Monday, April 30, 2007

I'm Going to Need to Request a Do-Over

Damn Danny and Oswald, damn them! Who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for on The Amazing Race this season now that the team I had been pulling for (once Rob and Amber left, of course) is now no more?

The Blondes? Should I root for the Blondes, the team where both members are so interchangeable that it usually isn’t necessary to differentiate which is which? They seem to be the front runners -- they’re by far the least obnoxious team, which is saying something, because I wanted to murder them when they were on last season.

Charla and Mirna? I would say horribly wretched things about them if someone wouldn’t slam me for saying bad things about a vertically challenged individual and her teammate who, despite being a lawyer, can barely speak in full sentences. To be sure, I would in no way make for fun of the shorter member of the team due to her height; rather I would focus entirely on the demeaning way in which her partner speaks to people from other countries whose first language isn’t English. But rather than take any abuse for abusing someone that may, depending on to whom you’re speaking, be at a disadvantage over others, I will avoid badmouthing them. I will, however, state that they were the first team I wanted to see leave the race at the beginning of the season and it pains me every second they get airtime.

Then there’s Eric and Danielle. The way the show is cut together, I’m moderately surprised the two of them are able to get dressed on their own each morning, at least without getting into a knockdown, drag out, brutally violent fight. Eric, I imagine, curses his way through the getting dressed process, and blames other teams for the necessity that he put on shorts, while Danielle seems to be unable to find anything the will cover her cleavage, but at least she tries.

I loved Oswald and Danny. The two of them seemed like genuinely nice and good people. Why can’t they follow a map? If they could’ve done that either last week or this week they might actually still be in the race. And - and after this I’ll stop - why would they want Charla and Mirna to win? Are they, like me, trying to make the best of a bad situation? I really wouldn’t have a problem if good old Phil disqualified everyone and made them play again.

Speaking of trying things again from the beginning, must we suffer through Mike and Susan trying to get back together… again on Desperate Housewives? It’s actually insane. They would both have to be completely and utterly crazy to try this for the twelfth time, and if the producers make us sit through another half-dozen episodes were they try and fail and try again to get back together, I may have to remove the show from my TiVo. We’ve dealt with this story for about 50 or 60 episodes already. I’m over it and I can’t imagine the rest of the audience isn’t, too. It shows an utter lack of creativity on the part of the producers.

Elsewhere on Housewives, there certainly is creativity. The producers have completely rewritten history, and act as though Susan and Edie would be, could be, and are friends. Susan and Edie, friends. Must I recount the umpteen episodes when Susan complained about, fought with, and generally maligned her nemesis? Yet, Susan apparently felt badly last night about siding with Gaby about the woman that repeatedly tried to steal Mike (and who did in fact end up leading Susan into the predicament with Mike she currently has).

Now, that’s true creativity. The producers were able to completely unburden themselves of the reality of the world that they have created and wrote up a new storyline that completely reimagines the whole thing.

At this point, and I’m just sorry to have to do this, I need to ask for a do-over on all of Sunday night television for the past few weeks. Except, of course, for The Simpsons, from whom I’ve shamelessly stolen this idea (see people, you can still be creative after nearly 400 episodes). Good for Marge, forcing a whole stadium of people to relive a little league baseball game over, and over, and over, and over...

I Want Some Dreamgirls so I Won't Have to Dream Alone

Bill Condon certainly seems to like giving people the old razzle-dazzle. His latest directorial effort (for which he also penned the screenplay), Dreamgirls, hits store shelves this week in a two-disc “Showstopper” edition. Condon also wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award winning Chicago, and there are certainly more than a few similarities between these two musicals. There is also a reason that Chicago went home from the Oscars with a Best Picture win and Dreamgirls did not.

The story follows the rise and fall of a group known originally as the Dreamettes and later as the Dreams. After being discovered by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), the girls, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), are brought on a musical tour as backup singers. Eventually they are brought out into the spotlight as Taylor realizes that the girls have the potential to be the first African American singing group to cross over and become popular among a white audience. The catch to his whole plan is that he wants Deena to become the lead singer rather than Effie. This causes huge internal conflicts within the group and forever alters their direction.

It’s an old tale, based on a true story (or not, depending on whom you listen to), and it is abundantly clear from the first moment where everything is headed. The ride however, is an enjoyable one.

The music in Dreamgirls is fantastic and the movie is full of strong performances, but the movie as a whole is oddly structured, outside of the thin plot-line. Condon is still able to make the two-hour plus movie work through his sleight of hand, through razzle-dazzle, but it simply is not enough to make this a great film.

It is fully 45 minutes into this film before the first song occurs that isn’t a stage number or the playing of a record. To introduce characters as singing to each other at that late point in a film throws the whole movie off kilter. To this point, Dreamgirls has been building a story about the starting of a musical group and a record label, and all the songs were organic to the film itself. When Jennifer Hudson starts singing to her manager and the rest of her group nearly halfway into the movie it’s not even a full song, it’s just a few lines. The moment is completely unexpected, and not in a beneficial way. All the other dialog has been spoken, not sung, and now, when Hudson’s Effie White is hurt, shocked, and humiliated by her friends, she starts singing in a way no one has heretofore done in the film. Has she had a psychotic break? Is she dreaming? What has caused this huge turn in the film? As it turns out, the answer simply is that this is a musical and characters sing. It’s an odd turn of events and doesn’t work.

Even so, the movie does provide enough shimmer, enough glitz, and enough good music (on stage, not off) that it is unquestionably fun to sit down and watch. With strong performances by Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jamie Foxx, and others, there is little doubt as to why it was nominated for so many acting awards. I must state though, as has been stated elsewhere, that Jennifer Hudson’s role was not really a supporting one as much as a lead. That she would have had a more difficult time winning lead actress awards is more than likely the reason she was only submitted for supporting awards.

The two-disc “Showstopper” edition features a dozen extended and “never before seen” musical numbers, a Beyoncé music video, a full-length documentary on the making of the film, as well as screen tests, auditions, and other enticements. To a point, they are fun to watch in order to see what goes in, at least partially, to making a film of this caliber.

Available in HD-DVD, Blu-ray, and the plain old vanilla standard DVD, Dreamgirls is a brisk, breezy, 130 minutes where, even if very little happens, the performances and on-stage singing are able to carry it through.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Running with the Alpha Dogs

It is essential when making a film to have at least one character that the audience can associate with.  There must be at least one character that is, in some way, redeemable or engaging, or otherwise likable.  To force an audience to spend almost two hours with a bunch of characters that have absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever is asking a lot.  In the case of Nick Cassevetes’s Alpha Dog, it’s asking too much. 

People who forgive this movie will be quick to point out that it’s “inspired by true events,” as though that makes up for characters that are completely one-dimensional and annoying from beginning to end.  There are plenty of stories in this world that are worth making into films, as far as I can tell, this one is not. 

The film follows the kidnapping of Zack Mazursky (Anton Yelchin) by Johnny Truleove (Emil Hirsch) and his band of drug-dealing miscreants.  This kidnapping becomes “necessary” because Zack’s brother, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a neo-Nazi, retaliates against Johnny for Johnny having embarrassed him because Jake owes him money for a drug deal.  And, does it really matter?  The point being, these are, literally, kids playing at being big bad drug dealers (Johnny has a poster of Al Pacino as Scarface in his house), and not realizing where their actions are going to take them.

The movie does tell us how Johnny ended up heading down this path:  his father, Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis), is a huge dealer and Johnny is following in daddy’s footsteps.  As for why all his other weak-minded friends have fallen in with Johnny, or why Jake is a neo-Nazi, the film doesn’t seem to care.  The only thing the film does seem to care about is getting these less than bright delinquents into a bad situation and showing the outcome. 

As problems go, kidnapping a kid is a pretty serious one to have, and what to do with the kid is something that Johnny and his gang can’t quite figure out.  Johnny dumps the kid on a member of his posse, Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), telling Frankie to take care of him.  Frankie, just as unintelligent as Johnny, takes Zack to parties and shows him off to friends, not quite realizing that everyone that sees Zack is a potential witness in court (the movie is kind enough to point this out by captioning them as witnesses and giving them witness numbers).  Things end up going from bad to worse, and dumb to dumber, as the idea of murdering Zack to eliminate the problem comes up; because murder is a great way to end your kidnapping problem.  

The main reason for the making of this film seems to be to determine whether or not Justin Timberlake can act.  The rest of the endeavor seems wholly pointless.  It neither glamorizes the drug trade as some films do, nor criticizes it.  It does lament the lives of these children, but in never making any of them (even the kidnapped Zack) at all sympathetic, it is hard to lament them. 

In addition to the odd, brief, appearance of Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone appears in a handful of scenes in the film as well.  She plays Olivia Mazursky, Zack and Ben’s mother.  The entire film is framed by interviews of Willis’s and Stone’s characters, in which they talk about what happened.  Inexplicably, in Olivia’s interview at the end of the film, Stone is wearing a fat suit.  The monologue she delivers at the time is impassioned, and maybe a little over-the-top emotionally, but the entirety of it is completely undercut by the fact that Sharon Stone is in a fat suit.  She doesn’t wear one in her other scenes in the film, and presumably only does here because the interview is supposed to take place a couple of years after the kidnapping and she has eaten to replace the loss of her son. 

