Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mad Muppets

The long-anticipated Sesame Street spoof of Mad Men has arrived. Take a look:

As far as spoofs go, this one wasn't all that Mad Men specific. The only actual character in it was Don, and he said far more in these 2 minutes than he generally says in any given one hour episode.

On the other hand, the take-off on the opening credits with the silhouette slipping on a banana peel was genius, and you have to give props to a kids' show that features the line, "Good work, sycophants." Also "Watch the suit."

All in all, just goes to show that Muppets are awesome.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

ABC Comedy: The Good and the Meh

ABC's struggled with comedy since Spin City went off the air, but this year it's making a comeback with its entire Wednesday night line-up devoted to comedy. While Hank and The Middle won't premiere til this week (and I have no desire to see them anyway), I did catch the Friday re-airings of Modern Family and Cougar Town. So does ABC have the next great sitcom on its hands? Let's take a look.

Grade: A-

Modern Family has been called "the next Arrested Development," which left me both intrigued and worried. I didn't want to watch some rip-off of my favorite show. Thankfully, it only resembles Arrested Development in 2 ways: it's about a dysfunctional family, and it's hilarious.

More so than drama even, I find comedy to be more about execution than ideas. Because on paper, Modern Family seems to be full of all the same family comedy cliches we've rejected since the laugh track went out of fashion (don't worry, there's no laugh track here). A dorky dad trying to seem hip in front of his kids? The mom worried about her teenage daughter around boys? Sounds like a TBS sitcom.

Yet whether through cast or writing, Modern Family takes what we know of the family sitcom and makes it funny and new again. The show centers on three different families who by the end of the pilot we know to all be related. First, there's the traditional family with parents (Lost's Julie Bowen plays the mom) and three kids. Second is an older guy (Married with Children's Ed O'Neil) with a much younger Colombian wife and her son. And lastly, a gay couple that have just adopted a baby from Vietnam.

While the show does go for the mockumentary format that so many single-camera comedies do these days, it's not as big a part of the show as it was on The Office or Arrested Development. On the other hand, it never feels too sitcommy either (cough Community cough), even with such over-the-top gags as the gay couple making a speech on an airplane over a misunderstanding or various mishaps involving a BB gun.

Mostly though, the show's just funny. So far the traditional family's gotten the best material, being responsible for the above mentioned BB gun which led to some of the episode's funniest moments. With so many comedies satisfied with a couple laughs and some "awww"s, it's good to have a show that wants to keep you laughing throughout. So I don't need a 3 episode trial period here; this one's a keeper. If only I didn't already have 2 shows on Wednesdays at 9. That's why there's Hulu.

Grade: C+

Cougar Town probably isn't helped by its lead-in. Ratings-wise maybe, but it's not flattering to air the funnier show first. In all fairness though, it was actually better than I was expecting after all those unfortunate promos highlighting the show's least appealing moments. But even with a cast full of people I like (Courtney Cox, Freaks and Geeks' Busy Phillipps, Scrubs/Drew Carey's Christa Miller, and Dan Byrd from Aliens in America), this one's just not for me.

Most of the attention the show has received has followed the thread of "oh boo hoo, so hard for gorgeous Courtney Cox who's somehow still successful in real estate to find a man." But despite all the many speeches about how hard it is for 40-something women (even if they're Courtney Cox and look about 10 years younger), I'd say her problem is less her looks than her behavior. Her onscreen son puts it best: she says everything she thinks. Which after about 5 minutes gets really, really annoying.

And despite the fact that it was created by a man (Scrubs' Bill Lawrence, hence my interest), the show doesn't make much of an effort to attract male audiences. Lines like "I let my coochie cooch do the thinking" and "my uterus nearly flew out" just aren't what a guy wants to be hearing on a weekly basis. All of which makes the show fit in nicely with the network behind Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Desperate Housewives, but doesn't make it something for me. Final verdict: manproof.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ok, I'm Ready to Drop Heroes

I remember when I saw the season premiere of Alias' last season, and I realized I just didn't care about any of the characters anymore. It's not that the episode was all that bad (actually it was, since it was the one with Vaughn's "death"), but it was time to move on. I made it through the rest of the season, bad as it was, since I knew it was the end and I wanted to see it through. But since Heroes will continue until NBC finally pulls the plug, it's in no such luck.

Now, my decision isn't entirely based on the premiere. This isn't like when I dropped Grey's because the ghost Denny thing just became unbearable. No, this was a long time coming, I just needed to make sure the writers wouldn't actually follow up on their yearly promise to fix the mistakes of the previous season and make Heroes right. Three strikes, you're out.

But since I did make it through all of the seemingly never-ending 2-hour premiere, might as well look at what I won't be seeing this year. Like many aging shows looking for a comeback, Heroes was jam-packed with references to season 1 (ie "the good ol' days"). Beginning with a montage of how everyone discovered their powers in the pilot, the episode would go on to contain many "Save the cheerleader, save the world" references as everyone went back to their original jobs (paramedic, cop, student). But just like volume 4, it won't be long until all that goes away.

Going character by character, let's start with Claire, which mostly demonstrated the writers' complete inability to write for young characters. How embarrassing were all the attempts to seem hip, with references to Facebook and Guitar Hero? And the stereotypical over-achieving roommate - have they never seen a high school show transitioning to college? You'd think they could have come up with a better (or at least more subtle) bad roommate than that. Amazing to think Claire used to be one of the reasons to watch the show. Also embarrassing - Tim Kring namedropping his previous show, Crossing Jordan, as if anyone currently under the age of 40 watched that when it was on.

