Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oscar Nomination Predictions

On Tuesday, early in the morning, the Oscar nods will finally be announced, following what feels like 500 other award ceremonies. We'll get to see if ten nominees for best picture leads to some wacky mainstream picks, or just an expansion of typical Academy fare. So, while I fully admit to letting my personal preferences get in the way of serious conjecture, here are my predictions for how the top races will look, from most likely to least:

Best Picture

The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
Inglourious Basterds
An Education
District 9
A Serious Man
(500) Days of Summer

I'm probably the only one thinking Summer could be nominated, but I figure there's got to be one out of left field pick, and Invictus feels like the most vulnerable of the expected nominees. That said, it's way more likely to be A Serious Man falling out and The Blind Side or Star Trek coming in.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Neil Blomkamp, District 9

The first four are pretty much locks, so it's only the last slot that may surprise. It could go to Lee Daniels to recognize what the best picture nominees would have been in a normal year, or to Clint Eastwood for who knows why. But I think they'll want to recognize Blomkamp.

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Colin Firth, A Single Man

I feel pretty safe predicting these five, since the biggest challenger is Viggo Mortenson and I'm just not seeing it for The Road.

Best Actress

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Again, the top four here are pretty much locks, and most expect Helen Mirren to take the fifth slot. But since I don't think many voters will watch The Last Station, general support for Inglourious Basterds could sneak Melanie Laurent in (as much as I'm tempted to put Zoe Saldana in slot #5).

Best Supporting Actor

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Alfred Molina, An Education
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker

While Christoph Waltz has the win in the bag, I'm less sure who will be joining him among the nominees. I can't see Matt Damon making it in since he pretty much just did an accent and played rugby, and I'm going against Christopher Plummer in The Last Station for the same reason as Helen Mirren. Since Christian McKay may suffer the same problem of people not seeing his movie, maybe the recent guild love will carry over for Hurt Locker into a supporting actor nomination.

Best Supporting Actress

Mo'nique, Precious
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds

I refuse to predict Nine for any major nominations, and not having seen The Messenger I'm doubting Samantha Morton too. So unless they stick Melanie Laurent in supporting actress (which they quite possibly will), I'll go with Diane Kruger.

Best Original Screenplay

Inglourious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
(500) Days of Summer
A Serious Man

If the Academy goes crazy for Avatar, I suppose it could steal one of these slots (as could The Hangover), but I'm sticking with the five that deserve it.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Up in the Air
An Education
District 9
Fantastic Mr. Fox

This is one of the more competitive categories, as I could totally see Julie & Julia, The Blind Side, or Invictus sneaking in, but I'll play it safe here.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dollhouse's Epitaph

Last night, Dollhouse got to do what few cancelled shows are able to: air a series finale. And not a season finale that maybe sorta not really can function as a series finale, or a pseudo series finale that clearly leaves room for another season, but an actual end. And while, much like most of this season, the final hour felt like it could have used a whole lot more episodes to tell the story (at the very least two hours would have been nice), it still gave closure for all of us fans still watching.

Picking up where the DVD-only Epitaph One ended, Epitaph Two began in 2020 with Epitaph One survivors Felicia Day, Zone, and little-girl-imprinted-as-Caroline making their way to Safe Haven in a postapocalyptic world where tech has gotten so out of control that most of the world has either been imprinted or lives in the blankslate mode of unimprinted dolls (if you can follow that sentence, you're definitely a fan). Thankfully, they quickly meet up with the rest of the gang, so unlike Epitaph One we get to experience the finale through all of our main characters (well, minus Boyd and Whiskey).

So where are they ten years in the future? Well, it seems Boyd's vaccine survived even if Rossum headquarters didn't, and they were able to protect themselves from imprint-palooza. Echo and Ballard roam the world shooting down various incarnations of Harding and Clyde (guess Boyd was the only Rossum bigshot not to back himself up), Priya/Sierra had a kid, and Tony/Victor got so obsessed with mental upgrades Priya wouldn't even tell the kid Tony's his dad. Topher got the darkest future, driven crazy while forced to work for the Rossum survivors on a way to imprint the rest of the world.

I'm still not sure I understand why Rossum wanted to create an apocalypse in the first place. I think Boyd thought it was inevitable so just wanted to survive it, but that doesn't explain the rest. Anyway, the plot begins when Echo and Ballard find Topher, who believes he can make the world right again, as long as he can return to the Dollhouse. So return to LA they do, where the zombie-like Butchers stand guarding the entrance and holy shit shoot Ballard in the head. And Echo doesn't even react, just moves on. Crazy.

More surprises await inside the Dollhouse, where Alpha is greet them? Yes, somewhere in the past ten years he became a good guy, and sane. This was one of the places where we really did miss seeing what happened in those ten years, since Alpha as a good guy just isn't as fun as bad Alpha. And forgive me if I'm forgetting, but wasn't Whiskey still in the Dollhouse when Felicia Day left at the end of Epitaph One? How come she couldn't show up in the finale (other than a commitment to an ABC show that may never actually air)?

