Sunday, January 31, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In MUSIC

- Okay, one more, and then this is it, I promise. It's time for one more look back at the year that was ...


- The kings of rock n' roll in '09? Without a doubt, Green Day. American Idiot shot them to the top of the rock n' roll ladder, but 21st Century Breakdown solidified the group as the current torchbearers of rock. As great as American Idiot was, I think there's a strong argument to be made that 21st Century Breakdown is just as good. It's an instant-classic album in an age where there aren't many great albums, period.

But ... I don't know, aside from a couple of bright spots, it felt to me like an off-year for music, especially in terms of rock. Here in LA, we're lucky to have a great modern rock station - KROQ - that plays great new music from a diverse array of bands. And yet, a lot of the most-played songs on the station this year were holdovers from '08. And there was also a glut of bands like Phoenix. No offense if you're into that kind of stuff, but I want my rock n' roll to, you know, rock. Enough of this weak-sauce stuff. You have to wonder why so few mainstream bands seem afraid to get loud and angry these days.

Meanwhile, I do think it's been a good year for pop music, and 90% of that is due to the awesomeness that is Lady Gaga. Yes, you heard me. I'm a fan. Lady Gaga is what I want pop music to be - catchy, fun, and yet ... willing to be out-there and different and experimental. I love that Lady Gaga is such a self-styled performer. Not created by commitee merely to appeal to a certain demographic. Her music is catchy as hell, yet it feels unique. I definitely found myself stopping the radio dial on LA's various pop stations whenever I heard songs like "Poker Face" or "Bad Romance."

It's funny, because so much of the musical focus in '09 was on legends of the past. Michael Jackson's passing saw a huge surge of interest in his classic tunes. And The Beatles were everywhere - they got their own version of Rock Band, which went on to become one of the biggest videogames of the year.

The best part of '09 for me though, in terms of music, were the awesome concerts I was lucky to attend. The highlight of which was definitely Green Day ... one of the best shows I've ever seen. So thanks to Billie Joe and co for making 2009 one rocking year. Can't wait to see what 2010 brings.


1.) Green Day, "21 Guns"
2.) Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance"
3.) Linkin Park, "New Divide"
4.) Green Day, "Know Your Enemy"
5.) Green Day, "American Eulogy: Mass Hysteria / Modern World"
6.) Silversun Pickups, "Panic Switch"
7.) Weezer, "... I Want You To "
8.) Rise Against, "Savior"
9.) Green Day, "Before the Lobotomy"
10.) Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown"

Danny's BEST OF 2009 and INTO 2010: The Year In POLITICS

- Continuing my mission to wrap up the year that was, here's one more post that looks back at the best and worst of 2009. But, this one is going to be a little different, as I want to talk about 2010 and the year ahead as well. So here we go ...


- You know, I've been thinking in recent days about Conan O'Brien's final sendoff, about his message to not be cynical. But I've been thinking about it in relation to politics and the world at large. People are mad, people are angry, people are cynical. And yet, there is reason for optimism. In 2009, we finally helped to get our country back on track. Barack Obama took office, and finally, we had a smart, pragmatic, progressive leader in the White House. Would it take time for Obama to find his footing, and to navigate the rough political waters of Washington? Sure. But at least we are finally heading in the right direction.

However, I think that subsequent polls showing Obama's plummeting popularity are indicative with just how much politics is still a cult of personality. So many people simply got behind the *idea* of Barack Obama, that I don't think many wanted to face the reality of what was actually going to happen once he took office. The reality was that Obama entered the Oval Office having inherited a giant deficit, and facing a global recession that was just reaching its apex. At the same time, the Republican's hateful rhetoric during the election had had exactly the side-effect that was intended - a Republican party that had come to see Obama as an extremist, socialist enemy, and even worse, a segment (a vocal segment) of the population that thought he was practically the devil on earth. Thank you, McCain, Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc. What this meant was that Obama faced roadblocks at every turn when it came to actually getting policy pushed through Congress. It wasn't even necessarilly opposition based on any logical, philisophical differences, or based on the Republicans having any better ideas. Instead, it was opposition for the sake of opposition. Republicans were listening to idiots like Limbaugh who simply wanted Obama to fail.

My point in all this is for those who say Obama is all talk ... what would you have him do?

I will say this though - I think the last week or so has been a great one for Obama, and I think he's very smartly painted the Republican opposition into a corner. Obama has taken his case to the American people, via the State of the Union and his recent Q&A session with members of the GOP. Obama has argued his case for health care reform, for the stimulus, for investing in clean energy, and other issues with passion, but also with cool logic. He's presented his mostly moderate ideas in a way that stands in stark contrast to the extremist views that the Republicans try to pin on him. In fact, the Republican response to the State of the Union, to me, came off as almost laughable thanks to its striking similarity to the very points that Obama had just made. At the Q&A, you might say that Obama laid the smackdown on the Republican audience. Obama was fearless in calling out Congressman who tried to make campaign speaches rather than ask real questions, and meticulous in setting the record straight on various facts and figures that the GOP had tried to present as evidence of his failure so far. At both events, Obama made the same point that many of us have surely thought about, that being that if the Republicans so strongly oppose Obama's health care plan, why don't they present alternatives in which the numbers add up and make sense? Health care isn't really an ideological issue, and yet the Republicans try to make it into one. Obama is suddenly a socialist because ...? Because he wants to implement universal health care? Because he wants to help fix the #1 issue that is going to affect our economy in the years to come? Please.

Now, I do think it's fair to criticize the congressional Democrats as well. At the same time, they are in a tough position, because there is that percentage of the country that is still so extreme in their conservative views that it's a tough atmosphere in which to push forward a truly liberal agenda. Still, it does tend to feel like it's Obama and then everybody else. With Hillary Clinton busy as Secretary of State, there aren't a lot of strong voices on the Democratic side, and there aren't a lot of true fighters. I also think that there is almost this desire among the Demoratic base for someone to step up and rally the troops, as was done during the election. I feel like a lot of people, younger people in particular, felt empowered during the election. Now there is that feeling of being to some degree directionless. I mean, clearly, the troops were not effectively rallied and motivated in the recent Massachussetts special election, in which a Republican, Scott Brown, amazingly pulled off the victory and won Ted Kennedy's old senate seat.

But hey, I still get the feeling of frustration that big change is not happeneing quickly enough. On one hand, I feel like we are lucky to have a guy like Obama as our President. But still, there was that feeling that he'd come in and enact sweeping environmental reform, quickly get universal health care passed, and get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Still, there is a huge difference in what Obama's doing and what George Bush was doing. Obama is acting pragmatically when it comes to, say, Afghanistan - not ideologically. I'd like to see that war end, but not if it means that the country would become exponentially more chaotic and unstable than it already is. Bush acted ideologically and so the natural response was to want to counter one ideological action with another. Under Bush's black and white worldview, you were either pro-war or anti-war, a neocon or a peacenik. Thank god we've moved beyond that and have a President who realizes that the world is not quite that simple.

I mean, it's hard to know quite what to think of Obama's points about the environment that he used in his State of the Union to call the GOP to action. He basically said that even if you don't believe in the science of global warming, it still makes economic sense to invest in clean energy. On one hand, you want to see him just stick to science and emphasize the dire urgency of the whole thing. Because hey, I don't want to wear a gas mask to go outside in fifteen years. On the other hand, it was a calculated and somewhat brilliant move. The Republicans have long been willing to wreck the environment in the name of the almighty dollar, so why wouldn't they also be willing to help improve it if there was a similar pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

So look, I think it was a transisitional year for politics, but I think it was also a good year, an important year. The groundwork has been laid for a lot of good things to come. We have a guy in office up to the task. Already, we are more well-regarded on the world stage, back at the negotiating table with other countries in terms of peace talks, climate change, trade, etc. There is always going to be that vocal bunch that gets off on spewing hate and venom, but as it becomes more and more apparent that that bunch stands in the way of true progress, I think they'll become drowned out. The important thing is that all the energy that some of us put into helping Obama get elected - we can't just let that go. There's still a lot to fight for.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In COMICS

- Continuing my Best of 2009 series, I'm back to talk about the year that was in comics. I know, I know - it's almost February. But hey, that's why I'm putting my nose to the grindstone to get out a couple more Best-Of lists before it gets too deep into 2010.


Now, about comics. I think it was a pretty okay year for comics, although there have definitely been times when I found myself missing the sheer breadth and depth of high quality work that characterized much of the last decade. In 2009, Y: The Last Man, my pick as comic of the decade, was over and done with. Fables, another of the decade's best works, was still chugging along, although it hit a couple of rough patches with a few less-than-amazing story arcs. Some of the major superhero lines (Superman, for example) produced decent work, but nothing that really stood alongside last year's All-Star Superman in terms of being genre-defining. Speaking of All-Star Superman, 2009 saw Grant Morrison stuck in the Batman universe, where his out-there concepts seemed an odd match for such a dark and gritty character. Sure, Grant produced some memorable Bat stories, but his run on Batman has also helped to make the argument that Morrison is best left to his own self-contained universes, rather than telling stories that are at the heart of a continuity-heavy shared universe. Case in point: last year's much-hyped "Death of Batman" storyline that has played out throughout '09 and continues into 2010. It seemed like all the other writers who had to piggyback on Grant's story had no clue what he was up to, so finally the Bat-books just sort of each went their own way. Let Geoff Johns sort it all out in some future universe-spanning crossover.

And that brings me to Geoff Johns, who singlehandedly made superhero comics worth reading in '09. Johns has been a DC Comics mainstay for years now, but in an off-year overall for the genre, Johns' comics stood out more than ever. You could argue that perhaps the guy had finally spread himself too thin - what with Green Lantern, Blackest Night, Booster Gold, Flash: Rebirth, Superman: Origin, Adventure Comics, and any number of specials and mini-series. And yet ... while not every Johns work is a masterpiece, his writing is incredibly solid across the board. Green Lantern and Blackest Night in particular were really exciting in '09. Easily the two "must-read" mainstream comics month in and month out.

Personally though, I want to see some more new, breakout writers in 2010. With very few exceptions, it felt like there weren't a lot of Big Two comics really worth reading in '09 aside from thsoe written by a small handful of elite writers. Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Paul Dini, Palmiotti and Gray, Gail Simone. A couple of old favorites have stepped up - Dan Jurgens on Booster Gold, for example. And a couple of new writers have captured my attention - Bryan Q. Miller, Sterling Gates, Eric Trautman. But I want to see more new talent step up and be given opportunities. I mean, Geoff Johns can't write everything, can he?

