Monday, March 1, 2010

Has everyone gone CRAZY?! THE CRAZIES - Reviewed! 24 Thoughts! Chuck! Smallville! And More!

- So, I had a pretty nice weekend, a mix of fun and relaxation, although as always, I could use a couple more days off. Still, I was really counting down to Friday night this past week - all week, I was recovering from the previous weekend's family visit to LA and the nonstop car-shopping that went with it, and I was dying for a quiet night to just do nothing, relax, and catch up on sleep. On Saturday, however, I was pretty productive during the day, and then that night I hit up PURIMPALOOZA, a huge Jew party at a swanky Beverly Hills establishment, in honor of the holiday of Purim. Purim is one of the few Jewish holidays that's purely celebratory - the only real "rules" are to eat and drink, dress in costumes, and to listen to the story of Purim and boo and make noise whenever the name of Haman - the villain of the story- is mentioned. Anyways, Purimpalooza was fun, although, the venue was crowded as heck, so much so that you could barely move. I guess it was cool to see such sizable attendance, but, at the same time, after about two hours of pushing and shoving just to walk around, I got kind of sick of it and decided it was time to head out. Still, always nice to see an event like that so well-attended, and hey, it filled my quota of Purim-related activities for the weekend.

On Sunday, I took in an afternoon showing of THE CRAZIES, which I'll be reviewing in this very column. Scroll down to check out my thoughts.

In the meantime, I've been working dilligently on a new movie script idea that my brother and I came up with a while back. I'm getting close to the halfway point of the screenplay, and I'm pretty psyched about how it's coming out. It's a dark, over-the-top comedy in the mold of something like Observe & Report, but I don't think there's ever been a comedy quite like this one. I'll hold off on saying anything more for now, except that it's been fun getting so immersed in a new creative endeavor.

Some TV Reviews:


- Okay, now that's more like it. I'm not saying that this was a mind-blowing episode of 24 or anything, but for the first time this season, this felt like a real by-gum episode of the show I know and love. The focus was, finally, squarely on Jack again - and this was a Jack who was large and in charge, kicking ass and taking names with the full support of the US government. It's about time. This episode also had the kind of cleverly intense action scenario that has long been 24's trademark. When Farhad Hassan was killed before CTU could get to him, Jack has CTU leak false info to the media that Farhad is still alive and is about to talk. Far-fetched? Sure. But it was fun. Even more fun was the terrorist group's attempt to kill Farhad in his hospital room, not realizing that the whole thing was a CTU setup. The badguys send some nervous kid with a suicide bomb into the hospital, where he inevitably runs into CTU's own fresh-out-of-college rookie. Suffice it to say, the confrontation between the two kids was intense, sort of funny, and definitely entertaining. It was also cool to see some vintage Chloe techie-action, as she remotely disarmed the bomb's detonator in a sweet sequence of tech-ops intensity. It was fun and totally refreshing to finally see the now-legendary Jack and Chloe team back in action.

Now, the episode broke down a bit when Jack finally cornered the would-be suicide bomber in Farhad's hospital room. I mean, come on - the kid jumps out the window and CTU is totally unprepared? It just felt frustrating to have all of this build-up lead to a cliffhanger that felt somewhat cheaply earned - of the kid locking himself in a hospital vault, looking to manually detonate his bomb-vest as Jack looks on helplessly.

That said, I don't like to grade an episode based on the previews for next week ... but ... my feeling of being underwhelmed was severely lessened by the previews, in which we see Jack go old-school, and apparently find the kid's mom to use as leverage to get him to drop the bomb and cooperate. Damn - that's going to be intense.

Oh yeah, Jack's line to Renee about having a CTU team bring her to his apartment ... man, that was hilariously cheesy. I guess Jack works fast both in the field and with regards to the ladies. But, Jack and Renee haven't so much as enjoyed an intimate moment yet - their whole relationship this season has been Jack listening in while Renee stabs people. A little bit more subtlety in their seeimingly-inevitable romance would be appreciated. But, you've got to give that scene props for sheer entertainment value as well. Damn Jack, you may be a grandpa, but you're still a playa'.

Otherwise, this ep felt like a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. Jack was back in action with CTU, working with Chloe etc - which was great. At the same time, the terrible Dana Walsh storyline seemed to end its long and painful opening chapter. The next chapter apparently involves Stephen Root, so I'm assuming it can only get better from here.

I think 24 viewers eveywhere also applauded when Hastings finally grew a pair and stood up to the White House, following last week's assurance from Jack that he's got "more juice than he thinks." Hastings is still no Bill Buchanan, but he's slowly become a bit more likable on a season of 24 that's been in desperate need of likable characters.

Meanwhile, the stuff with President Hassan is still kind of draggy. Other than the novelty of his daughter going from unassuming blandness to sultry sexbomb very quickly, I still don't really care about the Hassan family intrigue.