The DVD release is relatively free of extras.  It simply contains a standard “behind the scenes” look at how Alpha Dog was made and a “Witness Timeline” that shows all the witnesses to the kidnapping that appear in the film and, when the witness is selected, the scene in the film in which they appear plays.  It’s a nonsensical extra, included for reasons I can only guess at - they’re still pushing the “based on a true story” thing, and this adds to that claim. 

As for Timberlake and whether or not he can act, the answer seems to be that when given the opportunity to play a fool and talk without ever saying anything worth while, he’s quite successful.  He may be able to really act, but this is not a film that gives him such an opportunity.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thank God You're Here Now Get Lost

On the same day that I encouraged all of you out there to not be depressed by the television season ending, I watched some shows last night and was depressed that the season hadn’t ended yet. Frankly, what I saw looked awfully tired and made me think that the people behind the scenes need a rest.

First up, NBC’s “improvisational” comedy Thank God You’re Here. Allegedly, this show drops an actor into a situation with a comedy troupe, the actor has no idea what’s happening and has to, therefore, do some improv. Well, Jason Alexander walked out onto a starship set last night and started to improvise, and kept being forced in one direction by the troupe. His improv led him to state that the show they were working on had been canceled (making the troupe into actors working on a show rather than the crew of a starship). One of the troupe said something along the lines of “what he means is…” and thereby dismissed the idea of a show within a show that Alexander put forth and put him on a path they wanted him to travel, not the path he was going down. 

It quickly became clear that Alexander’s idea was dismissed so that the show could introduce an alien on a videoscreen. Eventually the alien boarded Alexander and his crew’s starship, and then proceeded to start a duel with Alexander. Conveniently, the alien’s choice of weapon just happened to have a counterpart next to Alexander’s captain’s chair. Alexander, upon having the weapon pointed out to him, stated “oh, is that what that is.” If it hadn’t been readily apparent before, it was now -- it was going to make no difference what Alexander said or did to that point in the improv sketch, the members of the troupe were going to force this duel to occur, even if that meant gainsaying every remark from Alexander. 

How is that improv? Isn’t improv rolling with the punches, being fluid, malleable, and going where the scene goes? I don’t get it, I just don’t.

And, speaking of not getting it, when Jack asked Sun last night about her pregnancy, why was she so suspicious? Have we forgotten that Jack’s a doctor? Has Sun forgotten that Jack’s a doctor? Why, when Sun asked Jack why he was asking her about how she felt during the pregnancy, did Jack not respond: “I’m asking because I’m a doctor and want to make sure you’re okay.” 

It is wholly irrelevant that Sun was right in her suspicions. If a doctor you know and that treats you and your friends asks you about a medical condition you have, why would you ever be suspicious of that? The folks at Lost failed to establish any sort of reason for Sun to have her suspicions. Yes, Jack was gone for a week, held by the Others, but having lived in such close proximity with Jack for months, and having received medical attention from him before, why was she suspicious? The only answer is that the producers needed her to be suspicious in order to further the plot. That’s a horrible answer, but it is the only available one.

The fact that the rest of the episode was so good and that everything moved on from that incident so well does help mitigate this bit of stupidity, but Lost prides itself on being smart, and this was stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I expect better. 

Listen, here’s what I’m going to recommend: after tonight (first night of the May Sweep by the way), let’s all take a deep breath, get a full three-day weekend’s worth of sleep, and pretend like some of this stuff never happened. We’ll not mention Thank God You’re Here ever again (until its cancellation anyway). 

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

TV's Glow Continues, Even if the Season is Ending

Lately, it seems, I’ve complained a lot about shows. I’ve talked about what is wrong with The Riches, BSG, 24, 30 Rock, Scrubs, My Name is Earl, Raines, Lost, Notes From the Underbelly, Nova, and on and on and on. It may actually sound like I don’t like television. It may actually sound like I think that television is headed in the wrong direction, like I believe that the glory days of the medium are behind it. 

That’s wrong! That’s an ugly assertion and I’m actually quite disappointed that you would make it. Television still has good in it, and television will continue to have good in it for a long, long time. I love television, even when television disappoints me. Sure, I complain about the stuff that disappoints me, who wouldn’t? Isn’t that what love really is? Love is not liking every show that airs, love is sticking with something through the good times and the bad, love is knowing that my next great romance with television is just around the corner. 

Some people find this time in the television season moderately depressing. I can understand that; everything is about to come to an end, there are only four or at best five new episodes of your favorite shows left before the season ends (no, American Idol is not your favorite show, so the fact that there are umpteen episodes of that left don’t count). But that’s just negative thinking. I’ll admit to going down that road sometimes, but you don’t have to do it, I don’t have to do it, there is another way. You don’t have to give in. Just give the networks a few weeks to reboot after the May Sweep ends, and all of the sudden summer reality programming and good cable stuff will start. 

I don’t want to get into all that good stuff too early, but trust me, there’s going to be some great programs on the tube this summer. So, just for the next couple of weeks, I’m asking you to hold out, hold on, and don’t give in to the doldrums. Be excited for the next new episode of Lost. Be excited that How I Met Your Mother is back soon. Be excited that The CW hasn’t canceled Veronica Mars… yet. Be excited that Idol only has another month left in it. The end is coming, I promise. 

Okay, now you’re just pestering me. You want to know what I’m excited for this summer. What shows I’m waiting to watch, what I’ll be TiVoing, what I’ll be watching live, (that answer is easy -- nothing. Everything gets TiVoed, everything), and what I’m just oh-so-excited for. 

That would be telling. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beating a Dead Horse

I hate beating a dead horse.  It seems hugely pointless.  I mean, let’s face it, if the horse is already dead, why do you have to keep smacking it?  It’s possible that you simply want to use the dead horse as a sort of punching bag, a training aid if you will, but how long can you really beat it for until flies start swarming, the buzzards circle, and the smell becomes horrific?  Beating a dead horse just can’t work in the long term. 

I don’t think I’m there yet though.  The horse may be on life support at the present moment, but dead?  I don’t think so.  That being said, on with the show…

Please, I beg of you, explain to me why those nice folks on The Riches can’t just pick up and find a new family to pretend to be.  All this nonsense and trouble that they’ve gotten into with their ex-band of Travelers seems to be for no reason.  I wonder though if the producers haven’t realized that and started to clean up their mess.  Last night, Di Di  looked at Ken, after their wedding had sort of happened and said she didn’t want to marry him and he was fine with that.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but she’s pretty much been saying she didn’t want to marry him for a couple of episodes.  All of the sudden he’s fine with it and they act like this conversation has never happened before.  That I don’t buy, it feels like revisionist history, but if it moves the storyline to something more believable, I’m willing to accept it.

As for dead horses?  What’s with The Sopranos spending this entire past episode reminiscing?  And why didn’t Tony whack either Paulie or Bobby when he wanted to off both of them the past couple weeks?  Is this a kindler, gentler Tony who is going to try to get out of the life when the series ends?  I don’t think so, but maybe.  I’d bet more for the switcheroo, Tony tries to get out and Michael Corleone-style gets pulled back in, committing a brutal series of whackings in the finale (unlike Michael though, I imagine Tony will get his hands dirty). 

Surely, you ask, there are horses that are not so dead, right? 

Heroes is back, and if that show isn’t one of the most fun shows on television, I can’t imagine what is.  I was a little disappointed by the whole pretending like Peter was dead thing.  If Peter has the ability to heal, cheerleader-style, and Linderman can apparently bring things back from the dead anyway, did anyone really think Petrelli was dead with decapitation being involved?  Even so, I enjoy the show.  It moves at a good clip, is interesting, vibrant, and has a really solid comic book brought to life feel.  Take, for instance, Parkman and Bennet’s escape last night with Sprague setting off the EMP after Bennet was able to get Parkman to read his mind.  It’s all fantastic, in the unbelievable sense of the word, but it works.  Unlike The Riches, this show clearly operates outside of the real world, so they can get away with this sort of absurdity.  I must say though that I didn’t like the camera shot that focused on Bennet’s Primatech Paper business card with the web address that Suresh was holding, it felt too obvious to me. 

Enough with beating dead horses, it’s time to save the world…

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nova Tries to Make Sure We're All Saved By The Sun

I am not one to shy away from criticizing Nova when it deserves it. Whether they’re airing stories about humans regressing or searching for the first flower, if the program isn’t up to snuff I say as much. Let it not be said though that I do not praise Nova when they come out with a spectacular episode. Tomorrow night, Nova airs a spectacular episode entitled “Saved by the Sun.” I recommend, highly, sitting down and watching.

