Sunday, January 27, 2008

RAMBO - Reviewed! Cuz Sometimes ... Bloggin's As Easy As Breathin' ...

RAMBO Review:

- Well, on Friday, a squad of merciless mercs were assembled with one mission and one mission only - to infiltrate project: RAMBO and report back on the status of one of film's most legendary action heroes. Well my friends, I have returned from the deepest darkest jungles of Hollywood and am here to testify ...

... to testify that RAMBO totally owned it.

Yes friends, regular readers of my movie reviews know that I have a low tolerance for mindless Hollywood crap and that I'm always looking to spread the word when it comes to thoughtful, intelligent films. But dammit all, sometimes a movie comes along that is bad in all the best ways, but kicks ass in all the right ones.

RAMBO is that movie, and let me tell ya', Stallone is on a roll. When ROCKY BALBOA was gearing up for its release in late 2006, many haters came out of the woodwork to diss on the premise, myself included. But the sixth and final Rocky proved to be a hell of a flick - a movie filled with heart that hearkened back to the glory days whilst giving one of cinema's greatest heroes a fitting send-off. Well, I'm happy to report that, as Rocky Balboa was to the Rocky franchise, so too is Rambo to the series of films that kicked off way back when with a little action piece known as FIRST BLOOD. Rambo is a movie to get your blood pumping, to make you stand up and clap, to raise your adrenaline levels to the breaking point and jump on your chair and shout "USA!"

No, Rambo isn't a movie for stuffy critics. It's not a movie for chick-flick-lovin' ladies or high-falutin' indie-kids who have forgotten how to have *fun* at the theater. Nope, this is a movie for that inner-fourteen-year-old in all of us, the kid who stayed up late at night watching Stallone movies on cable and wondering what they looked like in their non-edited-for-TV versions. This is a movie for people who appreciate the greatness of a good, old-fashioned, all-American ACTION FLICK. The kind of no-holds-barred movies that they used to make, the kind where men were men and the violence was brutal and unadulterated. I'm talking about the days when larger than life heroes filled our screens thanks to icons like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis - in the days when it was a given that if a new Die Hard movie came out, it'd damn well be R-rated.

And the thing is - there is a certain brilliance when an action movie gets it right, as Rambo does. At times, us discerning movie-goers might cringe at the heavy-handed dialogue or simplistic plot that at times make us giggle in this one. But really - would we have it any other way? Do we really want Rambo, of all people, talking in Coen Brothers-esque dialogue. This is Rambo, not Gilmore Girls. This is broad, iconic, larger than life - the stuff of comic books and pro wrestling and all the things that make boys want to be men and men want to be *real* men. And when a master of the balls-to-the-wall action genre like Stallone hits one out of the park like this, well, it may be a different sort of brilliance as compared to a There Will Be Blood or a No Country For Old Men, but it's brilliance all the same.

Like Rocky Balboa was to the first Rocky, the latest Rambo serves as a great thematic bookend to the original First Blood. And that's what you've got to love - the characterization here is broad, simple, not complex, but it works. It's archtypal - Rambo is the shunned warrior, the lone wolf, the modern day samurai - a "ronin" if you will as he is long removed from his heyday in Vietnam, adrift without his comrades in arms or his leaders like Colonel Trautman (appearing here in flashback form). No, this Rambo is a lost soul, now totally removed from anything resembling a normal life, a hunter in the jungles of Thailand who rarely speaks and has essentially cut himself off from any kind of emotion or human connection.

So, I think everyone knows how things play out. A group of Christian missionaries tries to recruit Rambo to guide them to Burma on a mission of mercy. They finally convince him to come along, but once they get there and Rambo has left them behind, the village they're visiting gets massacred by the vicious Burmese government, with most of the Americans getting captured in the process. Rambo gets called back in, hooks up with a team of international mercenaries, and is forced to once again embrace his true nature - that of an uncontrollable killing machine.

And yeah, the whole thing is 100% badass. Sure, there's some stilted dialogue and annoying overacting, especially in the first half of the movie, but as soon as Rambo kicks into high gear in its second half, its nonstop mayhem from that point on. The explosions are big, the violence intense, the villains as vile as any we've yet seen in the series ... But what makes this movie so freaking fun is the man himself. I mean, this could have been a joke, this could have devolved into self-parody as Rambo III did. But give all the credit in the world to writer / director Stallone. He nails it. He knows his audience and plays to the crowd sitting in a theater with all of the self-awareness and eagerness to please of a great showman in action. More than most films you'll see today, Rambo is a movie that practically begs you to be audible, to CHEER our hero as he returns for one mo' go-round. The build-up to Rambo's return to action is great, for example. Stallone, the master of the montage, gives us snippets from all of the previous movies, as in the present day John Rambo hammers away at the forge, molding his new weapon of choice in the burning embers. We see all of the moments that have led up to this return to action, and when Rambo thinks to himself that killin' is, in fact, as easy as breathin' ... well, holy crap, let the games begin.

