Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Nova's - "Monster of the Milky Way" - A Good Old Halloween Fright

Looking for a good Halloween scare? Try this on for size. One day, our galaxy -- the Milky Way -- will slam right into the galaxy closest to us, Andromeda. The two galaxies will meld into one, leading to several possible consequences for our Earth. One of these is there will be no significant change for us. Another is that our solar system will be flung out of the combined galaxy and travel off into space on its own. Of course, it’s possible neither of these will happen, and, instead, we’ll be sucked into the huge, mammoth, black hole at the center of the new galaxy.

You see, a bunch of physicists and astronomers have decided the center of virtually every galaxy, including ours, contains a black hole. I won’t try and define what a black hole is, Nova tells me even people who study them full time have trouble defining them. However, if you want to learn about them, and why there is a “supermassive” one in the center of the Milky Way, and if, one day, we will be sucked into it (which one scientist believes would be the absolute best way to die), by all means check out Nova’s “Monster of The Milky Way,” airing on Halloween at 8pm ET/PT. It should make for some awfully scary viewing.

Albert Einstein proposed that space and time are actually one, that the two form a single “flexible fabric” on which we all sit. The more massive the object, the more the fabric needs to bend in order to accommodate it. A black hole is an object of enough mass that it bends the fabric infinitely. 

At least, I think that’s how they explained it. But, if professionals can’t quite define the whole thing, why should I have to? Nova does a spectacular job in this episode of explaining the inexplicable. The computer generated images, while they may not be quite top of the line, look good and do a wonderful job helping make sense of the whole universe (literally). 

In true Nova fashion, the graphics, talking heads, and voice-over narration are both intriguing and demystifying, even if some of the concepts pass at what feels like lightspeed. “Monster of the Milky Way” takes the viewer from the initial notion of a black hole to how one would, hypothetically, be formed, to the discovery of one at the center of our galaxy (and seemingly every other galaxy as well) to what it all really means. 

And, if that’s not enough to scare the bejesus out of you this Halloween, try this on for size: black holes don’t just suck in matter, they also spew matter out.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

With 300 Channels There's Always Something On

Do you know why I love having 300 channels?  No?  Okay, I’ll tell you…

It’s because it makes executives scramble to fill hours and hours of programming.  I haven’t bothered to sit down and actually discover how many hours of programming air on a daily basis, but if you assume 300 channels of programming, airing 24 hours a day that would be a whopping 7,200 hours.  Of course, plenty of these hours are infomercials, and some of it is probably just random test patterns, and some of it is pure one-of-a-kind, one-time-only genius.  And, some of it, a good deal of it, are movies.  With umpteen HBO, Starz, and Showtime channels movies get shown over and over and over again.  And, even with the truly ludicrous number of times movies can be shown in a given day or week, there are still holes to fill.  That’s why I love having 300 channels.  It means that the movie Nothing But Trouble will air nearly a dozen times over the course of a week. 

In case that went by too quickly, I’ll restate:  Nothing But Trouble will air nearly a dozen times over the course of a single week.  Looking for something fun to do around Halloween time?  It airs at 10:25am on HBO Comedy on the 31st.  And it is definitely, definitely, a perfect Halloween film for those of you that like the spirit but don’t want to be scared.

The more erudite critics out there will instantly dismiss Nothing But Trouble as schlock, pure drivel put out by a studio trying to turn a fast buck with a bunch of stars that signed for a quick payday.  They’ll hold their noses and snicker at the notion that it could be anything more than a no-trick pony and sheer vanity trip for director, star, and writer Dan Aykroyd.  There may have been a time when some critics would have stated Demi Moore was slumming when she took the role; those same critics, in light of where her career has been the past decade, would quickly disavow that initial take.  The less erudite, but more traditional critics out there would call the entire film nonsense and try and come up with some cute title for their review, something along the lines of Nothing But Awful, Nothing But Terrible, Nothing Near Funny, or some other “clever” thing. 

And you know what?  They’d all be wrong.  The film may never quite live up to its promise, but it’s a funny movie.  Between Bobo and L’il Debbull, Eldona and Judge Valkenheiser, Fausto and Renalda, and Digital Underground and Mr. Bonestripper, there’s some funny stuff here.  I don’t wish to give away any major plot points, because everyone should take 90 minutes out of their busy schedule to see this movie for themselves, but in short what happens is as follows…

In order to impress a girl, Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) agrees to drive the girl in question, Diane Lightson (Demi Moore), to Atlantic City.  Two crazy, rich, Brazilians tag along (the hysterical Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas).  On a whim they take a scenic detour, get pulled over by the police (John Candy) and brought to court for their traffic violation.  The Judge (Dan Aykroyd) and his family turn out to be “eccentric” and hold over the four people for trial the next day.  Realizing just how much trouble their in, they try to escape.  It’s the specifics of it all where the funny is, and I don’t want to ruin any of it.

The movie was a massive flop, IMDb estimates it took in almost 8.5 million dollars at the box office and had a budget of $40 million- not quite the numbers one would hope for with such a star-driven vehicle.  And sadly, if there weren’t 300 channels on the dial it’s the exact kind of movie that would be relegated to the dustbin of filmic history. 