Finally, I give credit to guys like Mark Millar and Robert Kirkman who are doing some of the most exciting stuff in comics right now. Books like Kick-Ass and The Walking Dead push the limits of the medium, and try new things. Kick-Ass wasn't necessarilly a classic, but it was definitely unlike anything I've read before. I can't wait for the film version. And Robert Kirkman is probably the most fun writer in comics today. The guy mixes real-feeling characters with over-the-top, holy-$#%& moments like no one else. It's why Walking Dead is easily my favorite ongoing series right now - I have no idea where it's going, no idea what will happen in a given issue. The zombie-apocalypse premise is familiar, but Kirkman puts a wholly unique spin on it. It's no wonder that AMC is turning it into a TV series - The Walking Dead is, to me, the most compelling serialized fiction in pop culture today.


1.) The Walking Dead

- I've been reading Walking Dead in graphic novel form, and whenever I buy a new volume, I have to hold off on diving in until I know I have a couple of hours to spare, because once I start reading, I literally cannot put the book down. The ongoing story of a ragtag band of survivors in a world overrun by zombies is just that compelling. So much of that is the anything-can-happen feeling that writer Robert Kirkman creates. Anyone could die at any moment. The whole dynamic of the series has changed multiple times so far, and could change again. It's a comic that never fails to shock or leave your jaw on the floor. Awesome stuff.

2.) Detective Comics

- I was skeptical of Greg Rucka's latest run on Detective Comics, at least at first. I mean, the new star of the series, Batwoman, was introduced back in 52 more as a gimmick than as a real character. She had a cool costume, sure, but no real personality to speak of. I guess I shouldn't have doubted Rucka. He's given Kate Kane an awesome origin story and made Detective into one of DC's best reads. And ... holy lord - JH Williams' artwork on this series is absolutely phenomenal, some of the best I've ever seen. Even if the story wasn't good, this book would be a must-buy for William's stunning art alone.

3.) Blackest Night / Green Lantern

- After the confusing and messy Final Crisis event, many were reluctant to buy into yet another epic crossover from DC. And yet ... if anyone could pull off something as big and ambitious as Blackest Night, it was Geoff Johns. In the pages of Green Lantern, Johns has been laying the groundwork for this storyline for years, and it served as the giant conclusion to his GL trilogy that began with Rebirth, continued to The Sinestro Corps War, and then, finally, to Blackest Night. The GL issues leading up to the event were awesome, and the event itself, so far, has delivered. Johns just has that uncanny knack for clean, solid storytelling that mixes epic, high-concept superheroics with just enough in-depth characterization to get you highly invested in all the melodrama. If there was one phrase that shook the comic world in '09, it was the call of the Black Lantern rings as they summoned dead heroes and villains from the grave: "RISE!"

4.) Fables / Jack of Fables

Fables is an interesting one. Undoubtedly one of the landmark comics of this past decade, Fables just keeps chugging along with no signs of slowing down. There have now been spinoffs, novels, and more, but the core Fables book has remained top-notch. Okay, so maybe the critically-panned "Great Fables Crossover" story wasn't the series' finest hour, but the book has since rebounded, with some really cool storylines, like the recent "Witches" arc. Meanwhile, the companion book, Jack of Fables, seems to improve every month. With its edgy humor and satirical bent, Jack is just a fun read. And the awesome Brian Bolland covers don't hurt, either.

5.) Secret Six

- Gail Simone has been kicking ass on Secret Six, and over the last year it's grown into one of my favorite comics. The fact is, this darkly humorous, action-packed book about six deviant supervillains-for-hire is a joy to read because Simone clearly loves writing for the badguys. I mean, they may be decidely evil, and yet, characters like Catman, Deadshot, and Scandal Savage have become some of the most multidimensional in comics.

6.) Sweet Tooth

- What an awesomely weird comic. Sweet Tooth is a stylized post-apocalyptic roadtrip comic, and half the fun so far has just been slowly figuring out what the hell is going on. We have some vague notion of a great disaster that decimated the earth, and we know that there are children, transformed by the disaster, who are being hunted by the remaining normal humans. Jeff Lemire writes and draws, and he also belongs on that list of breakout talent of 2009. It's been really fun following this exciting new comic from Vertigo.

7.) Kick-Ass

- I think the knock against Kick-Ass is just that it took so damn long to come out. It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth - months between issues, even as the movie was completed and screened at film fests. That said, Kick-Ass is probably one of Mark Millar's best comics yet - it is totally bombastic and over-the-top, yet fun as all hell. It feels like the Tarantino version of a teen superhero movie. And, now that the first volume is finally complete, I can look back and say that yes, Kick-Ass was one hell of a ride.

8.) Destroyer

- I'm at the point now where I'll try out almost anything by Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman. While some of his new projects in '09 failed to impress (The Haunt, for one) others, well, kicked ass. Destroyer, for one - an over-the-top superhero story for Marvel that chronicled an aging hero's final crusade to fight the good fight before his creaky old ticker finally goes out on him. I mean come on, who doesn't love a good yarn about a badass old man kicking ass one last time?

9.) Ex-Machina

- It's been kind of sad, I have to say. After emerging as one of the best and brightest comic book writers to come along in years, Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) has been spending most of his time with movies and TV, penning awesome episodes of shows like Lost. But, we've still been getting new issues of Ex Machina, Vaughan's other big series which has been barrelling towards its conclusion, set for later this year. The saga of Mayor Mitchell Hundred has been an awesome read - politics mixed with sci-fi - and I only wish it came out more frequently so that I could remember what the hell was going on when a new issue hits.

10.) Jonah Hex

- Jonah Hex is one of those comics that I always look forward to, simply because you never know what you're going to get. With so many ongoing comics, it's the same thing - wash, rinse, repeat - six issue storyarcs, dragged-out storylines that take forever to conclude, etc. With Hex, we get self-contained, badass Western tales that could involve action, adventure, mystery, horror, or romance. In 2009, we got the series' first-ever multi-part arc, an epic story called Six-Gun War. But we also got lots of great one-and-done stories, including a memorable anniversery issue, that reaffirmed the series' greatness.



- I can't exactly include Planetary on my main Top 10 list, because only one issue of the series came out in 2009. But what an issue it was. After a years-long wait for the acclaimed series' final issue, we finally got it in '09. And it was a doozy. The writing of Warren Ellis was sharp, the art from John Cassady was spectacular, and the adventures of Elijah Snow, Jaquita Wagner, and The Drummer were wrapped up in epic fashion. A fitting close to one of the decade's best comics.


- Run
- Booster Gold
- Batman & Robin
- Batman: Streets of Gotham
- Batman: Gotham City Sirens
- Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
- The Flash: Rebirth
- Power Girl
- Black Lightning: Year One
- Green Lantern Corps
- Superman: Secret Origin
- Superman: World of New Krypton


1. Geoff Johns (Green Lantern, Blackest Night, Flash)
2. Robert Kirkman (Walking Dead, Destroyer)
3. Greg Rucka (Detective Comics, Action Comics)
4. Paul Dini (Streets of Gotham, Gotham City Sirens, Batman: Arkham Asylum)
5. Matthew Sturges (Jack of Fables, Run)
6. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (Power Girl, Jonah Hex)
7. Gail Simone (Secret Six)
8. Mark Millar (Kick-Ass)
9. Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth)
10. Peter Tomasi (Green Lantern Corps)


1. JH Williams III (Detective Comics)
2. Ivan Reiss (Blackest Night)
3. John Romita Jr. (Kick-Ass)
4. Frank Quietly (Batman & Robin)
5. Charlie Adlard (Walking Dead)
6. Mark Buckingham (Fables)
7. Gary Frank (Superman: Secret Origin)
8. Doug Mahnke (Green Lantern)
9. Tony Daniel (Batman)
10. Eddy Barrows (Superman: Blackest Night)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In Videogames

We're well into 2010, and yet, it's been so busy these last few weeks that I never got to finish up my BEST OF 2009 series. Okay, I'll admit, between my BEST OF THE 00's posts and my usual year-end wrap-ups, I did *a lot* of listmaking throughout the month of December. So much so that the thought of doing any more sort of gave me a headache. But now that some time has passed and I've given myself some space, I wanted to come back and finish up what I started several weeks back. I've already posted my Best of '09 lists for movies and TV - so check 'em out if you haven't already - but here, finally, is a look at the past year's best in GAMES. Enjoy reading, and stay tuned for a couple final installments in the Best of 2009.


- Videogames had another fine year in '09, and I think we are in the midst of the best part of every console generation - the period in which we can really sit back and enjoy games that really begin to push the hardware to new heights. When consoles are new, you get some great software, sure, but it's often in the middle period of a console's lifespan that you get the truly defining games. The developers have grown more comfortable with the hardware, the big name franchises have gotten new installments, and the new IP that launched alongside the new consoles have become bonafide franchises, with bigger and better sequels that really push the limits.

As someone who's been a big PS3 supporter, it's been awesome seeing the console really hit its stride this past year. This past holiday season, sales of the PS3 really spiked, and with good reason - the system saw an unbelievable software lineup that, to me, really established Sony's wonder-machine as the must-own system of the moment. For a while, the PS3 had only a handful of bigtime exclusives. But this year alone, Sony released titles like Infamous, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, and Uncharted 2. Triple-A titles that you won't find on the XBOX. I'm not saying that Microsoft didn't also have a good year. I'm just saying that, in my mind, the PS3 was where the action was in '09.

Honestly though, it's hard to think of many big exclusives that were released on the XBOX 360 in '09. Halo ODST, sure, but if you weren't already a Halo fan (like me, for instance) it wasn't that huge of a deal. Now, Microsoft does have a huge title in early 2010 with Mass Effect 2, but so does Sony - God of War III. That said, I give MS credit. They have made great strides to turn the XBOX into a legitimate multimedia powerhouse. Their machine may not be able to play blu-ray discs, but it is still the king of online connectivity and digital distribution. Overall though, both of the big consoles made strides in that area. Great downloadable games were released - games that wouldn't have been possible without the niche online marketplaces of the consoles. I mean, look at Shadow Complex on the XBOX - an awesome, old-school 2D adventure that can be downloaded directly to your console. I love that digital distribution has made such games feasible in the modern era. Plus, both consoles now integrate with Facebook, Netflix, etc. Pretty crazy, yet also cool. At the end of the day though, as any hardcore gamer knows, it's all about the games.

And this brings me to Nintendo. To me, 2009 was a pretty dismal year for the Big N. The Wii was basically a black hole for quality releases. Third parties have all but given up on releasing real games for the platform, and with good reason. Games like Madworld and Dead Space: Extraction were poor sellers on the Wii. Nintendo might be making lots of bank from their console, but other publishers are not. A couple of games this year piqued my interest on the Wii, but I don't think there was a single new game that made me regret not owning one. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, maybe, but hey, I own New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, and to be honest this one looked like simply more of the same, albeit with multiplayer. Nintendo has a new Mario Galaxy, a new Zelda, and a Team Ninja-developed Metroid title in development. That's cool. But Nintendo needs to realize that a couple new token franchise releases aren't enough. It's sad to think that the company that turned a generation of kids into loyal gamers has now mostly abandoned those same consumers. At the same time, it's hard to worry too much about Nintendo's current sad state. There are too many great games out there to play - no use dwelling on what might have been.