While clearly coming down on Al Gore’s side of the Global Warming debate, the show wisely does not spend much time on greenhouse gases, global warming, and the use of fossil fuels, choosing rather to discuss the potential benefits of solar power. Also, wisely, the show is incredibly clear pointing out that many of the benefits are, in fact, at this point only potential. Nova states time and again that solar power is not yet cheap enough, nor efficient enough to be a solution. Rather, solar power is a potential solution, and one that should unquestionably be considered as a replacement for fossil fuels.

By taking a close look at people that have installed solar panels, the results, and future improvements to the panels’ efficiency, Nova makes a good case for future solar panel use. Though at this moment the price of installation of solar panels may be prohibitive (one house in question cost $30,000), due to government subsidies, currently offered by 14 states, that cost can be substantially dropped and electric bills cut in half or better (depending on the quantity of solar panels one puts up). Even better, 41 states apparently provide credit for excess power that solar panels deliver back to the power grid.

The episode also discusses a huge solar array in the California desert, and another being built in Nevada. Importantly, the show works through the huge advantages of the California array - it provides a lot of power, even if it’s a small percentage of the total California needs, and the disadvantages - it takes up a vast amount of space but is far out in the desert and the quantity of power delivered to cities is diminished due to the long distance the current must travel.

Also fascinating in the episode is a close look at the German government which has made solar power an important part of its look towards the future. The government there offers massive amounts of money for people installing solar panels that connect to the power grid, amounts far in excess of what is charged to individuals for power. Consequently, though Germany had a stated goal of producing 20% of its electricity via solar power by the year 2020, they might be able to hit 30% by then (and, this is in a country that has less sun than anywhere in the US save Alaska).

The concepts behind solar panels, a possible solar paint, electricity in general, and power plants in particular are discussed in a way that neither dumbs down the material, nor talks above people’s heads. And, in something I have not seen before in many an environmental-based program, when scientists disagree on things the episode actually shows them disagreeing and makes it clear when something is still up in the air in the scientific community. Nova doesn’t take a stand on those issues, doesn’t diminish one of the scientists or elevate another, it simply puts forth both points of view. It’s hugely refreshing.

This episode of Nova is absolutely fascinating. Through its being very middle of the road, it made this non-believer believe that changing the world is possible. Or, at least, something to be considered. It definitely made me want to go out and get solar panels.

Maybe saving the Earth is possible…

Nova - “Saved by the Sun” airs Tuesday, April 24th, at 8PM ET/PT, but you should, of course, check your local listings anyway.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Remains of Must See TV

Stumped. Today I am stumped. I sit there on Thursday nights and I watch my Must See TV and I chuckle here and there, but the old grey mare ain't what she used to be, is she? Don’t get me wrong, I’m amused, I definitely am, at least twice an hour, but it’s no longer appointment television. I know, earlier in the season I told you how much I still enjoyed it, and maybe had there been a new episode of The Office last night I would still be saying as much, but without that show, the strongest in the Thursday comedy lineup, I'm not enthralled.

Earl is funny, but only as bits and pieces. I appreciate the fact that they’ve done a lot this season to make storylines carry over from one episode to the next, but so many of the references feel overly forced. Take last night’s Chubby references for example. They actually showed clips of Burt Reynolds from his last appearance to get you to remember who his character, Chubby, was. There was a concerted effort to ensure that the viewer realize that this new character they were going to introduce was related to Reynolds’ Chubby. And, once Little Chubby appeared, it really seemed like they had the two characters be related solely in order to have Norm McDonald (Little Chubby) dressed like a 1970s Burt Reynolds. It was unquestionably funny, for almost a complete ten seconds, and then every other scene with him the joke felt tired. The joke about the color of Little Chubby’s gonads was also funny, again, for almost ten seconds. 

30 Rock managed to be amusing, but only in a “it’s funny 'cause it’s true” kind of way. In particular I’m thinking about Liz’s unabashed love for New York City, despite the fact that she can’t get onto the subway without being questioned by police, can’t walk down the street without seeing an old lady get pushed into garbage, and can’t talk while on the sidewalk without having someone spit in her mouth. Okay, so only part of that is reality, but the rest is only slightly exaggerated. The undying love people that live in it have for NYC, and the people that talk, like Jack does, about not venturing above X-numbered street in the last umpteen years exist (and this is why TV and Film Guy is moving, but we’ll talk about that at some other point). 

Scrubs. Well, come on, that’s a show where the humor is always just in the bits and pieces of crazy and daydreams and never in the story arc, which is more often than not pure drama-based. It’s sophomoric and juvenile, but I still love The Todd. And, if you haven’t visited The Todd Time yet, you should, but just realize who The Todd is before you go, because he wears the banana hammock and I won’t be blamed for warping little minds (outside of any offspring I currently, or may in the future, have). It’s funny, in a purely The Todd way (sophomoric and juvenile). 

I’d beg NBC to promise to bring Scrubs back, but at this point in time what NBC is going to do next season is anyone’s guess. They’re in deep, deep trouble. Not only are the numbers not good, but neither are so many of the shows. Sure, ER should be allowed to go off into that sweet, sweet, slumber of repeats in syndication for perpetuity after this season. But if you’re NBC, do you allow a show that earns a solid #2 spot in its timeslot on a weekly basis to disappear when you can’t muster much better than third the rest of the time? Someone over there is going to have to commit seppuku soon. I still probably watch a disproportionate number of their shows, but they need to fix things next season. And, I doubt they're listening, but in case they are: ridiculous reality game shows aren’t a long term solution (and with the numbers you’re getting for the ones that are on now, they’re not even a short term one). Please Peacock People, get this whole “development” thing back on track. 

It's Quite the Sticky Honeytrap

It is a very easy thing to do to give a film an unabashedly, unflinchingly, negative review. To take a bad movie and simply reel off the problems with it, and make it out to be the worst piece of schlock ever thrown up on the big screen takes no skill, no effort, and more often than not makes the review untrue. It is far more difficult to take a bad movie, note that it is bad and why, and then to mention something good about it, to find something positive about it.

I have been wracking my brain to come up with a reason to watch The Honeytrap, an independent British film written and directed by Michael G. Gunther in his first time at the helm, and I’m having some difficulty. It lacks wit, it lacks intelligence, it tries so hard to be clever, and yet completely falls flat. It is as though Gunther only ever took one pass writing the script, changed what he wanted the movie to be about a couple of times as he wrote, and yet never went back to make earlier portions of the film work with what he eventually decided he wanted the movie to be. In short, it’s a mess.

The movie’s title refers to a common method of entrapping men and women. The basic concept is to have a third party use an attractive individual to seduce another person so that the third party can manipulate the prey at a later date. It’s also sometimes referred to as a “honeypot” and if one reads espionage literature, it is a relatively common trope used mainly to get a person to reveal secrets to an enemy.  

The Honeytrap stars Emily Lloyd as Catherine, a woman who has just arrived in London in order to move in with her fiancé. Catherine is clearly a troubled woman, is taking drugs, and is emotionally disturbed. What her fiancé, Jonathan, played by Anthony Green, sees in her is anyone’s guess, because from the moment she arrives in London (the first scene in the film) she is unlikable. Due to her being virtually friendless, and her depressing, disturbed psychological makeup, Catherine decides that Jonathan’s working late all the time means that he’s cheating on her and decides to hire someone to find out. 

It is actually Catherine’s only friend Renée (Valerie Edmond) who suggests that she do this. You know that there is something deeply wrong with Renée as well, because she only ever wears black. When a character in a film only wears black (and isn’t playing a Goth) it means that there’s something wrong with her; it’s a cheap sort of shorthand used here to indicate that she’s got a secret (which, though obvious, I won’t divulge). A private investigator, Jeremy (Stuart McQuarrie) is eventually hired and puts into play a honeytrap in order to determine Jonathan’s faithfulness. At that point in the film, the plotline, character motivations, and reality of the situation change enough times to make the not-a-surprise “surprise ending” wholly pointless.

Disturbingly, there are several sequences in the film shot in documentary style, with three of the characters, never Catherine, directly addressing the camera and stating their innermost thoughts (though they may be lying). It seems as though the only reason that this is done is because Gunther simply couldn’t figure out how to have the characters in his movie express what he wanted them to express via actual situations and interactions with other characters. This sort of shorthand is more horrific than that used with Renée’s clothing, because while the latter instance is relatively common in filmmaking, the former simply shows an utter lack of imagination. 

Without a doubt, the best thing that can be said for the film is that it clocks in at under 90 minutes (possibly this is another symptom of Gunther not being able to create a full and complete screenplay). The recently released DVD of the film is just as sparse with extras as the film is with the plot, as nary a one exists. 

In the end, the use of the honeytrap as a concept isn't a bad idea, but everything else is so completely mishandled that the film simply cannot be recommended. 

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sorry Sanjaya, You've Lost

So, that Sanjaya kid on American Idol.  Apparently he’s gone.

