Friday, November 28, 2008

24 Still Seeks Redemption

After the mess that was 24's 6th Season, it's clear the producers wanted to shake things up. But in the 2-hour TV-movie Redemption, the only reminders that you're watching 24 are from the clock, the split-screen, and the presence of Kiefer Sutherland. After various scenes about child soldiers, we find Jack has left LA for the fictional African country of Sengala. It seems he's been traveling around the world, avoiding a subpoena for a Congressional hearing and everything from the past 6 seasons. He's now helping his Special Forces buddy, Carl Benton (The Full Monty's Robert Carlyle) run a school for annoyingly cute kids. When General Juma (Candyman Tony Todd) and Colonel Dubaku (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) try to take the kids as soldiers, Jack Bauer wakes up and fights back.

Raising awareness about the horrors of child soldiers is all well and good (though having them shout cock-a-roach just brings up Tony Montana), but it doesn't really have any place on 24. Gone for a year and a half, 24 needed to remind us of what it does and who Jack Bauer is. Jack may have been steadily losing his humanity, but a warmer, gooeier Jack Bauer doesn't bring it back. Not until around 45 minutes in when he kills a guy with his feet do we remember this is Jack Bauer, terrorist-killing superhero. In that respect, Carlyle seems particularly ill-used as the nice, quiet, forgettable character, when he could have been Jack's equally badass partner.

Much like the beginning of season 4, the movie chose to keep Jack pretty much the only returning character (Daniels and Tom Lennox don't count). But since 24 has a spotty record on introducing new characters, few of them made an impression. The exception is the Washington DC subplot, in which new president Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is sworn in. Outgoing President Daniels made Bush's approach to the transition look really good with his creepy, scotch-swilling advice for Taylor. Can't say I'm sad to see him go. And while the storyline about her son Roger (Eric Lively, brother of Gossip Girl's Blake) is basically how every season of 24 starts, I'm still intrigued. I'm sure Taylor will butt heads with Jack for awhile, but she seems like a promising new addition. Unlike Jon Voight's head baddie, who so far is just like any number of forgettable 24 villains.

At its best, the special reminded me why I should be excited for a new season of 24. The split-screens, the clock, Kiefer Sutherland's real time announcement, it all brought back good memories. And in some ways, the attempt to do something different made me miss regular 24 all the more. Of course, more than any other piece of entertainment, 24 really was the defining show of the Bush era, premiering directly after September 11th. 24's world is one in which the terrorist threat is extreme enough that no measures are too strong to stop it. While I think the idea that people only want happy things in an Obama presidency is ridiculous, it will be interesting to see how 24 reacts to a post-Bush America. Regardless of quality, Redemption left me ready to see what comes next.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll be leaving soon for turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and the rest, but here's a list of five notable (I won't say best) Thanksgiving-themed TV episodes.

Gossip Girl, "Blair Waldorf Must Pie"
Season 1's Thanksgiving episode was filled with drama. Rufus and Lily's relationship was revealed after an uncomfortable dinner shared by Rufus' wife. Flashbacks gave the first real glimpse of party-girl Serena, and of Dan's brief encounters with her. And Blair's storyline centered on pie. It showed Thanksgiving can be for Gossip Girl what Chrismukkah was for The OC.

How I Met Your Mother, "Belly Full of Turkey"
So many great aspects to Thanksgiving featured in this season 1 episode. The main story revolved around Lily spending the holiday with Marshall's family while she thinks she might be pregnant. Of course, she finds all their traditions horrifying. Baskiceball, a combination of basketball and hockey, Marshall admits is basically just an excuse to beat each other up. But the more dangerous tradition is Marshall's mom's seven layer salad, in which funions and gummy bears are separated at every layer by mayonnaise. Yuck. Back in New York, Ted and Robin learn Thanksgiving is the most popular volunteer day of the year. And Barney shows them Thanksgiving at a strip club.

Friends, "The One Where Ross Got High"
Friends is easily the master of Thanksgiving episodes, with 9 great ones to choose from. I'm limiting myself to two here. I chose this one not for the story of Ross blaming Chandler for his pot smoking in college, but for the subplot in which Rachel combines the recipes for a chocolate trifle and shepherd's pie. Watching everyone not know how to tell her there is no meat in trifle is funny. Watching Joey eat everyone's portion and love it is hilarious.

How I Met Your Mother, "Slapsgiving"
You just got slaaaaaaapped. Across the faaace. You just got slapped. Yeah that really just happened. And everybody saaw it. And everybody laaaaaughed and claaapped. Cause it was awesome. When you. Got slapped.

Friends, "The One With Chandler in a Box"
My top Thanksgiving episode goes to this Friends ep in which Joey makes Chandler spend Thanksgiving in a box after kissing his girlfriend. Chandler chiming in on everything from inside the box is funny, but the best is when Joey accuses him of not taking the box seriously enough.

Also, on the subject of Thanksgiving episodes, aren't you glad you didn't have to cook your turkey in a toaster oven like the contestants on last night's Top Chef? Difficulties aside, there were plenty of dishes that looked good, namely pumpkin tiramisu. Fabio knows what I look for on Thanksgiving. The Foo Fighters were also some of the best judges that have been on in awhile. Less sophistocated than the celebrity chefs and more fun than the regular people, their judging style of "yes! bacon is awesome!" was a nice change. But losing Richard this early seems a bit of a shame, after his amusingly awkward character assessments, such as calling Leah "the fun, flirty girl with the nice rack," and Tom Colicchio the "hot, gay icon, bear of a man."

Now go enjoy your turkey!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to See With Your Family on Thanksgiving

Every family has its own traditions on Thanksgiving. Some play football. Some watch football. But in my family, the post-turkey ritual is going to see a movie. As we're hardly the only ones who keep this tradition, Hollywood usually complies with a "something for everyone" movie. Harry Potter is of course the perfect Thanksgiving option. The Incredibles hit the right spot as well. But with the new Harry Potter pushed until next summer, there's really no obvious pick this year. So for all of you facing a similar dilemma, I've got the pros and cons for every top contender.

Story: An orphan from Mumbai goes on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to find his childhood love.
: A feel-good, immensely entertaining movie that everyone is bound to enjoy. Plus, it's a likely Best Picture nominee.
Cons: Still in limited release, it's hard to find outside New York and LA. With a third in Hindi, not a good choice for the subtitle reading-impaired.

