Saturday, February 02, 2008

Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon: The shirtless men that make unwatchable things watchable

As one of the few female contributors to this site, I felt it was my duty to represent the other side of superficial this week. Attractive women are fine and dandy, and I also admire and enjoy the lovely ladies Todd opined about in his previous post, but come on. The men are where it's at! Ladies, gay men and the bi-curious straight men out there, you know what I'm talking about.

One of the wonderful advantages to Hollywood's ridiculous attitude when it comes to beauty is that often, horrible movies and television shows can be made imminently more watchable by throwing in a few attractive actors. I have been known in the past to continue watching something I hate on all other levels except the attractiveness of the cast. There's a reason I stuck with The O.C. through the doldrums of season three, and it had everything to do with how hot Benjamin McKenzie looks in a wifebeater. Seeing as male full frontal is a rare occurrence due to the prudish nature of the MPAA, the gold standard for male hotness these days has to be the bare chest. Below, find five of my favorite performances by pectoral muscles that have made even the worst movies or television shows watchable.

1. Channing Tatum in She's the Man

(You can skip to to 01:03 to go directly to Channing, or you could stick around for the whole thing and enjoy the bevy of different shirtless men that make up the film's credits. You're welcome.)

Due to random circumstances, I had the opportunity to accompany a friend to the premiere of She's the Man. I knew nothing about the film going in except it was based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, it was a teen movie and starred Amanda Bynes. Well, I think Amanda Bynes is just the cutest overacting young comedienne in the business, and we all know how I love teen-themed entertainment, so I was fully on board. As we left the theater, though, all I could ask was "Who was that mysterious boy with the amazing chest?"

You see, Channing is shirtless in this film. A lot. A lot a lot a lot. And he looks divine. Needless to say, I now own this movie and willingly pop it in every so often to see his glorious chest. Oh, and Amanda Bynes is pretty cute in this as well. But whatever. CHANNING'S CHEST!

Channing has sort of made a career out of displaying his workout ethic. Other outstanding performances by Channing Tatum's chest include:

Step Up:

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints:

Coach Carter:

Here's hoping the upcoming G.I. Joe remake is similarly bare chested, because I have a feeling it's going to need it.

2. Ryan Reynolds in The Amityville Horror

The current trend of remaking classic horror films is pretty disheartening. The new ones have no nuance, no actual creepiness -- just gore, grittiness and hot, sweaty young bodies. Yet, sucker that I am, I've seen them all. House of Wax? Terrible. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Ridiculous.

That brings us to The Amityville Horror. Glutton for punishment that I am, I agreed to accompany a friend on opening weekend. We saw it in the awesome Arclight Cinerama Dome, and it was pretty packed. Then it happened. Ryan Reynolds appeared on screen wet and shirtless, clad only in tissue paper-thin pajama pants...and there was an audible gasp in the theater. 500 people (well, minus a few straight and proud men I am assuming) admired that chest all at once, and it was a beautiful thing. I love it when a group of random strangers has a common experience. It makes me feel like a part of the human race.

Another outstanding performance by Ryan Reynolds' chest:

Blade: Trinity:

I fell asleep every time I tried to watch Blade. I didn't even bother with Blade II. Yet after seeing The Amityville Horror you bet your BEHIND I rented Blade: Trinity. I mean, damn.

3. Young Americans

(The shirtless bonanza starts at 06:00 in the pilot (above) and lasts for the entire 8 episode run of the series, which available on YouTube in its entirety.)

Once upon a time, there was a network called The WB that was known for its teen dramas. One day, an executive at that network had the bright idea to spin off its most prized jewel, Dawson's Creek. Enter a random childhood pal of Pacey Witter on an episode to give his back story and draw in all of the viewers, add a complete sponsorship from Coca Cola to underwrite the whole thing, and you have Young Americans, the worst summer counter-programming that ever was.

The problem with this genius plan? The Creek viewers didn't follow, and the show was canceled after only 8 episodes. During those 8 episodes, however, you can find some of the most shameless displays of teenage skin in the short history of the network. Men, women, extras, regulars...everyone stripped down at one point or another. And it was a beautiful thing. Who needs good acting, writing, and story progression when you have nubile skin? (This show pretty much launched the careers of Kate Bosworth and Ian Somerhalder, so if you are fans of either this is a must-see.)

