Thursday, October 30, 2008


With the election only 5 days away, seeing Obama on TV is to be expected. But last night, he had an even greater presence than usual with a half hour infomercial airing on NBC, CBS, Fox, Univision (en espaƱol), MSNBC, BET, and TV One (but not Disney, Malia), and an interview via satellite on The Daily Show. So how'd he do?

If you missed the primetime special, you can find it here:

Certainly it was no Ross Perot and his charts. With the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth helming it, the special felt more like a documentary than an infomercial. In fact, with the families in need of better health care, it felt a lot like Michael Moore's Sicko. But while the half hour was admittedly dull at times, it seemed to accomplish its goals. Obama gave his platform clearly with nice little talking points written at the bottom of the screen. The focus on the regular American families showed his ability to connect to people. Interviews with top Democrats provided some powerful endorsements. And probably best were the parts on his biography and family. That stuff may be cheesy, but it's the best remedy to the silly "who is Barack Obama?" accusations made by Sarah Palin.

The live ending was a bit of a disappointment. Advertised throughout the special and with rumors of Bill Clinton appearing, seeing Obama merely ask for people's votes was a bit of a let-down. Still, the only thing in here that could hurt him is if the Oval Office-like setting for some of it seems too presumptuous. Otherwise, the special may help more people be able to trust him, if only for his excellent narrating voice.

His interview on Daily Show was more entertaining. Watch it here:

Jon Stewart's questions weren't exactly hard-hitting, with such nail-biters as "how are you?" But he did set Obama up for a lot of really good answers. Whether on the Bradley Effect ("I don't think white voters have gotten the memo"), bipartisanship ("Some of the problems are ones we can't solve with just one party dictating a solution"), or whether he still wants the job with all of the country's problems ("If you went into public service thinking you could have an impact, now is the time when you can have an impact"). But there were plenty of funny moments as well, in Obama's rebuttal to the socialism claim, questions of whether Obama's white half will vote based on the Bradley Effect, and the un-undecided nature of the typical Daily Show viewer. Plus, you get to see Obama smile a lot.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Missiles Fly in Mad Men's Finale

Mad Men, like The Sopranos, is often slow-paced, letting tensions play out over time. Which makes it all the more incredible when all of those tensions pay off so well as in Sunday night's explosive finale. The episode is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, best to parallel all the character crises that have built up this season. As most of the country panics about the end of the world, Don, Betty, Pete, and Peggy face military stand-offs of the metaphorical variety.

Betty's missile silo comes in the form of an unexpected pregnancy. Estranged from Don and unhappy with the two kids she already has, Betty uses some quality 1960s code words, "It's not the right time," to look into her options. Don sort of admitting his affair with Bobbie Barrett doesn't make the decision for her, but it does lead her into her biggest plunge out of her role yet: a bathroom tryst with a complete stranger. Betty's gone through a lot of changes since she told an 8-year-old she had no one to talk to last year. Maybe this signals an even more evolved Betty in season 3. But whether moved by Don's touching note or just needing someone to help her raise the baby, she lets Don back home. Like with the US and Cuba, the immediate crisis may have ended but the uneasiness remains.

Then there's the season-long cold war between Don and Duck, which comes to a head at the meeting to officially merge Sterling-Cooper with the three-name British company (I'm not learning the name until I'm sure they're staying). At the meeting, Don doesn't give a fancy speech (like last year's classic Wheel pitch) but undermines Duck through a to-the-point resignation and a great exit. The look on Duck's face when he finds out Don doesn't have a contract is priceless, but the horrified look of the Brits as Duck goes into an alcohol-fueled meltdown is even better. It certainly feels like karmic payback for what he did to Chauncey. This scene left Duck's future, Don's future, and the future of Sterling-Cooper all completely up in the air for next season. But regardless of what happens, this battle clearly goes to Don.

Despite Don's multiple crises, Pete may have been this finale's stand-out. Pete's always been my favorite character for his unabashed sleaziness. He's always dependable to screw someone over for his career and to act like a child. Yet even when abandoning his wife for another woman in an emergency, he shows more maturity than it seemed he had in him. He's offered the two things he's wanted most since the pilot: Head of Accounts and Don's approval. Yet though he was willing to blackmail Don for the job last season, he risks it to warn Don of Duck's plans. In the process, he shows a quality it didn't seem he had: loyalty. Way to go.

But the best and most hotly anticipated scene of the night is where Peggy finally reveals to Pete and explains to us what happened to their baby. Father Gil sees the missile crisis as an excuse to get Peggy to confess her secret to him. She doesn't bite, but does take his advice to heart when Pete declares his love for her. As usual, the scene's power rests in the subtext. Pete's shock to find out a baby Campbell exists after being unable to conceive with his wife. Peggy, after growing into a successful ad woman this season, letting herself deal with the secret she worked so hard to hide away, and FINALLY saying that she gave the baby away (so it was not one of the many children in her sister's home after all).

As Cuba stands down, the end of the emergency only leads to continued unease and uncertainty. Don and Betty's marriage, the ad men of Sterling-Cooper, and Pete and Peggy's relationship are all very much undecided. But as unresolved as it may be, this finale did address nearly every major issue of the season (sorry to those wanting more on Dick Whitman). As the high point of a very strong second season, this closer proved why Mad Men is one of the best shows on TV.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review: W

Grade: C

It's certainly strange to make a film about a man's presidency before he has even left office. But Oliver Stone's W is not really about Bush's presidency. Instead, Stone has made two fairly incongruous films that occupy the same theater. One of them is the story of a man whose efforts to impress his father lead him to the White House. The other movie could best be called The Iraq War Is Really Bad, as Stone foregoes his title character to show five years too late why we shouldn't have gone to Iraq.

