Thursday, September 24, 2009

Honest-To-Blog, a Diabolic Review of JENNIFER'S BODY, Plus: Modern Family, Cougar Town, and More!

So I've been back in LA since Monday night, and it's already been a crazy couple of days. Monday, for one thing, was a loooong day of travel. I boarded a Southwest flight out of Bradley Airport at 2 pm Monday afternoon, east coast time, and arrived in Burbank at 9 pm, west coast time. In between, I stopped in Chicago and Phoenix (always weird, because both are cities I'd love to actually *visit*, but have only been to due to stopovers in their airports). The flights themselves weren't too bad. I did some sleeping, some reading (I made a solid dent in The Yiddish Policemen's Union), and even, finally, watched some of the stuff I've had loaded up on my iPod for months now (yes, I finally watched Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog, all my Whedon-obssessed friends should be proud of me). But yeah, by the time I got back to CA, I was wiped. I thought the rest of this week would be easy by comparison, but then Tuesday happened. I went in in the afternoon for one of my twice-weekly physical therapy sessions for my ankle, and somehow, one of the excercises I did that afternoon really did some damage. They had me do this thing where I stood on a bar on one leg and kept going up and down on my toes over and over. Maybe it was stiffness from sitting on an airplane for several hours the day before, I don't know. But whatever it was, I woke up on Wednesday to find my right leg cramped up, bigtime. Like, I've had cramped muscles before, but this was crazy. And it kept getting worse throughout the day, to the point where some point in the late afternoon, I could barely stand up out of my chair at work, and was unable to keep my right leg fully stretched out. I hoped by today it would be substantially better, but instead I'm in Day 2 of crazy pain. I'm limping all over the place and my right calf is in bad shape. And I'm sure I'm not doing myself any favors by sitting hunched over a desk at work most of the day. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. As a wise man once said: dammit all.


- Well, I have some catching up to do with TV, but I will say this: Thursdays are just crazy now. Especially if Flash Forward turns out to be good. That would mean that you've got The Office, 30 Rock, Flash Forward, and Fringe (!) all airing on one jam-packed night. At least Flash Forward is on at 8 pm and not 9 ... but ... I wonder if Fringe will eventually move to a different night in the winter? I mean, how can you have Fringe and Lost on at the same time? That's just insanity.

- I've been singing its praises for a while now, but I think it's safe to say that MODERN FAMILY is probably my overall favorite pilot for this Fall. Not only does the show have a lot of great potential, but the pilot episode is just a great half-hour of TV, and one of the better comedy pilots I've seen. Traditionally, comedies have a tought time establishing themselves in their premiere episode. Great shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Office took a whole season to really find their footing. But Modern Family really impressed me with how well the pilot introduced the cast of characters, established the show dynamic, and did so with a sort of twist ending to boot. I'll say this: when I first saw the pilot a couple months back, I honestly thought for most of the episode that Modern Family was about several different, unrelated families. The reveal at the end that all of the character were related actually took me by surprise, and was a very clever twist, especially as far as comedies go. Most importantly though, the show is funny. No, it didn't have me rolling on the floor the way an Arrested Development did, but there were several legit laugh out loud moments. And the cast really sold it, top to bottom. Special mention has to go to Ed O'Neal, if only because it's great to see him back on a funny TV show. Anyways, I am really high on Modern Family thus far. Very curious to see if the next couple of episodes maintain this high level of quality.

My Grade: A-

- On the other hand, I am not very big on COUGAR TOWN. I liked some aspects of the show, and I thought there was a certain sharpness to the writing. I also think the cast is generally talented, and really want to root for Dan Byrd since I loved the underrated Aliens In America. But, I just thought that the overall tone was off-putting, and I also felt like there was a mismatch between the premise and the star. The show is supposed to be about an aging woman in her 40's struggling to deal with the impending onset of middle age. But it stars Courtney Cox, in full-blown sex-bomb mode, who never comes across like a woman who would ever have to struggle with much of anything. In fact, most women in their 40's would probably kill to look as good as Cox does on this show. I don't know, there just seems to be a weird disconnect on this show, where it seems to be simultaneously making Cox's character into a "woah-is-me" type of character, yet also shows that she is take charge, gets what she wants, and says whatever's on her mind. It makes the whole thing feel kind of obnoxious, like listening to a supermodel complain about breaking a nail.

My Grade: C+

- I thought Monday's episode of GOSSIP GIRL was a lot of fun, definitely more entertaining than the season premiere. I loved the fish-out-of water element of Blair and Dan at NYU, with Blair suddenly the snobby outcast. A lot of hilarity ensued as Blair's high-end sushi party lost out to Vanessa and Georgina's movies-and-pizza hang out. I also just enjoyed Georgina's presence in general. She is kind of a crazy wild-card in the whole Gossip Girl mix, and I love her little secret war with Blair. Anyways, I thought this ep was pretty solid.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, so yesterday, despite my semi-crippled condition, I hobbled over to the movie theater to check out Diablo Cody's latest ...


- Jennifer's Body, for its entire duration, walks a VERY fine line. It constantly teeters on the edge between witty and overbearing, between campy and cool, between winning horror-comedy and would-be wannabe. In the end though, I am willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. There was enough that I liked about it that in the end it mostly won me over. For every line of dialogue that made me cringe, another struck me as being pretty cool. For every attempt at too-cool-for-school humor that fell flat, there was a moment of punk-rock craziness that made me love the unique sensibility that the movie brought to the table. I know that Diablo Cody elicits strong emotions from people, but in this case, I think she's helped to create a movie that's flawed, but at the same time, very entertaining and well worth checking out.

As I've talked about before, I was a huge fan of Juno. I thought it was a seminal movie, and was surprised at the immense backlash that threatened to overpower the critical and commercial adoration. I don't get the criticisms about the hyper-stylized dialogue - to me, the unique cadences and oddball phrases fit in perfectly with the unique and oddball world of Juno and its characters. But, with Jennifer's Body, I began to look at Cody's signature dialogue in a different light. Because while it seemed a perfect match for Juno, that same style of overly-playful and fanciful dialogue often just feels forced in a movie like Jennifer's Body. It made sense that a quirky, smart teen like Juno would talk in this unique manner. But it makes a lot less sense that the main characters here would talk in the exact same way. And I give credit to Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, and the rest of the talented cast - they do well with the material and make it work. But at the same time, when the bursting-with-bad-attitude Jennifer tells Seyfried's character, mousy Needy, to "move-on-dot-org", well, sorry Diablo, but that's just too much. There are several dialogue exchanges like that that just do not work. At all. But sometimes, Cody does strike gold, and has some genuinely inspired, Sam Raimi-like moments of horror-comedy coolness. (And by the way, the movie makes no secret that it is inspired by Raimi's Evil Dead flicks - there are about 500 homages to Raimi's iconic films throughout Jennifer's Body).

I've talked a lot about Diablo Cody, and I think part of what hurts this movie is that it lacks a great director to counterbalance Cody's script. I don't know, I think Karyn Kusama is an interesting director. But her movies seem like they have moments of visual inspiration sprinkled among many more scenes that are just sort of bland. It was that way with Aeon Flux, and it is that way here. There is some great imagery in the movie, some real iconic horror movie shots. Some nice, creepy, atmospheric stuff. But there's also the sense that the movie doesn't live up to its full visual potential. It almost reminded me a bit of Twilight in that regard, in that I liked the creepy atmosphere but also wished there was some additional visual flair, and action that had a bit more, well, bite. I think Jennifer's Body also suffers a bit in comparison to this summer's Raimi-directed Drag Me to Hell. That movie was such a pitch-perfect, awesomely-directed horror-comedy, that this movie, being a sort of grrl-powered homage to Raimi, can't quite live up to the great movies it's paying tribute to.

But again, I do really like the cast. Megan Fox is actually really good here. She shows a previously unseen ability to chew up scenery and deliver one-liners with evil aplomb, and to look good doing it (okay, well, that last part was a no-brainer, but still ...). And while Fox does a nice job and gets top billing, I think it's the uber-talented Amanda Seyfried who ultimately carries the movie, as the memorably-named Needy Lesnicky. Seyfried pulls off a feat similar to Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell - she recites her lines and carries herself with conviction and 100% commitment to the material, but at the same time knowingly winks at the audience a bit, with jsut the right amount of deliberate campiness. It's a great acting job, to be sure. A couple of other actors have memorable appearances in this one as well. Adam Brody is fun as a lame-o emo rocker who instigtes the demonic ritual that turns Jennifer from plain-old high school badgirl into flesh-eating succubus. And JK Simmons, fresh off Extract, is hilarious as an overly-sincere teacher who happens to have a hook in place of one of his hands. Also, the fanboy in me must point out that the great Lance Henriksen makes an uncredited cameo that is pretty random but nonetheless awesome. Given that Henrisken is an icon of horror (and star of one of my all-time fave TV shows, Millenium), it pretty much ruled that he shows up here.

As far as the plot goes, it is sort of loose, and some of that is probably deliberate. But you also never get 100% invested in the movie just because there's not all that much rhyme or reason to what's going on. Megan Fox becomes a demonic flesh-eater, kills some guys, etc. But there's never all that much explanation of why she has to seduce 'em before she eats 'em. And that's justo ne example of how the movie tends to do stuff just for the hell of it. Like the much-vaunted make-out session between Fox and Seyfried. No, I'm not complaining about it, just naming it as an example of another moment that is there for no particular reason, except to sell millions of copies of "unrated" DVD's in a couple of months.

At the same time, I do kind of dig what Diablo is going for beneath the surface. There's a fun, not-so-subtle subtext here that high-school is just an earthbound layer of hell, with the delicious irony being that post-demonic transformation Jennifer is really not all that different from pre-demonic transformation Jennifer. The whole succubus thing really just calls attention to all the worst instincts of the at times all-too-demon-like beings known as high school girls. Jennifer's Body may falter a bit on the details (like some cringe-worthy bits of dialogue or some pretty random plot-points), but the overall package is a lot of fun. The soundtrack is excellent and sets the perfect mood (loved the use of 90's-era Hole to close out the movie). There is some really creepy-awesome imagery. And the cast does a great job. Plus, without spoiling anything, the ending is just plain badass. Give Cody and Kusama and the cast a lot of credit - for all its flaws, Jennifer's Body is unlike any other horror-comedy you've seen.

