Saturday, December 12, 2009

Year End Round Up

It's almost 31 December, which means it's time for LISTS. Lots of lists. I'll be doing a few as we lead up to 2010, starting with this one:

The Ten Best Television Shows of 2009*

10. V - ABC's remake of the '80s alien miniseries has got a great cast, cool effects, and tight, exciting scripts. It only aired a handful of episodes in the fall '09 season, but I'm excited for its return next spring.

9. Dexter - After flagging a bit for the past few seasons, Dexter has really picked up the pace with what has been arguably its strongest season. John Lithgow has been surprisingly, insanely good. The finale promises to be some finely crafted television.

8. Sons of Anarchy - FX has consistently hit it out of the park with this gritty drama. They've become quite the cable powerhouse, and Sons may be their new flagship drama.

7. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Rarely does a comedy manage so many hit episodes, with only one or two duds per season. Sunny consistently delivers madcap humor, taken to its most uncomfortable extremes. Bonus points for the totally insane straight-to-DVD holiday special.

6. LOST - The fifth season of the hit mystery/drama flagged a bit in the middle, spending too much time in a past that didn't seem relevant to the show's overall direction. It opened strong, though, and ended even stronger. With the finale introducing what appears to be a major reboot for the show (and doing so in awesome, highly dramatic fashion), the sixth and final season looks extremely promising.

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm - Larry David's HBO show was in huge danger of getting redundant and unenjoyable. Thankfully, the Seinfeld reunion this season injected new energy into the comedy, providing possibly the most entertaining Curb yet, made even better by a very satisfying resolution for the Seinfeld gang.

4. Modern Family - ABC's sitcom is genuinely funny, has had some phenomenal A-List guest stars, and totally breaks free from most of the shlock that passes for sitcoms today. Very funny, and well worth watching every week.

3. Glee - FOX's runaway musical hit is often inconsistent, and suffers many of Murphy's trademarks storytelling issues (most of which previously reared their heads on Nip/Tuck). But it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and that goes a long way. Plus, Jane Lynch has served up Emmy-caliber work with Sue Sylvester, and the songs each week are must-download hits.

2. Weeds - Weeds nearly got off track at the beginning of this season, but quickly grew into its own again, building to a finale that has finally forced Nancy to take a step back and consider where her life was gone. Showrunner Jenji Kohan has finally shed some light on who Nancy is and why she acts so crazy all the time. Hopefully the sixth season will continue the trend, but as for the fifth, it became a surprisingly engaging, dramatic season.

1. Friday Night Lights - I constantly harp about this show and how no one watches it, but everyone should. This fourth season has been absolutely astounding in quality. The show has survived a major shake-up of the core cast, not only maintaining its identity but also introducing genuinely interesting new core characters. This season features the best episode of the entire series ("The Son," from 4 December), and continues to showcase the many talents of Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler, as well as all their younger costars. There is no better drama on television, nor has there ever been. It remains exclusive to DirecTV, but returns to NBC for their spring schedule. I highly encourage anyone with a passing interest in television drama to watch.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The latest Potter installment is also the best, though it doesn't really have any right to be. To explain, it's best to go through a little bit of nerd-talk. Also, there are spoilers for the next films. If you're the type that hasn't read the books and has miraculously managed to remain ignorant of the finale's plot details, I suggest you skim through at your risk. There are also spoilers for the movie, but, duh.

Around the time that Steve Kloves began working on the screenplay for Chamber of Secrets, the second film in the series, he and author J.K. Rowling decided that the films would tell the Potter stories strictly from Harry's (Dan Radcliffe) point of view. As Harry is the protagonist of the books, it was at the time a completely reasonable decision from an adapter's point of view, and was probably the best avenue to distill the increasingly gargantuan books into 2 and a half hour films.

Until you get to book 6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the novel, is the only Potter novel that is NOT about Harry. Book 6 is about Voldemort and Snape, and Harry does very little himself other than listen to Dumbledore, and learn about Voldemort. What this means is that MOVIE 6 becomes the point where the films completely and absolutely part ways with the books. And so we have a situation where the movie has the same plot, and the same things happen, and yet it's telling a totally different story than the novel.

