Friday, May 30, 2008

LOST Season Finale Blow-Out - Plus: NBA, Ellen, and MORE

Okay, so before I get to LOST ...

- So they have officially dismantled my cube at work. So sad ...

- Also sad:

- Well, the Lakers are once again in the NBA Finals. At the least, this should make for an interesting finals, as the Lakers right now are certainly one of the more exciting teams in the NBA. As much as I can't stand him, Kobe Bryant is playing at the absolute top of his game right now, and may be so unstoppable that no one on either the Celtics or Pistons can stop him. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol is playing at an unbelievably high level. He's not as flashy as Kobe, but he always manages to be in the right place at the right time. The combination of the two is lethal, and it makes the Lakers the favorite to win it all. That being said, tonight is going to be HUGE for the Celtics. So far, I've been disappointed that their killer instinct only seems to surface every so often. The Celts need to take a look at how the Lakers brutally took apart the Spurs and do the same to Detroit tonight. None of these 20 minute long lapses where the ball gets walked up the court and players stand around and let Pierce or KG go one on one. Boston does NOT want to be in a Game 7 situation, so as far as I'm concerned tonight it's time to put it all on the line.

- A special mention has to go out to the whole crew at TNT for their always-awesome coverage of the NBA. Seriously, I always get a little sad each year when TNT's coverage ends, because for the last few years they've been hands-down the best in the biz. They have, by far, the two best play by play men in Marv Albert and Kevin Harlan. Meanwhile, Inside the NBA is endlessly entertaining. I could watch Ernie, Kenny, and Charles riff about basketball and whatever other randomness is on their minds all day. What I love about TNT's coverage is that the atmosphere is always jovial, celebratory, and full of good humor (not to mention oftentimes genuinely hilarious). On ESPN, in contrast, it feels like you're hanging out with a bunch of uptight, mean-spirited dudes who rarely crack a smile and talk about every game like they're describing a political scandal. So of course, I made it a point to watch the final edition of Inside the NBA last night following the Lakers game, and as always stuck around for the closing montage that always serves as great retrospective of the NBA season to date. So thank you to the crew at TNT and Inside the NBA for producing, week in and week out, not just the best basketball coverage on TV, but one of the most entertaining shows on television in general.

- By the way, today is a sad day at NBC as it's Ellen's last day here on the Burbank lot. To think that NBC Pages starting in the next few weeks and months will never have the experience of working at one of the craziest shows around. I mean, where else can you see elderly women dancing in the aisles to Technotronic? I almost always had a great time working at Ellen, and through working there as a Page I had all kinds of great celeb sightings and close encounters. I met everyone from Lauren Graham to Gene Simmons to John Travolta, saw Gwen Stefani, Alanis Morisette, and many others perform, and had a lot of strange, silly, and memorable experiences. I'm sad to see it go, even if it's just moving up the street to Warner Brothers. Hopefully I can still walk up the street and meet up with Carlos or Diahna J. for the occasional high-powered business lunch!

- Okay, onto last night's HUGE season-ender of ...


- Last season, LOST ended its season with one of the most stunning episodes not only in the show's history, but maybe in the history of television. The cliffhanger, flash-forward ending was a narrative twist that truly defined the term "game-changer." After a period where the show struggled to get back on track, last season's finale was a clear signal that Lost was back.

Now, things are a bit different. The fourth season of Lost has been superb from start to finish, the best overall season since S1, filled with classic episodes and moments, and with a renewed sense of purpose following the decision to determine a definitive end-point for the show and work backwards from there. So Lost didn't need to have a mind-blowing, M. Night-style twist to cap it's landmark fourth season, but I think a lot of people maybe expected one. Instead, what we got was a slam-bang action movie of a finale, a rip-roaring adventure that for two hours had all kinds fights, narrow escapes, and things that went boom.

Overall, I thought this was yet another pretty spectacular episode of Lost. There were so many BIG moments here. Some that directly tied into the show's ever-more complex mythology, others that were simply great action set pieces or defining character moments. From the get-go, things started out on a rollicking note with a much-anticipated Sayid vs. Keamy mano e mano showdown. Great fight scene, and it was capped by the appearance of Kate with Richard and The Others in tow. From there, it was a total roller coaster ride. Kate's pact with The Others pursuaded Ben to let her and her crew leave the island, so Frank's helicopter was theirs for the taking. But meanwhile, Desmond, Jin, and Michael have made apretty horrific revelation - on the freighter that's supposed to save them all, there's a mountain of C-4 that, with one press of a remote-controlled button, will blow them all to kingdom come. And man, that Keamy proved to be one persistant bastard. Even after seemingly being killed by un-aging Richar Alpert's three bullets to the back, Keamy shows up to greet Locke and Ben looking relatively unscathed. While those two descend into the Orchid Dharma station so that Ben can carry out his plan to "move" the island, Keamy descends on them. And guess what - he's wearing a "dead man's switch." If his heart stops beating, the C-4 on the freighter, as Jin so elequently stated earlier, goes "boom." This doesn't stop a crazed Ben Linus from pouncing on Keamy like a rabid animal, however, and brutally stabbing him, presumably as revenge for Keamy's murder of Ben's daughter Alex. In one of the episode's most memorable moments, a beleagured Locke asks Ben how he could have so thoughtlessly killed Keamy, knowing that doing so would doom everyone on that boat. When Locke reminds Ben that, now, everyone on that freighter is as good as dead, Ben callously asks: "so?". Wow - I think anyone who says Ben is the true "good guy" in Lost needs to reexamine their position. The guy is, clearly, stone-cold evil with a capitol "E."

I loved the whole scene of Ben "moving" the Island. Whether this was accomplished through some advanced form of science or some mystical means I couldn't say, but the scene of Ben using all his willpower to turn that giant, subterranean wheel, had a real magic to it. I also loved pretty much everything with Locke and Ben in the Orchid. Locke watching the instructional Hanzo (?) video, as Ben proceeded to do everything the video said NOT to, was funny and a great little scene. Time-travelling bunnies, indeed.

There were also all kinds of epic heroics here. Sawyer jumping from the helicopter as it lost fuel and swimming back to the island was a nice bit - it showed just how far Sawyer had come as a character to actually do something selfless. It's amazing to think that this was the same guy who once stole all of the survivor's guns so he could proclaim himself self-appointed ruler of the island.

We all knew Jin's end was coming, but it was still a heart-wrenching scene. Sun's shock and grief was palpable and raw as she witnessed her husband go up in flames. Michael had his little moment too, as he stayed with the C4, trying to dismantle it up to the last possible second, until an appearance from the Ghost of Christian Shephard appreared and told him that, finally, it was Michael's time to go. As others have said, it seems strange to bring back Michael only for him to die in such abrupt fashion, but narratively, the death made sense. Plus, it looks like Lost is bringing back practically all of its dead characters in Jedi fashion, so who knows if and when Michael, or even Jin, could reappear. You have to wonder if Christian and/or Jacob has some kind of power to pick and choose people to inaugurate into their little not-quite-dead club. I mean, for example - what's the deal with Claire? We saw her make a surprise appearance in future-Kate's home, visiting Aaron. But was this just a vision, a bad dream? Or is Claire in the same boat as Charlie and Christian? Supposed to be dead, but somehow not quite? Whatever the case may be, the recurring theme of "I see dead people" is going to have to be one of if not THE major questions to be answered next season. Is there a connection with time-travel / pseudo-science, or is this some kind of mystical / paranormal phenomenonon?

Another intriguing question was the mystery surrounding Charlotte. She's been on the island before? So ... is she a Dharma kid? An Other? A time-lost walking paradox? Hmmm ...

Now, I guess the biggest complaint I have with the episode was simply that, well, the show has never done a great job of addressing the fact that there are supposed to be dozens of 815 crash survivors on the island other than the several main characters. Attempts to address these forgotton castaways have often come across as hamfisted - Nikki and Paulo anyone? And the same could be said for tonight's ep. The lens was never really successfully pulled back to show how all of these epic events were affecting Joe Crash Survivor. Not that I want the focus to be on them, but we never quite got the sense of how many people were still on the island when the freighter blew up, how many were killed in the freighter explosion, etc. Where were Rose and Bernard? Still on the island? Were Juliette and Sawyer literally the only ones left on the island other than The Others? It was almost comical when the helicopter quickly landed on the freighter before it blew. I mean, it was like "sorry pal, you're not a main character, we're leaving you to die." I just wished the full scope of this had been addressed or at least mentioned by a Jack or Kate. Sure, our six biggest characters survived, but we can assume dozens were lost in the explosion - to Jack, who by default became the Moses of sorts for the group - you would have thought he would have more of a sense of failure in not leading "his people" so to speak, to the promsied land. Again, I get that of course we are going to focus on our pricipals, I just would have liked to see the full scope and reach of the exodus from the island a little better conveyed.

But in the end, this was a riveting piece of TV. Many times throughout the episode, I thought to myself just how well-done this was compared to anything else on TV. The look, the scope, the acting, is just without peer in the world of TV drama. From Jack to Sawyer to Locke to Ben - each of the main characters is played with so much nuance and skill that all of the actors involved on the show deserve recognition and applause. And most importantly - this episode got the ball rolling for yet another season of awesomeness. Sure, there is still a pile of unsolved mysteries, from old riddles like the four-toed statue to new ones like Richard's agelessness, there is still an enclyclopedia's worth of unsolved plot points that at some point need addressing. But again, the stage has been set. The puzzle pieces are in place. We are working both backwards and forwards to put it all together. And the show, in doing so, is reaching an important turning point - instead of simply feeding us myteries, its beginning to fill in the hows and whys. We know now that it's Locke in that coffin. It wasn't a mind-blowing revelation or jaw-dropping twist, but it's fuel for great stories, it's a solid endpoint to work up to as we fill in the blanks.

I can't wait for next season of Lost, after this - a great season finale to a show that has ruled 2008 as bar-none the best thing on TV - does it at times frustrate? Sure, and it wil lcontinue to do so. But in the end, there's no denying that we're witnessing an epic, action-packed saga for the ages.

My Grade: A-

- Alright - happy weekend. Check back soon for more!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I am the SON OF RAMBOW! Movie Review, plus: multiple RANTS OF DOOM

Okay, I shall start off this entry with some random rants, er, thoughts:

- Hillary: get out of the race already. Unless you can show a scenario in which you can mathematically win the delegate count, it's time to call it quits. And now we have Bill talking about a conspiracy to prematurely annoint Obama as the Democratic nominee? What is this, vast right-wing conspiracy redux? There is a time to fight and a time to show grace and poise and teamsmanship. If Hillary wants to be a class act, she should step up to the plate and endorse Obama and urge her supporters to back him. And you know what? I've been an Obama supporter from the start, but I'd say the exact same thing to Obama if the situation were reversed. The most important thing is getting a Democrat in the White House, and at some point there has to be thought given to how best make that happen. Now it looks like Clinton seems intent on proving just how close to Obama she can get, as Michigan and Florida delegates are now looking like they'll be counted in some form. Again - why the insistence on reversing the original decision? I mean, does the delegate system need some reexamination? Sure. Is not the time to do it? Most definitely not. All I know is, dragging out the primary to its bitter end is not the way to weaken McCain and build momentum for the Democrats come November.