Thanks to a video of Bennett (nice touch), Topher figured out how to make his pulse bomb, but had to be there to release it himself, giving the typically heroic death to a complicated character. While the rest of the world woke up (did they fall asleep?), our gang was forced to remain in the Dollhouse so they wouldn't forget the past ten years, except for De Witt, who was assigned to lead the new world order. It was a little like the Buffy finale, when all the Potential Slayers were awoken and Giles restarted the Watchers Council to teach them what to do. And with a year to reconnect with Ballard, now imprinted into her increasingly crowded brain, Echo lay down in the pod to rest.

All in all, it was a satisfying finale that tied up most loose ends and left everyone in a secure place. But I wouldn't say it was a great series finale in the level that Buffy's was. With that ten year gap standing in the way, I couldn't help but feel that I didn't really know the characters as well (even if they certainly didn't look ten years older). Since they barely figured into Epitaph One, there's a lot of missing pieces in this story. And with so much plot happening so fast, it definitely felt a bit rushed (after ten years, Topher saves the world in like 30 seconds). Plus, after hiding it well all season, Dollhouse's low budget showed itself pretty clearly in the unconvincing apocalyptic world.

Still, the rush that was the second half of this season, filling each episode with so many crazy reveals and so much character growth, will surely help cement this as a cult classic-to-be on DVD. You can't fault Fox too much, as most networks wouldn't have granted the second season in the first place, and certainly not allowed it to air all its episodes without too long a break (remember what ABC did with Pushing Daisies' final 3 pisodes?). Dollhouse had plenty of flaws and was never going to be a mass-audience success, but it was surely one of the most original shows to ever make it on TV. I'm certainly glad I stuck with it, and if you didn't, check it out sometime.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Totally Re-Hooked on Damages

Well, we can add Damages to the list of shows I really shouldn't delay watching. At the very least, I should never ever read Entertainment Weekly's spoiler column unless I am 100% caught-up on every single show I watch. You'd think I'd learn by now. But just because the final twist was somewhat spoiled for me (and I'll delay discussing it until later in case you missed this SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T SEEN THE DAMAGES SEASON 3 PREMIERE) doesn't mean I wasn't able to enjoy an exciting premiere that got me immediately as hooked as I was in season 1.

In fact, there was a lot about the premiere that harked back to the original pilot. There was a Patty and Ellen face-off in a public bathroom. There was a successful attempt to get a witness to cooperate by harming what they love pretending to be the other side (thankfully this time the target was a motorcycle instead of a dog). And, of course, an ending revealing something not so nice 6 months in the future.

But unlike in Damages' first season, Arthur Frobisher was nowhere to be seen, as a whole new case is beginning. And unlike last year, where it took the writers awhile to get the case going, this week's episode put us right into it. Louis Tobin (Len Cariou) is a Bernie Madoff-like figure who screwed over a whole bunch of people in a Ponzi scheme. His family - wife Marilyn (Lily Tomlin), son Joe (Campbell Scott), and daughter-in-law Rachel (Reiko Aylesworth) - seem to be left with nothing, but Patty's not so sure. And this year she's pitted against Martin Short's Lenny, a Tom Hagen-like lawyer who's known the family forever.

A plot based on Bernie Madoff seems more like something for Law & Order than Damages (and L&O has already done it), but even one episode in it's clear this is just a starting point. In fact, Louis has the least screen time of all of the Tobins, as it's the question of how much the rest of the family knew that drives the season. So far, Joe seems legitimately clean. The good husband and father, trying to do the right thing. Which is how William Hurt seemed this time last season too. This is Damages; you know he's gonna turn out to be bad. We don't have to wait too long to see how, as by episode's end Louis reveals the hidden money exists. Think Joe will turn over the info to Patty? Not a chance.

Damages is known for its against-type casting - Ted Danson as a bad guy, Darrell Hammond doing drama - but this season goes a lot further by putting Tomlin and Short in dramatic roles. How are they doing? Too soon to tell. Neither is yet entirely convincing in their parts, but we don't know much about them yet. Short's been able to show some menace in his taking down of the reporter, so Lenny may very well be Patty's most formidable foe since Ray Fiske. And if Marilyn thinks Patty's "not too sharp," well, she's bound to be disappointed. As for Scott, he seems to be underplaying his part a la William Hurt last season. It didn't work out too well for him, but I think Scott will pull it off. And I'm always happy to see 24's Michelle Dessler back onscreen.

It's strange that I've gone this far and have barely mentioned Ellen, the clear main character for the first 2 seasons. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the "6 months later" flashforwards are for the first time all about Patty, not Ellen. This year Rose Byrne may actually belong in the supporting actress category she is continually nominated in, because Patty has emerged as the protagonist this year. Having left Hewes & Associates (now Hewes Shayes Associates) to work in the DA's office (for Angels in America's Ben Shenkman), Ellen's a bit out of the action so far. We know it won't last.

Lots of other intriguing developments. Keith Carradine pops up (following roles on Dexter and Dollhouse) as a potential romantic interest for Patty, but again, this is Damages, so he's got to be up to something shifty. The phone number Louis called on that fateful Thanksgiving night belonged a homeless man...who also appears in the flashforward....with the purse Patty gave Ellen.....what?