Story: An aristocratic Englishwoman falls for a rugged Austrlian herder during World War II.
Pros: It's a big, romantic epic that Baz Luhrmann intended to be for the whole family to see after Thanksgiving. And Oprah loved it.
Cons: A 2 hour, 45 minute running time and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 51% makes this a bad choice when on triptophan.

Story: Biopic of Harvey Milk, city supervisor of San Francisco in the 1970s and the first openly gay public official.
Pros: Amazing reviews (92% on Rotten Tomatoes). Likely Best Picture nominee. Couldn't be more topical.
Cons: Very limited release. Not a happy ending.

Story: James Bond seeks revenge for the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.
Pros: It's Bond. James Bond.
Cons: At least in my family, Bond movies are more of a male outing than something for the whole family. Also, the reviews have been decidedly mixed.

Story: Two guys are forced to mentor oddball kids.
Pros: Good reviews. Supposed to be funny. The kind of lightweight comedy that might be fun on Thanksgiving.
Cons: Trailer doesn't look great, and the humor's probably not the kind your parents will enjoy.

Story: It's in the title.
Pros: See pros for Role Models above.
Cons: Do you really want to see a movie called Zack and Miri Make a Porno with your parents?

Story: Human girl loves vampire.
Pros: Made a ton of money. Your teenage sister/mom is really into the books.
Cons: What guy would agree to see this movie? Only a good idea if male family members split up to see Quantum of Solace.

Story: A couple must celebrate Christmas with the families of each of their divorced parents.
Pros: The most obvious pick for a family movie. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are a watchable pair.
Cons: Looks terrible. 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's way too early for Christmas movies.

Story: A TV dog who thinks the show is real must find his way back to Hollywood from New York.
Pros: Good reviews (84% Rotten Tomatoes). Family movie.
Cons: If there are no small children in your group, you'll wonder why you're there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Colbert Christmas and Other TV Stocking Stuffers

As the advertisements promised, A Colbert Christmas was a nice blend of mocking and embracing the cheesy Christmas specials of yesteryear. All the necessary details were there: the sweater, the log cabin, the not-so-conversational announcement of each guest star, and a Christmas miracle to save his special.

The show had plenty of funny moments beyond mocking something from before I was born. Country singer Toby Keith did a surprisingly funny song against the "War on Christmas," complete with animation. Jon Stewart's half-hearted pitch for Chanukah brought laughs despite (or because of?) Stewart's weak singing voice. Willie Nelson's weed-infused Christmas song was to be expected, and John Legend's ode to nutmeg sounded nice enough. I liked Feist as an angel, singing an angel call waiting message.

But probably best was the bear. Colbert was trapped inside the cabin because of a bear outside. As Colbert Report fans know, bears are often #1 in the threatdown, making this one of the few connections to the actual show. The bear ends up eating Elvis Costello, singing a song of peace with Colbert, and making out with him under the mistletoe before being killed and turned into a rug. Silly, sure, but a perfectly enjoyable holiday special if it was ACTUALLY HOLIDAY SEASON! Seriously, couldn't he have waited until after Thanksgiving?

In other "comedy" news, Saturday Night Live continued to suck after losing its topicality with the end of the election. But it turns out they actually did have one funny sketch, they just inexplicably cut it. The sketch involves Andy Samberg as a cursing and threatening Rahm Emanuel. Enjoy:

Finally, tonight's How I Met Your Mother gave us two things to implement in our daily lives. First, we learned that The Naked Man (getting laid after an unsuccessful first date by removing all your clothes while the woman's not looking) works two out of three times. A blog shout-out goes to whoever admits to trying this.

Second, Lily created a list of 50 reasons to have sex. Some of my favorites include "Nothing good on TV," "Your roommate is out of town and you can do it on the couch," and "Your condoms are about to expire." You can find the full list here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

TV Reminder

Just a reminder to everyone that beyond the usual Sunday night shows, there are two specials worth noting tonight. The first is 24: Redemption (Fox, 8-10 PM), the 2-hour movie to bridge the gap between seasons 6 and 7. It's been, what, a year and a half since season 6 ended? And most of us probably aren't too excited after the disappointment that was season 6. But even in Africa and not LA, Jack Bauer is Jack Bauer, and Redemption might give a sign of whether season 7 will be a return to must-see form.

The second TV event of note is A Colbert Christmas (Comedy Central, 10-11 PM). Despite the constant advertisements during Colbert Report and Daily Show the past few weeks, I'm not entirely sure what Stephen Colbert will do for his full hour. I'm expecting a mix of cheesy, Bing Crosby style Christmas talk with some songs and special guests. Must see? Who knows. The bigger question is why Christmas movies and specials now seem to only come out during Thanksgiving (see also: Four Christmases. Or don't).

I'll try to comment on both as soon as I've seen them. No promises on when that will be. Also coming up this week: What to See With Your Family on Thanksgiving, Top Thanksgiving TV Episodes (hint: nearly all of them are from Friends), and maybe that review of Slumdog Millionaire I've been meaning to write for weeks now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bad News from ABC

Well, the day we all feared has finally arrived: Pushing Daisies has been canceled. They've already shot the 13 episodes ABC ordered, so we still get 7 more episodes. I have to assume the decision was made for how much the show costs, because the ratings were bad, but not that bad. Maybe this was a case where an Emmy win for comedy would have made a difference. But with nothing else on TV like it, there isn't any other show that can easily fill the void. Creator Bryan Fuller has tried to put a hopeful spin on it. He says he plans to finish the story through comic books. That's great in theory, but I can't say I've read a single issue of Buffy Season 8. He talks about a movie version, but so did Rob Thomas after Veronica Mars was canceled. And as for reports that he'll be going back to Heroes? A couple watchable episodes of Heroes doesn't make up for the loss of a much better show.

But Pushing Daisies wasn't the only show canceled yesterday on ABC. Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone got the plug pulled as well. I didn't watch either show, so I can't say if the cancellations were warranted. The Dirty Sexy Money pilot didn't do it for me, and those advertisements with George Michael were enough to lose my interest in Eli Stone. But I do know both shows have a lot of passionate fans, if not to the same extent as Pushing Daisies. And as a television viewer, it pains me to think that ABC let these three go while keeping Private Practice.