Yeah, I can’t even pretend like I care, sorry about that - on to better things…

Like Lost.  I like that show.  I really, really do.  Would you like to know why?  Well, I’ll tell you.  I’ve told you before, but I get it, the world has a short memory.  Lost is a good show because, at its best, it’s able to construct episodes that contain interesting story arcs within each individual episode, while also pushing forward a larger story arc and larger agenda.  Sometimes one of these elements is stronger than the other (some episodes are more big picture, some more self-contained).  But when the show is firing on all cylinders, it’s both.

Last night, while some people were mourning Sanjaya, I was reveling in the discovery of more information about Desmond’s life from before he ended up on the island.  I liked the whole monk storyline, and Desmond’s meeting of Penny.  While the backstory was, more or less, self-contained, there was the added bonus for the longtime viewer of learning about the first time Desmond saw Penny.  Interesting.  Good.  Fun.

Sadly though, not everything was all sunshine and buttercups for Lost.  Actually, there was a huge part of the show that didn’t work.  In Desmond’s visions of the future that opened the show last night, the viewer was treated to a scene in which Charlie died.  Desmond acted for the vast majority of the episode as though he was going to allow this to happen.  There are always rumors about people leaving Lost, but for the producers to tell us that Desmond was going to let Charlie die at the beginning of last night’s episode pretty much guaranteed that Charlie wouldn’t die (at least not as shown).  The conventions of storytelling in general and television in particular required as much. 

For Charlie to die in the exact fashion pictured in Desmond’s future, and for Desmond to drive the death to happen just as he envisioned, without altering anything, wouldn’t have been good storytelling.  It wouldn’t have been Lost-like.  There was always a chance that someone else might die, but that Charlie would die at the very end of the episode just as Desmond had envisioned was impossible.  And that was disappointing.  The “surprise” of Desmond saving Charlie at the last possible moment wasn’t a surprise.  I don’t doubt that Desmond is completely capable of allowing someone to die, but can’t imagine that the story would be laid bare in advance like that. 

Sanjaya’s passing from Idol was, of course, foretold.  He, much like Charlie, has been living on borrowed time.  Too bad Desmond didn’t make his way off the island in order to save Sanjaya for one more week. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I Got Your Payback Right Here

I believe that one day in the future an entire new segment of the film industry will be born.  This new area will focus solely on recutting movies that Richard Donner and his friends, acquaintances, and one-time co-workers were fired from directing.  Superman II has already been recut and released as Superman II:  The Richard Donner Cut.  I saw that one and thought it really good (though I wished that they hadn’t updated the special effects).

Recently released is the next in this series of films:  Payback: Straight Up - The Director’s Cut.  Director Brian Helgeland, was originally fired from (or quit, or mutually agreed with producers and the studio to leave depending on whom you ask).  After listening to the various commentaries and behind the scenes discussions and documentaries included with the DVD, I can tell you the reason for this seems to be that not only was he not a great director (this was his first major motion picture), he also wanted to make a movie that was completely about evil people doing bad things and without any hope of redemption for anyone.  Why such a script was greenlit I can’t tell you, I just know that during filming Mel Gibson (star and a producer on the movie), among others, told Helgeland to change the ending, he said no, and was handed his walking papers.  At that point, he was replaced by John Myhre who reshot the entire third act of the movie (after a huge rewrite was done). 

In brief, the movie follows a thief, Porter (Mel Gibson) as he tries to get back $70,000 that was stolen from him by his partner, who set Porter up, nearly getting him killed.  Porter not only wants the cash, he wants revenge, and he goes after everyone that was remotely involved in the $70,000 getting stolen. 

Happily, the new movie is better than the original.  Gone is Gibson’s voiceover, gone is the ending, gone is Kris Kristofferson completely.  In addition to the wholly new third act, there is also a scene early on in which Porte, beats his estranged wife, played by Deborah Kara Unger.  This scene certainly helps push the character of Porter and the film as a whole in the direction Helgeland wanted it to go.  I will not enter into a discussion of Porter’s motivation and the appropriateness (or not) of his actions, unquestionably though, even if one would forgive Porter for hitting is wife, it completely changes the way he is viewed for the rest of the movie.

On the downside, the movie is still not a strong film.  In fact, the entire release of this director’s cut  feels as though it were simply an opportunity to cash in on a property that had otherwise outlived it’s moneymaking ability.  Moreover, Paramount did not include on this director’s cut a copy of the original theatrical release.  During all the extras however, the original theatrical cut is repeatedly referenced, and it would have made for a far more complete set and experience to have included the theatrical cut with this DVD.

More perplexing than this, however, is the fact that within the first five minutes of the first documentary that goes over the reasons for the director’s cut, Helgeland and the other interviewees discuss what the original ending was supposed to be; what Helgeland wanted the ending to be.  This ending that Helgeland wanted though isn’t the one that appears on the director’s cut.  I understand that Helgeland’s ending isn’t included because it was never filmed, but a movie without the ending the director wanted (and one of the main sticking points that got the director fired) makes for a poor director’s cut. 

This DVD release is a fascinating look inside the film industry and what it takes to get a film made, and what people get fired over, but it also requires that you take everything that’s said within it with a grain of salt.  Virtually everyone that appears in one of the extras has a monetary incentive for appearing in the release and for having acted the way they did 8 years ago when Helgeland was fired. 

In the end however, while it is interesting, it’s a shame that the film under discussion couldn’t have been better either as a theatrical or a director’s cut.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Riches Go Poor

I love being right. There’s a certain sense of vindication when you look at something that’s happening and just know that it’s not progressing as it should. Whether or not it’s obvious what will take place, there’s still a sense of accomplishment when you’re able to look at something and know what’s going to happen.

I hate being right. There’s a certain letdown when you look at something and know that a huge mistake is being made, something is going down that shouldn’t be going down; if you’re able to figure out, why weren’t the people in charge?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Riches has gotten funnier and smarter as the season has progressed, they have corrected some of the original imperfections in the series. The Riches has gotten dumber as the season has gone along, completely forgetting the show's origins and pushing a storyline to the fore that makes no sense whatsoever. 

For the record, and because I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make this abundantly clear: I told you so, I told you so! Last week I sat here at my computer and I said to you that producers of The Riches were making a huge mistake, that they seemed to have forgotten that the family could just pick up and move as soon as the rest of the Travellers found them. That there was no reason, save the show title, that they shouldn’t do just that (if they were no longer pretending to be the Riches the show shouldn’t be called The Riches). Don’t believe me? Check it out, you’ll see that I’m right and that I told you so. 

Last night’s episode threw into stark relief just how right I am. Di Di ended up in jail because of Ken’s (the Traveller the Malloys have been forced to take in) stupidity. Dahlia had to go to jail (remember now, she’s broken her parole and consequently jail is probably not a good place for her to be, what with the identity theft too) to get her daughter out, and Wayne showed up at the jail completely and totally blitzed (he too is committing identity theft). It’s insane and it’s ludicrous. They should be leaving town. They should be packing it in. There’s no reason to continue this charade, but for some reason (I think it really is just that they like the title of the show) the Malloys continue to pretend to be the Riches. 

What’s even worse is that all the producers really have to do is come up with some nonsensical, completely and totally idiotic, absurd reason that the Malloys can’t just pack it all in and move on. The excuse, whatever it is, only needs to have the smallest, the tiniest, just the absolute littlest bit of credibility. It only needs the smallest shred of believability to get the audience to go along with the Malloys sticking around as the Riches. 

Why the producers haven’t provided it I don’t know, and what really bothers me is that up until this story arc began everyone but Wayne was all for packing it in and moving on rather than trying to tough it out as the Riches. As soon as it became apparent that they should pack it in that entire discussion disappeared. 

It’s bad writing and badly conceived. The producers seem to be trading on the audience’s good faith, something they haven’t yet earned. I’ll go on with them, at least for a little while, but I want to make it completely clear that they’re now in our debt. 

Monday, April 16, 2007

Arnold and Pimp My Ride Save The World This Earth Day

Earth Day. It comes around once a year and reminds everyone in the world that we have to be kind to planet on which we live. We need to think about that which we do every day and try and convert our ways from unhealthy, Earth spoiling, inconvenient truth helping ways to something more “green.” Something that allows the planet and the human race to have a future.

Earth Day is that one day every year that people actually consider changing their meddlesome ways, when Captain Planet doesn’t seem quite so foolish, and where one’s guilt can be expressed for a full 24 hours. Earth Day resolutions end up like New Year’s resolutions, discarded on the floor in short order, but in Earth Day’s case, the guilt doesn’t reappear till the next year, whereas the guilt about New Year’s resolutions rears its ugly head after pigging out on Super Bowl Sunday.

Once again jumping into the Earth Day fray is MTV and its “Break the Addiction” initiative. This time around, they’ve roped in Xzibit and his Pimp My Ride crew.

Xzibit and the guys at G.A.S. (Galpin Auto Sports) will be taking a ’65 Chevy Impala and throwing in an 800 horsepower biodiesel engine on a very special Earth Day episode of MTV’s Pimp My Ride. But wait, there’s more -- not only will this Earth Day episode help the world, it’ll also feature the nation’s Governator as Schwarzenegger himself stops by G.A.S. and helps pimp alternative-fuel vehicles (like his own converted H2). 

