Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Catching Up With Damages

Yes, I know the Damages season finale aired almost a month ago, but I just got around to watching it. Since it's been so long, I won't go into a full recap, but I did want to write about Damages' second season, because if I don't, who will? It doesn't get regular recaps on TVGuide or Entertainment Weekly, and its finale didn't get nearly the media attention far lesser shows get.

Now, part of how I got behind was because while Damages' second season was still awesome, it suffered a fairly typical sophomore season curse: overambition. When I heard they managed to get names like William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden in the regular cast, I already worried there wouldn't be room for everyone. Then they added Darrell Hammond and The Wire's Clarke Peters and John Doman as well.

It only gets more complicated when you look at the multiple major plotlines this season. While season 1 was completely centered around the Frobisher case, this season the UNR case was almost an afterthought, with little progress made going into the finale. After all, there was little room for UNR when the FBI investigation and the aftermath of the Frobisher case were taking equal time. This season was quite the juggling act.

But despite all of that, I've gotta say that Damages pulled it all together in this crazy, twist-filled, and pretty fantastic finale. I can't say I understand exactly how each step of Patty's plan fit together, or why everyone did what they did, but the way the finale pieced together all the disparate flashforwards to bring all three plots together was something beautiful. And it even ended in a way that a season 3 seems possible, which I never would have believed an hour beforehand.

I still think the Frobisher and Detective Messer stuff was probably too much for this season to handle. And it would have been nice if UNR had ended up being more central (Kendrick's arrest was hardly the biggest triumph, and Maddox wasn't even in the episode). But while these flaws may keep season 2 from topping season 1, the show still has some of the best storytelling on TV, and it will be high on my top 10 list this year. So for the vast majority of the country not yet watching: time to start. You don't want to be behind come season 3.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Soloist Doesn't Stay On Key

Grade: B-

The Soloist is the kind of movie where you expect from the description alone it will be cheesy. After all, we've seen this story before (most notably in Shine). And shifting the release date from Oscar season to spring doesn't inspire confidence. But in fact, The Soloist does what it can to avoid oversentimentality, trying to be as realistic and evenhanded as possible. Still, as cheesy as those feel-good movies are, at least they make you feel something. By the end of The Soloist, I felt neutral.

The story's simple: newspaper reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) meets a schizophrenic homeless man who once studied at Julliard, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). He sees a story, and they become friends. These days, that kind of true-life set-up would seem more inclined to go for TV than theaters, but when you get two A-list actors to headline, theaters it is.

I doubt their performances would stand out in Oscar season, but both of the leads are very good. Downey Jr. takes a fairly underwritten role and makes him relatable and sympathetic. As for Foxx, it wasn't until around the three quarter mark I even remembered he had already done the musician biopic thing in Ray. Playing mentally ill is tough, but he certainly disappeared into the role.

So when the movie sticks with its two leads, it's at least got their acting strength to carry it. Unfortunately, the movie sporadically and inconsistently decides it needs to be more than the story of these two men, and that's where it most falters. Early signs that this might turn into an "issue movie" come when characters bemoan the death of the newspaper, followed soon after by video footage of Hurricane Katrina.

But the big "issue" here is homelessness in LA. Nathaniel lives in a community of fellow homeless people who don't really play into the story yet are very present. The way the camera focuses on their faces makes it all too clear this is about showing the other side of LA the movies don't cover. By the time director Joe Wright started shooting the homeless like the WWII soldiers in his previous film Atonement, I knew the issue had started getting in the way of the story.

That's not the only way Wright unsuccessfully tries to spice up this story. Perhaps uncomfortable with the rather conventional premise, Wright takes every opportunity to overdirect, which just doesn't fit the kind of movie this is. During a symphony, he treats us to a little laser light show to make us feel what Nathaniel feels. Worse is the way we hear the voices in Nathaniel's head, and instead of understanding schizophrenia, we feel like we're watching a movie-of-the-week.

If the movie has one major strength other than the acting, it's the music. The movie does a fantastic job at getting you to understand Nathaniel's love for music by providing so many beautiful opportunities to experience it. With top musicians and surround sound to amplify it, these musical segments are some of the movie's most enjoyable moments. But if you want to hear classical music, you can go to the symphony. If you want to see this movie, you can wait for DVD.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Harper's Island's Killer Not Quick Enough

Grade: C

Well, it took me two weeks, but I eventually got around to catching the pilot to Harper's Island, CBS' new mystery/slasher/soap opera serial that airs its third episode tonight. If for some reason you were waiting for my review before checking it out, don't worry, you're not missing anything.