About those great games ... man, if only I had time to play them all. I still have several games I purchased in 2009 that I've yet to even dive into. I'm still waiting to play games like Brutal Legend and Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. Even Resident Evil 5 ... I've just barely scratched the surface ... unfortunately, I had to put that one on the backburner for a while. And yet, even as time gets tighter, I still love the feeling of getting immersed in a game. It's a little easier, I think, to write here on the blog about movies and TV. The language of those mediums is still more universal and well-known. Games are harder to talk about without alienating those who aren't gamers themselves. And yet, when I look at a game like Uncharted 2, I want to yell at people who dismiss games to just sit down and play it. I've talked about how, to me, the first Uncharted game was *the* blockbuster adventure story of the year when it came out. Even as people came away from the new Indiana Jones flick disappointed and underwhelmed, here was Uncharted, which was the better in every way, plus ... you controlled the action! For gamers, that rush of adrenaline that comes with guiding a hero dafely through a perilous journey, well, it's nothing new. But now, a game like Uncharted 2 is so aesthetically similar to a movie, that its advantages are hard to ignore. Or look at Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's so good, that it's right up there in the all-time cannon of awesome Batman stories. If you're a Bat-fan, then of course you've got to watch The Dark Knight and the classic Animated Series. You've got to read the classic comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and The Killing Joke. And now, you've got to play Arkham Asylum. It's a definitive experience.

And look, by no means do I think that all games have to have complex mechanics and state-of-the-art graphics to be great. There's something amazing about the simplicity of logic and purpose to a game like Tetris, for example. That said, there is this category of franchise videogames that I don't think the mainstream can ignore, because again, they look and feel like big-budget movies, but they offer up an experience that's immersive, intense, and interactive. People talk about things like Wii Fit, iPhone games, etc. Those are fun distractions, but most people I've talked to with a Wii Fit spent a couple days playing with it and then quickly through it in the closet. Most iPhone games are good for a couple of hours of amusement but are ultimately not comparable to the average DS or PSP game. The big budget blockbuster games are often labeled as "core" games, but to me that distinction is pointless. So ... any game that requires a time investment and has a learning curve is a "core" game? That's like saying that any movie that requires you to pay attention and think a bit is a "core" movie. What I love about games though is how smart and passionate real game fans are. Luckily, I think that more and more people are going to be forced to "get it" even if they've been slow to jump on the bandwagon until now. I mean, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the biggest entertainment debut EVER, dollars-wise. Personally I'm not a Call of Duty guy, but still, that's amazing. Games are the real deal, and in 2009, nobody could ignore it.

So here are my Top 5 games of 2009, my personal favorite gaming experiences of this past year.


1.) Uncharted 2

- With jaw-dropping graphics, cinematic presentation, and uber-fun gameplay, Uncharted 2 is one of the best games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. Building on everything that made the first game work so well, this awesome sequel ups the ante even further, with a better story, smoother gameplay, and ultra-detailed visuals that somehow improve on the original's bar-setting standards. Again, this game has all the trappings of a blockbuster movie, but it also has the gameplay to go with it. Rarely have style and substance come together so seamlessly. Bottom line: this is one kickass game.

2.) Batman: Arkham Asylum

- Licensed games are rarely good, and Batman games have a long and indistinguished history of mediocrity. But Arkham Asylum stunned me with its quality. The game makes you feel like Batman - there's hi-octane action, detective work / puzzle solving, cool gadgets, a dark and gritty storyline, and all the cool little bits of Bat-lore that have made the character so popular for all these years. Arkham Asylum takes the persistent storytelling of games like Bioshock and adapts it to the Batman universe, with a killer script from Paul Dini, and awesome voicework from the original Animated Series cast, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hammil as The Joker. Amazingly, the gameplay is super-smooth as well - the combination of action and exploration is right up there with classics like Zelda and Tomb Raider. Suffice it to say, bring on the sequel.

3.) Street Fighter 4

Like many, I was skeptical about a new, 3D Street Fighter game, especially given the amount of time that had passed between new SF installments. At the same time, I was really curious to see how Capcom would update the biggest fighting franchise ever for the next generation. And ... wow ... somehow, Capcom pulled off a stunner - a game with awesome, ultra-stylized 3D graphics, but one that retained SFII's classic, tight gameplay and rock-solid fighting mechanics. So many fighting games these days encourage random button presses and huge ultra-combos, so it was great to have a game that went back to basics without skimping on the flash and style that next-gen consoles make possible. Shoryuken!

4.) Shadow Complex

- This was a game that I couldn't wait to play since I saw the demo in action at E3 this past summer. Because, yeah, I am one of those old-school gamers who salivates at the thought of a classic 2D side-scroller created using new-school next-gen graphics and production value. And that's exactly what Shadow Complex is - a 2D adventure in the style of Castlevania or Metroid, except with a sophisticated espionage story and eye-popping graphics to boot. I love that this game, which might have had a tough time selling at retail, was created as an XBOX digital download too. A very cool example of the possibilities of digital distribution on next-gen consoles.

5.) Scribblenauts

- This Nintendo DS game is so original and ambitious. It's basically a puzzle-game, but the twist is that you can use almost any object you can think of to help you get past each challenge. It's pretty amazing - simply use the DS stylus to write a noun - a hammer, a jetpack, a dinosaur, a truck, a time machine - anything - and it's yours to utilize on a given level. The sheer number of objects you can conjure up is mind-blowing - half the fun is seeing how obscure you can get, and then realizing that even the craziest thing you can think of is available in the game. Definitely one of the coolest games yet on the DS, and a game that is one of the most fun and original I've played in a long while.

- Alright, that's it for now. Check back soon for more!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Closing the Book: THE BOOK OF ELI - Reviewed!

Man, this week has been crazy. I've had so much I've wanted to write about, but just haven't had the time to update the ol' blog as much as I'd like. That said, I'm back with some pre-weekend musings, so keep readin'.

So, it's been cold and rainy here in LA. In most places this wouldn't be remarkable, except here in LA it's practically the apocalypse whenever things get wet. One thing about LA though - the rain usually comes and goes here really quickly. I think that's why people get so freaked out. They don't have any time to adjust. So actually, now that it's been raining for several days straight, it's not that bad. People are realizing that rain isn't all that big of a deal. Craziness ...

Meanwhile, it was a short week at work due to MLK Day, but it didn't really feel that way. Lots going on, as you can imagine, and so this coming weekend couldn't come fast enough.

Anyways, I have a couple of movies I've been wanting to talk about, so let's get to it. Looks like I've only got time for one review today, so for now, here's a look at Denzel Washington's latest action flick, The Book of Eli ...


- 2010 started out with one campy-but-fun sci-fi actioner in Daybreakers, so I was hoping that The Book of Eli would keep up the momentum and be yet another cool genre flick to help kick off the year. There seemed to be a lot of potential in the concept, and the cast was, at least on paper, really excellent as well. And yet, I thought that The Book of Eli turned out to be one of those movies that never really lived up to its promise. Some badass action scenes scattered throughout the film kept things decently entertaining, but the plot ultimately seemed to fall apart under its own weight. There are some really interesting stylistic flourishes in this one, but the substance just isn't there.

The Book of Eli features a pretty cool premise - the kind of semi-gimmicky yet thought-provoking hook that could have been the setup for a classic Twilight Zone episode back in the day. The movie takes us to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the earth has now been bereft of resources and law and order for decades. Only those who've made it to middle-age remember what things were like "before." One such man is Denzel Washington as Eli - a badass nomad who travels through the desolate wasteland on a somewhat ambiguous journey West. Eli carries with him a pack of items that he uses to barter for food and water (and old-world relics, like a beat-up iPod), but he also carries a bible - purportedly, the last copy of the book in existence. Eli is carrying his book on a prophetic mission of faith, but of course, there are others who want to get their hands on it, knowing the book's power as a tool of manipulation and control. Enter Gary Oldman as Carnegie, the defacto leader of a ramshackle town, looking to build his power base and branch out beyond the confines of his little village. Oldman is a book collector, sending out his servants to find copies of the great works of literature, all the while hoping that they'll stumble onto an elusive copy of the holy bible. When Eli wanders into Carnegie's village, the two begin their battle for the book.

As you can see, the movie is predicated on some pretty ambitious, lofty concepts. There is definitely something intriguing about the premise, and I could see it working as a very simple, Twilight Zone sort of parable. But The Hughes Brothers, the film's directors, aren't content with that. They overload the movie to the point where it ends up feeling muddled and directionless. Some of their choices work, others don't.

I mean, the movie undoubtedly has some badass action scenes. In fact, I think my favorite part of the film was the action, which gets shockingly brutal at times. And yet, The Hughes Brothers imbue the brutality with a Kill Bill-esque sense of over-the-top cartoon gracefulness. The film has that whole post-apocalyptic samurai theme going for it, and the elegant action scenes reinforce that motif.

It also helps that the cast is so talented. Denzel Washington does his best to sell the material, and it's always fun to see him play the badass. Denzel is probably one of the few actors who could make the part of Eli work as well as it does. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman is always good as the villain. And yet, his par there is pretty underwritten and not all that memorable. Again, Oldman does the best to make things entertaining. But he really doesn't have much good material to work with. There are some other really good actors scattered throughout the movie (Tom Waits, Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon), including one potentially awesome surprise cameo from a sci-fi legend. Too bad the cameo doesn't amount to much ... I actually thought Mila Kunis was pretty good here too. I definitely think she has the chops to do more action-oriented stuff like this. Hopefully working with icons like Washington and Oldman rubbed off on her.

So I really dug the action, and the cast is pretty great. But where things start to fall apart is in the script. It starts out with some promise as the premise is initially laid out. But man, it just becomes more and more groan-inducing as it goes on. For one thing, the tone is pretty all over the place. I mean, something like Daybreakers knew from moment one that it was a campy sci fi genre flick. The Book of Eli tries to have its cake and eat it too, with moments of totally cartoonish action and action-movie tropes - moments that totally contrast with the dead-serious, ultimately heavy handed scenes that try to hammer you over the head with the movie's broader themes. Especially in the wake of THE ROAD, which I thought did an amazing job of telling a multilayered, thematically rich post-apocalyptic story, The Book of Eli was hard to take all that seriously. Things get even worse towards the end of the movie though. The plot stumbles forward without ever really tying its different plot threads together, and then ... well, and then there is a big twist of M. Night proportions. It's a twist that is surely supposed to make our jaws drop in shock and awe, but I have to say it felt really hokey. Even worse, it was totally incidental to the actual plot of the movie. It really changed nothing about the story except to add one more unnecessary wrinkle to an already overstuffed script.