Now, the huge advantage of sitting there this Earth Day and watching this very special Pimp My Ride is that it takes care of all your Earth Day help-the-world obligations. There you are, spend 30 minutes with MTV at 1pm ET/PT on April 22 and all of your Earth Day worries are at an end. Simply by watching this episode of Pimp My Ride you fulfill all your obligations to helping the world. No mess, no fuss, no guilt at not following through on any poorly thought out Earth Day promises. 

Watch Xzibit, watch the Governator, have some fun, help the world. All from the comfort of your very own living room. 

Now that’s the kind of resolution I can keep. 

Nova Reveals Its First Flower

Nova covers odd things. Or, at the very least, promotes things in odd ways. On April 17, Nova’s newest episode “First Flower” will air. No joking -- during the promo for this episode, which clearly states that it is about the search for the first flowering plant, there is a scientist running. Literally, the man is running. In 'reality show gone bad' fashion, he’s rushing as though there are eight other scientists hot on his trail and if he doesn’t find the fossilized remains of the flower he’s going to be tossed off the island. 

You see, the first flower appeared, scientists believe, around 135 million years ago (give or take a few million years). And, it is due to flowering plants that humanity exists at all. As the episode repeatedly reminds us every time that it slips a little too far into arcane knowledge and spends a little too much energy expounding on the very nature of flowering plants, the basis of our food supply - wheat, corn, and rice - are all flowering plants. How this excuses having a scientist running away from the camera during the promo, I don’t know, but I will accept that flowering plants are important.

The episode starts off discussing Archaefructus, a plant “discovered” in fossil form by Professor Sun Ge in China. I use quotes here because the episode states that he discovered it, as does all the accompanying literature, but Sun Ge explains that it was handed to him, along with two other fossils, by a student. But I digress. Sun Ge thinks that this is the first flowering plant due to its shape and simplicity and the fact that the fossil is, he thinks, the right age. Is he correct? Watch and find out if he gets voted off the island.

Other scientists think that maybe it’s not Archaefructus. It’s not that they don’t think Archaefructus is just swell, they really think it’s quite a discovery, but they have their own hypotheses. Of course, if it’s not Archaefructus it means that these other scientists can discover the first flowering plant themselves, Sun Ge and his pal David Dilcher will be wrong, and someone else can have all the glory. At let’s not pretend that these paleobotanists aren’t really just glory hounds. 

Confused? That’s okay, sit back, relax, and watch. Even if the argument over what flowering plant is the first flowering plant is a little too involved for you to get excited over, the episode has some other things going for it. Primarily, the footage of the flowers and some of the locales is fantastic. Some of the flowers shown are absolutely beautiful and made me wish for an HD television.

Additionally, the excitement of the scientists is palpable. Most notable in this regard is Dan Hinkley, an American plant explorer, who, with Chinese botanist Yin Kaipu, explores China’s Hengduan mountains. Hinkley has never been there before and runs from flower to flower and plant to plant reeling off a plethora of Latin. Even if the viewer can’t see the specific plants he’s discussing, his excitement bursts through the screen. It’s quite a sight. 

The episode, while initially and superficially interesting, has trouble sustaining its momentum for the entire hour. There are moments, for people not heavily invested in either flowers or archeology, where the episode certainly lags. However, if flowers, archeology, or scientists fighting it out in an all-out battle royale for the right to claim the discovery of the first flowering plant is the kind of thing that causes shivers to run up your spine, this is definitely up your alley.

As to why that scientist was running in the promo? That I can’t answer -- the scene didn’t make it into the episode.

Nova’s “First Flower” premieres on PBS Tuesday, April 17, 2007 at 8PM ET/PT, but do check your local listings to be sure. 

Friday, April 13, 2007

I've Got Some Notes From the Underbelly For You, But You Won't Like Them

I’m going to try and be nice here, soft spoken, and not overly rude. It’s hard because what I have to discuss is just dreadfully bad, but I’m going to try anyway. 

Of the many shows I watched last night, one of them was Notes from the Underbelly. If I was being mean I’d call this an “alleged sitcom,” but as I’m trying not to be mean I’ll say “ABC’s brand new sitcom that started airing last night.” The story revolves around a couple, Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Andrew (Peter Cambor), who have decided to have a baby. Lauren and Andrew are a self-centered couple living in Los Angeles with incredibly self-centered friends and are wholly and completely unlikable. Andrew is slightly less unlikable than Lauren, but mostly that’s because he seems like your average self-centered individual instead of incredibly self-centered like his wife. 

Simply put, these people should not be having kids. Their married couple friends, Julie (Melanie Deanne Moore) and Eric (Sunkrish Bala), who are incredibly pregnant, probably also shouldn’t be having kids. Julie and Eric seem like they’re having them for the right reasons, whereas I don’t believe for a second that Lauren and Andrew aren’t simply having children because 1) it’s trendy and 2) they want to be done with having children in time to have a nice retirement. 

Lauren and Andrew also have a couple of single friends, Danny (Michael Weaver) and Cooper (Rachel Harris). These two characters are even more adolescent than Lauren and Andrew. Their only purpose over the course of last night’s two episodes was to make the main characters seem more well-grounded and adult-like. It didn’t work -- all the characters depicted seemed far too juvenile.   

It was referenced several times during the course of last night’s back-to-back episodes that they are a couple in their early 30s and that these days that’s equivalent to what being in your 20s was years ago. This is really just an argument for self-centeredness and increasing the amount of time one can have “youthful indiscretions” rather than simply being acknowledged as being a bad person. I’m not against negative shows, and I’m certainly not against negative characters. However, Lauren and Andrew, as depicted in Notes from the Underbelly, aren’t caricatures, they aren’t over the top, they seem to actually represent someone’s view of where our society is, and that to state at the same time that where we are (self-centered and perpetually juvenile) is acceptable. 

The entire concept for the show (base on Risa Green’s novel of the same name) is actually a good one: let’s follow a couple from the point where they decide to have a child through pregnancy and everything that follows. The problem is that the concept stopped growing at that point. The development of the show was completely arrested once the creator, Stacey Traub, and the rest of the producers got that far into it. Yet, it’s a midseason replacement, so clearly there ought to have been time to consider what was being put in front of the camera. But, no, someone seems to have yanked this half-formed idea out of the mind of its creator and thrown it up onto the screen in order to see whether it could thrive on its own. I can’t imagine that the show can possibly have an extended life, it doesn’t seem as though during it’s development cycle enough time or care was put into bringing forth a healthy, viable entity. 

For a while, ABC had intended to double-run episodes of Notes from the Underbelly at 10pm, out of Grey’s Anatomy. Rather than pursuing this idea, burning off all the new episodes in doubletime, and putting us all out of our misery quickly, they will, after last night’s double-run, move the show to Wednesdays at 8:30pm, airing out of According to Jim. I would recommend not following it to that time period, but everyone gets to make their own decisions in this world.

Getting all Bloody Looking for a Diamond

WARNING: This review may contain some plot spoilers.

Most simply stated, the film Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, The Siege, The Last Samurai), is a look at the role of diamonds in Sierra Leone’s civil war. It takes place in 1999, and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer and Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy. Archer is a diamond smuggler, or, if you prefer to use more colorful terminology, a soldier of fortune, while Solomon is a simple fisherman. Of course, one needs at least one speaking part for a woman, so Jennifer Connelly plays intrepid reporter Maddy Bowen.

At the outset of the film (and crucial for any understanding of it), it is explained that conflict diamonds or “blood diamonds” are diamonds mined in war zones and used to finance arms purchases and other items that are necessary to wage war. The story starts out plainly enough -- Solomon wants a better life for his son, Dia, so he begins sending Dia to school. On the way home from school they return to their village to find it under attack by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebel army. Despite Solomon's attempts to save his family, they are captured and separated from him. As Solomon is a big, strong, healthy man, rather than having his hand chopped off to prevent his voting (though never explained in the movie, this does have a historical basis), he is sent to work in the diamond fields. Here he comes across a valuable pink diamond and attempts to steal it. He is nearly caught before the rebel army is attacked by government troops. Knowing he is about to be taken by the government troops and thrown in jail, Solomon hides the diamond. 

While in prison, he meets Archer, who was caught smuggling diamonds into Liberia. Archer learns of the pink diamond and upon his release, ensures Solomon is let out as well so that he can try and rope Solomon into helping him find the diamond. After much cajoling, Solomon agrees to help Archer in return for help finding his family.

With the help of Maddy, a reporter looking for a story on blood diamonds, Solomon's family is located at a refugee camp. However, Dia is not with them. Archer and Solomon do manage to find Dia, though, during their search for the pink diamond. However, Dia has been brainwashed by the RUF and is now fighting for them. They lose Dia once more, only to run across him again at the diamond fields. A tug-at-your-heartstrings scene ensues as Dia trains his gun on Archer and Solomon must convince his child not to murder the soldier of fortune. Naturally, Solomon succeeds and they leave the fields with the diamond. In the end, Maddy helps Solomon sell the diamond to buy back his family.  Solomon and his family then, presumably, live happily ever after.