- Now, it sickens me when these polls come in and there's still a block of voters who say race is a factor in their vote. I mean, you know what? Many, including myself, throw a lot of criticisms towards Gen Y (and I'll do just that in a moment ...). But one thing you have to give us some credit for - we have essentially moved past the ridiculous idea that because someone's skin is a different shade that makes them in any way different. Obviously, we can and should appreciate cultural differences. But really - who ARE these people who wouldn't vote for someone based on their race, and WHAT exactly is their reasoning? I'd love to hear it, honestly.

- Like 90% of all men, I can't stand the popularity of Sex and the City. I realize that us guys are often into all kinds of stupid crap that women cringe at the thought of. But the worst part of Sex and the City is that girls actually want to be like and try to be like the show's vapid, self-absorbed characters. It's no wonder that so many women of my generation know more about shoes than they do about politics. I know, this is a crass generalization. Apologies. But, why can't women aspire to be more like, say, Veronica Mars - you know, smart, helps people, witty, selfless, and less like the materialistic women of SATC?

- But here's one more thing about SATC that pisses me off, and in this case I'll actually be slamming the show's detractors. I personally find it really obnoxious and disgusting when guys in magazines, on the radio, etc extend their dislike of the show to the realm of personal attacks. No, I don't like the show, but I have absolutely nothing against Sarah Jessica Parker. And I think it's ridiculous when loudmouth idiots go off about how she is supposedly ugly or whatever. This is funny since most of the time the people saying this are themselves fat ugly slobs. It's also just absurd - even if she isn't one's ideal woman, whatever, obviously a quick walk down the street will show that such criticisms of her looks are a bit overstated. But finally, I hate to say it but all the talk of her looks to me smacks of latent antisemitism. Anyone who knows a lot of Jews knows that SJP's look is a pretty typical look, and I say that as a card-carrying member of the Jew Crew. I just cringe every time I hear people rudely talke about her features because to me it really does sound like they're by extension calling typically Jewish features ugly. And worst of all, all of these loudmouth chauvanists quick to spew so much venom on a woman just because of their snap judgement on her looks, well, they basically serve to undermine all of us regular guys who simply wish to make well-reasoned arguments critiquing SATC's merits as a show. Meanwhile, anyone who takes such joy in labeling someone else as ugly needs to take a long look in the mirror.

- Okay, tonight is a big one for the CELTICS. This is it, baby, no more fooling around. But I have to say, I'm a bit worried about Boston's chances. Thus far, it seems like they've won in the playoffs with a combination of sheer talent and a bit of luck. Rarely has a Celtics playoff win this year made anyone stand up and say "wow, they really played a great overall game." It's part of the reason that the team has been so up and down - they've been winning, more often than not, thanks to one or two standout individual performances that have carried the load. But where the Celtics have been lacking is in gameplan, and it's something that Doc Rivers needs to think about. Where is the running game, the great offensive sets, the team game? Detroit's defense is too solid to depend on a 45 point game from Paul Pierce to save the day, and it doesn't allow Ray Allen to camp out on the three point line. Sure, the Celtics do have a few matchups they can exploit, but I think they are going to have to not only hope for big games from the big three, but also really gel as a team in a way that we haven't seen from them in a while. That being said: go Celtics!

- And by the way, normally with the teams I root for, I have the NBA conspiracy-theory thing going against me. But not this time. If the Lakers make the finals, then a matchup with Detroit or Boston would be an 80's nostalgia-fest and likely a ratings boon, but really, a Celtics-Lakers finals, unthinkable only a year ago, would be THE big money matchup, and you can be sure that David Stern is chomping at the bit to see it happen. It's amazing how two possible outcomes of the conference finals are: a.) Celtics vs. Lakers - aka one of the most intriguing and epic matchups the NBA will have seen in a while, or b.) Pistons vs. Spurs - aka a matchup that feels like it's been done to death, between two of the most skilled, albeit boring teams in the NBA.

- Luckily, it's a short week this week thanks to the recent good ol' fashioned three-day weekend. I had a fun, mostly relaxing weekend, necessary in order to recover from the craziness of last week's east coast adventures. Some highlights included: Indiana Jones (see my previous post for the authoratative review), Dan K's Rock Band party in NoHo, an excellent dinner at the Cheesecake Factory with Abby W, and then, as I'm about to write a lot more about, a trup to the Arclight on Monday to see ...


- Amidst this summer's many blockbusters, here is a small movie that nonetheless captures the imagination. Son of Rambow is the type of film you don't see a lot of anymore. It's a movie about kids, and it's a movie that I think would actually be not only appropriate for kids but a real favorite for any kids lucky enough to see it. But this is a kid's movie with bite. It doesn't pull punches. It has real sadness and despair in its plot, coupled with real friendships and relationships. It's a movie that will make even the toughest of us a bit misty-eyed, because it's a movie that really earns its sentimentality. But most of all, this is the kind of movie that takes you back to the days of childhood - it shows the roughness, the harshness of childhood, sure - but it also makes you remember the simple joys of letting one's imagination run wild, of creating.

I mean, who doesn't fondly remember being a kid and seeing some then-monumental TV show or movie, and just being totally possessed by it? That feeling of seeing an action movie and wanting to jump around and go pretend to be a spy or a commando. The feeling of then going on to create your OWN stories, your own fictionalized adventures. As a kid I would sit and create my own stories, my own comic books, my own films, and that excitement over the feeling of creative creation has never left. But when you're a kid, that feeling is even more heightened, the rush of inspiration and creation even more instense. And that feeling is what's captured so brilliantly in Son of Rambow.

The film is set in 1980's England, and centers around two young boy, probably around 10 years old or so, who form an uneasy friendship at first but soon bond over their shared project. First, there's Will Proudfoot. He's a shy, quiet, and slightly weird kid, but we gradually come to understand why that is. His father died from an aneurism while mowing the lawn. His mother then devoted herself to a group a religious sect known as The Bretheren, a very strict group whose beliefs prohibit Will from watching any TV or movies. This means that whenever Will's teacher shows the class a video, Will has to dutifully pack up his things and leave the classroom. But that doesn't stop Will's imagination from working - his books are filled with drawings and doodles, and that at least helps him to deal with his somewhat lonely ten year old existence. Then, there's Lee Carter. Basically, Lee is THAT kid. You know the one - that kid in elementary school who never did his homework, was always getting in trouble with the teachers, and who was generally looked down upon by pretty much everyone, even if the fact is that no one ever really gave him a chance. Kind of a real life Bart Simpson, of sorts. Except Lee has more going on than meets the eye. Like Will, he's a lonely kid. His father left him, and his mother took up with a wealthy Spaniard, leaving Lee with just his fast-living teen brother to look after him in their big empty house. But one thing Lee has is his love of film. Okay, so maybe he doesn't LOVE film, yet, but he spends his weekends at the local theater, making bootleg tapes of new movies that he then sells off to the local kids.

So Will and Lee come together in a bit of brilliant happenstance - Will is sitting outside his class while the other kids watch a documentary. Lee is sent outside after being scolded by his teacher. At first, Lee bullies Will into hanging out with him, and their forced friendship consists mostly of Lee ordering Will around. But then, something happens. Lee leaves Will alone as his pirated copy of First Blood is playing on the TV. For Will, this is, I think, literally the first movie he's ever actually seen. And as you can imagine, he is freaking BLOWN AWAY. As Colonel Trautman gruffly warns Rambo's pursuers that they are dealing with a man who could fight off 200 men, who was born and bred to be a one-man army, you can see the wheels in Will's head turning, the synapses firing. It's that moment, when he virtually had no other choice but to take that formative experience of RAMBO and make it his own.

Enter Lee Carter - an amateur ten year old filmmaker of the highest order, he's already been planning on making a movie to enter into a local young filmmaker's contest. But now Will is struck with the bug too. And so the two go off and begin their epic creation, a work that could only be known as Son of Rambow.

The scenes of Will and Lee beginning to film their epic are just totally joyful and hilarious. Seeing the repressed Will show up at Lee's door ready to film, donned in tank top and red bandanna, is simply priceless. And what we bgin to see is that Will as the Son of Rambow and Lee as his faithful mentor Trautman - well, they begin to take on the characteristics of their characters, and they begin to form a real friendship that for each of them is the first time they've found a real friend, a real companion, a real brother.

Like I said, it's sweet and sentimental, but handled with so much humor and imagination that it really works. The two leads are both really excellent, two of the best and most natural kid actors I've seen on screen in a while. And the best part is, and maybe this is some of the British sensibility coming into play, they feel like real kids, not robot-like Hollywood pod people.

Director Garth Jennings has a a great sensibility here as well. He keeps things mostly grounded, down to earth. He really captures the time and place, with all kinds of little details keeping things firmly entrenched in the 1980's setting. But he also has little scenes that go inside of Will's imagination, showing the power and force of his daydreams of the stories beginning to formulate inside his head.

At times, the movie can get a little distracted. There's a kind of subplot about a French exchange student that is fun but at times a little meandering. But in the end, it does a nice job of tying into the movie's larger them of defying other's expectations and finding one's true self through creative expression. But mostly, despite some slow sections here and there, the film really works. It's a feel-good, celebratory film, but at the same time its surprisingly harsh, gritty, and uncompromising. It doesn't feel watered down - some of the aspects of these characters' lives are genuinely rough around the edges, and some of the things that happen to them throughout the course of the movie are raw and painful. But in the end this is one that will bring a smile to your face. Just like Rambo did to Will and Lee Carter, Son of Rambow may do to you - it may give you the sudden urge to grab some buddies, don a bandana, and go out and make a pseudo-action-movie-sequel of your own.

I give Son of Rambow a hearty recommendation, and I'd urge anyone to check it out. It may be a small film, but don't let size fool you. The movie packs a Stallone-sized wallop, and it's up there with the best of 2008 thus far.

My Grade: A -

- Alright, that's it for now. Really skill, as the kids in Son of Rambow say.

Saturday, May 24, 2008



Warning: minor SPOILERS ahead ...

