Monday, June 29, 2009

In Defense of Heroes

(pretty much spoiler-free)

To begin, I'll state that I've never been among Heroes' diehard fans. When people compared Heroes to Lost in its first season I thought they were joking - they aren't even in the same playing field. Heroes was never a great show, just a fun way to watch a comic book on TV.

But what Heroes naysayers (which is most of us) sometimes forget to mention is that not all latter Heroes is created equal. Season 2 was, in my opinion, unequivocally terrible, and nothing Heroes has done since has even come close. The Wonder Twins, the pointless arc in New Orleans, Claire's lame boyfriend, the constant moving through time - if it weren't for Sark and Veronica Mars I'm not sure any of us would have made it through.

Season 3, though still a far cry from the first season, showed many signs of improvement. It actually had some good ideas - the group of bad guys that escaped from the Company, the formula that gave people powers, giving Sylar a redemption arc - it just had too many of them. By the time Sylar had switched sides for the 13th time and those escaped villains had been long forgotten, we all gave up hope of a Heroes comeback.

But now having finished watching season 4 (or 3.5, if you prefer) off of my DVR, I'm willing to say it: Heroes is back. Everyone was too disheartened by the past two seasons to notice, but Heroes actually improved. Sure, it had its problems (loads of them). Some major characters got neglected (Peter, Claire, Hiro), others got annoying (Parkman), and many storylines didn't tie together (what was the point of Sylar finding his dad, and why did Rebel largely disappear after being revealed?)

Heroes has never been accused of being a tidy show however, so I'm going to focus on the positive. First off, they finally took everyone's biggest note: stop following eight storylines at once. Now each episode concentrates on 3-5 characters, so you actually spend some time with them instead of whipping back and forth between a bunch of bores. By not cramming everyone into every episode, everyone wins.

Second, this season saw a real return to the core characters. The only major new character was Denko, and Heroes needs to bring in new blood for its villains (cause Sylar-as-villain has become ridiculously played out). With Denko and his government agency providing a central threat, the main guys actually banded together, which means more X-Men style fun and less time-killing misadventures.

Finally, the individual episodes were just better. The last two seasons got so caught up in their overall over-complicatedness that that's all there was. This season saw some more focused episodes, whether it was the reveal of Rebel's identity, Angela's childhood flashbacks, or the fairly satisfying finale, which came up with a pretty cool twist to make next season actually worth watching.

So I'm still not saying this is a great show, or something likely to make my top 10 list, or even better than its first season. I'm just saying that after two seasons of watching solely out of habit, I actually enjoyed Heroes again. There's still a lot of work to be done, and it's possible (even probable) next season will see it revert to its old ways. But if you stopped after season 1 and have been meaning to catch up since: just watch the past 12 episodes. It's all you need.

Outdoor Movies: 6/29 - 7/3

Last week before all the other outdoor movie venues begin! And it's actually not supposed to rain tonight, so come out and enjoy!

Monday, June 29th
Bryant Park
Gold Diggers of 1933
Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley, and lots of dancing.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Free Pinkberry today from 5-9! Yay!

Merlin: Not So Enchanting

I'll say right off the bat that this is by no means any kind of review, as I only watched about 10 minutes of Sunday night's two hour premiere. I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about this show or have any position to say whether it is worthwhile or not.

That said, here's what I got out of 10 minutes: a really old-fashioned, straightforward fantasy show with really low production values that would have fit right in on syndication in the '90s. Now, I was obsessed with King Arthur as a child, so I had to give this one a look, but it's not even about the Camelot age. And seeing Giles on TV again as Luther Pendragon is fun, but even he seems like he's hardly trying.

So for me, 10 minutes was enough to know there's a reason why NBC burned this one off in the summer, and I have enough else loaded up on my DVR that I didn't feel a need to see more. So I'm outsourcing this one to you guys - did anyone else watch it? Worth another look? And by the way, my question last weekend was not rhetorical; I'm still waiting for suggestions.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Outdoor Movies: 6/22 - 6/26

Not that anyone's gonna want to sit outside for hours with the way the weather's been going, but if you feel like chancing it tonight...

