Monday, April 26, 2010

CONAN STRIKES BACK! Mr. O'Brien Invades LA, Plus: a Huge TV Roundup.

Back from the weekend, and I want to talk about the amazing, hilarious live show that Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN put on at the Gibson Ampitheater.


- I was lucky to be live and in attendance at the first of two LA-area shows on Conan's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" Tour, and man, it really was a spectacular evening of goofball insanity. Only a short hop and a skip away from Conan's old Tonight Show studio on the Universal lot, the show was a mix of stand-up comedy, music, audience participation, pre-taped sketches, and lots of randomness thrown in for good measure. Most of all though, it was a tribute to Conan's fans and a sort of manic therapy for the fired-from-TV Conan. There was lots of riffing on Conan's old employer - a sketch where he dressed up as his version of the stereotypical evil TV exec (who stroked a white cat while talking, Dr. Evil-style) was just one example of the many potshots he took at NBCU. At the same time, there was lots of Conan's usual self-deprecating humor, and a lot of jokes about him coming to terms with being jobless after he git unceremoniously ousted as host of The Tonight Show. An early, pre-taped sketch that showed Conan growing a Gandalf-esque beard and letting himself go as a result of post-Tonight Show depression was absolutely hilarious, for example. Conan even took the audience through his version of the twelve-step program for recovering former talk show hosts.

Conan did these things with a wink and a smile, but there was something awesome and genuine about the whole evening. You could tell that Conan was tapping into his old self - the old-school Conan who wasn't constrained by talk-show conventions or network TV standards and practices. It was like you could see Conan rediscovering his old self right there on stage, and it was pretty joyous to watch. That same feeling of euphoric "screw it, let's just have fun" comedy that was present in his last-ever Tonight Show was once again on full display in his live stage show. Several musical numbers exemplified that feeling - I mean, look, Conan is a talented musician, but at the end of the day he's still a guy who was basically performing music in front of an audience for the first time ever. And yet, that was part of the fun - that feeling of "what the hell, let's try something different." There was an infectious feeling of goodwill and community in the air - if Conan wants to don a white jumpsuit and sing rockabilly, then, hey, why the hell not? And if Conan wanted to have one of his songs make use of the giant, blow-up Bat from Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell Tour, then, who were we to argue the inherent awesomeness of said giant balloon bat. Like he sang in his final Tonight Show appearance, Conan was free as a bird now, and no, that bird would not be caged.

Like I was saying though, parts of the show felt totally new - the kind of stuff that Conan had always wanted to do but never really had the right forum to try - and parts of the show were total old-school Conan, a Greatest Hits, if you will. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog showed up via a pretaped segment that was, as expected, totally hilarious. The Masturbating Bear was trotted out, only, due to concern over legal issues, he was quickly redubbed the Self-Pleasuring Panda. Andy Richter, was, of course, in the house, and he traded some vintage banter with his old pal Conan. The old band was there - La Bamba, Pender, Vivino, etc. - everyone except Max. And when I looked to my right, there was the familiar sight of exec-producer Jeff Ross standing in front of the stage, looking slightly tense, eyes intently gazing at the stage.

The night was made even more memorable by the calvacade of celebrities who showed up to participate in the show. I was ecstatic to see the return of the Walker Texas Ranger Lever (it debuted back when I was an intern for Late Night in '04, and became an immediate sensation), and the gag was made even funnier by the guest lever-pullers, including Jonah Hill, Aziz Ansari, Jack McBrayer, and Jon Hamm. Later, in perhaps the night's most memorable moment, Conan began singing Five For Fighting's Superman, in his over-the-top Irish warble, only to be joined onstage by JIM CARREY, who emerged from the crowd in hilarious fashion, decked out in blue and red Superman spandex. As the two went back and forth with dueling microphones, having the craziest sing-off of all-time on stage, it was just one of those comedic moments that I'll never forget. Two crazy comic geniuses just being completely goofy and random and embracing their inner child and going absolutely nuts. Awesome.

(Random aside: as the show started, David Spade walked by us to his front-row seat - he stopped and waved to the crowd, but never got up on stage ...)

Overall, there was so much comedy and entertainment packed into the night that it was hard to process. Tonight Show writer / comedian Deon Cole got up and did a very funny stand-up routine. The opener, musician / comedian Reggie Watts, was really unique and very funny in his own ecclectic way. I'm definitely interested to hear more from him, so kudos to Reggie for getting the crowd properly warmed for for CoCo.

This was one hell of a show. It was just a great feeling to be in the same room with so many like-minded people who appreciated awesome comedy. It kills me when I read some snarky blog like Deadline Hollywood and you get contrarian commentators who call Conan a hack and say his career is dead. Funny. Conan is basically the antithesis of a hack - he's a brilliant writer and performer, and he's now showing just how versatile he is with this kickass live show. I don't know if this always translates to Nielsen ratings (which are outdated and ineffectual anyways), but when I see Conan's comedy it reminds me of why I love comedy. It's smart and biting and yet positive and uplifting in its own roundabout way. It was an amazing experience to join with so many other fans and take part in that. Plus, in all my time working around the periphery of the show - as an intern at Late Night, at NBCU, etc. - I had never actually been in the audience for a Conan show, believe it or not. So this felt like closure, in a way. But moreso than that, it was just a great night of comedy and entertainment.

Okay, a lot of TV Stuff to cover ...

- First, I'll talk about THE SIMPSONS from this past Sunday. Very, very interesting episode, in that it clearly hearkened back to old-school Simpsons episodes that were less random and had more emotional depth. I mean, newer fans may not even realize that way back when, The Simpsons was both hilarious and oftentimes heartfelt and dramatic. Think of the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa's Substitute, etc. This episode, about Lisa befriending a beached whale, went for a similar combo of old-school humor and gutpunch emotion. But did it work? Sort of. It's sad to say, but it's been so long since The Simpsons tried for real, genuine emotion (or maybe just that it's been so long since it tried and succeeded), that it was pretty jarring to see this particular story take a rather dark / bleak turn. The intentions were there, but the writing and overall story just weren't up to the task of emulating the classics. It didn't help that it took a good 10+ minutes for the episode to even get to the whale storyline (we opened with a funny but ultimately tangential plotline about Homer switching the Simpson home to wind-power). And yeah, that speaks to the fact that the current story structure of a typical Simpsons episode is totally out of whack. What's with the fourth act now being only a few minutes long, for example? Definitely not conducive to telling a great story. In any case, despite all that, this was still one of the better Simpsons episodes in a while. It had an ambitious premise, some very sharp humor (loved the opening movie parody with a Tic-Tac-Toe themed movie - "Tic Tac Nooooooo!"), and took a real shot at injecting some pathos and emotional heft into the proceedings. At the least, it was nice to see a Simpsons episode that truly aimed high, even if it didn't quite hit the bullseye. Plus, kudos to this one for some awesome animation - some of the shots were amazing to look at. And hey, nice shout out to South Park in the intro - good to see some solidarity amongst subversive animated series.

My Grade: B+

- Some quick, semi-belated thoughts on this past Thursday's "Must-See-TV" comedies. First off, I thought THE OFFICE was pretty decent, but I also worry about the Erin character a bit. I don't know, she started off as a normal-seeming but semi-quirky receptionist, but now she is a full on weirdo. To me, The Office works best when most of the characters are semi-realistic, with a couple of true oddballs like Dwight to inject wackiness into the storylines. So, yeah, this Erin-centric episode was very funny in parts, but still felt a little off simply because the character has had a somewhat awkward evolution since her first appearance. Still, there were enough hilarious Michael, Dwight, Andy, and Kevin moments in this one to make for an entertaining episode. One additional complain though: since when are characters like Jim and Pam so mean? Them laughing at the Kevin joke seemed a bit cruel and callous, although for some reason that's the direction that those characters have been heading towards.

My Grade: B

- COMMUNITY, on the other hand, continued its recent hot streak with an episode that could only be called farily brilliant. The episode functioned as a mafia movie parody, only in this case, Abed was the unlikely boss who rises to power when he gains control of the cafeteria's supply of coveted chicken fingers. The increasing absurdity that resulted from the gang becoming a defacto mafia family made for nonstop hilarity. And the unique setup allowed for the pop-culture references to flow freely. The entire cast seemed to be on top of their games in this one, and it was, overall, further proof that Community has really become something special as its first season progresses.

My Grade: A-

- Meanwhile, 30 ROCK aired two episodes Thursday night, both of which had some really, really funny moments that, I think, were vintage 30 Rock. I agree with many that some of the love triangle stuff is a little tired at this point. I really don't want 30 Rock to be a show that makes us get emotionally invested in its characters' love lives, I want 30 Rock to be a show that, sure, has the occasional moment of poignancy, but, mostly, is all about the laughs. Luckily, even if the first of the two eps got a little much with Jack's decision between Elizabeth Banks and Julianne Moore and her bootleg Boston accent. That said, there were some phenomenal moments of random hilarity as well. Bitch Hunter, anyone? Holy lord, that was awesome - and sweet Will Ferrell cameo to boot. Also, Tracy Morgan had several lines scattered throughout the two eps that were just amazing - hell, even the weird way he pronounced "quarry" had me bowled over in laughter. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the not-so-subtle jabs at the whole Leno-Conan diasco via a poor janitor named Khonani who was promised the 11:30 shift but got the shaft in favor of another janitor. The storyline was fun - almost felt like they were holding back a bit, but still, good stuff. In any case, these were some really hilarious scenes and lines of dialogue in both episodes, so ...

My Grade:

Ep 1: B+
Ep 2: A-

- SMALLVILLE continued to plod along this past week. I don't know, I am just getting so sick of the show on so many different levels at this point. And it's really frustrating, because there have been a few moments of greatness this season. We got a tantalizing glimpse at the potential of Smallville if it was actually written intelligently and with passion for the characters. But now, it's back to the same old cheesy mediocrity that fans of this show have had to endure for years now. I mean, look, there are certain things that keep me coming back. I like some aspects of the Lois-Clark relationship. I like the DC Universe slowly taking shape within the world of Smallville. I like, sometimes, the sense of fun and adventure that the show brings to the table.