Moving on to the other season 1 favorite, Hiro. Seeing as he's the only one who ever had any fun on the show, of course he has to be dying to take out any enjoyment. And I'm worried that the time travel's already back first thing, since every single volume Heroes massively abuses the time travel to the point that every fan yells "Enough already! Stay in the present!" So far it hasn't gotten too bad (though I expected people to start disappearing from that photo Back to the Future style), but you know we'll be back to the yearly vision of a dark future 5 episodes from now.

Who else is there? Tracy gave up her revenge quest pretty quickly. So much for that. And a romance with Noah (which seemed to be implied)? Not buying it. Nathan realizing he's actually Sylar? Potentially interesting. Matt seeing Sylar everywhere? Not. Guess which got more screen time? Peter shouting out his love of being a paramedic? Meh. And I think the current definition of his powers has been somewhat flexible.

The most promising storyline from the premiere is the carnyfolk, most notably Robert Knepper's Samuel. If anything could breathe some new life into the show it's him. But since Heroes wants to prove it's core-characters first, they haven't had too much screen time yet, just setting the seeds for the season with cryptic talk about "the compass." Problem is, cryptic talk doesn't cut it when I'm deciding whether to stick with a show for 19 more episodes. I need to know why I should care now. A tease doesn't work unless something intriguing has been teased.

So goodbye Heroes. I'll likely check in to see how you're doing from time to time, but I doubt I'll miss you too much. And Nip/Tuck, get ready, cause you should be expecting a similar post once you premiere.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Zandervision!

Well everyone, today (September 23rd) marks the one year anniversary of when I first started Zandervision. 241 posts since my initial introduction later, a lot's changed. A year ago I was underemployed, living in a smaller apartment, and in full-out election obsession mode (that post came mere days before the first debate). But what hasn't changed is it's premiere week, which means there's plenty of entertainment to be covered (note that I said the same thing about Heroes then that I did 2 days ago. At least I'm consistent).

So happy birthday Zandervision. Gifts will be accepted in the form of hits and/or comments.

But in case you were concerned I would post without anything entertainment-related, have a look at this:

Tonight's Glee may have been my favorite yet. It was also probably the least musical, but I'm not holding that against it. The whole "Single Ladies" dance craze was from months ago, yet somehow Glee found a way to still make it funny, and multiple times. Sorry I couldn't find a clip of the football team doing the dance in unison, cause that already ranks as one of Glee's best moments.

There were plenty of non-Beyonce gems as well. Sue Sylvester now has a segment on a local news show, where she imparts such grand advice to Ohio as to bring back caning (Yes we cane) and to fill the land with litter (so garbage men will have jobs). I'm already calling next year's Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy for Jane Lynch. Plus, we got to learn more about two less often featured Gleeers, Kurt (who had a sweet coming out to his macho dad) and Tina (who I don't think has had a line before but got to sing).

I'm still somewhat confused about this Cabaret production, seeing as Rachel seems to be the only person actually in the cast. But I do know a guest appearance from Kristin Chenoweth next week can only mean good things. So while I can't speak for its long-term potential, I will say that at this moment, Glee wins the battle of the high school shows over Gossip Girl any day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Observe and Be Puzzled

Grade: C+

Confession time: I saw this all the way back in February, a good 2 months before it even came to theaters. But after a few months went by and I hadn't gotten around to writing about it, it just made more sense to wait until it came to DVD, which, conveniently enough, is today. So if you had thought about seeing it in theaters then forgot about it, here's your chance.

So what took me so long? Guess I just didn't care enough. Back when this was in theaters, it was being called Travis Bickle: Mall Cop, for its attempts to mix Taxi Driver with that other mall cop movie. If that sounds like a weird mix, it is. The movie starts off well enough, with a self-important mall cop with dreams of becoming a police officer seeing a mall-wide streaker as his chance to shine. But somewhere around the midway point it stops being a comedy and gets really, really serious. Then it just gets violent.

Basically, the movie can't decide on a tone, so just when it's told you it's one thing it turns into something else entirely. The bigger problem is it makes a much better comedy than a drama about Seth Rogen's deep-seated desire to become a cop or action movie about Seth Rogen hitting/shooting everything in sight. So by the halfway point, the best is far behind you.

The strange choice of tones may be somewhat explained by the fact that this is director Jody Hill's first studio movie, having previously helmed cult comedy The Foot Fist Way (which launched Danny McBride's career) and funny HBO show Eastbound & Down (which I've been meaning to watch again). As those other projects show, he's clearly talented and has good ideas, but much of Observe & Report feels student film level, like he's still figuring out what to do with the resources he's now been given. So it may be better to look at this as practice for the funnier films he's likely to make in the future.

That's not to say the movie's a complete misfire. Even though Seth Rogen basically plays Danny McBride's character from The Foot Fist Way (and less effectively), this is a big departure from the Apatow characters he's been typecast into, and he largely succeeds in making you forget them. Better yet are the cameos - Danny McBride as a low-level criminal and Aziz Ansari as a mall employee have the funniest scenes in the entire movie. Had their scenes been more typical, this could have been a solid comedy. Instead, we'll just have to wait and see what Jody Hill does next.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Having the Talk, Or Having Georgina

Tonight marked the beginning of premiere week, with all the Monday shows back. Since Heroes had the gall to demand 2 hours of my time right upfront, I may not get to it for awhile. For that matter, I'll probably take awhile to get to a bunch of shows from this week. But here's what I did watch.