My Grade: B+

- And I'm out. Until next time ...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goin' Stitchpunk: 9 Reviewed, Plus: Scribblenauts Thoughts and More!

Well, by this time tomorrow, I will be on a plane en route to Connecticut, where I will spend a couple days coinciding with Rosh Hashana. You've got to love it - sitting still in a synagogue all day (and occasionally standing for long stretches) listening to the rabbi and cantor methodically chant Hebrew prayers about guilt and sin. Talk about a happy holiday! Man, we Jews truly are gluttons for punishment sometimes. In any case, I'll be back here in LA Monday night, and hopefully I'll quickly be able to catch up on the important stuff ... you know, like the premieres of The Office and Fringe.

Anyways ...

- I haven't talked all that much here about gaming, but man, I have to give an early shout out to SCRIBBLENAUTS. This new game for the Nintendo DS is plain and simply groundbreaking. I've only played through a handful of levels thus far, but the central conceit is so amazingly original that you can't help but get sucked in. Basically, you guide your character through a series of puzzle-based levels, and help him reach his goal by typing in words - literally just about any object or thing you can think of - and having your ideas materialize right there on screen for your puzzle-solving use. You can create a horse, a cow, a dinosaur, a vampire, a stick, a baseball bat, a ray gun, a black hole, an airplane, a car, a venus fly trap ... anything. Just write the name of the object and marvel as it appears right there on-screen. Need to get a cat out of a tree? You could just create a ladder and climb to get it ... or, you could create a pterodactyl, give it a length of rope, and have it fly to the cat and rescue it. Or why not create a superhero to swoop in and save the cat? Crazy! Sure, the controls are occasionally a bit wonky, but the sheer inventiveness that this game allows for is just mind-boggling. All day, I've been thinking about weird combinations of things to create. A knife-wielding monkey? An army of vampires? A robot with a jetpack? Awesome!

- I'll also give a shout-out to BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM. This is another game that I've barely scratched the surface of at this point, but man, this is the rare licenced game that just bleeds quality. It's been a long wait for a Batman game that truly delivers, and this one may just have been worth the wait. On the PS3, the graphics are dark, moody, and ultra-detailed. Better yet, the voice-acting is absolutely top-notch, with alumni of Batman: The Animated Series reprising their iconic roles. Kevin Conroy is Batman, and Mark Hammil is The Joker. 'Nuff said. Plus, the game actually emphasizes Batman's detective skills and penchant for sneaking around dark alleyways. A lot of puzzle-solving, stealth combat, and environmental interaction is involved in the gameplay, which makes this less a standard brawler and more a combination of games like Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, and Metroid. I still have a couple of issues with the camera and controls, but the level of storytelling and overall depth here is pretty awesome.

- Speaking of BIOSHOCK, I recently completed that game after months of playing it on and off. I'm not normally a fan of first person shooters, but Bioshock's rep as a game more about atmosphere and storytelling than mindless blasting lured me in. I don't know, I did love the game's incredibly atmospheric level design and storytelling techniques, and rarely have I played a game this immersive. But, the actual gameplay never 100% grabbed me, and I felt like the combat got pretty repetitive after a while. And those freaking security bots - so annoying. I could see myself skipping out on the upcoming Part 2, depending on the reviews. I'm glad I played through the game, but I also didn't quite get the instant-classic vibe that others have. That said, this game would make one hell of a movie if done right. Get to it, guys.

And now for a movie review ... the latest from Focus Features, a computer-animated sci-fi dystopian epic known as 9.

9 Review:

- 9 is a movie that I really wanted to love. And at the very least, it's a movie that I will root for and respect. It's an ambitious CGI adventure NOT from Disney or Dreamworks. What's more, it's an animated movie NOT specifically aimed at kids, although it will likely have strong kid-appeal. Plus, the movie doesn't really look like anything I've seen before. Sure, there are all kinds of artistic influences that came to mind from videogames, comics, and sci-fi movies. But just the fact that it's a CGI movie NOT done in the house style of Pixar or Dreamworks is hugely refreshing. In fact, this movie just flat-out looks cool as hell. And on the whole, 9 is a pretty cool little movie. But unfortunately, the visuals are not really matched by much in the way of story or plot or character. It gives the whole thing the feel of a tech demo rather than a fully fleshed-out movie. It's almost as if you're watching the cut-scenes from a really cool videogame that you never actually get to play, because the story really serves as a very basic skeleton with which to prop up the action. It makes 9 a fun adventure to go on, one that's certainly pleasing to the eye, but it also means that the movie ultimately feels pretty hollow.

The basic premise of 9 is actually really cool. It's a post-apocalyptic story in which mankind has been decimated by technology gone awry, 1950's sci-fi style. In a last-ditch effort to preserve something of the human race before all is lost, the same scientist who created the machines that would later go Judgement Day on humanity conducts one last far-out experiment. He transfers his very soul into nine inanimate ragdolls, each doll containing a different aspect of his being. these patchwork creatures go on to awaken one by one, trying to make sense of the strange and dangerous world they find themselves in, and trying to elude the crazy, insect-like mecha-robots that still roam the scorched-earth wasteland, causing major-league destruction.

It's a pretty ambitious, epic premise that director Shane Acker presents us with. But what's weird is, we have this awesome world with an intriguing backstory, only to find that not all that much actually happens once we enter it. We mostly follow around "9" (each doll has a number corresponding to the order of their creation), the last of the group to awake, as he explores the world, runs afoul of the evil robots, and bonds and/or argues with his fellow stitchpunk beings. It'd be like if The Lord of the Rings plopped us into Middle Earth, but then just told us a story about dwarves bickering with elves and fighting the occasional cave troll ... or something.

The other weird thing is that this movie contains an absolutely stellar voice-cast, and yet ... they never have much in the way of dialogue to sink their teeth into. You've got Elijah Wood as the reluctant hero 9, Jennifer Connelly as the badass warrior 7, Christopher Plummer as the crotchety, self-appointed leader of the group, 1, Martin Landau as 2, John C. Reilly as steadfast sidekick 5, and Crispin Glover as (what else?) the oddball artist, 6. It's an impressive roster, to be sure. But this is one of those movies that's so sparsely written. There's not a ton of dialogue, and when there is, it tends to be recycled cliches from countless other sci-fi and action movies. You half expect someone to mutter "I've got a baaad feeling about this." at any moment.

Again though, this movie thrives on its visuals. There is so much loving detail in every shot, it really is a remarkable movie to just look at and take in. There was clearly A LOT of time and effort put into crafting this dark and fascinating universe. I also loved the segments that paid homage to old sci-fi films and posters and stuff like that. There is some really cool retro-y stuff here that reminded me of things like Bioshock, Sky Captain, etc. And the character design is pretty awesome as well. I loved the subtle visual signatures that distinguish each of the stitchpunk dolls. An the robotic villains are truly creepy and imposing. This is definitely a film that will startle smaller children - this isn't sanitized Disney character design - its dark, bleak, grotesque at times. And this isn't a safe movie either. Characters die. They make really bad decisions. There is some genuine moral ambiguity.

But again, the plotting is relatively clunky and heavy-handed. There are also some quasi spiritual / supernatural elements that seem pretty hamfistedly that get inserted into the story - they don't quite seem to fit with the otherwise science-based universe. There's also not a whole lot of depth here. I would have loved to see the details of the fascinating premise more fully fleshed-out, to really explore the world here and learn more about its backstory. Instead, like I said, there's not a lot of meat here. There is that very videogame-like feeling that you're kind of just along for a visual ride (and a number of the action scenes, dynamic though they are, seem lifted right from various games - platform jumping, anyone?). For the movie's visual uniqueness alone though, I'd say that 9 is definitely worth checking out. It's an original, creative vision, and I would love to see what Shane Acker could do if pared with a quality script that could match his astonishing visual talent.

My Grade: B

- Alright - next stop: Connecticut.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting on the Soapbox: MTV's VMA's, Kanye West, and the Leno Effect. Plus: Gossip Girl Returns, and a Swayze Tribute.

- First off, I want to take a second to mention the passing of PATRICK SWAYZE. Amidst all of the talk lately about controversial celebrities and out of control egos, Swayze seemed like basically a regular guy who had a love for performing. Everything you read talks about his easygoing nature and good humor, and that is refreshing. What's more, the guy fought a valiant battle with cancer, and worked through the worst of it, committing to a TV series and working hard to try to make it a success, even though he could have been sitting at home. I'm sure many could attest to Swayze's character, but for most of us, he was just one of those actors who you couldn't help but root for, who appeared in a number of memorable roles in some all-time classic movies. Sure, most will site the likes of Ghost or Dirty Dancing as his biggest mainstream hits. But ask most guys of a certain generation for their favorite Swayze movie, and the answer will be unanimous - Point Break. One of the most fun action movies ever made, Point Break was one of those badass, R-rated flicks that made the rounds at many a grade-school sleepover party when I was a kid. It was one of those gateway movies that just seemed so awesome back then, and still holds up today. A lot of that is thanks to Swayze's iconic performance as surfer/thief/all around rebel Bodhi. Swayze had a number of other memorable roles. Road House, of course, the late-night cable classic. Red Dawn, To Wong Foo, and his late-career comeback in Donnie Darko, which cast him against type as a creepy motivational speeker. And by the way, clearly the guy had a sense of humor about himself. Who can forget his classic turn as guest host of SNL, in which he and the late Chris Farley engaged in an absolutely hilarious dance-off? So, thank you Mr. Swayze - thank you for a great film career, and thank you for providing an example of how to fight illness with bravery and dignity.


- Okay, how 'bout them MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS? So much has been discussed in the last day alone, it already feels like old news at this point.

