Is Jack really back?

Day 1: "You probably don't think I could force this towel down your throat, but trust me I can. All the way. Except that I'd hold onto this little bit at the end. When your stomach starts to digest the towel, I pull it out. Taking your stomach lining with it. Most people probably take about a week to die. It's very painful. "

Day 2: "I'm gonna need a hacksaw."

Day 3: "Once your daughter is infected, I'm gonna make you watch her die."

Day 4: "Make a sound and I will blow your brains out all over the windshield."

Day 5: "I’m done talking with you, you understand me? You’ve read my file. The first thing I’m going to do is take out your right eye, and then I’m gonna move over and take out your left, and then I’m going to cut you. I’m gonna keep cutting you until you give me the information that I need. Do you understand me? So for the last time, where is the nerve gas?"

Day 6: "You’re gonna tell me what I want to know or you’re going to start losing your fingers one by one."

Day 7: "Come on, children... everybody hold hands!"

Brings to mind that old nursery rhyme, "one of these things is not like the other." Last night's 2-hour ramp-up to the January premiere of 24 stood out from the rest of the seasons, not just because it strayed a bit from format, but in its efforts to establish a kindler, gentler Jack Bauer.

After wandering the globe, Jack has settled in fictional (but typical) Sangala, Africa, working to help relief efforts for a village beset by tribal militia. Refusing a summons to appear in America to answer for torture and other crimes committed by his Counter Terrorist Unit, he smiles at children and unloads supplies from trucks. At some point the militia moves to take control of the country, and Jack walks away for two hours. In classic 24 fashion, this action is cross-cut with the balls-to-the-wall thrillride of... a Presidential inaguration.

Don't get me wrong, there's some action and intrigue – Jack shoots some people and there're some fishy guys floating around the new President's cabinet. But 24 works best as an unhinged freefall thru a shadowy world of shifting loyalties and moralities, and it's hard to find a lot of debateable gray area when the bad guys are African drug-runners killing kids or turning them into child soldiers. And I'm not a big torture whore, but the appeal of Jack Bauer is living vicariously thru his whatever-it-takes worldview, so when the first conflict of the show is watching Jack gently reprimand a child for stealing his knife by giving him a silk scarf, it's clear we're in a bit of trouble.

24: Redemption wasn't a disaster, but it's "Jack's Back!" marketing did it no favors. Some seeds were sown for what looks to be an interesting season, but two hours of Bauer slowly leading kids thru a forest isn't quite what fans have been waiting for... for nearly two years. That said, the preview for Day 7 was packed with action, so this little slice of Madagascar 3 feels like the calm before the storm. Worth watching if you're a completist, but casual fans can make do with the "previously on" montage that'll open the season in January.


The Bond Continuum

You'd be forgiven if you got your Bonds and your Bournes a bit mixed up – 007's recent reboot owes a lot to the films from Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. But that's proving to be a good thing, as the first two "James Blond" flicks have been a satifying one-two punch. For the first time in the franchise's history, Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel as opposed to just a "next adventure," picking up moments after Daniel Craig uttered the classic "Bond – James Bond" line at the end of Casino Royale. And it's good. Quite good.

Roiling with rage over the events from Royale, Bond embarks on an unhinged quest for revenge, going up against a mysterious criminal organization as well as MI6 itself. Much has been made of a big falloff in quality, but I've gotta disagree – It's perhaps not quite as skillfully directed, I think the only really big thing that's missing is the novelty of the new Bond. I watched them back-to-back and Quantum really feels like the second half of Casino. Craig's in top form, the action is intense (only one set piece – an airplane chase – is slightly misguided) and the plot, while byzantine, is nicely grounded in real world issues. And the moves manage to toss in references without descending into jokey parody; keep an eye out for a great Goldfinger shout-out.

I'm not pretending it's perfect – the "Bond Girls" feel somewhat tacked-on for tradition's sake, and the villains feel a little like precursors for the threequel, but it's a great gritty ride thru Bond's darker side. Shake yourself a martini or four and enjoy.


Muppets Take Manhattan

The Muppets took over the Today show this morning, locking the hosts out of the studio and replacing them with Muppetized versions – to the confusion of guests Christopher Meloni and Harry Connick, Jr. 'Twas all good (albeit slightly forced) fun, until it came time to promote what they were there to sell – the Make-Your-Own Muppet "Whatnot" Studio at FAO Schwarz. Not because of the overt product placement, mind you – I work in advertising, so can hardly complain about that. No, what was somewhat unsettling were the Whatnots themselves. Take a look at this clip at about the 3:50 mark...

...and tell me that the Whatnots themselves aren't kinda creepy. Or at least a little sad. The actual idea seems like lotsa fun – pop into the store, make your own Muppet... it's like Mr. Potato Head if you could stick your hand thru a giant hole in his butt.

But the on-air Whatnots? Born bald, blind, deaf and without a sense of smell? Flailing around with nothing but a simple meathole in their poor blank faces? And naked as a jaybird (if jaybirds were made out of multicolored felt and came with the aforementioned hand hole)? My heart goes out the the Whatnots – please, PLEASE, Manhattanites and tourists... rush in to their store and buy out the Muppets! Equip them with eyes, ears, maybe even some hair! Give them a life worth living – one filled with color, sound and adventure... at least until your kid gets bored and it ends up on ebay.


(Prolly don't) Try the veal

Looking at Obama's first news conference as President-Elect from an entertainment point of view, it seems like we might be in for a few genuine laughs, as opposed to the sneering asides of a frat boy who thinks he's funny.

Tip your waitresses people, he'll be here all week – and hopefully the next 415.


Zack and Miri Make an Okay Movie

It's his first real non-New Jersey film, but Kevin Smith doesn't stray too far from the flicks that made him famous (Clerks, Chasing Amy, etc.) In this case, the titular Zack and Miri live in Pittsburgh, but barely. The platonic best friends are struggling to make ends meet, and when they run out of money completely, they decide the only option they have is to make their ends meet – on film. Working under the assumption that they can whip together a porn flick and sell it to people they knew in high school, they round up a cast and crew to hit the sheets. If you've seen Smith's stuff (or, well, a movie – ever) you pretty much know where this is going, but is it worth the ride?

If you're looking for a happy ending, yeah – altho the plot isn't what pushes this movie forward, it's Smith's signature combination of filthy comedy and sweet emotion. For every over-the-top belly laugh, there's an on-the-nose touchy-feely moment, and the transitions can be a little awkward. Smith isn't the most subtle filmmaker – rather than subtext, he tends to just add more text. He's as famous for his overstuffed dialogue as his underdeveloped characters, and they're both at play here. That said, while the film doesn't have a lot of nuance, it does have a lot of humor. Unlike other pottymouth comedies, Smith seems to actually care about his characters – and it shows.

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks bring some legitimate worth to fairly flat roles, and the supporting cast isn't just a host of jokers. But the real star of the movie is Smith's comedy – at it's heart, it's a pretty funny movie. A bit uneven and on the nose, but it'll make you laugh. And most of the time, that's enough. Enjoy.