But the TV news isn't all bad today. A few sprinkles of good news:

Mitchell Hurwitz and Ron Howard are making a deal with Fox Searchlight for an Arrested Development movie. That's right. It's no longer just Jason Bateman saying it would be cool. It is actually happening. Now we just need the cast to gang up on Michael Cera and force him to join in.

Also, a new promo for the new season of Lost:

Sure, The Fray isn't the most obvious musical pairing for Lost, other than that the word "lost" is in the song. And yes, nearly all of the clips are from previous seasons. But after 6 months with no new Lost, I'll take anything. Only two more months from today!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Top Chef: Euro Edition

Two episodes into this season of Top Chef, it's still hard to tell everyone apart. The winners and losers may stand out a little, but it will take the elimination of at least three more Patricks, Jills, or (probably soon) Arianes before any clear favorites can be found. But the two contestants who made the most immediate impression? Stefan and Fabio.

As the first two winners and the biggest personalities, Stefan (from Finland) and Fabio (from Italy) are the early favorites, showing a true European takeover. Stefan proved his cooking chops right away, winning both quickfire and elimination challenges last week. Since three out of four Top Chefs won their first challenges (and the fourth made final two), that makes Stefan a heavy favorite to win. And with his "I'm better than you because I'm from Europe" attitude, he's also the early favorite to be the one everyone else hates.

Fabio, on the other hand, seemed like Stefan's goofy sidekick. Last week, he had to write out his list of ingredients, citing a weak grasp of the English language (in case we hadn't noticed). This week, he upped the comedy by not once, but twice (that we saw) talking about slaying dragons and saving princesses. He clearly enjoyed the story. Then at the end, he gave an amusingly angry defense of his dish, failing to realize he wasn't on the bottom but but the top. His win made him no longer just the comic relief, but an actual contender.

As for the Americans, a few of them have shown some promise. There's quickfire winner Radhika, who's had a mixed record so far but is the only one this year (if ever) with a background in Indian food. Jamie of Team Rainbow impressed with a corn soup, and looks likely to make it pretty far. The Australian guy from House, obviously faking an American accent for this show, showed he's not just there for his hair. And Crazy Hair made top 3 this week for her dessert, making her someone to watch. As for Tattoo Guy, Guy in Team Rainbow, Girl from Centro Vinoteca (which is right near my apartment), Crazy Long Island Accent Guy, and the others? No opinion yet, but I do know Ariane's gotta go.

As for the challenges, Top Chef showed that other fifth season Bravo show the advantages of not just pulling them out of reruns (you know who you are, Project Runway). It's hard to believe Top Chef waited this long to come to New York, and they've already made good use of it. Highlighting the different ethnic foods throughout the five borroughs last week was a fun introduction. The hog dog quickfire was as appropriate as the deep dish pizza challenge in Chicago last season. And cooking at Tom Colicchio's Craft restaurant just makes sense. All in all, it's looking like a good season.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On DVD: The Visitor

Grade: A-

The Visitor should have been a series of cliches. It's a message movie, a cross-cultural connections movie, and an old-guy-learns-to-live movie. By not pushing any of those too hard, it succeeds.

Richard Jenkins, a character actor best known as the dead dad on Six Feet Under, plays Professor Walter Vale, a man who sleepwalks through life. Changing the year on his course syllabus is the most thought he puts into his teaching. He tries to learn piano to remember his dead wife. But on a trip to New York, he finds his apartment has been rented out to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a couple of illegal immigrants. After letting them stay, he befriends Tarek and learns to play the drums. And when Tarek gets arrested as an illegal immigrant, Walter feels compelled to help, especially as he connects with Tarek's mom, Mouna (Hiam Abbass).

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (who also made the very enjoyable indie The Station Agent) has a lot to say about the treatment of immigrants in the United States today. But that thankfully takes a backseat to the characters. The message is there in service to the story and only once feels remotely didactic. Even then, it is more of a character moment than a lesson. By avoiding didacticism, the movie's point is far more effective.

McCarthy is more guilty of the cross-cultural cliche, but his look at the immigrant community in New York makes up for it. The street fair where Zainab sells her jewelry, filled with people from all over the world, is a part of New York less often seen on film. But Tarek is perhaps too good of a person to be wholly believable. Warm and friendly to Walter and the polar opposite of a terrorist, he makes a convenient sacrificial lamb for the film's message on immigration. But perhaps thanks to the actor, the character still feels real.

The heart of the movie though lies with Jenkins' central performance. Walter is hardly the grumpy grandfather from Heidi. He is after all nice enough to let Tarek and Zainab stay. He is just understandably lonely and bored with life. As Walter comes to care about first Tarek and then Mouna, Jenkins shows in the smallest of ways how drastically Walter's life has changed. He keeps the movie centered on the emotional, so that it never feels like a political film. Like Walter, The Visitor is small and low-key but packs a lot of heart. It was easy to miss it in theaters, but make sure to catch it on DVD.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Movie Review: Rachel Getting Married

Grade: A-

Rachel Getting Married is part of an increasingly prevalent genre: the dysfunctional family movie. Between Margot at the Wedding, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Celebration, and The Family Stone, it's easy to think you've already seen this movie. But despite the similar plot, this is not Kym at the Wedding. Tonally different from the others (except perhaps The Celebration), the movie escapes that other ubiquitous label: the quirky indie. With one of the most realistic families to appear recently onscreen, there's nothing "quirky" about it.

The movie starts with Kym (Anne Hathaway) getting out of rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym takes the time home as an opportunity to make amends from her junkie days, specifically in a very public wedding rehearsal dinner toast. Being home brings up all the resentments between the sisters, as Kym wants more attention and Rachel wants to get the spotlight on her wedding day. Their dad, Paul (Bill Irwin), struggles to keep them safe and happy. And Rachel's
fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is black, a fact never mentioned and yet still relevant (I assume his name refers to Poitier and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, as here Kym is more the outcast than a black suitor).

As the movie goes on, its authenticity makes you feel like part of the wedding. This comes partially from the shooting style. Hand-held, shaky camera techniques may be overused, but here they provide a home movie quality that brings us right into the festivities. While the shooting helps, the authenticity primarily comes from the characters. Director Jonathan Demme (doing his best work since Philadelphia and Silence of the Lambs) and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) have created such three-dimensional, believable characters that just watching them act normal is compelling. When Sidney challenges Paul to a contest of who can fill the dishwasher the fastest, it seems like something that would happen before a real wedding. Even the more dramatic moments feel realistic. Whether it's Rachel wanting a day that's not about Kym or Kym feeling excluded at her own sister's event, it is all completely relatable. With most wedding movies relying on silly hijinks, this one feels fresh for keeping its feet planted in reality.