Finally, the ending, which perfectly mirrored the pilot in revealing the death of a major character, in this case Tom Shayes. I know this should seem like a shocking and daring decision, but it just feels like 24 syndrome to me. Ever since 24 killed Terri Bauer, seasonal character deaths have become almost mandatory for suspense shows. And as happened to 24 after it killed off its entire supporting cast in season 5, I worry it could hurt this show later on. Damages only has three continuous characters, with the rest of the cast changing every year. So without Tom, we're really just down to Patty and Ellen providing the show with any continuity.

On the other hand, this is an even bigger deal than David's death, and raises the stakes for the season all the higher. Knowing the case will ultimately take Tom's life (and apparently turn him into Howard Hughes?) makes this more than just a Wall Street thing, but the kind of high-suspense, high-risk case that Damages does best. And Tom finally has a big story and, presumably, more screentime for it. Last year the show took too long to get the case going and got bogged down in way too many characters and plot lines. This year there's a single main storyline and the stakes have already been made abundantly clear. All signs point to an addictive and unmissable season ahead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

FX Swim

Grade: B-

Well, we're only a few weeks into TV midseason, and already I'm behind. Having chosen the Golden Globes over 24 last night, I'll soon be 4 hours behind in one show alone, in addition to the pilot of Human Target, last week's doubleshot of 30 Rock, and the penultimate Dollhouse. Speaking of Dollhouse, the series finale has been preempted by the Haiti telethon, so it will now air on January 29th at 8 PM.

But one thing I have cleared off my DVR is Archer, FX's first animated comedy. FX has had a number of successful dramas, between The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and Damages, but hasn't been quite so lucky on comedies. Sure, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has turned into quite the cult hit, but FX is still seeking a companion show to fill the hour.

Archer, created by writers for various Adult Swim programs, feels like it would have been more at home wedged between Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021. It's about a spy organization called Isis, run by the titular antihero's mother, voiced by Jessica Walter. Joining Walter in the impressive voice cast is her former Arrested Development costar Judy Greer, SNL's Chris Parnell, and ex-Nip/Tucker Aisha Tyler. In the pilot, Archer's tasked with training his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend in spycraft. In the second episode, he invents a mole to doctor his expense accounts, only to discover a real mole.

The show seems to want to be The Tick, but so far it hasn't reached that level. Like most of Adult Swim, Archer is amusing enough, but would probably be funnier if viewed in a crowded dorm late at night while in the midst of some kind of high. The second episode's better than the first, as it puts the focus on Archer instead of viewing him through the other guy. But for a show making fun of spy stories, these first two episodes have been completely tied down in the office. There's plenty of other shows doing a better job with office culture, so why not let Archer be a spy?

It looks like next week will already be more mission-focused, and the show will probably get funnier over time. But like Adult Swim, this seems like the kind of thing that might be fun to get caught in while channel surfing, but not worth setting to your DVR.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ricky Gervais and James Cameron Show

When it comes to the Golden Globes, we watch more for the show than the awards. After all, it's supposed to be the more fun, wacky version of the Oscars, with alcohol actually served and everyone taking their wins a little less seriously. In that respect, tonight's entertainment factor was, as usual, less than might be hoped for. Sure, there was some incoherence (Felicity Huffman) and clearly under the influence of something speeches (Kevin Bacon), but generally it was the same old same old of awards shows.

Which is why it was nice to have Ricky Gervais there to keep things a little more interesting. Usually hosts are expected to follow the Billy Crystal or, more recently, Neil Patrick Harris model, keeping things positive and fun. Anyone who gets a little too snarky (Jon Stewart or Chris Rock, for example) get called a bad choice. So I fully expect most of the media to dismiss Gervais for either being too insulting, or, more likely, not going far enough.

But Gervais' "I don't give a shit" attitude, whether sincere or feigned, was refreshing for a job usually suited by those eager to please, and gave the show a different kind of energy. Whether making jokes at Mel Gibson's expense or bringing up UK vs. US Office yet again, he consistently made me laugh. And in a night filled with routine and unmemorable speeches (except for Robert Downey Jr., obviously), somebody had to. Although what is entertaining is seeing whose speeches they cut off and whose they don't. Meryl Streep? Can talk as long as she wants. Drew Barrymore? Martin Scorsese? Same deal. Everyone else? No such luck.

As for the awards themselves, they brought the usual mix of the expected and the unusual. I was fairly satisfied with the TV awards. Very happy with the well-deserved Dexter double dip for John Lithgow and Michael C. Hall (how is this his first win?). Probably should have taken best drama as well, but I won't complain about Mad Men's win. Also great to see Glee taking best comedy, but seriously, Chloe Sevigny over Jane Lynch for supporting actress? I realize it's hard to compare drama and comedy, and that I haven't watched Big Love since season 1 so how can I judge, but it still should have been Sue Sylvester.

In the movies things got a little more interesting. First of all, a big hooray for Nine's well-deserved shut-out in all categories. I guess the voters actually saw the movie. Or they listened to their friends and didn't. On the fully expected and deserved front, Mo'Nique, Christoph Waltz, and Up continued their awards sweeps that will continue through the Oscars. In toss-ups, Up in the Air stood out in a combined screenplay category cause it's really that good, Up got recognized for its great score, and Jeff Bridges got properly appreciated for Crazy Heart (though between here and on Conan, I'm starting to wonder if he's turning into Bad Blake). Crazy Heart also got recognition for having the only good song in the best song category, so suck on that "Cinema Italiano."

