Thursday, May 31, 2007

Watching Some Little Playdates

The world of digital video is a great equalizer. Have an idea for a movie? Think you can do things better than what is currently on the market? Have the ability to push the red button on a camera? How about a relatively new computer (Macs are easier than PCs)? You’re all set to go out and make a movie! Digital video takes out so many of the difficulties and expenses in making a video, virtually anyone can go out and film an idea.

Many people fail to realize though that the ability to do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should do it. To quote the very wise Ian Malcolm, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.” The ability of an individual to make a movie doesn’t mean that the movie should be made.

Clearly, there are some things that are produced and marketed that just shouldn’t be. Then there are things so wonderful and creative that they are instantly scooped up by mammoth vertically integrated corporations that co-opt the entire project and turn the creators into wealthy people. And lastly, there’s a third group, the debatable, up in the air group.

Into this third, amorphous category enters the relatively new company, Little Playdates. The Little Playdates Company puts out a DVD series entitled, not surprisingly, Little Playdates, which currently has three titles in the series: Little Friends, Little Adventurers, and Critter Friends (this last one is due out in mid-June).

The concept is pretty simple: children like watching children, so let’s provide videos of children doing things like climbing around fire trucks, pretending to work in a supermarket, or just generally playing together and having a grand old time. These little snippets of video (none of the segments lasts more than few minutes) have children playing and have lively, popular children’s songs playing to accompany the video.

I can testify that at least one child, roughly twelve months in age, is completely entranced by watching the children in the video for the first five minutes of the program, at which point she moves on to other things. It does seem to be a well-established truth though that children are interested in looking at/watching other children, so that part of the concept does work. Whether or not children learn anything by watching kids pretend to be supermarket cashiers is far more debatable.

On their website, Little Playdates states that they felt that there was a “a need for something different, something that could both entertain and educate our children without the traditional puppets or animated characters.” They have certainly created something without said puppets or animations, but it is unclear why they feel such a thing is necessary. Did I miss the great hue and cry against animated character and traditional puppets? Not that there’s anything wrong with actual people, but I like my puppets.

Either way, the Little Playdates Company has won some awards for these videos, including the Adding Wisdom Award and having had Little Adventurers named as one of Dr. Toy’s Best Products.

As for the production values, the videos do seem like little more than a simple prosumer model video camera was used (you can see a reflection of the camera and operator in one scene) along with an editing program. There are many moments in the videos that look like little more than a parent videotaping children at play, which honestly made me feel weird at some points, none of these being my children.

Even so, the videos are relatively innocuous, and seem moderately entertaining to young ones. There are moments in the songs that grate, but they are over soon enough and as long as you don’t put the accompanying soundtrack on repeat in your CD player they shouldn’t pose a big problem.

The Little Playdates series of DVDs is available directly from The Little Playdates Company website.

Is The Empire in Africa Just a Jedi Mind Trick?

Dramatizations based on historical truths often must gloss over certain facts. It can be impossible, over the course of two hours, to fully explore the historical realities of a moment in time. Events within our world tend to be far, far too complicated to be able to show all the facets and antecedents of events within the scope of a dramatic narrative.

This statement is not meant to excuse such representations. When a film starts off by stating that it is “based on a true story” a responsibility is placed on the audience’s shoulders to accept this statement and understand the corollary: not everything that appears in this film is necessarily true. There is also still a responsibility on the part of the filmmaker to make everything conform as much to reality as possible, to alter the truth only when necessary.

Documentaries on the other hand face an entirely different set of issues. Traditional documentaries, as pieces of non-fiction, are tasked with fully and completely exploring an issue in all of its facets. They, unquestionably, make arguments and things are colored to promote one point of view or another, but everything within them ought to be true, and omission is a sin.

So, when a documentary like The Empire in Africa comes along, a documentary that consciously sets itself up to be the truth that Blood Diamond, a “based on a true story” drama, couldn’t tell, the claim of accuracy of representation is further enhanced. The Empire in Africa is very consciously putting itself forward as delivering the truth of what has happened in Sierra Leone over the course of the past 20 years.

Not having loved Blood Diamond, thinking that it skimmed the surface of history a little too frequently, I was quite curious to see what The Empire in Africa had to say about Sierra Leone’s recent history. I was hugely disappointed with what I found.

At times, The Empire in Africa is a hard movie to watch; there are violent images, a man is shot at the opening of the documentary, and many of the things that have happened to people in Sierra Leone are hard to listen to. The story of the last few decades in the country is one of gross fiscal and governmental mismanagement, war, strife, starvation, and the tearing apart of families. However, this is not what disappointed me.

I speak a little bit of French, not much, but enough to know when the member of the French consulate that appears in the film is incorrectly, or (if I’m being nice) incompletely, translated, repeatedly. Whether his many utterings of “Je pense” (“I think”) may have been removed simply to streamline the subtitles, they alter the meaning of what is said. And, if I was able to quickly discern that these words were being left out, one wonders what else was translated incorrectly or completely left out.

I do know though that these errors were not the only ones made. The film also adds English subtitles to people speaking English with thick accents. One of these people in recounting some history speaks of “societal ills” which gets the subtitle “society heals.” Not only does this not have the same meaning as “societal ills,” it makes no sense within the context it is used.

Thus, not only does this exploration of Sierra Leone neglect to translate some French, it makes mistakes in translating spoken English to written English.

This forces one to ask: what else is the film getting wrong? If director Philippe Diaz cannot be counted on to tell us what people are saying directly to the camera, what if what has happened off-screen to Sierra Leone is being misrepresented, misstated, or simply lied about? How can the viewer accept statements about the RUF, the United Nations, and the umpteen other factions present in Sierra Leone as truth when it's clear that the film isn’t terribly concerned with the accuracy of statements by those they interview?