There's just something 100% authentic about this one that makes it easy to love. It doesn't feel made by commitee, it, like Rocky Balboa, feels like the vision of a guy who knows the character inside and out. It's not some hack writer trying to reinvent Rambo for a new generation ... no, this is the Rambo we know and love. He's older, meaner, more withdrawn and removed from humanity than ever - exactly as it should be. But Stallone combines that sense of authenticity with that timeless comic book bigness. When our team of cocky mercs gets captured, and all looks doomed, only for the hulking, bandana-clad figure of John G. Rambo to rise up in the background to save the day like some kind of G.I. Hulk ... well, if you're an action movie fan, you can't help but smile ear to ear, because in that moment, it's like 1987 all over again, baby. Rambo is here to teach those Burmese bastards a lesson.

So yeah, this isn't a movie that will win awards. It's not one that will be lauded for acting or writing or directing. But Stallone should get credit - in the last two years he's brought back two of the all-time great movie heroes with style and dignity and a hefty dose of awesomeness, showing all these young punks how it's done. So if you're an action fan who has been longing for an old-school movie that hits ya' right between the eyes, the kind they don't make much anymore, then this is the one you've been waiting for.

My Grade: A -

Friday, January 25, 2008

CHUCK Chucks Back! Plus - Ready for Rambo?!?!

It's raining and pouring like crazy here in LA ... which is fine by me, that is, fine by me if I were in bed right now just waking up and spending the rest of the day not getting out of said bed. As it is, this kind of weather only makes it that much harder to wake up and go to work. Although, I should be pretty well prepared for it. Back in CT, this type of grey, wet weather is the norm rather than the exception, although over there, a little rain doesn't cause the total chaos that you get in LA. Roads look like biblical scenes from the story of Noah, driving anywhere is basically swimming, and people decide en masse to go into panic / crazy mode. Good times.

Meanwhile, this week, though it was a short one thanks to MLK day, has been long and crazy. Very busy at work and a lot to think about outside of work. Suffice to day, I am more than ready for the weekend. And next weekend. And the one after that. The good news is that today sees the much-anticipated release of RAMBO. Haha. Seriously though. I can't wait. I've been itching for a classic, old-school action flick that pulls no punches and gets the ol' adrenaline pumping. So far, the reviews for Stallone's latest have been great (at least those that come from obvious action-movie fans), and I can't wait to see John Rambo kick ass and take names one mo' time. Stallone is a guy who knows how to mix in just the right amount of character with heaps of fist-pumping action. And this is me speaking as a fairly new convert to the temple of Sly. Last year, I laughed out loud when I first saw the trailer for ROCKY BALBOA. The movie looked like a total joke. But lo and behold, it was a worthy conclusion to the Rocky series, a badass movie that I completely enjoyed. So now the bar has been raised for Rambo, and personally, this is one of those flicks where I'm just going to sit back and let myself get caught up in the excitement.


- So last night, fans of good TV had reason to rejoice. No, it wasn't another episode of FOX's harbinger-of-the-apocalypse series Moment of Truth. What we got, courtesy of NBC, was two all-new episodes of CHUCK, one of this season's best and most out-and-out enjoyable new series.

I think last night's double-bill suffered a little bit simply due to perception. Seeing as how these were the first new eps in a while, and likely the last in a while, I was hoping for some BIG stuff to happen that followed up on the the cliffhanger from a few months back, where Casey was instructed by his superiors that he may soon have to kill Chuck. So, it was a little jarring for last night's first episode to be a somewhat lighthearted romp in which Chuck and Casey bond a little bit over a lost love of Casey's who pops up after being presumed dead. Of course, it turns out that she had been a French agent all along, though she and Casey did rekindle a bit of romance. All in all it was a fun episode, though Casey's love interest could have been made a bit more compelling of a character. Still, Adam Baldwin is always awesome, and it was fun seeing him break away a bit from his usual stoicism.

That being said, I really liked the night's second episode a lot. To me, it was classic Chuck - a great mix of humor, intrigue, and some real evolution for the characters as well. By the episode's end, I was slightly confused about who wanted Chuck dead versus who wanted him in a padded cell, but that took a back seat to all the fun and funny character moments between Chuck, Casey, Sarah, Morgan, Ellie, and Awesome. Big Mike's interrogations of the Buy More staff as he tried to figure out who cleaned out the store were great, and all of the hijinks with Mike's missing marlin and Awesome's missing wedding ring were pretty entertaining as well.

Chuck is a show that I'm sad to see cut short due to the strike, but excited to see more of. The potential is unlimited, and I'm already envisioning all of the wacky, covert-ops shenanigans that will surely ensue at Ellie and Awesome's wedding.

My Grade: Ep 1: B+, Ep 2: A-

Anyways, I think I'll keep things short for today ... happy weekend ... commence donning your red bandanas and breaking out the cammo gear.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Brought to You By Slusho (TM): OSCAR NOMINATION thoughts, CLOVERFIELD - Reviewed!, Prison Break, and MORE!

Alright, enough moping around. Time to buck up, kiddos. Now, where were we ... ah, yeah, let's talk Oscars for a sec ...

- So about this year's Oscar noms - well, mostly they seemed to be pretty sound picks. The two movies that to me were not only two of the year's best, but maybe two of the decade's best - THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - both received, deservedly, a number of nominations, including Best Picture. Juno, a movie that I really loved as well, got a ton of noms, only adding fuel to the backlash against it.