4. The volleyball boys of Top Gun

This one is a little bit of a cheat because I enjoy Top Gun as a whole, but the absolute transparent intentions of this scene meant I couldn't leave it off the list. I mean, they're playing volleyball on the beach. Oily, sweaty, hot volleyball, clad only in jeans and sunglasses. It's shameless pandering, and I eat up every second of it. My friends. No matter your feelings about what Mr. Tom Cruise has become, you can't deny that he used to be great, and this video is definitive proof of that. Throw in Val Kilmer at his physical peak and the always adorable Rick Rossovich, and you've got a great shirtless scene. Watch, enjoy, and try not to sing "Playing with the Boys" for the rest of the afternoon.

5. Summerland

Summerland (also of the late, great WB network) was definitely an equal-opportunity pleaser. If you could look past the ridiculous storylines and cliched dialogue, there was a hot, bathing-suit clad actor to suit everyone in America. A teen girl looking for nonthreatening hotties? You have heartthrobs Jesse McCartney and Zac Efron. A teen boy looking for cute and quirky girls your age? There's the adorable Kay Panabaker. For those with more mature tastes, Lori Laughlin, Merrin Dungey, Ryan Kwanten, Shawn Christian and Taylor Cole provided ample ogling opportunity (guest stars Carmen Electra, Simon Rex and Sara Paxton added to the hot body count as well). Because the titular family lived on the beach, everyone was wet and scantily clad, at all times. Seriously, there hasn't been an example of a family-oriented drama with this much skin before or since, and if they release this puppy on DVD I will be the first in line.

Okay, folks, it's your turn. What's your favorite performance by an actor's rock-hard abs? And no fair picking things like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Of course he's smoking hot, but that movie is actually good. (For inspiration, try the Wikipedia entry for
barechested or my new favorite site, squarehippies.)


Friday, February 01, 2008

Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon: Five body parts I love on actresses I genuinely admire the talent of

We straight men have it tough.

OK, so, technically, we really don't. We pretty much own the world, and the rest of you are far behind and far too many of us don't care about that, but let's forget all of that for a moment.

Straight men are pretty easily stereotyped as frat-boy-ish, beer-drinkin', football-watchin' good-time dudes who pretty much only like women of Amazonian proportions (which is sort of weird, since, shouldn't we want to be just a smidge taller than our ladies by these same stereotypes? I digress). Now, I'm someone who went to band camp. I can't stand most American beers. I like MUSICALS, fer God's sake, and much prefer baseball to a little smash-mouth action.

But, God help me, I'm straight. I love me some ladies. But, mostly, I love me some APPROACHABLE ladies. I'm all about the attainable hot. Katherine Heigl (the current "woman of the year," according to -- and, I just want to say, I was NOT consulted) is fine and good, and I can appreciate her general perfection and blonde hair and nice breasts and beautiful face, but a little part of me thinks that if I ran into Katherine Heigl or Angelina Jolie or Heidi Klum in the street, they would probably eat me alive and/or push me in front of a speeding car. Despite how I appear, I am meek and frail and not one for confrontation.

No sir, what I want is a girl who's pretty but not THAT kind of pretty. The kind of pretty that you might happen to see in a bookstore while she stocked the shelves. You'd look away, but she'd have caught you looking, and maybe she'd smile. Or call security. I realize that this is probably weirdly sexist, but that's the way I roll.

So here are five body parts I love on actresses I genuinely admire the talent of. I limited myself to non-breast features, since you can buy a pair of fantastic breasts, and, let's face it, straight men are pretty fascinated by ANY breasts.

We'll begin with. . .

1.) Ginnifer Goodwin's ears. I feel kind of bad doing this, because I would wager that Ginnifer Goodwin is sort of self-conscious about her ears. Doing a Google image search took a while for me to find a photo where they weren't hidden in some way (even back when she had short hair), and looking for a Big Love screencap ended similarly. And, honestly, her ears are kind of big and they stick out from her head. (Is it weird that my chosen presidential candidate, Barack Obama, also has imperfect ears? Do I have ear envy?) But, you know what? Those imperfect ears strike me as absolutely wonderful. To me, Ginnifer Goodwin is one of the most beautiful women on Earth, and those ears just complete the package for me. There's just something -- oh, all right, I'll say it -- adorable about them and the way she plays coy and keeps trying to sweep her hair over them. It's as though I've reverted to one of those Victorian men so intoxicated by the slightest view of female skin that I can't stand looking at table legs. Ears, obviously, aren't usually high on the list of attractive features, but Goodwin's are perfectly imperfect. Bring out your ears, Ginnifer!