Moving to the odder wins, who would have expected The Hangover to take the top comedy/musical award? Certainly it wouldn't have been Nine, but I would have expected something a little more serious-seeming, like maybe (500) Days of Summer. So kudos to the Globes, then, for changing things up a little. The Hangover was just part of a streak towards more popular movies, which included Sandra Bullock winning for The Blind Side. Now, I haven't seen The Blind Side, and maybe her performance really is better than what's featured in the trailers, but this feels like the same instinct the HFPA had to give her 2 nods in the first place. Star whoring.

Of course, the biggest wins were Avatar's in drama and director. I have to admit, I'm disappointed that The Hurt Locker didn't take director, or anything for that matter. But my theory on the Globes is that their drama prize goes to whatever they think is going to take the Oscar. That explains past wins for movies that once seemed hot than faded by Oscar time, like Babel and Atonement. But since the foreigners have a less populist streak than the Oscars, if they're putting their bet on Avatar, it may really be unstoppable. Barring a surge from Hurt Locker or, looking less likely by the day, Up in the Air, this may just be a practice round for James Cameron before repeating at the Oscars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Project Reinvigorate

Last night Project Runway returned looking to make amends for its universally disdained LA season that ended what felt like 2 days ago. And there were certainly some improvements already made. Michael and Nina were both back, as they will continue to be for the rest of the season. That's already a big step up right there. The show continually drove in that it's back in New York, from returning to the Atlas Hotel to announcing the challenge in Central Park (with a little stage on the pathway. Not sure why).

But aside from those obvious fixes, the overall vibe I got from the premiere is still meh. While the new crop of contestants at least don't all look like they had intended to audition for The Real World like last year, there's not really anyone immediately jumping out yet either. Sure, there's the crazy physical therapist who likes to design for herself. At least she's something new. There's the requisite obnoxiously arrogant one, whose near-win probably just fuels his fire. And a girl who cries. All the time. Seriously.

Most promisingly, the people on the bottom this week weren't THAT bad. Though the ones on the top weren't that good either. Seems to be yet another season full of people in the middle. Of course, unlike on Top Chef, it sometimes takes awhile for the frontrunners to emerge. But I said that last season too and look what happened. Plus, Nicole Ritchie as the guest judge may actually be a step down from Lindsay Lohan last year. What happened to leaving the LA image behind? I'll stick with it for a little while, but it's looking like a change in location can't hide the fact that this Runway is just not fashionable anymore.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It may be 2010, but 2009, I'm not done with you yet. I've still got a few more movies to see before I can do my movie list, but here is my official list of the top 10 TV shows of 2009:

1. Glee
Not since Lost premiered in 2004 have I seen such instant devotion for a new series. From the extremely feel-good pilot last May to the immensely satisfying fall finale, Glee is easily the most enjoyable hour of TV in addition to the first successful musical program. I'd never claim it's objectively the best show on this list, with its myriad pregnancy issues and occasional cheesiness. But between the awesomeness that is Sue Sylvester and the joy of the musical numbers, I'm just having too much fun to care.

2. Dexter
It didn't seem like Dexter could ever top its first two seasons, but it at least came close this year with its most terrifying villain yet in John Lithgow's Trinity Killer. Dexter already had enough to deal with in his new marriage and newer baby while trying to remember where he stashed a recent kill. But Trinity made the drama all the sweeter, whether creating the most horrifying Thanksgiving dinner ever put to television or confronting Dexter eerily in his workplace. And in a year filled with big finales, Dexter wins for the most shocking and talked about ending.

3. Battlestar Galactica
I hope the Lost writers were taking notes, because this is how you end a show. BSG has disappointed me in the past by its regular midseason water treading, but this final season was just one big episode after another. Gaeta and Zarek's attempted coup made for two episodes of quality suspense, and the big cylon reveal episode downloaded a ton of information and answers into our brains without exploding them. But it was the pitch-perfect finale that cements its place on this list, giving the right amount of action, twists, answers, and closure we expect from a classic piece of sci-fi television. So say we all.

4. Lost
Lost's bump from the top isn't intended as a punishment, but it certainly did air its strangest season yet. The season's strongest episodes for me came at the beginning when the island jumped through time, giving glimpses of island history that put a lot of pieces together. But if the long sojourn in 1970s Dharmaville lacked the immediacy of other seasons, it did allow Sawyer to emerge as a hero and Juliet to provide him with the series' most believable romance. With the biggest clean slate of an ending the show's done yet, I don't know what the final year will bring, but I can't wait to find out.

5. Modern Family
At first glance, this so doesn't seem like a show I would watch. Why do I want to help bring back the family sitcom? Well, because it's the funniest thing on TV. With characters so instantly defined and developed, every gag's pay-off hits harder and the occasional "aww" moment works. The reason for all those Arrested Development comparisons isn't just for the dysfunctional family; it's cause that's the last time we laughed this hard.