But the show needs a change of direction. The Blur storyline has got to go. What started out as a throwaway reference to Clark's psuedo-superhero ID has now become a full-fledged character on the show, and I'm sorry, but it's completely lame. I hate The Blur. I hate Clark Kent in a black trenchcoat and black Superman T-shirt. I hate that when he talks to people as The Blur, he stands in the shadows just right so that, somehow, these people can't see his face. Honestly, it's ridiculous. This episode alone had several Blur sequences that were just insanely dumb. Guys - shadows don't work that way, you can't stand just right so that every part of you is visible except your face. The Blur as a concept is stupid. In execution, it's groan-inducing. It's one more way for the show to endlessly delay Clark's transition to Superman, and it's handled in the most clunky way imaginable. It sucks, and it has to go.

Meanwhile, the Zod storyline has no intensity, no sense of urgency. It's been dragged out for so long now, that the character has lost any sense of menace or cool-factor that he once had. Zod's involvement in this season has mostly consisted of a couple of big moments followed by endless filler. I don't care about him anymore, I just want to see him go away forever and never appear on Smallville again.

In addition, this episode introduced DC Comics staple Maxwell Lord. I was excited by this, as Lord is a really fun character in the comics. In his original incarnation, Lord was so interesting because he was technically a good guy, but was also sort of sleazy and manipulative. Later, he became more of a full-fledged villain, but even then, he was more crooked politician than would-be world conqueror. Anyways, WTF. Maxwell Lord on Smallville was nothing like that - he was a cold and calculating scientist at Checkmate who was balding and spoke in deep dulcet tones. Are you serious? Ugh.

Finally, the main focus of this episode was on the Lois-Clark relationship, which might be okay except that the whole dynamic is completely played-out on Smallville, after years and years of the exact same types of storylines with Lana. Plus, the whole thing makes no sense the way the writers have set it up. In the comics, once Lois falls in love with CLARK (as opposed to Superman) - that's when he realizes it's finally time to tell her his secret ID. On Smallville, Lois and Clark have a very close, loving relationship. Lois is already getting herself into crazy situations every week, even without knowing the Blur's ID. Plus, the only real recurring villains (Tess, Checkmate, Zod) know Clark's secret, so they could already attack Lois if they wanted to. Basically, there's NO REASON for Clark to not tell Lois that he is The Blur. None. Therefore, I wanted to stab my TV screen when I had to endure scene after scene that introduces manufactured tension in their relationship due to a totally faulty premise.

Man, it sucks. Smallville aired one of the best TV episodes in many months with "Absolute Justice" earlier this year. In those two hours, we caught a glimpse of how much potential there is in this universe. And who knows, there may be enough juice in the tank to give us one or two more decent episodes this season. But Smallville, as a whole, is broken. It makes me sad, but there's no point in sugarcoating. The show is simply a mess.

My Grade: D+

- Okay, that's all for now. But check back very soon for 24 and CHUCK thoughts! Dammit all.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Break on Through to the Other Side: FRINGE~! And More!

Man, what a week. I went to an Indian film fest, had a BU reunion with Kirsten S - in from Australia, participated in a career-development panel for interns at Universal, and aside from all that had a semi-crazy week at work. Suffice it to say, I am ready for the weekend, and have been dreaming of the chance to sleep late sans any alarm basically since Monday. And ... this weekend promises to be a fun one, the highlight potentially being that I am seeing CONAN O'BRIEN's live stage show on Saturday night! Can't wait to join my fellow Conan fans for a night of banned-from-TV comedy.

Anyways, I want to talk for a second about TV's hottest scripted series, that being ...


- Amazing - Fringe just aired two consecutive "A" episodes, and now, for a third week in a row, Fringe positively kicked some ass. This week's episode was a little uneven and jumpy in parts, but the good and just-plain-awesome easily outweighed any faults. So no, this wasn't quite in that same elite category as the last two weeks' eps, but man, it was close.

This week, Fringe brought back the otherdimensional shapeshifters from several episodes back, and it made for one badass group of villains. This time, we didn't just see the 'shifters in the guise of other people, but in their rather grotesque embryonic forms. I have to say, the f/x in this ep were just plain fantastic, rivalling many feature-length films. The scene in Walter's lab, in which a captured shapeshifter "hatched" and emerged half-formed from his embryonic cacoon - well, holy crap - it was gross, fascinating, and just plain captivating and mind-bending. Definitely a nightmarish visual for the ages. Huge, huge kudos to the visual f/x team for delivering some truly terrifying and convincing imagery in this one.

Meanwhile, the overarching, otherdimensional storyline blew up in a big way in this episode. We got a real sense of escalation - the war between worlds is now in its beginning stages, and we're beginning to get a sense of just why Peter is so important to its outcome. What's more, this episode hit some of the big, emotional beats that the show has been building towards all season. As always, John Noble was amazing, and it was hard not to feel for Walter as he grappled with his evolving relationship with Peter. The final scene with Peter denouncing Walter, after finally discovering (at least partly) his true origins, was totally devastating, and very powerful. Honestly, John Noble was great in this ep, but Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv were also at the top of their games. It's amazing how both have grown into their roles and really gotten better as actors and in turn made their characters more relatable and compelling.

I do think there were a couple of somewhat abrupt jumps in this episode that made things a bit confusing at times. For one, I wish the ep had done a slightly better job of reminding us about Newton. I guess he's still something of an enigma, but I felt disoriented at first as I tried to remember who, exactly, he and his army of shapeshifters were and what they were after. I also thought the climactic bridge scene was a little confusing - maybe intentionally so, but it was never clear what happened after Peter fell and knocked his head. How did Newton escape the scene, when he was basically surrounded by cops and feds? Didn't anyone try to follow or pursue him? One other thing - I think the show has made the characters a bit *too* desensitized towards weirdness at this point. I mean, I like that Astrid and Olivia and Peter and even Broyles are now somewhat accepting of all the craziness around them, but still ... when everyone was in Walter's lab, watching a half-organic, half-artificial shape-shifter come to life right before their eyes, it almost seemed like the reaction was understated. I mean, that was one of the weirdest things I've EVER seen on a TV show - you'd think Olivia would let out an Agent Scully-style "oh my god!", at the least.

Still, this was a pretty riveting episode of Fringe, with some of the craziest, most imaginative creatures and concepts I've seen on TV. The whole cast was in fine form, and I love that, no matter how insane things got, there was some very interesting and smart science at the heart of what was going on. I love that Fringe doesn't dumb itself down - it has fun with all the science and pseudo-science that drives its storylines. And hey, John Noble makes it all so compelling that there's never any worry of all the geek-talk getting boring. What's more, the show is hitting it out of the park with its character arcs. The dynamics between Walter-Peter make for one of the most compelling and multi-layered relationships on television. At the same time, the action and intensity in this one was awesome. Interdimensional portals, murderous shape-shifting cyborgs, mad scientists, and multiversal warfare. What more do you want?

My Grade: A-

Alright -- time for the weekend, baby. Check back soon for a report on the big CONAN show, and much more.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Believe The Hype? -- LOST! 24! And More!

LOST thoughts:

- Well, we all knew this would happen. You can apply band-aids in the form of awesome characters like Desmond. You can have interesting standalone episodes like the long-awaited Richard Alpert origin from a few weeks back. You can have all the promos in the world hyping "answers". But this episode sort of confirmed what we've all been dreading - LOST, as it approaches its final episode, is a giant freaking mess.

This was an okay episode, but in context (in that it's one of the final episodes of the series) it was oftentimes painful, and worse, just plain boring. I know, I know, there are fans of Lost who live for all the little character moments and asides - and those were plentiful in this episode. But at this point, I can barely muster up the energy to care about Jack's vague feeling that he needs to see things through on the island, or about Sun's sudden inability to speak English, or Hurley's self-confidence issues. All of these characters have been in the same holding patterns week after week, and spout the same recycled, half-formed thoughts over and over again. I mean, if Jack is so convinced of his need to stay on the island, why did he go through all the trouble of hanging out with Sawyer and Kate and riding out on the boat for who-knows-how-long? The moment where Jack jumps off the boat could have been dramatic if there was any real reason or motivation for him to do so, but at this point, his purpose is more muddled and unclear than ever. Jack jumps off the boat and swims back to the island because ... well, no reason really. That's partly the point, but who cares? Lost hasn't set up any real dramatic stakes, so the show has basically become a series of Waiting for Godot-like scenes that seem neither here nor there. But it doesn't feel like a deliberate dramatic direction so much as it just seems like a half-assed way of getting characters from Point A to Point B. That's now what Lost is, but that's not what Lost has been when it's been at its best. When it's firing on all cylinders, Lost is a sweeping, epic sci-fi narrative about great characters struggling to escape impossible situations that take them to the limits of reality and belief. This episode was just a series of characters in search of a purpose.

We are also still in this crazy situation of getting these "answers" that appease a certain segment of fans but, really, don't add up to much in terms of dramatic impact. For example, some people were excited simply to learn that the Smoke Monster was posing as Jack's father Christian at various moments from the show's history. Semi-interesting, and not wholly surprising. But MUCH more importantly is "why?" I hate when Lost treats its long-running mysteries so matter-of-factly. I don't know about you, but I don't watch Lost that way, with a checklist or something of my burning questions. Sure, I have a lot of questions I'd like to see addressed, but I want them to be addressed in a way that doesn't just provide an "answer", but a genuine "holy-$#%&!" moment. Lost's idea of a dramatic reveal lately has been simply having characters reappear. "Look! Ilana! She died but now, a week, later, she's back in the other reality! Aren't you amazed?" Um ... not really. I wanted this week's confrontation between Jack and Not-Locke to be intense, to be filled with palpable tension, to make my jaw drop. Instead, it was an example of Lost at its most uninspiring - the usual mix of semi-answers mixed in with a lack of context, drama, or wow-factor.

