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!

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