But let me start at the beginning. Because, sometimes, I feel stupid for even talking about the VMA's, and I find myself getting annoyed by my friends who rushed to Facebook or wherever else to voice their opinions on the show. I did the same though, so I'd be hypocritical if I called them out on it. What can I say? MTV is terrible right now, it has been for years - it's more self-parody than anything, and it's so driven by marketing and hype (mostly aimed at the tween and teen girl crowd) that anyone with a brain can tune in to something like the VMA's and see how little substance or credibility actually finds its way onto the show. At the same time, most people my age were raised on MTV, and came of age in a time when MTV seemed like to coolest thing ever, a gateway to a dangerous world of edgy rock n' roll music. To some extent, the VMA's are the last remaining vestige of the good old days, when MTV actually was about music. And so we watch, because, for me at least, it's a once-a-year chance to tune back into the channel I once loved and try to pretend that it's still 1997 and MTV is still cool and still plays music videos and all is right with the world.

All that being said, this year's VMA's were probably the best in at least a couple of years. Of late I usually skip through half of the musical performances, but this year I fast-forwarded a lot less than usual. The opening MJ tribute was interesting, and it was cool seeing Janet Jackson back on stage, even if her time there was pretty short. Lady Gaga, I thought, put on a spectacular performance. I'm not a huge dance-pop fan or anything, but Lady Gaga has some ridiculously catchy tunes, and I admire her for being unabashadly insane. Her performance at the VMA's was wonderfully grotesque. With so many straight-laced, vanilla pop stars currently topping the charts, it was fun to see someone who still likes to push the artistic boundaries a bit. After having just seen Green Day live and in concert, it was no surprise to me that Billie Joe and co brought the house down. It was nice to see MTV prominently feature the world's biggest rock n' roll band and treat them as such, sort of. MTV, for whatever reason, is still so much about hip hop music and culture, to the extent that they are about music at all. But this year's VMA's, at least, seemed to turn the tide at least a little. Green Day was huge, Muse was somewhat featured (even though a. their performance was kind of weak, and b. they were mostly there for their loose connection to Twilight), and hey, the show even randomly had a short collaboration between Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Katy Perry, inexplicably playing Queen's We Will Rock You. Sure, it was kind of lame, but it was JOE FREAKIN' PERRY on TV and it was rock n' roll, so I'll give it a pass. The rest of the performances were all good to excellent - I liked Jay Z and Alicia Keys' closing number, and you had to be impressed by Pink (or is it P!nk?) simultaneously singing and performing a high-wire trapeze act.

So there was a good performance line-up this year, I'll give MTV credit. But it was the rest of the show that once again tanked. Russell Brand was sort of fun last year just because he was so different. But this year, well, let's just say that MTV should probably go in a different direction next year. Meanwhile, the awards themselves continue to be a joke. And that is epitomized by the whole Kanye West incident. I mean, others have already analyzed the whole thing to death, so I won't spend a ton of time on it here. But what I will say is: how much stupider did Kanye ultimately look when Beyonce ended up winning the biggest award of the night for Best Video? It was just a reminder that the VMA's are all about catering to the biggest stars and keeping it all within the MTV family. Did anyone NOT expect Beyonce to win that award? And yet there was Kanye West, taking something deathly seriously even though everyone else was well aware that the MTV awards are about style over substance - the actual awards are basically an afterthought. In doing so, he played right into MTV's hands - he created a buzzed-about "moment" that is exactly the kind of thing MTV lives for. In the end, his jerk move was just another ratings point to the suits at MTV. Just another news item for the women of The View to buzz about. Just another oh-so-current item for Jay Leno to feature on his debut episode the following Monday. This isn't the Oscars, Kanye. Nobody had VMA ballots or pools. Nobody remembers, days later, who actually won an award. That part is meaningless. Instead, everyone from country music lovin' teens to Jay Leno-watching grandmas knows only that some guy named Kanye West made an ass of himself. Winner: MTV. Winner: Jay Leno. Winner: Twitter and Facebook. Loser: Kanye West. Ironic that a guy trying to "keep it real" has now perfectly played his part in the corporate media machine. Asshole move. Tearful apology. Internet chatter. Prerequisite article in newspapers and magazines about how this incident refelcts racial tensions in America, is a response to Joe Wilson's "you lie!" comment, etc., etc., etc. Man, we really do live in a circus sometimes. But it's also a boringly predictable one.

In any case, MTV, enjoy your annual moment of relevancy, and congrats on putting together a show that was admittedly above par and pretty consistently entertaining. But, unless there are music videos or edgy animation or rock n' roll in the schedule, I'm out for now. See you next year.

- I'm not going to go in-depth about the new JAY LENO SHOW, but I do want to follow-up on my previous point about Kanye West. The whole thing is really amazing, in terms of timing and in terms of its cultural relevancy. Because really, the whole thing was just an example of a probably-drunk guy, with a history of acting out, staying true to his M.O. and doing something pretty obnoxious on live TV. BUT ... jesus, Kanye, could you have planned this out any better? (and who's to say how much of the whole hullaballoo was staged ... but that's a whole other topic). So of course, the girl whose acceptance speech Kanye happens to interrupt is a wholesome country music singer. It's not hard to see how people have suddenly taken this and blown it up into something bigger than it should be. I mean, only days earlier, a Southern senator interrupted our African American president. Sure, it's a tenuous parallel at best, but you can't help but draw it. But the clincher was this: Jay Leno has been fighting his own culture war of late. He represents older Americans, middle-Americans, the disenfranchised masses in the flyover states, who feel neglected by the media and don't get that confusingly ironic Ivy Leager, Conan O'Brien. So here's Jay Leno, on his first show, on which Kanye West just so happens to be a guest. And on the show, Leno interviews Kanye, and makes him cry by scolding him about his actions and invoking his recently-deceased mother to boot. Holy lord. You could practically hear middle America stand up and cheer at that moment. Here was nice old everyman Jay Leno, scolding that big mean rapper guy (who dared to interrupt that nice little country music gal) with some good old fashioned down-home guilt - "what would your (dead) mother think?!" The moment simultaneously made Leno into the voice of disapproving grannys everywhere, and in a weird way humanized Kanye, reminding people that his mother recently died, and that yes, he had had a mother! The whole thing, I have to admit, was a sort of calculated brilliance, rallying middle-aged moms and dads everywhere to the Jay Leno cause. So much for comedy at 10 pm - here was a guy crying thinking about whether his dead mother would approve of his scandalous actions! Now that's funny for ya'!

I'm not trying to sound above it all, but I wonder if people see the bigger picture here. Do they get that they are being played? That this is all part of one big cosmic joke being played by the media gods? I mean, this incident started because a drunk guy hopped on stage to protest an award at a show where the "awards" are essentially meaningless to begin with. It'd be like if Danny Boyle rushed the stage at the MTV Movie Awards to protest Slumdog Millionaire losing out for "Best Kiss." And yet, because journalistic integrity is basically a thing of the past in this digital age, every news outlet reports on this stuff like its real news. And older people take their news very seriously. And then they watch Jay Leno at 10 pm, after reading about him in Time Magazine. And by-gum, Leno tells some jokes about health care, talks to Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah, and tells off that Kanye West guy everyone's been talking about. That's a knockout punch right there at the senior center. All hail Jay Leno, your new lord and savior, or as I call him, "the man who reaffirms everything you already know." God bless America.

- Moving on to slightly lighter topics ... so, um, who saw GOSSIP GIRL last night? Not many of you, according to Nielson. But Gossip Girl is an interesting show - the on-air ratings are low, but people are watching it, somehow, someway. Online, on iTunes, on DVR. Who knows how many people ACTUALLY watch the show? But hey, I respect it. It' a teen show that has fun with the conventions of the genre, and delivers its melodrama with a wink and a nod at the audience. It's in on the joke, and the clever writing reflects that. It's both smart enough to be self-aware, and dumb enough to present us with an increasingly ridiculous series of over-the-top plotlines. You've got to love it. That said, last night's Season 3 premiere was only okay. The whole thing was a somewhat subdued affair, more a prelude to the rest of the season, in which a couple of the leads are off to college, than anything else. The whole dynamic of the show at this point is still kind of weird though. Dan, Serena, Jenny, and Eric all living under one roof with Lilly and Rufus is just plain awkward. I mean, how must Dan feel seeing his ex-girlfriend / current step-sister eating breakfast every morning in slinky sundresses? As an aside, it's always funny on a show like this when actors come back from summer break with a new look. The guy who plays Dan was crazy-buff in last night's premiere, very fitting (not) for a character who is supposed to be a geeky bookworm. Meanwhile, there was weird stuff going on with Chuck and Blair, who were doing weird role-playing stuff with an ease not quite appropriate for 18 year olds, no matter how sophisticated they might think they are. But, it was nice just seeing Chuck Bass again - still one of TV's most entertainingly sleazy characters. After enduring dreck like the new Melrose place, with its cast of dull automotons, it was fun seeing a real pro like Ed Westwick ham up every scene to goofy perfection. But I guess the problem here was that none of the new storylines really popped. Serena acting out to draw the attention of her estranged dad? Ehhh. Vanessa dating the guy who happens to be the long-lost lovechild of Rufus and Lilly? Has potential, but Vanessa is always soooo whiny. Still - it was nice to have the standard bearer for teen drama back in action, and next week should be interesting. Blair and Georgina as college roommates? Sign me up.

My Grade: B

- Alright - stay tuned for a review of the CGI-animated 9.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hail to the King! A Final Tribute to KING OF THE HILL, I Tell You What!

KING OF THE HILL Series Finale Review:

- I've written a lot about King of the Hill here on the blog, through many ups and downs. The show has been, throughout its thirteen year run, a true survivor. Many times, it got shelved, preempted, tossed aside, ignored, or just plain neglected. It even got cancelled, more than once, but came back from the dead. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I don't know if any long-running series in the history of TV has taken as much abuse from its home network as KOTH. FOX rarely if ever gave this show the respect it deserved, and even now, at the end, the show goes out unceremoniously in the early Fall. For all this - for the 7 pm timeslots, the lack of promotion, the misguided cancellation attempts ... I hereby bestow FOX with a FINGER OF SHAME that's been some thirteen-odd years in the making. King of the Hill deserved better, plain and simple.

Because it took a while for this consensus to build, and it took several years for even I to realize it ... but the fact is: King of the Hill will go down as one of the great TV comedies. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever contained such well-realized, fully-formed, and downright *human* characters. Few other shows, live action or animated, have ever portrayed America with such an observant and good-humored eye for detail. And few, if any other series have ever had, as Hank Hill might say, so much danged heart.