Thank God we live in a digital world and have more entertainment opportunities than we could possibly ever hope to utilize.  Nothing But Trouble lives on in unedited form and I  can’t wait to see what gets brought back to the fore once we have 800 channels to choose from.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It Absolutely Piles it on, But I Don't Think it Quite Makes it Waist Deep

I tried to like this movie, I really, really did. I sat down, popped in the DVD, and tried to get into Waist Deep.  Sure, the premise may be generic --  a guy trying to turn his life around and go on the straight-and-narrow is forced by circumstances outside of his control, in this case the kidnapping of his son, to operate outside the law once more.  Sure, the dialogue is nothing special.  Absolutely, it almost instantly wavers uneasily between promoting thug life and disavowing it.  But I really knew I was in trouble when I kept expecting Tyrese Gibson to stare into the camera, give his best Mel Gibson impression and growl those immortal words --  give me back my son!

To be sure, all these things do not make Waist Deep a bad movie, merely an incredibly generic one.  It’s in fact the climax of the film that helps tip the scales towards bad.  And yes, for all of the movie’s other possible faults, this is the one that really got to me.  O2 (Tyrese Gibson) is driving manically trying to get away from a half-dozen cop cars and a helicopter, doing spins and sharp turns and going at high-speed, which is pretty neat and fun to watch. 

But - and this is a big “but” - the entire time he is doing this fancy driving he’s also  talking on his cell phone in a perfectly calm voice to his accomplice, Meagan Good in a role that has very little to it beyond acting like a floozy, and his son, played by H. Hunter Hall. 

I would imagine that adrenaline alone would negate his tone as a possibility.  Furthermore, I’d hypothesize that driving in the fashion he does absolutely, unquestionably, without a doubt, requires two hands.  It is exactly this sort of thing that helps destroy suspension of disbelief and thereby makes a movie like this a lot less enjoyable. 

On the upside, the movie does contain some nifty driving and one or two moments of solid action.  The scene in which 02 is carjacked and his son kidnapped is really well put together. Tyrese Gibson does a great job showing the sheer terror and absolute ferocity of someone that has just been put into his position.  The carjacking scene is really, head and shoulders, the best scene in the movie and it occurs way too early on for this to be the case.  Everything that comes after is a letdown.  One of the special features of the DVD goes through the creation of the scene, what went into the actual shooting of it, and some of the thinking behind why Vondie Curtis Hall (the director) put it on film the way he did. 

In addition to this special feature, the DVD also has another one on filming car sequences, going from why certain cars were chosen for various characters to how some of the scenes were put on film.  There is, of course, the standard bonus feature of deleted scenes, as well as a music video for one of the songs in the film. 

For my money, if I wanted to watch a film in this genre I’d rather take another look at Baby Boy, which also stars Tyrese Gibson.  Though a similar movie, that one just has a fresher feel to it. 

Waist Deep, while it may have sharp, good, moments has a little too much feel of simply being a retread to have kept this viewer’s interest for long.  Even with its relatively brief 97-minute run time, some judicious cutting may have left the film feeling a whole lot more taut.  Either that, or another rewrite may have gone a long way to helping the film out.  There’s a good movie in there somewhere, but the final product that is Waist Deep simply isn’t it. 

Monday, October 23, 2006

I Admit it Freely, I am a Talismaniac. What do You Want From Me?

Ah games. Another game post is a-callin' TV & Film Guy.

I admit it, I’ve played Talismania for a week and now I am a Talismaniac. Created by PopCap, Talismania is a perfect fit into their puzzle game lineup that includes other favorites such as Bejeweled, Dynomite, and Rocket Mania.

PopCap, while not creating the puzzle game genre, has unquestionably perfected it. As with all of their games, the concept of Talimsania is incredibly simple and yet is incredibly hard to get good at. That, and, like all good games, it’s incredibly addictive. While available in a free version, this review is of the complete, or “Deluxe” version of the game.

The story for the game is that the player needs to help King Midas end his curse and rescue his daughter. This is done, at least nominally, by traveling from town to town and restoring various temples, cottages, ships, and the like. All of the restoring is done in between levels (and requires nothing of the player, save watching the screen).

The levels themselves require the player to turn pieces on a board so as to connect the light coming out of two talismans of the same color. In between the hexagonal talismans are similarly shaped tiles through which the light can be moved (each tile has specific in and out points for the lights).

By spinning the tiles around, the light can be forced in different directions so as to create a bridge between the talismans. Once the bridge is created, all the pieces in which the light has traveled are converted to coins. After enough coins have been built up the level is over and Midas helps restore another point of the city he’s currently in.

Of course, it’s not quite that easy. Depending on the length of chain the player builds, and how quickly it is built, the next set of talismans that appear on the screen will be either bronze, silver, or gold. The more gold ones obtained, the more points the player gets, and it also allows for the portion of the city constructed at the end of the level to be of greater value (bronze, silver, or gold) as well.

On top of that, there are various enemy and bonus pieces on the board too. Some of them convert regular tiles into special ones that will not change over to coins once destroyed. Other pieces freeze the player’s end-level bonus or give extra coins, etc.

When first played, only “Story” mode is accessible. This is the basic game mode, with untimed play, in which the player gets to see the story associated with the game between levels. Just as I was beginning to think the whole game was a little too easy, I finished the levels at the second location, and unlocked “Hero” mode. In this mode, the levels are timed, which makes it all infinitely more difficult.

Game play is self explanatory, and little informative “hints” appear throughout the early levels in order to delve more deeply into the nuances of the bonus and enemy pieces as well as chain length, talisman colors, and other finer points.

One of the best features of the game is that it has the ability to save, so that it can played in short stints as quick breaks or in a longer session. There are hours of game play included, and without the save feature the end could not be reached.

It’s a simple, fun, addictive game that requires hours to master and frankly it’s time that I start playing again.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Who Doesn't Love Monks? I Love Monks. Do You Love Monks?