Which is a shame, because a TV show version of Ten Little Indians actually sounds like a fun idea. After all, the biggest benefit of a TV show is you can develop the characters over time, so the deaths will have more meaning than in a slasher movie, not to mention the reality TV fun of seeing who will get kicked off each week.

But this particular batch of characters makes the dullards of Cloverfield look like the cast of Lost. Some of them include the groom, the bride, the groom's female best friend who has issues with the island, the groom's obnoxious male friends, the bride's sketchy ex, the bride's rich father, the groom's ex-con black sheep brother, and Aaron Echolls.

Those descriptions right there are all you will ever need to know about those characters, as their only real purpose is to get killed off. The rest of the time the show could easily be mistaken for a daytime soap (seriously, look at that picture). Talking only in cliches while super dramatic music plays constantly (including some really bad pop songs from 3-5 years ago), the drama's way too cheesy to even appreciate on a camp level.

But the biggest mistake: they kill off Aaron Echolls in the very first episode! The only character remotely memorable/enjoyable to watch. Since he was the only one trying to have fun within all the silliness, I'm gonna say any reason to watch this series was cut off with the lower half of his body.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Summer Movie Preview

Last Friday, Entertainment Weekly released its Summer Movie Preview, one of my favorite issues of the year. It looks like this summer's even more packed with movies worth seeing than usual, so while I'm listing my top 10 must-sees of the summer, I had to toss on 5 more.

Wolverine (May 1st)
Like I'm going to miss out on the first big movie of the summer. Yeah, I thought X-Men 3 was an overstuffed mess, and I've always put Spider-man and Batman higher on my preferred superheroes list. But with a focus on one mutant instead of 30, and an intriguing supporting cast (Charlie!), I've got high hopes this will be remembered well come summer's end.

Star Trek (May 8th)
I've never seen a single episode of any Star Trek series. Nor have I ever seen one of the movies. But with JJ Abrams at the helm and trailers that play down the Star Trek connection, I can't wait.

Terminator Salvation (May 21st)
Christian Bale is just what John Connor needs to lose his rep as whiny and annoying (see: Edward Furlong in T2, the Sarah Connor Chronicles on TV). Rumors of an Ahnuld cameo add one more reason to check this out, but I'd show up just for the theme song.

Up (May 29th)
With The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, Pixar's been on a hot streak of great movies for all ages (we'll give them a pass on Cars). If Up is anywhere near as good, we may have to list the great Pixar movie as more of a summer fixture than superheroes.

Land of the Lost (June 5th)
I haven't seen the '70s show and I can't say I was excited when the movie was announced. But the trailer won me over, as did the presence of Danny McBride and Pushing Daisies' Anna Friel.

Public Enemies (July 1st)
A historical biopic with Oscar possibilities in the summer? Sounds like a nice break from sequels. As John Dillinger, Johnny Depp's found another part that fits his oddball charm, and Christian Bale makes his 2nd appearance on the list.

Bruno (July 10th)
If you've seen the redband trailer, you know this will be the funniest movie of the summer. So if you just started sighing in relief over the decline of obnoxious Borat imitators, tough luck. I'm calling it now: Bruno will be the most quoted movie of 2009.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 15th)
Since most of us were ready to see this at its original release date last Thanksgiving, this is a long overdue must-see. With no more books to bring us back to Hogwarts, these last few movies will be all the bigger.

Funny People (July 31st)
I'm not quite sure what to make of this Punchline-style dramedy about stand-up comics. But I do know Judd Apatow is currently 2 for 2 on movies he's directed. So that automatically makes this my (second) most anticipated comedy this summer.

Inglourious Basterds (August 21st)
Late August is a strange time to release a big movie, but there's a lot that's strange about this one. Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, and World War II - three things that you wouldn't expect to see together in any possible combination. But from the trailer, this looks like the movie Valkyrie should have been.

And 5 more:

Angels & Demons (May 15th) - More obligation than desire, but I'll still see it.

Away We Go (June 5th) - A Sam Mendes roadtrip comedy? Absolutely.

Whatever Works (June 19th) - Like I'm missing a Woody Allen movie.

(500) Days of Summer (July 17th) - Can it still be called a sleeper hit if it's what everyone already thinks it will be?