The bulk of the film is in the flashbacks to Bush's life, showing such milestones as a young George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) pledging his Yale frat, and a slightly older one creating the infamous Willie Horton ad for his father (James Cromwell)'s presidential campaign (I'd love a fact check on that). It's not the most flowing narrative, and certainly Stone places too much importance on Jr.'s relationship with Sr. Yet something about these sections works. Most of the credit should go to Brolin. His imitation is hardly the best Bush I've seen, but in going beyond the mannerisms to try to understand Bush's character he succeeds. He makes the much-maligned president sympathetic and likeable. Elizabeth Banks as Laura similarly goes beyond the imitation to create a supportive character. The movie is strongest when it's about them.

Everything done right by Brolin and Banks is done wrong in the Cabinet meetings that make up the other half of the film. Most of them feel like SNL sketches without any jokes, largely thanks to some rather cartoonish imitations. As much as I like Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton, they try so hard to imitate the voices of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, respectively, that they lose any semblance of their characters. Ditto Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, except while he looks eerily like the real VP the voice is all Dreyfuss.

Worse than the overdone imitations in these scenes are what is actually said. The conversations range from sleepifying to horribly absurd, with little in between. The scenes are essentially just discussions of policy, which is about as dramatic as CSPAN. You only wake up when they say something absolutely outrageous, like when Cheney talks about conquering Iraq and Iran for oil to build an American Empire. Or when super dramatic music plays as Colin Powell gives a heroic speech about why we shouldn't invade Iraq. That's but one of the many egregious uses of music, such as playing the Robin Hood theme whenever the Cabinet meets. The lack of nuance in these scenes is exactly the liberal hack job people feared Stone would use with the whole movie.

Dramatically though, the meetings fail because of how little presence Bush has in them. They are a series of battles between Powell and Cheney, or good and evil as Stone would have you believe. Bush merely acts as a sort of referee. I think Stone thinks he is being generous in absolving Bush of some responsibility for the Iraq War. But he is also undermining his own movie. If Bush went into Iraq out of naively believing Cheney, then what does Iraq have to do with the story of his life? Stone wants Bush's story to be a tragedy, as his desire to finish his father's war led to his own downfall. But the story of Bush's presidency is solely about Iraq, and Bush seems to have little part in that story either personally or politically as shown here.

It seems that Stone thinks he has earned the right to slam the war because he generally attempts to treat Bush fairly. Bush seems relatively on top of everything as president, and he always remains sympathetic. But Stone still can't help but take some cheap shots at him. A scene of Bush choking on a pretzel is in the film for no other reason than that it makes him look bad. Bushisms made to the press are inserted in regular conversation in a painfully obvious way. And in scenes of Bush's youth, close-ups of Jack Daniels are so frequent that JD may be the real romantic lead.

Ultimately, though, W just feels like a wasted opportunity. Towards the end, Bush is asked at a press conference what his legacy will be. Like Bush in the movie, Stone makes no attempt to answer that question. Perhaps that's because he ends the movie in 2004, or perhaps it's because Stone did not wait to gain some perspective. But it seems like the main reason is because Stone was so focused on lashing out against the lead-up to the Iraq War that everything else was secondary. He didn't complete the personal story of Bush that he started or add any new insight to his presidency. By making the movie a referendum on Iraq instead of on Bush, Stone let his politics get in the way of his own movie.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Welcome Back Bush 2000

For anyone who missed last night's final SNL Thursday edition, the opening sketch brought back not only Tina Fey as Sarah Palin but Will Ferrell as President Bush. Ferrell plays Bush exactly as he did 8 years ago, with none of the sadness and age of the current Bush. But in a way, that's what makes it so great and shows what SNL has been missing. Plus, the image of Bush holding a squirming John McCain's hand is just hilarious. Weekend Update was nothing special, so just watch the opening:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

How Ted Could Have Met the Mother

I know it's been awhile since my last entry, but I haven't really had much to write about. I haven't seen any new movies, most TV shows I watch had pretty standard episodes this week, and the debates are over. But I've got the Mad Men finale, plans to see a few new movies, and the election coming up, so things will pick up soon.

In the meantime, there's Monday night's episode of How I Met Your Mother, which almost answered the question. With Robin in Tokyo, Marshall and Lily moving to Dowisetrepla, and Ted getting married, everyone seemed on the verge of moving on. And as is always the case when a show's premise is in danger long before the endpoint, it was obvious Ted and Stella's wedding could not go on.

With all of Future Ted's warnings about bringing exes to the wedding, I guessed the problem was not Robin but Lucy's father Tony, played by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones. Ted getting left at the altar and Barney losing Robin again made for a pretty sad ending. But as Future Ted's alternative future showed, we all knew Stella wasn't really the mother. Not only does Lucy provide a giveaway to Ted's kids listening to the story, but the kids would be blonde!

Despite the ending, there was still plenty of good laughs. Robin giving the news with a straight face while a monkey threw nuts at her was pretty hilarious. But not quite as good as Barney's mathematical calculations for how he can sleep with Robin again. I'm sure someone out there has studied that board as carefully as Lost fans study island maps.

So while it's sad for Ted to see Stella go, it'll be nice to bring the show back to normal. I've always thought the show is best in episodes like The Slap Bet and The Pineapple Incident which have absolutely nothing to do with Ted's search for his future wife. Some fans may want more advancement, but why bring about the end of such an enjoyable show?

Friday, October 17, 2008

America's Funniest Presidential Candidate

Last night at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial dinner in New York City, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama engaged in what could be called their fourth debate. But this debate was not on who is more qualified to be president, but rather who makes the better stand-up comic. It should be without saying that it's far more entertaining than any of the debates and is a nice reprieve from all the negativity of the past few weeks.