King of the Hill is one of the few shows I can think of that actually got better and better as the years went on. I remember at first, I wasn't crazy about it. It seemed like just another Simpsons wannabe, and I remember being put off by the then-crude animation. But by the time KOTH debuted, I was already a big Mike Judge fan, mostly due to Beavis & Butthead, and so I kept watching. Afterall, FOX's Sunday night lineup in the mid-90's was sacred ground. Any show that aired between The Simpsons and The X-Files had my attention, no questions asked. So I continued to tune in, and something funny happened ... the show just kept growing on me, and that's in large part because it kept getting better. Several years into KOTH's lifespan, The Simpsons was experiencing a sharp decline in quality, but KOTH was finally in its prime. Right around the time I was in college, I think, was when KOTH was relly hitting its stride, where every week new episodes were alternatively hilarious and oddly touching.

Some people say that KOTH wasn't funny. Well, not every episode is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The show has Mike Judge's sense of subtle, subdued humor. It's one of those shows that sometimes doesn't make you break out in laughter, but it always makes you smile. That said, King of the Hill can be uproariously funny. I remember sitting around with my roommates at BU watching the now-classic episode where Bobby takes a women's self-defense course. His yells of "I don't know you - give me back my purse!" had us all doubled-over in laughter. KOTH could be very, very funny, and it's also up there as one of the most quotable shows ever. There are so many classic lines from Hank, Dale, Peggy, and Bill scattered throughout the series. The show has had consistently sharp writing for years.

During that period when I was in college and when the show was really firing on all cylinders ... I think that's when I started to fully appreciate how well it captured a sort of timeless sense of the American family. So many sitcoms come out of the gates trying so hard to seem cool and current. Oh my god, these kids are like totally texting! Or whatever. But King of the Hill was different, and it's a lesson to so many comedies that immediately date themselves beacuse they are so concerned with being "cool." The fact is, KOTH always just felt "real" to me. The Simpsons is known as the ultimate animated satire, but KOTH has long had a very sharp satirical eye. It was a show that commented on things that you wouldn't have thought of, but that sparked recognition. The writers of the show were known for actively seeking out trends to comment on in the show, and so many times, there was a pretty biting commentary on American culture at the heart of a given episode. So many episodes made me smile in recognition - both because of the concept and the characters. The central relationship of Hank and Bobby always felt to me like the realest, truest father-son relationship in the history of TV. Peggy was a bit more of a cartoonish cahracter, so to speak, but she's a character type that rings completely true. So many times, I've met someone and thought "that was such a Peggy Hill thing of them to do," or "wow, she is a real Peggy Hill." The same can be said for Bill - brilliantly voiced by Stephen Root, Bill was a sadsack character you couldn't help but love. Some of KOTH's best episodes were Bill episodes - and the show was never afraid to go very, very dark with Bill. Bill is like the embodiment of every guy's worst fears about themselves, the guy you do not want to end up like. Although everyone knows a Bill - that one friend who you look at everytime you think you've got it bad and think "nope, he's got it worse."

I was just thinking tonight, as I was watching the final episodes, how Bobby Hill might be one of the most realistic kids ever on TV. I love that, unlike other shows, KOTH always kept Bobby as a realistic kid. Bobby had a unique personality, and sure, Hank was often convinced that "that boy ain't right," but Bobby's adventures at school - with Joseph, with Khan Jr., - and his relationship with his family always reminded me of what it was like to be thirteen or fourteen years old, where you're never quite sure what "normal" really is.

I love that KOTH had many self-contained episodes, but it also had its own continuity that progressed quite a bit over the years. It gave the show a dramatic weight that no other animated comedy has ever had. There was real story and real emotion that ran through KOTH's thirteen years. We saw Hank's relationship with his father, Cotton, go from bad to worse. Cotton's death made for one of the best-written but most heartbreaking episodes of the show. When KOTH started, we saw Hank's niece Luanne move in with the Hills. First, let me state that Brittany Murphy gets a lifetime pass from me for the awesome voicework she's done over the years as Luanne. Second, it really is amazing to look at the characters story progression over the years. When all was said and done, Luanne was the show's true success story - she ended up married, with a kid, and happy. And by the way, who says you can't teach an old show new tricks? Late in its run, KOTH introduced Luanne's future husband Lucky, voiced by Tom Petty, no less, who proved to be a fun and oftentimes hilarious addition to the show. Luanne and Lucky's wedding was another high point - when the usually stoic Hank choked up during the ceremony, well, I'll admit it, I just about lost it. The series' most long-running ongoing plotline involved Dale and his wife Nancy. For the longest time, conspiracy theorist Dale was, ironically, oblivious to the fact that Nancy had been in a long-term affair with her "therapist" John Redcorn. Even worse, Dale's son, Joseph, was clearly a product of that extramarital affair, even though Dale either didn't realize it or refused to believe it. Dale, Nancy, and John Redcorn went through all kinds of ups and downs, and like I said, the show was never afraid to go to some fairly dark places with the storyline.

And that's something that a lot of people forget about King of the Hill. Sure, it was often a feel-good, heartfelt show. But it also had moments where it went dark, offbeat, or just plain weird. There are some truly oddball episodes of the series, that's for sure. One high point was the series' gloriously zany two-parter in which the Hills take a trip to Japan, and meet Hank's long-lost half-brother, who turned out to be practically an exact doppleganger of Hank. So hilarious. But even more than that, the show always had a very interesting moral center. Sometimes, KOTH did kind of use the "Hank vs. the World" type of episodes as something of a crutch. But the show never let you forget that ALL of its characters were flawed. Hank had a solid sense of right and wrong, but he could also be pigheaded and obsessive and close-minded. Peggy was a supportive wife and mother, but she was also somewhat stupid and borderline delusional. Dale was oblivious and selfish. Boomhauer was a womanizer. Bill was just pathetic.

Still, King of the Hill almost always left you with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside by episode's end. I hate sitcoms that try to force-feed you emotion, shows that don't truly earn their "aww shucks" moments. But like I said, KOTH's characters are so well-realized, and its plotlines so authentic-feeling, that its emotional payoffs worked. It sounds cheesy to say it, but I find that I'll watch King of the Hill and come away reminded of what really matters in life. Whether I was caught up in the craziness of college or the oftentimes upside-down world of Hollywood, King of the Hill took me back. Back to quiet suburbs and freshly mowed-lawns. Back to awkward adolescence and down-home values (whether they be right or wrong). It made me look at things from a simpler, clearer perspective.

Bobby and Hank in many ways couldn't be more different. Hank lives for sports and fixing things and propane, Bobby for comedy and junkfood and videogames. But they are similar because they are both characters who have a joy for the simple things in life. They both share a sense of common decency. They both cherish those little moments where all is right with the world. Sounds good to me.

As for tonight's episodes ...

- The first episode was a pretty decent Bobby-centric story in which Bobby befriends a group of spunky popular girls just in time for the upcoming Homecoming Dance. While Bobby loves all of their attention, the girls don't respect Bobby, they see him as a "project." Basically, he's there group mascot, not their real friend, and definitely not "boyfriend" material. Indeed, a perfect example of how well KOTH portrays random situations in a realistic, relatable manner. You had to feel bad for the naive and desperate-for-attention Bobby. Where the ep faltered a bit was that Hank's reaction to the whole thing was a bit much. Hank got legitimately mad at Bobby for "acting like a girl" (seemed sort of sexist, even for Hank) and letting his new friends walk all over him. Hank's point was valid, but his reaction seemed a bit over the top, as he ended up grounding Bobby just for not acting as manly as he should have. That said, the episode rebounded towards the end, with a nice father-son moment, after Bobby finally does man up and tells off the girls for using him and not respecting him. Overall, a solid episode, but it seemed to overplay the Hank vs. Bobby conflict a bit.

My Grade: B

- The second episode, and the series finale, was a nice ending to what's obviously been one heck of a run for King of the Hill. I don't know if this episode was planned as any kind of real finale, but it seemed like maybe the ending was altered a bit to provide more of a true "farewell" for the series. This one was another Bobby-centric ep, in which Bobby is recruited to join a competitive meat-judging team due to his previously unknown knack for evaluating the exact quality of a slab of beef. Hank, of course, is thrilled to see Bobby participating in any sort of competitive team. Plus, Hank is thrilled that he and his son now have something in common - a shared love for the finer points of meat. Bobby is at first gung-ho about the team, but soon discovers that his teammates are a bit too gung-ho - they have a bitter rivalry with a competing squad, one that's getting absurdly intense, with both teams intent on sabotaging the others' chances at the State finals. Bobby quits the team, much to Hank's horror, but Hank soon realizes that Bobby was right - the rivalry had gone too far. Despite that, Bobby returns to help his team win the State championship, and Bobby and Hank bond over the grill, with a who's who of Arlen's favorite residents joining in for a quality BBQ, Hill family style. The bulk of this episode was pretty standard KOTH fare, and again, it almost seemed like Hank's eventual conflict with Bobby was a bit forced and overdone. But ... what made this episode special were the numerous shout-outs to KOTH's illustrious history. Every major character got in a nice line or two - Dale, Bill, Nancy, Joseph, Khan, Luanne, Lucky, etc. - and there were also many references to the show's past. Chuck Mangione made a cameo, we finally found out what Boomhauer's job is (!), and Khan Jr. showed up after being MIA for way too long. Lastly, the final exchange between Hank and Bobby was indeed a perfect ending to the series, a heartfelt summation of everything that the show's always been about - that awkward but powerful bond between father and son. Sure, we know that Hank all too often thinks that Bobby is from another planet. But in the end, Hank can't help but be proud of what a good son he's raised. And that, King of the Hill told us in its final farewell, is what's truly important.

My Grade: A-

So thank you, King of the Hill. It's been a remarkable run, and Sunday nights won't be the same. It's the end of an era - the end of the last remnants of the glory days of FOX Sunday nights. The Simpsons is now the sole remaining flagbearer, and I of course hope that the upcoming 20th season of that show will mark a return of sorts to greatness. But even though The Simpsons will always be the king of animated comedy, I can't help but hold a special place in the pantheon for King of the Hill. It had a long, memorable run, despite the fact that it was never treated with respect from the network or from critics. It had some of the best-realized and best-written and best-voiced characters on TV. It had hilarity and it had heart. It was a darn good show, I tell you what.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rockin' and Rollin': IT MIGHT GET LOUD Review, plus: 9/11 Remembered, TV Round-Up, and More!