- Here's the thing about Indiana Jones: I, and I suspect many of you, love the IDEA of Indiana Jones. I love the iconography - the hat, the bullwhip. I love the mood, the atmosphere, the pulpy fun of the original films. I love the classic John Williams score. I love seeing Harrison Ford in almost any action movie - few other actors have ever been more closely associated with the notion of the consummate action hero. But let's face it folks ... in the decades since RAIDERS first hit the big screen, Indiana Jones the icon has outgrown Indiana Jones the film series. Indy is and has long been everywhere. We see the films parodied. We see the toys, the videogames, the themepark rides. The iconography of Indiana Jones is now a part of American pop-culture history. So now, here in 2008, we're in the unique position of actually having a new Indy film in theaters, after an almost twenty year gap since The Last Crusade. And this comes in a time when we've seen a new Die Hard, a new Rocky, a new Rambo, and three Star Wars prequels. A time when all the old favorites are being milked for every penny, and when the old actors and directors decide to go back to their bread and butter one last time.

But with Indy in particular, like I said ... to me, it's a franchise where the iconography has always trumped the actual films. And that's why I pick TEMPLE OF DOOM as my personal favorite installment - it plays up the pulpiness to the upteenth degree. It's a literal rollercoaster ride of a movie, drenched in atmosphere, rife with all manner of vile villains and exotic locales. It has the mine cart ride, bloodthirsty crocodiles, weird voodoo dolls, and a badguy who rips his victims hearts out of their chests. Sure, the movie's campy as hell, but it's not trying to be anything other than the best campy bit of pulpy goodness it can be.

With THE LAST CRUSADE, the purity of Raiders and the pulpiness of Doom gave way to somethign a bit more crowd-pleasing: Spielbergian sentiment. Sure, everyone loves a good father-son parable, but ... is that really what Indiana Jones is all about?

Well, if the Last Crusade was a fun but somewhat watered-down version of Indy, then KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is a crazy mashup of all three of the previous movies, with a hefty does of "WTF" weirdness thrown in for good measure.

First, the good news: okay, well, the best news ... Harrison Ford is back. Yes, he's looking a bit old and frail here, but with that being said, any film fan will smile when they see Ford as Indy on the big screen. I mean, finally! This is one of the ALL-TIME great action heroes we're talking about here in Mr. Ford, and it's about damn time that he showed up to a movie with his working boots on. There are moments here ... some moments where Ford looks a bit shaky, a bit too soft-spoken, a bit fragile. But then, there are moments, when Ford IS Indiana Jones, is the legend, is the guy who may be a bit older, may be a bit rough around the edges, but damned if he can't kick some ass when the time is right. If nothing else, Indy 4 is worth seeing just to see the return of an icon, and I'm not necessarily referring to the character Indiana Jones, but to Harisson Ford.

Now, the flipside to this is that as much as we want to see Ford, and in turn Indy, kick some ass like old times, Spielberg and Lucas seem intent on doing everything possible to distract us from the movie's real hero. In the past, we always got a goofy sidekick or a damsel in distress, but here, the movie is completely overloaded with extraneous characters and overstuffed plot. And it's not just that. It's that as the movie goes on, we are teased with one or two vintage Indy moments, but there's never that big, climactic moment where Indiana Jones steps up, is the hero, and saves the day. In fact, for much of the movie's climax, Ford stands around, gapes, and does pretty much jack squat.

That's not to say that there aren't great action sequences here. If anything, Spielberg once again proves why he's the all-time king when it comes to directing set-piece action scenes. He just has that total knack for timing his cuts, so that the action moves at just the right clip. While there's nothing here quite as inventive or imaginative as the best scenes in Raiders or TOD, there are at least one or two sequences that are 100% thrilling and exceedingly well put together. A bike scene involving Ford, Shia LeBeuff, and a bunch of KGB agents is a highlight. It's a sequence that feels Indiana Jones through and through. So does the memorable chase through the jungle in which Indy and co engage in vehicular combat with a swarm of bloodthirsty villains - it's as exciting and well-staged as practically any action scene you're likely to see this summer or this year.

The aforementioned scenes are classic Spielberg. But man, there are a couple of bits here that are just laughably goofy, even for the typically-campy Indiana Jones series. I mean, at one point there is a cringe-worthy sequence where Shia suddenly becomes a greaser version of Tarzan, swinging though the jungle alongside a pack of friendly monkeys, who form some kind of instantaneous bond with him and then help him out by ATTACKING the badguys. Are you kidding me? As much tolerance and appreciation as I have for over-the-top action, bits like this really pushed it. Too many scenes felt like tangents meant simply to get a cheap laugh or get in a little bit of nostalgia or simply indulge some idle idea of Lucas or Spielberg. The obligatory "Indy hates Snakes" scene was hamfisted. The opening shots of CGI'd gophers or whatever felt too jokey and out of place. And how about Indy surviving a NUCLEAR BOMB detonation ... by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator? Okay, I'll admit that I'm not an expert on how plausible this is, but the whole nuke scene felt totally extraneous, and felt thrown in just so we could get the obligatory shot of Indy walking away from a giant mushroom cloud, as if to shout "HEY KIDS, this movie takes place in THE FIFTIES, see!". And again, I know we've seen campy, out-there stuff in this series before, but at least in, say, Temple of Doom, there was a kind of loopy internal logic. What makes Crystal Skulls feel so uneven is that, well, the tone is just that - uneven.

I think a lot of that blame can be placed on the script, which purportedly took bits and pieces of numerous drafts written over the years to create one big mashup of ideas and plotlines and dialogue bits. As far as the plot goes, like I said, it's overstuffed. I actually really dug the opening in Area 51. It had a great vibe - mysterious, action-packed, and a great reintroduction to the character of Indiana Jones. It established that he's older, slower, but can still pack a punch. If the whole movie had stuck with the tone established in the opening, we might have had a real classic on our hands. But while the first act had a great mix of cold war-era paranoia and intrigue, it seems like Lucas and Spielberg just had to blow things wide open as the movie went on. By the last act, it felt like we were in another film, hell, another franchise entirely.

Look, I actually think that, in theory, the idea of Indy uncovering the secrets of Area 51, Roswell, etc is a damn cool idea, and makes sense, fits the franchise, and gives a fun sense of historical context. But for the love of god, keep the alien stuff subtle, mysterious, and keep the real focus on Indy. But holy lord, the finale of this movie gets into some crazy new-age psychobabble sci-fi, heavy on CGI and light on coherance. It's a finale in which the goofy, out-there tone of the film gets ratcheted up to eleven. When John Hurt begins to mumble something about the aliens being not from outer space, but from "the space between spaces," the movie has officially gone off the tracks. Part of the problem is that so much of the movie is lacking in real atmosphere ... it's like Spielberg and Lucas go overboard in the finale trying to blow our minds with kewl CGI craziness. Rather than just let us go with Dr. Jones on his journey, let us follow him deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, the complicated MacGuffin of the crystal skulls is explained and expositionally talked about ad nauseum, and it's one of those premises that only gets sillier-seeming the more its talked about. It would have been one thing to have Indy discover extraterrestrial life. But here we're talking mind control, other dimensions, and all kinds of other randomness. It's like a videogame where you have to read a book-sized instruction manual before you can jump in and play. Ideally, the experience should organically draw you in and explain its premise.

The premise alone is enough to make your head spin, but then there's at least a few characters who probably could have been completely cut out of the film. John Hurt is simply annoying as an old archaeologist who has been possessed by the crystal skulls. Hurt is a great actor, so it's especially painful to watch him stumble through the movie babbling, shouting random stuff, and not really contributing anything worthwhile. Same goes for Ray Winstone. He's Indy's friend - no wait, a spy! - no wait, a friend! - oh sorry, just kidding, he was evil all along! Another character that could have been eliminated from the script with no real harm done.

And it's too bad that there's all this clutter, because it takes away from the real fun of the film, which is the dynamic between Indiana, his old flame Marion, and her son (and his?!?), a greaser named Mutt. It's great to see Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood, I only wish she had more to do and had more memorable moments. Her character in Raiders was a true classic, and some of that old spark returns here. She has a few great back-and-forths with Ford, and I give the movie credit in general for giving Ford some vintage one-liners and dialogue exchanges. Snappy dialogue is as much a part of Indy as the hat and whip, so it was nice to see that Indiana had retained his penchant for witty banter. That being said, I wish that the relationship between Indy and Marion was given more time to play out and develop. It had its moments, but had no real arc - it just kind of went from Point A to Point C. Same goes for the father-son relationship. Some great moments in there to be sure. Shia did a decent job - I didn't really buy him as a tough-guy greaser per se, but he had a good chemistry with Ford and handled the action scenes pretty well. Again, I wish more of the film revolved around Indy and his central relationships - however, too many other characters, random asides, and muddled plot points took away from what should have been a more central focus on the man himself.

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchette gave a solid effort as the film's main villain, a heavily-accented KGB operative after the mind-controlling powers inherent in the Skulls. However, I guess I was expecting a bit more from her here? I was hoping for a truly original villain, a great pulp femme fatale ... but in the end, Blanchette was servicable but not particularly memorable. I guess I expected more from the guy who brought us Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt. There was no great rivalry between her and Jones, and she never really did anything truly vile to make us root against her. When she met her ultimate fate, it was a pretty "meh" moment to me, which is a comment both on her character's relative blandness, and on the muddled circumstances in which she found herself at the film's end.

So let's take a look here - as you can see, the film has its problems. The plot drags and becomes too out-there tonally to fit comfortably in the established Indiana Jones mold. There are bits of goofiness that detract from the overall quality of the action scenes and dialogue. And there are too many ancillary characters and plot points that distract from our main hero, in what should be his triumphant return. But look, in spite of all that, I really did enjoy the film. There were moments when that unique brand of movie magic that Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford bring to the table was on full display. And that is a powerful alchemy. These three know how to combine action and emotion, awe and wonder, character and iconography, like few others do or ever have. This latest Indy flick has those big iconic moments, those scenes where Spielberg, more so than any other director, knows just how long to let the camera linger to soak in the action and the ambiance. It has, of course, the trademark John Williams score - a score that is pretty familiar after all these years but still gets the job done, accentuating each moment of the film with epic aplomb. It's like I said in my opening, with Indiana Jones, the iconography has always overshadowed everything else. And here, for a fourth time, that iconography is on full display, with the added twist that sure, Harrison Ford is older, Indiana Jones is older, but dammit, he's still the man. It's a reassuring and pleasant trope, one that plays on all those warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. As has been said - the original Raiders was Lucas and Spielberg bringing to life their own nostalgia for the movie serials and pulp adventures of old. Now, this is that same duo acting out their nostalgia for their own earlier films. And so, it's something of a testament to the power of that nostalgia, to the power of that iconography, that the movie can entertain, make you smile, and work on a certain level, even if, upon closer inspection, the movie itself in many ways misses the mark.

My Grade: B

Friday, May 23, 2008

Return to LA: The Office, NARNIA - Reviewed, and MORE

Wow, I've only really gone through one real day at work since getting back from Connecticut, and already I am more than ready for the weekend. Today it's very east coast-ish here in LA. Rainy, windy, cloudy and dim - a great day to be at home reading in bed. If only ...