In terms of continuity though - does any of this make ANY sense anymore? It seems like even the Lost writers barely know or care what it means, exactly, when someone like Sayid or Claire is "infected" by the Smoke Monster. How about Christian Shephard - hasn't he appeared off-island and in some pretty random situations? I guess Not Locke could have been lying about this, but if he was, "why?," and, so what? And what about when Christian mysteriously appeared in "Jacob's cabin" way back when? Back when we all thought that *he* was Jacob. It just goes to show that there was probably never really any clear vision for these things - and it just adds to the feeling that we're watching the Lost team desperately try to reconcile six years worth of contrary plot threads and reveals rather than really build towards a proper narrative climax.

And what are we building towards, as of now? Some people want to leave the island, others don't. Jacob is dead. The Smoke Monster wants to escape but Widmore doesn't want him to. What would happen if either scenario played out, we have no idea. Jack and some others are a candidate. What that means, exactly, we have no real idea.

What made this episode watchable? Desmond was great, as always - again, Henry Ian Cusick's knack for delivering his lines with just the right flair for the dramatic makes the character endlessly entertaining. He's undoubtedly the MVP of this season, and he's only appeared in a few episodes. Lost also has always done a great job with its little moments of self-referential humor. Some of the little one-liners from Sawyer and Lapidus were pretty great, although it's funny, in that they worked so well partly because the characters have the same sort of "WTF is going on?" demeanor that we do as viewers.

Finally, despite most of the episode plodding along and not really progressing things much, I will say that the ep ended on a pretty dramatic note, and I liked the parallel of a near-death Locke under Jack's care in one universe, and the reverse occuring on the island. At the end of the day, there wasn't anything terrible about this ep, but also nothing all that exciting. It's bad pacing. We shouldn't have a lull like this so far into the season, you know? I mean, look, there's still plenty of time for Lost to up the ante and really kick things into high gear in the next few episodes, and I can't imagine that they won't try to hit it out of the park as they prep for that one final lap. But you've got to admit, the road to get to that point has, so far, been pretty damn bumpy.

My Grade: B-

24! 24! 24!

- Okay, let's talk about TWENTY BY-GOD FOUR. Monday's episode left me with very mixed feelings. On one hand, there's no denying that the episode was off-the-chain intense, and filled with several kickass scenes. On the other hand, there was definitely a feeling of predictability to the whole thing. In past seasons, the killer-cliffhanger ending might have made me cheer, but now, after having seen similar scenarios play out so many times on the show, I had to groan that they once again went down this very familiar road with Jack.

Let me mention Greogry Itzin as Logan though. He's just an awesome villain - something that 24 has sorely lacked so far this season. His big scene with Cherry Jones' President Taylor was over-the-top, but in a really fun, melodramatic way that injected some much-needed conflict into the President's decision making. While it's been a lot to swallow to even buy that Taylor would work with Logan in the first place, it was still fun seeing him appeal to her ego and to see his tactics starting to work on her. Cherry Jones is a great actress, so it was nice to see her with some scenes in this episode to really sink her teeth into, as opposed to just saying "Whaaat? She's dead?! How did this haaappen!" (although, yeah, she did that in this episode too ...). Similarly, I loved her scene wit Jack at CTU. She did a great job playing against Kiefer Sutherland. Because, let's face it, Jack Bauer is the kind of guy who you don't have a simple conversation with. When it comes to life-or-death situations, he says exactly what he thinks and does what he wants. And in this case, he made the President red in the face and reduced to tears. Damn, Jack!

It's actually a somewhat interesting moral dillemma that the president is in. But, I'm not convinced that it's worth the risk of exposure to sign a treaty based on false pretenses. Especially in the world of 24, in which moles and inter-government conspiracies crop up all the time, does Taylor really think she can hide the truth about the Russians for long? Plus, if elements of the Russian government really were trying to nuke NYC, she's going to have to deal with them, right? I mean, no way do you just let those guys walk after plotting the biggest attack on US soil in history. My point is, while it's nice to see Taylor enter a moral grey area, I also question just how plausible the situation actually is (even for the crazy world of 24). Speaking of plausible, Chloe as CTU director is one of those that's entertaining and yet kind of dumb. Chloe's always been a fun supporting character, but a born leader she is not. Plus, it was literally her first day at CTU New York. That said, I enjoyed her scenes with President Taylor for the sheer absurdity of two such mismatched personalities interacting.

In any case, the real meat of this episode was Jack's inner trumoil as he grapples with Renee's sudden and violent murder. It felt like Jack, and probably the writers, couldn't quite decide whether to have him stay relatively calm or go absolutely ballistic, as he's been known to do from time to time. Personally, as fun as it is to see Jack go nuts, we've seen him "go rogue" and become a target of his own government SO MANY times on the show, and even in this season. I was hoping for some sort of new twist here, given that this is, afterall, the end for 24. What would be interesting is for Jack to REALLY go to the darkside, and kill innocents and just go full-on badguy in his quest for unholy vengeance. But given that there's a movie on the way, I don't necessarilly see that happenning. Instead, we'll probably see Jack somehow exonerated, in that his actions will expose Taylor's cover-up and keep him on the side of the angels for now. It will be interesting to see Jack's revenge mission take down a President who, until now, has basically been a model of integrity. At the same time, Jack going rogue only to come out on top and morally on the right side of things is well-worn territory.

Also, you can argue about the consistency of characterization with Jack. Obviously, Jack has snapped and gone off the grid before, but it's almost always been to serve the greater good. Just a few episodes ago, he tried to prevent President Hassan from taking matters into his own hands to keep in line with the President's orders. Jack has always been willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, but by that same token, he's always been about getting the job done. My hope is that we don't conveniently get a situation where Jack gets his personal revenge, saves the world, outs the badguys, etc in one fell swoop.

So yeah, it seems like the motto going forward for 24 will be "vintage Jack Bauer, only even bigger and crazier than before." That's okay, I guess, but also kind of a downer in some ways. I'm all for one last JACK vs. THE WORLD type of endgame, but I hope that a couple of twists get thrown in to make these final episodes more than just "24's Greatest Hits."

My Grade: B+


- I don't know if this makes me less of a man, but, I will just freely admit - last night's Madonna-centric episode of Glee was a lot of fun, and one of the most memorable episodes of the series to date. Sure, the episode sacrificed some of the usual story and narrative for the sake of packing in as many of Madonna's classics as humanly possible, but as a one-off I thought it really worked well, and topped previous episodes in terms of overall production and complexity of the musical numbers. The big surprise for me was how much of the episode revolved around Sue Sylvester and her unlikely love for the Material Girl. There was something just inherantly hilarious about Sue having such a girl-crush on Madonna, of all people. I thought her role models would be Margaret Thatcher or Billie Jean King or something. But, that seeming incongruity just made the episode that much funnier, and lent a totally entertaining, off-the-wall context to the previously-seen Sue Sylvester remake of the "Vogue" music video. Plus, even with all the Madonna love, there were still some interesting developments here, with some fun developments in the love lives of Rachel, Fynn, and Will & Emma. So, yeah, as much as I could do without the crazy hype for this show, I'm still man enough to admit that it's like nothing else on TV, and, when it's clicking like it was last night, one of the most entertaining shows on the air. Dammit all.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, that's all the gravitas we have time for at the moment - I'll be back with more soon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Do You KICK-ASS ...?!?!

KICK-ASS Review:

- What makes KICK-ASS so much fun is that, like it or not, it feels like a comic book movie of and for our time. So many of these iconic characters, they are iconic for a reason, but they're also based on concepts from as far back as the 1930's. Characters like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman are able to persevere because they are continually reimagined for the modern age. But it's also interesting to dream of heroes who spawned from the age of YouTube and Facebook and XBOX Live. KICK-ASS is that concept - it's brash, it's violent, it's over-the-top - but it also feels new and fresh and thoroughly modern. It's a mash-up of comic book lore with millenial pop-culture and geekdom. Kick-Ass doesn't deconstruct superheroes or comic books with the literary intelligence of Watchmen, but that isn't what it's about. It's about shock value, about wish-fulfillment, about taking a premise and twisting it from real-world plausibility to over-the-top superhero fantasy. Kick-Ass does contain some wry commentary on our crass and uncensored digital age, but at the end of the day, it's a movie that dishes out its uberviolence with a wink and a smile. Kick-Ass wants you to be shocked and offended by the notion of an eleven-year-old, foul-mouthed girl who's been trained since birth to be a deadly masked vigilante. If that concept flat-out offends you, then Kick-Ass might not be for you. But if there's something so brash, so brazen, so entertainingly wrong about this premise that you can't help but smile at it, then you're going to have a blast with Kick-Ass.

Kick-Ass is based on a recent comic book series by writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. Millar has already had one of his original works - WANTED - translated to the screen (though in a fairly loose adaptation), and he's a writer whose high-concept stories and cinematic storytelling style have made his works a natural it for Hollywood. Even in the comics world though, I think there's something of a love/hate relationship between the fans and Millar. People appreciate how hard he works to create new ideas and tell new stories, pushing the limits of the medium. His relentless self-hype, combined with his penchant for violent, hardcore, R-rated takes on superheroes has made him a guy who attracts a lot of attention and whose books sell relatively well in an oversaturated but underperforming comic book market. At the same time, some have criticized his work as emphasizing style over substance, pandering to fanboys rather than striving for higher artistic merit. Millar is the latest in a long line of British writers who have tried to push the comic book medium beyond its usual conventions - Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison are some of the names that come to mind. But, if those writers are the comic book equivalents of Terry Gilliam or The Coen Bros, Millar is a bit more in the Michael Bay camp, at least in the minds of some.

But Kick-Ass, especially the movie version, is more Tarantino than Michael Bay. There's a real subversive wit at its core, a real punk-rock sense of nihilism to the story - and a dark sense of humor that plays off of pop culture and comic book conventions. Kick-Ass is filled with knowing riffs on everything from Spiderman to Superman to first-person-shooter games on XBOX. It's a pop-culture mash-up of the highest order.