First up, John McCain, reminding us why we liked him before the campaign:

Next up, Barack Obama, proving if he somehow doesn't win the election, he'd fit right in on Daily Show:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pilot Reviews: Life on Mars and My Own Worst Enemy

So far this season, I have yet to add any new shows. I turned off Sons of Anarchy 20 minutes into the pilot. After 2 episodes of True Blood, I liked it but didn't love it enough to watch during the regular season. Then there's Fringe, which had a numbingly boring pilot yet I still insist I will give a second chance. But despite the weak offerings, I decided to try two more pilots this past week. One was surprisingly good, and the other unsurprisingly bad.

First let's look at Life on Mars, a remake of a British show I've never seen. The show is about an NYC cop, Sam Tyler, from 2008 who gets into a car crash that sends him back to 1973. Once there, he has to deal with the way cops work in the '70s: waiting weeks for a fingerprint match, beating up witnesses, and ignoring the opinions of female cops. He also has to solve a case in 1973 with major repercussions for his last case in 2008. And the voices through TVs and radios from 2008 do nothing to convince him his time in 1973 is more than a dream.

There's a lot about the show to laugh at (which I'll get to), but what's surprising is how much of it works. First off, the 2008 case may seem like standard Law & Order, but is a lot more fun. It would seem a waste to use Lisa Bonet as Sam's girlfriend/cop partner and Clarke Peters (The Wire's Lester Freamon) as a fellow cop for only one episode, so I imagine they'll be coming back. I'm also liking Sam's difficulties being a cop in 1973, as he struggles to figure out how crimes were solved in the 1970s. It's fun to watch him clash with the other '70s cops while solving an enjoyable enough case.

But while I enjoyed the pilot, I'm not completely sold yet on the series. For one thing, the cast has yet to win me over. Jason O'Mara is likeable as Sam, but the supporting cast plays it very broad. Michael Imperioli and Harvey Keitel seem to be in a contest of who can ham it up more, as Imperioli sports ridiculous '70s hair and Keitel speaks in an exaggerated New Yawk accent. Gretchen Mol as the ignored lady cop seems more annoying than cute so far. Then there's the question of how they can sustain a premise that lasted 12 episodes in the UK. The communications from 2008 via TV and radio are promising, but without more of that this could just turn into a procedural. So I like what I've seen so far, but I'm skeptical about how long I'll keep watching.

With My Own Worst Enemy, that decision was a lot easier. In the show, Christian Slater (Heathers) plays two characters - Edward and Henry - who share the same body. Edward is a super spy who kills people. Henry's got a family with Madchen Amick (the unfortunate duchess on Gossip Girl) and a regular job. While Edward supplies Henry with fake memories, Henry has no idea of Edward's existence. But when Henry retains memories of Edward and gets drawn into one of Edward's missions, he finds himself needing Edward in order to survive.

Some of the blame for why the show doesn't work is Christian Slater. As he showed in Heathers, Slater is most convincing playing creepy, which makes him a decent Edward but a terrible Henry. As Henry, he's too annoying and nasal-voiced to be sympathetic, making it hard to care when threats are made on his life. Since most of the hour is spent with Henry, that's a pretty big problem. Then there's the premise. While I suppose the Jekyll and Hyde idea could have been cool, the constant "Are you Henry or Edward" gets really silly really fast. And it's still not clear what the benefit of it all is. Edward's spy scenes are better, but still seem like a cheap Alias knock-off. Add painfully bad dialogue, and there's not much worth watching.

On an unrelated note, a few thoughts on last night's Project Runway finale. I thought Korto had the best collection and overall deserved to win. But Leanne has been perfectly solid and made a nice if somewhat repetitive collection. The important thing is that Kenley didn't win. She had the weakest collection and probably shouldn't have even made it there. It also seemed appropriate to have Tim Gunn judge for the first time in what was essentially a series finale. So all in all, a fine finale for what was still one of the weaker seasons.

John McCain's Last Stand

Last night's debate was easily the best on all levels: substantive, revealing, and dramatic. Rather than rehashing the same old arguments, moderator Bob Schieffer asked pointed and difficult questions that brought the candidates into new territory. And as in the last two debates, Senator Barack Obama remained collected and presidential while Senator John McCain looked like he could barely contain his disdain.

In every debate, McCain has started strong and Obama has ended strong, so the first half hour again went to McCain. He attacked Obama repeatedly on issues and connected to people through Joe the Plumber. But easily his best line of the night was, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago." It was strongly stated and addressed Obama's main attack . But why did it take so long for McCain to say it? Throughout the debates, McCain has seemed to forget that he no longer needs to worry about the Republican base. Sarah Palin has taken care of that. It's the independents he needs, and those are the ones who want to know how he differs from President Bush.

While it's true McCain was on offense during the first half hour, I found his strategy less effective than in the first debate. Back then, McCain dominated the discussion so that it consisted only of topics he wanted, making Obama look weak for defending himself. But this time around, Obama has learned how to play defense. He refused to let McCain's attacks define the debate, either repudiating them strongly (like using Fox News as a source on his side) or moving on to his topics of choice. McCain may have been more commanding, but he was hardly dominating Obama the way he could have.