In case you were worried about having to go too long without seeing Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother is back, and ready to deal with both of the big events of last year's finale. As most fans care far more about Barney and Robin than Ted and the Mother, the premiere spent most of its time on the former, as Lily forced them to have "the talk" and define their relationship. So far they're keeping a good balance of funny and cute, so let's hope it stays that way.

Over at Columbia (seen nicely through some exterior shots), Ted struggled with his first day as a professor, especially since he went to the wrong room. The whole nervous about what kind of professor to be thing may have been covered by Friends (though at least Ted didn't adopt a British accent), but the whole wrong room thing actually made for the funniest scene of the episode. Plus, it provided an excuse for an Indiana Jones fedora and whip (though seriously, get the whip away from Marshall).

Finally, someone help me out - did Brad seem drastically different to anyone else? IMDB confirms it's still the same actor, so what up? And I guess this means he broke up with Kara? These are important questions, people.

Ok, I promise I will not be writing about Gossip Girl weekly, cause it's really not an interesting enough show. But I said last week that we wouldn't get to see how they handled college until now, so that seemed worth mentioning.

And actually, the college parts were the best parts of the episode. Seeing as there were no frats and people sat around watching a movie, Gossip Girl is already doing a more realistic depiction of college than most shows (ie Saved by the Bell). Most of the fun was in the Blair/Georgina fight. Blair's always best when she has a target, and Georgina is a whole lot more fun to war with than Teenage Teacher. But Georgina and Dan? I disapprove.

As for the rest of the episode: Serena acted generally bitchy around everyone and decided not to go to Brown cause, you know, it's not in New York, and that would complicate the show. She's annoying me. Nate spent a day in bed when he should have been at Columbia orientation (and then I would have gotten a double dose of Columbia tonight. Way to ruin everything, Nate). Chuck has somehow become the most responsible character on the show. Lily (and now Jenny) is still MIA. And the Ice Truck Killer continues to get creepier, this time by freaking out over a bad professor (or is it proffesor?) recommendation. Guessing that means he didn't go to NYU summer school. Too busy camping outside Dan's loft with binoculars?

So now Dan's got both a stalker half-brother and Georgina after him. He better watch his back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

NPH Was Robbed, but Awesome

After the nightmare that was last year's reality show host experiment, the Emmys needed someone to chase away those painful memories. But Neil Patrick Harris did far more than that tonight, officially becoming the best awards show host out there.

Indeed, the Emmys were at their best whenever he was onstage. Unlike the Tonys which kept us waiting for it, the Emmys gave us NPH singing right off the bat, and his opening song was actually funny in addition to starting things off right. He not only kept the night running smoothly, but had enough well-chosen quips to keep even those long miniseries/TV movie sections from getting too dry. And his Dr. Horrible bit was easily the highlight of the night. If only it could have been a musical number. The fact that many winners felt the need to thank him for doing such a great job shows just how much he stood out from all the rest.

So how was it possible that he lost Best Supporting Actor? And to Jon Cryer, of all people! What were the Emmy voters smoking to reward Two and a Half Men over someone who not only plays the funniest character on TV, but has also proven himself in Dr. Horrible and the Tonys as well. Shame on you Emmy voters. Unforgivable.

Outside of that one egregious mistake, I was otherwise pretty pleased with the awards. If you look back at my picks and predictions, far more of my "should wins" won than my "will wins." I told you that you shouldn't listen to my predictions. So yay to the unexpected wins for Michael Emerson, Kristin Chenowith, and Cherry Jones, the first supporting actor on 24 to be recognized.

And while there were a lot of repeats from last year, the fact is that Mad Men, Alec Baldwin, and The Daily Show all deserved it, and 30 Rock and Glenn Close also did for the most part (both strong #2s in who I rooted for). I would have preferred to see Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, or Hugh Laurie win their first Best Actor award, though I understand Breaking Bad needs the attention more. And while I love Tina Fey, Toni Collette was the only winner in the top categories who didn't win last year (and she plays four characters).

However, none of that makes up for picking Jon Cryer over Neil Patrick Harris. The Emmys are just lucky that NPH was able to handle it like a pro, milking the loss for comedy. And they may have trouble finding excuses to ignore him next year. Since if the category hadn't been eliminated, he'd be winning an Emmy next year just for tonight. Oscars, here he comes.

Bored of Bored to Death

Grade: B-

Thanks to HBO putting it On Demand early (and thanks to my being home for Rosh Hashanah where I have access to it), I already got a chance to see the pilot to Bored to Death, which premieres on HBO tonight. Heading into premiere week, I had a feeling this one might get lost in the shuffle. And with far too many shows on my schedule, here's one I can count out.

I wanted to like Bored to Death. Really, I did. But it just wasn't happening. The show stars Jason Schwartzman as novelist Jonathan Ames (who's real, and produces the show). We first see him as his girlfriend leaves him because he "smokes too much pot and drinks too much white wine." Laughing yet? What about the twentieth time he says it? Unsure how to crack his second novel, Ames posts an ad on Craiglist offering himself as a private eye, and soon enough he's got a case.

A noir comedy is definitely my style, but there's no comedy to be found here. Maybe I laughed once. Probably not. And this isn't one of those fake comedies like Hung, that's a half hour long but doesn't even try to make you laugh. No, this one tries, it just doesn't succeed. Which is all the more impressive seeing as the rest of the cast features Zach Galifianakis, fresh off his Hangover hilarity, and Ted Danson, making a return to comedy after his brilliantly creepy turn on Damages.