Taking Woodstock (August 14th) - The only other movie besides Public Enemies with a shot of lasting til Oscar season, and it's Ang Lee!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sit Down and Turn Off the TV

Grade: C-

It's an age-old question: how can so many talented people create such a terrible TV show? In the case of Sit Down and Shut Up, a new Fox animated "comedy" that premiered tonight, I'm completely stumped. I mean, it comes from Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, and the voice cast includes AD's Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler, in addition to Kristin Chenowith, Cheri Oteri, Will Forte, and Kenan Thompson. Seriously, how could anything coming from that group not be hilarious?

Well, I guess by giving them the most overt, cliched, and overused jokes possible. I won't bother going into too much detail, but here's some highlights: characters are named Larry Littlejunk and Miracle Grohe, Will Forte's catchphrase is "I need a catchphrase," which he says in every scene, Will Arnett goes around telling everyone that Henry Winkler bought porn, the simple-minded Christian and the gay drama teacher are as one-note as you'd expect, and, well, the picture above pretty well explains what happens to Will Forte.

Basically, this is a show for people who think Family Guy uses too much intelligent humor. It's not unreasonable to assume 14-year-old boys are watching an animated comedy block that includes The Simpsons, Family Guy, and the equally awful American Dad. But did the show have to appeal solely to that one demographic? If the lesson Mitchell Hurwitz got from Arrested Development was somehow that there's no place on TV for intelligent comedy, then maybe this show will teach him there's no place for the opposite.

All Lost Characters Have Daddy Issues

This week I found myself wondering: how many major Lost characters do not have issues with their fathers? I mean, Kate and Ben killed theirs, Locke's tried to kill him, and Jack's dad pretty much defines Jack's character. So how many did I come up with? Seven: Charlie, Michael, Boone, Ana-Lucia, Eko, Juliet, and Charlotte. And, whoa, Juliet's the only one on that list who's still alive. Also, with the exception of Charlotte, everyone else had other family issues, whether it was a brother, a mother, a husband, or a son.

This may seem a bit off-topic in discussing this week's Lost, but I'm just getting at how often we've seen how "All the Best Cowboys Had Daddy Issues," ever since that season 1 Jack episode. And while it was cool to find out Dr. Chang/Candle is Miles' dad, the whole dad thing's been done. Even as we learned more about Miles' ghost abilities, he's still very much a peripheral character, and this episode didn't make him central the way Faraday has been this season.

That said, there was still plenty of good stuff, mostly thanks to the pairing of Miles and Hurley. They proved their comic chemistry a few weeks back when discussing Back to the Future, and cemented it this week with another classic movie: The Empire Strikes Back. Don't you wonder what Hurley's "improvements" to the script were? And how can he hate ewoks! Still, comparing Miles and Chang to Luke and Darth Vader as part of his father/son matchmaking was some quality TV.

And while the Miles/Hurley show got most of the episode, there was some other good stuff going on as well. Namely, Sawyer followed in the footsteps of Don Draper and punched Jimmy Barrett in the face. I guess that's what that actor is good for. After all the desperation and ass-covering, Sawyer seemed oddly nonplussed after clocking his subordinate, even knowing that tape may be the end to his comfortable life. Or maybe we're just seeing the return of Old Sawyer.

The most intriguing development may be the flashback scene with Shadow of the Statue Guy, last seen taking Lapidus hostage on-island in the future/present. Clearly he doesn't work for Widmore. So there's only two options: either he's one of Ben's men, and just pretended not to know him, or there's a third party involved in this war. But who? My guess: Jacob himself. But why would someone as mythical and powerful as Jacob hire someone as lame as Ilana?

Finally, another MIA character returned this week, as it turned out Faraday was neither a. with the Hostiles or b. living in a cave with a giant beard building a robot Charlotte, but c. in Ann Arbor doing sciency stuff. Guess that also answers the question of what year it will be if they left the island in the 70s. What's he been doing the last 6-8 episodes? Guess that calls for a Faraday episode. And since it's also the 100th episode, I'm expecting big things. Just got to get through another lame recap special first.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unconventional Wedding Songs

Those of us who are still watching Scrubs in its 8th (!) season know we're basically just doing it out of loyalty. Not that the show is at all bad or unpleasant to watch - I'm not talking like Heroes or Grey's Anatomy level of loyalty - but we won't exactly be sad when the series finale airs in a few weeks.