When the documentary has a former representative of the United Nations and current minister of finance speak, and the documentary seems to support his statements as truth, and then, 15 minutes later, explains the depths to which this same man allegedly went in order to rig a national election in Sierra Leone, what can the audience make of this?

No one can argue that Sierra Leone has had an incredibly difficult set of problems to deal with over the past few decades. Between “blood” diamonds, guerrillas amputating citizens, and brainwashing of children (just to name a few of the problems), the country has had more than its share of hardships. And, while it is a good thing to have the story of Sierra Leone told, to raise awareness of what has happened, and is happening there, a film that is “based on a true story” and overtly states that there are false moments in it is far preferable to a documentary that claims, falsely, to be the truth.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Veronica Mars May Be Gone, But Neptune Noir Lives On

The world today moves faster than it ever has before.  Television shows have fanbases that rapidly rise and fall with the tide.  Incredibly vocal minorities decry the loss of characters, plotlines, and shows, all the while voraciously consuming everything written about the programs and hoping against hope that their pet show will become the next Lost (before the fall).  And, there is always someone willing to step up and explain why these fans are right, why the show they love is great and brilliant, witty and wise. 

For Veronica Mars fans that void has been filled with Neptune Noir:  Unauthorized Investigations Into Veronica Mars, edited by Rob Thomas (creator and executive producer of the show).  I am in no way saying that Veronica Mars, or any other show, is unworthy of such treatment, only that such treatment seems to be becoming more and more prevalent.  In any case, Neptune Noir includes 18 different essays, plus an introduction to the book by Rob Thomas, and a few paragraphs by Rob preceding each essay. 

The essays focus on the exact areas one would think:  girl power, class, racism, parental relationships, friendships, high school, noir, and story structure.  While individually many of them are well-written, they tend to cover the same ground over and over, using the same episodes of the series to support their opinions.  The essays all seem to come from the time between the end of the second and start of the third season (with Rob’s comments coming during the filming of the third season), so there really isn’t all that much material to work with (less than 50 episodes), and it shows.

By a large margin, the most interesting parts of the book are Rob Thomas’s introductions.  He is quite clear in them about what his intents were when creating certain scenes and story arcs and what the “happy accidents” were.  These introductions are the beginning point of a fascinating dialogue between author and producer, fan and creator.  Were it to be expanded (letters back and forth, transcripts of conversations between author and producer, etc.) it would make for an even more fascinating experience.  Even so, as it exists it is a wonderful highlight to Neptune Noir.

One of the best essays, perhaps for it being completely different than all the others, is Lawrence Walt-Evans’s “I’m in Love with My Car:  Automotive Symbolism on Veronica Mars.”  Walt-Evans takes a close look at the different type of vehicles that all the characters on the show drive (and they do all drive) and then applies those cars to the personality traits the characters exhibit.  His argument is that this show is the one show on television where every vehicle choice is thought out and defined and an extension of the character’s personality. 

However, even this essay is not without its flaws.  In discussing how Veronica Mars’s use of cars is different from every other show on television, he writes about how a number of other shows never show vehicles (except should they be essential to a plot point).  One of the shows he mentions as never showing characters having a car is How I Met Your Mother.  This is a bad choice for two main reasons:  a second season episode of HIMYM does in fact show one of the characters having a car (this mistake is forgivable as his essay was presumably written prior to this episode), and HIMYM takes place in New York City, a place where having a car can more often be a liability than an asset.  Veronica Mars, as a California show, requires that characters have cars in order to be mobile, it’s not a fair comparison, the New York City vs. Southern California lifestyle is different to such a degree that this comparison has no validity. 

The majority of the book has bits and pieces like this, minor points mostly, than can be picked apart and dissected and argued about.  There are as well some points that work better in a discussion of the first and second seasons of the show than the third season (again, the essays were written prior to the third season starting).  Whether or not those arguments fall flat because the author simply was not given the opportunity to see enough of the show, or Thomas changing things around as a response to the essays is up for debate. 

Taken individually the many essays that comprise Neptune Noir:  Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars provide a fascinating look not only at the show, but at its fanbase as well (make no mistake, many of the authors are fans).  There are moments however when they seem to be trying to hard, when authors as fans push arguments that seem to be justifications, excuses, for them liking the series so much (I would include Misty Hook’s “Boom Goes the Dynamite:  Why I Love Veronica and Logan” among these) rather than a more scholarly piece.  Even so, fans of Veronica Mars will be well pleased to see their opinions on the series justified in this pop-scholar book and people wondering what all the fuss is about may be intrigued as well.  And, very happily, the book is written in a manner accessible to everyone, not just scholars.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

You Call That an Apocalpyto?

With each successive film Mel Gibson has directed, he seems to become more and more removed from traditional filmmaking.  That is not a complaint, certainly, as such, non-traditional fare still made within the Hollywood system can prove interesting, Passion of the Christ being the perfect example of this.  However, in his latest effort, Apocalypto, which has just arrived on DVD, Gibson seems to have shed too much of what makes for interesting filmmaking (like a plot and fully developed character arcs).

The film follows the Mayan culture, on the eve of its downfall.  Like ancient Rome after its Golden Age, by the time the film occurs the Mayan civilization is past its prime.  It has become a bloated, self-serving, gluttonous civilization.  The strong oppress the poor for the former’s “glory,” selling members of weaker tribes into slavery if they are women, and decapitating them for the larger society’s benefit if they are men.