It's not all in the writing either. There's something about the tone of the show that just doesn't work. Each scene is scored to downbeat indie music that may fit a Wes Anderson movie, but doesn't quite belong here. And sometimes the production values seem more like a student film than "it's not TV it's HBO." However, Bored to Death does have one thing going for it: it has a great theme song. If only the rest of the show matched it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Emmy Predictions

In case you forgot, the Emmy Awards are tomorrow (Sunday) night, and with Neil Patrick Harris hosting it may actually be worth watching, even if the awards are less than exciting. If you're on the fence, maybe this will help make up your mind: Dr. Horrible musical number. Yeah. That's what I thought. In the meantime, here are my predictions for how the awards part will go down. As predictable as they seem, I'm sure I'll still miss most. You should really never trust me on these things.


Will Win: Mad Men
Should Win: Mad Men
Could Win: Breaking Bad?

Mad Men's second year was as good and arguably better than its first. It's hard to imagine anything keeping it from repeating.


Will Win: Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Should Win: Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Could Win: Hugh Laurie, House

You could swap those three around if you like, since all three are deserving and all three have yet to win. I feel like it's Jon Hamm's year, but still don't be surprised if Bryan Cranston repeats for Breaking Bad, even if only critics watch that show.


Will Win: Glenn Close, Damages
Should Win: Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Could Win: Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men

Elisabeth Moss deserves to win the Emmy for that season finale scene with Pete alone. But even if Damages wasn't at its best this season, Glenn Close was.


Will Win: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Should Win: Michael Emerson, Lost
Could Win: Someone from Boston Legal

I'm not quite sure what to make of this category. William Hurt's a big name, but he wasn't all that great on Damages. John Slattery seemed more likely for Mad Men last year. So I'm gonna go with Aaron Paul, since people who watch Breaking Bad seem to like him, and the Emmys clearly like the show. Still, you can never underestimate their unexplainable love for all things Boston Legal. If only Jimmy Smits had submitted here instead of guest actor for Dexter.


Will Win: Hope Davis, In Treatment
Should Win: Rose Byrne, Damages
Could Win: Rose Byrne, Damages

Dianne Wiest won last year for In Treatment, so I see Hope Davis reaping the same benefit from that actors' showcase. I nearly put 24's Cherry Jones as my should win, since anyone who can say 24 dialogue with a straight face deserves praise, but I have to go with Rose Byrne, even if she's actually the lead on the show.


Will Win: 30 Rock
Should Win: How I Met Your Mother
Could Win: How I Met Your Mother

Most people may disagree, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: How I Met Your Mother is a better show than 30 Rock. Furthermore, 30 Rock was especially inconsistent this year, with a dud in between every funny episode. Since Emmys judge on single episodes and buzz, that won't matter.


Will Win: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Should Win: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Could Win: Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory

It's amazing how much people seem to love Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory. But there's still no arguing with El Generalissimo. Unless Tony Shalhoub wins for the 13th time.


Will Win: Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Should Win: Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Could Win: Tina Fey, 30 Rock

Yeah, this was the year of Tina Fey and all, but Toni Collette played 4 completely different characters, and (mostly) kept from going too over-the-top. Hard to imagine bigger Emmy bait.


Will Win: Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Should Win: Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Could Win: Someone from 30 Rock

This is without a doubt NPH's year to win. I mean, he's the host! They can't let the host go home empty-handed! Plus, he should be collecting his 4th statue, not his first, for his (sorry, I have to) legendary performance as Barney Stinson. I'd be more worried about the guys from 30 Rock if there was just one of them, but I feel like 30 Rock fans may end up splitting their vote. And if Dwight or Drama wins, the Emmys will be beyond redemption.


Will Win: Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live
Should Win: Kristin Chenowith, Pushing Daisies
Could Win: Kristin Wiig, Saturday Night Live

The Emmys are going SNL crazy this year, not only giving guest actress to Tina Fey but guest actor to Justin Timberlake for hosting (over 30 Rock's Jon Hamm and Alan Alda? That seems worthy of a "Really?!?! with Seth and Amy"). Since Amy Poehler won't take lead actress since her show sucks, they'll make it up to her here.


Will Win: The Amazing Race
Should Win: Top Chef
Could Win: Hah!

The Amazing Race has won this award EVERY YEAR SINCE IT WAS CREATED. It's the biggest sure-thing of the night.


Will Win: Ryan Seacrest, American Idol
Should Win: Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio, Top Chef
Could Win: Phil Keoghan, The Amazing Race

This award should have been eliminated as punishment for last year's atrocity. I'm picking Ryan Seacrest cause I assume he owns half of the voters by this point, but I'm always going to root for Top Chef.


Will Win: The Daily Show
Should Win: The Daily Show
Could Win: Saturday Night Live

The Daily Show has won I think the past six years or so, and has deserved it every single time. While this year's no exception, SNL had a few good sketches during election season, and Emmy voters are stupid enough to ignore the other 85% of the season that was crap.

So those are my predictions. Who are you rooting for? Who do you think is inevitable? And will you watch the awards, or just fast forward to the NPH parts?

NBC Thursday

Thursday night marked the return of a number of shows on NBC. I don't watch Parks & Recreation (after that humorless pilot, it would take a lot for me to give it another shot), and SNL's pretty low priority, but I would like to chime in on a premiere and a pilot, in that order.

Count this week's episode of The Office in the category of "I can't believe they've never done an episode on this before." How in the world did it take five seasons to think of office rumors as fodder for comedy? However, unlike the other seemingly obvious idea (the Michael Scott roast), this one actually (mostly) worked.