6. Mad Men
Frustratingly and often infuriatingly, Mad Men loves the slow burn. It leaves you trudging through lame plots like Don's affair with the teacher and Betty's flirtation with the politician until you wonder why you're still watching. Then it slams you with three of the best episodes it's ever produced right at the end. From Don's emotional confession to Betty to the phenomenal JFK assassination episode to the massively entertaining caper of a finale, Mad Men earned its label as the best show on TV.

7. True Blood
I started watching True Blood over the summer, and it's easily the most fun thing to come out of HBO in a long time. Season 2 was where it went from cult fave to legitimate hit, through crazy storylines like a maenad who inspires orgies, a church that actively seeks to rid the world of vampires, and a 2000 year old vampire who looks like he's 13. The vampire craze may irritate me in almost every way imaginable, but this is one way I'm happy to indulge it.

8. Dollhouse
I'll admit upfront that Dollhouse is majorly uneven, to the point where even some hardcore Joss Whedon fans couldn't stick with it. They're missing out. Dollhouse not only has one of the coolest premises on TV, but a story that really kicked into gear with Alpha in season 1 and again with the fight against Rossum this season. With a cast that's finally starting to gel and a ridiculous amount of geek-friendly guest stars, it's a shame Dollhouse won't have the chance to become the great show it's proved more and more capable of being. But the accelerated finish sure makes these final episodes all the more riveting.

9. How I Met Your Mother
Having just hit its 100th episode in early 2010, HIMYM is showing some signs of aging, most notably with the not-so-satisfying handling of the brief Barney and Robin relationship. But the advantage of its experience is that the cast plays off each other so well that watching HIMYM really is like hanging out with your (cooler than real life) friends. I certainly wouldn't want the mother to stand in the way of my weekly trips to McLaren's.

10. Damages
In its second season, Damages got so complex that all these months later I couldn't try to tell you what happened. Something about a big company, GPS coordinates, shady FBI guys, and Darrell Hammond playing what seemed to be a gay Donald Trump. But no matter how crazy Damages gets, you can be sure of two things: Glenn Close will be fantastic, and the crazy plot twists will send your mind reeling and begging for more.

Honorable Mentions:
Better Off Ted - Which went from amusing to hilarious in its second season, and deserves a "Save This Show" campaign
30 Rock - Which may be uneven but continues to produce some very funny episodes
The Office - Which saw a huge quality comeback at the beginning of the season...only to sink back down again

Now for my TV awards:

Best Drama: Dexter
Runners-Up: Battlestar Galactica, Lost

Best Comedy: Glee
Runners-Up: Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother

Best New Show: Glee
Runners-Up: Modern Family, V

Best Actor, Drama: Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Runners-Up: Jon Hamm, Mad Men; Josh Holloway, Lost

Best Actress, Drama: Glenn Close, Damages
Runners-Up: January Jones, Mad Men; Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica

Best Supporting Actor, Drama: John Lithgow, Dexter
Runners-Up: John Slattery, Mad Men; Michael Emerson, Lost

Best Supporting Actress, Drama: Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter
Runners-Up: Christina Hendricks, Mad Men; Olivia Williams, Dollhouse

Best Actor, Comedy: Matthew Morrison, Glee
Runners-Up: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock; Danny McBride, Eastbound and Down

Best Actress, Comedy: Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Runners-Up: Toni Collette, The United States of Tara; Lea Michele, Glee

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy: Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Runners-Up: Ty Burrell, Modern Family; Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy: Jane Lynch, Glee
Runners-Up: Portia de Rossi, Better Off Ted; Julie Bowen, Modern Family

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hurts So Good

Grade: A

I know, I know, you're sick of people telling you to see The Hurt Locker. You know that every single critic thinks it's the greatest thing on the planet, but that didn't get you to see United 93 or any of those other depressing critics' picks either. Well, here's the thing: The Hurt Locker is not that movie. It is not a serious drama about the politics of Iraq. It is not moralistic and "good for you." It is a kick-ass action movie that is easily the most suspenseful thing you will see in any medium this year. And now that it's out on DVD, you've run out of excuses.

After an opening scene that puts you right into the action as an army squad's bomb defuser (Guy Pearce, in a cameo) is killed in an explosion mid-job, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is brought in as his replacement. He immediately butts heads with team leader Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who's immediately put off by James' cavalier and unorthodox ways. James lives for his work, determined to work on the bomb til the last second no matter how many men with cell phones may be lurking in their perimeter.

The only real overall plot comes in the form of a counter telling how many days are left in the squad's rotation, but before they can come home there's a whole bunch of action sequences to survive. Each bomb defusion sequence is an exercise in pure suspense. Of course there's the expected suspense of which wire to cut and the wrong wire could lead to an explosion, but here the setting makes it a lot more than that. Because any cell phone can trigger the alarm, any random person could kill them all with the push of a button. So for any witness, it's always "what are they holding, what are they doing." And when Sanborn decides an area isn't safe enough to continue and James keeps on working anyway, there's drama.

A series of bomb defusing sequences sounds like it should get repetitive. And it would if that's all there was, but there's a lot more going on. No two defusion scenes are alike. In one, what seems like a single bomb turns out to be a whole lot more, and in another there's a person strapped to it. In between, there are a number of other events that occur - a desert stand-off, a friendship between James and a street urchin, the growing camaraderie between the teammates, and more.