The quest for a higher power is as old as television itself. Strike that. The quest for a higher power is as old as man himself, so why shouldn’t television get into the act? It should. It has. TLC will premiere (on October 22) a new five episode series entitled The Monastery, in which five men will live in a monastery with 30 Benedictine monks for 40 days. Too many numbers there for you? Five episodes. Five men. 30 monks. 40 days.  Or, if you add it all together, 80, like the number of days plus the number of nights the Great Flood lasted. Coincidence? I think not.

Much like the Great Flood, The Monastery features precipitation (it snows during an episode). And, much like the Great Flood, The Monastery features lots of flowing liquid (seriously, there’s a whole lot of drinking going on with some of these five fellows). And, much like the Great Flood, after the first few hours of The Monastery, I was pretty much done with the whole thing, counting down the minutes until it would be finished.    

The problem isn’t so much that the concept is bad, it’s not. It’s actually a really interesting notion. They take five different men, all facing personal crises, and throw them into a monastery, sealing them off from the outside world for 40 days so they can learn more about themselves and their world and possibly discover faith. See? Vaguely interesting, right? It’s just too bad the people they chose to send to the monastery are so completely and totally uninteresting. For example, let’s look at Warren Huber (not one of the drinkers). Warren is an introvert, studies physics, is striving for the “Gandalf look,” and, here’s the hook for Warren, he’s a former Satanist. 

Yeah. Now we’re talking. That’s what people want to see. Let’s send a Satanist to live with monks. That’s not good TV, that’s great TV! It’s an actual battle of good versus evil and should be just plain fantastic to watch. Oh. Wait. One little glitch here. He’s a “former” Satanist. Former. That takes all the oomph out of it.  Warren has renounced Beelzebub and wants now to be an Episcopal priest. Oh well, that’s not Warren’s fault. It’s actually pretty good for Warren to have renounced Satan and found God. 

Good for him, but bad for viewers. TLC still manages to promote him repeatedly as a “former Satanist” though, despite the fact it never, not once, came up in any meaningful context during the series. There’s no speaking in tongues, there’s no twisting of heads, crawling on ceilings, or projectile vomiting. There’s just a guy who wants to be a priest. It’s all well and good in the real world, but TV is not the real world.

The Monks themselves are actually fascinating, and the show would have done far better to eliminate the outsiders completely and just focus on the trials and tribulations of the monks at The Monastery of Christ in the Desert. They’re absolutely fascinating.  Their history and reasons for turning to the Church, and following The Rule of St. Benedict would be interesting. There’s one monk who lives there who has been a hermit, living by himself, away from the community, for almost 30 years. He’s someone I want to know more about.

The series is really a fascinating concept. It is shot as an observational documentary and the cameras and cameramen try not to interfere with the proceedings (as much as is possible), and the five men who go there are real people with real issues in their lives and, at least some of whom really want to learn be better people. The problem is that good intentions don’t always make for good television. If I were rating simply the desire to help and be good and to do something new and interesting, this series would get five stars. It would be an absolute home run.  If I were to rate based on outcome, the whole thing sinks down to about one and a half stars.

The monks I absolutely love. They’re holy, and they’re human, and wise and silly, and just all around wonderful. As for Warren, Tom, William, Alex, and Jonathan (the five men in question), I’d like to exorcise them from my memory. Maybe I just need to blame it on the rain that was falling, falling. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Man, Do I Wish I Had Bogart's Face

Humphrey Bogart.

Seriously, what else is there to say.  The American Film Institute named Humphrey Bogart the number one male screen legend of all time, and he has an undeniably wonderful presence on screen, even in small parts.  And, to top it all off, Humphrey Bogart is the reason I just had a spectacular weekend.  “Why?” you ask.  Because I sat down and watched Humphrey Bogart - The Signature Collection, Volumes 1 & 2.  The first volume contains:  Casablanca (two-disc edition), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (two-disc edition), They Drive By Night, & High SierraVolume 2 contains:  The Maltese Falcon (three-disc edition), Across the Pacific, Action in the North Atlantic, All Through the Night, and Passage to Marseille.

Some of the movies included in the two collections are absolutely outstanding (Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre & The Maltese Falcon).  Others are less good (Across the Pacific) and some are really not very good at all (They Drive By Night).  And the rest fall somewhere else along the range.  All, however, are definitely worth taking a look at. 

Some people might consider me boring for stating that Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre & The Maltese Falcon are the standout films in the sets, but there is a reason that these films are classics (Casablanca having been noted as the #2 movie of all-time by the AFI, with Sierra Madre at 30, and The Maltese Falcon at 23).  They are also the ones given the royal treatment by  Warner Brothers.  All three of these films are loaded with special features.  The three-disc Maltese Falcon set even includes two alternate movie versions, one starring Bebe Daniels and Recardo Cortez and the other with Bette Davis and Warren William.  For my money neither is as good as the Bogie version, but they do make for interesting comparisons. 

Even in the lesser films in the two sets, Humphrey Bogart still provides a wonderful presence.  Most notably this is seen in They Drive By Night, which is an odd tale in which Bogie is the second male lead, playing the brother to George Raft’s Joe Fabrini.  The movie, awfully late into the running time, switches from the story of two brothers trying to make their way as independent truckers to a love triangle (or maybe a love rectangle) involving a murder and Bogie, as he has no part in the rectangle, more or less disappears.  Still though, when he is present in the film he is his charismatic self, commanding the viewer’s attention. 