On the one hand, amazing that Michael's attempt at obviously fake rumors so often came out true (most notably in Pam being pregnant). But far funnier were some of his less plausible rumors. My favorites: that Kevin had someone else inside him and that Toby was a virgin (not nearly enough Toby hating last year. I'm glad it's back). While seeing Michael end Stanley's marriage was maybe not so funny, it's nice to see this past-its-prime comedy still has some good ideas left in it. Maybe there is a sixth season left in it after all.

One final gripe though: it took five seasons to bring in interns, and that's all the show did with them? There's so many jokes to be made about interns, especially in that setting, and they barely scratched the surface. The new blood alone would have been welcome. Farewell, Jet Li, Julia Stiles, and Robin Thicke. We hardly knew ye. Or why Michael chose those nicknames (except Julia Stiles, he's right on that one).

Grade: B

First pilot review of the season! And critics said it's one of the better ones. I'd say it's got exactly three things working for it so far:

1. John Oliver. Hilarious in every single one of his scenes.
2. Joel McHale. While at first too sarcastic, he soon proved himself a likable and funny central character.
3. The writing is actually (if only sporadically) funny.

Otherwise, the show's more of a mixed bag. I'll add Britta (the girl Joel McHale keeps asking out) to the list of people I like, but the rest of the cast still seem too much like types. Abed had promise, until he turned into "guy who quotes movies constantly" (it's NEVER funny! when will they realize that!) It's funny to see Pete Campbell's wife as Aderall Annie, but the nickname seems the extent of her character. And Chevy Chase, well, I don't even know.

I also don't know how exciting a show about a study group can actually be. Will we have to actually see them study? I'm guessing the show will quickly become more of that, and do hope it can make a college-set show (other than Undeclared) work. And with Joel McHale's likability and some Arrested Development writers in charge, I'm certainly willing to give it a few more episodes. But if things don't pick up soon, I won't be bothering to find it once 30 Rock reclaims its time slot.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Anti-Bourne

Grade: B+

The Informant was not just any movie-going experience for me. When I showed up to the free screening I found online this past Tuesday, I met the unexpected sight of a red carpet. Turns out I was at the New York premiere, and I soon found myself sharing a theater with the likes of Matt Damon, Joel McHale, and Steven Soderbergh. Not that I got a good look at any of them. I came in the back entrance and sat in the front with the commoners. Still, pretty cool.

As for the movie itself, it was a lot of fun. Based on a true story (but adjusted heavily enough to turn the serious truth into a comedy), The Informant finds Matt Damon playing Mark Whitacre, family man and top exec in one of those big pharmabiological type companies that make a ton of money even though you and I have no idea what it is they actually do. When the FBI is brought in over another matter, Whitacre gets the chance to play the crusader as he volunteers information on a massive price-fixing scheme.

Sure, the FBI agents (played by Scott Bakula and The Soup's Joel McHale) question why a guy making six figures who isn't wanted for any other crime would turn informant, but soon enough that's exactly what he becomes. Wearing a wire for years, he gets the FBI their case. But once they start looking a little closer at their informant, they realize he may not be all he says.

With all of that though, the movie succeeds most as a character piece. Matt Damon, not needing the extra weight to make you forget the Jason Bournes and Will Huntings he's played in the past, takes a character who at first seems a joke into something far more interesting. Early on, we're given snippets of his nonsensical, word association inner monologue, simplying nothing is going on upstairs. And if you've seen the trailers, making him out to be some sort of bumbling fool who does all but should out "I'm an informant," you'd think the same thing.

The movie works though because that's not at all the case. Damon's Whitacre is actually a highly intelligent man. He's got a PHD, speaks multiple languages, and as far as we can tell executes his job well. Furthermore, he actually makes a decent spy. He never for a second breaks character in front of his bosses, and even improvises when the FBI's gadgets don't work. So it makes all the less sense when he narrates to his wire where people can hear him or pulls out a recorder in the middle of a meeting. This question of how someone can be so smart and so dumb at the same time creates most of the comedy in the movie's first half.

It's in the second half though that the movie really expands from something slight and amusing enough to something better. Once Whitacre becomes the FBI's focus and you start to see what Whitacre's really up to, his character only becomes more complex and Damon's performance all the more impressive. Is he naive, malicious, stupid, crazy? You don't really get any answers, but it's certainly fun to try to figure out.

I've seen some reviews complaining about the '70s aesthetic for a movie set in the '90s, but I think that only adds to the general tone of absurdity. The '70s mood makes as much sense in this environment as all the stand-up comedians who populate the cast. In addition to McHale in a major part, there's also Tony Hale (Arrested Development's Buster) as Whitacre's lawyer, and cameos by Patton Oswalt, Best Week Ever host Paul F. Tompkins, and Scott Adsit (30 Rock's Pete).

Since the main jist of the comedy is the incomprehensibility of its lead's actions, the incompatibility of the style and some of the cast only raises the laughs. Which all makes sense for a satire about greed and business ethics. But I'm making this movie sound more serious and thought-provoking than it actually is. The movie's good for laughs, but it's Damon and his character that make it more.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Let's Take Some Glee

Seeing as how we were all hooked on Glee last May, I count it as a returning show, separate from that list of pilots I feel like I should check out but will actually delete from my DVR unwatched 2 months from now. Still, we all know a good (even great) pilot is not the same thing as a good show, so now that I've seen 2 more episodes of Glee it's time to see how it holds up.