Any lead McCain may have had early on evaporated with the negative campaigning question. Even though McCain's advertisements are widely seen as shamelessly negative, McCain played the victim card. He immediately brought up John Lewis, getting teary at the "hurtful" comments made about him. Even more so because Lewis is not part of Obama's campaign, McCain looked like a little kid crying about how life's not fair. It got worse for McCain when he voluntarily brought up Bill Ayers. Not only did Obama get to clear the Ayers issue once and for all, but he made McCain look petty for making it "the centerpiece" of his campaign. By calling out for a return to the issues, Obama looked like he was rising above McCain's petty sniping. If he had just avoided saying that McCain's ads are 100% negative (obviously false), this section would have been all good for him.

Another new and contentious topic was abortion. In general, Obama had been playing it safe, willing to sit on his lead. He wisely avoided the opportunity to bash Sarah Palin, letting her flaws speak for themselves. Yet while McCain answered the question safely, Obama was the one who turned a question about Supreme Court justices into a discussion on abortion. This was a risky move for Obama, as abortion is one of the subjects best able to divide voters up. Yet his answer was thoughtful enough to please anyone remotely pro-choice. He also drew McCain out into taking a full pro-life stance, that could potentially turn pro-choice undecideds against him. It's hard to know whether Obama's risk paid off, but it certainly drew major distinctions between the two candidates. This section then led to a final half hour in which Obama dominated, once again providing far better answers on health care and education. By ending in his comfort zone, the final impression left by Obama to voters was stronger.

While the issues discussed showed a lot about the candidates, their biggest difference was in demeanor. While some considered Obama flat, to me he seemed presidential. His cool, calm delivery stood in great contrast to the increasing emotion showed by McCain. McCain's emotion did sometimes work to his advantage, like in his line on President Bush. But as the debate continued, he seemed angrier and angrier. Reaction shots made him appear disdainful of Obama and like he was seething with rage. He brought to mind the sighs of Al Gore with his frustration. The visibility of his anger made Obama look all the more calm under pressure.

As much as we may focus on the issues, a lot of swing voters don't care about details. But they want someone who looks and acts like a president. And these people are likely to ask themselves who they want representing our country: Someone who is always cool under pressure, or someone whose rage boils visibly at the slightest provocation. McCain needed a decisive victory to turn the momentum around for his lagging campaign. Instead, he looked desperate as he flailed around for any attack that would stick. Two and a half weeks may be a long time in politics, and certainly something could happen to change the election around. But there's no question that these debates did nothing to improve McCain's chances.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

TV Catch-Up: Thursday-Monday Edition

Gossip Girl

Best part of the episode for me was that so much was shot right outside of Dodge Hall (see above) where I had all of my film classes (the Yale they visited is actually Columbia). It's been interesting to see how Blair has become the main character this season. The Blair and Serena fight was nearly identical to the one last season. But this time it's through Blair's perspective, as Serena has started to feel more and more like a minor character. Dan has also had trouble staying part of the show post-break up. But I kind of liked his interactions with Chuck and Nate. I'm sure he and Nate discussed being new bffs over burgers at HamDel. And Chuck's playing of the not-so-secret society was what he does best.

How I Met Your Mother

Best episode yet of the season. I'm not sure which was funnier, the series of interventions or Barney convincing a girl that he has come from the future to tell her to sleep with his present self. That's not even including the stories of how Ted's apartment was banged up. Wtih Robin in full-on Canadian mode, Lily getting an intervention for her bad British accent, and R2 Sweet Tooth, there were a lot of laughs to go around. But it was also nice to see how all of the funniest gags led to more serious moments, as the interventions led Ted to question moving in with Stella and Barney the Old Man convinced him to go through with it. After Ted's decision last week to leave Manhattan for New Jersey, this episode continued to show the life-altering decisions people make in their 20s/30s. But it's nice to see they can make those decisions while still being funny.


4 episodes in, Heroes is a bit of a mess. Last week there were enough time jumps to leave everyone spinning, and this week we can't tell who's alive and who's dead. Mohinder's foray into being a mad scientist has become far more ridiculous than I could have ever imagined. And I don't believe Ando is really dead, because if so that is the worst character death I have ever seen. So where's the upside? Well, even with all the flaws, it is still kind of fun. The emphasis on the vortex guy (Bubbles from The Wire) helped focus the episode somewhat with all of its many plotlines. Sylar's far from my favorite character, but partnering him with Noah has been fun to see. And it's nice to see Angela's secrets unraveling. The writers just need to bring Parkman back from Africa, get Nathan to stop talking about God, and get rid of Mohinder and Majjjja.

Mad Men

Is Don really returning to Dick Whitman? Who did he call at the end? Was it that woman from the flashback at the used car dealership? Plenty of questions left at the end of an episode that saw Don, Roger, and Duck Phillips all dealing with divorced futures. First Don, who took the vacation he denied to Pete by driving off to Palm Springs with a 21-year-old aptly named Joy who sounded a lot like Betty. Joy's crowd hardly seemed like Don's people, but it seems he may be through with being Don Draper. Next Roger, preparing to lose his money to divorce in order to marry the secretary he barely knows. But the most interesting one this episode was Duck, plotting to improve his job by selling Sterling Cooper. Roger and Cooper may have jumped at the thought of new clients, but Don won't be happy to see he's reporting directly to Duck. Don't trust him. Remember Chauncey.

Grey's Anatomy

If you look back to my post on the season premiere, you'll see I was giving this one more chance before dropping it. Unfortunately, Grey's managed to be just watchable enough to delay that happening. I can't say I really remember what happened 5 days after watching. But I do remember it being lighter than the usual melodrama and that some of the characters may have been momentarily likeable. I guess I'm stuck watching for now.

The Office

Another great episode. Best storyline was easily Jim keeping track of all of Dwight's personal time. Trying to draw Dwight out of work by calling Battlestar Galactica a shot-for-shot remake of the original and describing its plot as Dumbledore Calrissian needs to take the ring back to Mordor? Hilarious. Meredith's confession provided lots of great Michael/Holly moments as well. The Office is definitely back from its post-writer's strike slump.