Happy Friday!

A lot to talk about today, but first of all I'd feel strange if I didn't acknowledge today's national day of service and remembrance in honor of 9/11. I've written a lot on the topic before, so I'm not going to go into any great detail now. For now, I will just say this: I think we've come a long way from the first few post-9/11 years. Even though I've complained in recent days about some of the deep divides that still plague this country, I am proud that we've to some extent moved on from the reactionary days of the early 00's. Yes, there were some brief moments of national unity and togetherness, but all too quickly we became a nation dominated by fear and conservatism. I am proud that it's those of us who "came of age" in this era that are in turn the same generation that helped elect Obama and is helping our country to move past so many of the old ideological battles. That said, we also can't ignore or be naive about the legitimate threats that still exist in this world. We can't underestimate just how twisted the various terrorist-supporting regimes around the world really are.

For some reason, I keep thinking about the song "We Built This City (On Rock n' Roll)".

Because America, really, was built on rock n' roll. It was created on the concept of arguing with authority, of questioning the status quo. Throughout our history, we've been a country that thrives on debate, on disagreement, on challenging ourselves. This is a place where we have politicians, artists, musicians, comedians ... who challenge us to think differently and not simply fall in line with any given dogma.

So that's part of what I'm celebrating today. I'm remembering the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, but I'm also somewhat optimistically thinking about what I wrote about yesterday and how that applies on a global scale. About how when you have smart, articulate, clear-minded people leading the way against ideological crazies, their arguments are rarely able to win out in the longrun. We're in a global culture now, and it's increasingly difficult to keep people out of the global loop, out of the global debate. So the ball is in the terrorists' court - why is your way better? What tangible, longterm "wins" have your tactics ever actually produced?

I don't want America to be an empire. But I do look forward to the day when the basic ideas that represent our country at its best ... freedom, democracy, equality, and maybe even a little rock n' roll, infiltrate and spread throughout the darker corners of the world.

Switching gears ...


- So I watched the second episode of GLEE, and, I don't know, I still have very mixed feelings about the show. I really do admire it though. It's original and unlike anything else on TV. And it definitely has an energy and a spirit that you don't typically find on a network series. And despite all its brightly-colored bubbliness, it's also a pretty dark show. Really dark, in some ways. It's almost a jarring mix of tonalities, perhaps Pushing Daisies is something you could compare it to. But I will say this: I previously said that I wanted the show to be funnier, and I think that this episode was an improvement. For one thing, they took advantage of the great Jane Lynch at every opportunity, which is a great thing, because Jane Lynch is funny as hell. The question now will be if any of the other cast members can match her comedic chops. So far, it's clear that most everyone can sing and dance like pros, but we've yet to really see just how funny they can be. I also still think they need to move quickly to give some depth to the supporting characters. Because right now, having a sassy African-American girl in the glee club who pretty much just says "Aw hells to the no!" is lame and borderline offensive. Give Mercedes some depth asap, please. Same goes for the main teacher's wife. She is almost cartoonishly horrible at this point where it's hard to fathom why the couple has even stayed together all this time. But like I said, there is a lot to like here. The cast is a lot of fun, and you can tell that there are a ton of talented supporting actors and actresses just waiting for their moment in the spotlight. I love the cheerleader girlfriend - she was awesomely bitchy in this ep, and her musical number was pretty impressive. Anyways, I'll keep watching.

My Grade: B+

- I'll also weigh in on THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, the CW's attempt to capitalize on the teen-vampire craze that is sweeping the nation and creating a generation of teen girls who like their men to be dark, brooding, and born in the eighteenth century. I watched the pilot about a week ago so forgive me if I'm a little fuzzy on the details. But the main takeaway here is that this one is pretty bad. It's like a really bad episode of Smallville, except with vampires and less action. The acting is almost universally atrocious, the dialogue is pretty awful, and the overall tone is so much like Twilight that it hurts. Yes I know, the books on which this is based came out first, but make no mistake - this show wants to be Twilight with every fiber of its being. You even get the movie's same annoyingly prolonged and melodramatic shots of the girl protagonist gazing longingly at her brooding vampire crush in class. At least he doesn't sparkle. But this is the blander version, if you can imagine that. The main vampire here has the personality of a tree trunk. And the f/x, oh boy. You can practically see the smoke machine just off-camera creating "spooky" fog of the kind you'd see at Knott's Scary Farm. And oh yeah, you get every overplayed pop song played melodramatically over every scene. Because don't you get it, this show is kewl, kids! To make things even worse, there's an annoying from-my-diary narrative device that is up there with Mohinder's babbling on Heroes in the annoying column. This show is almost, *almost* in the category of so-bad-it's-good. But not quite. As of now, it just plain bites.

My Grade: C-


- Excited to see 9 this weekend. I know reviews have been slightly middle-of-the-road, but I think it's cool that an animated movie that is so different, and aimed at a slightly older audience, is getting a wide release. Between this and Coraline and Up, it's been a good year so far for animation.

- I'm disappointed to see how bad the reviews have been for WHITEOUT. I was rooting for this one to be good, as I am a big fan of Greg Rucka, who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie was based. Oh well, maybe the newly-formed DC Entertainment will pave the way for a Gotham Central TV show based on Rucka and Ed Brubaker's seminal comic series about beat cops in Gotham City. Man, that would be awesome.

- And finally, I talked about rock n' roll earlier, so in keeping with that theme, I've got a review for you of ...


- 2009 has already seen one landmark rock-doc, that being the absolutely awesome ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. After that film, I was primed and ready for even more behind-the-music movie watchin', so I was at least semi-psyched to check out It Might Get Loud - a portrait of three true-life guitar heroes: Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge. The movie takes these three virtuosos, each representing a different generation and a different era of rock history, and brings them together to swap stories, trade techniques, and jam out some tunes. In addition, we spend time with each of the guitarists on their home turf, hearing bits and pieces about their personal stories, their musical beginnings, and the origins of the guitar riffs that made them rock gods.

There is a lot to like here, and director Davis Guggenheim artfully crafts a constantly-shifting montage of images and sounds, slowly bringing you into this world of rock n' roll genius embodied by the three protagonists. The one problem may be that Guggenheim is a bit too artful. Because for a movie about rock n' roll, It Might Get Loud can sometimes be oddly subdued, and at times downright slow. Guggenheim inexplicably includes long, idling shots of his subjects meandering through city streets and parks. He has lingering images of trees blowing in the wind and hazy skies. I get that he's trying to establish a mood, but, I was never quite sure why he chose such serene imagery, or why he paced things so slowly, given that he's documenting guys known for music that's fast, loud, dangerous, and in your face.

The other problem is that the movie includes scattered bits and pieces about all sorts of things. There's moments that touch on the personal biographies of Page and White and The Edge, moments that allude to their early musical careers, and other moments that focus solely on the raw technique that each artist employs in their guitar-playing. It's fascinating to see how The edge, for example, turns basic chords into complex sounds using various modification devices, or how Jack White customizes his own guitars to achieve unique sounds. But at the same time, it's frustrating to get these glimpses of Jimmy Page's early musical career, but then to get no follow-up, no continuation of the story in terms of the formation of Led Zeppellin and the band's rise and fall. I know that the movie couldn't possibly document the careers and personal lives AND guitar techniques of all three subjects with any kind of thoroughness. But it's frustrating, because the movie does touch on all of these things. And unless you're a true guitar afficionado, the personal stories and career histories of these legendary rockers will ultimately prove more tantalizing than endless ruminations on their relationship with their guitar.

To its credit, the movie did pick a fascinating trio to focus on. There's the stately Jimmy Page, who even in advanced middle age still shows glimpses of the demonic guitar god that he once was, and is still a master of the axe. There's The Edge, who is an obsessive tinkerer and student of music, a guy who grew up in wartorn Dublin and somehow became part of the bigges band in the world. And then there's Jack White - a real eccentric who wows you constantly with his musical talent even as he weirds you out a bit with his insistence on going against the grain. All of these guys are true iconoclasts, and again, that makes the movie interesting and funny but it also makes your mind wander. You start to wish for a full-blown doc about Led Zeppelin or The White Stripes or U2. Also, all three are fascinating individually, but when they come together, it's a bit forced. There is one nice moment where White and The Edge are geeking out over Page playing "Whole Lotta Love." But otherwise, there's not a ton of chemistry between them, and their jam sessions are alright, but nothing mind-blowing. And this comes from someone who is a sucker for multi-generational rock collaborations.

In the end, the sheer musical power of the collective trio is enough to keep you watching. You hear many a legendary song throughout the course of the movie, even if it's just snippets. Everything from Stairway to Heaven to Hotel Yorba to The Streets Have No Name. The movie definitely rocks. But it is also a pretty mixed bag in terms of working as a cohesive, fully-realized film. Worth checking out for would-be guitar heroes, but not the must-see it could have been.

My Grade: B

Alright, have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hehehehe .... Cool! Mike Judge's EXTRACT Reviewed! Plus: Obama's Speech, Melrose Place, DC Entertainment, and MORE!

I have a lot to talk about in today's post, but first off I do want to make mention of President Obama's speech on health care reform last night. Personally, I thought he nailed the speech. Not only was it elegantly and passionately delivered, but it really was pretty brilliantly-structured. Obama laid out the reasons for why reform is urgent, explained the guiding principles of his plan in a clear and matter-of-fact manner, directly addressed the leading concerns about the plan - both legitimate worries and those that have come about due to misinformation spread by the opposition - and then spoke about the means by which he planned to pay for the reform. Finally, he made a plea for bipartisanship and appealed to the audience of congressmen and women, as well as those at home, by referencing the late Ted Kennedy and the "character of our country" of which, for him, healthcare was a leading measuring stick. Obama delivered his speech with conviction, with humor, and with clarity.