Monday, June 22nd
Bryant Park
Breaking Away
Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, and bikes.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What Are the Best Shows I'm Not Watching?

Awhile back, I came up with a list of the best shows you're not watching. Now it's time for you to return the favor. Top Chef Masters and Weeds may take up some of my TV watching time, but summer's really about trying out shows I missed during the regular TV season. I've already marathoned Dollhouse (which I highly recommend), and True Blood is coming next.

But what else? Here's five I'm looking at:

1. Fringe
I stopped watching early on since it had one of the worst pilots I've seen, but people say it's improved. I'm ready to believe an X-Filesish show from JJ Abrams could be my kind of show, so should it get a second chance?

2. Chuck
This is one of those shows I liked pretty well for 5 episodes or so but got behind and didn't bother to catch up. Is it time to do so.?

3. Breaking Bad
Loved the pilot, but the two-parter that followed was such a drag. Now that critics are calling it the second best show on TV (behind Mad Men, natch), I should probably see how episode 4 looks.

4. Better Off Ted
I said back when it premiered that I'd check in if this show gained any buzz. It's earned a second season, so should I?

5. The Big Bang Theory
A very conventional sitcom premise from the creator of Two and a Half Men? Why is this on my list? Well, cause critics can't stop talking about it. Anyone care to explain why?

Want to make a case for one of these five, or another show not on the list? If you haven't seen me writing about a show, it's probably fair game. Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

He Said He'd Be Back

Grade: B-

It was a big deal when Christian Bale was cast as John Connor in the post robot reboot Terminator Salvation. No more whiny Edward Furlong or still-kind-of-angsty Nick Stahl. No, now we were going to get a badass John Connor and understand why he's humanity's only hope against the machines. And the movie does deliver - he is Batman after all. But what's surprising is it's not his movie.

That's cause the star this time is not John Connor but Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a former criminal who wakes up after scientific testing from the present day in the land of the terminators. He soon teams up with teenage Kyle Reese (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin), John Connor's future dad, to get to Connor and fight the machines.

You'll know Worthington's name soon enough, as this Christmas he's starring in Avatar, James Cameron's first movie in forever, and if Terminator is remembered mostly for launching him than fair enough. He's got the action movie hero stature that can sustain a movie (and get through some ridiculous chase scenes). Also, movie logic dictates that teen Reese should be annoying, but thanks to Yelchin's second scene stealing performance this summer, he's miles above T2's Connor.

Having three dependable leads makes up for the occasional imbalances in tone. On the one hand, director McG has said in interviews how he used Cormac McCarthy's The Road as an inspiration, which you can see in the harsh greys and bleak look to the whole environment. On the other hand, I'm not sure I've ever seen so many explosions in a single movie.

As much as McG may want this to have been his Children of Men, it's the brainless action half that ends up winning out, and well it should. Like T3, another widely critized Terinator sequel, Salvation is enjoyed best when not compared to the first two but taken on its own as a thoroughly enjoyable piece of summer action entertainment.

This one loses points because it's not as fun when the bad guys look like machines, and it may be even more forgettable. But if the idea of Christian Bale and Sam Worthington blowing up robots sounds appealing, you'll probably have a good time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Checking in With Showtime Mondays

Last week Showtime premiered its two summer shows, Weeds and Nurse Jackie. While I have yet to see tonight's episodes, I'd still like to take a look at whether these will be fun additions to the summer schedule, or have me running back out to the sun. Let's start with the returning show.

Going into its fifth season, Weeds was, to me, on notice. Sure, I loved Albert Brooks as Nancy's cranky, gambling addicted father-in-law, but when he jetted four episodes into last season, so did the show's quality. From the Mexican tunnel to Celia's drug addiction to Shane's increasingly obnoxious behavior, the characters just got so unlikable and the show so dreary that there was nothing fun left.

But the pregnancy cliffhanger left me intrigued enough to see where this season would go. And the verdict: inconclusive. It's not clear that any of last season's problems will necessarily be fixed. Nancy still seems to barely remember she has a family, Shane's still hanging with the sketchballs, and previews show Guillermo and Captain Till aren't going anywhere.