Because although the action is topnotch, it's the characters that elevate this to something truly special. James is a classic American hero - the rugged individualist who breaks the rules to get the job done right. And Renner's performance is truly the definition of a star-making role. Handling both James' badass-ness on the job and his inner confusion over his priorities, Renner continually made me think of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or any other case where an actor broke onto the scene with an iconic character. We'll be seeing a lot more from him.

James' two teammates have less showy roles, but the interactions between the three of them are what make the movie. The relationship between James and Sanborn could be the conventional "clash at first but then become friends," but it's a little more complicated than that. There's always that slight distrust, and the danger that one of them might really act against the other. And despite often siding against James, Mackie makes Sanborn far more sympathetic and complex than his role might suggest. The third man in the troop is Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the greenest and most fearful of the three. Through him, the other two get to act the mentor and we get to experience the dangers of war.

Not enough can be said for Kathryn Bigelow's direction, as who could have guessed she would make this movie? Not only is she most known for the Keanu Reeves surfing movie Point Break, but it's hard to imagine any woman directing so masculine a movie that the big emotional bonding scene involves everyone punching each other. But she nails the macho characters, she orchestrates the action scenes to maximum suspense, and she provides some truly amazing visuals. War may be hell, but there's a lot of beauty in her shots.

In many ways, The Hurt Locker feels like one of the great Vietnam classics - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and especially Full Metal Jacket. Which makes The Hurt Locker not just "an Iraq movie," but the first classic war movie for the Iraq War. Many have said The Hurt Locker could take place in any war, which is both true and false. Certainly the biggest components of the movie - bomb defusing suspense, trust between soldiers, fears of war, the comforts of home vs. the rush of action - have nothing to do with Iraq. But the Iraq setting does influence the movie in many positive ways, from the added suspense of the potential terrorist with the cell phone to the eery arid landscapes to the complex relationships with the locals.

So if you've delayed seeing The Hurt Locker because you think it's of the same cloth as Rendition, Lions for Lambs, or any of those other moralistic flops, set aside your fears. This is a movie for anyone who's been waiting for a great war film, who likes suspense, or just wants to see some of the best developed and well-acted characters in any movie this year. Unless you want me and the critics of America to continue to harass you, you might as well go ahead and watch it. Then you can be the annoying one telling all your friends to see it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Suits and Dolls

Tonight, How I Met Your Mother celebrated its one hundredth episode, an accomplishment all the more impressive for those of us that remember the days when the producers had to cast Britney Spears (multiple times) just to stave off cancellation. It also meant an episode that had just about everything you could want from HIMYM: Barney being awesome, a big step forward in the story of the mother, a fun cameo, and, oh yeah, NPH singing.

First up, Ted. I know he's most fans' least favorite character, but this Barney&Robin-heavy season has proved how important it is to still keep him the center of the show. A lot of us started watching the show because of episodes like "The Pineapple Incident," "Mary the Paralegal," and the wedding episodes where he met Victoria. So it's only appropriate that the 100th episode devote some time to Ted's love life. Of course it would be too obvious if Rachel Bilson turned out to be the mother, but we got a whole lot more info about her: she plays bass in a band, likes T.C. Boyle, sings songs using breakfast foods, and makes paintings with robots playing sports. Yeah, sounds like the right woman for Ted. And not to defend Future Ted too much, but every viewing of the yellow umbrella is another step in the story.

Now on to Barney. Barney faced a crisis of conscience when he found out the new "hot bartender" he wanted wouldn't go for a guy in a suit. There's a couple of obvious plotholes here. In what universe would Barney have never slept with a bartender? That's where most lotharios begin! Is McLaren's literally the only bar he goes to? And secondly, I've gotta side with Marshall here - she's definitely not hot enough to get guys lining out the door and Barney to give up his suits.

Those quibbles aside, there was tons of good Barney action tonight. We got to see him unnaturally suit-less and pawing at Marshall's jacket. The secret compartment inside the McLaren's bathroom stall where a suit was waiting. Tim Gunn as his personal tailor. And in one of my favorite bits of the night: "Wait for it...." "We know you're going to say suit." "Suit." Between that and the suits eerily telling him to "suit up," season 1 catchphrases made a big comeback.

Still, the big moment came at the end, when Barney broke out into song on the joys of suits. The other cast members may have played a minor role, but that's just fine when NPH gets to use the voice we heard and loved in Dr. Horrible and all those award shows. And the music was surprisingly good as well. Maybe not Buffy musical calibre, but pretty damn enjoyable. 100 episodes in, it's nice to see the show is still this entertaining.

On the other side of the TV longevity scale, Dollhouse won't even get a fourth as far as HIMYM already has, but its cancellation has only made the show amp up the awesomeness. For the first time I can recall, we're witnessing what would happen if a show knew it had a certain number of episodes to wrap up an entire series. As the writers are trying to condense three or four seasons into 9 episodes, every episode now feels like 6-in-1. Which explains why this past Friday's episode was such a series of escalating "oh shit" moments.

Coming out of the excellent "attic" episode from before the break, Dollhouse upped the ante by bringing back a whole bunch of MVPs, starting with Dr. Saunders, who it turns out has been living with Boyd this whole time (oh shit moment #1). Hence his coming in late and referencing "personal stuff." Those writers sure are crafty. Since my biggest problem with this season has been the lack of Whiskey, her return was a very welcome surprise.