In stark contrast though was the jeering section of Republican congressman. Un-be-lievable. I was shocked at the constant cutaways to Republicans jeering, smirking cynically, smugly text-messaging, etc., during the President's speech. Joe Wilson's spontaneous shout of "you lie!" might have almost been funny, if not for the sad irony of the fact that Obama was forced to dedicate a significant portion of his speech to debunking lies spread by Republicans. Like David Vitter, junior senator from Louisiana - a guy who was caught in a prostitution scandal after running on a family-values platform, who is basically a disgraced politician, and yet who keeps sending out viciously-worded emails to his supporters claiming that Obama's reform is part of some evil socialist agenda. Ugh. I was watching Rep. Barney Frank of Massachussetts on TV last night, and he made some great points about the state of the Republican party - basically, the crazies are now running the show. The GOP has resorted to hurling baseless accusations at Obama for the sole purpose of undermining his presidency. It's the whole Rush Limbaugh "I want Obama to fail" policy in action. The problem is, these accusations don't hold up to scrutiny, so when you've got a smart, articulate guy like Obama in charge, such tactics ultimately fall flat. Case in point: the Republican response to Obama's address last night. The whole speech was basically moot as it raised questions that Obama had, only moments ago, *specifically* addressed. It exposed the inherent weakness of the opposition.

But I loved how Obama named names last night. He called out people like John McCain and Orin Hatch, specifically citing some of their shining moments in the senate, where they crossed party lines in the name of reform. Doing so specifically highlighted the absurdity of the current Republican position - to be contrary and stubborn just for the sake of putting up a united front of opposition. You could see the look on John McCain's face when Obama addressed him - it was clear that at that moment, McCain knew the score. I loved Obama's determination - it makes me optimistic that reform will get passed. It just makes sense, and when you have a guy like Obama speaking so plainly and in such common-sense terms, it makes it difficult to argue with him without resorting to stubborn ideological points. I think this will happen, and I think that when it does, it will be a great testament to the triumph of basic decency and common sense over idealogical extremism.

Anyways ...


- I know, I know, I forgot to mention GLEE in my Fall TV Preview from earlier in the week. Well, I have retroactively added it to that post. The quick version: I sort of get where all the rabid enthusiasm is coming from for the show, but at the same time, I won't be that impressed if it's just a weekly mashup of High School Musical and American Idol. A well-staged rendition of a Journey song alone does not make a great show. Glee needs to get funnier, so let's see if that happens. I've yet to watch last night's episode, but will report back soon.

- One other quick note: I forgot to mention that FOX's THE HUMAN TARGET is in fact a mid-season show, not a Fall-launching one. We'll see if FOX can tweak it a bit between now and then.

- I did, however, watch last night's premiere of MELROSE PLACE, the CW's latest 90's revamp. For a while there, I was sort of into it. I was curious about the murder-mystery. I was pleased with the inclusion of a Seth Cohen-esque, comic-book readin', cool-yet-geeky guy as a lead character (although, geez, could his geekiness been any more forced? "I should know better than to give you errands during your weekly comic book run." gag). But, as the hour progressed, things got increasingly craptacular. The characters were just too devoid of intrigue, and the actors too devoid of charisma, to really sell the cheesy plotlines. Especially in the post-OC, post-Gossip Girl world of young-adult drama, it's hard for me to watch a show like this that doesn't really wink at the audience, that doesn't semi-acknowledge it's own cheesiness. This lack of self-awareness made many of MP's craziest moments eye-rollingly lame. I mean, you've got OG-character Michael and his playboy son in the car, with the son bragging to his dad that Sydney, who both have slept with, claimed that the son wa better in bed. Come on! If Chuck Bass had said something like that, it likely would have been a classic moment of over-the-top fun. Here, it was played so seriously that it was unintentionally hilarious. The moment that finally killed me on the show is when the smart, tough med student decides at the drop of a hat to sleep with some sketchball millionaire for money. She goes through with the indecent proposal only moments after rejecting him in disgust. The sudden and inexplicable change of heart was an early jump-the-shark moment. So, yeah, despite the fact that the show hooked me early with its intriguing murder-mystery setup, I was quickly turned off by the braindead writing and mostly lifeless cast. Josh Schwartz, you remain the current king of the TV teen scene.

My Grade: C-

- Okay, I also want to talk for a second about yesterday's big announcement about the formation of DC ENTERTAINMENT, a new division at Warner Bros. focused on exploiting DC Comics' properties like Superman and Batman across movies, TV, videogames, and comics. Basically, the move organizes DC so that it is much more akin to how Marvel's been structured for the last couple years - as an entertainment company in which comics publishing is part of a larger organization that also directly controls those same properties in movies, TV, etc. You might remember that last week, when I wrote about the Marvel-Disney deal, I suggested that a reorganization of this kind was exactly what DC and WB needed to do to compete with the increasingly multimedia-savvy Marvel, and their new, even more multimedia-savvy parent company, Disney. For too long now, DC's properties have been completely hit and miss, and there hasn't been strong, aggressive development of potentially lucrative franchises. The fact that DC has yet to launch big-screen versions of some of its biggest characters (Wonder Woman, anyone?) speaks to the fact that there has been a real disconnect over at Warner Brothers. Still, DC has had some monster successes. The Dark Knight, anyone? There's Smallville, the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum videogame, and various animated series that have been very popular with kids. But Marvel has upped the ante of late, and DC needed this change to compete, and to better integrate its publishing business with its film and TV and digital businesses. The fun part of all this is that there are so many DC Comics characters that would make for super-cool film and TV properties - DC's library of characters rivals that of even Marvel's, especially when you remember that DC Comics also includes the prestigious Vertigo imprint (Watchmen, The Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, Swamp Thing, etc. - and how cool would it be to see some of those turned into series for the Time Warner-owned HBO?) and the Wildstorm imprint (Planetary, Ex Machina, Wild C.A.T.S.), as well as the Minx line of female-oriented graphic novels. The DC Universe proper is home to thousands of great characters and stories, even beyond Superman, Batman, The Flash, etc. There's ... The New Gods, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, Hawkman, The Doom Patrol, Plastic Man, Sgt. Rock, Shazam!, Adam Strange, The Demon, Zatanna, Booster Gold, The Blackhawks, Hitman, The Phantom Stranger, Manhunter, Animal Man, and Stargirl ... just to name a few that would make for kickass movies. In any case, this is a lot of fun - the old DC vs. Marvel rivalry has just been taken to a whole other level, and it will be exciting to see it play out.

Finally, one of two movie reviews I've got on tap for this week ...


- You've got to give Mike Judge credit. Everything he's created for movies and TV has been a singular work of comedic vision. Some of his stuff has has gone on to hit big (Beavis & Butthead), and some has completely bombed, only to later find a degree of cult success (Office Space, Idiocracy). But the guy takes a licking and keeps on ticking, and he's back with another low-key, wryly humorous movie in EXTRACT. Like Office Space, Extract isn't flashy or too over-the-top. But like Office Space, there is a lot of memorable, ultimately hilarious humor to be found. Extract isn't quite the sublime work of comedic genius that Office Space is, but I'd still say that any fan of Judge or any supporter of good comedy owes it to themselves to check this one out.

It's funny, Extract is in some ways like Office Space, but it also seemed like Judge's most King of the Hill-esque movie yet. It shares KOTH's down-home sensibilities, its subtle humor, its stong characterization, and its undercurrent of sentimentality for the common man. The story in Extract is a bit all-over-the-place, but all the various threads kind of come together to portray a sort of slice-of-life story. The plot concerns the plight of Joel (Jason Bateman), the owner of a vanilla extract factory who is proud of what he's built from scratch, but who is also considering an offer from General Mills to buy out the plant. This dillemna is complicated when a freak accident at the plant causes an employee to suffer a pretty horrific fate involving his "family jewels," and said employee then considers bringing a lawsuit against the plant. He's being influenced by Cindy (Mila Kunis), a young con-artist who's taken a temp job at the plant in hopes of getting a piece of that lawsuit money. Where things get complicated is that Joel almost immediately falls prey to Cindy's charms. Given that he's in a sexless marriage to his rather shrill wife (played by SNL's Kristen Wiig), Joel becomes desperate to take advantage of Cindy's seeming interest in him. One night, while under the influence of various illegal substances thanks to his dealer friend Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel agrees to a radical idea: hire a male prostitute to seduce his wife, this opening the door for Joel to have an affair of his own with Cindy. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues from there.

Extract works so well because it's a funny script matched with a very talented and well-cast group of actors. Jason Bateman, for one, is in fine form here. He plays the same kind of well-meaning but put-upon type of character he's known for from Arrested Development, and few other actors are so good at playing the everyman surrounded by crazies. Ben Affleck is more enjoyable here than in anything he's been in in a long while. This movie will remind you that the guy is capable of being very funny, and he's a lot of fun here as a chronic bad influence in Joel's life. There are a couple of scenes with Affleck and Bateman econtering a very passive-aggressive stoner that are some of the funniest, laugh-out-loud hilarious moments I've seen in a movie this year.

The rest of the cast is also great. Mila Kunis has a ton of charm and pulls off the whole street-smart con-artist thing to a T. Kristen Wiig is excellent and surprisingly subdued - I think she may have some real acting chops beyond the crazy characters she is known for on SNL. JK Simmons is basically always awesome, and he is awesome yet again in this movie as Bateman's second-in-command. Dustin Milligan is a scene-stealer is the idiotic male prostitute Brad. And Judge regular David Koechner is hilarious as an annoying neighbor. There's also Gene Simmons (!) as a loudmouth lawyer, and even Judge himself makes an incognito appearance as a Hank Hill-esque factory worker. Sweet!

I also give a lot of credit to Judge's uncanny ability to capture the soul-crushing doldrums of everyday life. Few others have that ability to film everyday suburban settings and make them seem both frighteningly mundane and also epically imposing. My freshman year of college, I used a clip from Office Space in a class presentation on a favorite film scene, talking about how it was an example of how to find humor from the mundane. I am still bitter that my clueless T.A. at the time thought I was an idiot for choosing said scene, from a movie she had never heard of, and gave me a lower-than-deserved grade. Suffice it to say, I stand by Mike Judge's ability to mine both comedy and tragedy from such everyday settings and situation. Like I said, he also brings some of that KOTH-style heart to the movie, and there are a couple of moments where I got that same feeling I so often do while watching the long-running animated comedy, where you just want to smile and cheer at the story of the little guy having his moment in the sun.