My flight back to Burbank on Wednesday wasn't the greatest. Good ol' Southwest, you never fail to make things interesting ... Early Wed. afternoon, my brother drove me to Bradley airport, where I boarded a plane for what would be the first of three takeoffs that day. First, we touched down in Chicago, where I had a three hour layover. That was okay, as it gave me time to relaz and grab a leisurely lunch. Then, I got on my connecting flight to Burbank, except, of course, it was scheduled to stop in Vegas on route to CA. After a bumpy ride that triggered my innate tendencies towards motion sickness, I was more than ready to take off quickly and hightail it to Burbank. Buuut guess what? Due to undisclosed reasons, the second part of the flight, you know, the part that was supposed to take me to Burbank ... was cancelled. So I had to get off the plane, and wait in that horrible Vegas airport for over an hour for the next flight to the Burbank airport. Ugh. I got back to my apartment close to 10 pm, totally exhausted and unable to do much other than numbly watch my DVR'd Office season finale before drifting into a deep slumber.

Now, I realize that some of my earlier posts about my Boston trip may have seemed slightly cranky. And yes, there were moments of the trip that warranted crankiness, to be sure. But overall, it was a really fun trip. Matt's graduation was cool, it was a lot of fun to hang out in Boston again, from Com Ave to Newbury St. to the BU Hillel. And it was nice to have a little time in CT to relax, watch movies, etc.

And now, summer in LA begins ... what will now be my FOURTH summer here in CA. Hard to believe, but I'm ready to roll. Just give me a one day to sleep in, and I'll be good to go.


- Things I still have to watch: the Gossip Girl season finale, The Simpsons and King of the Hill season finales, Smallville's upteenth season finale, the last few eps of Aliens in America, and probably one or two other things that I'm currently forgetting.

- As for the hour-long finale of THE OFFICE ... Overall, I really liked the episode. Over the last several weeks, my issue with the Office has been that it's been telling some pretty hefty dramatic stories at the expense of comedy and jokes. This week, I thought the balance was handled much better, in a way that reminded me in a positive sense of the British series. Oftentimes, Ricky Gervais had the ability to make the mundane goings-on of an office setting take on an unusually epic nature, and this week, Steve Carell and co did accomplished the same feat. I found myself holding my breath, wondering what would happen with Michael Scott and his old relationship with Jan and his new one with Holly, played by Amy Ryan. Ryan did a great job here - it was easy to see why Michael would so quickly fall for her and how there might be some real potential with the two. And it was interesting to see some role reversal, where Jim's cautionary advice might actually have backfired, causing Michael to miss a golden opportunity. There really was a great dynamic in this episode with Michael, in what amounted to one of the best character examinations of Michael Scott we've seen in a long while. Meanwhile, the humor was pretty spot-on. Steve Carell had some classic lines, ie "You cheated on me? when I specifically told you not to?". Some of his big moments really mixed comedy with pathos too - I mean the whole Yoda exchange with Amy Ryan was one of those great bits where you aren't sure whether to laugh, cry, or cringe, but end up just smiling at its brilliance. The Kevin-might-be-mentally-challenged subplot was pretty hilarious, and Creed had some great bits as well. My only two complaints? One: The Jim-Pam tension seemed a little forced. I get that so many of their big moments happen "at the office," as Jim pointed out to Michael, but come on, is Pam really THAT disappointed that Jim didn't propose to her at some dinky office party? And one that was supposed to be in honor of a guy who had a pretty public crush on Pam no less? Second complaint is that the whole Andy-Angela-Dwight triangle thing also feels rushed and forced. We haven't really seen enough of Andy and Angela to understand why he'd propose to her already. On the flipside, Dwight's legit sadness over Angela was handled pretty well, and Rainn Wilson always does an awesome job. I just get annoyed that Andy has gone from one of the funniest characters on the show to being a kind of utility player, whose personality changes episode to episode to fit the situation. Overall though, this was an excellent season finale, and was the rare pice of comedic TV that felt truly "big" and important and epic, despite the relatively small scale of the stories being told.

My Grade: A -

- I won't go too much into LOST's penultimate S4 episode, since it aired over a week ago at this point. All I'll say is: I thought it pretty much rocked. I am absolutely loving Lost right now, and am 100% aniticipating the season finale, even though I'm sure it will leave me begging for more. I'm dyin' to know how the various members of the Oceanic 6 ultimately end up together, how Locke is going to "move" the island, and what exactly Ben's plan is, as he turns himself into Keamy and his group of badazz mercenaries. Sorry guys, I'm a little too far removed from last week's ep to do an in-depth review, but this was a definite "A" episode for me. Can't wait for this coming Thursday's 2 hour spectacular.

- And one more thing: I've been watching a ton of ALIENS IN AMERICA, as I caught up on a couple of recent episodes during my recent flights back and forth from the east coast. The more I watched, the more I came to appreciate just how great this show is - it really seemed to get better and better with each new episode, mixing in some old-school family drama with a very hip and quirky sense of humor. You've got to admire the show for just how ambitious it is in its subject matter - it tackles issues of race, xenophobia, and politics head on in a sensitive and smart way. It's a shame that this show looks to be essentially DOA - I wish I had advocated for it earlier and more often. I'd encourage anyone to check it out while you still can, or download it from iTunes or whatever - it really is one of the best comedies on TV that only got better and funnier and more clever as it went on.

Okay, on to the final piece of the puzzle, a movie review of the latest installment of The Chronic (what!) cles of Narnia ...


- The first Narnia movie was a surprisingly successful film, both creatively and at the box office. If you check out my review from way back when, you'll see that I really enjoyed the film and thought that, despite some unevenness in tone, it was overall a nice start to the series and set up the world of Narnia nicely.

In this second entry in the series, what we get is a movie that's enjoyable, but never really becomes a cohesive film, never really reaches greatness. It's one of those messy movies, where certain moments seem to radiate brilliance, yet others elicit unintentional laughs. Visually, Prince Caspian is really well done. There's all manner of cool-looking beasts roaming about, engaging in battle, etc. There are some scenes that are just impeccably framed, the type of scenes that immerse you and transport you. The battles are chaotic but typically a lot of fun to watch. There's some really nice action choreography at work here.

But the movie lacks a certain spark. Things tend to just kind of roll along without a lot of real dramatic weight, and there's a lot of deux-ex machina storytelling at play. From the get go, for example, we await the return of Aslan, the Christ-like lord of Narnia who we know will be able to get our heroes out of practically any jam. But Aslan here is essentially a walking plot device - he is so omnipotent that his mere presence is all that is needed to turn the tide of battle in favor of the Narnians. But we anticipate this, and it makes us think "geez, why doesn't Aslan just show up already and kick some ass? I mean, what's he waiting for, exactly?" I guess that's the inherent problem with including all-powerful heroes in stories like this, but it sure does eliminate some of the dramatic tension.

The other problem is, well, part of the reason Aslan is so inevitably all-powerful is that the movie has no great villain to really drive the action. We get a kind of generic, pointy-bearded overlord, and his army of vageuly European-seeming dudes - the Telmarines - who wear elaborate armor and masks. And the lack of a great villain is just made all the more evident by one particluar scene in the film. About halfway through Prince Caspian, in a bit that might very well be the movie's best, the film goes off on a tangent and features a wonderfully dark and evocative interlude in which some particularly evil Narnians decide that, rather than wait for their purported savior in Aslan, they will instead summon the White Witch, who would then presumably usurp control of Narnia and do lots of awesomely evil stuff. In a brief cameo, Tilda Swindon plain and simply rules it, bringing the kind of epic awe and wonder and magic to the movie which otherwise was often sorely missing. I absolutely loved this one scene, and wish that more of Prince Caspian could have summoned up this same level of imagination and power.

Storytelling-wise, much of the plot just seems too glossed over. We never REALLY are made to care about the royal struggles of Prince Caspian versus his malevolant uncle. We never really see the reactions of the Telmarines to the reemergance of the Narnians, who to them were supposed to be merely the stuff of legend. They just kind of go with the flow and are like "oh ok I guess we have to fight a bunch of dwarves and minotaurs now." And we never really get much weight or explanation behind the twist that the two older siblings can no longer come back to Narnia. It's just kind of accepted, and that's that.

I do like the cast here though. The four main kids, the High Kings of Narnia, are all pretty likable. I especially think that the youngest, Lucy, is the heart and soul of the movie, and seems the truest and most natural of the four. Peter, the oldest son, on the other hand, seems a bit awkward and unnecessarilly whiny. It's hard to buy him as a High King of Narnia when he comes off a little more like a slightly bratty teenager. While the acting from Susan, oldest daughter, could be a bit spotty at times, I thought they did a nice job of giving her a bigger role here than in part 1. Not only does she kick large amounts of ass with her trusty bow and arrow, she has a fun little romance with Prince Caspian. Sure, it's mostly a lot of lusty stares and whatnot, but hey, I think the movie benefitted from a little dose of teenage romance. Edward has some fun moments too, particularly in that aforementioned scene with the White Witch. Meanwhile, I loved Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage here. Both are consummate pros and do an awesome job as a couple of dwarves out of the LOTR mold. I mean, look, when you need a dwarf for a fantasy flick, you can't really do any better than by-god WILLOW. Eddie Izzard is also a lot of fun as the voice of Reepacheep, a feisty rat / expert swordsman. Definitely a standout and responsible for some of the coolest scenes in the film.

And that's the thing - there ARE real moments of magic here. From Reepacheep's assault on the Telemarine army, to the White Witch's reemergence, to Lucy's prophetic dream in which she encounters Aslan. There are some astounding visuals, epic battles, and memorable characters here. The problem is, these moments never quite come together to form one cohesive, dramatic narrative. The stakes never feel high enough, and the story never really becomes involving. It's more a move where you're shuttled along from one spectacle to the next, making you hope that each scene offers up something cool, but increasingly skeptical that it will all add up to be something great. But don't get me wrong: this is a movie that has its heart in the right place, that really does succeed in bringing the world of Narnia to life. While this might not be the best example of what that world, what these characters are capable of, it's a world I'd happily visit again. So yeah, bring on Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

My Grade: B

- Alright, 3 day weekend baby! Tonight - Indiana Jones! Tomorrow - sleep! Now - I'm outta here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Going Mach 5 With SPEED RACER: Why Speed Is a Can't-Miss Classic


- Well, wow. I mean, wow. Listen up people and listen good - the critics are on crack, because SPEED RACER may just be the best film yet of 2008, and one of the best family films in YEARS. I haven't come out of a movie feeling this joyous and euphoric in ages. Speed Racer deserves to kill at the box office, and if by some twist of fate it doesn't, well, it will become a home-video classic without a doubt. I just can't fathom how stuffy, joyless, and out of touch one must be in order to watch this movie and NOT get caught up in the sheer energy and good vibes. But trust me on this one, fellow film fans, there's no two ways about it: there's two words to describe Speed Racer and they are these: kick-ass.