The single most disappointing thing in both of these volumes is the lack of consistency in the packaging.  This may seem like a minor point, but if items come in a boxed set they should absolutely all have the same look, and they don’t here.  The two-disc editions of Casablanca & The Treasure of the Sierra Madre appear in a normal-sized two-disc DVD case.  Every other disc in both sets appear in slim-line DVD cases.  The Maltese Falcon three-disc set actually appears in two separate slim-line cases, with the Bogie version of the movie in its own case and the other two discs in a separate one.  It’s quite disconcerting when looking at the box to see what one is getting, it takes a very close inspection of the box to determine what films are included.  My best guess as to why this occurred is that the releases included here of Casablanca & The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are the exact versions previously released as single movies and that they were simply thrown into this boxed set.  The same seems to be true of The Maltese Falcon, as the listing for what is included on the three discs matches perfectly with the previously released three-disc set, and thus it seems likely that the slim-line cases were used for it in the single film release as well as here in the boxed set.

Some of the movies in the boxed set contain fewer special features than the three main films, but despite that, all the films and extras present not only an interesting look at moments in Humphrey Bogart’s career, but also in the history of Hollywood itself.  There are discussions of the studio system, the star system, censorship, and Hollywood responses to World War II.  Particular favorite extras of mine were the various classic animated shorts included in the second volume. 

The transfers for all the movies are absolutely beautiful, and the audio sounds wonderful as well.  There are of course films of Bogie’s that one would like to see included in the sets that are not here, but that may result from their not being owned by Warners or, hopefully, a Volume 3 that will arrive one day in the future.

If you’re a fan of Humphrey Bogart, or old-time Hollywood movies, I highly recommend these sets.  Even if some of the movies are little hokey (often times Action in the North Atlantic comes across as little more than an advertisement for the Merchant Marines and a little too rah-rah for this viewer) Humphrey Bogart proves time and again why he is a legend.  

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sure, Dick Tracy is Here, but What About Madonna

The Dick Tracy Show:  The Complete Animated Crime Series provides hours and hours of enjoyment for children, and in short spurts can be moderately amusing for adults as well.  This boxed set is meant to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Dick Tracy.  This particular Tracy series originally aired in the early 1960s, and all the episodes are short, about 4 and a half minutes in duration.

The most distressing thing about the series, and one of the reasons it won’t necessarily work as well for adults as it will for children, is that Dick Tracy himself plays a miniscule role.  Each episode starts off with Tracy ending a call with the Chief and then farming out the case to one of his men.  From time to time Tracy himself will arrive at the scene, but usually only with the paddy wagon or another vehicle to help escort the crooks off to jail.  There are times when he does slightly more than this, but only slightly.

Tracy’s helpers include the stereotypes Joe Jitsu and GoGo Gomez.  While today these characters are certainly offensive, there is a question as to whether or not leeway should be granted to the show as it was made over 40 years ago.  The debate is quite long on both sides of the argument and not one I will enter into here (both sides do make good points).  It is just something to be aware of should you be sitting your child down in front of it, it’s a call for the parent to make.

Tracy’s other helpers are Heap O’Calorie (an overweight, bumbling detective) and Hemlock Holmes (a dog that sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant, though Grant does not provide the voice).  On a whole, all of Tracy’s helpers are at turns funny, annoying, cute, and grating.

The villains are some of the classic Dick Tracy villains:  Mumbles, Itchy, Flattop, Pruneface, etc (alas though, the series was made before Madonna's time and she is not here to voice Breathless Mahoney).  Besides the brief, throw away, moments that Tracy himself appears in the episodes, these guys are really the only reasons that this series can be placed within the Dick Tracy universe. 

As they are all such short episodes, they all follow a very standard, formulaic plot.  As mentioned above, Tracy finishes up a call from the chief and calls in one of his employees.  His chosen helper for the episode goes off and tries to capture the bad guy (or, more often, pair of bad guys), gets into trouble, some sort of slapstick ensues, they check in with Tracy via their wrist radio, and through some odd turn of events capture the bad guy. 

Though formulaic, it absolutely works.  After all, it must be remembered that cops and robbers television shows and films always follow roughly the same formula.  There are slight changes substituting action for jokes or vice versa depending on the leaning of the script.    

The four disc DVD set comes with a Dick Tracy comic, giving a couple of early adventures in the famous detective’s career.  Outside of that, there are really no special features to the set.  However, as the series as a whole is geared far more towards children than adults, strictly speaking, none are necessary. 

In the end, the series should prove amusing to younger children, provided that parents are okay with the cartoony violence and the, at times, stereotypical characters.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Man of the Year? Probably Not, But Maybe of the Week

It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad. It’d be outlandish if it weren’t quite so close to the truth. It’d be a comedy if it weren’t quite so serious. Whatever else it may be, Barry Levinson’s new movie, Man of the Year is certainly worth checking out. The movie isn’t always as funny as it might be, and it doesn’t always work as a thriller (which it turns into), but it certainly provides ample material to chew on. 

The basic premise is that Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), the host of a political-based comedy show a la The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Real Time with Bill Maher decides to run for President. This takes place just as a computer company has secured the rights to provide electronic voting machines for every polling station in the country for the upcoming election. One of the employees there, Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), notices an irregularity in the software and attempts to report it to the company’s president. In order to not hurt stock prices, the memo is buried and Green is told any irregularities have been fixed. They of course haven’t, and as a result of the computer glitch, Dobbs is elected President. The rest of the movie deals with Green trying to fix the problem, going to Dobbs for help, as her company tries to first discredit, and subsequently eliminate, her.