For now, at least, all that doesn't seem to matter. I'm still glad to have the show back. As disappointed I was to see Quinn return last season just to hold her mother ransom, it paid off with the comical series of phone calls in which no one would pay it. I liked that the non-Nancy section of the family (Andy, Silas, Shane, and I guess Doug) actually interacted.

I still miss the show about the pot-dealing suburban mom, and think the move down to the border was probably a mistake. But at least the premiere made me laugh. Even if the show does start sucking again in a few episodes, I'll still probably watch it to the end.

Moving on to something new, Nurse Jackie, to me, poses an interesting question regarding the trend of single character focused dramas out there. House is all about House, and Dexter is all about Dexter, but neither show would be as successful without the strong supporting casts and good stories to work from. But at least in the pilot, it seems like you watch Nurse Jackie just for Jackie. Is that enough? For many, it could be.

The show's a weird animal, a half-hour comedy-drama medical show that's more drama than comedy and wouldn't like to be called a medical show. Most of the show's in the hospital, but it never becomes a character the way hospitals do on shows like Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs, and ER. Other characters come and go - the arrogant but sloppy doctor, the British doctor Jackie's friends with, the other doctor she's sleeping with, a murse - but they have yet to make too big of an impression.

The show may very well exist solely as a showcase for Edie Falco, but she gives such a phenomenal performance that may be enough. She's certainly got a lot to work with: Jackie pops pills and sleeps around on the job, but is also damn good at what she does. And by the end of the pilot, it's clear we've just scratched the surface of who she is. So for Falco and Jackie, I'll give this one another try. But just as Dexter wouldn't be the same without Deb, I need more than one great character to keep me hooked.

Outdoor Movies: 6/15 - 6/19

Tonight begins a great summer tradition in New York: outdoor movies. And with it, the start of a new feature here at Zandervision: the weekly schedule of outdoor movies. Now, Bryant Park is the only place to begin its screenings yet, so the schedule will be a bit light until July. But if you're interested in the movie (and think it won't rain), these screenings are always a good time.

Monday, June 15th
Bryant Park
The Sting
Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and a classic poker scene.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Good Kind of Hangover

Grade: A-

What can I say about The Hangover that you haven't already heard from all of your friends? In its second week, it's already a huge word-of-mouth hit, so much so that I missed it last week cause it was sold out on a Sunday (!) night, and it passed the $100 million mark this weekend. So all I can tell you: it holds up to the hype.

Like many good comedies, this one keeps the premise simple: after a wild bachelor party in Vegas, three guys (Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Zach Galafinokalamanokus (or something like that)) wake up with no memory of the night before and a missing groom. As they piece together all the clues of what went down (missing tooth, tiger in the hotel room, hospital wristband) with the help of some wacky characters (Heather Graham as a stripper/escort, Ken Leong as gay Chinese mafia, Mike Tyson as...Mike Tyson), hilarity ensues.

I wouldn't want to go into any specific gags, cause that would ruin the fun. To be honest, I couldn't name you all that many off hand anyway. But I do know I was laughing nearly constantly from the movie's beginning to its end. And since even good movie comedies are sometimes more pleasant than actually funny, I think that's all that really matters.

There's more scenes involving pissing and vomiting in this movie than in any five I've seen in the past year year. Too crude? Probably, but somehow they make it work. And picking less established actors makes them all the more fun to spend time with. If you can put up with the occasional onscreen penis, you'll be rewarded with the most laughs you'll get at the movies this year.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Top Chef Masters is a Tasty Addition

Summer TV is, for the most part, a wasteland of D-list reality and shows deemed not-ready-for-primetime. But some shows work better in the summer, shows that can't compete in the main season but are light and fun enough to fit perfectly in the summertime. I'm thinking Entourage and Nip/Tuck (neither of which should have left summer, or aired their past few seasons, for that matter). And now, Top Chef Masters.

Now, Top Chef Masters is not Top Chef, but it's different enough to be worthwhile on its own while helping carry us over til the original flavor comes back. Taking seasoned pros instead of up-and-coming newbies changes the dynamic in many ways. For one, the stakes are a lot lower. Since none of their careers are on the line, they don't seem to take it all too seriously.

