Monday, December 14, 2009

Vay Victis for INVICTUS...? Also: FRINGE, THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, GLEE, and MORE!

First of all ... Happy Hanukkah!

Hope all of my friends and readers of the Jewish persuasion have had a great holiday so far. For me, this weekend was pretty packed with Hanukkah celebrations (which took me from Rodeo Dr. in Beverly Hills, where rapping robot rabbis MC'd Hanukkah festivities, to Valley Village, courtesy of Valley Ruach), and hey, we've still got plenty of crazy nights left to go.

As an update, I'm hard at work at soon-to-be-posted installments in my BEST OF THE DECADE series, and I hope that everyone read my BEST TV OF THE 00's post from last week. It's been really interesting to read some of the end-of-decade lists that have been coming out. While some are pretty iffy, others have made me rethink some of my own choices a bit.

For example, over on Hitfix, there's a pretty convincing case made for why The Simpsons was, in fact, one of the best of the 00's despite a drop in quality from its 90's heyday. I considered giving The Simpsons a special mention, but the reality is that there are maybe, at most, 20 - 25 episodes this decade that could be considered great. That's one seasons' worth of episodes, out of TEN seasons. So while the show remains capable of producing pleasant suprises and bits of inspired comedy, there's no way I could rank it alongside shows like The Office, where the hits have far outnumbered the misses over the last several years.

And that's the first of many TV-related items I've got to talk about ...


- Okay, the big item on my agenda is FRINGE. Last Thursday's Fall finale had to be big, because yes, the stakes were high. Not only has the show struggled to attract viewers in a tough Thursday night timeslot, but creatively, it felt like it had been far too long since the show delivered the kind of huge, mind-blowing episode that put it on the map in Season 1. After several weeks of quiter, more standalone eps, I and, I think, most Fringe fans were ready for a slam-bang finale. And I'm happy to say that the show delivered. Last week's episode dove deep into the show's fascinating mythology, and explored the history of Walter Bishop and his extradimensional adventures to gripping effect.

Simply put, even after his great work in the previous week's Walter-centric ep, John Noble positively ruled it this week. I've talked before about how few, if any, other actors could pull off what Noble is doing here and not have it come off as cheesy, and there was a scene in this one that pretty much blew me away in that regard. All episode long, as we saw mentally unbalanced patients have their sanity restored, I kept saying that it would be lame if Walter were to suddenly be made sane. Not only is the whole greatness of the character predicated on his fragile psyche, but I just couldn't imagine how they could do a "Walter becomes normal" scene and keep it from being totally campy. And yet ... wow ... the moment in this ep where Walter had his full brain function restored turned out to be a classic. The look in Noble's eyes, the subtle differences in his speech, in his posture. It was just a stunning sequence, and if Noble doesn't get some kind of award for his work on this show then there is no justice in TV Land.

But yeah, I was unsure about the plotline of this ep at first, but when the payoff resulted in sequences like the one mentioned above, it worked. The premise was that, following Walter's otherdimensional experiments decades ago, the information he had discovered was deemed so earth-shattering and dangerous that he and William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), decided to perform a modified lobotomy on Walter, literally carving out the memories of his work. These experiments resulted in Walter's fractured mental state. But they also led to the memories actually being hidden within other people's minds. The race to recover and exploit Walter's secrets was the driving plotline of the episode, and it was exciting, interesting stuff. In fact, this episode had all the things that make Fringe great -- mind-bending pseudo-science, big action (who knew Olivia was *that* good of a shot?), and great character moments. There were some great scenes between Walter and Peter, and their father-son relationship has really taken on some interesting dynamics of late. I also have to give a shout-out to Lance Reddick as Broyles. The guy is just super-badass, and he had some gravitas-infused moments in this ep that you had to smile at.

If anything, my one complaint is that there is still a feeling of ambiguity in terms of Fringe's overarching mythology. Especially given that it had been so long since we had a mythology-heavy episode, it would have been nice to get some reminders of who the major players are as well as their motivations. So far we've seen otherdimensional shapeshifters, rogue scientists, Massive Dynamic goons, and, in this ep, stranded warriors from "the other side." All of this stuff is cool, but it's yet to fully gel into one cohesive narrative. I don't like heavy-handed exposition or dumbed-down storytelling, but I do think Fringe could benefit from an episode or two that puts all its various factions and characters into a slightly more clear context.