The film is a slightly-skewed mirror-image of reality. People have started wearing t-shirts and putting bumper stickers on their cars promoting Jon Stewart for President in 2008.  Stewart has said he won’t run, and that the entire notion is silly, but what would happen if he did? 

Tellingly, the two major party candidates that Dobbs runs against are named Kellogg and Mills (as in General). They have all the substance and gravitas of breakfast cereal and as candidates should be taken as such. Of course, they're not terribly different from the candidates we see all the time. Like real candidates, they are easy targets, and the film makes the most of them.

Satirists like Stewart, Maher, and Williams’ character in this movie have the ability to call things as they are; they are not beholden to anyone or anything, and love to point out the foolishness of those who are. Thus, a lot of what they say makes sense. During the debate, Dobbs points out that one of the candidates can't truly be for hydrogen fueled vehicles since that would effectively destroy the oil companies which have supported the candidate financially. It’s a smart point, just one of the many Dobbs scores during the debate.

Once Dobbs is declared the winner of the election, the film takes a turn from comedy to thriller, as Linney’s character is hunted down when she attempts to reveal the irregularities in the voting software. Again here, the film goes just beyond the believable but shaves it so close that it is hard to tell where the reality ends. We see examples all the time of corporate greed and excess getting in the way of honesty and good sense.  Is it that outlandish to believe that someone would cover up a software mistake if it would hurt the company’s stock? No. What if the software mistake influenced a Presidential election? How greedy would those in charge have to be in order to cover that up? 

Jeff Goldblum, playing the CEO’s right-hand man, makes the case that even if the result of the election was wrong, democracy itself is preserved by the act of voting. According to his argument, once the election results are called into question, that’s when democracy suffers, that’s when people lose faith and that’s when there’s an issue. The argument of course goes too far and gets a little silly, but only a little.

Our society is becoming more and more disenchanted with our politicians and their actions, but things seem to only be getting worse. Special interest groups show no signs of going away. Corporate dishonesty and fraud seem omnipresent. What if someone that wasn’t beholden to anyone else was elected President? What if someone that had the guts to do the right thing and help the people of the world was elected? What if Jon Stewart did run for President, would that really be a bad thing?

The entire cast of the movie give a strong performance. Robin Williams gets to do some political standup on the campaign trail which, while not saying anything new, is truly funny. Christopher Walken does a good job as well, and even eschews, at least partially, doing the caricature of himself that he seems to put on so often in recent years. Laura Linney delivers a solid performance. While she’s in the thriller part of the film, which at times seems an entirely different movie from the comedy part, she’s equally compelling.   

The biggest problem with the film is not that it isn’t always fresh and new, but rather that it’s two distinct movies that sometimes have the feel of being uneasily meshed together. There is the comedy part and there’s the thriller part. At times this mix seems to work, but there are other moments when it is moderately disconcerting. Except for their scenes together, one could forget that the Laura Linney movie and the Robin Williams one are the same.

It’s either a funny movie about a serious issue or a serious movie about a funny issue.  Whichever it may be, Levinson does a wonderful job of blurring the line between reality and absurdity. And even if the concept isn’t the newest it certainly seems fresh in his hands. 

The biggest problem with the film is that while all the barbs and critiques leveled at politics and political parties in this country are legitimate, nothing will be done to modify the actions and attitudes of those who sit in elected office.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Arrrrrrr You Ready For Some Fun?

Once again entering into the world of computer games, TV & Film Guy checks out some pirates that don't know Jack Sparrow

Boy, talk about a fun little game. Pirates of the Atlantic is a small game, but a fun one. 

All of the action takes place on a single screen with a background that changes minimally depending on the level (or for every level this reviewer could possibly attain, and don’t think I didn’t spend hours on end playing). The player controls a single cannon and has to aim cannonballs so as to eliminate zeppelins and boats. The zeppelins and boats, in turn, fire cannonballs and attempt to take out the player’s cannon. Once the player’s cannon reaches zero energy, it’s game over. 

The player can attempt to stop the cannonballs by raising a shield (that will prevent his ability to fire as well). Every level finishes with a “boss” attacking the cannon. The ships controlled by the bosses are harder to hit, travel faster, shoot more cannonballs, and are simply all around more dangerous than the run of the mill ships encountered earlier in the level.

It’s all quite simplistic and controlled entirely by mouse. Thus, it’s incredibly easy to learn, but it’s still difficult to get truly good at. By left-clicking the mouse the cannon fires, by right-clicking the mouse the shield comes up (it disappears after being hit once and requires another right-click to reengage), and by moving the mouse the targeting cross-hairs move across the screen.

As the player destroys enemy ships (both of the ground and water variety) he earns points. Between levels these points can be used to buy upgrades, including faster cannonballs, the ability to have more cannonballs in the air at a single time, more damaging cannonballs, and increasing the cannon’s energy (life). It’s one of the more interesting facets of the game that the cannon’s life will not automatically refill at the end of the level, but rather require the purchase of energy instead.

There are, of course, a few other extras as well. Destroying some ships allows the player to capture bubbles that provide a number of different bonuses, ranging from firing super-fast cannonballs to firing more cannonballs at a time to entering a bonus level to various other interesting additions. The effects are limited in duration, but certainly allow for the player to destroy several enemies while the bonus lasts.

The game does start off at a relatively leisurely pace, which, after playing the game several times, does become moderately frustrating. These early levels, before any upgrades are purchased, take a long time to play and provide little danger for your cannon. 