The realism is also aided by the incredibly strong performances throughout the cast. Anne Hathaway stands out most for going so against type and creating such a unique yet believable character. Hathaway keeps Kym's vulnerability visible even as she laughs off her past and makes even Rachel think she doesn't care. Rosemarie DeWitt also deserves praise for taking the thankless part of the "normal" sister and making her special enough to give Kym and Rachel's conflict its bite. Debra Winger, as their distant mother, has a small but significant part. But the actor who surprised me the most was Bill Irwin as Paul. As the mediator between Kym and Rachel, Irwin shows how hard Paul tries to keep them both happy even as they turn against him. Harder still, he gives a real sense of how long they have related this way just through his expression.

By the midpoint of the movie, any early dark humor has dropped away for something much more serious. But by that point, the movie had won me over enough to accept any twists about their past. As Kym struggles with guilt for the harm she has caused, the movie could easily turn melodramatic and overemotional. The movie's strength is that it doesn't. The past revelations just further deepen the relationships we've seen. I'm not usually someone who goes for movies with lots of crying and talking about feelings. But the characters are all so well-developed that it's all worth it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

Grade: B+

Seeing Synecdoche, New York, I was reminded of Inland Empire, David Lynch's 3 hour long surrealism extravaganza that made absolutely no sense. Both make their audiences work hard to put everything together. And while that work leads nowhere, the ride still seems worth taking. Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich)'s latest film as writer and first as director, is more accessible than Inland Empire but far less than his other films. The movie goes further and further into confusion as it develops, until time and reality are completely unknown. While Kaufman's methods work for most of the movie, he takes them too far and leaves viewers behind.

The movie begins with comic dread. Theater director Caden Cotard (a fantastic as always Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds his body and marriage simultaneously collapsing. He's passed off from doctor to doctor, all serious and useless. His wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) tells their therapist (Hope Davis) she fantasizes about Caden's death. Caden sees himself appear on TV screens and billboards. Hazel (Samantha Morton), the box office girl with a crush on Caden, moves into a house constantly on fire. All of these surreal details externalize Caden's feelings in a funny and often recognizable way. These moments of comic absurdity are the film's best.

But when Adele leaves with their daughter Olive for Germany to become a famous artist, Caden's world gets even futher off. When Hazel tells him it hasn't been a week but a year since Adele left, Caden's confusion in the passing of time is ours as well. What keeps Caden focused is the massive play he creates in an effort to find something "true." Inside a New York City warehouse, the play features a cast of hundreds of actors that recreate the city in constant rehearsals with no opening night in sight. The play becomes yet another externalization as it begins to focus on Caden's own life. Not only must he cast someone to play him, but soon his double must cast himself for the play-within-the-play-within-the-movie. While the multiplying of realities can be funny, you can see how it starts to get confusing real fast.

Even with the jumps in time and questions of what is real and what is fantasy/nightmare, the movie has a certain appealing flow. Individual scenes may not make sense, but you can suss out certain themes in Caden's life and his play. But by the end, cohesive statements clearly only scratch the surface. Characters that explain the film's meaning seem to come up short. In the final third, the movie becomes increasingly emotional in the ideas it wants to express. But logic has been so long ago tossed out the window that it is difficult to understand what it so desperately wants to express. You understand you are supposed to feel something, but the movie can't explain what.

As I'm sure was Kaufman's intention, the movie begins to feel a lot like the play within. Kaufman begins to resemble Caden, keeping his film too much within his own head to be ready for an audience. He proves himself a perfectly capable director, finding a style that fuses elements of his previous directors, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. But it may have helped if he had to explain his vision to someone. Many individual moments of the film, especially early on, are as good as anything in previous Kaufman movies. The strong cast gives fantastic performances as their characters age over decades. If you like Kaufman's writing and seeing something completely different, this is definitely worthwhile. But too much of the movie is trapped inside Kaufman's mind for it to quite be the triumph it aspires to be.

Oscar Preview

With the election now behind us, we can focus on a far less significant contest: the Oscars. While it's far too early to know what will hold up and what will crash and burn, here are the movies I think will hold up enough to be the best picture nominees this year.

My first pick: The Dark Knight. Many won't consider it because it's a comic book movie. But what they feel to realize is that it's the best comic book movie ever. It's also so much more than that, as an instant crime classic that looks at darker themes than even the real serious Oscar bait. Besides, Heath Ledger's Joker is the best villain since Hannibal Lecter. So comic books or not, I still think this is the one to beat for the win.

Next, another movie I've already seen, Slumdog Millionaire:

This is probably an even safer bet, as it's hard to imagine anyone not loving this movie, least of all Oscar voters. It's an epic, it's heartfelt, it's uplifting, and most of all it's really, really good. Acting, writing, directing, story, music, it all works together for one of the most enjoyable movies of the year. The only thing working against it is that about a third of the movie is in Hindi. It comes out November 12th, so make sure to go see it.

Another strong contender for a win (if good) is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

First off, the trailer looks pretty amazing. A beautiful looking film about a guy who ages backwards set against a long period of time? That sounds like Oscar territory. But add David Fincher as director, who hasn't made a bad movie since Alien 3 (Panic Room doesn't count), and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett giving what look to be strong performances, and I'm sold too. I just hope it lives up to the hype.

The last of my solid predictions is Milk, another one you can see before December:

Director Gus Van Sant has recently just done dull experimental films (Elephant, Paranoid Park), but he showed with Good Will Hunting how well he does mainstream. Sean Penn sometimes overacts, but this part seems like a good fit for him. The supporting cast is very strong, with Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch. And after the passing of Proposition 8 in California, a film about the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco's Castro region could not be more relevant. With all the early reviews raving, this one looks like it's in.

But while I feel good about the above movies' chances at this early point, there are a lot of movies that could fill the fifth slot. My current pick is Revolutionary Road:

Revolutionary Road is straight-up Oscar bait. Former winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is directing in familiar terrain. There's a Titanic reunion for Oscar favorites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It's based on a classic novel. And it is extremely reminiscent of Mad Men, which won the Emmy for best drama. But as obvious as its Oscar aspirations are, this is one I'm actually excited for. Not only am I a fan of the book and Sam Mendes, but the trailer looks pretty fantastic. Nobody's seen it yet, but if it's as good as the trailer it will definitely be a contender.