2.) Zooey Deschanel's eyes. This is kind of unfair, because eyes are commonly cited as a popular feature to be attracted to in a young lady. But I can't help it. Zooey Deschanel's blue, blue, blue eyes essentially turn me into Georges Seurat in "Sunday in the Park with George" (you don't get these musical references just anywhere) to the point where I'm just endlessly saying, "Blue blue blue blue blue blue green blue blue blue blue" until Libby says, "CAN YOU SHUT UP AND JUST LET ME WATCH ALL THE REAL GIRLS?" and I have to restrain myself. Deschanel occasionally goes blonde, and she's a little too pale to pull it off, but it somehow makes her eyes look even better. In and of herself, Deschanel is just the sort of quirky brunette that has managed to develop into my "type" since puberty, but her eyes are the sorts of eyes people write poetry about.

3.) Jennifer Garner's smile. Technically, Garner should go on the list of women I find vaguely intimidating. She could DEFINITELY push me in front of a bus if she decided she wanted to. But what makes Garner work, what holds the whole statuesque package together, is her agreeably goofy smile. It splits her entire face, and it's WAY too big for her frame, as though it were a part of a different, dorkier girl that she's trying desperately to leave behind in West Virginia (thanks, iMDB!). It's the kind of smile you see on the girl your best friend from high school got engaged to while he was away at college and then you meet her for the first time in a Denny's halfway between your school and his school and she's quiet most of the time, but then you say something stupid about Tron and she finds it funny and she smiles, SHE ACTUALLY SMILES, and you know she's the girl for your friend and you sort of resent him all at the same time for having a girl with that smile. Only, in this case, that smile is on a woman who's absolutely gorgeous. There's no way Garner is nearly as attractive without that too-big smile (just like Goodwin doesn't work without the ears). It takes her from ass-kicker and makes her best friend or soccer mom or high school girlfriend you never got over or whatever you want her to be.

4.) Kristen Bell's short. I am tall. Not NBA tall, by any means, but I am 6'3", and, having grown up in a small town, I used to get that question about whether I played basketball a LOT. What's more, I've always BEEN tall. I was always at or near the top height for my class in school. My father used to tell me, when I was failing at sports because my reflexes lagged behind my frame, that someday, I would pull it all together, and the kids in the stands would cheer and chant "BIG T!" in unison and then clap their hands and stomp at the same time. Now, this never actually happened, but if you read something on here by me that you really like, I'd appreciate it if you would do this all the same. Now, Kristen Bell, the once and future Veronica Mars, is the size of a small bird or woodland creature or something, to the point where her 5'1"-ness often gets her mistaken for someone who's 15 or something (when, really, she's three months OLDER than me). As someone who's NEVER understood what it is to be so much shorter than everyone else, I find the very otherness of shortness very attractive (my wife, after all, is only 5'3"). There's something about shortness that brings the VERY dormant alpha male in me rumbling to life, and I'm sure Kristen Bell would be pleased to hear that.

5.) Emily Mortimer's chin. Just so you know, this space was a close competition between this, Jewel Staite's cheeks and Emily Mortimer's hollow bones like a bird, but my huge affection for the remarkable Lars and the Real Girl pushed Mortimer over the top in the end. (I also wanted to toss Romola Garai in here somewhere, since she was the best Briony in Atonement and she's the only one who hasn't been nominated for any awards, for some reason, but I wasn't sure what to say about her. Meek voice? Ethereal carriage? Who knows?) Anyway, Emily Mortimer is yet another quirky brunette, this time with a British accent (I could do a whole posts on accents I find attractive. . .maybe I will). But what's best about Mortimer is her open, warm face, which feels like you could get lost in it. That chin is what makes it. It's EVER-so-slightly too prominent, but not in a bad way. In fact, I think the rest of the face is TOO open without it. Without its rigidity, you'd probably completely lose interest in looking at her. Oh, who am I kidding? I wouldn't lose interest in looking at her if she had NO chin, though, admittedly, it might be for different reasons.

So there you have it. I had a whole list of actresses I could have listed (and a few other famous women), but I narrowed it down to these five. I hope that some night, Ginnifer Goodwin is up, unable to sleep, endlessly Googling herself and she stumbles across this. Then, finally, I would know this blog had arrived.


“Don’t whisper yell at me!”: Eli Stone

I’m currently going through the ‘Everwood is amazing!’ phase that I think many (though not enough) have experienced, and that may be clouding my judgement a bit on Eli Stone, co-created by Everwood creator Greg Berlanti. Recently Berlanti’s first show began syndication on British television and I have been watching it all the way through (right now I’m in the middle of the third season, undoubtedly the best so far). That show pulled off a blend of comedy and drama, of pathos and theatricality, that I have not seen before on television. It’s not a perfect show by any means, but its no-holds barred honesty in all situations, and its ability to create great drama out of real-life situations, makes it unique. That relatable quality of humanity has been evident in much of Berlanti’s writing, not just Everwood but also Jack & Bobby and his time on Brothers & Sisters. It is sorely lacking from Eli Stone, his latest creation.

It’s telling that when I first started writing this review, I couldn’t make a positive comment without wanting to add a contrary addendum. The cast is appealing, especially Johnny Lee Miller, a charismatic lead; but few make a big impression besides him and Beth (Laura Benanti) who’s charming if a little sanctimonious for my taste. The dialogue is generally sharp, but uninspiring (Eli’s final courtroom speech, too obviously written, falls flat.) The plot zips by at a nice pace, though a couple aspects feel underdeveloped, even unnecessary: Eli and Beth’s past connection, and his belief that he might be a prophet. The latter feels like an unnecessary supernatural spin on what should just be played as a simple attack of conscience. Finally, there’s a distinct lack of originality in the script. Berlanti and co-creator Mark Guggenheim are both smart guys good at finding dramatic potential in challenging areas, whether it’s basic human conflict (Berlanti) or broad fantasy (Guggenheim, a comics veteran). Together, their aesthetics should have produced something surprising, or certainly less typical than another show about a lawyer with a big imagination (yes, you knew the Ally McBeal comparison was coming).

I don’t take the entertainment value of Eli Stone for granted – it’s mostly engaging and never boring, which is an achievement in itself. Also, like I said, the cast is strong even if some of them didn’t get a lot to do. Eli’s fiancĂ©e (Natasha Henstridge) is fast becoming far removed from his newfound idealism, suggesting rich potential for further conflict there. Eli’s family are still kind of blank slates, but his brother’s couple scenes were among the best of the pilot. Patti, Eli’s assistant, is also a nothing, but Loretta Devine is kinda funny. Most in need of deepening is Jordan Wethersby. In the pilot he’s just an evil corporate suit, essentially a walking clichĂ© and a dull one at that. My expectations for the character are upped significantly by the casting of Victor Garber, who’s too brilliant to be wasted. Also, could we have some more of his equally slimy sidekick, played by Everwood’s Tom Amandes? That guy is too funny to just stick in and not properly utilise.

Eli Stone has the right ingredients to become something great, and if the slow starts of past Berlanti shows are anything to go by I’m confident it will find its feet. My hope is that it will find more original ways to generate drama while continuing to debate issues through its characters. Simple crisis in favour of knowing wackiness. A troubled guy trying to reform himself is a relatable concept; coupling it with the idea of him being a prophet, however, gives the sense that these writers are trying too hard.


Thursday, January 31, 2008

"They're still alive, aren't they?": Lost

(Remember to come back tomorrow for the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon's kickoff special! -- ed.)

To some degree, Lost has always been a show at war with itself. On the surface, it was a pulp mash-up, a gleefully giddy ride through a century's worth of science fiction, action-adventure stories and Boys Life covers. In its heart, it was something deeper, or at least, it thought it was. And, to be fair, a lot of the pulp stuff really got at some core emotions and themes, particularly when it came to questions of destiny and free will (a theme pulp has always done well for whatever reason). But some of the stuff didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with the flashbacks, which always felt like a panacea to the casual fans, people who didn't tune in for every episode and just wanted a single story or two they could follow in individual episodes. Damon Lindelof reports that Carlton Cuse has referred to the flashbacks as "New Yorker stories," and while most of them were too cliched to get into the New Yorker, that's the right idea. The occasional pulp hint would enliven stories about father issues or Kate's love life or what have you. After season one, there were some good flashbacks, but they tended to be the ones that played around with the format of the show (or the Sun and Jin flashbacks, which seem incapable of disappointing for some reason).

So that's what made the fourth season premiere feel like someone taking a nice, deep breath after holding it for so very long.

To some degree, it feels like Lost, having figured out that its audience will be around 15 million viewers, give or take, has just decided to completely bid the fickle audience adieu and do gripping stories that embraced the best aspects of the show. Lost is no longer a show for that audience of people who has never seen the show before. It's for the audience that plots out its own endings, the audience that's the most critical of it, the audience that always comes back for more. That key, subtle shift is what has propelled the show into what feels like a serious second wind (which it first gained in the back half of last season, lest we forget).

I think the best thing about the show now is how the time jumbling has made it less clear what the A-story is and what the B-story is. In the first handful of episodes that made the show a hit, the A-story was often the flashback, leaving the island strangeness relegated to being a slowly continuing bit. In later episodes and seasons, however, the show seemingly abandoned this format in favor of the island storyline dominating, while the flashbacks often became redundant B stories. This had the unintentional shift of taking the show from a mass-audience show with a cult element (like The X-Files) to a cult show that still had a mass audience (like. . .Twin Peaks, I guess? I don't know). The focus initially had been archetypal characters with big, obvious plot point backstories caught up in a truly interesting setting. The latter seasons focused on characters whose archetypal points were hammered home for us again and again caught up in an increasingly elaborate mythology. This shift probably robbed the show of the huge audience it had garnered early in season two more than anything else.

Now, with the addition of flash forwards to the show's storytelling palette, the structure of the show is once again up in the air. The A-story SEEMS to be the gang on the island coming back together after the events of last year's finale, with Jack having initiated the steps that will lead to their "rescue," but the flash forward makes a very good case for being an A-story too, complete as it is with Hurley's slow realization of his guilt and his visit from the very dead (or not?) Charlie and his later argument with Jack.

To a very real degree, Hurley and Desmond have always been this show's soul. Without them centering the show in the problematic episodes of seasons two and three, the series could have completely spun off the rails. Terry O'Quinn's John Locke is one of the great TV performances of all time (just thinking of that moment when he was put in the wheelchair last season still fills me with emotion), but he's also not a character that makes such a good fan surrogate, in the way that the nerd culture Hurley and the sweepingly romantic Desmond do. The writers have abused the fan relationship to Hurley in the past, but their best episodes take advantage of Hurley as well (his feeling of powerlessness in the finale last year might as well have stood in for a nation of fans that just felt as if their show had gone off the tracks somewhere around that VW Bus episode and there was no way to get it back). I occasionally felt that the show was overdoing the reaction to Charlie's death tonight until that marvelous moment when Hurley gathered Claire up in his arms and the two wept. That Jorge Garcia's portrayal of this character hasn't garnered him ANY awards attention so far is a crime. He's the show's stealth weapon, and he hits absolutely every improbable acting note the show throws at him (another great scene tonight featuring Hurley was the one where he and Bernard discuss his lotto winnings, followed by him cannonballing into the ocean -- it was bittersweet in all of the ways the preceding scene of the women talking about their "men" without knowing that Claire's was not coming back was not).

The show also came up with a smart way to distance itself from the past with the throughline of the episode, which contrasted Hurley with Jack. As Sepinwall pointed out, unlike last year, when Jack was always right, he's wrong in ways both large and small this episode, and that gives the show some real momentum right there (the self-righteousness of Jack grew unbearable when he was right all the time). It clues us in that whatever Jack did to leave the island was REALLY wrong, even as the smaller hints left for us by Abbadon (and what a GREAT name for a character -- Wikipedia it) and Charlie's appearance gave this idea further weight. Hurley plants the seed that grows into Jack's crippling need to go back in the finale from last year. Excellent.

I'll have more to say on Lost's new time-jumbly structure, which is the same old structure as before but also DIFFERENT in an important way, in future weeks, I imagine, but for now, let's do some discussion points.

--Hurley able to make Jacob's shack disappear? What up?

--Just who IS Abbadon (and just how much HBO do the Lost producers watch)?

--Is the island able to manifest itself on the mainland now?

--And what's up with the thin line between life and death?

--And, finally, who are the other three of the six? I predict (without being spoiled) Sun, Jin and Sayid.

Discuss away! Lost's back, and it might be the lack of scripted television talking, but I couldn't be happier.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"I’m gonna work them. Sweet Jesus, I’m gonna work them.": The Wire

(OK, so this week I was sick. One of these weeks, I will get up a Wire review before Tuesday. -- ed.)

One of the biggest casualties of The Wire's final season is its deliberateness. It's kind of fascinating to see this show move with this kind of momentum, but it feels like the sort of thing that happened in previous season's final thirds or quarters, when all of the pieces of the plot came together in a way you didn't quite see coming, which enhanced both the "A-ha!" factor of the show and its sense of weight and tragedy.

There's no show better than The Wire at unpacking those little moments when you sense pieces of a puzzle clicking into place, especially if you're an attentive audience member. There's something so satisfying in the STRUCTURE of The Wire that it makes watching even the earlier episodes, when David Simon carefully puts his pieces on the board and not a lot happens plot-wise, palatable, even if you don't particularly care for the show's more critic-friendly affectations and literary tropes. Something about just feeling the show snap its pieces into place makes it satisfying in a way that other shows rarely approach. If there's anything I'm missing this season, it's that sense (though, obviously, we might get it in the episodes to come).

That said, this episode was pretty terrific, a striking portrayal of the way the old gives way to the new, both on the streets and in the cop offices. We got to see the way Carcetti drove the police storyline and the way Gus and the guys at the paper covered it, but the episode really belonged to the officers and the guys on the street, the characters we've been following around since season one. The Wire's grand, snowballing effect means that we've gained new characters worth caring about in every season (particularly ones that we're seeing the final story points of in this last season), but the sheer weight of the characters from season one can really only be matched by the other HBO shows. That tiny little moment where Kima played with Elijah would have been milked for all it was worth in other dramas. Here, it didn't need the milking. We know the long history, and we know Kima, and there's something quietly devastating about the way she keeps trying to build that house, even knowing it's going to be very easily destroyed.

The biggest moment, of course, was the death of Proposition Joe, who finally gave way to Marlo after angering the kid one last time at a meeting (featuring some impressive continuity work, if I do say so myself). Typically, Joe tried to talk his way out of his own impending death, but Marlo is having none of it, finally managing to make Joe somehow accept that he's about to be shot in the head, getting him to close his eyes and just wait for that deafening roar.

Matt Zoller Seitz, in the comments thread over at House Next Door, says that if there's a flaw in this season (which he's enjoying), it's the show's devotion to the idea that things were once better in some golden age that can no longer be attained. I can see where he's coming from, as the show obviously has some affection for Prop Joe and the way that he can talk to just about anyone (and, honestly, when I saw the scene where he bonded with Herc, I knew that his time had to be up soon, though I didn't expect it to be this episode). But I don't think the show has necessarily said this was a terrific thing or that the new generation doesn't have ideals and ideas (and we see more of this in the police story). After all, Stringer Bell was once the torchbearer for the new generation on the show.

No, through the portrayal of Marlo, the series is just touching on something it really hasn't before. The disconnected, dissociative evil that sometimes springs up when a person realizes that their connection to others is tentative and that by forcing their own dominance on others, they can more easily attain the power they lust for. Marlo's not Hitler or Mussolini or anything, but you can feel the stirrings of that kind of dehumanizing power in that final close-up, where the character's eyes seemed both terrifyingly dead and full of a new kind of raw life and realization of possibility. I've found the street plots a bit uninvolving at times on this show, but this final showdown that's brewing between Marlo and Omar (with Omar -- easily the show's most cinematic invention -- essentially playing out a Western) has me on the edge of my seat.

The police storyline also spoke to the inevitability of the passage of time. Burrell, finally having angered Carcetti one last time by doing exactly what Carcetti wanted, was pushed aside for Rawls with the expectation that Daniels would soon take his place. The scene where Burrell was pushed out of the way and given a plaque (and the expert deconstruction of the doublespeak from the mayor by Gus) was a grade-A example of how The Wire shows us bluntly the savageness that lies beneath even our most hallowed traditions. One need only watch any of the Democratic or Republican debates to see this; this is merely war with words.

Man, there's a lot to unpack in this episode, even as McNulty's serial killer plot got backburnered a bit (in favor of putting the necessary plot points in place). The imminent downfall of Clay Davis continued to play out in a way that highlighted the consummate smooth politician's increasing fear that he could very well go down (and I loved the way he transitioned from fearful in the courtroom to schmoozer for the cameras). The newspaper storyline worked well as well, even as the social-climbing Scott storyline continued to bug.

Even if The Wire never quite tops this episode this season, though, this is one for the record books. It was a smooth, tragic and funny hour, full of moments that felt more real than just about anything I've seen on TV in ages. Excellent television.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

'One Tree Hill': Let's do the time warp again

Seeing as we jumped four years in the future this season, flashbacks are a great way to show the audience what happened during those missing years. One question, though: do they have to be so darn boring? Going back three years to explain what exactly went wrong in Lucas and Peyton's storybook romance is a good idea on paper, but the execution was dull dull dull.
____________________________________________________________________ Read the rest of the article here.


Kill Yr Idols: Blood on the Wall, Liferz

Somewhere in the space between irreverence and trepidation, Liferz stands atop a mound of garbage flipping you the bird. The second LP from Brooklyn trio Blood on the Wall, Liferz (like its predecessor, Awesomer) blends the noisy, 90's, post-punk styles of groups like Pixies, Sonic Youth and... just about all of the other bands you think I am about to list. More than a laundry list of influences, though, Blood on the Wall embrace their derivative nature and yelp into the face of gratuity; brashly announcing their presence in spite of it all.

It's all kind of exhausting and fun at the same time. What Liferz lacks in tact or modesty, it more than makes up for with an all-too-deliberate arsenal of layered, muddy guitars; vicious, one-take drum tracks; not to mention, an always invigorating and visceral vocal trade-off between brother and sister Courtney and Brad Shanks. The formation of all of these elements leads to something far more appetizing than you might expect. Granted, while it is mostly kind of nasty in delivery, Liferz is not with out its poppy charms. Most of these tracks are short without being too short (like some attempt at brash punk-ness) and the tone of the album is mostly snotty as opposed to ASSHOLIAN.

Liferz ultimately calls to mind the groups to which Blood on the Wall are paying homage, without branding themselves to deeply. Blood on the Wall have spent most of their short career walking on one side of the thin line between influence and charlatanism. With Liferz, they have easily risen above this distinction with steadfast resolve and technical nonchalance. Liferz may not push any envelopes itself, but it does seem to hint toward a sort of future... redefinition, at times--and, I dunno, that's kind of awesome to me.


Monday, January 28, 2008

“Excuse me, have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?”: Torchwood

I don’t know that I’ll be writing about every episode of Torchwood’s second season, even with the lack of other new material to cover. It never feels like there’s much to write about with this show. With its first season, the heavier episodes were too limp to warrant in-depth analysis, while the more frivolous affairs were too light to say much about. Although the first two episodes of Torchwood's new season are a vast improvement over its last, I fear a similar situation will unfold. Hopefully Torchwood will maintain its strong start and keep my interest.

Anyway. Torchwood’s second season opener, ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,’ is the most frivolous episode the show has yet produced. It begins with the triumphant return of Captain Jack, who announces himself by shooting an evil blowfish alien through the eyeballs. The story speeds along quickly – there are a couple confrontations about Jack’s absence, but the majority of the action is devoted to Captain John (guest star James Marsters) a renegade time agent and former friend of Jack’s. It’s a nice story to ease into the new season with, and works as a starting point for new viewers as well. The scenes between Jack and John are the most fun, though disappointingly few and far between. Other bits are weaker – John and Gwen are tiresome together, Marsters seeming bored when playing against Eve Myles (whose strengths do not lie in humor).

Chris Chibnall’s energetic script barely pauses for breath, masking its several ludicrous turns (paralyzing lip gloss?). I didn’t buy that Jack or the team would ever trust John in the first place, much less split up to search for the canisters based entirely on his word. John’s character was also muddled – at some points we weren’t supposed to trust a word he said, but at others Chibnall obviously intended us to believe and take emotional resonance from his lines when, based on what we knew of the character, they could easily have been lies (for instance, his telling Jack the time agency was shut down, and his emotional responses when his plans were thwarted). Marsters was charismatic as usual, but I hope his next appearance will shed a lot more light on his character.

Still, I admit that none of these criticisms prayed on my mind when I first watched the episode. It’s a fun ride - just one that doesn't stand up to inspection. Maybe the best thing to do is just to not inspect too closely, especially in the case of a generally unsutble show like Torchwood. As long as it remains entertaining, that's good enough.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

“I don’t want to die a man stewardess!”: Chuck

I don’t think I realised how badly this strike had been affecting me until I came to the end of that superb Chuck double-bill. In a way I would have been better off without it – as someone who has resigned himself to the drought of original programming for as long as the strike went on, the reminder of what I’ve been missing these past months was not exactly welcome. I shouldn’t complain though, especially seeing as Chuck’s final two instalments were so exemplary of how much the show has grown since its early episodes.

Though I was a fan of Chuck as far back as its terrific pilot, I worried along with many about the long-term prospects of its concept. The early episodes were fun but emotionally empty, not yet displaying that potential I was hoping for. Then, almost overnight, the pieces came together. From ‘Chuck versus the Alma Mater’ onwards, every episode has consistently hit the mark, striking that right balance between spy plots, inter-character development and humor. The main ensemble have all settled into their roles nicely, as shown by their upstaging notable guest stars such as Rachel Bilson and Matthew Bomer. Continuous plot threads, such as the saga of Chuck and Sarah, have been handled well. As an added bonus, the show has also built up a wider ensemble in Jeff, Lester, Anna, Big Mike and, of course, Captain Awesome.

One thing this week’s double-bill did even better than past episodes was keeping every storyline interesting. Even Chuck’s best episodes have had one lacking plot (often involving Morgan). Not so in either case this week. ‘Chuck versus the Undercover Lover’ delved into Casey’s past and gave him a love interest in the form of Ilsa (Ivana Milicevic), allowing for much sparring between the two. More importantly it meant lots of playful banter between Casey and Chuck, whose scenes together were plentiful and pricelessly funny. The enjoyable spy plot featured wacky Russian stereotypes and a clever fight scene with Casey and Chuck beating up Russians while tied to a chair. Plus, in sub-plot land, Ellie and Awesome’s debate over whether to buy a TV or washer/dryer for their anniversary (“Think of all the things we could watch” “Think of all the things we could wash!”) grew into a full-fledged fight about Awesome’s lack of commitment. Lancaster got some good stuff to play, particularly Ellie’s drunken misery (loved her little whimper when Sarah turned to leave); as did McPartlin, whose reaction when the Buy More poker game turned into strip poker was riotous. Even with so much going on, nothing in the episode fell notably flat.

Also strong, if in a different way, was ‘Chuck versus the Marlin.’ The laughs were still there (Awesome to Chuck, “I always knew you could handle my family jewels” being a choice line) but overall it was a more dramatic story. With listening bugs found in the Buy More traced back to Fulcrum agents, Chuck’s cover may be compromised, leading General Beckman to warn that he may be moved to a secure facility with no access to the outside world. Sarah, Chuck and even Casey go into overdrive to discover the Fulcrum agents and bring them down, as the clock ticks down. As part of her efforts Sarah moves all of the Buy More products to search for bugs, leading Big Mike to angrily interrogate all the Buy More employees - an obvious highlight. (“It’s time to turn the heat up on you” he threatened at one point, before turning up the thermos stat.) While Levi has shown his dramatic chops before now, his intensely sad line readings felt like a revelation. He choked me up several times, for instance when he asked Sarah to talk to everyone for him: “If I’m supposed to be dead, just say something that will make it okay, that will make them feel alright…just make sure they know how much I love them.” The line seems melodramatic on paper, but uttered by Levi it hit hard. It was mostly his performance that had me believing, if only momentarily, that the cliffhanger might actually have been Chuck being taken away. Also, the inclusion of Awesome’s ring was a nice touch, making the story personal to the characters and giving it that additionally edge.

Aside from noting that the latter episode became a bit confusing due to its various plot contrivances, I can think of nothing negative to say. Maybe I’m just blinded by my excitement at having some original programming I really like, or by my obvious enthusiasm for Chuck, but these were two superb episodes that really put a smile on my face. A perfect capper on an increasingly brilliant half-season, tragically cut short.


"Heart times soul equals rock n' roll!" - The Adventures of Pete & Pete

Let’s talk about Syd Straw.

Apparently, she’s some sort of singer/songwriter. But more importantly, she plays Miss Fingerwood on Pete & Pete. Her first appearance was in the special, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as Big Pete’s math teacher. She appears again in this episode, A Hard Day’s Pete, as Little Pete’s match teacher. I have no idea what happened that she went from teaching at Big Pete’s high school to Little Pete’s middle school, but let’s not worry about that. Anyways, while she doesn’t exactly conjure up images of Brando or Streep, she nails the right Pete & Pete tone, playing Miss Fingerwood as awkwardly endearing. You see, in this episode, she plays bass for Little Pete’s band, the Blowholes. And, you see, as a math teacher, she’s obsessed with numbers. She points out that she knows the backbeat to “One is the Loneliest Number.” She counts off time with a “1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4.” She has a pi symbol on her bass. And she plays off these silly gags with so much sincerity that they actually work. She also gets to sing a little and does a great job (what with that being her primary career and all). Maybe I should check out her work.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s move on the rest of the episode. Building an episode around Little Pete discovering his favorite song and trying to find it again is a great concept for an episode. It’s both trivial and integral at the same time. Think about your favorite song for a second (unless it’s by Fall Out Boy – in that case, your favorite song is entirely lame): it’s not essential to your daily life, but it means a lot to you, right? Thus, one feels for Little Pete as he quests to get back in touch with it.

It also means we get to see Little Pete play in a band and call himself Pete “Thunderball” Wrigley. The scenes with Little Pete rocking out are cute; he doesn’t have pipes, but he definitely gives it his all, like Danny Tamberelli always does. It also gives us privy to silly pastiche songs, like “Marmalade Cream,” a fake ‘60s rock song in the vein of Led Zeppelin and Cream that is apparently quite popular in the P&P universe. Also, once Little Pete takes on his moniker, the rest of his band (which not only includes Miss Fingerwood, but Little Pete’s friend Clem and – a meter man) faithfully refer to him as Thunderball for the rest of the episode, which is a nice enough running gag.

And for those of you who recall me bemoaning how When Petes Collide didn’t really do much to build off the Petes being best friends, there’s a great moment between the two. They don’t even share the same screen, but Big Pete takes a quick break from his narrating duties to help his brother out when the situation looks dire, placing a simple phone call that inspires his brother. If the rest of the season had more scenes like that, the When Petes Collide would have felt earned. Even then, the scene is touching. And true to P&P form, I’ll take little treats like this when I can get them.