Even though the game is simplistic, it is enjoyable, and harkens back to the days of Missile Command and Space Invaders although in this game the cannon is on the side rather than on the bottom of the screen.

There is no ESRB rating for this game. Ships are destroyed via cannon fire, but there is no blood nor are there any humans or human-like images that are hurt.

Nova's "The Deadliest Plane Crash" (no, not the NYC one)

Nova’s latest episode, “The Deadliest Plane Crash,” focuses on the collision of two 747 jumbo jets on the island of Tenerife in 1977. Due to a myriad of factors, most notable and most importantly grossly negligent pilot error (without which there would have been no accident) a KLM jet ran into a Pan Am jet while both were on the runway in heavy fog. The accident killed nearly 600 people and has been the single deadliest aviation accident in history (provided that one doesn’t consider 9/11 an aviation accident).

In true Nova style, the show meticulously recreates the events and sets the scene wonderfully. The show is full of actor’s playing out the events that occurred on Tenerife on March 27th of that year. These recreations are interspersed with interviews of people that were on hand and computer recreations.

The story is compelling, at least initially, but the nearly hour long runtime of the show slowly has the power of the message seep out. While the confluence of factors that took place in order to set the stage for the plane crash are interesting, in the end it really all just boils down to the captain of one plane making a horrific mistake: he failed to get clearance for takeoff. All the other factors aside that put two planes on the same runway at the same time, had the pilot bothered to try and get clearance for takeoff the accident never would have occurred.

The episode does attempt to go into the pilot’s mentality, and the atmosphere in the cockpit at the time, but by the time it explores this, it seems a case of too little too late. The show fails to delve deep enough into the psychology of the pilot, and some of the suppositions made by the experts come off sounding foolish (whether they are accurate I cannot attest to, just that they sound foolish).

“The Deadliest Plane Crash” closes out the episode by bringing the audience to the modern day and discussing the likelihood of such an event occurring again. The experts indicate that it is all too likely, and that while some advancements and technologies exist that could prevent such crashes in the future, they are not installed at enough airports and nothing is being done to rectify this situation.

The problem with the show is not that the subject matter isn’t interesting, it very much is. It’s also not necessarily that it’s presented in a bad way; this is the way that Nova presents everything and it has certainly proven hugely successful. The problem is simply that some more judicious editing and another look at the pacing of the episode is required in order to fully captivate viewers and educate them about the history of the incident and the danger of fewer incidents. The episode is by no means “bad” either. It is informative and interesting, just overly long and a little too leisurely paced.

Nova - "The Deadliest Plane Crash" airs on PBS, Tuesday October 17th at 8PM ET/PT

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stude...It's All About The Shmumps

Once again the TV and Film Guy ventures into the land of computer games, or, more correctly, Happy Valley.

Dumbow & Cool is far more the former than the latter.

It stars off innocently enough. King Lecture, the big evil head of LLC Oil Rig, the big evil oil company, fires all of his workers and attempts to get slave labor in order to turn a net profit. The oil company goes to where Dumbow and Cool live, Happy Valley, and capture a number of the inhabitants, Shmumps. Dumbow and Cool's job in the game is to save their fellow islanders. Also thrown in, as an added necessary task on each level, are a bunch of blue coins for them to get.

Each of the two characters have slightly different special abilities. Dumbow can throw on a snorkel and mask and swim, whereas Cool can roller skate. Of course, each of these abilities prove essential at different points in the game.

The game itself is a 3D platformer, with simplistic, if annoying, controls. It starts off fun enough -- the first level takes you through, step-by-step, how to control Dumbow and Cool. The player gets to see how to free the captured Shmumps and get the blue coins. By the second level, with the controls figured out, the game seems fun, skating, swimming, avoiding the evil Studes and generally doing good and helping make Happy Valley a better place.

By the fourth level it all starts too get old. There are new obstacles and challenges in every level for the player to figure out, but they're either too easy or simply obnoxious. The control scheme is far too finicky, causing numerous unnecessary deaths of Dumbow and Cool simply due to its awkwardness and overly sensitive nature. After a few more levels, it's just tedious and annoying.

One of the issues that adds to the annoying factor is that after every death, or each time you save, quit, and go back into the game, any Shmumps that had been freed are suddenly back in their cages. That wouldn't really be a problem, except that they still count as having been freed and should the player try to free them again, Dumbow or Cool just pass right through the Shmump and cage with no effect whatsoever. It makes it quite difficult to figure out where the player has been and where the player needs to go next.

The entire thing is cute enough, with the cartoonish characters and storyline, and most likely will provide hours of enjoyment for younger players. In addition to having a one-player mode, it also allows for two players playing on a split screen, and a time attack mode with challenges for both Dumbow and Cool.

For all of its faults - the game is, after all, shareware - it does provide a modicum of enjoyment. Drewsgames currently sells the full version of the game as a download for a mere $4.99, and at that price it may very well be worth it, bugs and all.

There is no ESRB rating for this game. All the graphics are cartoony and in no way realistic. There is a discussion of slaves and some of the characters do shoot guns.

Two stars of out five.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

God, It Looks Like Daniel...Hmmmm...Must Be the Clouds in My Eyes

Last January, NBC put on a show about an Episcopalian priest.  He had two sons, a daughter, a wife, and several other relatives. He also talked on a regular basis to Jesus.  I don’t mean that he prayed and asked Jesus for help, although he certainly did that as well. I mean that show had a character playing Jesus Christ and that the priest would have regular conversations with the character. 