What else I liked:

- Daniel Day Lewis is of course a near lock for Best Actor, so it's great to see him get recognized, along with Viggo Mortenson, who probably should have won something a few years ago for his awesome turn in A History of Violence, but is now being honored again for his turn as a badass Russian gangster in EASTERN PROMISES. Similarly, Johnny Depp's nomination is in my eyes no token gesture - he was absolutely great in SWEENEY TODD.

- As far as Best Supporting Actor - well, I can't complain as the Oscar noms 100% line up with the five supporting actors I had previously named as the year's best. I think you've got to give it to Javier Bardem, but this category is positively loaded with deserving talent.

- I'm glad to see Ellen Page get the nom for JUNO, even if by this point wa a foregone conclusion. To me she was awesome in that film and deserves all the recognition awarded her. I'm not as familiar with the other actresses in the category, but I have nothing but admiration for Page. Speaking of which, I'm also happy to see Juno up there in the Best Picture category. I hate that some people write it off for being a "small" movie. Last I checked, The Catcher In the Rye was a "small" book ... To me, it's great to see a quirky comedy recognized to this extent, and all of the haters on this one need to expand their horizons a bit.

- Supporting actress is another tough one to call, but my pick has long been Tilda Swindon - she was great in MICHAEL CLAYTON and I'd love to see her win.

- Pleasantly surprised to see RATATOUILLE nominated for best original screenplay - it did have a phenomenal script that deserves to be placed in the same category as other heavy hitters. In the adapted category, No Country and There Will Be Blood are no-brainers, and of course the same goes for those two when it comes to Best Director.

- Finally, I have a lot of snubs to get to in terms of what I didn't like, but I don't mind seeing certain pictures like American Gangster and Into the Wild go largely unrecognized. Both had very admirable aspects (cinematography in Gangster, supporting cast in Into the Wild), but to me both underdelivered a bit as compared to expectations.

What I Didn't Like:

- In the lead actor category, I was a bit surprised to see George Clooney and Tommy Lee Jones pop up. I didn't see In the Valley of Elah, and Clooney was very good in Michael Clayton ... but, there were so many great lead actors this year, it was jarring to see so many great performances omitted. Bradd Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James. Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn (two movies very much snubbed in general by the Oscars). How about Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men?!? He, Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem worked together to make No Country an awesome acting clinic.

- As far as Leading Actress, I admit many of my personal picks, like Christina Ricci (Black Snake Moan) and Carice Van Houten (Black Book), were pretty much doomed to fly under the Oscar radar. But how about Amy Adams for Enchanted? Sure, it may seem like a not-so-serious part, but it's hard to watch the Disney film and NOT be blown away by Adams ... Also, it's too bad the perenially great Helena Bonham Carter wasn't give a nod alongside Johnny Depp. In terms of Supporting Actress, I was surprised to see that none of Juno's great turns from Alison Janney or jennifer Garner were noticed ... I really liked Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone, but the movie itself wasn't quite strong enough in my mind to be worthy of Oscar nominations ...

- Speaking of Juno, I totally admire the work director Jason Reitman did with it. Same goes for Tony Gilroy with Michael Clayton. Still, I'm surprised to see either get a Best Director nomination. As good as those two were, I still would have loved to have seen Andrew Dominik get a nod for Jesse James ... In any case, I've got to think this category is a lock for either the Coens or PTA.

- Surprised that Aaron Sorkin's much-talked-about script for Charlie Wilson's War wasn't acknowledged, but here's one I would have loved to have seen nominated: SUPERBAD. A great comedy screenplay is hard to come by, and as great a script as Juno had, Superbad was also deserving of some props. As usual, it's hard for traditional comedies to get any props. I mean, how about some noms for WALK HARD ...?!? At the least you'd think that one or two of the film's hilarious, satirical songs might get a nomination, seeing as how Enchanted's soundtrack got THREE.

- One category that really irks me is Documentary. For some unfathomable reason, THE KING OF KONG never even made it to the final round of consideration for the Oscars, despite being an amazing, amazing film. It would have been spectacular to see Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell sitting in the Oscar audience, or maybe even doing Kong-on-Kong battle live at the ceremony.

- Finally, it is just kind of sad, as many have pointed out, to see the reportedly atrocious NORBIT get any kind of nom whatsoever, even if it is just for makeup. There were so many cool movies that could have gotten a bit of Oscar glory in the place of Eddie Murphy's latest embarrassing vehicle. What about STARDUST, for example, which did a stunning job of turning Michelle Pfeifer into a rapidly aging wicked witch? How about GRINDHOUSE, which saw a whole host of old-school makeup f/x employed in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror ...? Or come on - what about 300 - which saw some amazing creatures brought to grotesque life in an epic action movie? And one last thing - I feel like BEOWULF deserves SOME kind of technical nomination for its stunning use of 3-D, a trick that may well represent the future of cinema.

In any case, it should be an interesting awards show, and I'll be happy if either No Country or There Will Be Blood comes away with the top prize. Be sure to stay tuned though, as I'll have more Oscar thoughts and predictions over the coming weeks ...