The other big return was Summer Glau's Bennett, aka female Topher, who we learned a lot more about through flashbacks of her history with Caroline. We also learned a whole lot more about Caroline. In Caroline's season one flashback, I remember thinking, "that's it?" They had built her up as some big mysterious character, then when we saw her she was just like "I want to save animals! Woo!" Kind of a let-down. But this episode showed she was doing a little more than that. She wasn't caught after a single break-in, but after a longer campaign against Rossum that involved befriending Bennett and using her to blow up Rossum's main building. And turns out Caroline wasn't running to save herself when she left Bennett behind, but to keep Bennett's cover.

In addition to the info overload, Bennett's return meant some quality awkwardness with Topher, who managed to make his previous encounter with her seem smooth. Between the painful kissing and the constantly referencing having punched her, you'd think he was ruining his chances except she totally went for it. Which was sweet. Until Whiskey SHOT HER IN THE HEAD (oh shit moment #2)!!! Who programmed her? What's the reason? Who knows!

Well, we do by the end of the episode, when Echo as Caroline remembers meeting the two men Clyde told her were in charge. After being called up the elevator to the Director's office, she saw Clyde 2.0 (or 5.0) in the flesh. And he looked....about what you'd expect, the most benign, least threatening individual imaginable. Hardly like he was the architect of the apocalypse. Because that role was left to the real man in charge, the one who betrayed original Clyde to run Rossum single-handedly....Boyd Langton (biggest oh shit moment of the series).

Yeah, didn't see that one coming. Boyd implanted Caroline within the Dollhouse, presumably with the ability to retain multiple personalities so she could become Echo, then placed himself inside as her handler so he could protect her and keep her in place. But for what? To ensure the apocalypse, or to try to stop it? Might Boyd still be a good guy after all? Or has leading De Witt to fight against Rossum been part of some other plan we know nothing about?

Well, it would have been nice to see Dollhouse play out in a more normal and leisurely fashion, but when the speeded-up version leads to episodes this good, it's hard to complain. Final two episodes are going to be huge.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Frog's Leap Back to Childhood

Grade: B+

I don't know about you, but I've missed the traditional, hand-drawn, classic Disney musicals, the kind that ended with Mulan in 1998. Don't get me wrong - I do love Pixar and the wonderfully sophisticated movies they make, but the old Disney movies have a certain special quality to them. Maybe it's because we all grew up on them, whether it was The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin for my generation, or Snow White and Pinocchio all those decades ago.

So while The Princess and the Frog, the much-anticipated return to traditional animation form, may be kids' stuff, it's also worth grown-up viewing for anyone with a healthy sense of nostalgia. I know that when I saw the Magic Kingdom intro, I felt pulled back to Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney and all the movies of my youth. But it works because it doesn't just rehash the old, instead finding a new enough variation on the familiar story to hold up to what came before it.

Set during Jazz Age era New Orleans, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress who has always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. Instead of living her life, she's worked two jobs and saved every penny. Rich and lazy party boy Prince Naveen (Bruce Campos) arrives to New Orleans and soon ends up turned into a frog by Voodoo Man Dr. Facilier (Keith David). When froggy Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him and turns her into a frog as well, they set off on an adventure to regain their human forms. Will they learn their life lessons and fall in love in the process? If you don't know the answers, you've never seen a Disney movie.

While the formula's still intact, the setting and characters do make this feel new beyond the obvious benchmark of "first African-American Disney princess." This older New Orleans may be Disneyfied, but it's still a fun place to visit, and Tiana makes for an immensely likable lead. It's refreshing that Disney took a turn away from the current inclination to stuff animated movies with celebrities. Sure, you may remember Rose from Dreamgirls and Campos from Nip/Tuck, but John Goodman's the most known voice here (outside of Terrence Howard and Oprah in bit parts). The actors all slip into their parts without distracting and make the movie feel all the more timeless.

Mostly though, it's the familiarity that makes Frog successful. Tiana and Naveen meet up with an assortment of colorful animal characters along the way, including an alligator who wants to play jazz and a firefly in love with the North Star, both of whom would fit in just fine in The Jungle Book. The villain is like every other Disney villain, even if the voodoo gives him a new twist. And like all Disney movies, it ends with easily digestible morals and a happily ever after. But while all of that shows how much more ambitious Pixar may be with its stories, that doesn't mean there's not a place for this simpler form, which continues to satisfy each and every time Disney does it.

I do wish the music had been stronger, as all Randy Newman songs kind of sound the same to me (plus I always think of that Family Guy bit from the Y2K episode). But while there's no "A Whole New World" or "I'll Make a Man Out of You," and you likely won't be humming any of the songs a week later, they're all perfectly serviceable and entertaining. The Princess and the Frog may not be in the same league as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but it's a worthy addition to the canon that will hopefully inspire more to follow, proving they still can make 'em like they used to.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

TV Midseason Preview 2010

Hey everyone, happy New Year! I know we're already a few days into 2010, but for the first Zandervision post of the year I thought it would make sense to look ahead to all of the various TV show returns, season premieres, and new shows over the next few months. Many thanks to Entertainment Weekly for essentially already doing this, and if you're curious about a show I don't watch, go there.