That said, this was a damn good episode of Fringe. Can't wait for new episodes in 2010, and I can only hope that FOX gives the show whatever support it needs to thrive for a long time to come.

My Grade: A-

- I was also really happy with the Fall finale of GLEE. In it's last couple of episodes, Glee really felt like it was beginning to settle into a great rhythm, finding the right balance in its tone and storylines. It felt like this finale was, in many ways, the culmination of all the growing pains that the show has endured so far - not only did things work out for some of the key characters on the show, but things came together nicely for the show in general. So many episodes of Glee have been all over the place in terms of tone - this one balanced humor, heart, drama, and darkness to make for an episode that hit all the right chords. There was a lot of well-earned emotion in this one - from Will and Sue's intense yet at-times-hilarious exchanges to Will's joy at hearing the glee club perform at sectionals, over the phone, without him actually being there to guide them. Rachel's moment in the spotlight was well-handled, and Kurt continued his streak of having some really funny background moments as well. Jane Lynch brought big laughs to an otherwise fairly serious episode, and I think the show has done a great job of figuring out how her humor fits into the show over the last few weeks. At the same time, the big kiss between Will and Emma felt like the big, grand moment it should have. Even if the whole thing was a little rushed due to Teri's fake-pregnancy scam being exposed so late in the game, the buildup within this episode was really well done. The whole episode had so much momentum and such a big, sports-movie like emotional undercurrent that it would have felt off if their wasn't that big happy ending. In any case, I think Glee has always been one of those shows that had all the potential in the world, and it was probably only a matter of time before it really began to click. Last week's episode was a really positive sign for things to come, and a great wrap-up to the first run of one of 2009's most unique and buzzworthy new series.

My Grade: A

- MODERN FAMILY had a nice little Christmas episode, which had some very funny moments up there with some of the series' best to date. At the same time, the episode was extra schmaltzy, although given that it was a "very special" holiday episode, I'm willing to cut it some slack in that regard. But yeah, Phil's problem of overthreatening his kids was hilarious, and his eagerness to un-cancel Christmas made for some great moments. "We're going ... to ... Italy!" was a great punchline to the whole bit. The Manny stuff wasn't quite as good, but it was pleasant enough. The storline about Cam taking in a homeless guy was the only real clunker of the night, but still, not enough to derail the episode. Overall, this was another enjoyable ep of Modern Family.

My Grade: B+

- THE OFFICE also had a Christmas-themed episode, as is their tradition. The episode was a bit uneven at first, but like a rolling snowball of hilarity, it seemed to get funnier and crazier as it went along. I mean, it was hard to get too excited about Michael's battle with Phyliss over who gets to be the office Santa, but Michael took it to such crazy extremes that it soon became pretty interesting. When Steve Carell came out dressed as Jesus Christ, that was the moment that the ep won me over - I mean, wow ("His last name is Christ. He has the power of flight. He can heal leopards”). Meanwhile, there were a couple of fun subplots going on in this one as well. The best was probably the whole Andy - Erin thing. Andy's increasingly awkward attempts to woo Erin once again made for some pretty funny moments. I also liked Dwight's ruminations on his "diabolical plan" to ruin Jim. Great stuff. The episode also, perhaps surprisingly, ended on a big beat of Michael and everyone else finding out that Dunder-Mifflin was about to be bought out, meaning that everyone's jobs could be in jeopardy. Should be interesting to see where things go from here.