But I think tonight's Bahamas-set episode stands out as a cut above the rest of the season. Was it funnier than the typical Scrubs episode? Certainly not. Is it because the interns all took the week off? Well, that could be part of it. Still, I'm gonna say it's this segment right here (which will probably be removed from youtube by morning):

Who knew "Hey Ya" could be so pretty when played on acoustic? I think it made a montage that would otherwise seem cheesy (it was, after all, a collection of "I love you"s) instead seem sweet. I guess that means that, even in its final season, I still care about all these characters. Suck on that, Alias season 5.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Recession TV

In an odd coincidence, two of my favorite comedies this week featured a major character starting his own company after being laid off (or in The Office's case, stupidly resigning). Now, I'm surprised it's taken The Office this long to acknowledge the economy, seeing as how the British show revolved around redundancies (such a nicer word for lay-offs). But in the battle of the recession-set comedies, I give the prize to How I Met Your Mother.

Even before the writers knew about the market crash, this season of HIMYM has been all about unemployment. The season started out with Marshall unemployed, moved into Robin's near deportation after quitting her job, and now it's Ted's turn, laid off after his Goliath National Bank project was canceled due to, you guessed it, the bad economy.

But while the show's had plenty to say about unemployment, last night's episode showed it had even wiser things to say about how to keep your job. Watch and learn:

This storyline had the biggest laughs of the night, but I think it's because it made an odd kind of sense. Who would fire "the food guy?" So all you i-bankers out there fortunate enough to still have jobs, best think about what kind of "guy" you want to be. If you need help, there's always the wolverine claws.

But back to my original point: Mosbius Designs vs. The Michael Scott Paper Company. Both tackled similar themes - unpreparedness, fear of failure - but I still found Ted's venture funnier. I think part of it is that all Ted needs to continue being an architect is clients. While as for Michael, I kept asking "where is he getting the paper from?" Also Ted is a fairly responsible guy, even if occasionally "douche"-prone and procrastinating. While Michael is....Michael Scott.

I guess what it comes down to is that while both shows have one foot planted in reality, HIMYM seems better able to spin that relatibility into humor, while in The Office, it's sometimes just sad. Plus, Ted didn't drag anyone into his company the way Pam is trapped in Michael's. Except for PJ. But he had his break-up/firing coming. I may have more faith in Mosbius Designs than the Michael Scott Paper Company, but both proved relevant TV can still be funny.

There's No Crying on 24

We've known since season 1 that 24 writers don't have the attention span to keep an entire story going all season, so they break it up into story chunks. Well, tonight saw the end of one of those chunks (or did it?), as Tony blew up the missiles, the FBI took Starkwood, and the President had Hodges arrested. Outside of Jack's whole dying thing, it seemed like the season was pretty well settled. Until the ending...

But there was a lot that happened before then. Such as Hodges' meeting with the President. Man, he just gets crazier and crazier with each episode (though not killing Chairman with rocks glass crazy this week). Walking in all officially with his brochure on the US of Starkwood, he seemed positively shocked that the President did not want to hand him over the government. If that's the full extent of his plan, he really is delusional.

Even bigger news was the return of cougar survivor Kim Bauer - same blonde hair, less annoying attitude. No, instead of her usual whining, the kidnapping-prone Bauer instigated a little love fest with her estranged pop, with plenty of heartfelt reconciliations and tears. Touching, cowboy, touching. But not enough to get Jack to agree to the magic stem cell treatment. Yet. We all know Kim will win out, cause otherwise there would be no season 8.

Finally, that final scene, which provided an unfortunate surprise. I remember back to the beginning of the season, when I disliked Bad Tony and was pleased to see he was actually good. But now Tony's bad again, pulling a Michael Dawson in killing an ally to let a bad guy go free. I do not support this. If Tony's bad, 24 law dictates that Jack kills him at the end of the season, making me again wonder why they bothered to resurrect him. And it makes little sense. So 24 writers, you better step it up in the next few episodes and sell this twist to me, cause right now I'm skeptical.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Parks Provides Little Recreation

Grade: C

What if you took The Office's subpar first season, kicked out any characters worth caring about, and took out anything that could be mistaken for comedy? Well, you'd have Parks and Recreation, a lame, laugh-free Office knock-off that wastes its very talented cast.

Like The Office, Parks has the same documentary-style shooting, the same confessionals, and the same cluelessly dorky protagonist, this time Amy Poehler's bureaucrat Leslie Knope. The shows are from the same people, so this is less about ripping off than how badly the show pales in comparison . Leslie Knope may have some differences, yet the whole time I kept thinking "female Michael Scott." Amy Poehler deserves better.

One source of difference though is that Parks seems to rely more heavily on its plot, slight though it may be. In a town hall meeting, Rashida Jones' Anne (might as well be Karen, it's the same character she played on The Office) demands Leslie fill in a big hole in their Indiana town. Leslie takes it as a personal mission, quickly developing way unreal expectations, with Karen and co-worker Aziz Ansari (Scrubs, Observe and Report) at her side.