The story, minimal though it is, follows Jaguar Paw, a Mayan man trying to make his way in his community.  Jaguar Paw and his whole village are attacked by another Mayan tribe, which proceed to enslave them.  The adult survivors of the attack -- save Jaguar Paw’s wife and child -- who have managed to hide, are tied to poles and made to trek through the forest.  The children who survived the attack are made to stay behind and perish while on their own.

After a hellish trip through the wilderness, Jaguar Paw and his brethren arrive at their captors' city, but not before a little girl tells the captors that they will suffer greatly in the near future.  The women of Jaguar Paw’s tribe are quickly sold into slavery and the men are dipped in blue coloring and prepared to be sacrificed.  After two sacrifices involving the removal of the heart and eventually a beheading, it is Jaguar Paw’s turn.  He is, through fate, saved, and with some help ultimately manages to effect an escape from the Mayan city.  The last part of the movie (approximately 45 or 50 minutes worth) follow Jaguar Paw on his escape through the jungle, and the cat and mouse game between Jaguar Paw and his pursuers. 

Jaguar Paw, the main character, grows very little during the course of the film.  The main change in him is that he is able to go from losing a fight against a stronger enemy to winning.  That change, however, is as much a result of luck and circumstance as it is Jaguar Paw’s adapting.  He is essentially no different at the film's end than he was earlier.  He has fewer friends now, but that is only because they have been murdered.

Apocalypto reveals nothing of Mayan culture, save their use of slavery, building of temples, practice of human sacrifice, and their complete and utter brutality.  Gibson, as a star and a director has never been one to shy away from violence, but there is a level of bloodshed and viciousness displayed in this movie that is truly disturbing.  From a jaguar biting someone’s face, to decapitation, to arrows through the back of the head coming out the mouth, and to clouds of blood created through brutal head trauma, the film is one bloody scene after another.  Gibson goes out of his way to show a minimal number of breasts in the film, opting to earn a hard “R” rating with carnage.

The Mayans in this movie are depicted in an horrifically bloodthirsty manner.  The one group, we are told, that is more bloodthirsty and brutal than the Mayans, are the Europeans.  This is, apparently, supposed to make the audience feel okay about seeing a culture depicted with little to no redeeming value - “it’s okay that these people are so horrible, because we are worse.”  But, that is a poor excuse for such a depiction. 

There are, unquestionably, some wonderful aspects of the film.  Apocalypto has a wonderful look to it, rich in color and intricate in detail.  The Mayan city, even if the story does not linger there, is fantastic to see.  There was clearly a lot of effort that went into the decorations on and about the characters in the movie, and a sense of realism to all the proceedings.  One of the few bonus features on the DVD, a behind the scenes look at the movie, goes through, in detail, what it took to build and populate the city.  It is a wonderful achievement, but for the five or ten minutes the film spends there it seems like too much energy went into the wrong place.

Apocalypto's plot is not terribly deep: a man is captured and then escapes.  If the movie was not shot in a dead language and did not take place a half-millennium ago, it would be dismissed instantly as strictly a B-movie.  But with Gibson’s name on it and the amount of time, money, and effort put into it (not to mention the clear pretentiousness of it all), it is hard to classify it as such.  Rather, it is more easy to see this as a failed attempt on Gibson’s part to explore Mayan culture.  There are some interesting elements present in the movie, but they are all overshadowed by its overly bloodthirsty nature.

Apocalypto’s DVD release contains a deleted scene, a behind the scenes documentary, as well as a commentary track by Gibson and co-writer/co-producer Farhad Safinia. 

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Being At World's End With Those Pirates

What is there to say about Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End? It is a film that so totally and completely defies logic that to discuss it in logical terms seems foolish. It is a movie that actually seems to taunt its audience with its lack of logic, almost daring those that watch to point out some of the rather gaping plot flaws so that it may laugh back at us.

To question why Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) is executing pirates and their friends at the beginning of the movie in order to get them to sing a hymn that does he knows not what is silly. To query how Beckett even knows of the hymn is even more foolish. To wonder why some characters are dispatched with little to no fanfare after doing virtually nothing for two movies is fruitless. To ask why the Kraken died is to mistakenly assume the import of plot points from any of the previous films. To even begin to contemplate why Jack Sparrow has some sort of multiple personality disorder and whether or not the multiple personalities are always entirely a product of his imagination or in any way real requires a complete and total misreading of the film.

At World’s End begins soon after the final scenes of the last Pirates movie, Dead Man’s Chest. We find our heroes, save Jack Sparrow, in Singapore, attempting to steal both a map and convince fellow pirate Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) to part with both a crew and a boat. Eventually, they get their crew and are off to save Jack, who is “at world’s end” in Davy Jones’s Locker. Sparrow is soon found, the crew escapes the Locker and the movie begins (probably about 40 minutes into its running time).

Meanwhile, it turns out that Davy Jones’s (Bill Nighy) true love, Calypso, isn’t dead, but merely imprisoned in human form as Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris); although there are attempts to deceive pirates that it’s actually Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the audience is assured that it’s not Elizabeth. In plot contrivances, twists, turns, loops, and swoons that it would take far, far, too long to go into here, it turns out that the nine pirate lords that form the Brethren Court are going to meet, and during this meeting a faction will push for freeing Calypso who was imprisoned by said pirate lords’ antecedents during the first such Brethren Court. Cutler Beckett, however, is still on the hunt for Pirates, and using Davy Jones as his personal tool (Beckett has Jones’s heart and therefore commands him), helps put into motion the final battle (until the next movie) between the British fleet with the Flying Dutchman, and the pirate fleet with the Black Pearl.

Throughout all this, Will Turner struggles with his relationships with Elizabeth and with his father, Bootstrap Bill. In order to free Bootstrap, Will would have to give up Elizabeth, something he is unsure he wants to do.

It’s a maddening, confusing maelstrom of logic, illogic, humor, and swashbuckling. And while I will not mount on attack on the plot holes, plot flaws, and dropped plot lines, it must be said that the film, weighing in at a mammoth 167 minutes, certainly ought to be about 30 or 45 minutes shorter. Not only would this tighten up several of the lagging areas of the film, it would require the complete elimination of some of the more weak plots.

The actors are good in their roles, particularly Geoffrey Rush, who, as Captain Barbossa, seems to relish every single scenery-chewing line. His over-the-top performance, rivaling that of Depp’s from the first Pirates movie, is what the franchise is all about. Jack Sparrow seems to have received fewer good lines here and overall has less to do, but Depp still musters the energy necessary for the role, even if its charm is flagging. Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, and Orlando Bloom all deliver solid performances as well (though the differences in color of Keira Knightley’s roots from scene to scene is disturbing, this is more a hair/makeup problem than an acting one).

The supporting cast is even more colorful here than in the previous installments in the franchise, with Lee Arenberg (Pintel) and Mackenzie Crook (Ragetti) still leading the way. Naomie Harris remains fantastic in her role, and happily she is utilized to a greater degree here than in the last picture. Sadly underused is Jack Davenport as Admiral Norrington, who, though in few scenes, shows a depth of character lacking in others more often on camera in the trilogy.

There is, quite clearly, fun still to be had in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The last 40 minutes of the film, the climactic battle, prove that. In those 40 minutes the audience sees everything that makes the Pirates franchise great -- the swashbuckling action, the humor, the noise, the very look of it all, are outstanding. The rest of the film proves overly-long and at times tedious. Even so, the ending somehow manages to salvage what would otherwise have been a disappointing trip to the movies and makes one hope for future installments in the franchise.

This may not be the most fun movie in the series, and it could have been better, but if you remove your brain (or at least the logical portion of it) it proves an enjoyable trip to the movies and an above-average summer blockbuster.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How To Destroy A Good Reveal on Television

Here’s the deal this morning, folks:  I am not going to come out the box swinging (at least not at what you think).  Sure, I’m upset that Veronica Mars is no more (but seriously, Kristen, if you need consoling, tell me, I’m here), but sadly it is old news.  The numbers were not there for a fourth season and as much as I like good TV, I can absolutely accept a network canceling a show that isn’t financially viable. 

What really, really bothers me are the “previously on” snippets that shows air (I know, EW did a back page thing on it a couple of weeks ago, and this was neither inspired by that nor really connected).  For some silly reason, for the first time in a long-time I watched a “previously on” last night (just so happened that it was for our Veronica Mars). 

In this “previously on,” there was a clip from far earlier in the season in which Weevil says that it’s hard to go straight and that he has considered going back to his illegal ways.   Not five minutes into the actual episode, we are treated to students looking at a police lineup in which we’re not shown who exactly is lining up.  Both students, separately, state that number 4 is the guy. Because I’d watched the “previously on” there was neither awe, nor shock, nor surprise when the camera finally revealed, at the end of the scene, that Weevil was number 4.  But, it was filmed so as to be a surprise, so clearly someone thought it should be a surprise. 

You creative-types and network-folks, do you understand the problem here?  The scene is filmed so as to try and make it a surprise, or shock, that Weevil is the guy people are fingering.  The audience knows that Veronica will get him off, that he didn’t do it, but we’re still so supposed to be surprised by this “reveal.”  The problem is that because someone thought that the audience was stupid and would need to be reminded that Weevil has been tempted to going back into the life, the reveal is foolish.  We all know that Weevil’s the guy already, making not showing him immediately in the lineup just plain annoying.  Why are you trying to surprise us with something you told us five minutes ago?

Let’s look at it another way:  TV and Film Guy is going to have some delicious barbecue for lunch, only TV and Film Guy doesn’t know that he is going to have delicious barbecue for lunch.  TV and Film Guy only knows that lunch will be good today and that its exact makeup is a surprise.  Then, the individual who ordered the lunch for TV and Film Guy and the whole staff looks at TV and Film Guy and says “man we haven’t had some delicious barbecue in a while, have we?  Isn’t barbecue delicious?  Wow, some delicious barbecue would really hit the spot today, wouldn’t it?”  TV and Film Guy will now not be surprised when lunch is in fact delicious barbecue.  Five minutes later however, the food ordering individual keeps talking about the “surprise lunch” and trying to convince TV and Film Guy that the lunch is in fact a surprise.  Sure, TV and Film Guy won’t be disappointed with delicious barbecue, but it’s no longer a surprise. 

The story is no less interesting for it not being a surprise that Weevil is the guy in the lineup, just as the delicious barbecue is no less delicious.  However, it’s not a surprise and consequently shouldn’t be shown as such.

Astute folks out there will realize that the show was shot first and the “previously on” edited later, so I shouldn’t rail against the show, but more the “previously on” people.  I disagree, I blame everyone involved, mostly my TiVo for being foolish enough to record the “previously  on” to begin with and my wife for serving me a dinner that required me to eat with my hands, not a fork, thereby forcing my remote control hand to be otherwise occupied (and quite dirty) during the crucial moments (one doesn’t touch the remote with sticky fingers). 

Seriously though, it is both the “previously on” creator and the episode writers’ fault.  There ought to be an open line of communication between these groups of people.  A nice simple “hey, Weevil being in the lineup is a surprise, so don’t give it away in your ‘previously on’ please,” would be enough on the writers part.  And, as for the “previously on” people, they must’ve seen the episode or read a script to know that the Weevil thing was going to come up, so why would they knowingly screw up a potential surprise?  All I ask is for a little consideration for the audience -- we may be smarter than you give us credit for being.

I think it goes without saying, and thus I don’t feel like I’m ruining the biggest surprise of all, I’ll be having some delicious barbecue for lunch.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading some Letters From Iwo Jima

It is an oft-repeated saying that there are two sides to every story. Filmically, I am hard pressed to imagine a better representation of this truism than Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers, the two films on the Battle of Iwo Jima directed last year by Clint Eastwood.

The first movie, Flags of Our Fathers, is a wonderful film; it takes a cold, hard look at what happened, what people alleged happened, and the aftermath. It is an unflinching, not always positive look at the American soldiers and their masters.

On the other side of it all, and coming to DVD this week, is Letters From Iwo Jima. A fantastic film in its own right, when paired with Flags the scope of Eastwood’s endeavor becomes clear and truly astounding. Letters, providing a look at the Japanese soldiers on the island, is an even stronger film than Flags.

The film centers on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a general recently arrived on the island of Iwo Jima, who has the task of preparing his troops for the upcoming battle against American forces. Kuribayashi has an advantage in his planning that many of his troops lack -- he spent several years in the United States and thus understands more of the U.S. psyche than do his compatriots.

For different reasons, virtually every Japanese soldier on the island believes that they will not make it off the island. Sometimes they are lied to by their direct commanders, and sometimes by the commanders back in Tokyo. It is incredibly sad, and somber. Every Japanese soldier on the island deals with the battle in different ways, most of them mustering more strength than I can imagine.

The film is beautifully shot, with muted tones and a dark cast covering everything. People are hidden in shadows as they struggle to find a way to survive. Everything about it is both haunting and heart-wrenching, without ever being an over-the-top tear-jerker.

While some of the other characters in the film, like Lt. Colonel Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), are people who were actually on Iwo Jima during the fateful battle, others, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), are merely representative of the type of people who would have been present at the time. The use of fictional and non-fictional characters proves essential due to the fact that the vast majority of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima during the battle died and there are few records of what took place from the Japanese perspective.

This lack of records may hinder the truth claim of the movie, and yet Eastwood, with help from his writers, Iris Yamashita (story and screenplay) and Paul Haggis (story), are able to create such an astounding film that every second of it is completely believable. It doesn’t truly seem to matter that some of the specifics have been fudged. There is a book, Picture Letters From Commander in Chief (with TsuyokoYoshido) that the movie is partially based on, but that book was written by Kuribayashi years before the battle (presumably they provided insight into who he was).

It is clear that Clint Eastwood has a gift. In a single year, Eastwood was able to create two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima. In one of them, the enemy coming over the hill was the Japanese, and in the other it was the Americans. He has managed to tell both sides of the story with an eloquence not often seen in depicting a single side.

Letters From Iwo Jima is a better all-around movie than Flags of Our Fathers. While both feature wonderful performances, Letters’ dark atmosphere and its look inside our war-time enemy provides greater interest than does Flags. I wouldn’t argue that Flags of Our Fathers is lacking in any way, but Letters has more style to go with its substance and is a view of the war not often seen. Combined, however, the two provide an incredible look at the first battle of World War II to be fought on Japan’s home soil.

The DVD, available May 22, comes in a two-disc edition that contains a couple of relatively standard, though still interesting, behind the scenes documentaries on the creation and casting of the film. There are also looks at a press conference and a premiere for the film and photographs from the filming as well.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Do I like her? Well, I Digger

As people age they tend to think back and remember a simpler time, or the good old days, days when the world was less complicated, and life wasn’t quite so hard. Ever so gently asking people to rethink this is Diggers, from director Katherine Dieckman and writer Ken Marino (who also appears in the film). The film is brought to life by a talented ensemble cast, featuring (in part) Paul Rudd, Maura Tierney, Lauren Ambrose, Ron Eldard, and Sarah Paulson.

The story takes place in 1976, on Long Island, where clam diggers are trying to make a tough adjustment to their new found reality. A private corporation has made it nearly impossible for the independent diggers to make a living, but several friends in their mid-thirties are trying to hang on to a way of life that is no more. Hunt (Paul Rudd) is at the center of the group, a son whose father dies at the start of the film, a brother who has trouble talking with his sister (Maura Tierney), and a local boy, who, despite growing up an hour from Manhattan, has never visited the city.

Hunt’s sister, Gina, has begun a relationship, without Hunt’s knowledge, with Jack (Ron Eldard), the local lothario. Meanwhile, Lozo (Ken Marino) can’t seem to feed his multiple kids and ever-pregnant wife (Sarah Paulson). While none have gone to work for South Shell (the big bad corporation), everyone seems to be inching ever closer to the possibility that they should. While it clearly would be a way out of their current financial problems (and they all have them), it was also be turning their back on their friends and way of life.

Hunt and his friends struggle in different ways throughout the movie -- drugs, money, women. They are always trying to find solid footing, their next paycheck, and a way to muddle through. Though a serious, poignant film, it also has moments of true levity and humor.

The picture proceeds at a lackadaisical pace, one seemingly at odds with the message of the film. The pace of the film seems to argue that life was in fact more simple, that it was in fact more slow and more easy. It’s a message that the script doesn’t offer, but somehow the pace and the story combine to produce a story that while serious, and at times depressing, never feels burdened by its own weight. It’s not a story that's running away from itself at breakneck speed, it just follows the ebb and flow of the tide.

This is Marino’s first feature, having previously written for some television series, but mainly making his living as an actor. Marino, hailing from Long Island, captures the area perfectly and sentiments wonderfully. Though his on-screen work is more prevalent than his behind-the-scenes stuff, if he has more stories to tell like this one, I hope he continues to write.

Diggers is currently playing in limited release and is out on DVD. If you happen to be lucky enough to be near a theater showing it, I wholeheartedly recommend taking a look. It may not be the best movie you see this year, but it will certainly make you long for a time many a year ago, even if it wasn’t so simple back then.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The CW Doesn't Have a Spot for Her, But Veronica Will Always Be Welcome In My Home

So, let's get it out of the way, everyone can read this and then the complaints can start flooding in before the rest of the article is read, but let me just remind you: I didn't make this schedule, it is not my fault. That said, while we used to be friends, a long time ago, and while I've thought of you lately quite a lot, I won't be seeing you anymore. Sorry Veronica Mars, you're out. Have fun at the FBI, but we won't be visiting you there.

They do however have some new shows that they wish to tout, not just the canceled stuff (like Gilmore Girls) so, here's what they've decided to put out there (new shows in bold):

Sunday MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
7:00CW Now
7:30Online Nation
8:00Life is WildEverybody
Hates Chris
Beauty and
The Geek
America's Next
Top Model
8:30Aliens in
9:00America's Next
Top Model
GirlfriendsReaperGossip GirlSupernatural
9:30The Game

It's a heavy on the reality schedule and there's only one new comedy, Aliens in America. In this 30 minutes of funny, a sensitive nerdy 16-year-old kid, with a hugely popular sister, has his world turned upside down by the arrival of an exchange student… from Pakistan.

Drama-wise, The CW is sporting three new shows: Gossip Girl, Life is Wild, and Reaper.

Taking the last one first, Reaper adds another sci-fi element to The CW's schedule. A 21-year-old slacker finds out that his parents, back in the day, sold his soul to the devil (I had no idea that such a thing was possible, selling someone else's soul, but now that I do, there are a couple of people I'm willing to make deals for). Now the poor guy has to serve as the devil's bounty hunter, tracking down evil escaped souls, Dog-style.

Life is Wild moves a family from the concrete jungle of New York City to a game reserve in South Africa. There they find a wholly different kind of animal. Outcasts at first, the family eventually starts to work things out, and starts enjoying this new life (not that everything will be smooth, of course).

In Gossip Girl, exec-produced by The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, we enter the life of a super-rich, super-popular, super-girl (but not in the special abilities kind of way). Money however, we learn, does not buy happiness. As Weird Al noted though, it is possible to rent happiness, and I hereby suggest that.

Then, there's the reality programming…

CW Now is a newsmagazine, focusing on music, fashion, movies, technology. You know, like Access Hollywood, Extra, Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, that kind of thing. In a similar, or at least compatible, vein and airing right afterwards, Online Nation looks at blogs and user-generated content on the internet.

The CW also has a couple of midseason reality shows like Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants and Farmer Wants a Wife, plus there'll be another Pussycat Dolls search. The first of these is a beauty pageant with the added bonus of there being mother and daughter teams fighting one another. And the second is exactly what it sounds like: a reality show where 10 women compete for the hand of one farmer.

One Tree Hill will be back too… at some point, somewhere.

Poor, poor Veronica Mars. Kristen, I want you to know though, if you need comfort, I'm here for you. All you have to do is e-mail. Please e-mail.

There Is No Fate But What Fox Makes Of It

Well, this year Fox has done it again, they've put out multiple schedules for the coming season, one pre-Idol, one for January, and for the spring. And, as usual, it's a little difficult to figure out exactly what's going on where and when, and virtually guaranteed that just because they say something is going to happen in January or in the spring there is no certainty of it actually occurring (save that American Idol and 24 will be back).

I've included two schedules here. They are the fall schedule and the spring one (in that order), I have not included the January one, but will discuss the differences below (new programs in bold):

7:00The OT
8:00The SimpsonsPrison BreakNew
Back to YouAre You Smarter
Than a 5th Grader?
The Search for
the Next Great
American Band
8:30King of
the Hill
'Til DeathCops
9:00Family GuyK-VilleHouseBonesKitchen NightmaresNashville America's Most Wanted
9:30American Dad


King of
the Hill

7:30American Dad
8:00The SimpsonsPrison BreakAmerican IdolBack to YouAre You Smarter
Than a 5th Grader?
8:30Family GuyThe Return
of Jezebel James
9:00The Sarah
Connor Chronicles
24HouseAmerican Idol
New Amsterdam America's Most Wanted
9:30'Til Death

Confused yet? Well, let's add this to the mix. The January differences from the spring schedule are as follows: It's K-Ville in the Prison Break slot, 'Til Death in the Jezebel James one, Idol will run for an hour on Wednesdays at 9:00, not 30 minutes, and Friday and Sunday will still be the fall schedules.

There, now that that's all sorted out, on to the new stuff…

K-Ville. A cop show in New Orleans ("K" being Katrina, as in the hurricane). Marlin Boulet (how wonderfully Louisiana is that name?) is a member of the NOPD's Felony Action Squad. That's right, they go after the most-wanted bad guys. His new partner is a tough guy, serving in Afghanistan before the Big Easy, but he's still not comfortable with his partner's methods.

New Amsterdam. This is the story "of a New York homicide detective unlike any other" (Because we've never heard that before). John Amsterdam, back in 1642, saved the life of a Native American girl, but took a sword wound for his troubles. The girl in turn saved his life, conferring upon him immortality. Only Amsterdam's good friend, Omar, knows the truth, but he has a few secrets of his own. Things get even more weird as the Native American's prophesy about a soul mate starts to come true.

From Denis Leary and Jim Serpico, in January we get Canterbury's Law, a courtroom drama starring a rebellious lawyer, played by Julianna Marguiles (Carol Hathaway, if you will). Her son has disappeared and she and her husband have moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in order to distance themselves from the tragedy. However, Marguiles's work in the criminal justice system keeps bringing back the horror that she has had to experience.

We all know, or should know by now, about Skynet and Sarah Connor. No? John Connor? His enemy and then friend, you know, the guy who will be back? No? Come on, The Terminator? Good. This show takes place following Sarah's destruction of the liquid metal Terminator (Terminator 2: Judgment Day). She and John are fugitives, and enemies from the past, present, and future are always a threat. There is no fate but what we make of it. Let's make it a good one, folks.

The lone new fall comedy is Back To You, starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. Their characters used to be an on-air news team in Pittsburgh, before Chuck (Grammer) moved up to the big time. Sadly, after an ill-timed tirade, he finds himself on the slide and working with Kelly (Heaton) again. Too bad they never really got along in the first place. Oh, there are also a couple of off-beat secondary characters to really add some spice.

The new spring comedy, The Return of Jezebel James, features two estranged sisters. The sisters are opposites, one might even describe them as an "odd couple," that end up living together when one agrees to carry the other's baby. Jezebel James, if you're wondering, was the younger sister's imaginary friend, which the older sister has turned into a children's book (trust me, it'll play a part in the goings-on).

Reality-wise, there's Kitchen Nightmares, The Search for the Next Great American Band, and Nashville. The last two of these focuses on would-be musicians, the first American Idol-style, and in the second, well, they're all dreamers trying to make it in Nashville. But it's not a contest-y type of reality show, it's just looking at the dreamers and dream-makers. Kitchen Nightmares has Gordon Ramsay going from restaurant to restaurant, trying to do good, to help the helpless, striving to put right what once went wrong, and, hoping that his next leap will be the leap home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

CBS Stays Safe, But Not Close to Home

Today it is CBS's turn to step up to the plate and unveil their new fall schedule. Will it be heavy on the sci-fi, like NBC, will it repurpose car insurance commercials, like ABC, or will they finally bite the bullet and go all CSI all the time?

Actually, none of the above. This year CBS will go conservative, because their ratings are good enough that they can, and only introduce five new shows.

On the bench for the time being will be reality stalwart The Amazing Race and The New Adventures of Old Christine. Both are currently scheduled to return at some point during the season, but come September they'll be shelved until they're needed. Completely gone is the relatively successful Close to Home and back leading off the 8:00 on Monday time slot is How I Met Your Mother.

Without further ado, and with new shows in bold, here is CBS's fall schedule:

Sunday MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
7:0060 Minutes
How I Met
Your Mother
8:30The Big
Bang Theory
9:00Cold CaseTwo and a
Half Men
The UnitCriminal
9:30Rules of
10:00SharkCSI: MiamiCaneCSI: NYWithout
a Trace
Numb3rs48 Hours:

There it is, one new comedy, The Big Bang Theory; three new dramas, Cane, Moonlight, and Viva Laughlin; and one new reality show, Kid Nation. Easy as pie.

The Big Bang Theory comes from Two and a Half Men producer Chuck Lorre and focuses on über-nerdy friends who, amazingly, have no problem conversing about the most in-depth scientific issues, but can't talk to women. Well, fish out of water-style, a sexy new single neighbor moves in and the nerds are speechless. Hilarity will ensue.

The reality show, Kid Nation, gives 40 kids 40 days to build a new city in the ghost town of Bonanza City, New Mexico. The kids are between ages 8 and 15 and will be there, sans adults, trying to create a new Old West town. Unlike most reality shows, no one gets voted out of the town but anyone may leave voluntarily. I'm very curious as to how many times producers and/or cameramen had to step in and stop fights or fix problems (not that we'll ever know or be told that such a thing occurred).

Drama-wise, Cane stars Jimmy Smits (woo-hoo) in a story about a large Cuban-American family running a rum and sugar business in South Florida (and George Lopez thought that Cavemen getting on the air would mean that all the Latino-based shows would disappear). When the family patriarch, played by Hector Elizondo, is offered an opportunity to get out of the sugar part of the business, his vocal family voice their opinions.

Moonlight is a private investigator tale… with a twist. Mick St. John, PI, just happens to also be a vampire. Sadly for him, he doesn't get along with other vamps and spends a lot of his time protecting mere mortals from his undead brethren. Though he has resisted romance ever since he was bitten, nigh on 60 years ago, there's this new girl in town and Mick is considering his options.

Lastly, there's Viva Laughlin, based on the British show Viva Blackpool. Executive produced by Wolverine himself, this “mystery drama with music” focuses on Ripley Holden who wants to run a casino in Laughlin. Ripley has some financing problems and is forced to go to another casino owner (played in a recurring guest star role by Hugh Jackman) to help. Things continue to slide as Ripley's ex-business partner is found dead. But, on the upside he's married to Mädchen Amick and there's music.

Also picked up by CBS as a mid-season replacement is Swingtown, a show based in 1970s suburbia with couples examining the institutions of marriage and gender roles. It stars Jack Davenport and open marriages.

So, the subject matter may not always be conservative, but the schedule is. It should also be noted that Without a Trace is moving back to its original Thursday nights at 10 time slot, flip-flopping with Shark. Does this fall under the theory that if he doesn't keep swimming (around the schedule) he'll die?

It's Real Time, It's Strategy, It's Ancient Wars: Sparta!!

In the world of real-time strategy (RTS) games, the bar has been set awfully high. Series like Command & Conquer and Warcraft have been hugely, monstrously, amazingly successful. This naturally causes other games to follow in their wake. Some of the games are better than others, but none, in this case, seems to be able to touch the might of the Warcraft franchise.