Some quick reviews for you after an action-packed Monday night of TV, courtesy of FOX:

- PRISON BREAK delivered one heck of an episode this week, with a ton of action, intrigue, and intensity. The $#%# really hit the fan as a coup to dethrone Lechero as ruler of Sona threw a wrench in Michael and co's plans to escape. It was great seeing Scofield and Mahone work together to take on Sammy's group of insurgents, and Bellick having to take on Sammy in a potentially deadly fight was also simultaneously hilarious and ultra-gripping. I've really been enjoying the show's fast pace and crazy cast of characters, and I can only hope that in this strike-shortened season we get some good resolution to the current plotlines. My favorite scene: Sammy nonchalantly climbing up the escape shaft that Scofield had helped construct, taking a moment to taunt Michael, only to get unceremoniously killed as the shaft collapsed right on top of him - leading to Lechero taking out Sammy's goons and reclaiming his position as king of Sona. As always, good ol' fashioned two-fisted fun.

My Grade: A-

- Similarly, it seemed like business finally picked up this week on THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. It seemed like the show's blend of action, sci-fi, and humor finally got into a good groove this week, and I thought there was a real imagination-expanding spark to all of the scenes involving the evil Terminator robot and his attempts to regenerate his old body. Finally, it felt like the cooler aspects of the Terminator mythology were really coming into play and being used to generate some great visuals to boot. The relationships between John, Sarah, and Cameron were also fleshed out here to good effect. John questioning his role as a soon-to-be hero and savior, Sarah examining her own morality, forced to decide whether or not to kill scientists now before their creations wreak havoc in the future, and Cameron trying to figure out humanity and high school while learning to play by Sarah's rules. A lot of really interesting dynamics were set up here, and if the show can keep up this episode's momentum we could be in for a great ride.

My Grade: A-

- And now, a review of one of the first BIG movies of '08 ...


- In theory, the concept of doing a "found footage" movie, especially in this day and age of omnipresent video-capturing, is a pretty intriguing one. Way back when I was in high school, I remember seeing The Blair Witch Project and being totally intrigued by the entire premise. Not only did I love the idea that this might be "real" footage that we were witnessing, but I loved the fact that the movie really was essentially just a couple of young fillmmakers going out with a consumer camera and making a cool little horror movie. In fact, the movie was a huge influence on me and my friends. Living in wood-sy Connecticut, everyone wanted to go out into the woods in our backyards and do our own version of Blair Witch. It's why there were so many parodies at the time - the movie was an easy target to emulate and satirize, and so it's no wonder that a bunch of fellow Camp Shalom counsellors and I went and made a series of Blair Witch-style parodies to present to our campers.

Now, Cloverfield is the next logical step in the whole "homemade movie" theatrical movie phenomena - a film that takes a premise suited to a big-budget spectacular, that of a rampaging, Godzilla-like monster on the loose in New York City, and films it from a man-on-the-street, home-video perspective. If a giant monster ever really DID rampage through a major metropolitan city, then this, in theory, is what it would really look and feel like to be there.

So, does it work?

The first thing I have to say, before I get to the movie itself, is that Cloverfield made me feel really sick while watching it. If I was doing it over, I would make sure to sit in the very back of the theater. I do sometimes get motion sickness from certain video games and whatnot, but I've never seen a movie that made me feel like this one did. I know not everyone will have the same issue as I did, but the fact was, this movie was simply hard for me to fully enjoy as much as I might have due to just how shaky and jerky its camera work was.

Now, did all the shaky handycam work contribute to the overall effect of the film? To some extent, sure. The movie has a great you-are-there feeling, most of the time. I did have some problems with the overall technique though ...

For one, I did think the jerkiness of the camera was overdone. For the sake of clarity and ease-of-viewing, it could have been toned down a notch. Certainly, the camera managed to steady itself conveniently whenever a Nokia or Sephora logo was being prominently displayed in the background ... This leads to another problem - the way the footage was presented just wasn't always as realistic as it should have been. There are times when there's NO WAY that any sane person would be worried about filming what's going on, during which the camera stays on. There are times when the camera doesn't focus on what it logically would be focused on (ie the GIANT MONSTER) and instead darts back and forth between the different characters. And then, the biggest problem ... in Blair Witch, the characters were themselves filmmakers out to make a documentary. Here, our cameraman, the nerdy and awkward Hud, doesn't even want the responsibility of filming his friend's going-away party at the film's beginning. To imagine that this guy, of all people, would be compelled to document ever waking moment of the monster invasion, while he and his friends' lives are at stake, is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly.

That's another problem with Cloverfield - the characters are simply not all that likable or compelling. Now, this is kind of a tricky situation - the characters are obviously and purposefully made somewhat generic to make it easy to kind of insert yourself into their shoes. However, a big part of the film's conceit is that we are supposed to buy our main lead risking everything to go after the girl who he may or may not love. Okay, true love (and a one night stand) conquers all, I guess we can accept that. But then, why in the world are a bunch of this guy's random friends (more like aquaintances, really) following him to certain death? I just think that in the quest to present us with a bunch of "everyman" characters, Cloverfield loses a little something. It would have been fun, for example, to see a really tight-knit group of likable characters caught up in this situation, people who we could really root for and care about, rather than a bunch of generic stars seemingly right off the CW reject-list.