Still, this episode of 24 had me on the edge of my seat like old times. There were a lot of positive signs that the season is in the process of turning a corner, and the action was the most intense and involving of the season to date. The stakes were upped with the threat of a nuclear bomb in the middle of New York. And Jack felt like "the man" again. Good stuff.

My Grade: B+

- CHUCK was back on Monday night, and it was good to see everyone's favorite Nerd-Herder return to action. Although, as excited as I was about Chuck's post-Olympics return, this episode was way too emo for my tastes. Look, I know that Josh Schwartz shows inevitably have their share of lovelorn characters staring off into the distance as contemplative indie-rock plays in the background ... but with Chuck, I'm always hoping that Schwartz can keep his tendency towards relationshippy angst in check. Not so last night - practically the whole focus of the episode was on the fact that Chuck still, apparently, has feelings for Sarah (or Sam - her real name as revealed this ep). Yeah, no duh. Considering the fact that the two broke up for no real reason - and that as soon as Sarah leaves Chuck to avoid mixing her work and personal lives, she immediately shacks up with the first new co-worker she meets - well, it's understandable why Chuck might feel a lack of closure there. Still, the sudden monkey wrench in the Chuck and Hannah relationship felt a bit out-of-nowhere. And Chuck breaking up with her right before he's about to have dinner with her parents felt like an unnecessary moment inserted for cheap dramatic effect. And as I type this, I'm wondering, why is there SO much emphasis on the emotastic relationships in what is supposed to be a comedic spy show? Obviously, this stuff has always been a huge part of Chuck, but I definitely missed the action, fun, and comedy of Chuck-at-its-best in this particular ep. Instead, I had flashbacks to Smallville at its worst - endless will-they-or-won't-they melodrama between Clark and Lana (hello, Kristen Kreuk), and endless trust issues getting in the way of their relationship (hello again, KK). There were some really fun moments in this one, particularly when Chuck was pared with a couple of clueless goombas (one of whom was EDGAR from 24 - poor Edgar!). I liked Chuck trying to act the part of a badass assassin while undercover, yet having his usual geeky personality slip through the cracks at inopportune moments ("cupcakes - everyone loves cupcakes.") And as always, Adam Baldwin as Casey got in some choice lines. But, way too much sappiness - and not well-earned sappiness, at that - for my tastes.

My Grade: B-

- I was pretty underwhelmed by Friday's new episode of SMALLVILLE. The show has seemed to be in steady decline since the great "Absolute Justice" episode several weeks back, and this latest episode felt like a whole other series as compared to that landmark installment. I mean, it's amazing to me how none of the intriguing threads from that episode have yet been followed up on - Amanda Waller, Checkmate, the Suicide Squad, the JSA, etc. I understand that the JSA episode was likely shoehorned into the schedule, but still. But there's more to it than that. That Geoff Johns-penned episode was so effective in part because it didn't follow the typical Smallville formula. It broke from the mold and felt more like a great serialized TV show as opposed to a series of constant retreads. This week's Smallville was something we've seen countless times before - a random, meteor-rock powered villain surfaces and draws Clark towards a confrontation in his lair. Clark saves the day, minimally using his powers even as everyone else remains blissfully oblivious to what actually happened. Now, this ep was tied into the ongoing Zod storyline, and yet, after last week's promising cliffhanger - in which Clark burns down Zod's tower - this week abandoned the high drama of that scene for a relatively low-key, run-of-the-mill freak-of-the-week plotline. We met a scientist who had been experimented on by the Kandorians, and was now out for revenge, capturing some of Zod's army and performing his own freakish experiments on them, trying to prove to the world that aliens walk among us. Um, yeah, it was a totally weaksauce plotline. Why is it always so hard for Smallville to build momentum week to week? The big twist came when Clark used some of his blood to "heal" a dying Zod. Why this healed him, or why it suddenly gave Zod Clark's powers, I don't know. But the big reveal at the end was a suped-up Zod now powered-up and able to fly. It was definitely a roundabout way to get to that endgame, but at least now we have some set up in place for a big Zod-Clark smackdown. Then again, Smallville has rarely delivered on those big fight scenes, so who knows if this one will satisfy? In any case, as per usual, this storyline has been dragging for a while now. Let's wrap up this Zod story and move on, shall we? And you know, I don't get why Smallville is so afraid of just doing a sequence of episodes that directly deals with a single plotline. Think of how much momentum the Zod stuff might have had going into April, if only we didn't need to spend time on all the lame freak-of-the-week filler.

My Grade: C

- And now, a movie review of Breck Eisner's new psuedo-zombie horror flick ...


- The Crazies is one of those movies that very easily could have, you know, gone either way. There was the potential in the premise - a remake of the old George Romero movie - for it to be a cool, interesting film that improved upon the original - widely regarded as a decent flick but not necessarilly among Romero's classics. At the same time, this one could have been a disaster. Helmed by Breck Eisner, mainly known to date for the adventure movie dud Sahara, there were certainly signs that The Crazies could be nothing more than B-grade horror junk. But, encouraged by some very positive reviews, and eager for a fun movie to cap off my weekend, I went to check out The Crazies, and am happy to report that I was thoroughly entertained. While The Crazies isn't going to change the horror movie landscape or anything, it's a solid movie that's elevated by a great cast and a couple of fairly awesome action scenes. I wish more attention had been given to the somewhat inconsistent script, but I can recommend the movie to anyone looking for a fun, action-packed horror flick.