Extract has a lot going for it, but it also suffers from a somewhat all-over-the-place script that never quite comes together in a satisfactory manner. The movie ends with a lot of loose ends, and a lot of the characters never quite feel properly fleshed-out, particularly Kristen Wiig's somewhat ambiguous role. We never fully get the relationship between Bateman and Wiig, and it's hard to tell if we should be rooting for them to end up together or not. We never quite get why Bateman is ready to drop everything and take up with Kunis. And we never delve too much into her character either - what's her deal, exactly? Again, Judge is more focused on assembling this sort of collage of scenes and funny moments, but it leaves you feeling a bit unsatisfied in the end.

Still, there are a lot of funny moments here, and a lot of highly-quotable exchanges that are vintage Mike Judge. To me, this is another Judge movie that deserves to find a bigger audience on DVD than it got in the theaters. And I hope that Judge continues to churn out more stuff like this - he really has a unique talent for finding hilarity in the mundane.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, that's it for now, PEACE.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Danny's FALL TV Preview - Or, How To Make Your TV Happy This September

Back from the long weekend and ready to roll. After the craziness that was last weekend, it was nice to take a couple of days and just sit back, relax, take in a couple of movies, and catch up on sleep. Although, it was actually a pretty productive weekend as well, and I managed to get a decent amount of errands done as well as some hardcore apartment-cleaning. But now, Labor Day weekend is over and done with, and yeah, it's still hot as heck here in LA, but ... the Fall has begun. The next several weeks will bring with them the usual bout of Fall events - the High Holidays, my birthday (!), and soon after that Halloween. Of course, the start of September also means something else for any true pop-culture fanatic, and that's FALL TV.

- Danny's FALL TV Preview 2009:

This year, it really does feel like the end of an era for the traditional Fall TV season, especially as far as the broadcast networks go. Personally, I don't know if I've ever been so unexcited for new Fall TV shows to begin. Sure, a couple of new series have some potential, but the overall momentum of network TV seems to be on a downward spiral. The fact is, the network TV model can no longer compete with the dual-revenue stream of cable. And even that money-maker is on a very slippery slope, in which fragmented audiences and the uncertain digital future threatens to put a serious damper on the amount of big-budget, high-quality, truly original scripted series on television. This uncertainty is embodied by NBC's decision to run The Jay Leno Show five nights a week in primetime, beginning shortly. It's part of a strategy that is less about the ambition and drive to create the next great TV smash, and more about a finely-tuned business model that looks to cut costs and get away from expensive scripted programming. It's an interesting experiment, and to be sure, all eyes will be on Leno and how he performs, even though the means by which his success will be measured is still very much up in the air.

Personally, I think that it was very premature to pronounce scripted programming dead. In fact, for a while there, TV seemed to be enjoying a glorious rennaisance period, where shows like 24, Lost, Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, a slew of HBO and other cable hits, and many more ushered in an era when TV shows rivaled feature films in terms of scope, ambition, and quality of storytelling. It's funny, because just as everyone is talking about network TV getting downsized, concurrently, we're in the middle of the Age of the Franchise. I mean, look, Marvel just got bought by Disney. What does that tell you? It says that IP and characters and stories are more valuable than ever in this multimedia age. Films, videogames, comics, DVD's and blue-ray, digital distribution, the web - all of these media are moving towards this idea of scalable stories and characters - big ideas and concepts and universes that can be spread across all of these different places. So why is TV suddenly left out of the equation? Sure, Lost is expensive to produce, but there's no way that Disney hasn't made a killing on merchandise, DVD's, etc. Jay Leno is cheap, but there's no back-end to it. Once it airs, that's it. That kind of programming is compatible with a cost-cutting, uncertain television landscape, but not with the larger media universe, not with the trends that will ultimately separate the bigtime media players from the small-fry guys.

And I also wonder -- why are shows like Lost and Heroes so expensive in the first place? Yes, there are f/x that cost a lot, that's a given. But why doesn't anyone ever take a serious look at all the other costs that make entertainment so expensive to produce? Because the fact is, many people are still getting very rich off of TV. But if profits are down, why is that the case? Why are actors in primetime still paid as if they were kings and queens? Why are record companies getting paid an arm and a leg just so a TV episode can feature a Justin Timberlake song? Maybe people should take a long hard look at why so much of the entertainment industry hierarchy and business model still resembles that of the 1950's. Look at Friday Night Lights - thanks to a partnership with DirecTV and a lot of other smart cost-cutting measures, this high-quality scripted drama was able to live on despite fairly low ratings. FNL's existence and viability should be a key go-forward example. Low costs but high quality and production value, trim out the fat, make great partnerships that help out with the expenses, etc.

In any case, a lot is going to play out over the next several months, and it will be very interesting to see how the landscape evolves, and how people respond to some of the experiments being tried. But think about it - after this year, LOST will be finished, 24 and Heroes likely nearing the end. Unless one of these new drama series hits big, this could be the end of the era of the big, movie-like TV show. I hope it's not the case. But, we shall see.

Anyways ... aside from all that grandiose talk, I don't know, I'm just not sold on all that many new Fall TV shows this year. I mean, even TV Guide seemed unenthusiastic ... their annual Fall Preview issue, once a holy bible for TV watchers everywhere, was this year reduced to a flimsy, barely-there event.

I've got plenty of returning Fall favorites. Can't wait for THE OFFICE, and then 30 ROCK in October. Completely psyched for FRINGE to come back, maybe more than any other show this year. Season 1 ended on an awesome high note, and can't wait to see where things go from here. GOSSIP GIRL remains a semi-guilty pleasure even if my overall enthusiasm is beginning to fade a bit. Maybe this year things will get back on track? I've pretty much given up hope on SMALLVILLE ever being great again, but at this point, I will dutifully trudge through one more season in hopes of those one or two scattered moments of greatness. Two other shows I watch in hopes of the occasional burst of inspiration - THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. Last year I thought FG hit a new low, but The Simpsons somewhat surprised me with a pretty solid season. So, you never know. One thing's for sure - FOX's Sunday night lineup won't be the same without King of the Hill, which ends its amazing 13-year run this coming Sunday.

And yeah, there are some big ones to look forward to in the winter. 24. The final season of LOST. The return of CHUCK. Can't wait. More and more, you're seeing big shows spread out across the year to allow for uninterrupted runs and to distinguish them from the glut of new Fall programming.

And also ... CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. New season. The entire cast of Seinfeld reunited. 'Nuff said.


- Modern Family (ABC): The pilot of this one is hilarious. It's got Ed O'Neil from Married With Children in top form. It has a sort of Malcolm in the Middle-ish vibe, although also some of The Office's dry sensibility. Potentially the next great TV comedy.

- V (ABC): The pilot for this one is not crazy-good like Lost, but it is intriguing, and it is a lot of fun. It's very watchable, and there's plenty of sci-fi fun to be had. I mean, it has lizard-people. The cast is pretty cool, and a number of genre faves pop up. The pilot had some pretty hokey moments - I'd say it's definitely campier right now than a Lost, for example - but it was probably the one Fall drama pilot I watched where I immediately wanted to see what happens next.

Flash-Forward (ABC) - This one seems like it has potential, but it could also be a gimmicky or one-note show. I like the high-concept, and I am curious to see where the overarching plot goes. For those that don't know, it's about some mysterious world-shaking "event' that causes everyone on the planet to catch a random glimpse of the future. Undoubtedly, a fun and ambitious idea. Like most of you, I haven't seen much substantial footage from the show. So it could go either way. Will definitely be there for the pilot though.

- Community (NBC): This one is going to have to overocme a few hurdles in terms of finding its footing. Right now, it seems a bit like a jumble of characters without a real reason to have them all thrown together. But, it has Joel McHale and Checy Chase and a couple of other very funny people in the mix. There is A LOT of potential. Very curious to see how this one evolves.

- The Prisoner (AMC): This is a cable show, and it's a miniseries, and it doesn't premiere until November. BUT ... based on what I saw at Comic-Con, this one is likely to kick ass. Ian McKellan as #2. "I am not a number!" This could be really, really good.


- Happy Town (ABC): I wanted to mention a couple of shows coming in the winter, just because they look really, really cool. With Happy Town on ABC, I have seen the two-hour pilot, and, wow, it rocks. I am already dying to see where this one goes. It's basically a very Twin Peaks-esque mystery show that has some very spooky supernatural elements to it. But they totally nail that whole idyllic small-town-with-dark-secret vibe, and I just loved the cast, the tone, the writing, etc. I can't wait for more people to see this, because I'm dying to hear theories on the storyline, and cuious to hear what people think of a couple of scenes that, in my opinion, completely kicked ass.

- Day One (NBC): This one is very mysterious so far, but it's a potentially very-cool post-apocalyptic drama that looks to be absolutely huge in scope an scale, with a couple of interesting twists thrown in for good measure. Very intrigued.


- I did enjoy the ABC comedy THE MIDDLE, although it seemed similar to Modern Family, except not quite as sharp. That said, The Middle is another Malcom In The Middle-esque family comedy, except told from the perspective of the mom (Patricia Heaton). Definitely better than I thought it would be, but also didn't 100% grab me.

- There were a couple of things to like about FOX's action-drama, THE HUMAN TARGET, but overall it felt like a semi-awkward throwback to 80's action shows like McGuyver. Not much real meat to the show, and Mark Valley was only alright as the lead. But ... Chi McBride of Pushing Daisies is in this. As is Jackie Earl Haley, aka Rorschach in Watchmen! Both are great actors, but in the pilot, neither gets do anything all that cool.

- I haven't seen THE CLEVELAND SHOW, but it just feels kind of unnecessary to me. Did Cleveland from Family Guy really need his own show? That said, who knows. Maybe it will be hilarious. I'll give it a shot, at the least.