Now, that's where Cloverfield is lacking, but where it positively excels is in the sheer aura of intensity it creates. Like another JJ Abrams project, LOST, Cloverfield is masterful when it comes to manufacturing suspense through incredible, pulse-pounding buildup. The film starts on a mundane going-away party in NYC - a bunch of twenty-somethings creating typical twenty-something drama. It's effective at establishing the calm before the storm and creating that you-are-there feeling. It's that real-world vibe that helps make the movie so scary and affecting. You can't help but think of 9-11 when things really begin to take a turn for the nightmarish. The party-goers rush to their building's rooftop, the TV is turned on - what's going on?!?! - and suddenly all hell has broken loose - I mean, there's the head of the Statue of Liberty lopped off and rolling towards a mob of screaming and terrified New Yorkers, and it's a true cinematic moment of "holy $#%^!".

Again, Cloverfield does an amazing job of creating an atmosphere of total panic and chaos. In that light, it's one of the most immersive movies out there - almost akin to a literal rollercoaster ride - complete with feelings of nausea. It definitely is an intense, visceral movie.

As for the monster, well, the film does a great job at first of making you wonder just what the hell it is. The fact that the full size and shape of the beast is mostly masked is a great call, as it adds to the sense of mystery and dread. It's not like you see it and go "oh, it's a giant dinosaur, I get it now." You see this creature and you do wonder ... WTF is that thing? Only later on in the film, when you do see the creature in full and in broad daylight, does it get a bit goofy.

Overall, Cloverfield is a definite must-see in my view, but I think it's more disposable entertainment than truly memorable moviegoing experience. As immersive and intense as the movie is, it could have used a little of the Spielberg-ian knack for mixing a sense of gee-whiz awe and wonder with great character moments that help elevate a movie beyond the level of sci-fi cheese. In fact, lame ending aside, Spielberg's own War of the Worlds was a great example of Big Disaster movie done to cinematic perfection. Cloverfield is a fun ride in its own right, but it really is essentially a movie-as-themepark ride. Get on, go for a ride, get off, feel exhilirated if not slightly queezy.

My Grade: B

- Alright, that's all I've got for now. Back later with more. Peace out!

Why So Serious, Indeed. A Brief Note on Heath Ledger ...

So I had a ton to talk about today, from the Oscars to a review of Cloverfield, but I figured I had better get this one out of the way first so that I can then concentrate on the above topics and other lighter fare ...

Heath Ledger is dead, and it's a tragic day in the world of entertainment. I mean, I knew little about the guy personally, and I'd probably only seen him in a handful of films. But I think what strikes everyone so hard here is that even with all of Ledger's successes to date, the general consensus seemed to be that he was on the verge of truly great things.

From all accounts, Ledger's upcoming turn as The Joker in this summer's Dark Knight is set to be a performance for the ages. From what I've seen thus far, my anticipation level was at an all-time high for the movie, and that was in large part due to Ledger's seeming total commitment to putting a new, scary spin on one of fiction's greatest villains. And that was only the beginning. I think many anticipated that The Dark Knight would cement Ledger as a mainstream fan favorite and a critical darling. It would have established him as a guy willing to go to any dark place, to any mental extreme, to bring all manner of characters to cinematic life. It seemed almost a given that Ledger was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the best actors of his generation.

Now, instead of being the vehicle that would have catapulted Ledger into the stratosphere, The Dark Knight will be an unavoidably eerie final tribute. One can't help but evoke the names of people like River Phoenix or Brandon Lee, who were just beginning to come into their own as actors when they passed away far too soon. I have no idea if part of what allowed Ledger to delve so deeply into his characters was also part of what led to his death. In fact, right now the circumstances of his passing are still very murky.

Of course, the true tragedy here is that Ledger was a father and a friend to many. But to film fans, the tangible loss is that this was an actor who had film geeks everywhere breathlessly awaiting his latest performance, knowing that this was a guy who gave his heart and soul to do right by an iconic character. In a short time, Ledger had become an actor to get truly excited about. It sucks that we may not see that final film he was shooting with the great Terry Gilliam. It sucks that we won't ever see him collaborate with any of the great actors or directors he's yet to work with, or lend his talents to many great films yet to be made or imagined.

Undoubtedly, this news made to day a very strange day in the already-strange world of Hollywood, but overall it was just a sad and shocking bit of news to digest.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

From a Tattoo on My Lower Right Arm: PRISON BREAK returns, and MORE.

Finally, a little GRAVITAS on Monday nights ...

No, Jack Bauer wasn't back, and no, I actually didn't even catch Hour 2 of TERMINATOR (will likely catch up on that one soon).

But, how about PRISON BREAK ...?

- Last night's ep was pretty badass from start to finish. Picking up right where we left off several weeks back, this installment took an interesting turn, as Scofield was detained by a determined general intent on extracting Michael's true purpose and reason for being in Sona. Deciding that he was left with little choice but to confide in the seemingly well-intentioned General (who himself was quite the badass character), Michael surprisingly spills everything he knows about The Company and their plans for Michael to break the still-mysterious Whistler out of Sona penitentiary. Whistler is then also taken into custody, but it's unclear if the enigmatic Australian is actually on Michael's side or The Company's. For now, Whistler goes along with Michael and cooperates in a plan to ambush the mysterious Gretchen during her next scheduled meeting with Lincoln. Gretchen is captured by the General and co., but somehow, the femme fatale escapes and singlehandedly takes out an entire group of soldiers singlehandedly.