SNL: Thursday Night

Much like the debate it spoofed, the first sketch of the new half-hour edition fell a bit flat. Joking about the time limits might have worked once, but making it the main joke of the sketch left little else. There were some good McCain moments though, even if SNL still doesn't know how to spoof Obama. Things improved with Weekend Update (outside of Kenan Thompson's "Fix it" bit). But there was nothing within the half hour that could compete with any of Tina Fey's sketches this season. It seems SNL needs Palin as badly as the news media does.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PSA: Watch Pushing Daisies

The winner of the Arrested Development/Veronica Mars award for the great show too few people are watching is Pushing Daisies. And it's a shame, because as the last two episodes have shown, it really is the most enjoyable show on right now. It's got a little of everything: mysteries, a love story, a fairytale, comedy, music, and pies. With its colorful landscapes, cutesy names, outrageous mysteries, and fast-talking dialogue, it is like nothing else on television. And best of all to newcomers? It's easy to join in. There's no overriding mythology like on Lost and every episode is pretty self-contained. To make it even easier, I'll tell you everything you need to know about the show right here.

The facts were these: One touch from Ned brings a person back to life, a second touch makes them dead again. If he leaves them alive longer than 30 seconds, someone else dies. This happened when Young Ned brought his mother back, causing Chuck (his true love)'s father to die. At the funeral, Ned and Chuck shared their only kiss. Chuck went to live with her aunts, Lily and Vivian, and Ned did not see her again. Years later, Ned owns the Pie Hole (as in shut your) and solves mysteries with private detective Emerson Cod. Ned questions the dead and Emerson solves the mysteries. On one case, Ned realized the murder victim was Chuck. When he questioned her, he found he couldn't kill her again after 30 seconds. So while Ned finally has Chuck back in his life, there is one catch: he can never touch her.

Each episode's based around a mystery that Ned, Chuck, and Emerson need to solve. If that sounds a little too much like a procedural for you, I guarantee that Law and Order has never had a case like these. Last season featured a scratch and sniff bomb, cars that ran on flowers, and a series of murders inside a candy shop. And if you like Jim and Pam on The Office, imagine if they couldn't touch! Watching Ned and Chuck kiss through saran wrap and hold hands through plastic is simultaneously adorable and sad.

Another reason to watch? The cast. As Ned and Chuck, Lee Pace and Anna Friel make their characters so awkwardly adorable that you have to root for them. As gruff PI Emerson, Chi McBride hilariously keeps the show from getting too gooey. Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene as Aunts Lily and Vivian create a great odd couple, even as they are separate for being in the dark about Chuck's second life. And Wicked's Kristin Chenowith livens things up further as Olive Snook, the waitress hopelessly in love with Ned, and even sings from time to time.

Two episodes in, this season's looking just as great as the 9 that made up season 1. In the premiere, Chuck went undercover at a honey company (she loves bees) to find out who killed the former spokesperson (with bees). Olive took Hamlet's advice and got herself to a nunnery after hiding too many secrets (last season she found out Lily is Chuck's mother). And Chuck moved out of Ned's apartment into Olive's to start a more independent life (next door). In the second episode, Emerson took a case of a girl who ran away to the cirus because it reminded him of the daughter he hasn't seen in 7 years. This meant talking to a lot of dead clowns.

If this all sounds overly quirky and cutesy, it is, and the show is certainly not for everyone. The dialogue sometimes seems out of a Dr. Seuss story for its fast patter and alliterative names. But if you're looking for something both funny and touching, happy and sad, and always satisfying, there's nothing else like it on TV.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate 2: More of the Same

With the polls shifting rapidly in Obama's favor, tonight's second presidential debate was considered a must-win for McCain. Yet it seems clear to me he was soundly Tom Brokaw. That's right, in a night where both candidates repeated the same claims over and over again, it was moderator Tom Brokaw who was the real winner. Whether scolding the candidates like petulant children for breaking the rules or asking tough and worthy questions, Brokaw was on top. He may have given Obama and McCain that follow-up, but his look of scorn showed who was really in charge.

The town hall format caused a lot of the candidates' problems. With no follow-ups or rebuttals allowed, it quickly became clear that new strategies were needed for success. Even more than in the last debate, it was obvious when a candidate ignored a question to return to his platform. Attacking the other candidate too often made it look like they had no answers of their own. Yet despite how little these strategies worked, Obama and McCain just couldn't help themselves.

With less experience in town halls, Obama suffered most from the format. Obama continually forgot that he wasn't in a traditional debate, always harking back to McCain's previous answer. In the first half, he suffered from an acute case of Sarah Palin Syndrome: ignoring the question in a clunky and obvious way. He also has yet to learn from his biggest difficulty in the first debate: responding to McCain's accusations. He let himself play defense by continually correcting McCain, even when it wasn't his turn. Here he could learn a thing from Joe Biden, who sometimes left Palin uncorrected if it would make him look better. Lastly, Obama suffered from continually trying to break the rules. His worst moment came when he fought to respond to McCain's comments on taxes, then talked about it anyway during a Social Security question. He seemed to cross Brokaw more than McCain, which doesn't make him look good.

But if the rules threw Obama off, he did gain by talking directly to voters. He talked to them with respect and appeared presidential throughout. The voters may have also helped him talk clearer than he has in the past, free of the Al Gore need to live in statistics. When he stuck to the topic, he had many shining moments. In discussing health care, he laid out his plan clearly and made it personal, scoring him a big win in the debate. Foreign policy gave him many strong moments, whether promising to chase Al Qaeda or bringing up the United States' moral need to stop genocide. When he went beyond repeating his well-worn statements, the debate was his.