Needless to say, it was a tough sell.  After airing just four one-hour episodes or three episodes, one of which was two hours long (it depends on how you count), the show was taken off the air. The show was well-written, had a good cast, including Aidan Quinn, Ellen Burstyn, and James Rebhorn, among others. But, for any number of reasons, from NBC’s having a bad season in general, to the list of problems of the priest’s family being too long, to simply getting a bad rap for having a priest talk to Jesus, it didn’t work out. 

The Book of Daniel will not go down in the history of television as a success. Tom Shales actually said of the show, “There ought to be a worse punishment than cancellation for a show that tries this hard to be offensive and, even at that crass task, manages to fail,” and that the show “just barely merits First Amendment protection.”

It is amazing that a simple television show can spark such a huge amount of vitriol and hatred. Two NBC affiliates refused to even air it, stating that their viewers were concerned about it being on the station -- and this was before the first episode even premiered. How the viewers of the station could decide that the show was inappropriate before they ever saw it is completely a different issue, as is the fact that the affiliates backed off of the show in favor of listening to individuals that didn’t have first-hand knowledge of what they were complaining about. 

To be clear, The Book of Daniel is not bad television. Does Aidan Quinn’s character, Reverend Daniel Webster, have an addiction to painkillers? Yes. Is his father, a bishop (James Rebhorn’s character), having an affair with another bishop (played wonderfully by Ellen Burstyn)? Yes. Is one of the sons gay? Yes. Is the daughter a small-time pot dealer? Yes. Is the wife an alcoholic? Yes. Are these the reasons, and the fact that an actor was playing Jesus Christ, the reasons that there were huge protests? Probably. 

The question is: do these things make for bad television?  And to that, the answer is no.  If the characters didn’t have problems there would be nothing to watch on a weekly basis.  It is possible that there are a few too many issues here to truly deal with each in an effective way, but the show did a great job of handling them all, and was compelling to watch. 

Daniel Webster is unquestionably a troubled man, but that’s actually akin to the point of the show.  We are all troubled, and though we might aspire to the divine, we are humans and have frailty and flaws.  Rev. Webster may not have had troubles that we would want for a member of the clergy, but he aspired to be a better person and to help those around him however he could.  He preached love and understanding.  When tested he sometimes came up wanting, but who among us does not?  Daniel believed in a power greater than himself and tried to lead himself and those around him as best he could, in the way that he thought was right.  It’s actually a quite a positive message if people would take the time to look at it rather than just yelling at the top of their lungs.

I, for one, am thrilled that NBC and Universal Studios Home Entertainment released it to DVD.  I just wish that there were more episodes of it.

The DVD contains the four aired episodes (or three, one of which was two hours long, depending on how you count) and four unaired episodes and some deleted scenes.  Outside of the unaired episodes and the deleted scenes, there are no special features, an odd occurrence in this day and age of umpteen commentary tracks and production videos, etc.  The unaired episodes are listed on the DVD case as “Bonus Features,” but with under four hours of television that actually made network air, there isn’t much of a DVD without including the unaired episodes.

The digital transfers look great, and the menus are clean and easy to navigate.  It’s actually quite a Spartan release considering the at times over the top nature of the show.  Who knows -- maybe after getting cancelled, Daniel reformed.  

The Book of Daniel is available on DVD as of September 26, 2006.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Woo-Hoo, It's Time For The Nine

Below is an updated and revised review for The Nine

It is always hard to try and judge a television series based upon the pilot: parts get recast, showrunners leave, time periods change, the focus of the series itself shifts, etc., etc.  But, as much as any show can be poised for success The Nine seems to be.   The cast is solid (Scott Wolf, Tim Daly, Kim Raver, John Billingsley, Chi McBride, and many others), the writing is sharp, it airs after Lost, NBC has moved Law & Order to a different timeslot, and perhaps most importantly, I sat there for a full five minutes after watching the pilot wanting to know what in God’s name happened during the robbery.  I do not wish to get too deeply involved in specifics of the episode for fear of giving anything away, or lessening any of the impact, but the series does seem to be firing on all cylinders.

On the face, it is the story of a bank robbery, possibly gone wrong, possibly not, and the aftermath.  The audience is certainly led to believe that the robbery was botched, but maybe, just maybe, it was all part of a larger plan. 

The pilot episode shows what happened just before the bank robbery and immediately following, with short flashbacks of the robbery interspersed throughout.  The rest of the series will explore how the lives of the nine people held hostage during the bank robbery are forever changed and what it was exactly that happened during the 52 hours the standoff took place.  Though I indicate that there were nine hostages, it seems highly likely that while all nine people claim to have been held hostage at least one was working with the robbers (but that’s a guess).

The Nine certainly has the feel of a show that is going to try to keep viewers guessing as to motivations and actions throughout its run.  If the writers can keep one step ahead of the viewers, without going over the top, it should make for a very fun ride.   However, if it tries to be too clever, it may find that it upsets and alienates everyone but its most dedicated fans.

There are a couple of other concerns about the show too.  Even if it seems as though it will be successful, there are always concerns.  Maybe the bits and pieces of what happened during the robbery will be revealed too slowly and the audience will lose interest. Perhaps the next few episodes won’t be as good.  Maybe Kidnapped (another new show, airing on NBC opposite The Nine) will be HUGE and suck away viewers.  The ratings for the first few episodes of Kidnapped certainly don’t indicate that this will be the case, but you never know, it may make a comeback.  And there is also the universal truth that a good show (and The Nine is a good show) doesn’t necessarily make for a successful show.  If networks knew the exact recipe for a successful show nothing would ever fail.

