outsider coming in and stirring the pot.

What follows is absolutely captivating stuff, as the rivalry that forms between Billy and Steve is seriously like something that Vince McMahon might have dreamed up for one of his wrestling feuds. We have Steve - the honest, earnest family man, vs. Billy - the cocky, paranoid former champ clinging to his long-past glory days. Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat might not have anything on Steve Wiebe vs. Billy Mitchell. Mitchell even has his own posse, a 4 Horsemen of sorts, that follow him around like a group of high school lackeys who will do anything for their fearless leader.

Again, the characters here fly off the screen. One of the most oddball is Brian Kuh, who is Billy Mitchell's right-hand man. Himself a top player (but never on Billy's level), Brian acts as if he were a cartoon henchman, scheming on how best to help out his idol Billy and foil the rise of the up-and-coming Steve Wiebe. Also in Billy's clique is Steve Sanders, a guy who idolized Billy since he was soundly beaten by him in the 80's. Steve starts to be won over by Wiebe's mild-mannered ways, but watching Sanders balance his loyalty to Billy and his emerging respect for Wiebe is pretty fascinating. Then there's Roy Schildt - a longtime rival of Billy's who seeks to be kind of a manager to Steve. Unfortunately for Wiebe, Schildt is borderline crazy, and his hatred of Billy, though possibly justified, has earned him a reputation as an unsavory character (well that, and his involvement in the porn industry).

Meanwhile, as we follow Wiebe's quest for Donkey Kong supremacy, there is the whole other aspect of the film that kind of brings us into this whole kooky, mixed-up, insulated world of competitive gaming. We learn about the formation and operation of Twin Galaxies, and meet one of the movie's most fascinating characters - Walter Day. Walter is just this amazing guy, he's like a wandering hippie who saw it as his calling from on high to become the world's first official Videogame Referee. When he's not strumming his guitar and writing folk music, Walter dons a black and white referee shirt and presides over all of gaming's biggest competitions, and without his official word, a high score cannot be recognized as valid by Day's group, Twin Galaxies, which over the course of Kong we see become the Guinness Book of World Records' official source for high-score keeping. Day has, over the years, embraced Billy Mitchell as his group's figurehead, so he's slow to accept this newcomer Steve Wiebe into the fold. But Day's wizened take on the emerging rivalry, and mix of zen-like calm with over-the-top showmanship is sheer entertainment. I've also got to mention Robert Mruczek, I mean, what a character! With his disheveled look and thick Brooklyn accent, Robert looks like the quintissential NYC cab driver. But on his own, for free, Robert is a high-score evaluator for Twin Galaxies, with his New York apartment stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of video tape submissions for him to review. With twitching eyes behind double-thick glasses, Robert spends hours upon hours watching tapes, hours in length, of people playing Donkey Kong or Asteroids, making sure that there's nothing fishy and that all scores have been achieved fairly and without tampering. Talk about hardcore!

All of this adds up to a movie that is thoroughly hilarious, yet surprisingly heartfelt. Billy Mitchell and his cronies, as well as the motley crew over at Twin Galaxies, provide plenty of laughs with their unique lifestyles and outlooks. Billy Mitchell himself is a villain for the ages. Who knows if he's really all bad in real life, but the movie brilliantly sets him up as an iconic antagonist - arrogant, hilariously self-righteous, afraid of confrontation, and comedically stuck in the past - at one point we see his machinations brilliantly set to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." Simiarly, Steve Wiebe is a hero that everyone watching the movie will find themselves rallying around. In my theater, I saw people who seemed to have gone into the movie disintereted pumping their fists as Wiebe closes in on Billy's high scores. The King of Kong is a laugh-riot, but it's also a movie that gets your heart-pumping, that gets you rooting for the every-man to win out over the establishment. The movie makes you care about a little game called Donkey Kong, with its random barrels and kill-screens and catchy 8-bit audio, in a way I never thought possible when I played the game as a kid while waiting for my turn at the dentist, struggling just to defeat that first treacherous level. But most of all, this is simply a great story about one man's struggle to be the best at something, anything. If this is playing at a theater near you, grab a hammer, jump over a barrel, and bring plenty of quarters - you've got to see the King.

My Grade: A

- Alright, that's what I've got for today. Congrats on making it through this back-to-work Tuesday. And: stay tuned for the Best Movies of the Summer and the Must-See Returning TV of the Fall!