It's a pretty lame premise for a series, but that's only a problem because we're actually supposed to care about Leslie's quest. That's like if The Office was actually about paper. Worse is how every other word seems to be "government," as around 15 speeches about "the place of government" are fit into 22 minutes. I guess the joke is supposed to be that this branch is so minor that small government philosophy is irrelevant, but it wasn't funny the first time and certainly not the fifteenth.

The bottom line is it's just not funny. If I laughed once in the entire half hour, it was probably due to Aziz Ansari, who, though completely out of place here, still has the power to find funny in otherwise lame projects (a point I'll bring up again when I review Observe and Report). The Office had a rough start too, and didn't really get good until season 2, so maybe Parks just needs time to grow. But I didn't see anything in the pilot to suggest there's potential to grow into anything worth seeing. If the show proves me wrong, let me know.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Benjamin Linus and the Temple of Doom

It's hard to believe this is only the third Ben episode Lost has ever had. That's because the other two - "The Man Behind the Curtain" and "The Shape of Things to Come" - were not just two of the best, but two of the most significant episodes. In the former, we first learned of Jacob's otherworldly status, and found out about the Purge. The latter used Alex's death as the trigger point to set up the Ben/Widmore war as the driving force behind the latter half of the series.

So with such high expectations, does "Dead Is Dead" hold up? Hell yeah! That's because it did what Lost does best: fill in some major pieces of the puzzle while keeping everything rooted firmly in character. Ben is obviously one of the most fascinating characters on the show, shifting drastically along the hero/villain scale week to week. This week pushed him a little bit closer to hero, but not without giving us many different visions of Ben.

We got a large range of flashbacks this week, from Harry Potter Ben to yesterday, but there was one main connective thread: Alex. We finally saw the baby-stealing incident that led Ben to adopt Alex, but it went down a bit differently than I expected. It seems Charles ordered Ben to kill Rousseau, and he chose to take the child and spare her instead. Remember last year when Alex died and we were all like, "OMG, Ben is totally Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood and Alex is his HW?" Yeah, that again.

If there was a second connective thread, it was the Ben/Charles feud. They seemed friendly enough upon first meeting, once Richard name-dropped Jacob and Charles let his flowing hair waft in the breeze. But once Charles told Ben to kill Alex, that courtesy was over. Next time we see Charles, he's being led to the submarine for his exile. Why? Still not sure on that, other than Ben's comment about him being off-island and fathering Penny (who can't be Ellie's daughter). But Ben was sure happy to see him go, far away from his own daughter.

Speaking of Penny, after six (!) episodes of suspense over what Ben did to her at the marina, we finally got the answer. I had just about accepted he killed her, but yet again Ben proved less evil than I thought. Ok, yes, he did shoot Desmond, which is especially uncool after Desmond called him brother. And he gave his little Inigo Montoya speech with gun raised. But then Little Charlie ran out, and Ben lost his resolve.

Now, there's a lot of Lost history in that moment. Perhaps Charlie reminded Ben of Alex on the day he took her from Rousseau. Maybe he saw Penny as the mother he lost on the day of his birth. But the Lost scene this most reminded me of was when Sawyer gave up his con when he saw the woman's child, reminding him of his own ruined family. Touching, cowboy, touching, but I still cheered when Desmond rushed out and beat him up, saving his Penny. We missed you, brother.

As emotional and informative as the flashbacks were, I shouldn't short-shrift the present, which could best be called the Ben and Locke show. As the show's absolute best pairing, their relationship grew to even more complicated levels this week. Right away we saw Ben confide in Locke, betray him, win him back, and think about killing him again. And how great is Resurrected Locke, so cool and detached, able to talk about his own murder with a bemused smirk? To think I had said that those left in the present were the rejects. Ben and Locke don't need anyone else.

The episode all led up to the temple, that mythical setpiece that has gotten greater and greater importance this season. As Ben made his way down, he was back in full Indiana Jones mode, gazing at the hieroglyphics on every wall before Smokey sifted out around him. As with Eko, Ben saw images, this time of his history with Alex. Watching Ben watch Alex die all over again was him at his human. A close second was when Ghost Alex appeared, and Ben wanted to believe that maybe she came back like Locke, that dead isn't dead. But no, just Smokey in human form, there to deliver a message: Locke is island prophet, do not kill him. Locke may be the Ben to Ben's Charles, but this time Ben gets to stay on the island. Does devoting his energy to fighting Charles mean he and Locke can get along for a little while?