The movie is well put together. The pacing is good, the storyline interesting, and the acting very strong. DiCaprio and Hounsou are outstanding in their roles and unquestionably deserving of the accolades they received during this past awards season.

That being said, I am troubled by the movie in general. The intended moral of the story (and it is, unquestionably, intended) is that the West (read: white people) have repeatedly found things of value in Africa (diamonds, gold, oil, etc.) and have destroyed the continent in pursuit of these things. It’s a little simplistic to say that this is wholly and absolutely true, but the movie never questions the moral, it just puts it forward over and over again. It’s almost as if Zwick and Charles Leavitt (who wrote the screenplay) are fifth graders, trying to put down any opposing viewpoints and end all discussion simply by yelling louder than everyone else.

More troubling than this one-sided opinion though, is the fact that Solomon only ever accomplishes anything with the help of Maddy and Archer. Archer gets him out of jail. Maddy finds his family. Archer convinces him to look for the diamond which Solomon in the end needs to get his family back. Maddy helps him sell the diamond. Over and over again the audience is shown that without his white friends, who are using Solomon for their own reasons (Archer for money and Maddy for a story), Solomon would be helpless.

Thus, in Blood Diamond we have a movie with incredibly conflicting messages. First, the West has destroyed Africa in their own quest for wealth and the West should, more than likely, get out of Africa and leave it for the Africans. Second, the average African man can do nothing without the help of the West; without the West, Africans are helpless.

What exactly then is the movie trying to say to the audience? It is not that now that the West is in Africa they must stay and rectify things. It seems that the message, unintended though it may be, is that the West has destroyed Africa through its own greed, and yet Westerners are still the only people that can get things done, Africans simply cannot accomplish important tasks.

As good as the rest of the film may be, this final message cannot be glossed over. While the technical aspects of the filmmaking are good, and as strong as the acting is, any movie that puts forth such a troubling present-day “great white father myth” as a subtext is deeply unsettling. Whether or not Zwick and Leavitt wanted it there I can’t say, but the fact is that it is there and it must be considered when watching the film.

Blood Diamond has made it way onto DVD and is currently in release in widescreen and full screen formats as well as a two-disc special edition which contains several featurettes including one on how DiCaprio prepared for his role and another which has Jennifer Connelly discussing women journalists in wars. This special edition is only available in widescreen format.

It is an interesting film, and one that leaves the audience thinking. Sadly though, the audience will not necessarily leave with the intended message.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Talking Baseball, Baseball as a Mogul: Baseball Mogul 2008

Someone get on the horn to Joe Torre, the Yanks are good to go. I know, it’s awfully early to make that prediction, but I’m going to step out on a limb and say it. How can I be so sure? It’s because I sat down recently and booted up Baseball Mogul 2008, and had it simulate the entire 2007 season without me touching a thing (just to see the system run). I’m happy to say that the Yankees handily won their division, putting up a record of 110-52 and winning the division by 21 games over the Blue Jays. Not only do I think that means that my Yankees and Joe Torre need not worry this year, it tells me that the programming folks at Sports Mogul have done a fantastic job with this year’s edition of Baseball Mogul.

All joking aside, Baseball Mogul 2008 is a strong product. It’s intuitive and really easy to use on a surface level. If someone is only interested in simulating games and managing a team on a very superficial level, that’s possible. If someone wants to go through every pitch of every game, but not deal with larger team issues in depth, that’s possible. And, making all stat-heads incredibly happy, if someone wants to get into the nitty-gritty, day-to-day managing of a team, that’s possible too. What’s more though, is that the game provides enjoyment at all of these levels, and every conceivable level in between.

Stat-heads, the group that the game seems primarily intended for, will revel in their ability to find out the most miniscule bits of information; the one thing that may be missing is hat size. Players are sortable by every imaginable statistic. I won’t say that it gets to be too much, but there’s a ton of stuff there.

Playing actual games can be incredibly fun as well. While playing in-game you do not actually swing at the ball, you simply click a button before the pitch is thrown, you can play pitch-by-pitch, having your batter guess at what the upcoming pitch will be (and, if you’re on the mound, you can call the different available pitches as well). There is a graphic of a stadium put up in the middle of the in-game screen, and the ball is seen to fly to various parts of the field that correspond to where it was hit.

As good as the in-game stuff is, the look of it, could, and should, be better. The headshots attached to the players are absolutely ancient. I understand that it can be difficult to update every player’s photo every year, but it seems to me that Jason Giambi should, at the very least, be wearing a Yankees uniform in his picture and not an Oakland Athletics one. Additionally, the graphic used of the stadium is the same one every game, no matter where the game takes place. The crowd is shown, as are billboards and other advertising and no matter the stadium the game takes place in, the advertising, crowd, and shape of the stadium is exactly the same. The only thing that changes are text markers stating how far it is to various parts of the outfield wall.

The games simulation of an extended period of time is one of the highlights of the program. Not only does in not take an overly long time to have the computer run through an extended number of games, but should a game be close late for your team the computer will offer you the ability to play out that game (this feature can also be turned off). It’s just one added level of control that Baseball Mogul 2008 has that shows dedication, understanding, and I think true enjoyment of the final product on the part of the developer.

By having new pictures for players and a couple of pictures for stadiums, Baseball Mogul 2008 would have gone a lot further to enticing the everyday baseball game user as opposed to the more serious stat-heads. It’s all still fun and interesting, and extremely playable, but a few tweaks here and there would have gone a long way.

Baseball Mogul 2008 is available directly from Sports Mogul for $24.95 and is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Four stars out of five.

The Riches Takes a Turn for the Worse

Okay, here it is, in brief:  have the producers of The Riches already run out of ideas?  Cause, that’s the feeling I’m getting. 

I’m not going to say that the whole thing isn’t witty and funny, and smart, at least the dialog and the specifics of their situation.  It is.  The problem, simply put, is that the producers have already pushed the overarching idea of the show, a family of Travellers (gypsies) taking over the lives of deceased Buffers (regular folks) in order to escape other Travellers.  We’re a half-dozen episodes into the series and they’ve already been found by those they were trying to escape. 

Not only that, but one of the other Travellers is moving in with them.  I can’t fathom why Wayne (Eddie Izzard) and Dahlia (Minnie Driver) Malloy agreed to this.  Is the audience to believe that they’re so attached to the lives they stole two weeks earlier that they’re willing to risk the loss of life and limb in order to keep up the charade?  It makes no sense.  If they’ve been caught why can’t they just leave, pretend to be someone else, and find a new place to live?

This newest wrinkle in their lives absolutely provides amusement and the opportunity for hilarity, which is, I’m sure, why it was done, but it doesn’t fit into the overarching scheme of who these people are.  Wayne, Dahlia, and the family are terrified of being caught by their fellow Travellers, they stole a ton of money from them and the head of their band wants it back.  Why would they agree to house a Traveller, even a less intelligent one (and one that believes he’s engaged to their daughter, Di Di)?

Not only is this going to cause huge problems for the Malloys, but it doesn’t have an upside for them.  There is nothing that they get out of doing this, except, allegedly, that the head of the Travellers, Dale, won’t be told of their whereabouts.  But, as noted above, the Malloys can just go somewhere else and hide.  Their boy, Cael, who made a mistake which allowed them to be found has surely learned his lesson, so if they run elsewhere they won’t be discovered again.  There is no earthly reason why the need to continue to pretend to be the Riches (save that the show is named The Riches) over another family.

So, to recap (again):  there’s no upside only a downside to their current actions.  There’s no fathomable reason why they are pursuing this course of action.  The only logical reason for this is that the producers have decided that it’s an interesting twist and never considered the fact that it doesn’t actually fit in with the characters and situation that they’ve previously constructed.  Maybe they were unhappy with the direction of the first few episodes, or the original conceit of the series, either way, this past week marks a radical shift in the show.

I just hope the shift is to the basic nature of the show and that they are trying to rewrite the history of the family, and not a harbinger of a massive downhill slide in the quality of writing.  I don’t think it’s the former, but that’s certainly the least offensive option. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monday Night's Polar Opposites

Monday television seems to bring out both some of the best good shows and worst good shows around (and a pox on you, NBC, for pulling The Black Donnellys earlier than initially announced -- you keep doing stuff like that and we’re going to have words). But, on with the show(s).  

I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again, I’m sorry, but it’s true: How I Met Your Mother is one of the funniest (if not the funniest) show on television. It’s true, it’s a fact, deal with it.