Scrubs and Better Off Ted (January 5th, 8-10 PM, ABC)
These shows have been airing straight through the holidays, but starting Tuesday they begin doubling up to expedite the burning-off process. While Scrubs' likely cancellation may be for the best, Better Off Ted just keeps getting funnier. Maybe think about giving it a shot before it disappears for good?

Modern Family (January 6th, 9-9:30 PM, ABC)
The funniest new show of the season returns with Benjamin Bratt guest starring as Manny's father.

How I Met Your Mother (January 11th, 8-8:30 PM, CBS)
Not only is this the date that HIMYM returns, but it also marks its 100th episode with Rachel Bilson guest starring, the promise of actually seeing the mother, and best of all, a big musical number featuring the entire cast in suits.

30 Rock (January 14th, 9-10 PM, NBC)
30 Rock returns with two episodes in a row? I want to go to there.

Archer (January 14th, 10-10:30 PM, FX, NEW SHOW)
I missed the preview during the fall, but this animated comedy for adults from some Adult Swim writers is supposed to be well worth a look.

Project Runway (January 14th, 10-11 PM, Lifetime)
If it seems soon for another season of Project Runway, it's probably to wipe away our memories of last season's disaster. But since this time it's back in New York with all judges present, I'll give it at least a few episodes.

The Golden Globe Awards (January 17th, NBC)
The awards themselves don't mean much (if they gave Nine 5 nods they clearly don't watch the movies), but Ricky Gervais as host should make for an entertaining night.

Human Target (January 17th, 8-9 PM, Fox, NEW SHOW)
A comic book based action show starring Mark Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earle Haley. Sounds cool to me.

24 (January 17th & 18th, 9-11 PM & 8-10 PM, Fox)
Yes! Bauer is back, and this time in New York with a ton of new blood including Freddie Prinze Jr., Starbuck, Indian Regis Philbin from Slumdog Millionaire, and Bubba from Forrest Gump. Plus some old blood in Chloe, Renee, and President Taylor.

Life UneXpected (January 18th, 9-10 PM, The CW, NEW SHOW)
TV Guide Magazine calls it "Gilmore Girls meets Juno." Since it's about a teenager who becomes friends with her biological parents, if you like Gilmore Girls, you'll probably like this. Not my kind of show, but at least it's not yet another remake of something from the '90s

The Office (January 21st, 9-9:30 PM, NBC)
With the sale of Dunder Mifflin, maybe The Office will find yet another way to keep itself relevant in its 6th season. Just as long as they never do something like "Scott's Tots" ever again.

Dollhouse (January 22nd, 9-10 PM, Fox)
Not a return but an ending, as Dollhouse airs its series finale. Since the episode is titled "Epitaph 2," it looks like Echo and De Witt's fight against Rossum won't stop the eventual apocalypse, but we may find out what happens to everyone after tech takes over.

Caprica (January 22nd, 9-11 PM, SyFy, NEW SHOW)
If you want to get a headstart on this prequel series to Battlestar Galactica, you can catch the two-hour pilot on DVD. Having just watched it, I can say it's nowhere up to BSG quality yet and is a lot slower paced, but I still found enough cool and intriguing stuff here to want to check out the show. Seems appropriate to be premiering the night Dollhouse ends, since I could certainly use something to fill the sci-fi void.

Spartacus (January 22nd, 9-10 PM, Starz, NEW SHOW)
This attempt to essentially turn 300 into a TV show is probably far too silly for my taste, but if the idea of Lucy Lawless doing something somewhat back in the Xena realm sounds exciting, this is the show for you.

Damages (January 25th, 10-11 PM, FX)
Heading into its third season, Damages is looking to be just as complex and crazy as ever. This time the case centers on a Bernie Madoff like figure (played by original Sweeney Todd Len Cariou) and his wacky family, including wife Lily Tomlin, son Campbell Scott, and secret keeper Martin Short, in an attempt to go serious. If nothing else, Damages always wins for creative casting.

Lost (February 2nd, 9-11 PM, ABC)
Beginning its final season, Lost is easily my most anticipated return of all of 2010. Since the writers say even a single clip would give away everything, all I can say about season 6 is that Claire's back, a bunch of dead people guest star, and it's going to be awesome.

Parenthood (March 1st, 9-10 PM, NBC)
Originally slated for the fall, Parenthood intrigued me then and still does now that Lauren Graham's starring. Though does that mean I need to see the movie?

Gossip Girl (March 8th, 8-9 PM, The CW)
Why such a long break mid-season? Hopefully the writers are taking their time to come up with something good to close the season, because Dan's threesome and Tripp's bug-eyes certainly don't count. And no, neither does bringing Chuck's mom back from the dead.

V (March 30th, 10-11 PM, ABC)
It's looking like a massive ratings drop is inevitable given ABC's idiotic decision to take a long break after airing the initial four episodes. But if you keep watching, the mistake doesn't have to be fatal.

Glee (April 13th, 9-10 PM, Fox)
Another mind-bogglingly long mid-season wait, but the promise of Sue Sylvester singing and dancing makes it worthwhile. The bigger problem will be what to watch first now that Glee and Lost share a timeslot.