It's not a bad story, by any means. In fact it's quite good. Director David Yates and returning writer Kloves successfully, and I daresay artfully, create a world of impending doom, with a tangible sense of fear, without even having Voldemort appear in the film at all. The only difference is, the story is from Harry's point of view. We see him and his friends deal with this changing world. This results in new scenes (including the much maligned Burning of the Burrow, and the drastically altered finale), all of which I totally approve of. For the first time, the movies are a different monster from the books, and I think that given the game plan, this is the best way to approach this film.


That isn't to say that I don't have issues. Being familiar with the books, I worry that this film has dropped several important details that I can't reconcile with the next two films, try as I might. But in the end, those quibbles affect the next two films, and not this one. THIS film features spectacular acting from all around (though Emma Watson's Hermione continues to be the weak link, as Radcliffe and Rupert Grint's Ron continue to grow leaps and bounds past her as actors). As for the usual stable of Britain's finest, Michael Gambon as Dumbledore finds himself the true star of the movie, more than aptly filling Richard Harris' admittedly large shoes. I've truly enjoyed his take on Dumbledore, and given an actual arc here, he has been nothing short of delightful, and I can't wait to see his return in the final installment.


That said, I am disappointed that Alan Rickman wasn't given the chance to shine as Snape truly becomes the villain of the piece, as he was relegated to a few (key, meaty, to be sure) scenes throughout. I assume, however, that the next films will have considerably more of this new, evil Snape. And I can never praise enough Helena Bonham Carter's delightfully insane Bellatrix Lestrange. This is a character I cannot get enough of, and I am extremely happy to see her role continue to be expanded from the books.

Most of all, though, this feels like a very mature Potter film. It is dark, and it is grown up, and it forces its main characters, as well of its audience, to be the same. I can only applaud everyone involved for not shying away from the core of Rowling's stories, which take you to very dark places indeed before assuring you that everything will be alright, in the end. Color me a big fan of this one.


District 9

I can't really bring myself to continue reviewing bad movies, so I'll continue along with District 9 before doing Brüno and Public Enemies (which wasn't so much bad as it was not very good).

District 9 is a very, very hyped up movie. It has been hyped up since before it was even District 9 (the film began life as the highly awaited Halo adaptation, but video game developers Microsoft and Bungie couldn't get on the same page with the studio, hence District 9). And it does, in fact, live up to the hype. District 9 is a perfectly excellent sci-fi actioner, and I have no complaints.

Well, except for one. This movie was hyped as SO DIFFERENT. This movie will BLOW YOUR MIND. "Unconventional" was tossed around a lot. And the first act or so does. The movie is a rather stunning apartheid allegory with creepy aliens who are still somewhat sympathetic, and it really works on that level, and it's very unlike anything we've really seen in cinema. And then in the third act, it turns into a run-of-the-mill shoot-'em-up. Like, seriously. The entire third act is main character Wikus and his alien companion Christopher sneaking into a lab, and then shooting their way out, and then the movie is over, just barely returning to some semblance of drama at the ending (about which, the ending is very sentimental, and I like it, but it really doesn't feel like the same movie as the beginning).

Let's talk again about the first act, as it was my favorite part of the movie. The film opens with Wikus (played to perfection by Sharlto Copley, who should get SO MANY ROLES after this film) recording some kind of office home video for the MNU, who are in charge of quarantining the aliens. This is juxtaposed with documentary footage that takes place, chronologically, after the film's conclusion. The horrific images of abuse of these aliens in District 9, juxtaposed with goofball, Michael Scott-esque Wikus, is truly unsettling, and creates a dichotomy that continues through much of the movie.

I don't want to say the film gets bad at any point, because it really doesn't. And I'm a sucker for sentiment, so the ending doesn't bother me, and clearly this movie has something to say. I mostly just am let down by the lagging third act, which degenerates an otherwise sublime film into the merely average. It does the job better than most other sci-fi films, but I had hoped that District 9 would be something more for the entire running time, and not just the first 2/3rds.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

G.I. Joe Is the Best Movie Ever (Sort Of)

So I'm gonna start the backlog with the most recent, and then work my way back. And what a difficult film to talk about here. Movies like G.I. Joe often make me doubt the effectiveness of a letter grading system, or, really, any kind of ranking system at all, when it comes to movies. Let's face it, G.I. Joe sucks. It is truly terrible, in just about every way that a movie can be terrible. The acting is poor, the writing doesn't make sense, it's got literally every single action cliché you can imagine.