All in all, it was an intense, action-packed hour with a number of twists and turns and red herrings. Seeing Gretchen actually captured and on the verge of going down was pretty shocking, but quite satisfying, as she truly is a love-to-hate her type of villain. The highlight of her capture was surely her first-ever confrontation with Michael, who, sensing that she was in fact Sarah's murderer, vowed to take her down. In Gretchen, Prison Break has created another fantastic foil for our heroes, a character who has now become almost as interesting as our main characters.

That's not to say that some of the other side characters didn't also have a chance to shine. William Fichtner, who recently wowed me in his role in THE DARK KNIGHT trailer, was, as per usual, awesome. His character, Mahone, was thrown back into Sona, more of a wreck than ever, taunted and tempted by T-Bag - who had some hialriously evil lines here. Also a lot of fun was Bellick, who has now found himself the resident pit-fighting king of Sona thanks to some underhanded tricks. Bellick is just a great scumbag character, it was hilarious seeing him beg Lechero's goons not to have to participate in his mandated fight to the death. There was also some interesting stuff going on with Sucre. At first, I was pretty weary of the show teasing that he was joining the dark side. Sure, the guy's a criminal, but it would have been a stretch to see him sell out Michael and Lincoln after all they've been through. So it was pretty cool that the teased turn ended up being a ruse, and that Sucre will now be Lincoln's inside guy at The Company.

The weakest link here was definitely Whistler's girlfriend, who has become somewhat useless by this point. It seemed like all she had to contribute to this episode were frequent declarations of "I just don't know what to think anymore!". It doesn't help that, after all this time, we still know almost nothing about Whistler. I'm not saying we need to know everything, but some small hints wouldn't hurt.

Other than that, this episode began building a ton of momentum about ten minutes in and then didn't let up for a second. More than almost any episode so far, this one established Gretchen as a truly great villain on par with one of last season's breakouts, Kellerman. And also, let's give some credit to Wentworth Miller - the man delivers lines with classic deadpan aplomb, and when he says typically badass things like "Once we escape, all you are to me is collateral," it can't help but bring a smile to yer face. Man, was it good to have Prison Break back.

My Grade: A -

- As I mentioned, have not yet seen the 2nd ep of Terminator, though will have thoughts soon, most likely.

- But while I'm in the right kind of mood, I'll give a shoutout to a few cool comics I've checked out of late ...

- The first is the latest iteration of THE SUICIDE SQUAD, brought to you by original series creator John Ostrander, one of my favorite writers and a true great of modern comics. This series was a little slow out of the gate, as it too ka few issues to give us a somewhat convoluted explanation of how original series lead Rick Flagg was in fact still alive after his presumed death way back when. But man, since then, Ostrander has been firing on all cylinders, bringing us classic Suicide Squad - a potent mix of politics, espionage, and villainous characters forced by their governemnt to serve their country or else face the ultimate penalty. One of the highlights has been seeing Ostrander tackle one of his best creations - Amanda "The Wall" Waller - a take no prisoners government operative who is one of the most atypical comic book characters you'll find. Overall, this mini series has evolved into one of my favorite monthly reads, and I'd love to see it become an ongoing - it's clear that Ostrander has many more tales of the Squad up his sleeve.

- One other cool read of late has been SALVATION RUN. The premise is simply that the government has had enough of the DC Universe's villains, and thus gathered them all up and transported them all to a faraway planet - a world inhabited by hostile aliens and all manner of natural and unnatural dangers. Prominent characters include such stalwarts as Lex Luthor and The Joker, alongside a bevy of lesser-knowns, from the Flash's Rogues to 90's-era villains The Body Doubles to a few simian adversaries (who doesn't love talking apes?) like Grodd and Monsieur Mallah (who are scheduled to go mano y mano - or is that monkey a monkey? - in the next ish). Anyways, writers Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges have done a great job making this one a really fun read. Willingham is sometimes hit and miss, but his dark humor and whimsical writing style have thus far been a great match for the premise.

- Speaking of comics ... I believe this week is the last EVER issue of Y: THE LAST MAN. So, so sad - overall, it's bar-none been my favorite comic of the last 5 years. Will definitely be back soon with a tribute to one of the greatest tales I've read, the saga of Yorrick Brown - the last man on earth.

- Alright, I'm out. I'll be back soon with a review of FUTURAMA: BENDER'S BIG SCORE, and much more.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

THE BEST OF 2007 - Part 4 - Danny's Year in Review

And here we are - January 1st, 2008 ...! Happy New Year, everyone.

If you haven't yet, be sure to scroll down and check out yesterday's MASSIVE movie wrap-up, with my picks for the best films of 2007, and much more! Beyond that are my picks for this past year's best in television, music, and comics, so if you're just catching up, you've got a lot of reading to do!

But right now, I'm going to get away from movies and TV for a moment and look back on my year in 2007. It's funny to even talk about it, because let's be honest, for most of the year I've stayed away from writing much about myself here on the blog. In some ways, it takes a load off to know that I don't have to really worry about stuff I'm writing being analyzed, interpreted, or miscontrued by any of the people who may be reading this. I mean, I know a lot of you guys read this via the imported notes on Facebook, and in the last several weeks alone, it's become apparent that creating a Facebook profile is apparently the new trend among many of the higher-ups at work. So more than ever, I (and all of you), should probably be careful about what we put up online. Man, it was only recently that this blog was read by no one but myself and a few friends, and that my Facebook and MySpace profiles were looked at only by a few dozen friends from high school and college. Here in 2007, the times they are a changin' ...