There's also two movies based on highly respected plays, Doubt and Frost/Nixon:

Both feature great actors likely giving great performances, and each will take up many acting slots. Of the two, I'm more excited for Doubt. Part of that is because I'm more familiar with the play. But I'm also really unimpressed with the Frost/Nixon trailer. Frank Langella in his Tony-winning role doesn't seem to resemble Nixon at all. The movie seems to paint the interview as an underdog triumph, the Mighty Ducks of journalism films. The Academy does love subpar Ron Howard movies though, so certainly don't count it out. As for Doubt, it's probably too small-scale for best picture, and early word has been mixed. Both might have to settle for the acting nods.

Last of the major contenders is Australia:

Australia seems likely to either be great or terrible. It's got an old Hollywood, epic style that Oscar voters love. Baz Luhrmann seems just the director to take this kind of period piece and make it feel modern. Yet I can't say I'm too excited. With the culture clash romance, a war, and something about Nicole Kidman helping Australian kids, I don't really know what the movie will end up being about. Until anyone sees it, this remains a mystery.

Beyond those eight, there are a number of other movies still in the running. Gran Torino is the second Clint Eastwood movie this year, Changeling's bad reviews probably keeping it out of contention. You can never count out Clint Eastwood, but the trailer made it look more like a stupid action movie where an old Eastwood goes around with a shotgun killing young people for making too much noise. It looked pretty silly to me, but you never know.

The Reader has the Holocaust, Kate Winslet, and Ralph Fiennes, definite Oscar checkboxes. The trailer also looks surprisingly good. But the behind-scenes drama between the producers may be enough to sink it.

The Wrestler has mostly gotten attention for Mickey Rourke's lead performance. But after Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky has shown he's got what it takes. And people who have seen it have loved it.

Going back further, there's also arguments to make in favor of Wall-E, Rachel Getting Married, The Visitor, Changeling, Che, Defiance, Nothing But the Truth, and Seven Pounds. Something else could also surprise (Valkyrie?). I'll know better once I've seen more. But if you're looking for what to watch in preparation over the next few months, the list above should help you be well prepared when it's time to make your Oscar pool.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bye Bye Dr. Hahn

For anyone who hasn't yet seen last night's Grey's Anatomy, don't worry, this isn't spoiling anything from the episode. Because nothing that happened last night would suggest that it was the last time we will see Dr. Erica Hahn on the show. But as Michael Ausiello wrote earlier this week, that is exactly what it was.

As for what did happen, Hahn found out about Izzie's involvement in the Denny Duquette affair (yes, that again) and wanted blood. Izzie helped her save the other guy's life, but that didn't stop Hahn from telling Callie she'll file a complaint about it. When Callie stood up for Izzie, the fight quickly turned from being about medicine to their relationship.

But can a first tiff for a new couple really be seen as a send-off? How will the writers explain her absence next week? Hit by a car on the way home? Went back to her old hospital in protest? There doesn't seem to be any way that doesn't feel like a silly, soap opera-ish turn.

And that's because her ousting wasn't a creative decision but a network one. ABC got uncomfortable with the Callie-Erica storyline and decided that Brooke Smith had to go, immediately, with no episode to explain Hahn's removal. I can't say Hahn was one of my favorite characters or that the relationship was handled especially well, but that still doesn't change how ridiculous it is for a network to so blatantly tamper with a popular show. Especially coming the same week that California passed Proposition 8, it all does put a dent in the progress shown by electing a black president.

A few thoughts on the rest of the episode: While following up on the patient that lost the heart to Denny makes sense, the way Denny keeps appearing on the show 3 seasons after his death still only shows how little Grey's has held up to its second and best season. It's hard not to seem like a show past its prime when it keeps looking back on the glory days. But otherwise it was a solid episode. Christina continued to get more screentime, which is a nice change from her mishandling since Burke's departure. The Chief voicing George's robotic patient provided some laughs. And Hunt's frustration with everyone certainly seemed legitimate. This season has shown a definite improvement over the last two, but we'll have to see how they handle the Hahn firing to be sure.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Obama Can Learn From the Palmers

There's no doubt that the election of President Obama has brought one of the most hopeful times to the United States (and the world) in recent memory. Not only is it a historic election (I hate "an historic," the "h" is not silent!) because Obama will be the first non-fictional African-American president, but there's a real sense that he can unify the country and solve our problems for reasons that have nothing to do with race. There's no question though that he faces a near insurmountable to-do list right away: the economic crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threats in Iran and Pakistan, terrorism, the need for energy independence, health care reform, and so on.

But the little we have heard about President Obama's first steps as president-elect all seem like they are in the right direction. His short lists for key Cabinet positions all show a willingness to rely on experienced advisors and often across party lines. His first announced pick, Representative Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff, has been criticized by some Republicans for showing less of the nonpartisan approach. As the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House and a reputation for toughness in getting the job done, he's most definitely planted on the Democratic side. But that's exactly why he's a perfect pick. See, while Obama may be the first black president in reality, he has two predecessors in the land of 24. And their presidencies offer some very useful advice for how Obama should lead.

1. Hire a Chief of Staff you can trust
David Palmer thought he did with Mike Novick, a man who had stood with Palmer all the way back to the primaries. But when the war hawk Vice President tried to oust Palmer from power by inaccurately interpreting the 25th amendment, Novick jumped abord, betraying his boss. While Palmer refused the resignations of his Cabinet after the crisis passed, he demanded one from Novick. Because there's no use for a Chief of Staff who doesn't have your back. David went with his brother Wayne as a successor, but Obama should do just fine with fellow Chicagoan Emanuel.

2. Do not select a war hawk Dixiecrat as your running mate
Thankfully, this is a lesson Obama has already followed, as Joe Biden seems unlikely to invoke the 25th amendment the first time he and Obama disagree. Somehow David's brother Wayne failed to learn from his brother's mistake. Once again, a Palmer chose a running mate who barely resembled a Democrat, let alone one who shared his president's vision. While VP Daniels at least waited until Wayne was in a coma before taking power, his Cheney-like appearance and creepy affair with his assistant made him an unfortunate choice in VP.