If the movie had ended on a huge bang, I think this one could have been much easier to swallow. But the movie builds and builds towards ... something ... but ultimately fails to deliver any sort of satisfying payoff. There's a whole lot of meandering around without much in the way of resolution. If this were, in fact, a Twilight Zone episode, then surely there'd be some great, climactic reveal that would have left us reeling.

One other note on the overall stylistic tendencies of the film. I think the uber-stylized direction of the Hughes brothers is ultimately a bit much. Sometimes it's cool and results in badass action scenes, but other times, it seems to detract from the movie rather than add to it. So much of of the movie's look and feel just seems repurposed from any number of other movies, videogames, etc. Again, there are some really inspired moments, but those aren't enough to really leave you feeling good about the film.

I think The Book of Eli may be worth checking out, but if you only see one stylized sci-fi action film this January, I'd go with the superior Daybreakers. And if you only see one recent post-apocalyptic drama, definitely go with The Road. As it stands, The Book of Eli has its share of cool moments, but ultimately is only so-so.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, I'm out of time for now but will be back soon with a lot more, so stay tuned. Coming up: a review of YOUTH In REVOLT, a TV Roundup, and a more thoughts on CONAN O'BRIEN and the Late Night Wars!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Uploaded in Real-Time From My PDA ... 24 - Take Two!


Okay, so the second two hours of 24 were definitely a step up. After Hours 1 & 2, I was left a little bit disappointed, but still hopeful that 24 could turn things around. Well, Monday night, a lot of the same problems were still present as on Sunday ... and yet ... there were definitely signs of life, indications that, yes, business was about to pick up.

24 on Monday got a little darker, a little grittier, and a lot more hardcore. This was mostly thanks to the reintroduction of Renee Walker in Hour 4. I'll admit, last year I thought that Walker was a decent character, but at the same time, she never truly won me over. In some ways, she was a walking plot device, a sounding board for the real-life critics who thought Jack Bauer's methods had gotten too violent, too extreme. I never really liked that Jack Bauer's over-the-top actions had to be constantly questioned. To me it sort of broke down the suspension of disbelief of the show - if you really applied a strict moral compass to everything that the characters on 24 do, you end up with some pretty messy logic. That said, I was just writing on Sunday about how 24 needed an extra does of badassery, and so I can't object to a new, darker version of Walker who has now somewhat snapped and become a dark-mirror version of Jack at his most unhinged. To me, the new Renee Walker was more interesting in that final scene of Hour 4 than she'd ever been before. Before she was the generic by-the-book cop. Now, she had clearly snapped, and become a dangerous loose-cannon that gives even Jack Bauer the willies. Already, we have a much more interesting character dynamic than before.

Other than the Walker stuff, which was suitably awesome, Hours 3 and 4 of 24 just plain picked up the pace. There was more action and intrigue, and the plot thankfully expanded in size and scope. Some of the annoying plot points were, thankfully, quickly wrapped up (Hassan's brother was outed as being a traitor, and his journalist mistress was cleared as a suspect in the assassination attempt ...). People started listening to Jack and Chloe, and we didn't have to wonder anymore why nobody seems to listen to the two people who have almost singlehandedly saved the world seven times now.

Still, some stupid plotlines persisted. Katee Sackhoff's secret-identity subplot is already 100% annoying, and needs to shift gears as soon as humanly possible. 24 has always had these incidental storylines that just so happen to be unravelling right as the CTU team is knee-deep in the middle of a world-shaking crisis. But man, this one has just been introduced so inorganically. I mean, even if Dana Walsh's mysterious stalker / ex-boyfriend is a total psycho, would he actually call her and/or visit her in person every five minutes? And seriously, doesn't she work at CTU? She's got to have methods for dealing with a guy like this. In any case, this storyline needs to either get the axe or else seriously get a shot in the arm, ASAP.

Also, I do worry about the longterm ramifications of Jack and Renee working undercover together. Like I said before, I'm somewhat sick of Jack always working against the law. On Monday night, the whole cops-beating-on-Jack thing was pretty lame and unbelievable, and now the show has set itself up for even more such misunderstandings. When will we ever just get back to Jack, with a badge, fighting criminals under the auspices of the law?

Overall though, these last two hours showed a lot of promise as compared to the first two. I'm excited that we've moved beyond a simple assassination plot into denser and more multilayered plot territory, and happy that the show still seems capable of producing some genuinely surprising and shocking moments. Cautiously optimistic from here on out. So ... who wants to take bets that the only other man who's ever infiltrated the Russian mob from CTU turns out to be ... Tony (SOUL PATCH!) Almeida?

My Grade: B+

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Inject Me With GRAVITAS, Because ~24~ is Back!

24! 24! 24!

- Well, after a long wait, Twenty-by-god-Four (24~!) is back. And that means 24 straight hours of Jack Bauer kicking ass and taking names. It's a credit to the show that even after seven seasons, I'm still uber-excited about a new season's debut. Sure, 24 now is not quite operating on the same level of awesomeness that it did back in the day. But still ... if you look at the TV landscape nowadays, there are so few shows that seem custom made for us guys. I mean, hey, I might enjoy an episode of Glee or Gossip Girl, but at the end of the day, I want a show that isn't afraid to get grim n' gritty, that features copious amounts of action and badassery, and that doesn't skimp on the gravitas. With Prison Break now over and done with, it's up to the old stalwart 24 to keep the fire burning. So I was primed and ready for Season 8. Jack was once again back, and to that I said: bring it.

So what did I think of Hours 1 and 2 of Season 8? Well, tonight was a decent start to the new season, but at the same time ,you couldn't help but come away feeling slightly underwhelmed. Because, sure, there was a a little bit of polish given to the old 24 formula (a new setting - New York City, a new CTU with a shiny new HQ ...), but at the end of the day it was still very much the same 24 formula that we've seen year in and year out.

I mean, if you're a longtime 24 fan, you had to groan a bit at some of the all-too-familiar plot threads that have already surfaced in the span of two hours. The bumbling CTU chief who doesn't trust Jack despite the fact that Jack's instincts are right 95% of the time. Jack having to "go rogue" and working at odds with local law enforcement and CTU. Inter-CTU rivalries and romances. The head of state with dysfunctional family - the shrewish wife, doting daughter, and scheming brother. The CTU agent with sketchy past coming back to haunt her. The naive CTU agent who looks up to Jack but hasn't yet been hardened by the difficult moral choices that come with the job. And so on ...

I don't mind 24 going back to the well once in a while, but this was all a bit much. Just too by the numbers, especially when you consider that 24 premieres have a history of starting off with a huge bang. I don't mind a slow burn if it leads to a great payoff down the line, but there just didn't seem many plot threads introduced with all that much potential. I think one mistake 24 sometimes makes is that it puts too much stock in out-of-nowhere surprises and twists. Those are fun, but sometimes, it might do the show some good to lay the foundation for the whole season early on. They actually did a pretty nice job with that last year when they slowly introduced Jon Voight's character, Jonas Hodges, as the big villain. This year, the threat so far is a pretty mundane terror plot, with the only twists being the been-there, done-that family intrigue involving Hassan's treacherous brother.

Speaking of big villains, last year's 24 season started out with a veritable rogues gallery of great bad-guys introduced as foils for Jack. Jon Voight's Jonas Hodges and Tony Todd as General Juma. That alone was kickass. But then throw in Dubaku, Tony (Soul Patch!) Almeida, and the great Kurtwood Smith playing an antagonsitic senator ... and man, you had some pretty heavy hitters standing in Jack's way on the road to justice. So far, in Season 8, there's definitely not yet any bigtime villains that can compare. In general, we need some more badasses, some more gravitas. Katee Sackhoff is there as a CTU tech, but you have to wonder why she was cast as a mere computer geek trading barbs with Chloe. Hopefully she plays a larger role soon (and I think she will). But yeah, this new CTU head has yet to impress (he's no Bill Buchanan), and Freddie Prinze Jr. is just sort of "meh." I think fans liked Tony so much because he was nearly as badass as Jack, and it was lots of fun seeing them team up or be at odds. I don't know why the 24 producers are lately so intent on always pairing Jack with fresh-faced characters who are way below him on the awesome scale. But dammit, all I know is that Aaron Pierce needs to show up ASAP so my TV can explode into gravitas-induced spasms.

Complaints aside, I recognize that this was only the very beginning of what will be a marathon and not a sprint. And I do appreciate that there was at least one moment of sheer awesome-sauce in these first two hours, that being when Jack went medieval on a would-be attacker, slicing and dicing him with a fire-ax. Holy Jack-Sack, Batman, that flat-out owned.

At the same time, it was a tad frustrating that these two hours sometimes felt like self-parody. I mean, multiple times now, we've seen a semi-retired Jack get pulled back in to CTU's latest world-in-crisis situation due to sheer bad timing and bad luck. Of course, the day before Jack is due to fly from NYC to LA to relocate with daughter Kim, her husband, and his grandaughter (!), he gets wrapped up in a plot that is, of course, completely based in NYC, with all the major players - the President, the terror plot, and the new CTU HQ - conveniently located within a 5 mile radius of Jack. And of course, Jack tries to minimize his involvement at first, even as we at home know fully well that he's got a nother 23 hours to power through. Ah, the existential crisis of a man trapped in a real-time TV show. It would be nice though if we could go back to just having Jack actually work at CTU, so there didn't have to be some ultra-contrived reason for him to keep getting involved in their cases, and so we wouldn't have to go through yet another instance of Jack getting deputized only to outshine every other weak-ass CTU agent.

Anyways, my hope is that Season 8 of 24 quickly moves to introduce some cool new characters - both heroes and villains - and doesn't wait too long to re-introduce favorites like Tony and Aaron Pierce. We need more gravitas, stat! Also, we need to up the ante of the plot a bit. For once, how about we don't wait until the second-to-last episode to reveal the old white guy who's secretly the mastermind behind everything. Two more hours to go on Monday. Let's hope they thoroughly kick my ass.

My Grade: B-

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Late-Night War: My Thoughts






Well, what a fine mess this is.

The last few days have been crazy in terms of NBC's late-night shake-ups. And I have to wonder - what is going on here? The most insane thing about all this is that it looks like the end result may be Leno back as host of The Tonight Show and Conan heading for the hills (and/or FOX). Some Jay Leno fans will be happy that their guy is back at 11:30. Most of those people are over 50. Meanwhile though, you have to think that NBC is simply shooting itself in the foot. Five years ago, NBC, and presumably Leno, passed the baton to Conan. The whole point of that early transitional announcement was, in theory, to avoid the kind of messiness that resulted when Johnny Carson retired. Jay Leno knew better than anyone the kind of bitterness and infighting that would be inevitable without a predetermined arrangement, and for a while, he pretended to be the gracious company man. But that humble and gracious guy was not the real Jay Leno.