But for me, 2007 was probably my first real year of stability since graduating college. For the first time, I held the same job and title throughout the entire year, holdin' down the fort at NBC-Universal and working in new media in a pretty interesting time for television. In the last year, I've been on the frontlines as NBCU made a much-publicized split from iTunes, and as the writer's went on strike - protesting in large part due to the efforts of groups like ours to expand our network's digital distribution reach. So the fact that I held a steady job in television by no means meant that things were quiet for me or for the industry - every month has brought new challenges and changes in the worlds of technology and entertainment.

Still, it was amazing and kind of scary whenever I looked back and realized that it was getting to be a full two years since I finished up the NBC Page Program in early 2006. In my department this year, we began recruiting NBC Pages to work on assignment with our group, and it was actually really cool in that we've had some great guys and girls come through who gave me someone to hang out with at work and keep in the loop with a whole new crop of pages. A shout-out to Chris E and Genevieve, who I had a blast working with in '07. I was also lucky in that, through a combination of old friends and new, I was able to meet a ton of new people in '07 and make some great new friends, which is tougher and tougher to do when you're removed from a great social outlet like the Page Program and working the daily grind. It was definitely two different worlds though - my office where I'm the youngest there by far, and the times I hung out with the current crop of pages, where I was beginning to sound like the old man who always says "well, in MY day ...".

As always though, while it was great to meet so many new people, what I'm really grateful for is that I was able to keep in touch with so many people from high school, college, and my first few years here in CA. Of course, Aksel and myself shared many an adventure this year, as always, but I also got to hang out with Bradd in LA and the OC, Erica and Daniella in NYC, Stephanie P. in CT, and I even saw Kirsten S., straight from Australia (and Dan L. too, who made a brief appearance in LA en route from OZ). And despite some people moving away or falling out of touch, most of the great people I've come to know and love from the Page Program days remained good friends. And like I said, I met a ton of cool new people as well - I even hung out with Richard Rubin of Beauty and the Geek fame!

Also, this was the year that I turned the big 25. Not as traumatic as I thought it might be, but still ... somewhat traumatic. Luckily, I remained charmingly immature, and managed to have a fun birthday with a return trip to Pasadena to celebrate the big event.

Seriously though, there were many great times this year to counterbalance the long hours at work.

There were two trips to the East Coast over the summer - one that included a Fourth of July visit with Erica and her friends in NYC, and a second which was a business trip that began with a badly sprained ankle that still bothers me to this day, but turned out to be a lot of fun as I hung out with my brother in NYC and got to see one of my Camp Shalom partners in crime, Daniella G, to boot. In March, we made yet another trip to Wizard World, during which I got some photos with Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell ... but the highlight of the summer and maybe of the year may have been mine and the G-Man's awesome, first-ever trip to the San Diego Comic-Con! Aside from three days of pop-cult, geek insanity, we got to hang with the X-plosion and Adriana and Jules, partied with Aksel in downtown San Diego, and I even got to see tha man, myth, and legend that is Chris Agra, a BU reunion that had been a long, long-time coming. Oh, and how can I forget about my first-ever trip to VEGAS, where Brian, Scott, Aksel and I saw the sights of Sin City and had many an adventure, from crazy cab drivers to the fireball-filled insanity of Rain at The Palms.

Halloween, as always, was a scary-good time. Our annual trip to Knotts Scary Farm was a ton of fun, as was my traditional Horror Movie Marathon. And of course, Carlos came through with yet another memorable Page-O-Ween, at which I donned the CTU duds of Jack Bauer and brought the gravitas.

As I mentioned in my music post, I may have seen more concerts this year than I ever have before in the span of twelve months. With fellow rock n' rollers like Bradd, Liz, Kyle, and Brian, I rocked my socks off to several awesome rock shows - there was POISON, there was THE SCORPIONS, there was the insane triple bill in the OC of Styx, Foreigner, and DEF LEPPARD, and there was VAN HALEN. While my wallet might still be recovering from buying all of these tickets, I can't wait for the next chance to rock in 2008!

I also discovered some great new haunts in '07. I became a regular at the Arclight theater, played volleyball at the Santa Monica pier, and saw a band play at The Roxy. I served on a BU Young Alumni panel, and saw John Edwards come to NBC to speak in support of the writers. I had a bunch of celebrity econcounters, mostly at work -- I saw Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols eating lunch, Belinda Carlisle, Jerry Springer, and Paula Abdul in our office, and saw the immortal Hulk Hogan in his new role as host of American Gladiators, a new NBC show for which I attended a live taping. I saw tons of great films at a number of cool theaters, and saw the Lakers and Dodgers play from some awesome courtside seats. And yet, I came to appreciate good ol' Burbank - home of Islands, Fuddruckers, The Olive Garden, and three different movie theaters, with minimal traffic compared to the craziness that is most of greater LA. Gotta love it.

And then, there was the family trip to LONDON in November, just after Thanksgiving in CT. It was great to travel outside of the US again, and amazing to return to London where I had such a great time studying in 2003. I saw and did a ton, visits to places that were old favorites as well as some sights that I had yet to take in. I even got to see the Goodman girls, cousins of my old rommate Gabby who I had met in '03, and introduce them to my brother.