3. Do not be perceived as soft on terror
David Palmer went down in history as one of the greatest fictional presidents for avoiding a war on false pretenses against "those three Middle Eastern countries." But everything Wayne did painted him as too young, inexperienced, and unready to lead. Watching season 6, Wayne Palmer seemed to be right-wing creator Joel Surnow's warning to America about an Obama presidency. But because this is a matter of perception, not policy, President Obama will be unlikely to suffer that fate. Wayne Palmer's biggest problem was that he came off as so unpresidential in his address to the nation. In that way, Obama better mirrors David.

About Tuesday Night

Last night's episode of South Park, "About Last Night," was all about the election results. With lines from Obama and McCain's speeches, it was clear they really made the thing in just one day. Impressive. For anyone interested, you can watch it here.

South Park may have undervalued the significance of the election, but nonetheless created an amusing episode. Having Obama and McCain be Clooney and Pitt in an Ocean's 11 style diamond theft plot didn't seem like the funniest of available options, but it did provide some amusing moments. Best was Sarah Palin revealing her folksiness as an act after telling the press she can run for VP again in 2009. Michelle Obama not really being married to Barack was sort of funny, but the mention of his grandmother went too far.

More relevant were the storylines of the supporters. There seems no better way to make people look stupid than to have Randy Marsh be their representative. But in mocking Obama supporters for all their celebrations, the show didn't acknoledge that they had pretty good cause for doing so. Funnier was the response of the McCain supporters, fighting their way into bomb shelters like in a disaster movie.

As much as South Park mocks the political process and partisan politics especially, they did end the episode on a bit of an up note. With Obama deciding to stick it out as president after the diamond heist and the McCain supporters coming out of the bomb shelter and realizing they are going to be ok, South Park may have come as close to supporting a president as they ever will. About Last Night may not be up there with Trapped in the Closet or Something Walmart This Way Comes as one of South Park's strongest zeitgeist episodes, but it does show South Park is always best when covering current events.

2012 Preview

With the 2008 election over, those of us suffering election withdrawal have already begun to look ahead to 2012 as a patch. While any speculation now will likely prove meaningless in a few years, there's no harm in looking at the viability of various candidates. It does seem safe to say that 2012 will be a referendum on Obama's first term. If he can solve any one of the myriad of problems facing the country, he will coast to an easy reelection. But if the change he promises takes some time to occur, the Republicans will go full force against him. Who decides to run may depend on which of those scenarios occurs.

Currently, the most obvious choice is John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin. Love her or hate her, she's one of the most well-known Republicans around and will have 4 more years to gain experience and read a newspaper. Electoral Vote even has a theory that she will try to take Ted Stevens' spot in the Senate when he is inevitably kicked out in January. But she is far too polarizing a figure and has been too greatly maligned this campaign to be taken seriously by anyone outside the far right. The only way she'll run against Obama in 2012 is if his first term goes so well that Republicans designate Palin the sacrificial lamb. Then again, perhaps her presidency is the 2012 end of the world prophecy.

With his business background, Mitt Romney is the candidate Republicans wish they had chosen in this election. So with the light at the end of the financial crisis tunnel still miles away, Romney's looking like a solid guess for 2012. But he's got his downsides too. First of all, his viability depends entirely on whether the economy is still the biggest issue four years from now. Secondly, the reason he lost the primaries is because Americans saw him as the fake, sleazy, pandering politician he is. He's unlikely to change that in four years. Lastly, will his wife really let him use up the rest of his fortune on another bid after losing so much last time? The answer to the last question must be yes, because he will certainly try again, even if the results work out just like 2008.

Mike Huckabee would likely only be selected if Obama somehow really did turn the country socialist and people felt a need to go abruptly in the ideologically opposite direction. The person who challenges Obama will need to win back the moderates that backed him, which is not a man who wants Constitutional amendments to follow God's law. But you should never count out the clear winner of the "guy I'd like to have a beer with" contest. He has a way of making the craziest things sound completely reasonable. But while that makes punditry a good fit, he still won't be heading to the White House.

With those three also-rans out of the way, it's time for my early prediction of who will challenge President Obama in 2012:

Bobby Jindal is in many ways the Barack Obama of the Republican party. He's young, he's not white, and Republicans talk about him now the way Democrats talked about Obama in 2004. But he has a couple advantages that even Obama didn't have. He's a governor, so he gets to make the Sarah Palin "executive experience" argument. But unlike Sarah Palin, he was governor of Louisiana during Hurricane Gustav. That will be a huge selling point for any presidential bids. The only reason he might not be chosen is if Obama's first term goes well enough that he seems unbeatable. Jindal is young enough that he can afford to wait 8 years before running, and he might want to wait until he has a better shot. Politicians don't like to wait though, so I'm still predicting President Obama vs. Governor Jindal in 2012.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Where McCain Went Wrong

This will be the first of three post-election posts, the other two looking at Obama's next steps and thoughts on the 2012 election. But first, an autopsy on John McCain's campaign.

For those that missed McCain's very nice concession speech, you can watch it here:

That said, let's look at the top reasons why McCain's campaign was doomed for failure. No one reason is single-handedly responsible, even though many will will try to say so. They all worked together to put the final nails in the coffin built by President Bush.

But let's start with Sarah Palin. Going into the Democratic National Convention, the question was if anything could unite the party after the divisive primary battle between Obama and Hilary Clinton. A week later, we got the answer: Sarah Palin. Chosen partially to attract Hilary voters that wanted to see a woman on the ticket, her conservative record and complete lack of qualifications made even some PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) voters feel pretty good about voting for Obama. But in addition to uniting Democrats, she also drew independents and moderates over to Obama. The idea of someone who had difficulty forming a complete sentence and doesn't believe in evolution being a (cliche alert) heartbeat away from the presidency was terrifying. But while I think Palin ultimately hurt McCain more than she helped, the Palin Effect wasn't all bad. George W. Bush was elected for getting the type of evangelical Christians who would rather stay home on election day to get out and vote. Similarly, Palin's presence may have been the only thing getting McCain conservative support. But this election will prove that the Republican base is not the same as the United States of America.