This is where it's hard to have much empathy for Jay. He more than anyone is well aware that the late-night game is a marathon and not a sprint. It took Jay years to become #1 in late-night, and you could argue that there was *a lot* of luck that went into Jay eventually overtaking Letterman in the ratings. Jay scratched and clawed his way onto The Tonight Show. You'd think that he would want Conan to have it a little better, a little easier. Afterall, Conan payed his dues. He hosted Late Night for seventeen years, and slowly but surely grew into the best host in late-night. This was his time, this was his moment.

But from the moment Conan took over The Tonight Show, there were countless forces working against him. Some of it was bad luck - Letterman's sex scandal was probably the turning point in the ratings war, and it gave Dave a lot of momentum. But some of it was NOT luck. Instead of retiring gracefully as planned, Leno suddenly portrayed himself as the guy who was prematurely "cancelled" by the network. He threatened to leave NBC and jump ship to another network - probably ABC - where he'd go head to head with Conan. NBC didn't want that, so they looked for some sort of solution. Meanwhile, NBC was hurting in primetime and looking to cut costs, to play for margins rather than ratings. They brought back Leno to do a daily 10 pm show. And just about everyone saw it coming: this was a disaster in the making.

Here's where yo usee the night-and-day difference between Jay and Conan. Before he took over The Tonight Show, everyone was speculating on what sort of show Conan would do. Would he keep the randomness and wackiness of Late Night, or would he cater more to Jay's old audience and be a little more straightforward and toned-down. Conan undoubtedly started off a bit shakily from a creative standpoint. The monologue was too long, Andy seemed a bit awkward, and there were too many remote sketches. But did Conan rest on his laurels? Hell no. He tweaked and he made adjustments. The show got better and funnier by the week. And over the last few months, The Tonight Show was truly great late-night television. Conan was hitting his stride. Meanwhile, Jay gets a completely experimental timeslot at 10 pm. He really ahd a chance to try something new and different. There was talk of bringing in lots of young comedians and doing more of an old-fashioned variety show. It still seemed risky, but at least Jay would give it the old college try ... right? Nope. The Jay Leno Show turned out to be Jay's version of The Tonight Show, except earlier. The same lame sketches, the same warmed-over monologue jokes, and a couple of new yet unimpressive bits that fell totally flat. Did Jay tweak? Did he work tirelessly to find the perfect creative balance? No, he just kept plugging away. Content, seemingly, just to be on TV, to be taking up space on the airwaves. As Patton Oswalt recently talked about in an interview, Jay is Nixonian in terms of his survival instinct. He wants to "win," but not for any particular reason - he doesn't care about doing things the right way or about being the best in the biz - he just wants to stay alive.

And you know, someone IM'd me today and said something that was so out-of-left-field. They said "see, this proves what I've always said, that Conan isn't funny." That's like saying "well, The Rolling Stones' latest album didn't sell that well, so, see, it proves that they were never any good." Conan's comedy credentials are unquestionable. Editor of the Harvard Lampoon, acclaimed writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, and host of one of the best and most innovative talk shows ever. I fully understand that some people don't "get" Conan. And that's cool. I may not "get" Radiohead, but I'm not going to just say "yeah, they suck." Comedy is subjective, last I checked, but to the people who see recent events as some sort of validation of Jay's everyman humor as being superior to Conan's more ironic and absurdist sensibilities ... no, I'm sorry, don't even go there. And I'm not going to bash Jay either, at least in that regard. Old footage of Leno shows that the guy can be pretty sharp when he wants to. But somewhere along the way, Jay lost that edge. He became less about being funny and more about simply being the alternative to Letterman. If Letterman was hip and ironic, then Jay would be the exact oppossite. But what does bother me is that all these middle-aged, middle American people buy Jay as being this empathetic, picked-on everyman. Please. The guy is a multi-millionaire. He owns two-hundred cars and wears all-denim all-the-time. He's stayed afloat this long not because of his everyman charm, but by being utterly ruthless. Suffice it to say, he's not exactly Joe Average.

Look, you have to be ruthless in showbiz to some extent. You have to fight for your spot. At the same time, in entertainment, as in sports, there is that "time-honored tradition." The passing of the torch. The building of a legacy. Leno of all people, you would think, would be mindful of doing things the right way with his obvious successor in Conan. But not so. He went on to host the doomed 10 pm show, and then went on to flip out once it was clear that that show had to go. This could have been Leno's Michael Jordan moment. The 10 pm show was like Jordan's comeback season with The Wizards. An interesting experiment, but at the end of the day, not worth the tarnished legacy. Still, Jordan was able to go out gracefully and his Wizards run is only a small footnote in an otherwise remarkable career. Leno wasn't content for his post-2009 career to just be a weird footnote though. He wanted The Tonight Show back. And it looks like he's in good position to get it. AND STILL ... he is on the air begging for the crowd's sympathy. He is about to pull off one of the biggest switcheroos in entertainment history, and he's out there whining about how he's been unjustly "fired" and "cancelled" once again. Yes Jay, an ENTIRE NETWORK is being run into the ground because of this failed 10 pm experiment, but let's all feel sorry for you. So many times on this blog, I've talked about great series like Freaks & Geeks and Arrested Development that were prematurely cancelled. Shows that never got the marketing push they deserved, that might have done better had they been given more of a chance. How does Jay not realize after all his years in showbiz that if you fail in primetime, you've got to go? As I alluded to, *far* better shows than The Jay Leno Show have been cancelled due to low ratings. And those were only on once a week.

But let's talk about this from a business perspective. Afterall, that's ultimately what all this comes down to, right? First of all, one of the smarter things that NBC did was to organize an early deal that was supposed to have ensured a smooth transition from Jay to Conan. Jay can talk all he wants about how he was forced out, but five years ago, Jay agreed to the deal. He could have put up a fight then if he wanted to. Nobody was forcing him into it - he could have jumped ship. Regardless, this made a ton of sense for NBC. The Tonight Show is a storied franchise, and it made sense to ensure that it had a bright future. Conan was the right choice for the job. The deal kept him at NBC and cemented The Tonight Show as a premiere franchise for years if not decades to come.

But then, NBC fumbled the ball. Putting Jay at 10 was seen as a way to negate the losses of a continually weak prime-time lineup. But the logic of Jay at 10 was clearly faulty. 10 pm was a tough timeslot for NBC, but especially in this day and age of DVR, how can you write off a whole hour of primetime? CBS does great at 10. ABC is doing great now. NBC has done great in the past. If NBC had a killer drama at 10, people would watch it. NBC's #1 priority should have been developing a great primetime lineup that would get them back in the game. Having a low-cost but low-rated show like Leno doesn't help you at all in the long-run. There are far too many negative side-effects. You weaken the affiliates and the local news. You weaken the rest of the primetime lineup. You weaken advertising revenue. The low-ratings hurt your ability to promote your other programming. You lose the opportunity to promote huge events like The Olympics. You weaken your late-night lineup, not only in the ratings, but in terms of diluting them since stars have one more show on which to appear. It certainly doesn't help Conan when Jay, and not him, is booking A-list talent every episode. These aren't just things that are easy to say in hindsight. This was clearly the light at the end of the tunnel, and it's crazy to me that NBC went ahead with the Leno experiment anyway despite these warning signs. I mean, so what if they had lost Leno to ABC? ABC has had a losing late-night show for years in Kimmel, but I don't think they'd trade places with fourth-place NBC any time soon. At the end of the day, primetime is what's most important, and you don't sacrifice those timeslots just to avoid taking a hit in the late-night wars. Having such a low-rated show air every night at 10 is like putting a giant black hole in the middle of your programming lineup. And come on, did anyone really think the ratings would be much higher than they've been? Even the most fervent Leno supporters were not going to commit to watching him *every night* in primetime. Something was going to give.

And it's for that reason that Leno had to go. I agree with and support the decision to can Leno at 10. It had to happen, for the sake of the network. But did it have to go down like it did? For one thing, and this is even beside the point a bit, why can Leno when you don't even have a contingency plan in place for 10 pm? The timing wasn't right. But more relevant to this post, why did the whole process once again become about making Leno happy? From a business perspective, Leno is now damaged goods. If he went to another network, there's no way he'd have the same ratings he did in his previous Tonight Show stint. Too much confusion, too much ill-will. On the other hand, a HUGE long-term investment had already been made in Conan. He had been given the keys to the kingdom. His Tonight Show was improving creatively and doing relatively well in the ratings. Getting beaten by Letterman, sure, but how long could that last? How much longer is Letterman even going to stick around? Instead, you bring back the guy who almost dragged your network into the abyss over the past year. The whole thing is messy. Just plain ugly. And it doesn't help that the whole "compromise" idea, of putting Leno at 11:30 and Conan at midnight, was basically a way to throw Conan's contract back in his face. Clearly, NBC is pretty confident that Conan will be in breach of contract as long as he was offered a timeslot at 12:05 am or earlier. I am skeptical that Conan could win that legal battle.

But the fact that Conan defied NBC today even without the assurance of a guaranteed payout is proof of his integrity and class. People defend Leno by saying that, hey, he's just doing what he has to to survive in showbiz. But right here is Conan showing that there is a high road. Conan's letter to the NY Times today was spectacular. And that comes from a guy who's written his share of angry letters / blogs. Conan very clearly stated his position, with an uncanny mix of logic and humor. I mean let's face it - you can only be pushed around so much before you have to man up and take a stand. Previously, I had predicted that Conan would stick around at The Tonight Show, even at a later time slot, because clearly he had so much respect for the tradition and prestige of the franchise. But I think I actually underestimated Conan. His respect for the franchise is such that he doesn't want it to be watered down or messed around with. If he is to properly do right by The Tonight Show, then it would have to be with the full support of the network, and under circumstances that actually made sense, that weren't there just to create some half-assed compromise.

Think about it - Jay back at 11:30 after all this drama is ultimately going to be a sinking ship. People have moved on. Jay at another network at this point would be a minimal threat to NBC. Meanwhile, who knows what kind of damage Conan could do. His is an ultra-loyal audience that will follow him elsewhere. And guess what? His is the same audience that is the next generation of TV watchers. The ones who are going to question their support of an entire network once their hero has been unceremoniously cast off. Giving Conan the boot in this fashion is the kind of monumental moment that is going to create animosity and ill-will that is going to last for a long, long time. And what of the legacy of The Tonight Show? It's now tarnished, no question. I mean look, I'm 27 years old. I'm too young to have ever really watched Johnny Carson, though I have the utmost respect for the man and his comedic legacy. But in my lifetime, *my* Carson has been Conan. He influenced my sense of humor, my career choice, my TV watching habits. For me, he set the gold standard. So many people of a slightly older generation talk about Letterman and the standard he set. Conan is that guy for the Gen Y crowd. Conan is a comedic genius and a nice guy to boot. That's why it feels so raw, so personal, when he gets kicked around like this. Maybe it's not always captured in the Nielsen ratings, but sometimes you can't quite quantify these things. Sometimes, you just know - you read the Facebook comments, you talk to your friends, you read the websites and blogs, and you live it. Booting Conan hit a raw nerve, and this is going to be one bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow. So yeah, I will gladly argue that dropping Conan is bad business, probably in the short-term and definitely in the long-term. But it's also more than that - it just ain't right.

I hope that this all works out for the best for all parties involved, I really do. But until it all shakes out, count me as a proud member of Team Conan.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Taking a Bite Out of DAYBREAKERS ... Plus: CHUCK is Back! And THE SIMPSONS Celebrates 20 Years!

Hey everyone, back from the weekend with lots to talk about. Overall, it's been a fun couple of days - from partying it up with the Pages in Burbank to walking the Sunset Strip with Israel-trip buddies. Now, it's back to the grind, but hey, there's a lot I want to cover in the world of pop-culture, so let's get to it.


- CHUCK is back! Sunday night, the fan-favorite superspy-comedy returned to NBC's primetime lineup, and it was great to have Chuck, Sarah, Morgan, Casey, Ellie, Awesome, and the Buy More crew back in action. This past fall, there was so much speculation about when and if Chuck would come back, but to those of us who are fans, the answer seemed so simple: get Chuck back on the air, ASAP! On one hand, you could call Chuck a pretty simple comedy - a "light", breezy show that is easy to sit back and enjoy. But on the other hand, Chuck to me has always been a real zeitgeisty sort of TV show. It's one of the only series on TV that really feels like it captures the life of the average twenty-something geek. Not to say that Chuck is "realistic." I'm just saying that Josh Schwartz and company have that knack for capturing twenty-something angst and other such issues, through the magnified lense of an average dude who happens to have a top-secret supercomputer embedded in his brain.

Anyways, the big cliffhanger from last season was that Chuck got an upgrade to his Intersect program, so not only is he a walking Wikipedia, but he also has instant access to all sorts of handy super-skills - he can summon an instant kung-fu grip, or channel Jimmy Page's guitar-playing wizardry at the drop of a hat. So of course, the question going into this episode was: how would Chuck's newfound abilities change the dynamic of the show? And if he was now a full-time superspy, how would that affect the lovably hilarious nerds at the Buy More, where so much of the show's comedic charm is derived.

The Season 3 premiere answers all those questions pretty quickly. Chuck may have kickass powers, but he's still struggling to master them, and too often letting his emotional hangups hinder his ability to properly access the Intersect. So Chuck may now have flashes of awesome super-powers, but he's still the same neurotic nerd we've come to know and love. Slightly more confident in himself, sure, but not quite Jack Bauer just yet. Meanwhile, the Buy More staff was definitely present in the premiere, most notably the duo known as Jeffster, who let's face it, are essential to the awesomeness that is Chuck. It's tough though, on one hand Chuck should probably not be working at the store any longer. Character-wise, he, and even Morgan, have moved past it. But I'd probably rather have the Buy More there than not, so I'm willing to let Chuck's character-arc regress a bit until a better solution is found.

Plot-wise, the two episodes that comprised the season-premiere didn't quite blow me away. After all the cool serialized stuff that helped make the latter half of S2 pop, it was a bit of a letdown to have new eps that were much lighter on plot twists and superspy intrigue. That said, there were some cool moments, particularly (SPOILERS) ... the untimely fate of Tony Hale's hilariously goofy Buy More manager. It was a pretty cool death scene though, but still, sorry to see him go.

So yeah, lots of setup that reestablished the new status quo for our main characters. In some ways, it was almost too much. Chuck and Sarah back to being in an endless will-they-or-won't-they type of romance? Not something I'm thrilled about, for example. But, I'm also willing to give the show a little time to ramp things up. You have to imagine that, with all the uncertainty about the show's future, it was tough to properly plot things out past the end of Season 2. So let's hope that Chuck can now settle into a good, solid run, and regain that end-of-S2 momentum.

For now, a pretty good start. And man, I will take a pretty good Chuck over just about everything else on TV. So please, watch this show, get your friends to watch it, fight the good fight.

My Grade: B+

- Meanwhile, Sunday was also a huge night for THE SIMPSONS. The long-running comedy celebrated its twentieth anniversery with an all-new episode followed by a special documentary on the show's history and worldwide influence. Pretty cool. I mean, let's face it, with all the digs on the show's current past-its-prime-state, it makes sense to step back from all that and remind ourselves of just how awesome The Simpsons was, and how influential its been on comedy and pop-culture.

- The special anniversery ep of THE SIMPSONS, however, was only okay. A bit disappointing, especially since last week's ep was pretty strong. Here, we got two main stories. The first was about Krusty's show being rejiggered by antsy network execs, altered to include a fruity female princess character to appeal to the young girl demographic. The second was about Homer and his pals becoming disgruntled at work when donuts are taken out of the nuclear powe plant's budget. Recruited by a corporate headhunter, Homer, Lenny, and Carl consider jumping ship to a rival plant. Most of the episode's highlights came from the Krusty plot. There was some nice satire of dimwitted network TV practices, and of the whole Disney princess phenomenon that seems to instill girls with somewhat questionable, fairy-tale ideals. I was actually really liking the whole thing until, at the last minute, it became a romance between Krusty and his new TV sidekick-in-pink. This led to wedding scene that fell pretty flat, as Bart and Milhouse tried to crash it, to preserve the bitter-clown integrity of their comedy idol. I mean, the Eartha Kitt cameo? Yikes. Meanwhile, the Homer storyline was good for a couple of chuckles, but wasn't really given enough time to add up to much. In fact, the whole episode felt pretty rushed. The final-scene, which seemed to cement the clown-princess romance that the ep had been building towards, was pretty abrupt. So is Krusty married now? Who knows. Like I said, I liked the episode when it was satirizing TV and blatant kid-targeted commericalism, but otherwise, it wasn't anything all that memorable.

My Grade: B-

- As for the doc that followed the episode, well, it was sort of cool. I would have liked to have seen less of Morgan Spurlock and more insight from the key creative minds behind THE SIMPSONS' success. I mean, many fans have heard the show's creators talk endlessly about the series via extensive DVD commentary sessions. But rarely have we actually seen people like Mike Reiss and Conan O'Brien talk on-camera about their experiences and random musings with The Simpsons. Similarly, stories about how Brazil ot upset with the show's portrayal of its country are well-worn by this point. Although, the debate about Groundskeeper Willie's true hometown in Scotland was kind of funny / interesting. Anyways, there wasn't much new here for hardcore fans to really latch onto, but it was a cool special nonetheless, and a nice reminder of so many of the great Simpsons moments and memories from throughout the show's storied history. And hey, with all the talk about late-night wars and such going on at the moment, the special served as an important reminder that, you can knock Conan O'Brien if you want, but the man wrote for The Simpsons, and wrote some damn good episodes. I don't know about you, but to me that says: Conan: 1, Every Other Talk Show Host: 0. Seriously, The Simpsons in its prime was and is *the* gold standard for comedy. If you don't agree, well, you may need to have your sense of humor reexamined.

My Grade: B

- Alright, I also caught a movie this weekend, Daybreakers - one of the first big releases of 2010. It's yet another vampire movie, but this one actually has some fangs. Keep reading for the full review.


- For the last couple of years, it seems like come January - when the Oscar hopefuls have all been released and we've all had our fill of very serious, very lofty prestige pics - there comes a film that isn't going to win awards, isn't going to get 5-star reviews from most "credible" publications, but a film that, nonetheless, plain and simply kicks some ass. I'm talking about movies like Rambo. Movies like Doomsday. And now, well, you can add Daybreakers to that list.

Daybreakers is a jolt of over-the-top action/sci-fi/horror, and it's campy-yet-fun in that old-school John Carpenter-esque way. Like Carpenter's films, Daybreakers is just gloriously unsubtle. It wears its political allegory on its sleeve (referencing everything from the greed of the Big Oil companies to modern-day ethnic-cleansing), and has actors like William Dafoe and Sam Neil chewing up scenery left and right. It has bouts of crazy gore that will leave you shocked and then giggling with "did they really just do that?" glee. And there's a high-concept premise that is so geeky-cool and crazy that you've got to love it.

The story? In the near future, society has been transformed following a vampire outbreak. The undead now comprise 95% of the world's population. The problem? The human blood supply is quickly dwindling, and the vamps are starving. The military-industrial corporations that farm humans for blood are getting desperate. Their scientists are working on a synthetic blood substitute, but to no avail. To make matters worse, when vampires go too long without blood, they devolve into crazy, animalistic bat-creatures called Subsiders which are increasingly becoming a problem. Enter Edward, all sharp angles and inner turmoil as played by Ethan Hawke. Edward is a scientist working on a synthetic blood substitute, but he's also somewhat of a human sympathizer. He mainly wants to find an alternative to blood to help stop all the random hunting and killing of humans. Eventually, he falls in with a group of human resistance fighters, and well, things get pretty interesting from that point on.

Where Daybreakers immediately grabs you is in the details with which its darkly-hued world is fleshed-out. Seriously, they really thought this stuff through. And a lot of the vampire-world details are actually pretty funny too. Like the ads for fang-whitening toothpaste, or the loudspeaker warnings that sunrise will commence in fifteen minutes, or the coffee that now includes only 20% blood. From the cars with daytime-driving mode, to the "subwalk" underground walkways, to the throngs of kids who look like ten-year olds but are actually twenty-somethings, there's barely an aspect of vampiric society in Daybreakers that hasn't been thought out.

The movie also looks pretty cool - very neo-noir-ish, with shades of Dark City and Blade Runner. That said, the direction can be a bit uneven. The action scenes are really explosive and well-done. Same goes for the more horror-inspired scenes. But ... there isn't quite as much flair throughout the rest of the movie. Part of that is probably due to budget limitations, but at the same time, you never feel quite as immersed in this world as you do in those of the aforementioned sci-fi classics.

The plot and dialogue in this one definitely straddles the line of B-movie awesomeness and just plain cheesy. There are a lot of lines that are groaners, but there are also moments that kick huge amounts of ass. But despite a couple of lines that sort of make you cringe ("life's a bitch, and then you ... don't die"), the movie makes up for it with a lot of pretty sweet, often unexpected, genuinely "holy $#%&" type moments. It also helps that they've got people like Dafoe and Sam Neil there to make all those moments work so well. I mean, Dafoe's character, "Elvis," is introduced in a pretty lametastic manner. But then you realize, they just introduced William Dafoe as a crossbow-wielding, scenery-chewing badass, and it's okay. He more than makes up for his cheesy intro later in the film.

Anyways, even if Daybreakers has some moments of cheesiness, it's still a pretty easy movie to root for. It has all kinds of plot twists that lead to scenes of jaw-dropping craziness. It has a fully-formed post-vampire-apocalypse society. It has unexpectedly kickass, B-movie-style action mixed with social satire and serious sci-fi. It has vampires that are scary, menacing, blood-thirsty, and who sure as hell don't sparkle. There's a little bit of everything, and I actually left the theater sort of excited about the idea of a sequel. There's certainly more than enough material to continue the story, and the ending, though slightly abrupt, leaves open a lot of interesting questions about the future of the movie's world. The movie definitely has "midnight movie cult-classic" written all over it. And hey, sometimes that's just what you want from post-apocalyptic neo-noir vampire sci-fi action. That and crossbows.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, that's all for now. Check back soon for more!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Singin' the Praises of CRAZY HEART ... plus: The Simpsons, Modern Family, and MORE!

Man, a crazy couple of days here in the world of entertainment. As usual, I'm sitting somewhat in the eye of the storm, which is both fun yet oddly stressful at times. But hey, if all the late-night wars do is get me one step closer towards The Tonight Show With Danny Baram, then hey, I'll take it. All kidding aside, you've sort of got to love it - there are big egos and temper tantrums aplenty here in Hollywood, but one thing you've got to admit ... it's never boring.

Anyways, it's been a while since I've talked about TV stuff. New episodes are slowly starting to trickle out as the nets gear up for their big midseason launches. It's going to be TV overload in the next few weeks though. Lost, 24, and Chuck will all be back, and, dammit, there goes my free time.

- So let's talk THE SIMPSONS. Prior to the holidays, the venerable animation insititution had been in a pretty big slump, in my opinion. There had been some good episodes back in the Fall to kick off the season, but soon afterwords, the show really slipped into the creative doldrums. With that in mind, I really dug this past week's ep. I liked the premise - a Tuesdays With Morie-like setup in which a writer takes an interest in documenting all of Grandpa Simpson's rambling, old-timey stories. Some of my all-time favorite Simpsons jokes have been generated by Grandpa's senile storytelling, so I got a kick out of all his tall tales, shown in flashback form. The humor just felt really sharp in this ep, and I was laughing more than I have in many months while watching The Simpsons. In fact, the Homer-Grandpa relationship was given just enough genuine emotion to draw comparisons to, dare I say it, classic eps of The Simpsons. It's been a long time since I both really laughed at and felt emotionally invested in a Simpsons episode, and man, it was good to have that feeling back. Keep it up!

My Grade: A-

- And ... wow, FAMILY GUY was actually pretty funny as well, probably the best overall episode in a few months. Not a *great* ep, per se, but definitely had me laughing more so than usual. The Peter-gets-Amnesia storyline was played so over-the-top that you had to crack up a bit at some of the goofiness. And Peter's memory-jolting encounter with the angry chicken sort of cracked me up ("good thing he hit me an odd number of times!"). The ep got kind of lame towards the end when Quagmire actually successfully seduces Lois (really?), but overall the humor seemed a lot sharper (and less flashback-reliant) than it has in a while. And that Family Feud opening was also pretty funny. It's hard to go wrong, says I, with Family Feud-based humor.

My Grade: B+

- I thought THE CLEVELAND SHOW from this past Sunday was only okay, but I will give it credit for having one of the single funniest gags I've seen in a while. There was one absurdly overextended bit where Cleveland pulls into a gas-station restroom that, for whatever reason, just had me bowled over (pun intended) in laughter. Otherwise, the main plotline was decent, with Cleveland restarting his old school's baseball team, and then unsuccesfully trying to get Cleveland Jr. to fill his old shoes as a baseball slugger. It felt a bit too King of the Hill-ish, and the usually funny Cleveland Jr. didn't really get off too many great lines or gags.

My Grade: B

- Meanwhile, it was great to see MODERN FAMILY back with a new episode on Wednesday. The best new show of 2009 came back with a very funny episode that saw Phil take a trip to the hospital due to a kidney stone. Phil's interactions with his kids were really hilarious ("don't talk black"), and so was his taking the opportunity of his illness to get his wife to admit to flirting with the firemen who took him to the hospital. Phil's musings about how best to cash in his "golden ticket" were really funny - "a robot ... with feelings...". Awesome. The other two storylines were also really funny, with an unlikely friendship between Manny's carefree dad and Jay, and then Mitchell and Cameron arguing over how best to deal with their baby's crying. I don't know if this ep had quite the laugh ratio of some of the series' best episodes, but, still, it was great to have Modern Family back.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, it's been in the works for a while now, but here's a review of one of 2009's dark horse Oscar contender's, Crazy Heart ...


- It's time to rearrange your Oscar ballots, because although it sort of snuck in under the radar, Crazy Heart is up there with the best films of 2009.

Crazy Heart tells the story of the once-legendary country music singer Bad Blake. In his day, Blake was rich, famous, and selling out large arenas. He influenced a newer generation of country music stars, including his protege, and current best-selling mega-artist Tommy Sweet. But Blake is pushing 60. He's older, less popular, and goes from town to town playing small bars and clubs in front of meager crowds of aging fans. His personal life is in shambles as well. Married and divorced several times, Blake drowns his sorrows and his loneliness in booze. Lots of it. In fact, he's an alcoholic who has a hard time going for more than a few hours without a drink. But one day, Blake is interviewed by a small-town music journalist as a favor to a bandmate. The woman is thirty years younger than Blake, and she's a single mother with a young son. She's been burned by men before, and knows better than to fall for a guy like Blake. But she does, and he falls for her. And so Crazy Heart is about a washed-up guy who used to be a big deal, trying to get that old spark back. An old cowboy trying and stumbling to walk along the road to redemption. The story itself is practically a country music song. And in other hands, it could have been generic or cliche or boring. But Crazy Heart is an amazing movie. Let me talk about why.

First and foremost, Jeff Bridges is phenomenal as Bad Blake. Bridges has long been one of the best actors around. He fully transforms into his characters, and creates all kinds of little nuances that make them feel real and alive. But he keeps things down to earth. Even when he's playing an over-the-top character like The Dude, there's an authenticity to Bridges that translates to the characters that he plays. But Bad Blake may be Bridges' greatest role. Bad is funny and likable, but also a dark and troubled character. There's that usual Bridges charisma and easy-going nature to Bad, but he's also a gritty character with a lot of facets. A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what have you's ... as a great man once said. Bridges deserves an Oscar nom for this role, no question. It's similar territory to Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler. I would give Rourke the slight edge for the sheer rawness of Randy the Ram, but Bridges here is up there.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jean, the plucky writer who falls for Bad, is really good. I'd go so far as to say it's up there with her best roles to date. As the movie goes on, there's an increasing nuance to her character. Her romance with Bad isn't cut and dried. There are a lot of bumps in the road and up until the movie's end, you're not sure where it will end up. And I really liked that about the movie in general. The character arcs are nuanced and complex. The movie is dramatic and involving without being *melodramatic* or relying on out-of-nowhere twists. That restraint applies to some of the interesting supporting turns in Crazy Heart. Like Robert Duvall as an old pal of Blake's. His character is supportive but also concerned. His fishin'-buddy relationship with Blake feels real, feels believable. It's subtle but effective work from the great Duvall. Collin Farrell is really good here as well as country megastar Tommy Sweet. Again, a lesser movie might have created an overblown feud between Sweet and Blake, but not this one. There is jealousy and resentment between them, but also respect and comraderie. Another complex and nuanced relationship. If only more movies could have that kind of sophistication.

One thing about a movie like this: the music has got to live up to the characters. Crazy Heart is filled with original country songs, and most are really great. And that's coming from someone who generally dislikes country music. But even I could appreciate that in the context of the film, the songs work perfectly. I could appreciate how easily Jeff Bridges, a musician himself, sells the songs as country classics, and as key pieces of Bad Blake's storied career. I may not really be a country music fan, but I can appreciate the bluesy storytelling of a great country song, and the weary cowboy stories of a country singer with too many hours logged on the open road. Crazy Heart embodies that image. It's a sad story but also inspirational at times. It's larger than life, but also grounded. It's a story we've seen many times before. There are thematic similarities to The Wrestler and other such films, and once in a while you do start to feel that things are getting a touch derivative. But the writing is sharp, the direction is well-done, and Bridges makes it all work better than anyone else could have.

So I hope that a lot of people will go out and see Crazy Heart, and that Bridges will get the respect he deserves for yet another iconic role. The Dude may abide, but Bad Blake is an equally cool character for the ages.

My Grade: A-

- And that's all I've got for now. Stay tuned for a few more Best of 2009 posts, coming soon - and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Is it the weekend yet ...? The first week back after a break is always tough, but this one seems particularly killer. Anyways, I have a lot to talk about, but in the interest of time I wanted to jump right in with a review of Terry Gilliam's latest film ...


- It can be hard to talk about Terry Gilliam's movies in the context of a review. His movies tend to have ambitious narratives, but they also function an entirely different level that most mainstream movies don't. His movies often work like moving paintings. They hit you with abstract ideas. They require individual interpretation. They bombard you with images that don't strictly exist to advance the plot, but that are simply on the screen to stimulate your imagination. Sometimes his movies work, sometimes they don't, and oftentimes the end result is some nebulous middle ground. But a film by Gilliam is always worth watching.

And The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is definitely a sight to behold. This is Gilliam operating in full-on fantasy mode, and that means that the film is overflowing with eye-popping imagery and all sorts of general craziness. When you watch a lot of modern movies, you sort of get used to a standard look and feel. CGI starts to look the same. F/X look the same. Not so with Gilliam - he has a distinct visual style that uses CGI less as a tool to emulate reality and more as a digital paintbrush. With the world of Dr. Parnassus as his canvas, this is Gilliam-gone-wild.

The plot of the film is kind of all-over-the-place, but, at the least, it presents us with an intriguing premise. Thousands of years ago, the leader of a mystical order of monks ran afoul of the Devil himself. The Devil tricks the monk, aka Dr. Parnassus, into making a wager. The terms are these: Dr. Parnassus is granted immortality, and in exchange, he must participate in the following contest - he must wander the world and find people to step through a magic mirror - a doorway into their own souls. Once inside the mirror, a person can choose one of two paths - the path of good or the path of sin. If more people choose sin than righteousness, the Devil wins. If the oppossite occurs, then Parnassus bests the Devil. And as an added bonus, the life of the doctor's daughter may or may not hang in the balance as a result.

And so Parnassus and his ragtag band of misfits travels from place to place in their rickety carnival cart, putting on a curio-show in order to attract unwitting souls into the doctor's mirror. The whole thing is sort of absurd when viewed in a straightforward manner, but it works on a more metaphorical level. You can't help but think of Dr. Parnassus as a stand-in of sorts for Gilliam himself. Afterall, in a world of slick blockbusters and movies-by-committee, Gilliam is a Parnassus-like eccentric, peddling his strange and unique brand of sideshow to the masses, daring them to embrace the bizarre, to take a chance by stepping through the looking glass into the topsy-turvy world of his movies.