The answer? Pretty awesomely. If anything, these past two episodes have brought out what we all liked in the pilot even more. If the pilot was Election meets High School Musical, then since then it's been shifting more towards a musical Election - more comedy, less cute. Credit some of that to scene stealer Jane Lynch, who always has any episode's best lines. But even when she's offscreen I'm finding myself laughing more than I'd expect to.

Last week's episode served a duel purpose - it had to be simultaneously a "premiere" and a second episode, the downfall to having the first episode air months earlier. And it felt like both, taking the glee club's existence for granted while giving them a whole other set of challenges, like getting enough people to be eligible for regionals. Not to mention a list of acceptable songs. Let's just hope that doesn't last, or the musical numbers might lose some of their fun.

Speaking of the songs, there's some good and some bad on that front. The good is that this won't be a show that does one obligatory song an episode; this is a full-out musical. Not a musical so much in the breaking into song mid-sentence way (though we did say that kind of non-Glee Club singing this week), but in that they're throwing in a bunch of songs each week. So if you like musicals (which, if you're watching the show I presume you do), you've got quite a lot to enjoy here.

On the other hand, they still need to work on making the songs feel more natural. Last week in particular all of the songs sounded incredibly canned. The second their mouths opened a studio-perfected song would magically come out. As great as "Gold Digger" was, you didn't for a second believe he was really singing it. Worse was the cheerleaders' audition song. I questioned if they were even doing their own singing, since it didn't really sound like them. This week struck me as an improvement, but let's hope they work on the lipsynching, pre-recordings, or whatever it is that isn't working.

Also, as funny as Ryan Murphy's writing often is, there's always the danger that he'll just go too over the top. The last thing anyone wants is for Glee to turn into Nip/Tuck. So while tonight's episode was as entertaining as the rest, it does trouble me that there's already a celebrity guest appearance in the third episode (though Josh Groban was funny, and I'm sure it was intended to self-reflexively bring up that very point). And an episode about Will losing interest in Glee seems like it should be midseason, not right away.

Until someone starts humping a couch or cutting their breast off with a chainsaw in a doctor's waiting room (both things that have actually happened on Nip/Tuck in JUST THE LAST YEAR), I think it's safe to say that Glee has earned its season pass on my DVR. As a musical comedy that's equally successful at both, Glee is a big bright spot on the fall line-up.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This Year's Slumdog Millionaire?

When looking forward to what to see in the fall (and especially what to see for awards season), it's always good to see how things are playing at the festivals. Toronto in particular has become more and more important for launching potential Oscar hopefuls, most notably last year's winner Slumdog Millionaire. So what's this year's equivalent? Take a look:

Just like Slumdog, Up in the Air has been getting universally glowing reviews from everyone who's seen it. And with George Clooney doing a variation on his Michael Clayton character and Jason Reitman going a bit more dramatic than Juno and Thank You for Smoking (both festival favorites as well), it's easy to see why. So as the first of what will be many amendments to my top 10 fall must-sees, bump this one up to the main list.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Racing for Attention

Gossip Girl's back, and while it's too soon to judge the high school to college transition (that will come next week), we can look at where this season's heading. Thankfully, for one episode at least, the show seems free of the dead-end plots that made up most of last season. No Duchess, no Uncle Jack, no awful 80s flashbacks. So let's look at where that leaves everyone.

Is it a bad sign that I'm actually most interested in Nate's storyline so far? Yes and no. No, because it may eliminate some deadweight (Vanessa still can't be helped). Yes, because since when do I care about Nate? Well, since he got himself involved in the kind of wacky feud between ultra-rich families that only seems to exist in soap operas. Which, at least for now, sounds kind of fun.

More so than Chuck & Blair anyway, who, despite claims that "we could never be boring," have managed to succeed from my standpoint. I know, I know, this is the CW and their everlasting love is the #1 reason 16 year old girls (ie 95% of the CW's audience, if not specifically Gossip Girl's) watch the show. But enough already. I don't care. I don't go to Gossip Girl for super serious teen angst. Wait, so what do I go for? I'll go with ridiculousness.

Which is why the subplot with the most potential is still Dan's creepy half-brother stalking around and trying to be besties with his bio family without revealing himself. How long before this Ice Truck Killer starts leaving Barbie dolls in Dan's fridge (it's a Dexter reference, deal with it)? And will Vanessa be playing the part of Deb? I'm just saying, he seems up to no good.

So who's that leave? Oh right, Serena and her neverending parade of paparazzi. Was it supposed to be a big mystery what she was doing in Europe if we already knew the answer? For now, I'm saying this storyline depends entirely on who they cast as Serena's dad. Let's see, who's blonde, age appropriate, and a cool enough get to justify all this screentime for Carter? Any suggestions?

Lastly, Lila was very noticeably MIA this week, which either means she was having her baby or in divorce court, since TV shows don't bother to go through that much effort to explain a character's absence if they just weren't needed in the episode. Seriously, how many times did we need to be reminded she was with her mother?

Next week sees Blair & Georgina as roommates and the full-on college initiation. Most shows set in college tend to go "frats! uh...what else happens in college?" Since I don't think NYU even has frats (and I know Columbia barely does), I think we're safe on that front. If we see them in class even twice as much as we saw them in high school, I still don't think anyone will notice the difference.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fall TV Preview

As enjoyable as summer TV could be, this week begins the process us TV junkies have been waiting for: Fall TV Season, when all of our favorite shows come back from their summer vacations to come entertain us once more. If you want to know when CSI and Grey's Anatomy come back, look elsewhere. If you want to know what I'll be watching, read on.