Also lowering the drama is that this time around the first 6 weeks each feature four different chefs, and each winner will continue to the finals. That means we don't get to know a cast over a period of weeks and don't get the Real World-style drama of them all living and drinking together. Lastly, since they're some of the best chefs in the country, the criticisms are never quite as soul-crushing as some of the ones on the original show.

But if there's less drama in some ways, the show's also more interesting in others. Because they're all such established chefs with their regular cooking routines, they're even less inclined towards wacky challenges. Week 1 winner Hubert Keller couldn't even find his way around Whole Foods! There's something amusing about watching a bunch of pros try to remember the basics, and quickly realize it's harder than it looks.

And so far at least the challenges look worthy of Top Chef. No softballs like "cook a French meal." No, they got the microwave/toaster oven only challenge from season 5's Thanksgiving episode combined with the lack of workspace of a college dorm. Now that is a challenge. And it led to Keller cooking in a bathroom. So everyone wins.

Since the food they're putting out is on the whole better than with the novices, this at times feels less like Bravo-style reality and more like Food Network. Since Bravo has the Real Housewives series and Food Network is awesome, I would consider that a compliment. But it does affect the tone of the show.

The critics table is admittedly a large step down, but at least there's no Toby Youngs (though the British guy is clearly the Toby Young stand-in). Not-Padma looks kind of like a bird, red sweater is like a stereotypical food critic, and Gail 2 seems to like everything. At least the real Gail is coming back for future episodes to show them what's what. And the clips of Tom Colicchio were a nice touch.

Since this summer also features Bravo's lame Project Runway knock-off The Fashion Show, it's nice to see Top Chef's spin-off has not followed that same course. So while I'm catching up on Heroes, Dollhouse, and the other shows I didn't have time to watch this past season, I'm glad this provides me with something new to throw in the mix as well.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Fastest Tour Guide in Vatican City

Grade: B

With so many movies coming out this summer, it's time I start catching up on writing about the ones I've already seen.

If I had to boil down the difference between Angels and Demons and its disappointing predecessor The Da Vinci Code, it's this: in Da Vinci, the characters sit around and have long talks about history. In Angels and Demons, the characters run around and talk about history. The difference isn't in the content, it's in the speed, and in a thriller that's all that matters.

In this book prequel made movie sequel, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks with less mockable hair) is summoned to Vatican City when somebody gets some antimatter (not to be confused with Star Trek's red matter) and threatens to use it to blow up all the cardinals at conclave - where they go to pick the next pope. Filling in for Audrey Tatou in the "female who doesn't do much but listen to Langdon's history talk" department is Ayelet Zurer. She probably has even less to do, but she's likable enough not to distract.

Once there, they run around trying to save a new cardinal every hour, giving the movie a 24-style race-against-the-clock immediacy that makes this the fun summer movie Da Vinci wasn't. Clearly director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman got the memo not to let Angels and Demons drown in its exposition the way Da Vinci did. There's car chases, breathlessly delivered dialogue, and lots and lots of running.

Now, that's not to say they completley solved the exposition problem. Dan Brown's books have a lot of it, so at times Langdon feels less like the movie's hero and more like a tour guide, delivering Vatican City fun facts when not ducking bullets and putting together clues. But at least there's enough else going on that those fun facts never get to stop the movie cold. And while the big twist at the end isn't nearly as silly as it was in the book, it's still laughably implausible.

This time around, most of the movie's flaws were just as present in the book, so if you like the book, you'll like the movie. But while it's a large improvement over Da Vinci, there's still something about Langdon and his adventures that doesn't quite fit the action franchise template as well as its producers might wish. But since that's the way they went, I'll take silly over slow any day.

And the Award for Awesome Goes to NPH

What's nice about the Tonys is how little the actual awards matter to the show. Sure, the winners are likely to get a big boost at the box office, so it certainly matters to them. But when a good portion of the awards weren't even broadcast (including real awards like best book of a musical), you know that's not the main focus.

No, like host Neil Patrick Harris said in his off-prompter opening, the Tonys are all about getting a taste of what's out there on Broadway, and figuring out what of the year's offerings is worth ponying up the cash to go see. I admit to not having too much of a vested interest in who won this year, having only seen Hair and Guys and Dolls, but I still feel like this was kind of a weak year. I mean, if Billy Elliot's doing that well, there can't be anything too great out there, right?