That Barney guy. Every week he seems to come up with some new form of wonderfulness. This week we got to see what a Barney Bachelor Party is like (and who doesn’t appreciate the notion of well past their prime strippers?). I’m telling you, his antics are legendary, or at least they will be in a few years. And, not only does the man bring the funny, but having him be the guy that convinced Lily to move back to New York so that she could reunite with Marshall is really smart. There has to be a reason that the rest of the HIMYM gang hang out with him, and it’s now clear that it’s because they know while he likes to have fun and has some insane ideas about the world and how it operates, or should operate, he’s a nice guy. Barney is, in fact, a good human being (even if he’s loathe to admit it).

In other news, and I’m going to try to not rant too much about this, but what are the producers at 24 thinking? Did they realize the season wasn’t going so well and just decide to punt the last quarter of it? My God, what would these people have done if The Nine hadn’t been canceled so quickly and they hadn’t been able to rope Kim Raver into reprising her role as Audrey Raines? Now just stop, I’m not giving away any spoilers if you haven’t seen the episode yet, there’s no way you didn’t know that Audrey Raines was alive. They just happened to show us a picture of her dead body where you couldn’t see her head, in fact pretty much the only identifiable thing about her was the white raincoat? It’s just not that surprising, so pick your jaw up off the floor.

Next, you’re going to tell me that you were surprised that the whole attack on Jack and the Silver Spoons kid while they were transporting Fayed was a setup surprised you as well. It didn’t. You weren’t surprised. I know you weren’t surprised, don’t pretend like you were. 

The question here really is why 24 has just been so lackluster this season. All it’s done is rehash old plots, create nonsensical tie-ins, and try and make it look like it was all new and different this time around. I’m not sure how the show can resurrect those great cliffhangers and plot twists that we saw in the first two seasons (and then again in seasons four and five), but it just isn’t working anymore. 

And, anticipating the show, let me ask you this: if Audrey went to China to try and rescue Jack, and the Chinese captured her and faked her death, what on God’s green earth could have possessed them to smuggle her back into the United States where she’s going to be a whole lot easier for Jack to free? It is only hypothetical at this point that she’s back in the U.S. after having gone to China, but it’s the only sort of thing that makes even the smallest amount of sense. True, we don’t know that she was captured in China, but based upon all available information, this seems the most likely course of events (odds are that she was in fact in China when captured). As to why I believe she’s back in the U.S. now, that’s easier, it’s because the last few hours of this season would be even more boring than the whole thing has been to this point if Jack hops on a plane to go to China to rescue her.

I actually hope I’m completely wrong. I hope that the U.S. Government is working with the Chinese with the Audrey Raines stuff, and that the two governments conspired to fake Audrey’s death. That might be the only way the show can resuscitate this season. I don’t think it’s the case, but, fingers crossed…

I can’t wait till Heroes comes back. 

Monday, April 09, 2007

Speaking the Truth About Desperate Housewives

It seems as though the truth hurts, and I just can’t figure out why that has to be the case. And this may hurt, but I have to say it anyway -- last night, those Housewives proved once again that they’re straying farther and farther from what once made the show great. 

First up, we have the incredibly obnoxious, the show would be better off without her and everything she stands for, Edie Britt. When Edie attempts to seduce Carlos, Carlos is eventually smart enough to realize what’s going on and calls her on using her own child to try and bait him into having sex with her. And then, in a completely surprising twist, and I can’t imagine how this is the case, Edie becomes angry at Carlos for telling her he knows what’s going on. She is not, at this point, upset with herself for her incredibly self-centered actions and her maltreatment of her own child, no, she’s upset with Carlos for having the audacity to call her on it. 

By the end of the episode Edie successfully seduces Carlos with what I’m sure is either a ploy or a fleeting change of heart, where she “reveals her true self” by getting naked. It’s insane. Carlos bought it, but it’s still insane. How is this man not still upset that she used a young child to try and have sex with him? My money is on the fact that Edie was still just trying to get some and that an “honesty is the best policy” approach seemed like the best way to succeed in that endeavor. The whole thing is disgusting.

Actually, the whole show is disgusting, and not disgusting in a juicy, pulpy, fun way like the first season. It’s disgusting in a 'these characters have become so vile and self-centered and self-serving' way that it’s hard to watch. 

Gaby, who has been sliding downhill into a pit of her own vanity for at least a season (and probably closer to a season and a half), sunk to a new low last night by stealing dresses of the man she’s only dating because of his money’s ex-wife. Seriously. She lies to the maid to get into the house where the clothes are, runs for the closet, takes off her coat revealing that she’s only wearing skivvies underneath (it’s not even sweeps), and throws on as many outfits as she can before running back out of the house. What a wretched waste of time this woman has become. She’s a horrid, vapid woman and while she was once deserving of pity, she is now simply repugnant.

Why am I supposed to like this show? The writing is no longer clever, the characters no longer so much shocking as they are depressing (I can’t even face a discussion of Susan’s asininities here), and the “mystery” that the season is supposed to be about has completely vanished. Everyone knew Marcia Cross was pregnant heading into this season, so maybe having the mystery surround her character wasn’t the brightest move on the part of the producers. I can’t help but feel the ship is completely rudderless this season and that a firm hand needs to take control of matter and get the whole thing back on track. Maybe they should spin-off a show with the Scavos, because they’re the only people that still seem human and worth caring about.

The only answer the producers supply as to why to keep watching however is really poor: they’re going to show more of Edie and Gaby and not just with increased screen time. The problem is, that to make a character attractive requires more than just showing a nice body and some skin, and these two creatures are such horrendously bad human beings that seeing more of them is only depressing, and the more they take off, the worse it gets.

That truth may hurt too, but it’s something that has to be said if this show is to get any better, and I’m still pulling for it, but I just don’t know for how much longer.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

On a Wing Island, Without A Prayer

I have grave concerns about the future of the Nintendo Wii. I absolutely love it, thus far, but there is a distinct lack of quality games available at this point. Game developers still seem to be so in love with the very idea of what can be simulated using the wiimote that they fail to think about their product beyond a very superficial level.

As an example, look at Hudson’s latest release, Wing Island. The entire game plays out as though someone at Hudson thought about the Wii and said “flying! Flying would be so cool on that thing, the wiimote is like the control stick in an airplane.” At that point, they put together a very rudimentary game with an airplane in it, played it for about 90 seconds, and then stopped. Mission accomplished, the wiimote can be used like the control stick on an airplane. The game was then released, without further tweaking.

On one level, they’re absolutely right, the wiimote can be used as a control stick, and it is, for about 90 seconds, pretty neat. After that, a gamer looks for a little more depth than what Wing Island has to offer.

The game is organized in a simplistic fashion. The player is Junior, a young pilot. He has a little company he runs with the help of Puffin, his mechanic. Junior goes around various islands, performing what he likes to call “missions.” These range from popping balloons to photographing trees to putting out fires. By completing the missions within the time period allotted (faster is better) and without mistakes the player earns money which can be used to purchase new planes or upgrade and repair old ones.

The major problem with the game is that the missions that Junior goes on simply aren’t that interesting and have no depth whatsoever. Missions tend to give the player three minutes to complete the task, and virtually every task only involves going to the right location and pressing the B button. Need to capture cows? Press B near a cow. Need to put out a fire? Press B to release retardant over the fire. Need to destroy rocks? Press B to release your bombs. Some missions, such as the incredibly annoying (and repeatedly appearing) balloon-popping race, don’t require you to press any buttons at all, just fly around trying to hit tiny objects with your plane. Others, such as photographing trees, are nearly impossible given the size of the level and the fact that there are only three minutes to find and photograph the three trees. Whoever thought it was a good idea to make the game player photograph a specific green tree on islands full of green trees was grossly mistaken.

Sadly, controlling the planes proves to be less than fun as well. They handle, even after upgrading them, incredibly poorly. They are slow, make huge turns, and are unwieldy. What’s worse is that many missions require you to fly with numerous wingmen, and their planes respond to your movements. While it is possible to change formations, that doesn’t make it any easier to fit through tight places. Were having wingmen not essential for the completion of some missions I’d recommend forcing them to crash into cliffs at the start of every level.

When you combine planes that handle poorly with the fact that you have a scant three minutes to perform missions, it makes for an even worse mix. You’ll find yourself playing levels over and over and over again, doing the exact same thing you did the last 12 times you played, and eventually, who knows why, you’ll be able to complete the mission.

Visually, the game looks merely adequate. The skies are a nice blue, with some puffy clouds, and the water is a nice blue, with some chop, and the islands are… islandy. The details are not particularly sharp, and don’t go anywhere near mitigating the bad feelings the game play of Wing Island engenders.

On the upside, for whatever reason, there’s a definite sense of accomplishment when an inane mission is completed. Getting that last stinking balloon popped just under the wire actually makes the you feel good. That may mostly be relief at not having to do the mission all over again for the want of one rotten balloon.

In the end, the basic problem with Wing Island is this: the controlling of planes is too difficult and the missions are just plain silly. It’s as though the game was intended for a non-gaming audience, so that people can play with a wiimote, but having three minutes per mission belies this notion.

It should be noted that there is a two player mode, with some head-to-head racing, but it is just as silly and mundane and annoying as the regular mode.