Okay, let's start with the obvious - the visuals. Let's just say the bar has officially been elevated. You know, for years now I've read about how James Cameron is going to revolutionize cinema with his vaporware movie known as Avatar. I've heard about how Avatar is supposedly going to meld CGI and live-action to bring the anime aesthetic to mainstream film in an unpreceented, groundbreaking manner. Well, Mr. Cameron, I sincerely hope that Avatar will be as good as promised, but, well, it looks like the Wachowskis may have beaten you to the punch. Speed Racer looks like no movie before it - its world POPS off the screen with a vibracy, a kineticism, a visual splendor that I've never seen before. Even after seeing numerous trailers and commercial spots, I still don't think I was fully prepared for the eye-melting sights that Speed Racer brought to the table. And this isn't just about complex CGI creations or soulless, empty digital f/x. On the contrary, Speed Racer exudes soul and bleeds style. Watching it was like seeing Akira, or Batman: The Animated Series, or Sin City, or The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time. It's a game-changer, but not solely because of the technology at play. No, I'm talking about in a more purely artistic sense. This is a WORLD the likes of which we've never seen, a world which pays homage to the past, sure, but this is the next evolution of the core concept, a reimagining that is itself a whole new paradigm.

The racing scenes in Speed Racer are like something out of a digital dream. Matrix-like physics wrapped around Japanese anime aesthetics coated with hi-rez, high-contrast videogame visual gloss. Even more impressive, the action moves at a lightining-fast pace, yet is still able to processed, absorbed, and followed. The cuts make sense from a narrative perspective, and every action scene succeeds in telling its own story.

Beyond even the racing, there are action scenes here that are an absolute blast. Imagine the 60's Batman TV show mixed with Dragonball Z and you might have an idea of what to expect. Visually, it's absolutely amazing how the nuances and conventions of anime have been adapted. From motion blur and speed lines to big eyes, raised eyebrows, dialogue style, and character mannerisms, this IS a cartoon come to life in the best and coolest way imaginable. I cannot say enough about the visual aesthetic on display here - from shimmering metropolitan cityscapes to dayglo cartoon suburbia to neon-Playstation racetracks, this movie redefines the term "eye candy." And the brilliant and innovative direction by the Wachowskis maximizes the wow-factor tenfold, with each shot seemingly captured for maximum fun. While the action and racing is visceral and kinetic, even the more sedate scenes are still bursting with imagination and color.

So the visuals are awesome, revolutionary even. Most critics seem to at least agree on that. But then I hear words like empty and hollow thrown out as enthusiasm is tempered. And yet, here I am, amazed at how much genuine heart and soul was in this movie. For all of its new-school visuals, I loved the fact that deep down this was an old-school family flick, through and through. If you go in cynical and jaded and looking for something inappropriately adult and ironic and self-aware, then go watch Shrek or something. SPEED RACER to me was so fun precisely because it revelled in its own innocence. It knew it was a living breathing cartoon and had as much fun with that concept as possible. But there IS heart here. Because woven through the film is a surprisingly effective story about family and growing up. It's a coming-of-age story for Speed. And it works - moreso, in fact, than most family films ever do.

In large part, credit can be given to the outstanding cast. Emile Hirsch is great as Speed. He sets the tone for the rest of the cast, who do an amazing job as a whole in terms of playing things straight - totally throwing themselves into this surreal world of Speed Racer. No winks and nods at the audience here - Hirsch and co. become real-life cartoon characters, and they really sell it. Even the look of the characters feels spot-on. I mean take a look at Christina Ricci as Speed's loyal girlfriend Trixi - has there ever been a more convincing portrayal of the anime character aesthetic in three-dimensions? In the end, Speed Racer truly makes you love its heroes and hate its villains, so to that end you know its doing something right.

But I have to take a second make special mention of John Goodman. Every once in a while, Goodman lands a role that reminds me why he's one of the underappreciated greats, and yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone - THIS is one of those roles. Goodman, sporting a big mustache and Super Mario wardrobe as POPS RACER, is so great here. He really is the heart and soul of the movie. How can anyone watch the great father-son scenes between Pops and Speed and then say this movie has no heart? And oh boy, when Pops is given the chance to whoop some ass, well, Goodman brings so much lovability to the character that his big action scenes are of the rare kind that make you want to stand up and cheer. Suffice it to say, I absolutely loved John Goodman in this movie.

How about Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X? Talk about badass, Fox kicks ass in this role. With a deep, superhero-style voice and cool-as-hell costume straight from the cartoon, all I know is that any kid who sees this film is going to be running out to get the RACER X action figure, pronto. Fox has some great scenes with Hirsch, and I actually thought that the mystery surrounding X's identity was handled well by the film - it both is and isn't what you thought.

Susan Sarandon is also great as Speed's Mom, but almost everyone is outshined by a little kid and a monkey. Speed's little bro, Spritle, is a riot, and so is his mischievous pet monkey Chim Chim. Again, this is one of the aspects of the movie that I thought was handled with the perfect amount of humor and charm. If you go in cynical, you might not be so amused. But I was won over by the little wiseguy and his monkey. I mean, who doesn't love a monkey sidekick?

And for the record, this movie does have both monkeys and ninjas. And monkeys fighting ninjas. Awesome.

Oh, and I have to mention the great Roger Allam as corporate tycoon Royalton. Allam does a great job of hamming it up - reeking of vile villainy, sneering out every word with wicked aplomb. And hey, SHAFT is in the movie too! Richard Roundtree himself has a great part as a retired racer-turned-announcer who plays a key role in the movie's larger mythology.

I think it's admirable that the movie carries the message of the importance of staying true to family and friends, of carving one's own path rather than conforming to a world that is increasingly corporate and driven by the almighty dollar. If the movie has any fault though, it's that the plot actually gets too confusing and convoluted at times, especially around the middle of the film. There's all kinds of stuff going on involving backroom corporate deals, warring factions of racers, and Speed's own family history that soon becomes pretty tough to follow. Ultimately though, I think the busyness of the plot becomes part of its fun - there's so many random characters that pop up and converging plotlines coming into play that at some point you just lose yourself in the madness, forget about the details, and get caught up in the larger storyarc of Speed's hero's journey. In the end, forgetting some of the overly complex story details, it's a fairly simple tale of family, destiny, and the love of the game.

But wow, in the end, as the credits rolled and a super-cool remix of the original SPEED RACER themesong blared, I found myself floored by just how great a movie this was. Two hours of pure action, fun, and tangible joy, with characters you couldn't help but love and visuals that, not long ago, were merely the stuff of overactive childhood imaginations. I know, I wasn't quite expecting this either, but there can be no doubt: Speed Racer rocks, and it rocks hard.

My Grade: A

Friday, May 9, 2008

Destiny is a Fickle Bitch: LOST, Office, 30 Rock - Reviewed!

Damn you, Charter Cable! Of course, the one time I have company over to watch some TV, the HD stops working. As Liz Lemon might say: "blurgh!" The most annoying part of dealing with Charter was that, for various reasons, it seemed pretty clear that there was some kind of area-wide issue at play here, and yet ... every single time I called them they said they had no knowledge of any area-wide outages and insisted I do stupid things like reset my cable box and whatnot. Arrgggh. And holy lord, is their phone system ridiculous. When you call, it automatically conencts you to either the East Coast or West Coast help lines based on your phone number. Since I live in California but have a CT-based cell phone, every single time I called Charter (which ended up being like 5 times), I had to go through the whole spiel about how they didn't have my phone number on record and so forth and so on. Are you kidding me? Nevermind the fact that, unless I specifically insisted that someone stay on the line with me, my call would typically drop out anytime I was being transferred. All I know is, Charter had better beef up their HD channel lineup ASAP because, whoo boy, customer service is certainly not their selling point.

Anyways, my traditional post-Thursday TV reviews are mostly intact, though written in mere standard-def. I know, I know, life is hard.

And unfortunately I have not yet seen SMALLVILLE. Check back soon for a review of Thursday's ep. But right here, on this very blog post, let's talk about ...


- Wow, what an episode. Last week, we got a character-driven, psychological episode that was, relative to Lost at least, pretty grounded. This week though, we took a ride on the crazy train straight into the Twilight Zone, and oh man, what a ride it was.

I love how one week, Lost can be an emotional, character-driven drama, and the next it can be a full out journey into Weirdsville. This ep, to me, was just one moment of coolness after another, with so much brain-exploding imagery and innuendo that I imagined Lostpedia imploding and/or going supernova as the events of this episode unfolded.

First and foremost though, aside from all the myth-arc coolness, this episode represented something that's been a long time coming: another great Locke episode. I've said it many times before here, but I'll say it again - while the Lost pilot was an astounding piece of television when it premiered, it was the Locke-centric followup, "Walkabout," that to me truly signalled the level of storytelling and overall quality that the show was capable of. That early episode set the standard for all Lost episodes to follow, and at times the show has struggled to live up to that same greatness, especially when it comes to Locke. Since that first episode, Locke-centric eps have been very up and down in quality, and the character as a whole has sometimes gotten far off course. I think most will agree that the Locke we want to see is that early version - the simple box factory worker who yearns to be out in the jungle, to achieve some greater calling, to be a leader and a hero. At times, Locke has since been portrayed as just plain crazy, a mixed-up dude who has somehow been stripped by the island of all common sense. But man, last night, the Locke of old came back with a vengeance, in what was a pretty deliberate-seeming move by the writers. This was the "don't tell me what I can't do" Locke. The complex, fascinating Locke. For the first time in a while, this was a Locke you could root for.

Getting back to the meat of the episode though, the flashbacks here were downright fascinating. I particularly loved the scene with ageless Richard Alpert visiting a young Locke at home, putting him through a Dahli Lama-style test of some sort. I'm not sure what the signifigance of the six objects were (is the Book Of Laws the book in which the "rules" of the Island are written?), but man, what an intense scene. The biggest takeway from these flashbacks is that Locke was tagged and influenced and monitored from birth by the show's various and mysterious players. Why, and to what end? Are Aplert and Abadon working together or against each other? Was it only Locke they were watching or was it all of the passengers on Flight 815? And what exactly is the nature of Locke's "specialness?" Does he have some strange power or is it merely that his destiny is intertwined with the island in some way, as it was alluded that Ben's had been as well. And who are Alpert and Abadon anyway? Is Abadon actually Jacob, or the Smoke Monster, or both? So many questions ... but again, as I've said the past few weeks, these mysteries feel much more intriguing and less frustrating at this point, because the show has the air of a puzzle being put back together. There is an endgame in sight, so it should be just a matter of time before things begin to fall into place a bit.