But I LOVED it. I honestly don't think I've had more fun at a movie this summer than I did at this one. It is, in every way, what happens when you put a bunch G.I. Joe toys on the big screen, running solely on spectacle and nostalgia and not losing a bit of steam right through to the cliffhanger, sequel-guaranteed ending. If I had my druthers, I'd give the thing an A+ and get on with my life.

Now, clearly I can't in good conscious do that, because that would imply that G.I. Joe is better than several movies I've reviewed this year, and just as good as "Up" was, and neither of those things is true, by any stretch of the imagination. But you'd better believe that I enjoyed this movie more than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, like a lot, largely because G.I. Joe didn't make me want to stab my eyes out every 15 minutes. In fact, I would happily watch G.I. Joe again, and I wouldn't even feel like I wasted my 10 dollars. The movie is fun, pure and simple, and anyone expecting anything more is clueless about what G.I. Joe is actually supposed to be (and those same people probably think Transformers is worth watching, which is just not true).

You know what? Fuck it.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Why I'm Reading X-FACTOR (And You Should Be, Too)

Before we even get into it, those reviews of Public Enemies, Brüno, and Harry Potter 6 are coming up soon.

Chances are, you're at least a passing fan of the X-Men franchise. You watched the cartoon as a kid, saw the movies, played the games, or whatever. But, more than likely, you haven't read the comic (for starters, the majority of them aren't very good). It's even less likely that you've been reading X-Factor, an often relaunched satellite series that stars eight or nine mutants you've never even heard of. So why should the adventures of Madrox, Layla Miller, Monet, Guido, Darwin, Rictor, Shatterstar, Siryn, and Longshot be of any interest to you? Two words: Peter. David.

Peter David writes these characters, and this story, in an unbelievably perfect, jaw-dropping way. The story is at once excitingly fanciful and refreshingly down to earth. It's 46 issues in, which is a little more than three years worth of stories, and it hasn't gotten old yet. I highly recommend tracking down every single issue.

Need more convincing? Here's why I'm reading: David has made comics history by writing the first on-panel gay kiss in a Marvel Comic (possibly in any mainstream comic, though I'm not sure on that one) between Rictor and Shatterstar, who've been the "are-they-or-aren't-they?" pairing of Marvel Comics for a good 10 years now, if not more. And he's treating with zero fanfare at all, developing a completely organic relationship like any of Marvel's myriad straight couplings.

So, pick it up. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On a positive note...

There was one thing that was awesome about Transformers, and that was the trailer for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It's awesome, and it's here.

I think the key thing about this movie is that, now that the books have finished and J.K. Rowling doesn't have to be so damn secretive about everything, the films have a clear sense of direction. With the same director and writer signed for the next two as well as this one, I think we might finally have a sense of these movies being one continuous story, instead of seeming strange, slightly off adaptations of far superior books. I'm looking forward to this one.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer Movies, Part Six

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Whenever I watch a Michael Bay movie, I go in with a certain set of expectations. After all, no one, including Bay himself, is pretending that we're dealing with high art, here. Quite the contrary. As a result, it's difficult for me to write this review, which is heading to very negative places very shortly, without feeling slightly morally compromised, for lack of a better word. How am I supposed to rip apart a movie that met my every expectation (even if that expectation was that this movie would be shit)?

There are poop, pee, fart and sex jokes. Megan Fox runs in slo-mo and screams "SAM!" a lot. A crotchety old Transformer talks like Vinnie Jones and uses a cane to walk. There are some gangsta robots. I could go on, but suffice it to say that all of the old Michael Bay tropes are present and accounted for.

The movie also suffers from all the same flaws as the first. Not only is there not nearly enough focus on the Transformers, but the ones we do see get no personalities. There is entirely too much time spent with human characters in this movie, to the point that the robots often seem an afterthought.

So, yeah. All of that makes this movie as dull and mediocre as the first, and as all of Bay's other movies. Fine. Normally, I would give it a C and move along. However...

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN IS THREE FUCKING HOURS LONG. I exaggerate only slightly (the movie clocks at 2 hours and forty-five minutes), and believe me when I say that it is at least an hour too long. This movie is actually painful to sit through. There is barely enough to hold my interest for ninety minutes. What this film asks for is entirely too much. I am comfortable in saying that Transformers is the worst movie I have seen, or will see, this summer, without exception. It's action sequences are too few and far between to redeem the remainder of the film, which is entirely cheap jokes and weak writing. At least Wolverine was decent enough to have a talented cast and a reasonable run time.