Glee (September 9th, 9-10 PM, Fox, NEW SHOW)
If you saw the pilot last May (and if you haven't, do it now), you know this is heading into the fall as frontrunner for best new show. As hard as that performance of "Don't Stop Believing" may be to top, the news that there will be 2 soundtracks in 2009 alone to cover all the songs leaves me very hopeful.

Gossip Girl (September 14th, 9-10 PM, The CW)
Will Gossip Girl avoid the college curse that's plagued every high school show ever? Since we never actually saw them in high school, and NYU barely counts as college, they stand as good a chance as anyone. Just as long as it's not another season of "omg Blair & Chuck 4eva omg."

The Office (September 17th, 9-9:30 PM, NBC)
Jim and Pam get married! Other than that, we'll really see the writers' creativity in keeping this show going into its sixth(!) season.

Community (September 17th, 9:30-10 PM, NBC, NEW SHOW)
A chance to see Joel McHale do something other than make fun of Speidi/Ryan Seacrest/Miley? I'm so there (as long as I can still get my weekly Soup fixings on Friday).

Curb Your Enthusiasm (September 20th, 9-9:30 PM, HBO)
This show's still on? After however many seasons, Larry David's found a surefire way to get people to watch: Seinfeld reunion! Guess he wins, cause I'll be watching.

Bored to Death (September 20th, 9:30-10 PM, HBO, NEW SHOW)
Sure, it's cool that the cast consists of Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and The Hangover's Zach Galifinokusableskiver (maybe someday I'll learn his name, but today is not that day). But the real reason I'm excited? The theme song. Wouldn't be the first time I watched a show just for its theme song (that would be Angel).

How I Met Your Mother (September 21st, 8-8:30 PM, CBS)
Barney & Robin! Ted's at Columbia! The mother's in his class! 100th episode musical spectacular! All of which suggests this season will be legen - wait for it...

Heroes (September 21st, 8-9 PM, NBC)
I know I wrote a whole post on how Heroes' fourth volume wasn't as bad as everyone said, but that doesn't mean I'm actually looking forward to the new season. It's go big or go home time for Heroes, cause I don't think anyone will put up with another year of coasting by.

...dary! Legendary!

The Good Wife (September 22nd, 10-11 PM, CBS, NEW SHOW)
This so doesn't seem like my kind of show, but critics seem to be enjoying it. And there's absolutely nothing else AT ALL on Tuesday nights. So maybe I'll check it out? We'll see.

Modern Family (September 23rd, 9-9:30 PM, ABC, NEW SHOW)
Count this as another one the critics (may or may not) have convinced me to watch. Sounds like a pretty standard family sitcom to me, but supposedly it's hilarious. Maybe I should actually watch a promo...

Cougar Town (September 23rd, 9:30-10 PM, ABC, NEW SHOW)
Ok, promos aren't going to help on this one, but it's Bill Lawrence! The Scrubs man himself! So I've got to at least give it a try.

Flash Forward (September 24th, 8-9 PM, ABC, NEW SHOW)
People keep calling it "the next Lost", thinking it will fool all of us die-hard Lost fans into watching. They're right. I can't wait. Whether it lasts past the pilot to become a great series or suffers The Nine syndrome (which many critics fear), at least it won't be an NCIS spin-off.

Dollhouse (September 25th, 9-10 PM, Fox)
Yes! After getting hooked this summer, this is one of my most anticipated returning shows. Adding to my excitement is their decision to go all-out geek this year, with guest/recurring roles by BSG's Apollo and Colonel Tigh, Summer Glau of Firefly fame, and Buffy and Angel's Alexis Denisof (aka Mr. Alyson Hannigan). Now we just need to get Amy Acker's show canceled so we can have our Whiskey back.

Saturday Night Live (September 26th, 11:30 PM-1 AM, NBC)
New girls were cast. Other girls were kicked off. Still nobody can do a decent Obama.

The Cleveland Show (September 27th, 8:30-9 PM, Fox, NEW SHOW)
Even though I no longer regularly watch Family Guy, I'd still like to give the spin-off a look. Can't be as bad as American Dad, right?

Dexter (September 27th, 9-10 PM, Showtime)
Yes! My #1 most anticipated show of the fall. No matter what the storylines, I'm always happy to watch Dexter, Deb, Rita, and the rest. And with John Lithgow's Trinity Killer, the return of FBI Agent Lundy, and domesticated Dexter now married with a baby, this season should up the watercooler factor even further.

South Park (October 7th, 10-10:30 PM, Comedy Central)
South Park likes to alternate between smart, satirical humor and stupid, gross humor. While the former may be less than 25% of the show, it's good enough that I trudge through the rest.

30 Rock (October 15th, 9:30-10 PM, NBC)
Why does NBC keep holding 30 Rock back a month? If season 4 starts better than last year's guest star marathon, I'll forgive them.

V (November 3rd, 8-9 PM, ABC, NEW SHOW)
Juliet vs. aliens? What's not to love? It's like a preview to the Lost series finale (I'm kidding....I hope).

So that's what I'm looking forward to. How about you? What new shows are you most excited to try, what returning favorites have left you in suspense all summer, and what shows are finally getting kicked off your DVR? That's what the comments are for.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Serious Summer Movie Catch-Up

In an effort to go into the fall with a clean-slate blog-wise, I'm taking care of 5 summer movies I saw months ago yet somehow haven't written about yet. I know you've already seen 3 of these, so there's no point in going into too much detail. And I still owe you District 9 and Julie & Julia.