Finally, I should probably mention what's going on with Nikki and Paolo 2. At first it seemed like Ben was going to make Caesar his new Sayid (convenient, since the actor's name is Said), but that ended when Ben shot him in the chest. Surprising, yes. Actually dead? No. Dead may be dead, but this is Lost. As for Ilana of the inconsistent accent, she seems to have acquired guns, men, and cryptic sayings. Am I curious enough about what she's doing to tolerate another scene with her? Do I have a choice?

Next up: A Miles episode, which will put his ghost whispering powers to use. It's about time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Top Chef or Iron Chef

This summer Bravo will begin its first Top Chef spin-off, called Top Chef Masters, in which actual top chefs like frequent Top Chef judges Wylie Dufresne and Hubert Keller compete against each other, not that they necessarily need the fame.

But today Bravo announced a strange twist: guest judges this season will include Neil Patrick Harris, Damon Lindelof & Carleton Cuse (writers of Lost), and Zooey Deschanel. All awesome people sure, but isn't it a bit insulting to have non-foodies critiquing some of the best chefs in the world?

It seems a lot like the random Japanese actress in every episode of Iron Chef, who has no idea what she's talking about. Or in the American version, Lou Diamond Phillips. But at least they seem to have good taste in celebrity, and maybe they can make things more interesting. Could NPH create Top Chef: The Musical? Will the Lost writers send Smokey after underseasoned ceviches? Only one way to find out.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Top 5 Series Finales

With Battlestar Galactica and ER having recently ended, and the Scrubs finale coming up, I've been thinking about some of my favorite series finales. I've never seen the MASH finale or many of the others regularly mentioned, so I'm only talking about my favorites here.

It's so rare a show gets to go out its own way, without being cut too short to get the finale it deserves (Veronica Mars) or outstaying its welcome too long to have the right impact (Friends). Battlestar certainly belongs on this list, but I'll leave off this season's finales for now.

5. Twin Peaks
Actually, this was a terrible series finale. Canceled after its second season, the multiple cliffhangers seemed more of a "screw you" to the network than any way to end the show. But I'm including it because the entire sequence inside the black lodge is easily the weirdest thing I have ever seen on TV, making Twin Peaks' final hour one of its absolute best, series finale or not.

4. Arrested Development
Another show cut down too soon, Arrested Development somehow still got the finale it would have wanted anyway. With George Sr. cleared of all charges and Michael sticking by his family (on a boat!), the series came full circle back to the pilot. But it's on this list because of all of the awesomely crazy twists. Linday's adopted! Lucille was behind everything! Annyong's a mole! And to cap it all off, Ron Howard's single line that have kept us all going since, "Maybe a movie."

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Finally, an example of a show that went out at the exact right time. Sure, Buffy had long since faded from its season 2 and 3 glory days (e.g. season 5 villainess Glory), but season 7 was just enough of a creative comeback to provide a solid lead-up to an action-packed finale. It's hard to think of a more final ending than literally going into Hell to fight Evil, destroying Sunnydale in the process. Buffy may not have answered where they would go next, but with her mission accomplished, so was the show.

2. The Office (UK)
The real series finale may be the most depressing half hour of TV I've seen, between David getting fired and Dawn rejecting Tim. But all of that just makes the Christmas special all the happier. The special additionally earns its ending with some of the series' more excruciating moments, as David milks his D-list celebrity status and creates a hilarious music video. And in the end, David finds love, Tim and Dawn get together, and best of all, David finally tells off bullying "friend" Finch. I only hope the American version can find an exit even marginally as satisfying.

1. Six Feet Under
I'll be the first to tell you Six Feet Under's final season was borderline unwatchable. But all of that is forgiven due to what may be the greatest series finale of all time. The episode contains plenty of great finale-like activity, as Nate and Brenda's baby is born and David buys back the funeral home to again be Fisher and Sons. But it's the epilogue that makes the finale stand out, as we flash ahead to everyone's deaths, ending with Claire at 103. We see how life goes on beyond the scope of a TV show, and get real closure with each character to the tune of Sia's "Breathe Me" (well before every other TV show took it. Seriously guys, SFU has dibs). Far more than a gimmick, the ending let Six Feet Under die in the most natural way possible.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Duplicity Makes Double Crossing Fun

Grade: B+

At first glance, Duplicity may not seem like it came from the same guy whose previous directing job was the super-serious morality tale Michael Clayton. After all, this is a light screwball comedy that features CEOs fighting each other in slow motion for almost five minutes (hilariously, might I add). George Clooney's fixer has no place here.