Next, negative campaigning. Steve Schmidt may be taking even more blame than Sarah Palin for McCain's loss. There are a lot of reasons for why McCain's negative campaigning backfired. First off, a lot of the claims were just weak. He couldn't convince people that Obama sharing a charity board with a college professor proved dangerous judgement. The socialist claims were effective among some groups, but it did make him look erratic to go from "he will raise your taxes" to "he will lower them too much." With the economy on everyone's minds, the Ayers attacks were a blatant attempt to change the subject and showed McCain's lack of solutions. But above all, the campaign strategy backfired because it wasn't consistent with John McCain's character. Schmidt told him to become someone he was not as a means to the greater good of becoming president. But going against his honor and even his maverick policies (supporting the Bush tax cut, saying he wouldn't vote for his own immigration bill) lost him the moderate support he expected. His legacy will not be the man we wish had beaten Bush in 2000 but for this bitter and desperate campaign.

The economic crisis. Many see it as a deus ex machina that gave the election to Obama. Given that McCain voted for the deregulation in 1999 that allowed the crisis to happen, maybe he couldn't survive it. But his attempts to do so only made him look worse. Suspending his campaign was endlessly mocked as a false way of appearing presidential while not actually helping. His insistence on sticking to earmarks reform in the debates instead of addressing the crisis made it appear that he really didn't know what to do. There's no question that the economic crisis helped the map become as blue as it was last night. But I'm not convinced it was the sole reason for McCain's loss.

Because in my opinion, the election was destined to go to the Democrats ever since the primaries. With an approval rate around 27%, Bush had just done too much damage for any Republican, even one as different as McCain, to stand a chance. With a massive deficit, a low standing in the rest of the world, and two wars that have dragged on far too long, the country desperately needed a change. While people focused on the divisiveness of the Democrat primaries, the more interesting divide was in the Republican primaries. Between McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, the primaries showed a full-scale breakdown of the Reagan coalition. McCain was foreign policy, Romney was the economic conservative, and Huckabee for social values voters. All these months later, the election has shown this coalition was not willing to unite for John McCain. Reaching out to Huckabee voters with the Palin pick lost the Romney voters. We'll see in 2012 whether this coalition can reunite again.

Proud to Be American

This will not be an incisive look at what happened in the 2008 election. I am far too happy and drunk to offer that. All I can offer is my joy that, for the first time since I have paid attention to politics, the best man won. For the first time in 8 years, I will believe in my president and his ability to lead us to a better future. But even more than that, I think about what this means for America. In electing Barack Obama president, we have instantly raised our standing in the world by at least 60%. We have declared a willingness to work with our allies to build a better future.

Although I am still obsessively watching CNN in hopes that the final states and Senate races will be called before I go to bed, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the concession and acceptance speeches. I thought McCain's concession speech was not delivered by the 2008 McCain, who had given in to Steve Schmidt's fear-mongering tactics, but the 2000 McCain that I would consider voting for. He ended his campaign as the honorable, bipartisan man that he is, and he reminded us that he is a true patriot. I believe that McCain could potentially be one of Obama's greatest allies in getting bipartisan support for his legislative goals as president.

As for Obama's acceptance speech, it was every bit as joyful and inspiring as I could have hoped. He began the speech by reaching out to every American, reminding us of his greatest appeal. I believe Obama has run one of the most inclusive campaigns in recent history, not dividing the country into "real America" and "fake America," but trying to unite America for a common goal. He reached his high-point as he led a refrain of "Yes we can," the slogan that he has used since the primaries and has carried him this far. At this point, it seems appropriate to change that to "yes we did."

Obama faces the more challenges in his first term than any president since FDR. I fully expect the elections of 2010 to shift to Republicans as America becomes frustrated by Obama's inability to save the world in 2 years time. But if we are patient and believe in him, he will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents, as he brings us out of this economic crisis, ends the war in Iraq, and brings us into a new era of American prosperity. I'll be doing a series of entries in the next few days that highlight where McCain went wrong and what challenges Obama will face, in addition to other election-related topics. I will also, I promise, return to entertainment soon enough, with 3 movie reviews I owe you (Slumdog Millionaire, Synecdoche NY, and The Visitor). But tonight, let's just bask in the victory we have achieved, proving that young people will go out and vote when a candidate is worth supporting, as Barack Obama has clearly proven to be.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack the Vote

It's election day, and that means if you haven't sent in absentee ballots, it's time to get out and VOTE! Today's polling is looking good, with Pennsylvania +10% Obama and national polls averaging 7-8% Obama. Karl Rove even made the same electoral vote prediction I did, which I hope doesn't speak to my character. But as good as it looks, we can't give up yet. I just got back from voting for Obama, where I saw Will Arnett standing just a few feet in front of me in line. Be like GOB Bluth and do the right thing for the country. Regardless of how long the lines are (it took me about an hour) or how expected your state's results are, you need to do your part. Let the world see that the youth vote is a powerful thing when there's a candidate we believe in. So get on out and make Barack Obama the next president of the United States!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Election Predictions

With a day before the election and many of the final polls released, I've made my own predictions in the map above. This is admittedly a somewhat optimistic prediction, as Florida and Ohio could very easily turn for McCain. On the other hand, I gave swing states like North Carolina and Missouri to McCain. But regardless of how far Obama seems to be ahead or how un-swingy your state is, make sure to vote tomorrow. This is far from a done deal, and Obama needs everyone's votes to make this happen. None of us wants this to be yet another election where the pundits talk of the failure of the youth vote. So do the right thing and Barack the vote tomorrow.

Now a look at the map state-by-state, starting with the most important.


It's looking like Pennsylvania will be this year's Ohio/Florida as the state that decides it all. With polls showing Obama well ahead in Pennsylvania for months now, this hardly seems like the biggest swing state. But there's 2 big reasons why this is the state to watch:

1. Polls have tightened enough that Obama's lead has gone from 14% to 7%.
2. It is one of only two plausible scenarios in which McCain can win.

With 21 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is a must-win state for McCain, and has the potential to shift the electoral tide. Pennsylvania hasn't voted Republican since 1988, but McCain has put all of his resources into it in the last few weeks. 7% is still a lot to overcome in a single day, but this is still a worrisome state for Obama supporters. Still, a McCain win in Pennsylvania is not a death knell for Obama. There are three scenarios in which Obama can lose Pennsylvania but win the election:

1. Win Ohio.
2. Win Florida.
3. Win Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada.

So while Pennsylvania has started to worry me recently, I still believe it will pull through for Obama just as it did for Kerry and Gore despite far scarier polling in the days leading up to the election. But it will still be "too close to call" for most of the night.