I'm going in order of enjoyment, from Star Trek to Transformers 2.

Star Trek

Grade: A-

A Star Trek movie equally beloved by the hardcore Trekkies (sorry, Trekkers) and those like me who had never seen a single movie or episode of any of the TV shows. Why? 2 reasons: 1. JJ Abrams made the kind of light, fun blockbuster we wish all summer movies could be. 2. The young cast of insta-stars brought all sorts of new life into an aging franchise. I wouldn't say this was a Dark Knight level instant classic, but more Iron Man level: a thoroughly enjoyable movie that made me very excited to see what will come next.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Grade: B+

Ok, there were some strange changes from the book (what happened to the final battle sequence?), and it did feel like like a warm-up for Deathly Hallows. But there's a lot this Potter got right in ways the previous ones didn't. More than ever before, this one didn't get bogged down in excess exposition and extraneous sub-plots, keeping it simple with the most important story threads (like snogging. How great was Lavender Brown?). And it's probably the most visually stunning Potter yet. So I say no, Manohla Dargis, this is not a tiring franchise, but one ready to rev up for a (hopefully) incredible finale.

Away We Go

Grade: B+

Sam Mendes can't get any respect. Pretentious film school types call American Beauty the worst Best Picture winner in recent memory (have they not seen Chicago or Million Dollar Baby?) and Revolutionary Road got unfairly snubbed by everyone last year. Now his newest has gotten a rather lukewarm response from most critics. But you know what? I liked it. Some episodes along the road trip story get a little too over-the-top and sitcommy (I'm looking at you, Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal), but the two leads keep everything nicely grounded. John Krasinski proves he can be more than Jim Halpert, and Maya Rudolph amazes in her first dramatic performance. Even if nobody else remembers, she's on my shortlist for year-end honors.

The Taking of Pelham 123

Grade: B+

It's sad that this somehow ended up on that infamous list of movies that supposedly prove people don't want movies for adults (always along with State of Play and The Soloist). Because it was actually one of the most satisfying action movies this summer. Updating a classic (which, by the way, still totally holds up and you should go see now) to fit today's times, this Pelham is a completely different movie that still completely works. At first John Travolta seems way too ridiculous, but once you get used to him you kind of enjoy his villainous turn. And Tony Scott keeps the suspense and action coming strong. People may not still be watching this version 30 years from now, but they're missing out if they don't catch it now.

Transformers 2

Grade: C-

In the movie's defense, it was exactly what I was expecting. Problem is, I was expecting 2 and a half hours of machines fighting each other with ridiculous dialogue and a plot that makes absolutely no sense. And honestly, the special effects aren't even that great. You can't even tell what's going on in the machinery most of the time. As for the "humans," I continue to not get the appeal of Shia Labeouf, who's at his most annoying here, while I kept expecting Megan Fox to turn into a robot (that's not a comment on her acting, I just don't think she seems entirely human, which is why Jennifer's Body is a good movie for her). The plot has something to do with robots trying to destroy the sun with a gun hidden in the pyramids, but you're not really supposed to pay attention to that. More pressing was that the movie NEVER ENDS. I'm sure this is some people's idea of entertainment, but not mine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Weeds Cracks Its Way to a Great Finale

First of all, if you haven't seen the Weeds season 5 finale, STOP READING. MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

Well, for whatever else you might say about Weeds' fifth season, that was a pretty phenomenal way to end it. I'm not even talking about the full episode, I really mean just those last two minutes. Or how bout just that final image of Pilar floating bloody in the pool after Shane whacked her upside the head with a croquet mallet? That right there made any of the season's faults worth getting through, and easily renews my interest in watching a sixth season.

Thing is, Weeds has always had pretty great cliffhangers for a show that once called itself a comedy. Season 1 had the DEA reveal. Season 2 had that crazy shitstorm of a bad drug deal that still ranks as one of my favorite cliffhanger endings for any show. Season 3 had the burning of Agrestic, and season 4 had the pregnancy reveal that kept me watching into this season after the meandering waste of a season that preceded it.

It's unfair though to say that Shane's swing is all that made this year worthwhile. While still not really a comedy anymore and a far cry from the Agrestic years, season 5 was a vast improvement over season 4. Characters interacted with each other more, and weren't bogged down in as many pointless storylines (remember the coyote business and Mermex? I try not to). Sure, Silas and Doug's pot store ended abruptly, but at least it led into something else. And Andy actually got stories that affected the show instead of just launching him on a series of misadventures.

Some of the new characters are even starting to work for me. Esteban may not be the most exciting character ever, but at least he got to do more this season than go "I'm a drug kingpin AND a politician, isn't that wacky?" Cesar has become more than Esteban's lackey and always has some fun scenes with Nancy. And Ignacio (aka Perro Insano) is often the funniest part in any episode. Maybe it's cause he's the only one who ever seems to be having any fun.

Other things to look forward to: As much as Celia's been all over the place the past few seasons, having her resurrect Nancy's drug dealing organization is exactly the kind of return-to-the-show's roots that's needed. With Nancy having nothing to do with drugs this season, somebody's got to keep up the title of the show.

Still, that last scene was a whole other level of satisfying. After Pilar's whole big speech about her plans to dispose of Shane and Silas since they were "extraneous," a deathblow to the head was exactly what she needed. It was all the more surprising since tricky spoiler guru Michael Ausiello over at Entertainment Weekly had pretty much convinced all his readers that Shane would be shooting Nancy in the finale instead. All in all, a great ending to a so-so season. Not bad for a show that's been on this long.