A lot of the movie has that kind of symbolic bent to it. It's a little strange though because the story is somewhat abstract and ambiguous, but at times is more straightforward in its narrative. The mixture doesn't always work. Just when you start to feel like you understand the rules of the wager between Parnassus and the Devil, the movie throws you for a loop. It can be a little frustrating, but again, this is one where it's probably best not to focus too much on details, and just let yourself get caught up and immersed in the film's fantasy world.

It helps that Parnassus is filled with such a compelling cast of actors and actresses. While everyone wants to talk about Heath Ledger and his final on-screen role, the two real stars here are probably Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus and Tom Waits as "Mr. Nick," aka The Devil. Plummer is frantic and whimsical, but also dramatic and filled with gravity as Parnassus, and he's always compelling when on screen. Meanwhile, Tom Waits is awesomely devilish as Mr. Nick. Suffice it to say, it's a lot of fun to watch the two interact. I also thought the movie's younger actors were pretty interesting. Andrew Garfield is funny and quick on his feet as Parnassus' young protege, Anton. And Lilly Cole has a real presence and a definite mystique as the doctor's teenaged daughter. I can only hope she is a bit older than her character's age (16) in real life though, because man, Terry Gilliam goes all out in terms of hypersexualizing her in the film. In other circumstances it'd probably creepier, but Cole has one of those ageless faces where she seems like a very old soul trapped in a younger woman's body. That said, I think you had to slightly squirm at a couple of pretty risque scenes involving her character.

Of course, Dr. Parnassus does feature the final performance from Heath Ledger, as I alluded to earlier. And Ledger is really good here. It's really a tragedy, because after his incredible performance in The Dark Knight, as The Joker, Ledger really did seem to be taking his acting to another level. The fact that he plays such a complex character here with so much apparent ease is a sign that Ledger was upping his game. Here, he plays Tony, a mysterious fellow who is saved by Parnassus and his crew when they find him hanging by a noose, on the verge of death (yes, that image is a bit disturbing ...). Tony begins working for Parnassus, and it soon becomes clear that he's a somewhat morally ambiguous character, someone who could go down the path for good or the path of evil. So of course, his fate becomes inextricably tied to that of Parnassus and his magic mirror.

Now, as you have probably heard, Heath Ledger tragically passed away before he had shot all of his scenes for the movie. However, it worked out so that the scenes that had yet to be shot were those in which Tony passes into the CGI-heavy fantasy world of the magic mirror. So Terry Gilliam was able to pull off an interesting trick in the face of tragedy. He tweaked the script so that each time Tony passes through the mirror, he emerges looking slightly different, in accordance with how the person who goes with him sees him. This means that, inside the mirror world, we get versions of Tony played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. All three are really good subbing in for Ledger, and each stays true to their own persona while also keeping continuity. Depp is funny in a Jack Sparrow-ish way, Law is energetic and neurotic, Farell is a bit more suspicious and sinister.

There are moments in Dr. Parnassus that kind of encapsulate the movie's strengths and weaknesses. Moments that are visually thrilling but narratively confusing and disjointed. But I don't mean to make this movie sound like Transformers 2. This isn't sound and fury signifying nothing. There is an artistry behind these visuals, behind this premise, that is compelling and fascinating and uniquely Gilliam. Like I said, it doesn't always 100% work, but even when the movie feels messy and random, it's still interesting. I'd say it's well worth your time to enter the Imaginarium.

My Grade: B+

Stay tuned for some TV Reviews and a look at Crazy Heart. Back soon with more!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Back In LA in 2010, Featuring: THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - Reviewed!

Well, I'm back in LA and ready to kick off 2010 with a bang. My trip to CT was fun and relaxing, but at the same time, it's good to be back where the action is. It's kind of crazy though - when my brother and I left Bradley airport in CT on Thursday afternoon, it was freezing cold and snowing hard. Several hours later, we were back in sunny California, and it was unbelievably warm. In fact, this past weekend we had summer-like temperatures in the 70's. I actually took several photos of all the snow in CT, just because I was feeling a bit nostalgic for New England winter weather, and also because I thought my friends here in LA would get a kick out of seeing what winter is *really* like.

In any case, it was a pretty low-key trip home, but definitely relaxing. The snow and cold weather kind of discounraged me from doing any big trips to NYC or Boston, but I was pretty content to be lazy, watch movies, see family, and eat good food (east-coast pizza - woohoo!).

That said, I did have some fun little adventures. One night, for example, I hung out in West Hartford with former CA transplant and current Chicago resident Bradd K. This being CT, we of course ran into a couple of former high school classmates while out and about, and it was fun catching up with everyone and swapping updates on our old K-O crew. I also saw a couple of movies - Sherlock Holmes (check out my review if you haven't already), and The Princess & The Frog - the review of which you can read right here, in this very post.

Mostly though, there was a lot of quality family time, whether it was our family's traditional Shabbat dinner, a pizza party for my cousins, or catching up with my grandparents at their house. Definitely an opportunity to recharge the ol' batteries. That said, I can always use a day or two to recover from all that quality family time, so it was nice having a couple of days off back in LA before returning to work. This past weekend, I managed to catch a couple more late 2009 movie releases - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Crazy Heart - so expect reviews of those shortly as well.

And by the way, hopefully you've already checked out my Best of 2009 and Best of the Decade series of posts. I've got a few more 2009 entries still on the way, but, I've also gone back and tweaked my movies of the year list a bit. I'll be able to elaborate a bit more when I submit my Crazy Heart review later this week, but the short version is that that film demanded to be retroactively placed on the Best of '09 list - it was quite a movie.

Anyways, here's my view on Disney's first traditionally-animated movie in quite some time, The Princess and the Frog.


- Well, The Princess and the Frog may not have made quite the impact that some of Disney's all-time animated classics did upon their theatrical releases. But I will say this: that old-time Disney magic is strong in this one. To me, The Princess and the Frog is a welcome return to traditional animation - and to classic Disney storytelling - a movie that was, indeed, a long time coming.

The first thing that has to be said about this film is that, yes, it's old-school, traditional, 2D animation, and it looks amazing. Disney picks up right where it left off with the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Maybe it's just that it's been so long since we've seen top-shelf hand-drawn animation on the big-screen, but there was definitely a rush that came with seeing a great artform return in such spectacular fashion. I don't think there are any amazing new visual tricks in this one that will blow people away (a la the ballroom dance scene in Beauty and the Beast), But at the same time, there is a lot of amazing animation to gaze at, and a lot of really cool set-pieces that are pretty spectacular to watch unfold. For example, I loved all of the tripped-out voodoo visuals associated with the creepy main villain, The Shadow Man. There were elements of Disney's Haunted Mansion, of The Oogie-Boogie Man from The Nightmare Before Christmas ... but I was definitely grinning every time we got glimpses of the hellish "other side" from which The Shadow Man derives his black-magic powers. One of my favorite things about the classic Disney films is how surprisingly dark they can get, especially given all those great, dastardly villains. I think in this one, Shadow Man's motivations are a bit murky, but I also love the visual design. Like I said, his featured songs and sequences are creepy and lots of fun.

I also really liked the overall message of the movie. When it comes to kids movies, it's always interesting to see what kind of overall themes the filmmakers insert into the story. With the rise of Pixar in recent years, there's definitely been a trend towards family films that appeal to kids but also feature more sophisticated characters and themes than a typical Disney animated film. And that's cool - Pixar's made some fantastic movies using that type of storytelling. But blending more modern, sophisticated sensibilities with a more traditional Disney fantasy story could have been a recipe for disaster. Or we could have just gotten another Shrek - which is a good film - but definitely doesn't feel Disney (Disney does NOT and should not do ironic humor or pop-culture references - okay, they did with Aladdin, but still, you know what I mean ...). But what The Princess and the Frog does, and does well, I think, is that it has all the elements of classic Disney fairy tales - magic, romance, good and evil - but it also has an updated female protagonist - a "princess" who isn't really a princess at all, except that she embodies goodness and nobility. But she also comes from modest means. She's had a hard-knock life. She had to work hard to make end's meat. And at first, she's repelled by her prince - a guy who, until recently, has had everything handed to him on a silver spoon. And the prince isn't just some generic knight-in-shining-armor type either. He's a musician. He's goofy. He's kind of a dork. It's a far cry from the old days of Sleeping Beauty, but to me, it works, and it felt in some ways classical, in some ways just right for the times we live in.

That modernization of the characters goes hand-in-hand with the more modern setting of New Orleans. Sure, it's a very much Disneyfied version of New Orleans, but that's cool. I've never been, but I like how the movie made the city feel magical without feeling like a fairy tale. There is poverty and class division, but also music and mystery and spirit. Sounds about right to me. I really give The Princess and the Frog credit for capturing the spirit of New Orleans - sure, it's a more G-rated version, but it works perfectly in this context.

And that brings me to the music. I know some have complained that the soundtrack doesn't stand toe to toe with classics like The Lion King. And I agree - the songs here are not quite as instantly-catchy as some of Disney's best efforts of the past. At the same time, I wonder whether they really need to be. For one thing, the songs here follow a more specific stylistic template - they all evoke the jazz and soul music of New Orleans, and in that respect are more designed to set a certain mood rather than be instant pop-radio hits. That's cool with me, and even with that said, there are a couple of tunes that I found really catchy and up there with other Disney hits. I will definitely have to give 'em another listen, but personally I thought the music worked great within the film, and I was definitely tappin' my toes throughout.

I'll also say that the voicework in the film is great. Everyone from Anika Rose as the princess-to-be Tiana, to John Goodman in a small role a rotound aristocrat, really does a nice job. Speaking of which, there are a ton of cool side characters that I'm sure will go on to become big fan favorites, from soulful crocodiles to cajun fireflies. I also loved the feisty old swamp witch known as Mama Odie, who takes the lead in probably the movie's best musical number.

I guess my real nitpick is that the story didn't quite work as well as it should have. The character arc of Tiana was well-handled, but the interplay between the heroes and villains is pretty limited. By the time we arrive at the climactic confrontation with The Shadow Man, there's not really much personal history between him and Tiana - up until that point, he's mostly just been lurking around the periphery of the movie. There's not that same sort of initial meeting like when Ariel first encounters Ursula in The Little Mermaid, for example. You could also argue that the central romance between Tiana and the Frog Prince feels slightly rushed, especially given how at-odds they are for the early part of the story ... but then again, this *is* a Disney movie.

Overall though, I really enjoyed this one. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I probably liked it a bit more than this year's Pixar offering, Up. I loved the characters, the humor, and the heart. I loved the creepy-cool villain and the atmospheric New Orleans setting. I liked the slight injection of modern issues and anxieties into the classic Disney fairy-tale narrative. Really though, 2009 was a great overall year for animation. A great Pixar CGI film in Up, a great stop-motion fantasy film in Coraline, and, finally, the return of hand-drawn Disney animation with The Princess and the Frog.

My Grade: A-

- Alright, check back soon for reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Crazy Heart, as well as a couple more musings on the best of 2009.