My Grade: B+

- 30 ROCK, meanwhile, had a really good episode that was probably one of the better overall episodes this season. Julianne Moore did a really nice guest spot as an old high school friend of Jack's, and it was fun seeing the two try to form a new connection despite the different paths that post-high-school life took them on. While Moore's Boston accent was a bit jarring at first, there were still some excellent scenes between her and Alec Baldwin. Their whole online courtship, made possible by "MyFace," was a pretty funny satire of Facebook culture ("she just changed her status to 'weirdzies'."), and at the same time, there was an oddball sweetness to the whole thing. Meanwhile, I laughed a lot at the subplot in which the writers trick Kenneth into thinking they belong to some obscure new religion with lots of esoteric rules. Kenneth's gullibility was pretty funny, but the best part was when the made-up religion was exposed as a fraud, causing Kenneth to question all religion. As the man who opened up Kenneth's eyes, Tracy had some totally hilarious lines ("Why don't Catholics eat meat on Fridays? I'll tell you why. Because the pope owns Long John Silver's!"). Overall, a really good ep of 30 Rock.

My Grade: A-

- PARKS & RECREATION also had a pretty funny episode this past Thursday, with Leslie accused of a sex scandal with a skeevy, John Edwards-esque councilman. There was a lot going on in this one, but Amy Poehler was in fine form, and the way the scandal escalated with no factual basis to go on made for a number of funny scenes. On the negative side, I thought the Leslie / Officer Dave plotline sort of came out of nowhere. We haven't even seen Luis CK on the show in a while, and so the fact that he was moving to San Diego didn't have quite the impact it should have. He and Leslie still seemed to be in the courtship phase of their relationship (we haven't even really seen them on a date yet), so it seemed pretty abrupt for him to ask her to move cross-country with him. This episode also suffered a bit from a lack of great Ron Swanson moments, although it did have some funny/awkwardly sweet moments between Andy and April.

My Grade: B

- As always, I went into THE SIMPSONS this week somewhat hopeful, but as is often the case, I came away feeling like the episode was pretty "meh." This week's actually had some real potential, story-wise. I liked the idea that Bart was jealous of the sisterly bond between Lisa and Maggie, and therefore tried to procure a kid brother for himself. At first, he tried to convince Homer and Marge to have another baby. When that didn't work, he went to an orphanage and somehow snagged a boy to be his new little brother. This is actually a pretty cool idea for an ep, one that we haven't seen all that often. But for me, the episode just didn't pop in that the jokes were off and the humor never really clicked. Plus, as has been the trend several times this season, the ep was never given time to simply focus on one story. A whole episode about Bart having a kid brother would have been cool, but the orphan storyline was over and done with within a matter of minutes, and the ending was abrupt even by Simpsons standards. That combined with the flat humor made this an episode that never came close to realizing its potential.

My Grade: C+

- FAMILY GUY, meanwhile, continues to just be tough to watch at times. This week's ep just felt so disjointed and uneven. It didn't help that Peter's relationship with his snobby father-in-law isn't exactly one of the show's best sources for great comedy. Still, there were some funny moments when Peter took over the Pewderschmidt company. And there was an extended Scooby Doo chase scene parody that was kind of amusing. And there was ... well, I guess that was about it. Sorry, but that Hugh Laurie stuff was just lame.

My Grade: C

- Okay, enough TV - time for a movie review ...


- I am of two minds when it comes to Clint Eastwood. On one hand, he's a living legend, and, clearly, one of the all-time great badass actors in cinema history. The Man With No Name, Dirty Harry ... anytime that Clint Eastwood is in a movie in which asses are kicked, I am there without reservation. But there is the other Clint Eastwood, the prestige director Clint Eastwood - the guy who makes movies that are very serious and very Oscar-friendly. Don't get me wrong, Eastwood has directed some great films. Unforgiven is a classic. Last year, Gran Torino was sheer, grizzled, badassery on film. But last year, Clint released two films, the other being Changeling. And that movie was emblematic of where Eastwood can go wrong as a director. I think that Invictus is a better film than Changeling, but I also think it's problematic in a lot of ways. It never really grabs you. It never earns the level of emotional involvement it seems to want from the audience. Most glaringly, it never gets us invested in the characters in any meaningful way. Eastwood presents a fascinating true-life story as pretty straight-up narrative. That is to say, the way the film unfolds, we may as well be watching a History Channel documentary. Granted, most History Channel docs don't feature Morgan Freeman in full-on "give me that damn Oscar" mode. But still, I was disappointed that a movie filled with such a decorated ensemble of talent turned out to be so dry and flat. At the end of the day, Eastwood brings no unique point of view or insight to the table with regards to the events chronicled in the movie.