With that in mind, there's a lot to digest in the movie, and at first glance the premise and the characters don't exactly seem to gel into a single, coherant universe. The basic premise is this: a high-school loser dons a makeshift superhero costume and goes out on patrol to fight crime, just like his comic book heroes. Afterall, his real life is boring - he's a nobody at school, not a hit with the ladies, and he has nothing to lose. The only question for him, as far as being a masked crimefighter goes, is "why not?"

Now, I think the element of Kick-Ass that can be confusing is the fact that it starts out with a fairly reality-based premise - a regular guy who tries to become a real-life superhero - but then morphs into this crazy, comic book like world with larger-than-life villains and an eleven year old girl version of The Punisher called Hit-Girl. But remember, Kick-Ass is essentially about that very transition, that sort of "escalation" that's mentioned at the end of Batman Begins. It's the beginnings of a comic book-like universe forming out of our more mundane "real" universe. Except in this version of events, it's not a strange visitor from another planet or a wealthy playboy-turned-caped-crusader that kicks off the big bang of heroes and villains, it's just some scrawny schmuck in a scuba suit who can barely fight. And that is the central question of Kick-Ass - in this world, in which heroes have saturated pop-culture just like in ours, is Kick-Ass doomed to just be a tabloid flash-in-the pan, a YouTube celebrity, a joke? Or can he take inspiration from his comic book heroes and become a real, actual, superhero? And, in the real world, where bullets kill and blood flows, what does being a superhero even mean? Is Kick-Ass even a hero, or just a psycho? And even if he is well-intentioned, what about the fact that he hangs out with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, two armed-to-the-teeth vigilantes who seem to get off on murdering bad guys? Look, I'm not trying to say that Kick-Ass is a cerebral examination of real-world heroism and morality, but I do think these issues are there on a couple of different levels. To simply dismiss the movie on moral grounds is, I think, to ignore a lot of the intriguing questions that are built into the narrative. If you ignore the pop cultural context, then you might miss all that. If you place Kick-Ass as a reaction to and satire of comic book and fanboy culture though, then you just might appreciate the film on a different level than some of the critics who are quick to bash it.

On another level though, Kick-Ass is just plain fun. Like Kill Bill and other Tarantino flicks, this is a movie that's all about creating those cinematic moments that achieve maximum cool-factor. You can bet that director Matthew Vaughn choreographed Hit-Girl's grand entrance, for example, to get the geeks to smile and exclaim "holy crapballs, Hit-Girl FTW!". And to me, that's cool. So many action movies these days have no idea how to set a pace for maximum dramatic effect. They're so focused on quick cuts and nonstop action that they don't pause to offer the equivalant of that old comic book storytelling technique, the full-page Splash. Well, Kick-Ass is full of cinematic splash pages, scenes and sequences and images that practically reach out through the screen and punch you where it hurts.

The mix of satire and serious ass-kicking that a movie like this demands of its actors means that the cast has to be up to a rather tough challenge of managing this unique balancing act. Luckily, they are up to the task. Aaron Johnson does a fine job as Dave Lizewski, the high school kid who becomes Kick-Ass. He's dorky, but not cartoonishly so, and he and his friends (including Hot Tub time Machine's Clark Duke), engage in a lot of funny and relatable fanboy banner. I wish that there was a real-life hangout spot as cool as their local comic shop-slash-trendy-cafe, but hey, maybe the movie will inspire such a place to open. Meanwhile, you've got Nicholas Cage in full-on Cage-goes-crazy mode, as a mustachioed eccentric who by day is a doting father, and by night is the Batman-wannabe vigilante known as Big Daddy. When in costume, Cage speaks with a straight-up Adam West impression that is a must-see. So hilarious.

But let's face it, the breakout star of Kick-Ass is Chloe Moretz as the pint-sized antihero known as Hit-Girl. Moretz may only be a tween, but, holy crap on a stick, this is one of the most awesomely insane, instantly memorable action movie performances of all-time. When Hit-Girl was introduced in the comic book version of Kick-Ass, that was the moment that you knew that business had picked up. And the same holds true in the movie version. Moretz just nails it. The idea of Hit-Girl was going to be funny and novel no matter what, but I don't think many other child actresses could have pulled it off with this much attitude and aplomb. She's over-the-top enough that you want to burst into applause when she lays the smackdown on some baddies, but real enough that you never lose sight of the fact that, despite the purple hair and bad attitude, she's still just a little girl. Now, criticism of underaged comic book characters dates back to the World War II era, when sidekicks like Robin were deemed subversive and inappopriate (and back then, Batman was more violent and carried a gun). But the fact is, they're a staple of pop culture and of superhero storytelling, which is, afterall, basically a manifestation of childhood and adolescent fantasy. So is it a stretch to imagine a version of Robin that's raised and trained by a more sadistic, more deadly version of Batman? Not really - and that's why Hit-Girl is both an awesomely entertaining character, but also a logical extension of the kid sidekick archtype brought into the more extreme world of Kick-Ass.

On the side of the villains, Mark Strong makes for a good big bad as New York City mob boss Frank D'Amico. And Christopher Mintz-Plasse does a nice job as his geeky son, who eventually befriends Kick-Ass as the hero Red Mist. Still, I think that Red Mist's arc here is a little weaker than in the comic. Whereas his true motivations are a big twist in the comic, in the movie we know his agenda from the beginning, making the character a little less complex, and yet more confusing. In the film, things are pretty murky in terms of Red Mist going back and forth between being sympathetic and just plain evil, and it's one of a few examples where the movie simplifies the comic. Another example is Dave's relationship with his high school crush, Katie. The movie retains one of the book's more darkly funny subplots - that Dave pretends he's gay in order to get closer to Katie. But, the movie's resolution to this is way more cut and dried than in the comics. I thought the darker version in the comics was a bit truer to the story's spirit. Finally, the comic contains a BIG twist with regards to Big Daddy's origin that is wholly absent from the movie. This to me is a big loss, because the twist really emphasizes the fact that all of these characters are playing a part - that they are not anything like the comic book heroes they wish they could be. With Big Daddy being a more genuine character in the movie, I think it emphasizes the narrative disconnect between some of the various ideas in the film.

To that end, I think that as a whole, while the movie does a good job of having all of its disparate elements tie together thematically, there is still some messiness to the plotting. As much as its fun to see the universe of Kick-Ass expand to include crazy characters like Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, there is still something of a jarring effect to the transition. At some point in the middle of the movie, you have to stop and wonder: "hey, wasn't this a movie about a high school kid trying to become a superhero in the real world?" Again, I get that the movie is riffing on this idea of escalation, but, I also think it isn't necessarilly the smoothest mixture of ideas and concepts. Partly, it's because Big Daddy and Hit Girl don't necessarilly come into existence as a direct result of Kick-Ass - in fact, they were active long before him. It's a small point, but it adds to the feeling that the characters were thrown into the mix more for the inherent cool-factor and less because they 100% made sense in this world.

All that said, KICK-ASS is one hell of an entertaining movie. And it's unique and provacative enough that it's already inspiring endless debates among movie critics and fans. And that's why I like stories like Kick-Ass. They're new. They pose new questions that just aren't always possible when dealing with decades-old characters. They take chances. If nothing else, you've got to give Kick-Ass credit for daring to shake things up, for putting a new spin on a sometimes tired genre. In some ways, it's a movie that fully embraces the things that make comics such a vital artform. It throws so many new ideas at you, hits you with so many colorful characters, that it's senseory overload. It comes at you with geek-out moments aplenty, daring you not to smile as Hit-Girl unleashes hell on an army of thugs who never saw it coming. It has big reveals, dozens of "holy-$#%&!" moments, and seems to be on a relentless quest to shock and wow you. Maybe not for everyone, but for a certain segment, this is a movie that does what it sets out to do: kick some ass.

My Grade: A-

Danny Tells You HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON ... Plus: Smallville, V, and More!

Back from the weekend and ready to get into it, with a new batch of reviews for your reading pleasure. This weekend, I was very much in a basketball mindset. I've been really bad about following the NBA this season, but, now that the Playoffs have started, it's game time, baby. There are some really interesting matchups this year - even in the first round, it feels like a free for all. Aside from one or two series, every first round matchup seems like it's anyone's game. Even titans like the Lakers and Celtics are vulnerable (C's more so now that KG has been suspended for Game 2 of the series vs. Miami). A couple of first-round matchups are real tossups. Phoenix vs. Portland, Dallas vs. San Antonio ... the bottom line is, this could be one hell of a playoffs.


- SMALLVILLE had another mediocre episode this week, lacking much in the way of excitement or freshness. Clark was exposed to Red K, leading to yet another mind-control storyline. Sure, "evil" Clark allows Tom Welling to be something other than brooding and mopey, but still, it's just such a cheap, easy plot device. I wish the show would just rely on clever writing and drama to escalate its character conflicts, not the deux ex machina of mind-altering crimson kryptonite. Meanwhile, the episode continued to inch forward with the overarching Zod storyline, and god, it is just moving along at a snail's pace. How many more scenes do we need of Zod and Tess going back and forth with their evil scheming and counterplotting? It really does feel like I'm watching Days of Our Lives sometimes rather than a show about a not-quite-Superman. The action quotient in this episode came from Brian Austin Green resuming his role as John Corben, aka Metallo, aka the man with the kryptonite heart. Green's take on Metallo is just one more example of how Smallville has a knack for taking all the fun out of classic comic book concepts. I mean - look at the Geoff Johns-penned "Absolute Justice." Part of the reason it worked so well was that it captured what made so many of those classic characters work in the first place, and didn't shy away from their colorful natures. Here, Metallo isn't an awesome cyborg like in the comics, he's just a guy who looks like a bad Tony Stark ripoff. Green proved himself to be a pretty awesome badass in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was almost sad to see him so neutered here by Smallville's perpetually lame dialogue and soap operatics. This was one of those episodes where the series really showed its age, I thought. It speaks volumes that I now brace myself for the last ten minutes of every episode, where we get the inevitable heart-to-heart chats and emo brooding of Clark, Lois, Chloe, and in this case, Corben. I had to use all of my willpower to keep from hitting the fast-forward button. At this point, the end of the Zod storyline will be a mercy-killing.

My Grade: C

- I was a big fan of JUSTIFIED from this past week. The episode combined the standalone feel of earlier episodes with the long-awaited introduction of Raylan's criminal dad, and it made for a pretty crackling hour of southern-fried drama. Actor Raymond J. Berry was superb as Arlo, aka the slimeball dad that looks to have pushed his son into a life of law-enforcement. He was likable in a love-to-hate-him sort of way, but also clearly one mean sonofabitch. Timothy Olyphant continues to do a bang-up job as Raylan - quickly becoming one of TV's best and most badass heroes. And ths how just has a great feel to it - a modern Western noir with a dark sense of humor, memorable characters, and spot-on dialogue. Definitely one worth checking out if you haven't already gotten onboard.

My Grade: A-

- THE SIMPSONS had a fun premise last night - Homer and Chief Wiggum become best friends - but unfortunately, the jokes just weren't all that great. It's a shame, because it was nice to see a Simpsons ep that had such even pacing and a concept that felt like it had real potential. But hey, you can have th ebest premise in the world, but, if the jokes aren't there, it doesn't really matter. Actually, I thought a lot of the episode's funnierm oments came from the Bart subplot, in which he gets caught up in a Pokemon-style card game, even as Marge suspects that he's gotten into drugs. The card game storyline was responsible for some of the best lines in this one ("It's a Japanese card game, based on a cartoon, based on an ancient religion, based on a candy bar."), which was nice coming off a string of Simpsons eps with pretty terrible B-stories (last week's Bart and Lisa antfarm storyline still stings). Plus, at least the Wiggum storyline felt like the show was trying something new, even if it did go the predictable route of having Wiggum's friendship become overbearing and such. Still, a decently solid Simpsons ep.

My Grade: B

- I'll also talk for a second about V. I'm not going to review the latest episode, because I didn't watch it. Instead, I am dropping V - it's time had come, and the show just wasn't worth watching anymore. It's sad, V is the second high-profile ABC sci-fi show that I got onboard with after an intriguing pilot, but then dropped after several subpar and hard-to-get-through episodes (Flash Forward being the first such series). But I was really holding out hope for V, because the premise just seemed too good to mess up this badly. Aliens invading earth is basically a no-brainer. And yet, the show moved along at a crawl, and was consistently one of the most boring and uneventful series on the air. The one thing a series like this has to nail is the characters, and V failed to create more than one or two intriguing characters for us to get behind week in and week out. Every hero on the show was bland and boring, and everyone seemed miscast to boot. Scott Wolf as America's most trusted broadcast journalist? Never bought it. Elizabeth Mitchell as a crusading FBI Agent and the leader of the anti-V rebellion? Never worked. Anna, the mysterious leader of the V's, was probably the show's single breakout character. But throughout the series' run to date, she hasn't actually *done* anything. A show about an alien invasion should not have this much standing around and talking. It needs thrills, action, twists, great heroes, great villains. V started out with a hint of promise - certainly, it was one of my most anticipated new shows going into this past Fall - but it completely fizzled in the subsequent weeks. Add V to the long, long list of serialized sci-fi shows that tried and failed to match the creative and commercial success of LOST. The inability of the networks to get this type of show right (with FRINGE, I think, being a notable exception), is pretty pathetic.

- I did really enjoy this past week's return of GLEE. The show has been so hyped that it's easy to want to be annoyed with it and just hate it on principle, but the fact is that the show came back from its long hiatus with a darn good episode. I do really appreciate that Glee retains a very dark and subversive undercurrent beneath its bright and shiny veneer, and that was very much evident in this week's episode - with Rachel still a loser who gets regular slushees-to-the-face, Will struggling with his new post-marriage-collapse relationship situation, and Sue Slyvester as darkly hilarious and mean as ever. I know some people just love Glee for its over-the-top musical numbers, but for me, I could almost do without them more often than not. Instead, I enjoy the fact that the show is such a unique, black-comedy look at high school.

My Grade: A-

- Okay, I've been meaning to review this one for a while now, so, without further ado, a look at the film that was once again #1 at the box office this week ...


- I wasn't expecting it, but Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon is one of the best animated films in years. You wouldn't necesarrily glean this from the cutesy advertising campaign or from Dreamworks' spotty track record of animated films, but the fact is that this is a film on par with just about anything that's come from Disney, Pixar, or anyone else in recent years. In some ways, I'd say it's a purer film than some of Pixar's - it's not necessarilly trying to work on multiple levels or to go over and above the heads of kids. Instead, it's simply a classic fable, imbued with absolutely astonishing visuals and exhilerating action scenes. I know there's been a lot of grumbling lately about movies retrofitted for 3D and such, but this is a movie to see in IMAX 3D, a movie that raises the bar for fully-animated CGI visuals. It's a movie filled with soaring scenes of flight, with astonishing landscapes and jaw-dropping locales. What's more, the story is simple but effective, with great characters who each get their moment to shine. In some ways, I feel like How to Train Your Dragon is the first movie to really blend the classic Disney storytelling sensibilities with the rollercoaster-ride-aesthetics that modern audiences expect from 3D and CGI. I think that's why it's been so successful at the box office to date, and I think it's success that's well-deserved.

How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a fantasy version of history loosely based on Norse mythology. In this world, a village of hearty and stout viking warriors is constantly at war with an army of invading dragons. The dragons, who come in all types of fearsome varieties, routinely attack the village, and so the villagers are trained from a young age in the art of dragon combat. In such a society, it stands to reason that the most valued qualities are toughness, combat prowess, and a warrior's spirit - all things that seem to have eluded young Hiccup, a thin, gawky kid who's dad happens to be his village's most fearsome and respected dragon fighter. However, just as Hiccup begins his formal dragon-combat training, his life takes an unexpected turn. He meets and secretly befriends an injured dragon. And this isn't just any dragon, but a Night Fury, thought to be the most vicious and elusive sort of dragon in existence - so much so that no one is even quite sure what one actually looks like. While the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon (whom he names Toothless due to his, well, lack of teeth) takes a while to really blossom, soon enough, Hiccup has become the first person ever to develop a relationship with a dragon that doesn't involve trying to kill them. Things escalate from there, but the story, while somewhat predictable, really does evolve into a pretty poignant fable about war and peace and learning to coexist rather than living in a constant state of conflict.

The movie's great characters also help to make the story come alive. At first, I was a little weary of Hiccup being such a modern sort of character (as voiced by Jay Baruchel, he feels like something of an anachronism in this version of ancient history, to be sure). But, the movie does such a nice job of creating this world, in which the kids seem more modern and contemporary, while the adults more old-world, that it all sort of fits together in service of the story. And there's just a really fun dynamic at work between the characters. The other kids in the village are an entertaining bunch, voiced by such talents as America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristin Wiig. It's a veritable Judd Apatow movie, and their comic timing really comes in handy in many key scenes. There's a lot of great banter between the kids - Hill's overeager Snotlout, Ferrera's tough-girl Astrid, and Mintz-Plasse's dorky Fishlegs. It's funny, because one of the most obvious complaints about the recent Clash of the Titans was how lifeless the supporting characters were. Here, it's a great ensemble. And like I said, everyone gets their big moment to shine.

There is also really strong work from Gerard Butler as Hiccup's dragon-crushing dad, Stoick, and Craig Ferguson is another standout as the gruff but kind-hearted, one-legged combat trainer, Gobber. Again, one oddity is that everyone in the movie has different accents. For some reason, all the older viking characters have pronounced Scottish dialects, whereas all the kids sound American. It sort of annoyed me at first, but after a while I just went with it and accepted that in this universe you somehow acquire a Scottish brogue as you age. Overall though, it's a really amazing, well thought-through world that's presented to us. I loved all the imagination that went into creating the various types of dragons, and the overall geography of the film is pretty stunning. Visually, I have rarely seen a film so awe-inspiring - sweeping vistas, dragon-filled caves, endless blue oceans, and armadas of viking ships. The movie may be marketed as cutesy, but man, there are some really intense, hardcore visuals and action in this one. It's definitely a boys movie, in the sense that it treats its actions scenes with extreme attention to detail and makes them a focal point of the film. There's a videogame-like sense of kinetic energy to the action, and honestly, the movie has some of the most exciting, epic battles I've seen on-screen. Again, hate to use Clash as the whipping boy, but the animated How to Train Your Dragon makes the supposedly more hardcore Clash look second-rate. Suffice it to say, Dragon's climactic battle is absolutely insane. Forget the Kraken, THIS is how you do large-scale action.

How to Train Your Dragon is a jaw-dropping visual tour de force, but it's also a timeless tale of a boy and his dragon, in the mold of movies like E.T.. It combines great storytelling with fun characters, pulse-pounding action, a great message for kids (and adults), and plenty of heart. In short, it really took me by surprise and in some ways sort of blew me away. If this had come out a few months ago, I'd put it right up there with the best animated films of 2009, and I think it will undoubtedly be in contention for those same bragging rights in 2010. A few minor criticisms aside, I think How To Train Your Dragon - as a movie and as a theatrical experience - stands tall as one of the year's best films to date.

My Grade: A-

Next: Stay tuned for a ninja-powered review of KICK-ASS!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Come quietly or there will be ... trouble. FRINGE goes Robo, Plus: Kick-Ass Hype

Whoo - it's Friday, and I am psyched for the weekend ahead. The big pop cultural event this weekend, clearly, is KICKASS, so let me talk about that for a second before I get into other stuff.

It's really interesting to me how there's already something of a debate over the movie's morals. I haven't seen it yet (will see it tonight!), but I've read the comic on which the movie is closely based, and so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the film. My early take as of now is this: I don't think Kickass is really any sort of deep satire or message film. It's much more squarely in the camp of a Kill Bill or other such B-movie, over-the-top action-fests. Basically, it's a story that subverts the conventions of superhero fiction in order to hit all the right buttons on fanboys' geek-out sensors. It's high-concept fantasy fulfillment, not the next Watchmen. That's what writer Mark Millar does - he creates these darkly funny, over-the-top, action-packed concepts and sees just how far he can push things. Sure, he's done some subtler work in his day, but books like The Authority, Wanted, Kickass, Ultimates, and Nemesis are all about getting someone's inner 13 year old boy to get wrapped up in a story's kewl-factor. Millar wants to push your fanboy buttons, not create classic literature.

The weird thing is is that the comic book market in 2010 consists of a lot of twenty and thirty something guys who eat this stuff up. Because Millar's works are original (not retreads with old characters), and because they come pre-packaged with a lot of hype around their irresistable high concepts, they generate a lot of interest. And even if I don't love all of Millar's work, I appreciate that he's out there trying new things. Kickass was so fun to read precisely because I had no clue where it was going. And also because Millar was clearly out to shock us, raising the bar for crazy violence and over-the-top action at every turn. That's what Kickass is - a movie for grown up guys to go watch and revel in the nihilism and craziness of it all. It's an R-rated, punk rock comic book flick. And yet, the marketing is selling it as a fun little movie with McLovin', a funny superhero movie that's more cute than crazy. I think that's part of what makes Kickass an interesting movie to monitor in terms of box office success - we know that the hardcore fanboys are able to embrace R-rated takes on superheroes - but is the mainstream? In comics, guys like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis, and now Mark Millar have been deconstructing and pushing the limits of the genre for decades. Comic book fans barey bat an eyelash anymore when they see crazy stuff like Kickass or Nemesis or The Boys or The Authority. But the mainstream? They are finally catching up to the comic book world, and even after movies like 300 and Watchmen and such, I think this is all still something of a shock to the system. And oh boy, when critics expecting a family-friendly comedy see this one ... well, I can see how they were shocked. Roger Ebert is already making waves with his harsh review, which condemns the movie for its questionable morals. And traditionally, superheroes are all about morals - truth, justice, and all that. But that's what makes stories like Kickass so much fun for those of us who know the genre inside and out. The deliberate contradictions - a regular, wimpy guy trying to play the hero, a diminuitive little girl acting like The Punisher - those subversions make for one hell of an entertaining premise. I'm not saying yet if the movie is good or bad. But, I think you need to give guys like Millar and director Matthew Vaughn credit for creating characters that are so instantly memorable and amusingly novel. That's the fun of stories like Kickass.


- Good lord, did FRINGE rule it this week. I mean, wow. This one sort of came out of nowhere, too, because it was promoted as more of a standalone episode than a mythology-heavy ep, and, well, Fringe has yet to really have a truly great monster-of-the-week installment. BUT, this was no ordinary Fringe episode. For one thing, it, finally, nailed the perfect formula for a Fringe one-off episode - a compelling antagonist whose story was seamlessly interwoven with the ongoing conflicts and issues of our main characters. Having that mix of standalone and myth-arc is what sets Frings apart from predecessors like The X-Files, and this was the episode that finally got the formula right.

Moreso than that though, this ep was simply filled with amazing, intense, memorable scenes. In the past, one-off villains have been less than memorable. But here, we got PETER WELLER as a time-travelling tragic villain, and as expected, he rocked. Weller is one of those actors who just flat-out rules whenever he shows up. He's Robocop, he's Buckaroo Banzai, he's one of the best villains in 24's history, and he once again kicked ass and took names on Fringe. His character here was really intriguing - a mad scientist on an intellectual level with Walter, who creates a means of self-propelled time travel via a complex and grotesque series of cybernetic implants. Like Walter did years earlier, Weller's character was looking to bend the laws of the universe in order to correct a past tragedy. Just as Walter travelled to another dimension in order to replace his dying son, Weller wanted to travel back in time so that he could help his late fiance avoid a fatal car accident. Weller's time-travelling caused casualties each time, as those caught in his temporal field were instantly fried. But Weller justified his actions by arguing that, in the end, none of that will have ever even happened. It set up an absolutely fascinating moral debate between Weller and Walter Bishop, in which Walter used his own regrets to try to convince Weller that his actions would have reprecussions that would come back to haunt him.

The scenes between John Noble and Peter Weller absolutely crackled with intensity and gravitas. And man, they were SMART. Here were two brilliant scientists on primetime network TV, arguing about the nature of god, science, time travel, and destiny. Amazing. Who says all TV is dumb?

This episode had all sorts of smart science, brain-expanding ideas, and imagination. It felt like the best science fiction I loved as a kid - it made me think, but there was also a very human, very emotional undercurrent to it all. This episode was overflowing with sci-fi craziness, but, damn, it was also an absolute heartbreaker. The entire episode was framed around Walter's struggle over whether or not to tell Peter the truth about his origins. And once again, John Noble was freaking fantastic, exhibiting turmoil, sadness, and determination. Walter's angst was woven brilliantly into the time-travel storyline though, and it all came full-circle in a brilliant ending that was both a tragic end for Weller and a sign of hope and fate for Walter. The white tulip sent from Weller to Walter was a brilliant and way to wrap things up. At times, it was hard to tell where exactly this episode was going, but the fact that it all came together so well solidified it as truly great - one of the best-ever episodes of Fringe.

I didn't think we'd get such a masterful ep so soon after Peter's incredible origin story from the other week, but here we are. Fringe is absolutely kicking ass right now.

My Grade: A

- Okay, I still need to write up my review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (short version: it's great), so may or may not get to that in the next day. But, for now, have a great weekend and kick some ass!

Thursday, April 15, 2010


LOST Thoughts:

- This week's LOST was one of those episodes that thoroughly entertained me, but also left me with a sense of "we're just getting to this stuff NOW?" With so few episodes left in the series, it's still nearly impossible to see how everything will wrap up in a satisfactory manner given how little time there is to follow through on some of the concepts that have just been introduced in the last couple of episodes.

That said, thank god that Desmond is back. After a triumphant return in the previous week's universe-spanning epic, Desmond almost singlehandedly elevated this episode to awesomeness, thanks to the overall cool-factor of the character, combined with Henry Ian Cusick's amazing acting chops. In two episodes, he is already, in my eyes, the MVP of this season of Lost. I mean, look at the conversation he had with Hurley at the fast food place. In another's hands, this would have been ordinary, unremarkable. But Cusick made it pop. His pep talk to Hurley was great stuff. Meanwhile, the double cliffhanger was pretty awesome. It was no huge surprise that Not-Locke angrily threw Desmond down the well in the middle of the jungle, but, what was a shocker was Desmond returning the favor by running down Locke in the alternaverse. Now, why did Desmond do this? Was it an attempt to deliver a blow to Smokey? Or was it an attempt to force alterna-Locke into a state of awareness regarding the multiverse, similar to how Desmond's own near-death experience with Charlie jiggered his memory in the last episode? Regardless, it was one hell of an ending.

Other aspects of the episode, however, came off as somewhat clunky. Ilana's sudden, dynamite-go-boom death was a jaw-dropper, but it also felt like an admission on the part of the writers that the character had become pretty much useless since her introduction. And that annoys me, because Ilana and her crew of Jacob followers were originally set up to be major players in the Lost universe. And yet, we never really got a sense of what their deal was, how they came to be a group, or what, exactly, their motivations were. We've seen somewhat ambiguous scenes of a hospitalized Ilana being comforted by Jacob, but we never really got the full story behind her origins. As I've said many times, I don't care if Lost explains every mystery or every character's backstory ... BUT ... it's semi-obnoxious that they provided little clues and teasers and dangled this carrot in front of us only to then throw their hands up and say "yeah, we admit, we never really had any clue what to do with this character."

Ironically, this same episode contained one of Lost's trademark "answers," in which some lesser mystery is explained via expository dialogue. Apparently, the "whispers" we've been hearing about since Season 1 are actually ghostly chatter from souls stuck on the island in psuedo-purgatory. Okay ... I don't know, I just am not in love with the idea that all these random ghosts haunt the island and show up to give Hurley helpful advice at random moments. It just seems way too hokey for Lost. And confusing, in that on the show we've seen dead people show up as manifestations of the Smoke Monster, dead people show up as ghosts, and dead people show up as physical forms for the Monster to inhabit. Frankly, it's a mess. Which dead people were ghosts, which were the black smoke? Was Christian Shephard ever really on the island, for example? And we still have no clue how or why Hurley can talk to the dead (which he now does every five minutes) - I mean, wasn't that supposed to have been Miles' schtick?

Hurley's off-island storyline this week was well-done. The interaction with Libby was really emotional and engaging, and it was nice seeing Cynthia Waitrose back on the show. I still don't quite buy that she loves him, and she and Jorge Garcia certainly don't have Desmond-Penny levels of chemistry. But, there were some nice moments between them nonetheless, and Hurley's vision of his life on the island was a powerful scene. Still, I feel like island Hurley is getting increasingly annoying. His ghost-chatting is starting to feel pretty forced, and someone in this ep raised a good point - why does he take everything that the ghost say as gospel? Meanwhile, the scene in which Jack, Miles, and Ben chose to follow either Hurley or Richard was sort of painful. They were acting out of some sense of urgency, but why? Hurley's big plan is to go talk to Locke. Umm ... great plan. Richard's big plan is to blow up stuff to make sure that Locke, and in turn everyone else, doesn't get off the island. Two plans, neither very good. It all felt like another instance of forcing the characters to just sort of walk from Point A to Point B without any rhyme or reason. I'm also sick of all the talk about what "the island" wants. Is the island a self-aware entity? I thought the whole point of this season so far was to establish Jacob and Smokey as the guiding hands of fate responsible for pushing the castaways in various directions? So is "the island" still a thing as well?

I feel like this sort of sloppy writing could really come back to bite Lost as it enters its endgame. On the other hand, the return of Desmond, the collision of the two timelines, and the promise of big things to come kept me really excited and entertained during this episode. With so many suprises, twists, and strong performances, this was, I think, one of the better episodes of Lost so far this season.

And by the way, the promo for next week's ep, featuring sampling of Gene Wilder's dialogue as Willy Wonka, was an inspired stroke of genius. Awesome.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

24: Gettin' Busy Livin' and Gettin' Busy Dyin'



- 24, thankfully, seems to have shifted into high gear as the countdown to the final hour begins in earnest. Last week's two hour episode set the stage, closing the book, to some extent, on the ongoing nuclear rods storyline, and killing off President Hassan. As so many of the season's plot threads came to a close, the question arose of where things would, or could, go from here. And that's when things are often at their most interesting for 24 - when we've gotten away from the A to B to C plot progression that so many seasons follow, and find ourselves in sudden death overtime. Quite literally, in the case of last night's episode.

24 isn't a regular TV show. After years and years of watching the show, there are certain things that register with us longtime fans that non-fans probably just won't get. So, hmm, let's just get this out of the way now ... JACK spent a good forty minute or so of this episode "uploading his intel" to Renee Walker, in REAL-TIME. Allllright. In a lot of ways, there wasn't a lot of realistic build-up to the two hooking up, but in the world of 24, it's basically been an inevitability that the entire season seemed to have been leading up to. And hey, 24 is a world of melodrama, of epic heroes, of GRAVITAS. When Jack administers 20 cc's of Jack-juice to his special lady-friend, it's no small matter. Suffice it to say, Jack lifting Renee off her feet and proceeding to show her the true meaning of the Jack Bauer Hour of Power ... well, in its own special way, it was indeed one of the most epic moments we've seen on the season to date.

But, this being 24, Jack can't display his affections for a female companion without putting her in some sort of mortal danger. Renee had already been through her share of scrapes, but as she and Jack engaged in unholy communion, with a Russian sniper keeping his rifle trained on them, you had to know that bad things were about to go down. And go down they did. Jack got up for water, and as Renee spoke with Chloe on the phone, the sniper got her with deadly accuracy. Jack rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late (at least, it seems that way). In an absolutely crushing moment, Jack had reached the heights of pleasure only to succumb to the harshest of pain. The woman he had grown to care for, perhaps even love, during the one and a half days that he had known her, was dead. As a silent clock played to close out the show for the second straight week, all I could think was: "dammit all."

I don't know if Renee is really and truly dead, and honestly I have mixed feelings about whether killing off one of the show's strongest remaining characters was a smart move. But I will say this: this was up there with the most compelling hours of 24 of the season. We got the Jack and Renee triumph and tragedy, plus, some pretty well-done moments of political drama at the UN. Even though we are at the point where it just seems silly for President Taylor to not catch at least a few hours of sleep, Cherry Jones still had some really nice moments - with Hassan's wife (convincing her to assume her husband's presidency, in a really stirring scene), with the scheming Russian ambassador, and with the returning former President Logan.

Yes, Logan returned, and Gregory Itzin was in fine form as the weaselly, disgraced politician who was once one of 24's most infamous villains. It was fun watching Itzin just exude slimeball as he convinced President Taylor to recruit him to negotiate with the Russians. However, the plotting here was definitely clunky. This is a man responsible for murder and presidential assassination - there is just NO WAY the President would EVER enlist his services in this manner. It was good seeing Logan back, but I'm just not buying his new role here.

Better implemented was Chloe's promotion to interim Director of CTU. Again, it makes zero sense from a logical perspective (what, there was no Deputy Director? how does an analyst get promoted to Director?). But, hey, Chloe had a lot of fun scenes, and it was nice to see such a long-running character have some actual progression. Plus, it was just funny seeing her boss people (esp. Freddie Prinze Jr.) around. It's a sad comment on how generally useless Hastings was this whole season (he had one good moment the whole season - his "I want you ALL in" line to Jack that one time), but hey, at least the writers are admitting their mistakes.

I think that there is, unfortunately, the potential for this season of 24 to really crash and burn in the next few episodes. As I've pointed out, there seems to be a LOT of very forced plot progression going on here. One of the show's strongest characters brutally killed off, Chloe as head of CTU, President Taylor working with and trusting Charles Logan ... this could be dangerous as we head towards the endgame. But, this was a riveting episode all the same. It hit the notes that get 24 fans all a-tingle. It set Jack up to basically go insane and become more crazed and violent than ever. It ensured that we're in store for some hardcore moments in the weeks ahead. For now though, let's have a moment of silence for Renee Walker, Jack's freckled companion who stood on the edge of the abyss and, eventually, fell in head-first. May your eventual resurrection in zombie form come quickly.

My Grade: A-

Monday, April 12, 2010

Conan Conquers Cable! The Simpsons! Smallville! And a DATE NIGHT Review!

So Conan has signed with TBS, and a new chapter in the Late Night Wars is set to begin. This is an unexpected move, but it's also a really interesting one. I think a lot of people expected something to happen with FOX (myself included), but it sounds like there was still a lot of reluctance on FOX's end to mess with its popular syndicated programming ... and the last thing Conan wants is another battle with local affiliates after what happened at NBC (okay, so it was really Leno's fight with the affiliates, but Conan has seen how ugly that can get). Still, even in the cable world, most people thought the likeliest option would be Comedy Central. Conan seems a perfect match for their brand, and even if he'd have to battle for time-slot space with Stewart and Colbert, some sort of pairing of those three would be a dream lineup for any network. Conan just seemed like a natural fit for a network that airs edgy, young-skewing, comedy-nerd-friendly shows like The Sarah Silverman Program and Important Things With Demitri Martin. TBS, on the other hand, has rebranded itself in the last few years as almost a throwback comedy network, built around old reruns of Seinfeld and Family Guy, along with original shows that might have felt at home on TGIF in the early 90's (Bill Engvall? Tyler Perry? My Boys?). Personally, I haven't watched much TBS since they stopped being a "Superstation" that acted as a sister network to TNT, and therefore aired basketball, wrestling, and endless "movies for guys who like movies." (sigh ... I used to watch endless hours of movies like Conan The Barbarian, Beastmaster, Robocop, and Escape from NY on TNT and TBS back in the day). Sure, I still watch the occasional Seinfeld rerun on the network, but whereas TNT has built itself up as a legit network for drama (and sports), I don't know if TBS has done the same for comedy.

To that end, TBS needs to rebuild, and quickly. Having Office and Family Guy reruns is a good start to build up solid programming blocks around Conan, but the original programming needs to get a complete overhaul, asap. TBS needs original animated shows, edgier comedies, etc. The good news is that there's always been great cross-promotion between the Turner networks. I watch a ton of the NBA on TNT, and I'm always bombarded with promos for Bill Engvall and Frank Caliendo, that I basically tune out as I have zero interest in those shows. But, imagine watching the NBA Playoffs and getting hit with all sorts of hilarious Conan promos. Imagine watching Adult Swim and constantly getting reminded about the new Conan talk show. Turner has some great places to promote a new show, and they will surely promote Conan early and often across their various brands. I could even see the show being rerun on Adult Swim late at night, for example.

But, it's going to be an uphill battle for a while. TBS is going to have to really rebrand itself and get some better programming to support Conan. Conan is someone they can build around though - he's his own unique brand of comedy, and he has his own production co that will surely be in talks with Turner about developing additional series for their networks. Creatively, we can only hope that Conan is given free reign to go nuts. Who knows which if any of his old characters or sketches he'll be able to use, but hopefully this is a chance for Conan to try some new things and not stick to the same old talk show formula.

The best-case scenario here for Conan and Conan fans is if Conan comes back with a great new show that gets great viewership and in the process helps to reinvigorate TBS. There have been numerous examples of cable nets turning their popularity around on the backs of just one or two key shows - look at AMC with Mad Men for example - and Conan could be the impetus for TBS to really up their game. I'm not quite sure how George Lopez fits into this, but I think he can coexist with Conan. At the same time, TBS needs to build around Conan, not Lopez or Tyler Perry or whoever else. Plus, this is the age of on-screen programming guides, DVR, and Hulu. Viewers, especially younger ones, will proactively find the shows they want to watch. And TBS has as much reach as any other cable net, so distribution won't be a problem.

In a way, I think us Conan fans wanted to see Conan back on a big network going head to head with Leno and Letterman. With all of the hype that came from his battle with Leno, it would have been fun to see him re-enter the arena on the biggest possible stage. And let's face it, with all the bad blood that resulted from the clash of the late-night titans, there was definitely that desire to see Conan return to go head to head with Jay. That said, for years now there's been press about how Adult Swim's reruns of Family Guy routinely beat all network late-night shows in the younger demos. So there is a real opportunity here. TBS just has to step up to the plate a bit and get Conan fans excited not just about the new talk show, but about the network as a whole.

One thing's for sure though ... the late-night TV landscape just got very, very interesting.

- Okay, so ... what was I going to talk about again before all of this Conan news came up? Oh yeah, my usual Monday rigamaroll (great word). This weekend, I was still dealing with some car stuff and such, but, I also managed to see not one but two movies, which I will now dutifully report back to you on (well, I'll talk about one for now, stay tuned in the next day or two for the review of the second!). But first ... some TV Thoughts:


- After several weeks of anticipation, SMALLVILLE finally returned to some of the big plot threads first revealed back in the stellar, Geoff Johns-penned "Absolute Justice" episode - the JSA, Checkmate, Tess Mercer's status as an undercover agent, Amanda Waller, etc. I was excited to see so many of these intriguing concepts revisited, but I was also slightly weary of the regular Smallville scribes handling the threads that Johns so skillfully introduced. And what we got was, predictably, a mix of the good and the bad. The good was that the presence of Waller and Checkmate raised the stakes for Clark and co. Instead of the usual shaky romances or personality-swap storylines that Smallville is famous for, we got some legit, superheroic drama filled with intrigue and danger. That alone is worth praising on a show that rarely takes a break from its cheesy formula anymore to focus on great drama. Plus, Pam Grier is great as "The Wall," Amanda Waller. It's funny that they are apparently recasting this role for the upcoming Green Lantern movie, with Angela Bassett playing the comic book staple. Personally, Pam Grier looks and feels right for the part much more than Bassett, so kudos to Smallville for that inspired bit of casting. I also liked that this episode finally gave J'onn J'onzz a chance to shine, using his various powers and abilities, and exposing his weakness to fire. The character has mostly been wasted thus far, ever since he was introduced a few years back, so it's nice to see one of DC Comics' most iconic characters finally getting his due. One other cool thing about this ep - some experimental directorial choices that were a nice break from the norm, including a sleek action scene that showed Clark in comic book panel-esque freeze frames. Pretty cool, and something I wouldn't mind seeing every so often.

So why wasn't this another great episode in the vein of "Absolute Justice?" Well, despite everything that this one had going for it, it just didn't have the sharpness of Johns' episode. The interactions between Clark and Waller felt heavyhanded and lacked the intensity they should have had. It's funny, because just this week I read the latest issue of Superman: Secret Origins by Johns, and there was a similar scene in it, in which Supes is confronted by the US Military, that was infinitely more dramatic and memorable than anything from this week's Smallville. Meanwhile, Tess Mercer's character still feels broken. It came off as though her role as a Checkmate agent was some random gig she had on the side, as opposed to a secret identity she had had to live with for years. And we still don't have a clear read on her character or her motivations. Was all the stuff with Zod last week for real, or was it part of her cover? The show made no effort to hint one way or the other. Finally, Checkmate should be an imposing, cool, highly advanced government operation. I don't see them as a group that leaves chess-piece calling cards or anything like that. Checkmate still felt sort of small-time here. I think what makes them so cool in the comics is the genre-bending mix of a counter-terrorist / espionage unit existing in a world full of superheroes and villains. That cool-factor was cheesed-up to the point where it wasn't quite as cool in the Smallville-verse. Finally, it pained me that rather than focusing on the story at hand, we had to put up with all sorts of soap-operatic stuff between Clark and Chloe. I'm not saying there shouldn't be soap opera on a show like this, but we've been down this road too many times to count on Smallville. The real story of this episode is Clark being on the radar of the US government, and the reprecussions that has. Instead, the focus was put on Clark and Chloe's ongoing trust issues, which are tired and played out at this point. It just feels like Smallville has no idea how to shift gears and do epic drama when the story calls for it. I wanted this episode to feel "big," like "Justice" did, but it didn't really come close to matching the bar set by that one. Still, I'll take this over another mind-swapping episode any day of the week.

My Grade: B


- I wanted to like last night's episode of THE SIMPSONS - after all, it's been a while since we've had a Mr. Burns episode, and some of the all-time classic episodes of the show are Mr. Burns-centric. Not only that, but in recent years, Burns eps have become something of a rarity, and when they do crop up, they tend to be stand-outs. Take "The Burns and the Bees" - one of my top 10 episodes from the last several years, for example. Last night's ep, though, just felt tired despite aiming for something different. The premise had potential - Mr. Burns goes to jail for art theft - but the episode couldn't seem to focus on this concept in any meaningful way. Burns in jail alone could have made for a good episode, and there were some great gags when he was first incarcerated. But soon enough, the show branched out in way too many directions. Smithers assumed control of the Power Plant, became popular for being nicer than Burns, but then gets taken advantage of by Homer and his pals. Meanwhile, Burns meets a born-again convict and he himself becomes newly religious. Plus, there was a useless Bart and Lisa subplot involving an antfarm. The less said about that, the better. But really, this was just emblamatic of how ADD The Simpsons is these days. Burns in jail is a funny idea - why not run with it? Instead, we just got carted from one storyline to another. Some funny jokes and great one-liners managed to slip through the cracks (I liked Milhouse convincing his dad to buy him a rotten tomato to throw at Burns), but at the end of the day, there wasn't much that was memorable about this ep.

My Grade: B-

- THE CLEVELAND SHOW likewise had some funny gags, but felt very Family Guy-ish in terms of how generally crass and random it was. What I've liked about the show is how it combines the absurdity of FG with a more traditional sitcom pace. But this ep, in which Cleveland's ex-wife Loretta abruptly and randomly dies, just felt like it was trying too hard to be out-there. And the fact that that death storyline shared equal time with a story about Cleveland's uncontrollable gas problems ... well, it was at times funny, at times just sort of sad. I still really like some of the characters on the show (Cleveland Jr. is always great, and had some of last night's best lines), but I don't know ... when the biggest laughs now come from Cleveland's oddball mispronunciations of things, I'm not sure what that says about the show as a whole.

My Grade: C+

- Meanwhile, FAMILY GUY is just a mess right now. Last night's episode was just hard to watch at times. A couple of funny gags (Peter on a lion, a well-timed call-back to the "Surfin' Bird" song) saved the ep from completely sucking, but overall, this was one of the worst FG eps in a while. Family Guy used to impress me with how clever it was with its random references and knack for awesome comic timing. Now, everything just feels lazy. Look at last night - this episode's idea of a brilliant gag was to have Brian turn into Muttley from Wacky Races all of a sudden, for no good reason. Yeah ... awesome. Meanwhile, the show's characters just become more crass and heartless every week. The big revelation this week was that Peter hates his kids. Again, I feel like it's another example of FG just doing jokes and storylines that dare us to be offended, instead of doing things that are smart or funny. I was ready to like the world-ending storyline, but the fact that it turned out to be an elaborate April Fool's joke just seemed like one more instance of the writers substituting shock value for actual follow-through on a given storyline. There's still an unpredictability to FG that I admire, that keeps me coming back, but more often than not lately, the result is just a lot of shock tactics as opposed to actual, inspired comedy.

My Grade: C-

- Alright, time for some movie reviewin' ...


- Steve Carell and Tina Fey are each known for their edgy, absurdist, intelligent, and finely-honed humor. Each week on The Office and 30 Rock, the two Second City-trained actors bring two of TV's most entertaining characters to life - Michael Scott and Liz Lemon. And as the stars of those shows, two of the best TV comedies of the last decade, pairing them in a big comedy movie should have been a match made in heaven. And yet, Date Night, from Night at the Museum helmer Shaun Levy, drowns out its moments of hilarious comedic inspiration with many more moments of generic Hollywood lameness. Carell and Fey try their best to rise above the material, and when they and their talented co-stars let loose and have fun, they succeed. But too often, the movie feels like low-grade, warmed-over rom-com fluff. With the talent involved, you can't help but expect better.

Date Night follows a pretty simple and formulaic plot - Phil and Claire Foster are a married couple whose relationship has hit something of a lull. Between work and the kids, the Fosters are always tired, cranky, and have lost most of the spark in their love life. Basically, they are a walking cliche of a married couple. Naturally, the thing for them to do to get their marriage back on track is to have a wacky adventure together, and so they do. When the two go on a date night to a fancy New York City restaurant (they live in boring old New Jersey), they (gasp!) steal someone else's reservation in order to get a table. Of course, they steal the reservation of two low-level thugs who are wanted by the mob, by a couple of crooked cops, etc. So, the whitebread suburban Fosters are confused with the criminal Triplehorns, and hilarity ensues.

Right from the get-go, you have to wonder about Steve Carell and Tina Fey as two Joe Average suburbanites. Tina Fey's whole persona is built on being urbane and sophisticated and cutting edge. Even though she's the voice of sanity on the crazy world of 30 Rock, she's still a far cry from boring soccer mom. And Steve Carell, well, he's built a career on playing eccentrics. Both he and Fey give it the old college try, but you just don't quite buy it. What's worse is that their personalities in the film seem crafted by Hollywood screenwriter types who have no idea what a normal married couple is actually like. Everything just feels forced and fake-ish, from the pretentious book club that the two participate in to the whole notion that they'd even want to go out of their way to dine at an exclusive NYC hot-spot called "Claw." Remember when Chevy Chase just wanted to take his family to Wally World? That middle-class American vibe seems lost on the creators of Date Night. The characters are supposed to be relatable and average and boring, but they feel like the LA version, not the real version of what people are actually like. So right from the get-go, I think there's an inherent feeling of unlikability with this movie - the characters feel way too yuppie-ish, a far cry from the good ol' Griswolds and their beat-up station wagon.

At the same time, the plot of the movie is pretty thin. Like Dumb & Dumber and countless other movies, the actual plot surrounding the criminals and the caper is kept intentionally vague and muddied-up. And yet, Date Night's plot is so eh-whatever that the movie grinds to a halt when it focuses on supporting characters, like the two on-the-take cops or the "good" cops on their tail. There are some inspired bits from Mark Wahlberg as a buffed-up intelligence guru, Ray Liotta as a mobster, and the always-great William Fichtner as a corrupt politician. But the movie is way too in love with its recurring jokes. Running gags, like Wahlberg's disdain for shirts, get run into the ground over the course of the movie. The overly schtick-y stuff really drags, but the movie shines when it gets loose and has fun. A scene in which James Franco and Mila Kunis cameo, as the real Triplehorns, is probably the highlight of the movie, and that's partly because it feels like Franco, Kunis, Carell, and Fey are really riffing and going nuts. This scene and a couple others have the edgy, improvised feel of a great Judd Apatow movie. So it's a shame that others feel more like bad 80's "mistaken identity" movies. That said, if only Date Night had half the cheesy charm of, say, Adventures in Babysitting.

There's also a really shoddy quality to some of the editing and directing. Action scenes feel rushed and slapped-together, and some of the edits are noticeably abrupt. The movie just doesn't have a lot of steam to its narrative - it over-relies on Steve Carell and Tina Fey to carry the film, and even with a relatively short running time, it feels stretched out.

Still, some scenes do have genuine laughs, and there is a really sharp comedic chemistry between the two leads. Not necessarilly as a likable married couple - more like two great comedians trapped in a subpar movie, challenged with making it funnier and more entertaining than it would have been without them. They're like two great improv players stuck with a pretty bad premise for a scene, and it's sometimes fun just to see them find the funny whenever possible. Other talented actors like Mark Wahlberg, Kristin Wiig, William Fichter, Ray Liotta, Mark Ruffalo, JB Smoove, James Franco, and Mila Kunis do the same. But even they can only do so much to make a so-so movie with a by-the-numbers script funny. As it stands, Date Night is an okay comedy with some decent laughs, but it's also, to me, a huge missed opportunity for something special.

My Grade: B-

Okay, that's it for now. All I know is, 24 tonight had better rock.