McCain had neither the lows nor the highs of Obama, giving a performance free of embarrassment or inspiration. The town hall format is one McCain loves, so you could see the joy in his face as he walked around the room and said "my friends" about ten times more than usual. But many of his efforts to connect to voters seemed to fall flat. He kept trying to make jokes that came out more condescending than funny (I'm not referring to calling Obama "that one," which seems overblown). He may have thought he was treating the audience like friends, but sometimes he just seemed to be turning himself into Sarah Palin.

His paraphrasing of Teddy Roosevelt, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," may have worked against him. I don't know about the stick, but there was a whole lot of soft speaking coming from McCain. When not blasting Obama on taxes or namedropping General Petraeus and Ronald Reagan, McCain's vocal cadence dropped to some pretty soporific levels. But what did wake me up were some "what the fuck" statements. First off, did anyone else hear McCain refer to some of the $700 billion going to terrorists, with no follow-up? Second, his plan to buy up all the faulty mortgages: has he talked about that before or did he just make that up on the spot? Third: a repetition of his promise to freeze all spending. Is anyone going to ask him to explain that? None of these is really a misstep, but it continues to seem odd to me the way he makes provocative statements without putting any context around them.

With strengths and weaknesses on both sides, it seems to me like tonight's unlikely to change anyone's mind. Most of the debate felt like a rerun of the first one, with even some of the same lines given (Obama's hatchet line was effective the first time, but less so now). There were no gaffes on either side, but nothing to really win people over either. And in both their favor, there were no mentions of Bill Ayers or the Keating Five. But with the polls what they are, a tie favors Obama. McCain's only got one more shot to turn the momentum around.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Movie Review: Body of Lies

Grade: B+

Recent movies haven't done too well with current world politics. Iraq movies have proved a surefire way to disaster, seeming overly preachy (Stop-Loss) or just off-putting. In looking at Middle Eastern oil, Syriana won over many critics, but confused a lot of its audience with its myriad of plotlines.

In a new attempt to make a Middle East movie commercially viable, Hollywood has brought out Body of Lies (opens Friday), the most accessible of the bunch. Directed by Ridley Scott, who already put the '90s conflict in Somalia successfully onscreen in Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies shows the state of the War on Terror through two men: CIA operatives Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). Ferris is on the ground in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere, trying to use the alliances he makes there to stop a terrorist group that has been attacking Europe. Hoffman, back in the US, is always listening, watching, and running his own plays to undermine those alliances.

While their differences in strategy do provide for some interesting issues of trust and honor, Scott distinguishes the movie from Syriana by being action first, politics second. Explosions, car chases, and shoot-outs all appear liberally throughout. That's not the only way Scott uses the Hollywood playbook either. Despite the serious subject matter, there's plenty of comic relief, often from Crowe's outrageous performance. Ferris is even given a romantic interest, Jordanian nurse Aisha. In many ways, Body of Lies plays like 24: The Movie, using the War on Terror as a backdrop for some solid action and entertainment.

But if the tone may be light at times, the action is gritty enough to make up for it. Within the first twenty minutes alone, Ferris has to shoot an informant and leave an ally for dead, both on Hoffman's orders. The message is clear: in the CIA's game, there's no time for loyalty and everyone's expendable. The film also includes some rather graphic torture scenes that are hard to watch. And Scott's shooting style - shaky camera with lots of fast and jump cuts - adds to the realistic feel. When the movie goes for humor, it does so as relief.

The movie belongs to DiCaprio, and he's surprisingly believable as a top CIA agent. Crowe, on the other hand, often feels like more of a caricature. But the fault there likely lies more with the script than Crowe. Because Hoffman represents the Bush Administration's foreign policy - making bad decisions from far away while ignoring what's on the ground - his symbolic role often comes before character. Crowe also plays him as very over-the-top, which is good for comic relief but bad for believability. But to the movie's credit, he's never a villain, just crude and tactless. It's even possible he's doing the right thing, even when it ruins Ferris' plans.

The movie falters occasionally when it tries too hard to get its politics across. Hoffman's actions pretty effectively spell out his symbolic role, yet Ferris repeatedly spells it out for the audience. Talk of the Iraq War is mostly avoided, but comes up full force in a dinner scene between Ferris and Aisha's sister, ending when Aisha waves a white flag. But that moment is telling of Scott's approach to putting politics in the film. He may make you listen to some serious discussion, but there's enough action that it never feels didactic. So the movie ultimately falls somewhere between 24 and Syriana. It does have a message but is still far more enjoyable than it seems like it should be.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Doggone VP Debate

Tonight, Senator Joe Biden rather handily won the Vice Presidential debate, but the question of who won is completely irrelevant. Everyone knew Biden is the superior debater, so the real competition was not of Biden vs. Governor Sarah Palin, but of each of them against their own expectations. After the Katie Couric interview last week, Palin became a national joke who most people thought couldn't even put a sentence together, let alone run a country. While the only time Biden could get himself on TV was if he had some silly gaffe, leading the average American to have no sense of who he is. So with expectation as the real test, it's clear that each of them performed way above their expectations.

I'll begin with Palin, who was the reason most people were so excited about the debate. While some may have expected her to embarrass herself tonight, she instead quite capably held her own. While she was rarely on top of the issues, she refused to let Biden steamroll her, consistently fighting back every assertion and leading the debate back to her comfort zone. She may have been nervous, but she spoke clearly and coherently. Her performance will clearly go a long way to freeing her of the stench of the Katie Couric interview, and few are likely to still think she's a complete idiot.