So the performances had some good and some bad. On the good side, I now definitely want to see Next to Normal, as the number they performed proved they earned that win for best score. And Hair had probably the most fun number of the night, as they danced and thrust all over audience members just like in the real show.

But too many shows seemed so determined to pick a big production number that they didn't pick a good song. Sure, watching Christopher Sieber dance on his knees was cool, but was that song really the best Shrek could do? And if West Side Story's main selling point is the bilingual nature of this production, why pick a song where the only word is "Mambo?" Billy Elliot's number was admittedly pretty cool, but it did nothing to convince me there's anything beyond dancing in it.

Of course, the reason I actually watched the Tonys this year wasn't for the singing, the dancing, and the Bret Michaels, but for host NPH. While he did an excellent job keeping things moving and tossing in a joke from time to time, I still wanted more. I get that non-Oscar awards shows try not to waste time, so the host isn't supposed to get long moments to himself, but why couldn't they just spend less time on the straight plays (I probably should care about them, but I don't)? I mean, why get NPH if they don't let him sing!

Well, it turns out I was wrong on that last point. Since my DVR cut off right before Billy Elliot was called best musical (like that was any surprise), I missed the single best part of the entire show: NPH's closing number. So for anyone in a similar situation (or the 99.999% of America who didn't watch), enjoy:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Return of Feel-Good TV

Sorry everyone for the prolonged hiatus. I'm not quite sure where the month of May went, but 7 posts in one month is completely unacceptable. I've got a ton of movie reviews I owe you, and there's a bunch of stuff happening in TV the past few weeks as well, but I'd like to start with a show that makes me smile like none other.

I'm talking of course about Pushing Daisies, which returned for its final (tear) three episodes this past Saturday, burned off by ABC not only during summer season, but on Saturdays. Really, they have more pressing things to put on every other night of the week? But while I'm sad I've now only got two episodes left, this past week reminded me of everything I'll be missing.

The facts were these: While the episode did not continue with the December cliffhanger that Ned's father is back and eating pie at the Pie Hole, it did provide everything a good Pushing Daisies episode needs. Wacky place of work for the murder to occur? Check. Rapid-fire dialogue filled with puns and alliteration? Double check. But what made it a great episode: Olive singing Lionel Ritchie's "Hello."

From the window display murders to the escaped-from-jail non-kidnappers, I felt happy the whole time I was watching. Sad that ABC can find room in its heart for bubble shows like already-aired-its-series-finale Scrubs, probably-has-a-lower-audience Better Off Ted, and who-really-watches-this-crap Private Practice but not for something as joyful as Pushing Daisies. Hard to see what show could possibly fill this niche.

Or is it?

I haven't managed to write about Glee yet, which had a sneak-peak pilot after the penultimate episode of American Idol a few weeks ago, but if any show will cause me to check my cynicism and just enjoy this fall the way Pushing Daisies has, this one gets my vote.

It's essentially High School Musical meets Election. An idealistic young teacher (Broadway's Matthew Morrison) with a crazy wife (Nip/Tuck, Heroes, everything's Jessalyn Gilsig) takes over the school Glee club, bringing together various typical high school misfits, one diva (Spring Awakening's Lea Michele), and one athlete. Plus Jane Lynch steals scenes as the cheerleading coach.

The Election part comes in as voiceovers are given to the teacher (who's essentially the Matthew Broderick character), the diva (a musical Tracey Flick), and the athlete (Chris Klein in Election crossed with Chris Klein in American Pie). It's also got just enough of a satirically comic bent that you don't dismiss the show as overly cheesy. As for the High School Musical part, it's very sincere and has a lot of singing.

Don't let that turn you away though. Casting Broadway actors means they can actually sing, and for now the sincere / funny ratio is nicely balanced. Plus, Kristin Chenowith is going to come on as recurring, helping to fill the Pushing Daisies void even better! Until creator Ryan Murphy pulls a Nip/Tuck and makes everything way too extreme to watch, this should be a worthy addition to a pretty weak fall schedule. Still not convinced? Watch this: