Friday, November 30, 2012


Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The term "meet your maker" is interpreted literally in Ridley Scott's polarizing Prometheus, his quasi-prequel to Alien that has both less and more in common with that series than you'd imagine. From the get-go it's clear exactly what kind of science fiction this will be. The smart kind, with big ideas. Whether all the ideas presented are fully explored is a separate issue, but at least enough are, even as I lost count of how many movies those ideas seemed to reference. It's territory we've been in before and there's never much doubt where the story's going, but fortunately this still manages to be effective on its own terms. The film looks great, employing practical style special effects and set design that goes a step further than we're used to seeing in most big budget sci-fi blockbusters. Even just the opening title sequence confirms that. But the story exists in this weird gray area between being presented directly as an Alien prequel and setting up its own philosophical mythology that draws heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's sequel, 2010, and even something like Mission To Mars. Anyone approaching this looking for extremely deep insights into human existence might be disappointed, but as far as relentless sci-fi, horror adventures go, it ranks high.

The year is 2089 and archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered an ancient map in Scotland that connects many cultures and is interpreted by them as an invitation by humanity's "Engineers," or creators, to travel to their distant moon. The mission's  funded by the late Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in old age make-up), the Weyland Corporation's founder and CEO. After traveling in a state of suspended stasis, Shaw, Holloway and the rest of their Prometheus crew led by Captain Janek (Idris Elba) awaken at their destination in 2093. They meet the mission's director, the emotionally vacant Dr. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and its monitor, an android named David (Fassbender) who allegedly has no feelings, but  whose behavior and appearance is patterned after Peter O' Toole's T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia. During their investigation they get get much more than they bargained for, with a discovery that puts not only their lives in jeopardy, but could potentially threatens the survival of the entire human race. They wanted answers and get them, but it don't come without a price.  

If there's an issue it's in the film's inability to completely break free from the Alien franchise and fully establish itself as its own standalone entity. Of course the pressure was on (at least from a studio marketing perspective) to push this as a "prequel to Alien." In a sense it is, without Scott going so far as to completely acknowledge that. Basically he wants to have his cake and eat it too, which is problematic only when certain Alien elements are jammed into the second and third acts of the film, giving it a different feel than it started with. Scott would have just been better off severing all ties and influence to that franchise, saving the audience some confusion and making for a cleaner finished product. Even the very last shot of the film feels more like a shout-out to fans than anything that organically sprung from the narrative. But if that's the worst problem the film has, I'd still say it's in pretty good shape, especially considering the number of ways this could have gone wrong and come off indistinguishable from the usual big budget sc-fi devoid of ideas. It definitely doesn't deserve to be lumped into that category and nothing about the story or its presentation seems at any point to be unsophisticated, or worse yet, dumbed down to make it more accessible.

The idea of future explorers searching for the human race's origins makes for an engaging start point and it's held together by a couple of really strong performances and fantastic effects work (not to mention a cool 80's throwback sci-fi miniseries-style score from Marc Streitenfeld). Fassbender's performance as David the android already starts as something interesting but only becomes more fascinating when the other characters start pushing him and his true motivations boil to the surface. Jealousy, paranoia and even a certain level of arrogance start to seep through his robotic facade. This is the most obvious homage to 2001's HAL, as a computer begins to show obvious signs of a soul and personality, but with disastrous results for the rest of the crew. Fassbender's meticulousness keeps you wondering whether there is more to this android than just circuits while also making it subtly clear he could just be programmed to follow order and preserve the mission. Either option seems equally disturbing whenever he's on screen. The real emotional android just might be Theron's Dr.Vickers whom she plays as detached ice queen and non-believer to her core, backing the mission strictly as a business decision and nothing more. The faith and belief is supplied by the protagonist, Noomi Rapace's Shaw, who can hang with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley only in so far as the amount of physical punishment she endures. While it isn't fair, the movie seems to want to invite a comparison between the two, making Rapace's performance seem more underwhelming than it actually is. If nothing else, she endures the grossest C-Section you've ever seen performed on film. Idris Elba could have been given more to do as the ships captain, but he's memorable in his few big scenes opposite Theron.

You have to wonder how the public would have reacted to this film had they not known it was in any way tied to the Alien franchise or co-written by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. Given how some have still inexplicably not gotten over how he ended that series, it's likely many were foaming at the mouth to blame him for any perceived problems with this project. That his script balances issues of faith and science thematically similar to the show's controversial, unfairly maligned finale only gives fans more ammunition to complain, no matter how off-base they are. While the script does definitely lag behind the directing and visual effects, it's only problem is the "been there, done that feel of its premise" and its inability to step out of Alien's shadow despite the film's initial ideas suggesting it could have possibly surpassed it. The jaw-dropping visuals and performances from Fassbender and Theron really stand out as the biggest reasons why it's a success. At the very least, Prometheus is Ridley Scott's best effort in ages and seems more than a worthy of a sequel that can hopefully deviate even more from the original material it's inspired by.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Demian Bichir, Emile Hirsch
Running Time: 131 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Savages just might be the best recent example of how a misguided ending can help unravel a film brimming with greatness. That's not to say its entirely great up to that point, but it definitely has its patches, thanks in no small part to who's behind the camera. That Oliver Stone still manages to save this says a lot. But the best news just might be that the director's back in full U-Turn mode here, meaning that anyone who prefers the filmmaker who pedaled glorious trash like that and Natural Born Killers to the more politically inclined dramatist who gave us JFK, Nixon and Born on the Fourth of July, will find little to dislike. That the same man is responsible for all these is impressive in itself and in many ways makes him the ideal choice to adapt Don Winslow's best selling novel. It just might be the most fitting match of director and material in a long time, containing on paper all the combustible elements that should cement it amongst the year's best. Yet strangely, it isn't. While I wouldn't go as far as to say that it's merely just a well executed crime thriller, there's this inescapable feeling when it ends that I should have left wit more than I got. But it's entertaining as hell, features a few really wild performances, and is easy to imagine re-watching, even while taking little new away from each viewing. The movie is one giant distraction, but that's okay since it's tough to deny we're all in need some of those every once in a while, especially if it's this fun.

When a movie's opening line is, "Just because I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end," it's a pretty good bet much will go down in the ensuing two hours. And it does. That possible tease is delivered by the film's narrator, a blond, tattooed California hippie named O./A.K.A. Ophelia (Blake Lively), who's living a charmed, laid back Laguna Beach lifestyle with her two successful pot growing boyfriends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon, an Iraq War veteran, is the muscles who handles the dirty work while the more peace-loving Ben is the brains, using his brilliance as a botanist to turn their operation into the best in Southern California. It's so great that it's attracted the attention of a dangerous Mexican cartel headed by the cold, ruthless Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), whose men demand that they turn over a stake of their business or face serious consequences. Not wanting to make any waves, Ben wants to take the deal while the hot-headed Chon thinks they should take O. and flee to Indonesia as soon as possible. But under orders from Elena, the cartel's maniacal enforcer Lado (Benicio del Toro) kidnaps O. and the guys will have to play by their rules in order to see her returned to them alive. Their only hope might be their crooked DEA agent pal Dennis (John Travolta), who's clearly playing both sides of the fence while always looking out for number one.

The opening scenes do their job in establishing that Chon and Ben could qualify as two of the luckiest movie protagonists we've seen in a while. Just on principle, it's likely every straight male audience member could hate them from the get-go considering their biggest problem in life is deciding who gets to share the bed and bathtub with Blake Lively and on which day. Similarly, O's not making out too bad  herself, so it's an arrangement they're all understandably happy with until the cartel enters the picture, threatening not only their perfect hedonistic lifestyle, but all their lives. Especially O's. After a bit too much over-explanatory voiceovers and flashbacks to start, it turns out to be a credit to co-writer Stone and the actors that once the action gets going and all the narrative and visual flourishes are abandoned, we do develop a certain degree sympathy for characters who aren't exactly the easiest to sympathize with. Young, reckless, entitled and seemingly untouchable, all three are given a rude awakening when they realize they're in over their heads with these monsters.

The most interesting aspect of the film by far is the strange mother-daughter dynamic that develops between Elena and O., which starts bordering on a Stockholm Syndrome. Each seems to fill a void in the other, with captor starting to view her hostage as a surrogate for her estranged daughter and and O. looking to her as the parental figure she never had. All of this is very subtle and well written, mostly contained to a single sensational dining room scene where Elena questions whether O's seemingly perfect relationship with Chon and Ben really is as perfect as she thinks it is and whether their loyalty to each other trumps their feelings for her. Coming off her well-received supporting performance in The Town a couple of years ago, Lively impresses again in a worthy follow-up choice that definitely puts her through the wringer. I can't say another performer couldn't have done it better (maybe, maybe not), but she's completely believable in a performance that doesn't contain much depth, and doesn't need to since O's kind of a shallow of character to begin with.

Kitsch and Johnson are essentially playing polar opposites and do it well, so it's shame this was unfairly thrown in with John Carter and Battleship as another check in the loss column for Kitsch, since it represents exactly the kind of edgy supporting part he should be taking at this stage. And also probably the closest he's gotten to the brooding, quiet intensity he displayed as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights. Johnson is probably the strongest presence of the three but it hardly matters since it's the actual "savages" that  really carry this, with Hayek tearing into her meatiest role in ages as the scary but somewhat sympathetic Elena, and del Toro emotionally unstable and terrifying in just about every minute of screen time he's given. Travolta has fun hamming it up as the crooked DEA agent, providing the movie with most of its comic relief.

Without giving too much away, the film hits a big stumbling block in its final act. It's one of those things that even those who worked on the picture would have a tough time justifying or explaining from a creative standpoint. There's what seems to be a beautiful, poetic ending and then they just pull the rug out to instead give us a far less satisfying conclusion. It's not so much this actual ending that's a problem but more the cheap, manipulative way it's presented and how unfairly it plays. Not knowing how true the screenplay is to Winslow's novel, my guess just watching it would be that the studio forced Stone to make last minute changes in fear of alienating audiences who might want to go home happy and smiling. You know, come skipping out the theater from a movie about drugs, sex, murder, and kidnapping that's titled Savages. As if audiences hadn't a clue what they got into. That it doesn't seem to be about any those things when it very much is, could be the film's greatest strength. And I'm still debating whether a better ending even would have necessarily made a huge difference. This is primarily about visceral thrills and its tough to deny Stone brings those in spades. Savages is junk food for sure, but at least it's quality junk food for an adult audience that's too often criminally underserved during the summer movie season.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan Martin Sheen, Sally Field 
Running Time: 136 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Forget about the question of whether it was necessary to reboot the Spider-Man franchise so soon after Sam Raimi's trilogy concluded. We already know the answer. It wasn't. We don't really "need" any movie, whether it's a remake, prequel, sequel, adaptation or even an entirely original story. But that doesn't make it feel like any less of a privilege when we get an exceptional one. Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man is easily the best film released thus far by Marvel studios, differing from Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and yes, even the overpraised The Avengers, in that it doesn't feel like it was written by a committee, but by those who simply care about telling a good story. A few of those other movies could at best be considered "dumb fun," and this is fun too, but smart. To say I had no interest at all in seeing it would be a massive understatement, but an even bigger understatement would be claiming I thought it had any chance at success. But a success it is, reaching a level creatively that Raimi's films couldn't go near.

Webb knows the story he wants to tell and takes his time getting there. And when he does get there it means something because we care about the characters and the journey they've made. By nature, Spider-Man faces the same problems coming to the big screen that Superman does. Besides offering little in the way of depth or complexity and being an unfailing do-gooder, you run a high risk of the character coming off silly if not executed just right.  But here, the actual superhero element evolves organically from a richly rendered coming-of-age story and touching romance, leading to genuine thrills when the web-slinging begins. Raimi's films talked about how with "great power comes great responsibility," but that ended up being just a catchphrase to sell tickets. This movie is actually about it.

This story starts at the beginning, but the very beginning, as 4-year-old Peter Parker is mysteriously sent away in by his parents to live with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). We flash-forward to meet a teenage Peter (Andrew Garfield), who's now taken an interest in discovering the truth about his real parents, even while being bullied constantly in school and crushing on pretty, mini-skirt wearing classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who's the daughter of police Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary). Soon Peter discovers a suitcase of old documents, detailing his father's extensive work at Oscorp with scientist Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) in trying to combine human and animal DNA to cure illnesses and regenerate body tissue. It's during a trip to Oscorp to get answers from the one-armed Connors that Peter's bitten by a genetically engineered spider, its toxins arming him with superhuman speed and strength. He also supplies Connors with the missing algorithm needed to complete his research and restore his missing limb, but things get out of control when the is new lizard DNA causes his whole body undergo a reptilian transformation, putting the entire city's citizens at risk. Only Parker, working as the masked vigilante, has the capabilities to stop it, but Captain Stacy has other plans. He wants Spider-Man either killed or locked up, which proves to be a major obstacle in Peter's burgeoning relationship with his daughter.

That description could be construed as making The Amazing Spider-Man seem like any other superhero movie, with the title character coming to terms with his new identity, gaining a love interest and eventually engaging in a climactic battle with the villain. Put in crudely simplistic screenwriting terms, that's true, but this may be one of the few times (and certainly the only instance in a Marvel entry) where I was too engaged in the origin story to even think about it. The first hour is nothing short of spectacular in building a backstory and fleshing out characters both major and minor. Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who couldn't have appeared for more than a total of 5 minutes in Raimi's films, are given the grand treatment this time. As far as family portraits go, it's a riveting one, held together by Martin Sheen radiating a tough but benevolent warmth as Ben that recalls his work as commander-in-chief on The West Wing. It's not a small part, nor should it be, considering his death provides the impetus for Peter's emotional transformation. It feels like we get nearly an entire mini-movie about the Parkers before tragedy strikes, which only makes the actual moment seem that much more powerful when it comes.

Peter's troubles at school are emphasized far more here than in any previous depiction of the character on screen, but never exaggerated simply for effect. As opposed to being portrayed as some geek who can't stand up for himself, he's presented more wisely as a relatively normal outcast who's just overmatched at everything. The most ridiculous element of the story, the actual spider bite and the superhuman powers that spring from it, is presented far more less campy manner than in Raimi's original. The scenes where Peter takes to the streets as a masked vigilante in search of his uncle's murderer, emerging as both a fugitive and celebrity, more closely resembles the very the best of more grounded entries in the genre like Kick-Ass and Chronicle, both of which could have easily provided inspiration for approach the film takes. And there's little doubt this was the right direction to go, as it's literally the exact opposite of what we saw in 2002 and its succeeding sequels. Even if at certain points in the narrative inevitably covers some the same material, it never feels that way .

If the director behind (500) Days of Summer seems like a strange choice to be tackling this do-over, it's only after watching it does the selection make perfect sense. The crux of the story is the relationship between Peter and Gwen, so you'd figure the filmmaker behind one of the few recent intelligent modern romances would be the perfect person to flesh it out. And did he ever find the right two actors to fill these roles with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. I'm always skeptical (and even a little disappointed) whenever really talented actors sign on for a multi-film superhero franchise, as there's always a risk it could be a waste of time and talent better served in more prestigious projects. But any worries of this material dragging these two down were unfounded as both only elevate what's surprisingly an already strong script that makes excellent use of their skills. Disproving early criticisms he was too old for the part, Garfield gives us a totally different Parker than Tobey Maguire, managing to be completely likable without losing any of the character's edge. He just has a presence that makes you want to root for him and has great on screen chemistry with Stone, whose natural spunk and charm makes her a perfect choice for the witty Gwen. Better yet, both takes differ enough that it never feels like they're competing with or in the shadow of Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, who were never the source of that series' issues.

As well developed as Peter's relationship is with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Gwen's relationship with her father is fleshed out almost equally as well in only just a few scenes, with Denis Leary proving to be a surprisingly inspired casting choice for the tough, sarcastic Captain Stacy. The same can be said for Rhys Ifans who brings a restrained level-headedness to the role of Curt Connors, who's villain I far preferred to Willem Dafoe's campy, Halloween costume wearing nut from the original. There's kind of a Jekyll and Hyde take on this character and his fascination with science that's interesting and not something we usually see in modern superhero movies. Similarly, his transformation into The Lizard (featuring a believable looking mix of CG and practical effects) and the carnage he brings feels like a throwback to something out of King Kong or Godzilla. And because the storytelling is so tight, his culminating clash with Peter is presented as more a case of science steering the two on a collision course than the mandatory showdown we're used to seeing in the third act of previous Marvel movies, too many of which were poorly conceived and executed. All the alterations made to the physical depiction of Spider-Man on screen are also improvements, right down to the sleeker looking costume and the fantastic, vertigo inducing flying scenes across the city's skyscrapers, which this time looks like a person in the air rather than a video game. There's some connection between Parker outside the costume and in it, and Garfield makes you believe there isn't a second when he wasn't under the mask.

Audience apathy toward the idea of re-booting a series this soon is about the best explanation as to why this hasn't received the praise it deserves. If that's the case, it's understandable, but I'm more willing to put the blame on the oversaturation of superhero movies in general. Most of that blame lies with Marvel, so it's not hard to go into this thinking it would be just another cash grab for them. Their insistence on releasing a reboot no one particularly wanted to see in 3D likely didn't help matters either. Anyone who was fully satisfied with Raimi's interpretation probably won't enjoy this but if you disliked his approach as much as I did, then this suddenly becomes the definitive take on Spider-Man. It's a great example of what happens when the right creative choices are made and talented actors are cast who are capable of taking the material even further. In their age bracket, Garfield and Stone are two of the best right now and it's a credit to Webb that this doesn't at all feel beneath them.  It's also nice for a change to see a post credits scene in a Marvel movie and care about the next chapter instead of it feeling like a calculated commercial for another project. The Amazing Spider-Man may not transcend its genre like The Dark Knight Rises did earlier in the year, but it's leagues better than it's gotten credit for, proving that sometimes there's no shame in finishing a distant second.      

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How I Met Your Mother (Season 7)

Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan
Original Airdate: 2011-2012

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

How I Met Your Mother isn't the first sitcom to have its eventual end date up in the air as it heads into the final stretch, but that fact probably provides little to comfort the writers, who you'd figure would be scrambling right now. After a near-flawless first four seasons, and two more almost as excellent, for the first time in its run, HIMYM is starting to show its age. Seven years in, that's more than understandable, and while it might be a bit harsh to say it's "jumped the shark," it's definitely treading water and the fin is visible. Perhaps I'm guilty of glossing over some of the minor issues with Seasons 5 and 6 in lieu of praising all that went right earlier, but now those creative hiccups are now starting to become a big deal. The biggest of which is a previously uneven storyline reappearing, causing logic and humor go out the window in favor of pandering to fans. It's not so much what happens or doesn't this season, but how creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas mishandle it. Characters in situation comedies have to grow and as they do it isn't uncommon for the creative direction of the series to suffer both inevitable and avoidable growing pains, and that's never been more evident than during this season, which is easily its weakest yet. They may still get over that hump and go out strong but they've officially made some head-scratching choices before possibly getting there.

What's funny is that in interviews Bays and Thomas have both strangely cited Lost and Breaking Bad as narrative influences on how they mapped out this season, which I'd assume refers to confounding viewer expectations on how the characters' journeys will play out. Unfortunately, there isn't a surprise or risk to be found and there aren't even as many laughs as usual. And after what's at least a somewhat promising start to the season, it all comes crashing down, concluding with a disappointingly predictable and anticlimactic finale. That's not to say the season doesn't still have its moments (mainly in the first half), but that's mostly due to the five leads who could probably make a live reading of the phone book seem funny and interesting. Luckily, they have material a bit meatier than that and one actor has a career episode that's easily the highlight of these uneven 16 and should go down as one of the more emotional arcs of the series. But the show is otherwise spinning its wheels, seemingly just killing time until the clock runs out.

After losing a bet, Barney is forced to wear "The Ducky Tie"
When we last left the gang Season 6 had opened and closed with a flash-foward revealing that lovelorn, soulmate searching protagonist Ted Mosby (Joshn Radnor) finally meets The Mother of the show's title the day of a wedding sometime in the near future. Unsurprisingly, the womanizing Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is revealed to be the groom in that season's final minutes, leaving only the question of whom his bride could be and exactly how Ted will meet the woman of his dreams. That I feel completely comfortable revealing that Barney's bride is Robin (Cobie Smulders) without even so much as an accompanying spoiler warning should give you an indication of how much of a surprise it is. Yet her identity is strangely presented as a shocking mystery almost on par with the eventual reveal of The Mother. And it's fine that it's unsurprising and even that it feels like the wrong choice creatively, but if it's the expected outcome, why present it as a big secret? So right off the bat, the entire season carries a sense of purposelessness as we know whatever relationships Barney and Robin embark on will fail so they can end up together. Season 7 is all about keeping them and Ted busy until the big wedding day, which will presumably occur at the end of the eighth season, which may be the series finale. Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) are also tied up as they prepare for the birth of their baby and try out suburban life by moving out to Long Island.

This might be the first season where these five friends don't feel like a unit. I'm sure the argument the writers would make is that as the characters get deeper into their thirties, mature and take on greater responsibilities, it's only natural that they'd grow apart somewhat. But did it have to be done in such a manufactured, uninspired way? As much as the character of Ted often catches flak as the show's weakest link, it was only after seeing him relegated to the sidelines in favor of Robin and Barney, that I came away with a new appreciation of how his quest and Radnor's self-aware performance has anchored the series up to this point.. There's hardly a yellow umbrella to be found this season, but there are two new characters serving as romantic placeholders for Robin and Barney until they rediscover their feelings for one another. The worst of whom is Robin's court appointed therapist-turned-boyfriend Kevin, who's drably played by NPH's Harold and Kumar co-star Kal Penn in what's easily the series' least successful guest starring arc. And that's being kind. Penn (usually a good actor) barely even seems present in scenes and Kevin's entire relationship with Robin is about as exciting as watching paint dry since the character isn't given a single personality trait outside of just simply being a normal, boring dependable guy who isn't Barney. But what's worse is that he's somehow indoctrinated as an honorary member of the core five and even sharing a seat with the gang at MacLaren's for what feels like the entire first half of the season.

Barney and his new stripper girlfriend Quinn (guest star Becki Newton)
Robin's relationship with Kevin is doomed from the get-go, but boy does it take a long time getting there as every humorless episode spent with this guy slowly sucks the life out of the show. Becki Newton fares slightly better as Barney's new stripper girlfriend Quinn, but it seems like a creative step back after his relationship with Nora (Nazanin Boniadi) in Season 6 explored dimensions to the character we didn't know existed. But of course she was too likable so the writers had to get rid of her, which is emblematic of the entire problem with the show right now. Bays and Thomas seem determined to go the Barney/Robin route at all costs, regardless of whether it's the right choice or not. And it may be, but they've yet to supply a reason why, especially considering their initial pairing directly resulted in a creative rough patch for the show in Season 5. They still have a season (and maybe more) to sell this relationship and come up with some funny twists and surprises but thus far it's definitely feeling like a Ross/Rachel situation from Friends. Something being done to please rabid fans who care about nothing other than the two major characters ending up together. This is how all sitcoms get into trouble toward the end of their runs, with showrunners writing for the fans instead of the characters.  NPH and Smulders obviously work extremely well together so it's no fault of theirs, but it'll be interesting to see if the characters' bond translate into any kind of romantic chemistry since that's always been lacking. Even Ted seemed to have more of a connection with her.

We already know that none of Ted's relationships will work until he meets The Mother and now we know that none of his friends' will either. The inevitability of his situation is understandable since that's the show's hook, but now we know a whole other outcome, so the writers made double work for themselves since they'll have to make the "how" of Barney and Robin's eventual union interesting too. Ted's quest to find "The One" is really pushed to the sidelines this season in favor of this as his only true story arc comes with the surprising return of one of the show's most beloved characters, ex-girlfriend Victoria (Ashley Williams). Her brief comeback in what's arguably the season's best episode, "The Ducky Tie," is a welcome one that also feels essential in moving Ted toward being ready to meet The Mother. If there's one thing all longtime viewers of the series can agree on, it's that Victoria is the closest to being a perfect match for him and that Williams has always been delightful in the role. That storyline doesn't feel manufactured, nor does Ted's desire to sort out his still lingering feelings for Robin.

There's also the payoff to an infamous Season 1 flashback as we meet the infamous "Slutty Pumpkin" character Ted fell for on Halloween in 2001 but never saw since. Short of The Mother, it's about the only major reveal the show still had up its sleeve and they definitely deliver a huge name with guest star Katie Holmes, who couldn't disappoint if she tried, despite playing a character who's supposed to be a big disappointment. The actual execution of the episode, "The Slutty Returns," feels a bit off, and becomes another example of the writers just not knowing what they have, as most sitcoms would be lucky to have Katie for a cameo, much less an entire episode. They get her for an entire episode, she does really well, and yet they still somehow make it seem inconsequential. It also begs the question that with all the guest stars who have lined up to date Ted Mosby, are there any suitable actresses even left to play the show's title character?

Guest star Katie Holmes as "The Slutty Pumpkin"
Having already exhausted Sarah Chalke, Mandy Moore, Danica McKellar, Rachel Bilson, Jennifer Morrison and more in extended guest arcs, it seems as if they've burned through every satisfying Mother candidate possible, in addition to setting the bar really high. And now after crossing Katie Holmes off the list of potential candidates, you have to wonder who can measure up to Ted's (and viewers') now impossibly high expectations. Of course, that's working under the assumption fans still care who the The Mother is, or even did to begin with. Some don't, which is understandable. The show really isn't "about" that anyway and you certainly couldn't blame Ted's future kids for not caring anymore after listening to their father ramble on for hours about all the women he slept with before meeting their mom. But I'd counter that to argue the eventual reveal is more important now than it ever was considering Bays and Thomas seem to have given everything else away. There may be few other surprises left, but as ridiculous as the wait's been, it's still the one major series-long story arc they haven't botched. Of course, all that could change when she's introduced, as the pressure shifts from the writers to whomever is given the honor (burden?) of playing the coveted role. If one thing's certain it's that this definitely wouldn't be the time for the big name stunt casting they've been so fond of throughout the series' run. Contrary to popular opinion, the best approach would be to save her for the end and get it over with quickly, as to avoid the potential prolonged disappointment of seeing their relationship not play out to expectations. Assuming they cast the right actress and the writing's strong enough to support her, there's no reason it can't be done effectively in the last episode.
Given Jason Segel's rapidly increasing film commitments over the past year or so, it comes as little surprise that Marshall and Lily see a a bit less face time this season, although I definitely wasn't expecting them to be displaced from the group altogether. The show's always been at its weakest when the writers try to "spin off" one or more of the characters and introduce different settings. It's fairly obvious early on that the Eriksens in the suburbs just isn't going to take so the whole storyline becomes a matter of sitting through a bunch of plot contrivances and forced humor until the characters realize it. In a way, this is a compliment since these five actors work so well together that having two of them suddenly take leave for a while it becomes crippling. Luckily, this is realized by the end of the season, but not until we've had to sit through the clumsy housewarming episode, "The Burning Beekeeper," which plays with time and location to tell what feels like a complicated, extended joke lacking a punchline. There's also so much of guest star Chris Elliot as Lily's selfish, board game creator dad Mickey that he may as well have been bumped up to a series regular. He's funny in small doses, but the character gets grating after a while, especially since we know the redemptive arc that usually accompanies each of his appearances.

Episode 7.15 ("The Burning Beekeeper")
With Marshall finally leaving the GNB boardroom behind to pursue his dream of practicing environmental law, guest star Martin Short comes aboard as his new boss, the kooky Garrison Cootes. But as strange as it seems, I actually miss Marshall dealing with the corporate drudgery associated with his old job, as that contrast often resulted in some really great moments. Who can forget his encounters with "Artillery" Arthur (Bob Odenkirk), his visits to Barney's office, or him walking out of the company bathroom with a magazine and a giant grin on his face as his co-workers looked on in disgust. The brilliant sixth season episode "Natural History" expertly foreshadowed Marshall's eventual change in career direction, but as is often the case in sitcoms, once a character actually gets what they want, things can suddenly become a lot less interesting. In fact, there's such a lack of work-related scenes this season for everyone you'd be forgiven for assuming they're all unemployed. This is especially true for Ted, who hasn't had a workplace scenes in about two years. Is he still teaching architecture?  What about that GNB building he's designing? This may seem like nit-picking, but seemingly minor stuff like this really helps flesh out the show's universe, giving the series a season-to-season consistency and providing viewers with a greater long-term investment in its characters.

The less said about the messy two-part finale, "The Magician's Code," the better. Besides featuring the birth of Baby Marvin "Waitforit" Eriksen and an eventually pointless proposal, they squander all the goodwill Victoria brought at the season's start by bringing her back under circumstances so ill-conceived I almost mistook it for a dream sequence. It pains me to say Season 7 is the series' most uneven yet because even with all its flaws it's still more enjoyable than just about any sitcom on the air and I wouldn't dare consider jumping ship before it reaches its conclusion, whenever that may be. Better news is that it's still capable of producing surprises and laughs with emotional episodes like "Symphony of Illumination," which shockingly delivers the news that Robin can't have children and features Cobie Smulders' all-time best performance. At this point it seems most of the notes the show is hitting have been dramatic rather than comedic, which is expected as everything starts to wrap up. What's even more certain is that HIMYM needs to end soon.

Robin receives shocking news in "Symphony of Illumination"
It's understandable CBS wants to squeeze every last dime out of a show still producing tremendous ratings this late in the game and go nine seasons, but creatively that decision is suicide. The current eighth season should be its last, if not for fans, than for the five enormously talented actors who have carried the show for almost a decade, and deserve opportunities to move on and test the water with different projects (especially Radnor and Smulders, who've spent their entire careers on it). We're rapidly approaching the point where the series will wear out its welcome, so here's hoping this increased sense of urgency will inspire Bays and Thomas to step up and pull out all the stops. If there's any consolation, it's that some of TV's finest finales weren't originally conceived as such, with their writers having to make split decisions under the gun, as the possibility of another season still hanged in the air until literally the last second. They say they're going ahead and writing the eighth as if its last and this year's flash-forward heavy premiere certainly confirms that tactic. We now know exactly the "when" and "where" of Ted meeting The Mother. All that's left is the "how" and the "who." And seeing how everything else ties into it. Will the show continue after that? I hope not. But here's hoping they can get there without any more filler and the series can be given the send-off it truly deserves.