All that being said, there were a number of mistakes she repeatedly made throughout the debate. It was obvious she was coached to avoid difficult questions and steer her responses to areas she preferred. John McCain used this tactic all through the first debate and did so brilliantly, keeping a full half hour on pork barrel spending and making Obama play defense. Unfortunately, without McCain's practice, Palin's attempts were obvious and clumsy. She often began her answers with long pauses followed by stating she would like to return to a previous topic. Other answers just segued directly into talk of Alaska when it was irrelevant. Her continuous changing of topics made it seem like all she could talk about were Alaska and energy, which helped add to the belief that she is completely clueless about the country and the world.

She also presented two different Sarah Palins, both of which presented problems. On the one hand, about 80% of what she said sounded like McCain soundbites that were hammered into her head over the past week and that she desperately wanted to remember. Her recitation often sounded rote and forced, and she seemed nervous a good portion of the time. The rest of the time, she was the "folksy" Alaskan hockey mom who's "just like you." This character she's created was certainly her biggest selling point when she first entered the national stage, and it was likely to make a lot of people remember what they liked about her in the first place. But she's come a long way from winning people over with jokes about pitbulls. The constant winking and use of the word "doggone" caused her to seem like a cartoon character completely removed from reality. What all that means is the "breath of fresh air" she came in as has dissipated into a carefully crafted characterization that may be just as ungenuine as the talking points she spouts. Of course, that's just my take on her, and I expect many to still be lapping it up.

With Palin taking all of the media spotlight this campaign, Biden has always been the forgotten VP candidate. If he was mentioned in a sentence, it was either regarding one of his gaffes or calling him a safe and uninteresting pick for Obama. So while everyone expected him to do well against Palin with his greater knowledge of foreign and domestic policy, what was less expected is the way he completely stole the show. He managed to balance his tone nicely - treating Palin with respect but still willing to hammer her on certain points (usually indirectly, like when blasting Cheney after Palin defended him or purposefully mentioning the Bush Doctrine). He was passionate without seeming over-the-top. And for all of his lawyerly, politician-to-the-core style, he somehow came off as more genuine than the "real American" Sarah Palin.

Biden's biggest mistake was a recurring case of John Kerry/Al Gore Syndrome, in which the candidate gets caught up spouting facts and statistics that are difficult for anyone outside of Washington to follow, even if accurate. This is the difficulty of the broad vs. specific debate. Palin had 0% substance as threw out words like energy and education without ever going into any details. But at the same time, she got her points across a lot better than the deep analysis Biden sometimes gave.

But if this condition hurt Biden early on, he quickly corrected it in the second half. He learned to make his biggest points stick, often dramatically repeating them. While his method of numbering his arguments may have seemed very lawyerly, it also kept him organized and easy to follow. The numbering method also helped him respond to all of Palin's attacks when she often ignored all of his. Last week, Obama had trouble defending against McCain because he had to keep saying "that's not true," putting him on the offensive. In this way, Biden proved more effective, staunchly denying a claim from Palin while simultaneously shooting out another back at her.

Lastly, he effectively used his personal life to keep him from seeming elitist while also not overdoing it. By now, we've heard about McCain's time as a POW so much it has little effect, and Palin can't start a sentence without the word Alaska. But by mentioning his personal tragedy only once, and only in response to one of Palin's comments, Biden really hit it home. If that move was just calculated on his part, then he certainly used it effectively. But I tend to think the moment may have actually been geunine, and that's certainly the response it elicited from my viewing group.

So with both candidates doing so well by their own standards, it's hard to say what effect the debate will have. I imagine Palin's performance will reassure McCain supporters who had considered jumping ship over the past few weeks, so those huge Obama gains in the polls may slow down as the conservatives come back. But I think Biden's stronger performance will do more to win over independents, who tonight clearly saw the gap in leadership between these two candidates.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Movie Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Grade: C+

Toby Young's memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, was a satire of the New York magazine industry. In describing his years as a Brit working at Vanity Fair, Young showed all of the absurdities of our celebrity culture while also reveling in it. The continued offenses he caused to his coworkers were often due to cluelessness, but they also showed the ridiculousness of a celebrity magazine taking itself so seriously.

In the movie version, which comes out this Friday, the names have changed (Toby to Sidney, Vanity Fair to Sharps Magazine), but that's only the beginning of what gets lost in adaptation. Rather than seeing the story as a source of satire, the writer seemed to see the title as a source of broad physical comedy. Thankfully, most of the movie's worst offenses are in the trailers, including a bit with a dog straight out of There's Something About Mary. But it is a shame that a story full of Office-style uncomfortableness relies so heavily on falls and goofy dancing. Given that the director, Robert Weide, comes from Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's surprising he falls back on such easy laughs.

With Sidney more of a walking ball of chaos than a fish out of water, there's little room left over for mocking the culture he's desperate to get into. The targets the movie does pick are certainly easy enough. There's the young new hotshot director, who we're supposed to hate because he wears sunglasses, and the up-and-coming bimbo starlet who won't go anywhere without her dog. And publicists are just evil creatures out to destroy a free press, never mind that in real life they also snuck Toby into many celebrity-filled events.

But it's the kind of movie that works best in extremes, starting with Simon Pegg as Sidney. While he's always been dependable in his past movies, here his broad take feels more Mr. Bean than Shaun of the Dead. He's always on top volume and displays far more silly dancing than wit. Jeff Bridges, as the Graydon Carter stand-in, is amusing but gets overshadowed by his hair. Kirsten Dunst can't spice up a boring character and Megan Fox's starlet is more strange than funny. So the real scenestealer is Gillian Anderson, who I had trouble recognizing as the publicist. She definitely shows she's ready for life after Scully, and in something better than this.