But exploding cars or not, writer/director Tony Gilroy is returning to that same world of big, corrupt New York business, with the same big empty offices and amazing views of the Manhattan skyline. This time though he takes the opposite tact, not exposing businesses as dark and malicious but laughing at their obvious greed.

He presents two rival CEOs in the same field (the fact that they take soaps and shampoos so seriously is an effective joke) - the classy one (Tom Wilkinson) and the not-so-classy one (Paul Giamatti). When word leaks that the former has a top secret product, the latter uses all of his high-powered intelligence resources to find out what it is.

The story's not about them though, and Gilroy's smart to keep them largely in the supporting sphere. This story is about Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts), two ex-spies planning to use the rivalry to their own advantage. Each has a job at one of the companies, but only so they can get the formula first for their own benefit. But since their relationship began with Claire drugging and swiping documents from Ray, can they ever really trust each other?

The story is then half screwball comedy, half spy caper, and for me the former half succeeds better. Sometimes the McGuffin gets a little too much screentime, and all the dry business talk makes you notice the increased length between laughs. Also, while the ending does have some satisfying twists, there's nothing quite as surprising as you might like out of a straight-up spy movie.

So it's good the movie succeeds so well as a comedy. Gilroy's writing is top-notch, stuffed with witty and funny lines that would have felt just as right coming from the mouths of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Writing chase sequences in the Bourne movies seems like a waste when you see how well he can make his dialogue crackle and pop. Whenever Ray and Claire are jabbing each other, the movie is at its funniest.

Speaking of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts do an impressive job of filling those mighty shoes. Now, Julia Roberts generally annoys me, and this movie was no exception. But I do love Clive Owen, whose charm and dry British humor gives the movie a lot of its energy. And I admit that Roberts makes a good partner for him, as their chemistry is what makes their scenes work. She may annoy me, but she still does a good job.

Duplicity doesn't have the same lofty ambitions of Michael Clayton. It just wants to entertain, but to do so intelligently. Check and check. If you want to enjoy some laughs without putting your brain to sleep first, this is a good pick for you. If not, then I guess there's a reason Fast and Furious made $72 million last weekend.

Whatever Happened to Baby Aaron

Well, it took Lost 11 episodes, but it finally referenced Back to the Future. Since Hurley and Miles have both had little to do since the Oceanic Four returned, it makes total sense to pair them up as yet another amusingly odd couple in a proud tradition of unexpected pairings. Hurley's always been a bit of a spokesperson for the audience, so here he got to ask a variety of time travel questions straight off of Lost forums. The whole scene may have been like talking to the camera, but it was a nice bit of levity in an otherwise serious episode.

On to the episode's focus: Kate. Flashbacks gave some answers, though nothing too surprising: of course Sawyer's whisper was to check up on his daughter. I would have expected a little more surprise from Kate that her road trip buddy turned out to be Sawyer's baby mama, but I guess she already figured it out (how long was that whisper anyway?) But what I liked about this story is how, in just a few scenes, the episode really established their friendship and made you buy that little Clementine would call her Aunt Kate. And we thought Kate didn't have any friends.

As for Aaron, the writers had some fun at our expense while waiting for the answer to what Kate did to him. That whole supermarket scene was only there to make us think Claire whisked Aaron away to Jacob's Ghostland (that blonde sure looked like her). In the end, it was the most logical explanation (no, Kate killing Aaron was not a logical explanation) by having Kate drop him off with his grandmother. Though do we buy Kate went back to find Claire? And will grandma be mad when she finds out Claire's a ghost?

Back on the island, Kate was using her mothering instincts in new ways: trying to save Little Ben's life. New Jack was determined to do nothing, waiting for the island to send him a sign (I don't like the New Jack either, Kate). He's like that joke about the guy on the island who turns down 3 rescue offers because God will get him off the island. Maybe that's the ultimate meaning to Lost. Not sure how, though. Kate's irritation against Jack was nothing compared to Juliet, who railed against him for coming back in one of her best scenes this season. Jack's not getting any love, is he?

As for Little Ben, of course he lives. We can't have a time paradox with one season to go. But by handing Ben over to Richard Alpert, Kate and Sawyer effectively created the scheming, manipulative Ben we know and love/hate, by allowing him to "lose his innocence." Since we last see Richard carrying him into the temple, home of Smokey, it seems Ben really got island magic from the source. So it seems Sayid is the Laius to Ben's Oedipus: in trying to rid the world of him, he turned him into what he wanted to kill.