Wing Island is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB and contains cartoon violence.

One star out of five.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Television: Is it the Journey or the Destination?

I’m a contemplator. I’m sorry, it’s just who I am. This past weekend I was contemplating The Black Donnellys. You won’t believe this whole thing now, but it’s true, I was thinking to myself that I have so little free time, should I be wasting it on a show, that, even though I like watching, clearly isn’t going to be around terribly long? Should I take the 45 minutes (thanks, TiVo!) out of my schedule every Monday night in order to watch a show that I just know will not be on TV this fall?

I can watch tons of shows that I’m completely ambivalent about every day. I can get moderately involved with the characters and want to see what happens to them, and know that the show will be around for a while and I’ll get the answers I want. What is more important though, the answers or wanting to ask the questions?

Ultimately, I decided to continue watching The Black Donnellys for however long it will be around. Happily, even if my doubts resurface about this particular program in the future, NBC announced on Monday that starting April 23, The Real Wedding Crashers will begin airing in the timeslot. Problem solved…

…and yet, the larger question remains: how good does a show have to be for one to continue watching it knowing that it won’t be around for long? If Lost had ended before you knew what was in the hatch, if Desperate Housewives had ended before you found out why Mary Alice killed herself, how would you have felt? And, what if you knew that you weren’t going to find out, that the network was going to rip the program away from you before revealing anything? Would the enjoyment at seeing what happens every week trump the desire for answers?

The question really is: what’s more important, the journey or the destination?

I wouldn’t necessarily answer this way in general, but in the case of television, the answer has to be the journey. It just has to be. It’s all television is, a journey. The Mary Alice story ended, so the next season there was a new journey on Housewives, Locke opened the hatch, and a whole new journey began on Lost. If Spooky had ever really figured out what was going on with the Cancer Man that show would’ve ended sooner (and more mercifully) than it did.

In All About Eve, Addison DeWitt tells Claudia Caswell that television is “nothing but auditions.” I’d say it’s nothing but journeys. It’s undoubtedly true that we want to see people arrive at their destination, but it’s how they arrive that matters. Law & Order’s surprise endings are only good because the audience has invested in the investigation and trial to that point. The investment must be built (and be good) for the payoff to succeed. The investment is the journey.

I am absolutely upset when I don’t get to see a favorite show reach their destination, but it’s because I want to go on the journey with them. I tend not to like a series finale that shows snippets of people’s lives into the future (Mad About You, Will and Grace). They tend to be hollow and I can’t invest emotionally in them. It’s the journey with the characters that counts, not where they end up.

So, if something like The Black Donnellys disappears too soon, and I don’t get to find out where Tommy, Jimmy, Kevin, and Sean end up, yes, I’ll be upset, but I’m thankful for the time I’ve had with them. I’ve invested myself in their journey; I’ve wanted to invest myself in their journey.

There may only be two new episodes with those Donnelly boys (at least, episodes that will air), but I’ll be there with them, every step of the way.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Amazing Race: How Sweet the Sound

I tend not to write that much about reality television. I’m not quite sure why that is, but today that’ll change. At least it will for today, because we just have to talk about The Amazing Race: All Stars. I’ve really enjoyed this season so far, but the show is infuriating at the same time. How’s that? Let’s look…

First, the fun, which this past week involved watching people eat two feet of kielbasa sausage and then promptly vomit, or, in Charla’s case, vomiting in the middle of eating the sausage, almost immediately grabbing the fork and knife again, and going back at it. If there’s something better than watching one-half of The Blondes, 2005’s Miss California (Dustin), heave just as she finishes her sausage, I don’t know what it is. Unquestionably it helps that I despise the teams of Charla and Mirna and Dustin and Kandice more than words can possibly express.

And, that’s another reason why The Amazing Race is fun (at least if you’re just a little bit mean-spirited). I go through the early episodes figuring out which teams I like and which I absolutely and completely detest (I’m looking at you Charla and Mirna). 

Please note before I continue on this little jaunt that I am in no way saying that Charla and Mirna, or any other team I detest are bad people (or that those I like are good people). I give the benefit of the doubt to all people on reality shows that the way in which the show has been edited has simply made people appear more like the Spawn of Satan than they actually are. Thus, when I say that I detest Charla and Mirna, I am referring to the characters that I watch on television and not the actual people that Charla and Mirna may be in real life. Let’s face it, the situations these people are put in are not “reality” and all reality shows work better when there’s a bad guy. Charla and Mirna may be great people, the nicest, kindest, sweetest, most wonderful people you can imagine in real life. On TV, they are wretched refuse and deserve no shelter. 

So, I rank those that I hate the most and hope with every fiber of my being that they take a wrong turn, miss their flights, or vomit up two feet of kielbasa sausage. Happily this week the two teams that are on the bottom of my list did just that. Who could ask for more?

That’s why the show is great, but here’s why it’s infuriating…

The are far too many bottlenecks, or, what I like to refer to as the producers cheating. The entire race is engineered so that teams are forcibly bunched together. Once a team gets way out in front (like the Blondes did this past week), there’s always some airline flight thing that will inevitably slow the front team down tremendously. Sure enough, The Blondes were off on their next leg before teams even could check in from the previous leg, and instantly found out that the charter bus they were going to take to Auschwitz wouldn’t leave for about 12 hours, and was going to force them to ride with two other teams, thus eliminating immediately the monstrous lead they had built.

This sort of tactic on the producers' part does stop one team from getting so far out front so as to destroy the sense of competition for the rest of the season, but it also feels like a very forced ploy. It’s distressing to watch one team do so well, even if it is The Blondes, only to lose the entire advantage in order to keep the competition more fierce. 

Harrison Bergeron where are you now?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Amazon Unbox Throws a Movie into my TiVo Box (and I think I like it)

This past week I had my first opportunity to sample Amazon and TiVo’s newest service: Amazon Unbox. The concept behind it is pretty simple. Amazon offers a number of movies that can be either bought or rented from them which can then be directly downloaded to one’s TiVo (or computer). 

It was easy enough to purchase a movie, in this case Blood Diamond. The purchase occurs much like any other on Amazon. Rather than having a cart and having to checkout though, there is a “Rent now with 1-click” (or “Buy now with 1-click” button depending on which you’re doing) button. There is also a drop-down menu to choose where you’d like the movie to be downloaded, listing any TiVo boxes (series 2 or 3) that one has added to Amazon as well as the chance to download to a PC. It should be noted that for the service to work with TiVo, the TiVo boxes must be connected via broadband, not dialup. 

Once purchased from Amazon, Blood Diamond began downloading to my TiVo almost 30 minutes later (after speaking to customer service, I was told it should have started about 15 or 20 minutes after the purchase was made). The two-hour 23 minute movie downloaded fully in around 70 minutes (making the total time from purchase to completed download 100 minutes). Movies downloaded to a computer via this service can begin playing before the entire film is on the local machine, but downloading to a TiVo requires that the entire file transfer be complete prior to beginning viewing.

The sound and video quality of the movie were outstanding, far superior to digital cable and everything I have ever watched on my TiVo. I noticed no discernible difference between the video quality of this movie off of my TiVo and watching a DVD. 

At $14.99 for the movie, the price of the feature did come in lower than the DVD, but without any of the special features that accompany DVD releases. Additionally, it is not portable like a DVD. The service does allow purchased movies to be located on up to two TiVos or two computers at the same time (one TiVo and one computer is acceptable) and be transferred onto two portable devices as well (but will not work on iPods or Macs). Should one choose, one need not download it to any device, it will live on at Amazon in a media library and be available for future download, or re-download should you want to delete it from your TiVo and get it again later (there are some restrictions on re-download for new releases).

Rentals have more stringent viewing requirements. Rentals can only be downloaded to one computer or one TiVo and cannot be transferred to any portable devices. Once the download of a rental has completed, the purchaser has 30 days to begin viewing it. After viewing has begun, the rental expires within 24 hours. 

While I was disappointed with the length of time that the download took to begin, and wish I could begin viewing the program before the download was complete, every other part of this experience was fantastic. The download was fast, and the audio and video quality superb.

That being said, I cannot imagine purchasing many more videos this way as they are not burnable and then watchable on a DVD player (should you download to a computer the filed can be burned to a DVD, but will not play on a DVD player). Renting seems far more likely for me, though the notion that I won’t be able to start watching immediately is a downside. “On demand” movie purchases from cable companies are viewable immediately, but tend to cost more than Amazon’s $3.99 for many new releases. It would also be far more easy to use the service if purchase and rental were available from the same product page on Amazon rather than having one page for purchasing a download and one for renting it. 

In the future, if I know earlier in the day that I’m going to want to watch movie X, Y, or Z that night, this is absolutely a product I’d use in the future. At $3.99 a rental, even if I start watching and then don’t complete the movie within 24 hours, I can re-rent it and the combined total of both those rentals will only then equal a trip to Blockbuster. 

Plus, I won’t have to deal with DVDs that have been scratched beyond all recognition.