Locke and his strange history weren't the only mysteries tonight, not by a longshot. We finally checked back in on the freighter, where Sayid decides to go back to the island while Desmond remains behind, brother. While this isn't an uber-mystery per se, it's fascinating to predict how the whole "Oceanic 6 get off the island" scenario will play out. I mean, what the bleep happens to Desmond, for Penny's sake? I do love all the tension amongst the freighter crew though - Keamy is a great, evil / badass character who has added a great element of comic book villainy to the show these last few eps. I can't wait to see him tangle with the likes of Sayid or Sawyer. I wonder what the device is that's strapped to his arm? Is it a Batman-style "kill-me-and-the-bomb-goes-off" type thing, or something else? You've also got to love Lapidus (yes, I realize how that sounds ...). Loved his line about having signed up to work with scientists, not killers.

Okay - here's the big one: what's up with Christian Shephard, Claire, and the cabin? Are these two dead, like d-e-d dead? Some kind of half-dead zombies? Undead? Mostly dead? And does Shephard's presence on the island mean that Jack and Claire, like Locke, was long destined to end up on the island and pushed into arriving there by outside forces? And how about Claire's baby, Aaron? Once we were told that Claire was NOT supposed to let anyone other than her raise the baby. Now it seems preordained, at least by Christian, that she give up the baby for Kate to find. Last week, Hurley told Jack that Jack was not in fact intended to raise the child. Say what now? What's up with Aaron, who is "supposed" to raise him, and, oh yeah, What the Flip is up with Claire?

And that raises the question of the cabin itself, and by extension Jacob. Did Horace have some further signifigance beyond just appearing in Locke's dream? What's up with the cabin - how can a cloth map lead to it if its location always changes? And the biggest question of all ... who / what is Jacob?!?!

Yep, this episode was veritable Lost-geek overload. But like I said, there was still plenty of great character stuff. Locke's flashbacks were compelling, intense, and a reminder of what made the character so cool and unique in the first place. Ben had some classic, scene-stealing moments - him sharing a candy bar with Hurley for instance. And Ben had not only the line of the night, but maybe one of the most memorable lines ever on Lost: "Destiny is a fickle bitch." Wow, if ever the entire premise of Lost could be summed up in a single sentance, that might be it. And on top of all that, we end with one of the most intense setups ever on the show: Keamy and his crew poised to descend on the island and blow it to kingdom come, as the islanders coalesce for what may turn into all out war. Yes, I think it's safe to say that business has picked up.

My Grade: A

Okay, onto NBC's Must-See Comedies ...


- Well, this wasn't a bad episode of The Office ... it was entertaining, at times pretty funny. But honestly, this one just felt pretty flat overall, with a couple of plotlines that had some interesting potential, but that never really took off. Most importantly, the humor was just not clicking as it should be. It's hard to talk about The Office this way, I realize, because some people are simply content to watch, see the latest developments with Jim and Pam, and follow the characters as if they were watching a soap opera. But I don't buy that as a way to look at the show. The Office is first and foremost a comedy, and it's established a particular style of humor and comedic tone. Sure, moreso than many comedies, The Office has pretty complex characters who go through nuanced arcs from episode to episode. But still, if the humor just isn't clicking, if the jokes just aren't funny, then something is wrong. In this ep, I think the main plotline of Michael setting up a Dunder Mifflin booth at a local college job fair ... well, it ultimately fell pretty flat as a comedic premise. The highlight was, I think, the interaction between Michael and Pam - Michael's line about Pam being a wonderful and talented person, but that he'd never say that to her face, was a great little bit that illustrated to a T just how backwords-thinking Michael is and how juvenile he can be. Similarly, Pam's drive to ask around about jobs in graphic design was some nice advancement for her as a character. Ideally though, those interesting character bits would have been accompanied by some great jokes. But when, for example, Michael got up on the microphone to address the crowd, what could have been a classic Office moment of hilarity was instead a little bit awkward and not particularly funny. Especially when you draw the inevitable comparisons to David Brent's classic on-stage moments in the British Office ("simply the best!"). Meanwhile, Ed Helms had a few funny lines in the golfing subplot, but the storyline seemed so concerned with showing Jim's persistance and rededication to his job that somewhere along the way it forgot to have much in the way of humor. Still, I give this episode credit for tying together its various threads nicely. This was especially true in the great ending where Michael observed that someone like Jim can do anything they want with their life, yet they choose to work for Dunder Mifflin, in paper - this, of course, being more a sad commentary on Jim's lack of ambition than anything else. I really admire The Office in that it's perhaps the only comedy on TV that can weave together so many complex character themes in a way that really does make it watchable even when the comedy isn't clicking. But for a truly great Office ep, the funny must be brought.

My Grade: B -


- This week, we saw the season finale of 30 Rock, and it's hard to believe that this is already the last episode of the season. We've only had a handful of post-strike episodes, it seems, and I still have that feeling that the show was juuuuust on the verge of really getting into its groove. I don't know if the show ever matched its early-season levels of greatness during its midseason second-act, but even so, week in and week out, 30 Rock was the funniest, most quotable comedy on TV. Last night's episode was almost overflowing with characters, jokes, and plotlines, so it packed in a ton of comedy into a single half hour. That meant that even when some jokes missed the mark, seconds later something elsewould happen that was downright hilarious. However, two things happened in this episode that tend to get me a little nervous about the show ...

The first is this: to me, the show is at its best when its funniest characters, like Tracy and Jenna, are incorporated INTO the main plotlines. The trend of late though seems to be to relegate the wackier characters to the background, letting them have their own little wacky subplots so that the bulk of the episode can focus on the slightly more straight-laced Liz plotlines. To me, this hurts the show - put the funniest players front and center, and spread out the absurdist humor. Ghettoizing the craziness makes offbeat storylines like Tracy's porn videogame feel rushed, and gives less screentime to talented cast members like Jane Krakowski.

The second issue is a direct followup - sometimes, the Liz storylines get too sitcom-ish and cheesy. That isn't what 30 Rock is about, and it's not where its strength lies. I realize the show is trying to find some kind of happy medium between the absurdist, detached humor of Arrested Development and the soap-opera-y storylines of Friends, but I think it's hard to have it both ways. When Liz's boyfriend is a Beeper King-sized walking punchline, for example, it's hard to really get too emotionally invested in the is-she or isn't-she pregnancy game.

That being said, overall I really liked this ep of 30 Rock. My favorite plotline was probably the Kenneth the Page stuff. Any time the show has shown the rivalry between the Pages, it makes for awesome humor! The closing Olympic-style montage with Kenneth was flat-out hilarious. Alec Baldwin had some fun moments while working for the Bush administration, and Matthew Broderick was fun even if his Broadway-ish acting seemed a little too broad for a show like 30 Rock, no pun intended. As usual though, there were tons of classic lines strewn throughout, and, to top it off, a classic closing sequence that flashed to 3 Months Later as hilarity ensued. Kenneth as an international man of mystery? Genius.

My Grade: B+

- And that's all for today. Have a great weekend, and check back soon for a review of SPEED RACER.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The 100 Million Dollar (IRON) Man - Iron Man: Reviewed!

- What's up, True Believers ... so here's a very special edition of the blog, as we take a look at the first BIG movie of the 2008 summer movie season, Iron Man. Before I dive into the actual review, I just want to say how cool it is that the movie did so well this weekend. $100 million +, baby. The reason that, to me, this is so cool is because this is an instance where a somewhat underdog movie defied the naysayers and really kicked some box office ass. Sure, a big-budget superhero movie in 2008 is never really an underdog, exactly, but still ... I guess Iron Man was one of those movies that was kind of divisive, in a way - it was a movie where people who love great action movies were chomping at the bit to see it. All of us film geeks and fanboys have been spreading the gospel of Iron Man for a year now, ever since the incredible footage shown at San Diego in '07 blew the roof off the joint. But ask around - a lot of people never seemed to get why this one would be special. The cynics said it was a second tier character. The cynics said that movie-going had been down the last few weeks. The cynics said that everything from Grand Theft Auto to Made of Honor would limit the box office fortunes for Marvel's latest. Well, to me Iron Man grossing over 100 million in its opening weekend is a win for the good guys. This is a movie that was impeccably cast with REAL actors, SEASONED actors, Oscar-caliber actors. It's a movie that respecte the source material while also updating things for 2008. It's a movie that used viral and internet marketing to great effect, without ever pandering or feeling desperate. To me, Iron Man was precisely the antithesis of some of the crap films us genre fans have had to endure: Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider ... need I say more? So while those films all did well at the box office, it's awesome that the film that did the BEST, that defied expectations and set records, was one that for once was more than deserving of such accolades.

And for the record, I argued with anyone who over the last few weeks thought Iron Man would underperform. I hate to say I told you so, but ...

IRON MAN Review:

- In a genre where so much can go wrong, I am still amazed at just how much IRON MAN got right. And let's face it, folks. Marvel needed this one, and maybe the whole comic book genre needed it too. After a string of duds like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, and yes, Spiderman 3, it was high time that us fans and the whole movie-going public were reminded why we love us some superheroes in the first place. But worry not, True Believers, for salvation is here, and he's wearing a suit of red and gold steel. Because Iron Man wipes away any doubts that the genre is dead or dying. And the reasons are anything but rocket science. Jon Favreau stuck to a very simple and basic plan - match a good script with great actors, respect the source material, deliver heroes, villains, and slam-bang action, and deliver a film that would make the likes of Lee and Kirby proud. Like I said, not rocket science, but it's amazing how many films have ignored these basic tenets, taking some of the most fun and creative fictional characters every created and churning out half-assed adaptations. Again, Iron Man is the antithesis of those films - a fun, action packed tale full of great actors and larger than life fun.

The most obvious upside here is the incredible cast. Robert Downey Jr., to start, is as good as everyone has said. I don't know if it's even so much that this is a great performance by him, per se. It might very well be that this is just Downey being Downey. You definitely get that sense here, as its certainly one of the most naturalistic performances ever seen in a superhero movie. But that just reinforces the notion that the casting of RDJ as Tony Stark was a stroke of genius. The guy's own offscreen troubles certainly parallel those of Stark, and that allows RDJ to bring something to the role that few others could - a world-weariness masked by a kind of manic humor. There's a charismatic presence about RDJ here that I've heard a few compare to Johnny Depp in the Pirates films, and it's true: Downey is constantly animated here - you can't take your eyes off of him, wondering what he'll do or say next. In Entertainment Weekly, I believe, it was said that Downey goes through Iron Man like a guy who's having one long conversation with himself, and I kind of agree. Whether it's seamless acting or just an extension of his own personality, there's no question about it ... Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark.