Yet the most interesting part of the exchange with the Hostiles was the "oh it's just a throwaway"-style super important lines:

-Don't you have to run this by Charles and Ellie?
-I don't answer to them.

Now we know that in the 1970s, Charles Widmore and Ellie (guntoter in the 50s, Daniel's mom in the present) are the leaders of the Others. This makes it a hell of a lot more likely that Charles Widmore is in fact Faraday's dad. But Richard's response shows he may not be too pleased with that arrangement. Did he take Ben specifically to set him up as a challenge for Widmore? Is Richard behind the entire feud?

We'll be getting a whole lot more Ben next time when he takes the spotlight, and it looks like a whole lot more Smokey as well. Even better, we'll finally find out what happened to Penny and maybe get a Desmond sighting as well. It's about time.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I'm Glad I Didn't Watch That

I bailed on Life of Mars after two episodes, but not because I particularly disliked the show. In fact, I thought it had one of the better pilots of the fall season, and made for a decent enough New York cop show if, I dunno, 3 Law & Orders and CSI: New York aren't enough for you. But procedurals aren't my thing, so I let it go.

Now that the show was canceled and it's aired its finale, I'm glad I got out early enough to avoid what sounds like one of the stupidest series finales in recent memory. Now, to be fair, I did not actually watch the finale, and did not watch most of the series leading up to it. So I really have no business judging.

But according to TVGuide, the big reveal about why the 2008 cop thinks he's in 1973 is that he's actually an astronaut on his way to Mars in 2035 and both 2008 and 1973 are the in-flight entertainment. That's right, it was all a dream! Not just the time traveling, but the whole series! The #1 worst way a series can ever end. So Life on Mars fans, maybe it's for the best the show was canceled so early. Better a lame ending now than after seasons of build-up.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Next Freaks and Geeks?

A more involved promo for Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck)'s upcoming Fox show Glee has been released, this time with Journey.

I guess this proves that no matter how often it's played and how many TV shows it appears on, "Don't Stop Believing" never gets old.

As for the show itself, it looks surprisingly promising. I'm feeling a Freaks and Geeks meets Election vibe with some ironic High School Musical thrown in. Everyone who saw Murphy's previous high school show Popular (all 15 of them) said it was great, so he's got the background.

As long as Murphy can tone down the desperate outrageousness of Nip/Tuck and the poor choice of soundtrack in his film debut, Running with Scissors, this could be something.

Cupid's Arrows Don't Quite Hit

Grade: B-

Cupid has a simple enough premise: Trevor Pierce (Bobby Cannavale) believes he is Cupid, banished from Mount Olympus until he can unite 100 couples in true love. That means every week is a new romantic comedy, and as HIMYM's Marshall would say, spoiler alert: it ends with you saying awww.

Remade from Rob Thomas' short-lived 1998 version starring Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, this doesn't feel like the Rob Thomas who created Veronica Mars, that big old cynic with the marshmellow filling. This one's all marshmellow, from start to end.

Now, I'm not one to begrudge anyone some super light fluff in dark times, but did it have to be so cheesy? I'm not sure I've ever seen such an earnestly sincere show. Some characters declare themselves a "typical cynical New Yorker," just to show how uncynical they will soon become. And every now and then Trevor will just raise his hands, smile, and yell "Love!" just in case we forgot what the show was about.

No offense to Cannavale, who certainly makes for a charismatic lead, but his hyper energy may be working overtime here. I imagine Jeremy Piven would have been able to give the part a bit more of an edge. Sarah Paulson is perfectly adequate as the shrink with the opposing viewpoint on love who Trevor must inevitably fall in love with, but there's absolutely no chemistry between them.

If you like the idea of a Meg Ryan-style romance every week, in which characters gush about true love and cross oceans to prove it, this is the show for you. But me, I like a little more substance, even when I am watching pure fluff. It's too bad they couldn't have at least tried for a s'more.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trailer Alert: Bruno

Youtube versions of this will probably be taken down every hour, so if you see the link isn't working, let me know and I'll try to find a new one. Until then, enjoy:

Man, I haven't laughed that hard at a trailer in a long time. Even if that was literally every laugh in the entire movie, it still wouldn't feel like a post-Borat letdown. I mean, in two minutes, we got Bruno picking up a baby from a checked box at the airport, how to defend yourself from a dildo, and Bruno getting beat by a hooker. I was already looking forward to this, but now it's at the top of my must-see list for this summer.