The Crazies is essentially a Zombie movie, but in this particular scenario, we're not dealing with the living dead, but with ordinary people who have been infected by a mysterious contagion. The infected become violent, homicidal, and yes, crazy - and a couple of isolated cases in a small Iowa town quickly escalate, to the point where an entire town has been overrun by murderous, braindead maniacs. Good times.

I liked that The Crazies took some time in the beginning to set up the location and the main characters. Breck Eisner nicely establishes the quiet, small-town locale - a sleepy farming 'berg in rural Iowa. Similarly, our main characters tend to fall into the usual zombie-movie-cliches, but the solid cast helps make us care about them in a way that many horror movies don't. But here, Eisner takes his time setting the mood - and in doing so, he creates the perfect setup for a great opening scene. As the town gathers for a local minor-league baseball game, it's a picture-perfect scene of middle-American tranquility. That is, until the local drunk staggers towards the field, wielding a loaded shotgun. The sheriff, who's there watching the game, of course, confronts him. It seems like no big deal - except that the drunk isn't drunk - there's something else wrong with him, a blank, vacant look in his eyes. The truth is, he's infected. And the violent outcome of this establishing scene sets the small-town-goes-crazy vibe for the rest of the film.

Again, the cast is overall pretty solid. But the man who anchors the film is Timothy Olyphant as the local sheriff, the hero of the movie. Olyphant is a refreshing change of pace for a movie like this, because he has acting chops, and he easily pulls off the small-town sheriff thing while actually seeming heroic and likable as opposed to just in-over-his-head. He's old enough to be believable as a world-weary yet competent leader. And he's got a gravitas to him that helps sell even the movie's cheesier moments. Radha Mitchell is also good as Olyphant's wife, a local doctor. Another case where it's nice to see someone a little older and more world-weary as opposed to the usual dumb-teenagers in peril situation. One other standout is Joe Anderson as the younger Deputy. Anderson is good as a sidekick / foil, and was fun to watch throughout the movie. Also, there's a cameo from the guy who plays Aaron Pierce on 24, which was sort of awesome.

Where The Crazies falters is in plot and pacing. For one thing, the movie started annoying me with how frequently it went for ultra-cheap scares. There are a couple of really effective "thing jumps out at you accompanied by a loud noise" moments, especially in a really kickass, climactic action scene set inside of a carwash. But many other times, Eisner resorts to cheap, "jump" scares for no real reason - loud music cues and "jumps", oftentimes gotcha-style fakeouts, that just give watching the movie the feeling of being in a cheap haunted house at times. It's weird, because the movie has enough genuinely exciting action and thrills that it didn't need so many lame moments that go for the easy scare. Similarly, there are a number of groaner-type moments where characters split up and such for no apparent reason. I mean, come on, if you're one of a handful of healthy people in a town infected by homicidal freaks, at the very least, stick together!

In addition, I wish The Crazies had a bit more meat to its plotline. Even in terms of the little details that help create suspension of disbelief, the movie oftentimes gets lazy. For example, we never quite know the "rules" of the infection. Some people seem to instantly succumb to it, whereas for others it's a long, slow burn (i.e. for main characters for whom it's convenient, plotwise). Similarly, at one point in the film, a bunch of characters are rescued from a military containment camp, where people who are suspected of infection are being held. The idea is that the characters deserve to be rescued because they were so viciously captured and contained by the army. And yet, no one really stops to wonder who is or isn't infected, or if rescuing them puts the rest of the group at risk. In short, there are a lot of weird plot holes, and a seeming reluctance to really set the stakes by clearly explaining the nature of the infection.

Finally, the movie definitely lacks much in the way of subtext. There isn't really much going on below the surface, and the movie rarely pauses to really comment on any sort of bigger themes or ideas that you might expect it to touch on. In most films, this wouldn't be such an issue. But, given the tradition of zombie films - and Romero's movies in particular - as vehicles for astute social commentary, the lack of real depth to the film is a tad disappointing.

Still, the movie is entertaining enough that you don't think too hard about some of the logic gaps. As I said, the acting is above-average, and the direction - from the mood-setting scenes early in the film, to the wild carnage later on - is well done, definitely an impressive visual effort from Eisner. This was a fun roller-coaster ride of a film - cliche at times, but packed with fun action and a nifty premise. I mean, sometimes, you're just in the mood for a good ol' fashioned zombie flick, and despite some flaws, The Crazies nicely fits the bill.

My Grade: B

- Alright, I'll be back with thoughts on LOST and, eventually, my official Oscar predictions. Stay tuned.

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