It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast here is completely A-list. Jeff Bridges, as Stark's rival / mentor Obediah Stane (a name that could ONLY have come from a Marvel comic book), is off-the-chain great. The Dude abides, baby ... Bridges chews up the scenery with much awesomeness and looks suitably badass with the bald head and goatee thing going on. Terrance Howard plays the role of Stark Industries' military liason, Jim Rhodes, with a kind of bottled-up glee. His role here isn't huge, but Howard brings an enthusiasm to the role where he seems to be screaming out "damn dude, get me into the War Machine suit already!" Said enthusiasm is totally contagious, and when Rhodes admires the Iron Man suit with a glint of mischief in his eye, we can't help but give an amen to Howard's exclamation of "next time, baby." Gwyneth Paltrow is really exceptional to boot as Pepper Potts (another classic Marvel-style name, to be sure). As Stark's loyal assistant and potential love interest, Paltrow mixes comic book pluckiness with real pathos to make us care more about Pepper than any comic book hero's special lady friend in quite some time. Sure, her competition includes Jessica Alba, Eva Mendez, Katie Holmes, and Kate Bosworth, so, not too hard for Paltrow to shine in comparison. But she really is a lot of fun here, with some great chemistry with Downey Jr. and some nice dialogue as well. And screw the haters, I've always been a Paltrow fan - from Sky Captain to The Royal Tannenbaums, she's a great actress. Finally, Paul Bettany was great a the voice of Jarvis - Stark's highly advanced computer / electronic butler. Some of the best scenes in the film come about thanks to the interplay between the two, despite one being an inanimate computer system.

In general, props to Iron Man for having the balls to make unconventional (for Hollywood) casting choices that are, in reality, total no-brainers. While some braindead studio execs might prefer that Iron Man be played by the latest "it" teen actor or whatever, kudos to Favreau and co for going with actors who have true talent, who look and fit the parts, and who proved this weekend that you don't have to be 22 and on the cover of Teen Vogue to draw big box office.

As for the script, where Iron Man really excels is in its fast paced, adult dialogue. Many of the back-and-forths felt more Swingers than Spiderman, which was really cool to see. With overlapping conversations, legitimately witty humor, and a lack of cheesy one-liners, Iron Man certainly blended its comic book aesthetic with a pretty mature and sophisticated storytelling style. Now, did that maturity at times give way to some cliched bits? Sure - the big end battle in particular seemed from a different movie, all action movie cliches and been-there, done-that action. But for the most part, Iron Man was better and stronger than it's competition.

Now, despite that aforementioned maturity, one thing I loved about Iron Man was that it never forgot its roots. The movie reveled in the sheer coolness of the Iron Man suit - when Tony first whups ass with his Mach 1 prototype armor, when he goes on his first flight, kicks his first round of badguy butt while donning the classic red and gold, fires his first repulsor rays and makes $#%# blow up real good - these are all moments to make you stand up and cheer. Give credit to the f/x guys - the suit looks awesome, as does Tony's lab and some of the other high-tech set design. And man, there are a ton of great geek references in here to make the Marvel fans giddy. Not only do the characters, the suit, the locations feel lifted straight out of the comics, but things go into total overdrive thanks to the running subplot involving Marvel's staple covert-ops supergroup, S.H.I.E.L.D. (I'm not even going to try to spell out the acronym). Let's be honest - every fanboy worth his salt has been chomping at the bit for one of comicdom's most beloved ideas - the concept of the shared superhero universe - to finally make it onto the big screen. Without spoiling anything specifically, the final, post-credit bonus scene, involving a certain eye-patched Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by one bad mutha', is one of the most geek-out-worthy things ever put to film. As Stan Lee might say: 'Nuff Said.

Without a doubt, Iron Man has so much going for it that it is instantly worthy of being hailed as one of the best comics-to-film adaptations to date. Unfortunately, to me it JUST misses the mark of being an all-time classic action flick, period. The biggest flaw to me is that at times, the narrative can be a bit flimsy. More and more, it's becoming noticable that a big weakness of comic book flicks is that the setup to the climactic hero vs. villain confrontation often feels rushed. Iron Man is guilty of this lack of proper build-up, quickly having Jeff Bridges morph from ruthless businessman to homicidial maniac over the course of a few measly minutes. It makes his final showdown with Iron Man much goofier-feeling than it should have been. That same final fight is also marred by its relatively small scale. It seemed like a much bigger, more epic brawl was in order before movie's end. I guess time and budget ran out before a proper climax could be included? It's a shame, too, because the movie sure does take its sweet time establishing Iron Man's origin - if only the same could be said for the second half of the film in which he's actually in the suit. Last complaint: I echo the sentiments of some other reviews that it would have been icing on the cake if Iron Man had a truly memorable musical score. Not to say that there weren't some appropriately metal tunes sprinkled throughout (including great use of the Black Sabbath song of the same name), but the soundtrack did seem a bit lacking at times.

In any case, I only critique because in most respects, IRON MAN was one badass movie, and an incredible way to kick off the '08 summer movie season. As I said, so much of the movie was done the right way, it's amazing that Favreau got this thing made the way he and fans everywhere wanted to see it happen. It's a movie that begs for a sequel, and if that buzz-worthy ending is any indication, it's a movie that may well change the face of superhero flicks altogether. But the best I can say about Iron Man is that, wow, right out of the gate, this is the standard-setter. And I'm not just talking about dollars, though there's that too. Aside from measuring up at the box office, it's going to be a mighty challenge for the rest of the summer's big-guns to stack up quality-wise to Iron Man, it's that good of a blockbuster. That goes for Speed Racer, Indy, and even The Dark Knight. A bar has been set, and it's cast in iron.

My Grade: A -

Friday, May 2, 2008

Striking While the Iron Is Hot: LOST, Smallville, 30 ROCK, The Office - Reviewed!

Man ... this weekend cannot come soon enough. It's been a tiring week, a lot going on at work, a visit from my old BU buddy Sarah W., watching a lot of NBA playoff action, and trying to finalize plans for an upcoming quick trip to Beantown for my brother's graduation ...

Anyways, tonight: IRON MAN. Hells yeah. Check out my entry from yesterday to get pirmed and ready, with my list 10 essential tunes featuring a comic book character in the title. Yes, I am a nerd.

- By the way, one thing that I hope will be a lesson learned from Iron Man's eventual success: for the love of God, when casting action movies, especially superhero flicks ... you don't need pretty-boy post-teens in the main roles! We need more Christian Bale's, Ron Perlman's and Robert Downey Jr's in these roles. When the casting began for the now-dumped JLA movie, the casting was simply atrocious-seeming. Adam Brody as the Flash? I like Brody, but please, no more baby-faced effeminate types in leading action-movie roles.

Okay ..... way too much TV was watched by me last night. Let's get to it:


- I went back and forth a little about what I thought about last night's ep, but then it hit me, as the clock struck 11 pm and that final tone rung out signalling the episode's end -- for an hour, I had been holding my breath, on the edge of my seat, and hanging on every word of LOST. The fact was, this was a totally intense, character-driven episode that overall, I'd have to say was one of the season's most compelling to date.

Give a lot of credit to Matthew Fox. He just has that intangible quality as an actor that makes him seem human and relatable no matter what situation he's thrown into. Fox did an outstanding job last night, plain and simple. I know that Lost fell a bit out of favor with the Emmy's in recent years, but, well, it may be time for Fox to once again be deemed worthy of awards consideration. Last night, we really went to hell and back with Jack. On the island, we saw Jack's control-freak tendencies manifest in dramatic fashion, as he insisted he be kept awake as Juliette performed surgery to remove his appendix, and that Kate be present as well, possibly to offset the sometimes duplicitous nature of Juliette. That overt trust of Kate was parallelled in the flash-forwards, where we are shown an intermediary period between the various Kate and Jack flashes we've seen to date. After Kate's trial, but before Jack finds himself desperately teling Kate that they have to go back to the island, seen during last season's finale. In this particular period, Jack surprisingly seems to have found a measure of domestic bliss with Kate, who we know prior to and after this period he's not exactly on great terms with. But here, we saw the facade of the happy couple begin to crumble. Jack isn't sure if he can trust Kate, who is apparently helping out the island-bound Sawyer in some secretive manner. Add to that the fact that Jack keeps seeing glimpses of his supposesedly dead father, and we have the beginnings of Jack's eventual meltdown.

All of this emotional and psychological turmoil was depicted pretty brilliantly by Fox. The scenes between he and Kate bristled with sadness and intensity. And it's pretty remarkable how the Lost guys have constructed this out-of-sequence tapestry of Jack moments. The best part is that, whereas circa Season 2 these probably wouldn't have fit together particularly seamlessly, they now have the air of pieces of a puzzle being fit neatly into place. It's fun to watch, that's for sure.

Aside from all the Jack stuff, there wasn't much else to this episode. The biggie was the cliffhanger, in which Claire goes missing from Team Sawyer, apparently having disappeared with Ghost Dad. Interesting, and like everyone else I perked up during the next-ep preview when that guy told Locke he had been dead for thirteen years ... say what now? I see dead people! And even Crazy Hurley says the Lostees are all dead. But if they're dead, then what are Rousseau, Karl, and poor Alex? Really, really dead? Now, if one is plucked out of time at the moment of death and transported to a magical island that heals all, does that make them dead, undead? Hmm ...

Anyways, really good stuff here. Not a ton of on-the-island plot movement, but in terms of intensity, character drama, thought-provoking existential crises, and good ol' fashioned mystery ... it doesn't get much better.

My Grade: A


- Some geeky part of me really wanted to love last night's Smallville, which pulled the old "what would an alternate reality in which Clark Kent never existed be like" trick. Apparently, a world without Clark is a world that is one giant tribute to the Superman lore of the movies and comics. In this world, Lois Lane is a crusading reporter, Jimmy Olsen a bow-tie wearing photographer, and Lex Luthor a black-gloved, white-suit wearing President of the USA. Cool, right? Yeah, it might be, if this episode didn't contain some of the most ridiculous writing I've yet seen from the typically campy show.

From Clark Kent running into his alternate timeline doppledanger and trying to convince Martha and Jonathan Kent's biological son that he wasn't crazy and was an alien from Krypton, to Jimmy confiding in a guy who he'd never met before in his life, to the trip to Krypton that saw Clark Kent rocket his own infant self to earth ... holy lord, was this a cluster of an episode.

I liked the kind of big action feel we got here, I really did. I've seen complaints about some of the budgetary constaints in terms of not showing much of Krypton or whatnot. I agree it was lame that Krypton was just the Fortress with a green tint, but at the same time you've got to admire a show that even gets this ambitious in its storytelling, even if the end result of said (overly?) ambitious storytelling is pretty messy. I guess it's just nice to see Smallville aim high for once and actually have Clark deal with danger where the stakes are high and all can't be solved with a speed burst-powered clock to the head.

Still, the stilted dialogue, hamfisted acting (sans Michael Rosenbaum, who once again classed up the joint with his always-great depiction of Lex), and questionable f/x really made this a shell of the action-packed extravaganza it could and should have been. The time-travel elements were handled with laughable nonchalance, and Braniac was yet again not used close to his full potential as a villain. It really makes me worry about the recently announced arrival of Doomsday, set for next season. The show has yet to prove, in seven years, that it can introduce a cool, effective villain other than the Luthors. Kinda sad.