- And then there's GLEE. I am pretty confident based on early buzz and early success on-air and on platforms like iTunes that Glee is going to be a hit. The question is, how good is it, really? Is it just the dramedy version of American Idol, with a weekly regurgitation of crowd-pleasing pop songs turned into High School Musical-esque numbers? Or is it all of that *and* a hilarious comedy to boot? The pilot episode from this past summer had a lot of potential, but wasn't quite as sharply funny as I'd hoped. I will definitely give it a couple of episodes though. That said, FOX must be pretty pleased that it's already amassed a legion of rabid female fans.


- I know some people enjoyed it, but I was not a big fan of ABC's comedy COUGARTOWN. There is certainly a lot of fun to be had with the premise, but the show seems to miss the boat by trying to have its cake and eat it too. What I mean is, they write this aging woman character who is supposed to be having all these everyday problems with men, her job, etc. And yet, instead of casting a more down-to-earth actress, we get Courtney Cox in full-on sexbomb mode. I don't know, I wasn't buying it.

- I tried to go into THE VAMPIRE DIARIES with an open mind, and lord knows I have a soft-spot for cheesy CW teen dramas with a twist. But this one was like Twilight: The Series, except with a far less talented lead actress as compared to Kristen Stewart. The acting in this was pretty atrocious, and the plotting was just clunky as hell. And man, this pilot was cheesy. It reminded me of a really bad episode of Smallville, except with vampires.

- EASTWICK on ABC ... I was pretty disappointed by. I didn't know what to expect from the pilot, but I guess I assumed it'd be a bit darker and more serious (since it does adapt the darker and more serious novel and movie). But, this is basically Desperate Housewives with witches. Very light n' fluffy, lots of you-go-girl sass, with a new-age twist. I can see where this could find a good audience of Housewives fans, but I am definitely not in the demo for this one.

- So, yeah, I do have a few holes in my Fall TV schedule to fill. Prison break is gone. Pushing Daisies is finito. Which if any of the new Fall shows will make the final cut? Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Best Movies of Summer 2009: Looking Back at this Summer's Biggest Hits and Misses!

Wow, is summer really over? Well, we still have Labor Day weekend to look forward to, but as of this week I think it's safe to say that the summer movies season ends and the fall season begins. Kids are going back to college, new seasons of network TV shows are just around the corner, and it's fire season here in LA. Ah, ash-filled skies and 100+ degree weather. If that doesn't scream "Fall!", I don't know what does.

But what I do know is, it's once again time for my annual Summer Movie Wrap-Up - a look back on the summer movie season that was, and a handy guide to what was hot and what was not over these last couple of months.

The fact is, this was one of the strangest summers I can remember as far as movies go. In some ways, things took a turn for the ugly as compared to last year. I mean, last summer's highest-grossing blockbuster was the game-changing, critically-acclaimed Dark Knight. This year, the biggest movie, at least in terms of dollars, was the mostly abysmal TRANSFORMERS 2. It was no big surprise that Michael Bay's f/x-driven sequel was a box-office smash, but at the same time, you kind of hoped that audiences might simply stay away. But hey, I ended up seeing the movie and shelling out my $12, so I guess that makes me as guilty as anyone. Like many, my curiosity got the best of me, and my love of action-packed sci-fi extravaganzas compelled me to see the movie even though I had low expectations following the first in the series. To me, Michael Bay's brand of film-making tends to fail on so many levels ... not only do his movie's scripts tend to be mind-numbingly dumb, but even his action scenes border on incoherant. He makes movies for the brain-dead masses, and it's sad to see the public continue to eat them up.

That said, I don't put Transformers 2 in the same category as a GI JOE. What GI Joe had that Transformers lacked was that it truly had fun with the material. Whereas Bay focused on lame comedy hijinks and an overstuffed "plot," GI Joe kept things simple and simply presented us with a live-action version of the old cartoon series. Will GI Joe win any Oscars? No. But I give it high marks because, even though they tend to have their flaws, Stephen Sommers' movies usually feel like they have their heart in the right place. Not to mention that the guy knows how to direct insanely fun action sequences to boot.

But while GI Joe was a mostly pleasant surprise, the fact is that a number of big blockbusters did not live up to the hype this summer. Other than Transformers 2, the chief offender had to be TERMINATOR: SALVATION. I mean, I pretty much knew that Transformers 2 would suck. But man, I was hyped for Salvation. Thanks to the trailers and the presence of Christian Bale, I really thought the movie had a shot of kicking ass. And it was a fun, enjoyable movie with a couple of particularly choice action scenes. But it had a lot to live up to, and nobody wanted a merely decent look at the much-imagined post-Judgement Day future that had been hinted at in previous movies and TV series.

Another big movie that landed with an even bigger thud? WOLVERINE. This one looked iffy from the start, but man, what a clunker. This to me was the film that finally killed whatever enthusiasm I had left for the X-Men universe on film, as established by Bryan Singer way back when. Especially coming on the heels of bar-raising superhero movies like Dark Knight and Iron Man, Wolverine was a letdown.

When it comes to true, big-budget blockbuster movie-making, though, I think that this was undoubtedly the summer of STAR TREK. JJ Abrams' franchise reboot succeeded on multiple levels - as both a great standalone movie, and as a reintroduction to a beloved set of stories and characters. It had plenty of homages to the past, but also felt fresh and new. Star Trek was the one movie that lived up to and exceeded the hype this summer - it got me excited about a franchise I was only mildly interested in before, and I give Abrams and team all the credit in the world for doing this the right way.

Other big movies that worked this summer? Well, Pixar hit another one out of the park with UP, for one. I think that it was hard for them to match the triumph that was last summer's Wall-E, but UP was still a very interesting, extremely well-made film. Those first fifteen minutes or so remain some of the most incredible storytelling Pixar has ever put to film. Similarly, I've never been a huge HARRY POTTER fan, but this summer's latest entry really impressed me in many respects. The best Potter movie to date, I think, and a visual stunner as well. Somewhere in the middle was PUBLIC ENEMIES, which was another slickly-directed, absorbing movie from Michael Mann, although it never quite lived up to its potential given the all-star cast and interesting historical premise.

As far as comedies go, the spring was so loaded up with modern classics like Adventureland and Observe & Report, that it was kind of hard for the summer to compete. Yeah, THE HANGOVER was really funny, but I think when the hype dies down it will be regarded as a decent but not amazing movie. On the other hand, it's too bad that BRUNO underperformed to some extent, as I found it to be totally hilarious, about on the same level as Borat. I'm sure it will make a ton of dough on DVD, etc., but man, I give Sascha Baron Cohen huge props for making one of the most balls-out (literally) comedies of all-time. One other flick worth mentioning? 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, a pretty cool indie romantic-comedy that was unique enough to have lots of appeal beyond the typical audience for such movies. Meanwhile, Judd Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE had some bright spots, but ultimately rubbed me and presumably others the wrong way with its overlong, seemingly self-indulgent storyline. Like I said in my review, I remain a huge fan of Apatow and his body of work, but this one was in many ways a misfire, at least as compared to the likes of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Of course, there was also the completely awesome horror-comedy that few saw but is likely destined for cult-classic status - that being DRAG ME TO HELL. Sam Raimi picked up right where he left off with the Evil Dead movies and presented one hell of a crowd-pleasing flick that hit all the right notes. Crazy, over-the-top, and insanely entertaining, Drag Me to Hell will be a fright-night classic for years to come.

Overall though, when I look at this past summer at the movies, I can't help but marvel at the number of smaller or underhyped movies that seemed to come out of nowhere and proceeded to blow my mind. First, there was THE HURT LOCKER, an absolute sledgehammer of a movie that is a new milestone in the career of director Katherine Bigelow. The Hurt Locker was amazing in that it combined Oscar-worthy acting and direction with true depth of character and theme, alongside absolutely riveting action scenes and nail-biting intensity. Seeing this one shortly after the cluster that was Transformers 2 was a shock to the system, a reminder of the power of great filmmaking. So I'll say it one more time - if you haven't seen The Hurt Locker yet, go, run out, and see it now.

Several weeks later, there was MOON. Another "where the heck did this one come from?" sort of movie, that benefitted from a lack of hype, in that its shocking twists came as a complete surprise to most viewers. I mean, what a stunning debut for first-time director Duncan Jones, and what a performance from Sam Rockwell. Sam Rockwell needs to get an Oscar nom for this one, no question. Moon wasn't the only underdog indie movie to make a splash this summer. Unfortunately, I've still yet to see a couple of potentially interesting releases like Paper Heart, World's Greatest Dad, etc. But I did manage to see the insane vampire romance, THIRST, from Chan-Wook Park, the director of Oldboy. Not quite on that same level, but very interesting all the same.

It's amazing, because between Moon and DISTRICT 9, real science fiction filmmaking came back with a vengeance this summer. And what a megaton bomb District 9 was, both creatively and in terms of surprise box office success. Those of us who had been following this one's development had an inkling that it might be something special, but nobody expected it to be this friggin' good. District 9 was an epic. It had a great, original premise and style, matched by some of the most kickass action of the summer.

Even more amazing, District 9 wasn't the only landmark film to hit theaters in August. Only a week later, we got the latest from Quentin Tarantino, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. This one got mixed reviews from some, but in my mind it was a cinematic triumph, and one of QT's best yet. The movie was a perfect endcap to the summer - filled with memorable dialogue, colorful characters, haunting imagery, a thought-provoking story, and exciting action. With so many wannabe QT-style movies over the last several years, it was great to see the real deal back and once again on top of his game.

To sum up, this was a summer that was about a lot more than run-of-the-mill blockbusters. While there were a few huge movies that hit the mark, like Star Trek, the biggest success stories of summer '09 were in fact the movies that dared to be different, that came from true creative visionaires who brought a unique storytelling perspective to the screen. This summer had three movies - The Hurt Locker, District 9, and Inglorious Basterds - that received flat-out A's from me. At the end of the year, I have little doubt that this trifecta will still be at or near the top of my Best of '09 list - they are simply that good.

So without further ado ...


1. The Hurt Locker

2. Inglorious Basterds

3. District 9

4. Star Trek

5. Moon

6. Up

7. Drag Me to Hell

8. Bruno

9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

10. 500 Days of Summer

Honorable Mentions: Thirst, Public Enemies, The Hangover, GI Joe