Virginia and Colorado

Now on to two states Bush won in 2004 that seem like they're heading for Obama this time around. If Obama wins all Kerry states + Iowa and New Mexico (a safe assumption barring the analysis above), he only needs one of these states to clinch the presidency. But securing all other Bush states and both of these is McCain's second most plausible way of winning the election, making these the next most important states to watch.

Virginia hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. But with high turn-out among black voters, excitement among college students, and Democrats moving into Northern Virginia (or the Fake Virginia, as Nancy Pfotenhauer would say), Virginia is looking more and more like a safe bet for Obama. But with some tightening in the polls that have brought Obama from +7% to +4%, this seems even less like a done deal than Pennsylvania. We won't know the results when polls close at 7, but I still think it'll be called for Obama before the end of the night.

Like Virginia, Colorado is a red state on the verge of turning blue, with polls currently at +5% Obama. Those have tightened from the +8% they were last week, but even the McCain campaign was admitting a few weeks ago that Colorado is probably out of its reach. If Obama can get Colorado, he just needs to hold on to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire for the win.

Ohio and Florida

As the key battleground states of 2004 and 2000, respectively, this time around their importance will be decided by other states. These are easily two of the closest races, with polls showing a statistical tie that slightly favors Obama. But while these are both must-win states for McCain, Obama only needs one if he loses Pennsylvania or Colorado and Virginia. I have optimistically followed the polls to suggest an Obama victory in both of these states. But as Ohio is polling slightly more for Obama than Florida, I could easily see them splitting candidates or both going for McCain. Neither state is likely to be called before midnight, and I'm hoping by that point the results won't matter.

Nevada and New Hampshire

These states are small but potentially crucial with 5 and 4 electoral votes, respectively. Nevada voted for Bush in 2004, New Hampshire voted for Kerry. Both are polling well ahead for Obama (+6% and +10%). But despite their size, they can make a difference. If Obama loses Pennsylvania, Nevada could still help him win the election. If he loses Colorado and Virginia (and all other swing states), Nevada could create an electoral tie. Like Colorado and New Mexico, it seems secure for Obama, but it is still one to watch.

New Hampshire, at 10% ahead for Obama, does not seem like much of a swing state. But since Obama was leading 11% in primary polls before losing to Hilary Clinton, NH polls clearly don't tell the whole truth. As "live free or die" followers, NH likes to buck conventions, and a poll saying they will vote for Obama may be the best way to get them to support McCain. Had Gore won NH in 2000, he would have been our president. It should ultimately go Obama, but I expect it to be a lot closer than the polls say.

North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana

These three states are all serious red states that at various points have shown either a statistical tie or a slight Obama lead. Indiana has shifted for McCain recently, but North Carolina and Missouri are both certainly in play. In the event of an Obama landslide, all three could easily shift blue. But I bet in this case they'll all drop back for McCain.

Iowa and New Mexico

Both states voted for Bush in 2004, but it's hard to see either one going for McCain this time around. Iowa was the state that set Obama on the path to the nomination, and polls have shown Obama up around 14% ever since. New Mexico is a bit closer, but still shows an Obama lead of around 7%, which has steadily grown in the past few weeks. It seems highly unlikely either would switch back at the last minute.

And the rest...

Of course, other states could potentially surprise on election night. West Virginia, Georgia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and even McCain's home state of Arizona show weak leads that could be overturned in an Obama surge. On the other side, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been swing states in the past and polls have dropped enough that they could be again.

But at the end of the day, I still think it will come down to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado, and after a long night of excitement we will find out Barack Obama is our next president. I've given plenty of reasons above for why my map may not come to be, but many of the predictions on CNN show an even bigger Obama win. At this point, there's only two things we can do: Wait and see what happens, and most importantly, VOTE! As good as it's looking, the election is not over yet. So do your part and make Barack Obama the next president of the United States.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Last night's Saturday Night Live was the last one before the election (not counting tomorrow's Presidential Bash), so it continued the trend of political relevance with two appearances by Senator John McCain. Unlike Governor Sarah Palin, who mostly just stood there and took the hits in her SNL cameos, McCain took a very active part on the show. As a former host, he was comfortable, relaxed, and pretty funny. Here's his opening bit with Tina Fey returning as Palin:

As he did in his speech at the Al Smith Memorial dinner (which you can find in the blog post "America's Funniest Presidential Candidate"), McCain shows his willingness to laugh at himself. With jokes about McCain/Palin only being able to afford a broadcast on QVC and a bit on Palin going rogue for 2012, McCain seems like a good sport for taking part in it. Also, jokes like McCain Fine Gold (after McCain-Feingold) and using Cindy McCain as a jewelry model were pretty funny. But by the time McCain said to put "country first" at the polls, I couldn't help but feel like the whole segment might just be free campaigning time for McCain.

Ben Affleck's monologue was about 30 seconds long with no explanation of why he was chosen to host. A sketch on The View let Affleck do a pretty decent Alec Baldwin impression and had a lot of insults for Elizabeth Hasselbeck, but otherwise wasn't too funny. So the next notable sketch was Affleck's imitation of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann:

Once again, Affleck did a surprisingly good imitation, especially when he did Olbermann's fast speech. The sketch starts funny when Olbermann's bashing Bush and McCain, but far outstays its welcome with all the stuff about his cat. Olbermann is a ridiculous enough figure that staying on point would have been a much better way to mock him.

As last night stood by the rule that all non-political SNL sketches suck, the last thing worth mentioning is McCain's appearance on Weekend Update (which, by the way, was much better in the solo-host format than last week when Seth Meyers wasn't prepared):

Once again, McCain proved a good sport and showed good comic timing while joking about his lag in the polls and overuse of the word maverick. He seemed like he was trying too hard for some of it, but he is a politician, not a comedian. Still felt a bit like free campaigning though when he brought up connecting with voters and relying on his record.

Finally, a few words on Thursday night's season premiere of 30 Rock.

With all of the many big name guest stars announced (Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Martin), it seemed like 30 Rock was heading straight for the Will & Grace path, in which the show depends entirely on the guest-star-of-the-week. But even with Will & Grace's Megan Mullally to make that official, the show managed just fine. Rather than taking over the show, Mullally just did her job and let Tina Fey keep the spotlight. Elsewhere, Jack got his job back (yay), Devon acted like, well, GOB Bluth, and Jenna was thankfully not onscreen too much. Assuming the guest stars remain at bay, 30 Rock is looking at another thoroughly entertaining season (though I still don't think it's the best comedy on TV).