Since Thanksgiving, things have been pretty low-key. But I feel like the year ended on a number of good notes and I'm psyched for '08. I've had a nice run of consecutive four-day weekends in which I saw some great movies, got together with a number of friends, and even saw my brother Matt while he was in town for the USY International convention. Of course, this year wasn't all awesomeness (despite the name of the blog ... I know, I know!). I was stuck in that weird point where I was transitioning from college and the immediate world of post-grad freedom to the semi-drudgery of corporate America - long hours, lots of time sitting at a desk staring at a computer, and minimal pay that allows me to pay the rent, feed my weekly comic book habit, see movies and eat the occasional dinner out, and, um, not much else. Not to say that I'm not doing okay - in a year where many of my peers and friends lost their jobs thanks to the Strike, I found myself, more and more as '08 approached, feeling lucky just to have a job in the industry that I am passionate about, and to have a steady paycheck and health insurance (one of my other big achievements of 2007 - becoming a salaried employee and finally having my own health insurance!). Still though, like a lot of people my age, I'm happy to have a job and to be making a living, but still dreaming big dreams and wanting to make a mark. I still want to be a writer, to do creative work, to make the next great film or TV show, to conquer Hollywood. I still want to find more time to write, to finish up a number of screenplays and spec scripts, want to get an agent, and want to get together with more creative-minded people to have fun and do some creating. Aside from all that, well, it's simply really difficult to balance all of one's passions and ambitions with the grind of a demanding day job. Among other things, I want to join a basketball team, learn to play guitar, read more books, and get more involved in Jewish activities. Those are just some of my goals for '08 ... but I think the main challenge ahead is going to be balancing my job with my professional ambitions - making sure I don't get stuck in a rut, and keeping my biggest goals and dreams fresh in my mind while actively working towards 'em.

As far as '08 goes in general, all I can say is: thank the lord. We'll FINALLY have a new president by year's end, and I am simply counting down the days. If there's one subject that I plan to write more than a few blog entries on in the coming months, it's the impending presidential election. I've got plenty to say ... all I can hope for is that a.) people of my generation actually get off their asses and VOTE (it's high time they did!), and that b.) America makes intelligent choices and steers clear of the candidates who could run our country even further into the ground (cough*Guliani-Huckabee-Romney*cough). But I remain optimistic, andthink that the vast majority of Americans will be looking for a change that gets us as far away from Bush and company as possible. Because, wow, politically, 2007 was a terrible year for our country. The war in Iraq dragged on with little progress, a number of scandals and bouts of incompetence further exposed the Republican party as being full of hypocrites and fools (Larry Craig, Alberto Gonzalez, et al), and we raced further towards climate crisis with no new environmental policies to change things and a bunch of Bush's guys still in denial that global warming is even an actual problem.

My real hope for '08 is that we can get out of the daze that so many of us seemed to be in in 2007. It's time to forget about Britney and Jamie Lynn and Lindsey and Rosie. It's time to remember that what's great about being a music fan is listening to great music, that what's great about being a movie fan is seeing great films. The national obsession with raising up and dragging down stars, laughing as they ruin their lives and acting surprised when the monsters that we've helped create act like monsters ... it has to stop. There are too many real and important issues right now that need attention. It would be a miracle if half the people who vote each week for American Idol vote in the next election, and it would be an even bigger miracle if a fraction of THOSE people actually educate themselves about the candidates and the issues at stake.

It's unbelievable to me how gadget-obsessed we were in 2007. Everywhere I look, people walk around with their heads down, typing away on their blackberries. People interrupt conversations with people right there in the room to chat on their cell phones. Everywhere you go, people can't wait to show off their latest iPhone or whatever, as if owning one was the ultimate measure of self-worth, and it's unbelievable how much money is being shelled out for such inordinantly expensive devices. People run to buy Wii's and X-Box 360's and then never use them, because the consoles were simply purchased for no other reason than to ensure possession of whatever the "it" thing is.

Well, it's time to get our collective heads out of the digital muck! Where are the people who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Those people seem to be getting fewer and fewer, and I'm not talking about the endless parade of talking heads on FOX News who spout off whatever ultra-conservative propoganda they think will get a rise out of people. I'm talking about average people who have passion, who have intelligence and social awareness beyond what they read on Perez Hilton. My generation in particular - it's amazing and depressing how few can talk smartly about politics, how few know to distinguish between quality films and TV and books and run-of-the-mill reality-show crap, how few have any real concerns beyond the latest party or i-gadget or celebrity gossip.

My hope for '08 is that we rise above all that. That we remain the generation that is smarter and more savvy than those before us, who revolutionizes communication and media with things like Facebook and MySpace and Wikipedia - but, also, that we remain passionate, aware, and driven. My hope is that our country gets out of Iraq but takes it to the would-be and wannabe terrorists, finally clamps down on climate change, and pools our scientific know-how to get away from foreign oil for good. Again, I'm optimistic. I think you sometimes have to fall hard to get back up again and start anew, and this might be our genuine chance for a fresh beginning.

So here's to 2008 - let's hope it's one for the books, in the best possible sense.