If I had to make a prediction I’d say that The Nine will make it to season 2.  I still may watch Kidnapped instead, but maybe I can alter space and time and manage to fit both into my already over-burdened TV schedule. If I can, I’m sure I won’t be sorry. 

The Nine premieres on ABC Wendesday, October 4th at 10pm.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Seriously, Can Desperate Housewives Get a Little Bit More on the Ball?

Every once in a while the TV and Film Guy gets to wondering. And the wondering eventually turns to ruminating, and the ruminating to fuming, and the fuming to ranting.  This is one of those times.

What in the name of all that is good and holy is Desperate Housewives thinking? 

Bree gets married, but her daughter doesn’t bother to attend. Where is her daughter?  What is going on there? Did the producers just realize how horrific a storyline the daughter had and decided to completely expunge her and her memory from the show?  Hmm? We don’t even get a tossed off reference to where her daughter is and the reasons her daughter couldn’t attend? 

And, as long as I’m complaining let me throw this little gem out there. Carlos and Gabrielle’s baby mix-up -- ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. The clinic messes up, implants the wrong embryo into Xiao-Mei, at some point figures out their mistake, and… says nothing to anyone. They instead wait for the baby to be born, have their lawyer on call for the event (it was during the weekend and at night, but magically he can be at the clinic with the doctor, and the clinic just happens to be open at such an odd hour, sure, whatever), and then calmly explain to the couple that the mistake occurred. 

Even worse, Gaby and Carlos simply accept the switcheroo and give up their baby. They were fine with adopting a child last season, so clearly it was the notion of having a child and not necessarily the fact that it was actually their flesh and blood that was important. But this baby they’re perfectly happy to giveaway without any sort of fight over him (or is it a her?) or anything?

I just do TV and film, I don’t know the law, but I have to imagine that if they wanted to keep the child there’s some sort of legal action that could take place here. The court case might make for good television, and is the exact sort of thing Desperate Housewives could do well (imagine the people that they’d be fighting with in court, their dirty secrets, etc, etc).  Instead, Gaby and Carlos throw in the towel.

What you’re selling, I ain’t buying. 

Add to all of the above the fact that we’re going to have to put up with Julie dating, wanting to date or just fooling around with Edie’s nephew, Austin, and it’s all a little more than I can take.  Must we rehash the 'Edie and Susan hate each other' storyline?  Are we really going to go all Romeo and Juliet here? 

I will close by stressing the following:  I don’t believe the show has permanently lost its way.  I firmly do believe that it has strayed, and is continuing to stray.  It can get better. It should get better. Frankly, it must get better.

Yeah Classic TV, The Odd Couple Makes it to DVD

As more and more classic television series appear on DVD, a glaring problem has become obvious: while some of these shows were huge hits and very successful at the time, they don’t hold up to viewing decades later. What was once fun and great becomes terribly dated and stale.

Other TV shows, however, lose absolutely nothing. In fact, viewing them years after their initial release and noticing that they are still clever, still relevant, and still fun provides a testament to the brilliance of those that created and took part in the series. 

I am happy to report that one of Time Life’s newest DVD releases, The Odd Couple – Season One fits squarely into the latter category. The series is just as fresh, just as clever, and just as wonderful as it has ever been. It proves itself to be completely timeless. 

Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, portrayed by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman respectively, shine now as they did more than 30 years ago.  The jokes and the way they are told work exceedingly well and the only thing that dates the series (and this only remotely so) is the clothes that the cast wears.  Of course, no small part of the kudos here should go to Neil Simon, who wrote the original play (and the screenplay for the film), for creating the two timeless characters. 

Time Life and CBS DVD have done a wonderful job restoring the footage; it looks crisp, clean, and almost completely unmarked. The colors are, more often than not, sharp and wonderful. There are problems from time to time going into or coming out of a freeze-frame or during a fade-in or a fade-out, but they are all quite minor. 

The extras included on the DVDs are also wonderful looks behind the scenes or stimulating trips down memory lane. It is on the first of the DVDs in the set that the best of these extras is to be found: a snippet of Tony Randall on The Mike Douglas Show prior to The Odd Couple’s premiere. Randall is funny, charming, and clearly in love with the show. In truth, it’s a reminder not just of what kind of a man Tony Randall was, but also of how great Mike Douglas and his show were. 

Another extra features Jack Klugman providing commentary for what he says is one of his favorite episodes of the series, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Bird.” Though it is at times difficult to understand what he has to say, the trip down memory lane that he provides is well worth any minor difficulties. The same is even more true for the commentary track Klugman provides for a clip of him accepting an Emmy for his work in The Odd Couple during the 1971 Emmy Awards. It becomes clear that Klugman was touched in a very real and profound way by his work on the show and the time he spent with his cast-mate, Tony Randall. 

If there is a problem with this DVD set it is that the introductions provided for each episode by Gary Marshall are both overly short and often rather silly, amounting to little more than “here’s another episode of The Odd Couple.” It almost feels as though he was more contractually obligated to provide these introductions than that he had had any real desire to do them. This is not true of the two episodes for which he provides commentary. Those are actually quite insightful, particularly the one for “They Use Horseradish, Don’t They” which is the first one-camera television episode Marshall ever directed. 

Despite any small issues the DVD release of the first season may have, it proves that The Odd Couple was, and remains, a wonderful television series. It is as witty, fun, and wise as ever, and a solid addition to the library of any fan of classic TV.