By the end, the movie has given up the satire and the humiliation to settle for being another lame romantic comedy, filled with all the standard tropes. But it never really aspired to more than getting a few laughs. There's enough gags in here that some of them are bound to work, so I can't say I didn't laugh. But even if it is watchable enough, it's also perfectly happy to settle for mediocrity.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Fall of Seattle Grace

In the fifth season premiere of Grey's Anatomy (yes, it took me a week to bring myself to watch it), Seattle Grace has dropped from 2nd to 12th in the ranking of teaching hospitals. This serves as a clear reference to Grey's Anatomy's own drop in quality over the last few years, as the show went from must-see TV to a familiar habit for many viewers. As the Chief gives a speech at the end of the two hour episode, creator Shonda Rhimes speaks through him to announce the show will change and return to its former glory.

But if that intention is true, she must intend to start next week, because this bloated and dull two-hour premiere was full of the same annoying melodrama that led to the show's decline. Rather than making things interesting, the hospital's drop seemed to just cause everyone to whine about how it could have happened, especially the Chief. But there was plenty of whining left over for the rest of the cast, namely the Queen of Self-Absorption, Meredith Grey. The writers must want people to hate her, because she continues to become more obnoxious with each season. We're probably supposed to see Christina telling Meredith to shut up as positive growth, but by the time they reconciled at the end it seemed clear it would have no effect.

Moving on to the rest of the cast: I still believe Lexie has the potential to become a good character, but the writers' insistence on making her believably related to Meredith keeps her as a yammering and annoying mess. Alex and Izzie don't really do anything. Rose seems like too much of an afterthought for her goodbye story to feel as stupid as it was. Callie and Erica's relationship could be worthwhile, but got about 30 seconds in this episode. Bailey's still great, but doens't have enough screentime to save everyone else. And somehow Sloane seemed like the best part of the show, as he was the only one who seemed to remember Grey's Anatomy does comedy much better than drama.

Then there's the whole fairytale theme. Grey's Anatomy's episode themes are rarely subtle, but the way every character had to keep making fairytale references got pretty old. Bernadette Peters and Kathy Baker couldn't save a patient storyline that's been done any number of times before and certainly didn't need a full two hours. If they wanted to reference Enchanted, they would have been better off getting Amy Adams and having everyone sing. That might have been worth watching. As for the new guy, the army doc played by Kevin McKidd, he might have been amusing if they didn't tell us every three secconds how badass he is.

Next week's preview shows a flood crisis at the hospital, yet another attempt to recreate the bomb two-parter that marked the series' high point (see the ferry boat three-part travesty to see how well that works out). So while the show may say its changing and improving, so far it seems like the same old stories that didn't work the first time around. I feel like I've gotta give it one more chance, but its days on my DVR series pass may be numbered.

Movie Review: Choke

Grade: B+

I read the novel Choke, which this movie is based on, about eight years ago as a freshman in high school. I was very into Fight Club back then and carried my love of its author, Chuck Palahniuk, over to his second most popular book. I can't say I remembered much of the plot (although the anal beads stuck with me), but I certainly remembered the tone. That hip, detached, darkly comic voice seemed destined to come out of Edward Norton's mouth in Fight Club through David Fincher's vision. As for how actor and first-time director Clark Gregg did with it? A mixed bag.

The movie centers on Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict who works as a "historical interpreter" at a colonial village and purposely chokes at restaurants so those who save him will send him money, all while trying to find out who his father (is it Jesus?) is from his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother (Anjelica Huston). Yeah, it's a lot, and the novel doesn't do very much to bring it all together. So Gregg, who also adapted, deserves credit for making it all seem somewhat coherent within the movie. The story certainly seems streamlined for easier viewing, but that probably had to happen with such an outrageous plot.

Gregg also successfully found the comedy from the novel, and the movie is often very funny. The opening scene especially, in which Victor introduces all the members of his Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, seems very true to the source. But while the movie is still funny afterwards, the humor seems less like Palahniuk's dark comedy than rather typical light comedy. Gags about Victor's sexual conquests and the colonial village are funny, but something about them still feels safe.

That restraint from letting out the darkness of the novel exists beyond the humor. After reading the book, I remember thinking a movie of it could never be made for less than NC-17. Yet for whatever reason, the movie never comes close. Maybe it's because while the anal beads are still part of the story, we don't really see them. But more likely it's that in a scene where a woman has Victor aid in her rape fantasy, there's nothing shocking about it. Instead of giving us a glimpse of the dark world of sex addicts, the movie brings them out and makes them seem normal.

But keeping the film from seeming too safe is the performance of Sam Rockwell, who completely owns the character. He plays Victor as enough of an asshole to keep the character real while also being charismatic enough to keep us watching. Rockwell's a character actor who's been in a number of films yet is still under most people's radar. Had Choke made any money last weekend, I would say this is a star-making turn for him. But keep a look out for him, as he's sure to get there soon.

The movie falters a bit at the end, when it tries to find some meaning in a story that doesn't need it. The romance between Victor and his mom's doctor (Kelly McDonald) seems intended to be taken seriously, and his entry into sex addiction on an airplane is given the type of emotional music that would befit a John Hughes movie. But it wins back major points by closing with the song "Reckoner" by Radiohead, a song that seems made to end movies.

So the film may not have been the best expression of Palahniuk's style, the way Fight Club was, and is unlikely to be remembered as well. But in his first directing job, Gregg took a difficult novel and made a solidly entertaining film. Maybe it could have been more in someone else's hands, but it also could have been a lot less. Being too easily enjoyable is hardly the worst fault a movie can have.