My Grade: B-


- After hitting a high point last week, this week's Office was a bit of a come-down. Not that there weren't some funny moments, but this episode overall never really seemed to find its voice. I really liked the idea of focusing in a bit on Stanley. He's one of the Office characters who we know the least about, and the potential for a real conflict with Michael was always pretty good, as Stanley is one of the few who is actually actively angry with Michael's workplace antics. But after some interesting buildup, it seemed like things never really went anywhere. It was funny and awkward to see Stanley really call out Michael - it's too bad that the ep never truly delved into Stanley's thought process. I mean, most of the time Michael is actually naively rascist in dealing with him - doesn't that piss him off?

I don't know, this episode was just a bit frustrating, as it seemed like there was both a comedic potential and dramatic potential with Stanley that was never quite tapped. Meanwhile, there were some interesting little threads with Pam and Jim, Toby, and Dwight (who supplied the biggest laughs of the night, by far, with his in-your-face methods of pursuasion used on both Andy - successfully, and on Michael - unsuccessfully). Thank you Rainn Wilson for always bringing the funny to The Office. Oh, Daryl was pretty fun as well with his fake gang-advice to Michael. And I also give the episode some bonus points for Steve Carell's so-awkward-it-eventually-became-hilarious closing monologue, which started as a Rodney Dangerfield impression and soon became a freakshow amalgam of various famous stand-up routines. And yeah, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Creed and his dirty thoughts about Pam. Wow.

My Grade: B

30 ROCK:

- And then, there was 30 Rock. Again, a funny episode but a bit too Liz-centric for my tastes. The problem is that the Liz-focused episodes, I find, tend to be a bit more sitcomish that most. Of course, 30 Rock always has some innovative and random humor in spite of the sitcom trappings of a particular episode. But this episode teased us with one or two funny lines each from the likes of Jenna, Kenneth, and Tracy, but then relegated them to bit players for much of the episode, while we focused on the on again off again romance between Liz and Floyd. I did enjoy some of the Cleveland-centric humor (the Ikea bit was pretty good - the same humor could easily be transplanted to CT ...), and I especially thought the minute or so of Liz eating her sandwich at the airport was pretty classic.

The teamsters subplot, in which a bunch of very realistic-seeming teamster dudes would only relinquish a specially-made sandwich if they were beaten in a drinking contest, had a few amusing moments but ultimately didn't give much to Tracy and Jenna to do, though the climax, in which everyone on the Tracy Jordan show overcame their various drinking restrictions to triumph over the teamsters, was pretty funny.

So, not an instant-classic episode of 30 Rock, but still a pretty good episode of one of TV's best comedies.

My Grade: B+

Okay ... enough of this jibber jabber. I'm out - stay tuned for the big IRON MAN review coming soon.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Made of Iron: The Top 10 Songs To Get Your Repulsor Rays Runnin'

Okay, some fun stuff for everyone today, in this very special edition of the blog. The Celtics won last night, Lost is new tonight, it's almost the weekend, and I'm ready to roll. So suit up, strap in, and get ready ...

So like I've said, my enthusiasm for IRON MAN is pretty much at a fever pitch. And so I thought it only appropriate to do a special, pre-Iron Man blog entry greasing the wheels of the hype machine just a little bit more. So what I was thinking was this: as cool a character as Iron Man is, many hear the term "Iron Man" and immediately think of the famous Black Sabbath song by the same name. Now, the truth is that Iron Man the song has no real relation, other than its name of course, to the Marvel comics character. That is, until now. Because as I mentioned way back when here on the blog, one of my simplest yet most strong fanboy dreams, upon hearing that an Iron Man movie was in the works, was for those classic opening Sabbath chords to be coupled with the iconic Marvel comics imagery, in a timeless marriage of Iron Man the song with Iron Man the ass-kicking superhero. So imagine my pure geek bliss last summer at my first ever San Diego Comic-Con, during which the world premiere trailer of Iron Man was unveiled. The footage alone was fanboytastic, but what sent the whole thing completely over the edge for me was the much-dreamed-of inclusion of Iron Man, the song. As the iconic guitar riffs accompanied straight-from-the-comics images of ol' shellhead busting heads, I was in a state of escapist nirvana. This was it, baby. I. AM. IRON MAN!

So anyways, that got me thinking - what are the all-time greatest rock songs to feature a comic book character's name in the title? That's right, in the title. So I'm not talkin' songs merely associated with a character via soundtrack inclusion or whatever (ie U2's "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me"). And I'm not talkin' songs that at some point MENTION a character (ie "oh Superman where are you now?" in Genesis' Land of Confusion), or even songs that are generically about superheroes or whatever in a more general sense. And finally, I'm not talking songs that are an actual theme song (ie the Spiderman theme song, even the Ramones' cover version). I'm listing only songs that have a comic book characters' name IN THE TITLE OF THE SONG. And maybe the songs don't even have anything to do with said comic book character, but that's not the point, because who knows - someday they just MIGHT (see Sabbath's IRON MAN now used in the Iron Man movie trailers, or Johnny Cash's Ghostriders in the Sky repurposed and remade for the Ghost Rider movie). So, on with it ...


10.) "Superman" by Goldfinger - Like many people, I first listened to this song, and to this band, via the now-classic soundtrack to the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, back in the halycon days of the original Playstation's reign. Now, this song really has nothing to do with Superman ... it's mostly about a guy who sucks at life but is pretending he's the man ... or something. But hey, it's a great song, it's called Superman, so, dammit all, it makes the list.

9.) "Return of the Phantom Stranger" by Rob Zombie - One of DC's most classic horror characters, The Phantom Stranger has an awesome name, an awesome look, was in some awesome stories written by Alan Moore, and is just pretty much awesome. So even though I don't love this song and it may even be one of my least-fave Zombie tunes, I'll give it a listen every so often just because ... Rob Zombie actually wrote a song about the Phantom Stranger. Badass.

8.) "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" by The Spin Doctors - Sure, the Spin Doctors were kind of a one-album wonder in the 90's, but who didn't own that one album at the time? I remember buying it immediately (on casette!) as a kid because I looooved "Two Princes", and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had a song all about Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and "Miss Lois Lane." Did the song get kind of annoying after a few listens? Sure. But has the plight of wannabe Mr. Action Jimmy Olsen ever been better depicted in song form? Nope.

7.) "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" by The Ramones - Here's one that's one of my fav Ramones songs ... but does it actually have anything to do with classic cheesecake comic character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle? No, I don't think so. But it's amusing to listen to it and think of a scantily-clad jungle babe who doubles as a part-time punk rocker. And really, what's more punk rock than a woman who's left her inhibitions at the door and taken to swinging around the jungle fighting villainy? Now that's punk rock.

6.) "I Whupped Batman's Ass" by Wesley Willis - Have you ever heard a song by Wesley Willis? If not, get to downloading. I was first exposed to his KRAZY songs in college, back in the heyday of Napster. He was basically this half-crazy homeless guy who sings random songs that make no real sense and just go on and on with no real rhyme or reason. The funniest of his nonsensical tunes? Easily the awesome and hilarious "I Whupped Batman's Ass." It's about Batman getting on Mr. Willis' nerves, thus warranting a ghetto-style beatdown. Yes, you heard me.

5.) "Ghostriders In the Sky" by Johnny Cash - An eerie, atmospheric tune that evokes a Western-tinged ghost story, it's the type of song that would make an appropriate soundtrack to accompany a vintage issue of Weird Western Tales. But let it be said: BY FAR the best thing (and pretty much the ONLY good thing) about the recent Ghost Rider flick was a rocking, kickass cover of this song thatp layed during the film's ending credits. If nothing else, it makes the song that much cooler by having it evoke the flameing-skulled rider of Marvel Comics fame. Note I said of Marvel Comics fame, NOT of godawful abortion of a movie fame.

4.) "Superman" by REM - Okay, another song that is called Superman, yet isn't really about Superman the cape-wearing S-shield sporting last son of Krpyton. But is this as a pretty classic song, a canonical example of 1990's-era alt-rock at its finest? Yes, and so, yes, the song qualifies for the list. Now, the vibe of this song is pretty emo, and doesn't exactly get you in the mood for action-packed superheroic adventure ... but, hey, avid fans of the Superman comics can attest that, thanks (or no-thanks) to creators like Brian Azzarello and Kurt Busiek, the last few years' worth of Superman adventures have seen the big guy get off-puttingly contemplative, mopey, and even shed a tear or two. In fact, one need look no further than TV's Smallville to see a constantly self-doubting Clark Kent, on a show whose very message seems to scream that everybody, even Superman, hurts.

3.) "Flash" by Queen - Obviously, this song isn't about The Fastest Man Alive, The Flash, but its potentially misleading title earns it even more points for the list. The song is, however, about Flash Gordon, savior of the universe - a character who originated in the pulpy pages of the Sunday funnies way back when and has since enjoyed a number of comic book revivals. This song by Queen, however, is from the 1980's Flash Gordon movie - a spectacular musical action flick of epically campy proportions. With its sci-fi vibe and snippets of movie dialogue intersperesed throughout the song ("what do you MEAN, Flash Gordon approaching?!?"), this is one of the ultimate sci-fi themed songs ever sung, by a band that has its fair share of out-there tunes ("The Invisible Man," "Princes of the Universe"). Come on, who doesn't love to randomly belt out "Flash! Whoah-ohhh! King of the impossible!" ...?

2.) "Superman's Dead" by Our Lady Peace - Not only is this a song with Superman in the title, but it seems to reference one of the most popular storylines in the character's comic book history - the 1990's epic Death of Superman storyline. Now, is the song actually about said storyline? Nope, not really - nary a mention of Doomsday or The Eradicator is to be found in its screechy lyrics. But the song is a staple of 1990's-era rock, just as the Death of Superman story is closely associated with the 1990's-era comics boom. And most importantly, the song pretty much rocks.

1.) "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath - You know it, I know it - as overplayed as this song may have become over the years, as many times as you've heard it, when those first droning guitar sounds begin to drop, you know exactly what time it is: time to rock. As mentioned, the song isn't really about Marvel's Iron Man, but I think it's safe to say that most young fanboys listen to the song picturing a superhero in a red and gold suit of hi-tech steel, stomping around whupping some badguy ass with his repulsor rays. I remember as a kid, I assumed the song was about the superhero, but then in turn never got why "nobody wants him, they just turn their heads." I think I was too busy rocking out to seriously ponder such questions though - and that, my friends, is the mark of a classic.

- And there you have it ... see you guys in the theater on Friday. I'm off to pen a post-punk pop song about Nick Fury, with my new band, the Howling Commandos.