Invictus tells the story of the immediate aftermath of Nelson Mandela's election as Prime Minister of South Africa. Apartheid had ended, but racial tensions still loomed large, and the country was still very much a divided one. One interesting source of conflict was the national rugby team - for years, the black population of South Africa had actively rooted against their own country's team, seeing the squad as a symbol of oppresion and division. To that end, there was a large movement for Mandela to eradicate the team in its then-current form. However, Mandela knew that doing so would only anger the segment of the population who had long followed the group with pride. Rather than causing further divides, Mandela embraced his country's rugby team, and made a concerted effort to get all of South Africa, black and white, to rally behind them as they made a run in the 1995 World Cup tournament. To some extent, Mandela's play at national unification did indeed have a profound affect on the national spirit, and the rugby team is now viewed as a key cultural influence in helping to rid South Africa of the spectre of Apartheid.

Like I said, it's a pretty great story. And as expected, Morgan Freeman is great as Nelson Mandela. He brings a quiet dignity and understated depth to the role that, in a way, really carries the movie. That said, Freeman does a stellar job with what he's given to work with, but he never *really* gets to have that great, Oscar-caliber moment that you want in a movie like this. As I watched Invictus, I thought back to last year's Frost/Nixon, and thought of the memorable moments that Frank Langella had in that movie as a similarly iconic historical figure, Richard Nixon. In that movie, we really got a feel for Nixon, got insight into the man behind the myth. Here, for all of Freeman's great acting, Mandella remains something of a blank slate. We never truly get a sense of what makes him tick. We hear hints about his troubled family life, but never really delve into it. We hear anecdotes about his life inside an island prison, but never truly understand the kind of pain he felt as a captive. Again, in a movie that lives and dies by getting us invested in the triumph of the moment, the emotion of unity and victory, I was pretty puzzled by the blandness of our main characters.

Even worse is Matt Damon as Francois Pienarr, the star player of the South African national rugby team. Damon does nothing wrong in the role, but he has absolutely zero to work with. Honestly, I felt like he had a page or two of dialogue, total, in the whole movie. And that's a problem. So much of the film is supposed to be about the willpower of Pienarr to push his team to victory, and his determination to be a positive symbol for his country. And yet, we never get inside his psyche whatsoever. All we know is that he hangs out a lot with his still-racist parents, occasionally with his barely-there girlfriend, and is really good at rugby.

On that note, the rugby itself is boring as hell in this movie. True, as an American I know practically nothing about the rules of the sport, but still. Movies should be able to make anything suitably dramatic (hell, The King of Kong made Donkey Kong into the most exciting thing ever). And yet, the climactic rugby scenes in Invictus have almost no emotion or intensity behind them. We get a decent sense of the physical toll the game takes on the players, but, other than that, well, this ain't no Mighty Ducks. And when I say that, I'm only semi-joking. I mean, seriously, the entire plot of the movie hinges on a big rugby game, and I found myself basically just waiting for the final score to show that (spoilers!) South Africa wins. There was never a single moment of movie magic where I was on the edge of my seat, biting my nails in anticipation of what the outcome might be.

And I guess some will make the argument that this isn't that type of movie. It's a *Clint Eastwood Drama*, and therefore it isn't about flash or melodrama, but about quietly telling a chapter of history with dignity and restraint. Okay, sure, but that's no excuse for making an exciting story so lifeless, and it's no excuse for presenting potentially fascinating characters to the audience yet never bothering to make us care about them. Invictus does have its moments. Most of those involve the little quirks that come out of Mandela's first days in office, or the awe and respect with which Mandela's colleagues, advisors, and the country at large hold towards their new leader. And it felt like *that* was the movie Eastwood might have liked to make. Instead, he was saddled with this whole rugby story, and you never get the sense that Clint was ever all that into it.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, Happy Hanukkah once again, and stay tuned for more entries in my BEST OF THE 00's series!

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