Entering the fray is a new RTS game by Playlogic and Eidos, Ancient Wars: Sparta. If you have ever played any other entry into the genre, Ancienct Wars: Sparta is incredibly easy to get the hang of, the very look and feel of the screen is virtually identical to those games that have come before it. The in-game graphics are certainly more attractive, but the general gameplay remains the same.

Again, with those games that have come before it, Ancienct Wars: Sparta allows players to choose to play campaigns from multiple races, in this case they are Spartans, Egyptians, and Persians. While there are minor differences in the races and the way they function, they all have equivalent types of buildings and warriors, the differences are more for show than anything else (like all games of this genre).

The storyline for the three races deals with the same historical events that surround the blockbuster movie 300. Though, this connection is not purposeful -- the game and the film simply happen to have been released around the same time. The Spartans are trying to fend off the evil Persians. While some of the missions are flashbacks, and that ought to add depth to the game, it doesn't. The grand over-arching narrative for the game is distinctly lacking.

The levels themselves tend, once you're beyond the first one or two in each mission (the training levels), to be packed with stuff to do and stuff that can be done to you. It's not that they're that intricate, as there are always loads of enemy warriors gunning for you. One or two wrong moves in a level can prove completely disastrous and force you to start from the beginning (not a fun thing when you're an hour into the level).

To be sure, there are some interesting tweaks here and there to the traditional RTS, most notably ship combat and the development of warriors. Ship combat is far more intricate than any other game I've played, with different types of soldiers on the ships affecting the battles. In terms of warrior development, while there are only a couple of buildings necessary to "train" (read as "create") your warriors, through the use of researchable technology upgrades, each building can create warriors with a number of different weapon and shield combinations (which all cost varying amounts of money). In addition, the laborers who construct buildings, farm, and get gold can pick up the weapons of dead enemy combatants, making them available for kitting your own warriors (but only in the specific amount that were picked up).

While this is a wonderfully interesting feature, the implementation leaves something to be desired. The laborers need to be directed to each individual weapon and shield to be picked up, even when they weapons and shields are all right next to each other, rather than being able to set the laborer to a "scavenge" mode and have them troll for dropped items. Having the ability to pick up advanced weaponry is great, but not if all your soldiers are dying in a battle because you're busy clicking on each individual bow to get them into your stockpile.

Ancient Wars: Sparta is, at turns, frustrating and incredibly fun. I hope that the "Ancient Wars" preface to the title is a precursor of more games to come in the series. There are certainly good elements here to be built upon and refined in follow-ups. In its current iteration, the game provides a decent bridge to tide over gamers to the next blockbuster release in the genre.

Ancient Wars: Sparta is rated M (Mature) for blood and violence by the ESRB.

Three stars out of five.

Aishwarya Rai Gets Provoked

Aishwarya Rai's latest effort to move outside of strictly Bollywood fare, Provoked (directed by Jag Mundhra), is based on the non-fiction book Circle of Light by Rahila Gupta and Kiranjit Ahluwalia. The movie and book focus on Ahluwalia's life in England.

The opening of the film finds Kiranjit's house burning as she stands outside with her children; her husband has been gravely injured in the fire. The police quickly suspect arson and Kiranjit is pegged as the responsible party. Her husband dies and she is brought to trial.

The majority of the film is narrated as a series of flashbacks to Kiranjit's life with her husband, Deepak Ahluwalia (Naveen Andrews of Lost), and the trial and its aftermath. Kiranjit suffered greatly at the hands of her husband, enduring twelve years of physical and mental abuse. Due to poor representation, her mother-in-law and a police officer lying on the stand, and a legal system with archaic laws, Kiranjit is convicted of murder.

The film then moves on to her coming into her own in prison with a new group of friends as well as gaining the support of a not for profit foundation that wishes to help her. Of course, in the end, Kiranjit goes free.

Were this movie not based on a true story, the entire plot would seem far too contrived to be believable: two key witnesses lie; the lawyer doesn't have the time to devote to the case; Kiranjit just happens to end up with a cellmate, Veronica Scott (Miranda Richardson), who has been convicted of a similar crime; Veronica just happens to have a rich well-respected barrister for a brother; etcetera.

Though the film is full of solid performances by the actors, particularly Robbie Coltrane's brief appearance, it is a little too obvious. For instance, the scenes of Deepak's funeral are immediately followed by a flashback to Deepak and Kiranjit's wedding. While on the face of it the juxtaposition of these two scenes makes sense, in reality it ends up pulling the audience out of the story. As the flashback structure has already been developed, as soon as the viewer sees the funeral, the immediate thought is not to pay attention to what's currently going on, but to place a bet that the next scene will be the wedding.

Aishwarya Rai, even without music and dancing, is wonderful on screen. Though, her personality and visage is so completely entwined with her singing and dancing, and the music here is by famed composer A.R. Rahman, that there are moments when it seems the movie wants to break into song and dance. It doesn't, but there are clearly moments when it could.

Also of concern here is that despite several years elapsing between the original crime and Kiranjit's eventual release, her young children do not age. It is possible to accept that Aishwarya Rai's character is just extremely well preserved from the time of her wedding through her release from prison a decade and a half later. But that two children under the age of ten do not age during the three year period between the murder of their father and their mother's release is unacceptable. Such a move feels less like an oversight and more like a way to tug at the heartstrings of the viewer -- the viewer already has an established relationship with the two children, to change actors (despite it being necessary for realism) will hinder the relationship and thus the viewer will feel less. It's a poor sort of logic, but it seems as though it's at play here.

The story is touching, upsetting, and infuriating. It's so clearly a miscarriage of justice that the righting of the wrong seems inevitable. However, when the movie does finally reach its completion, it does so with a virtually unadulterated sense of happiness and contentment. The way everything works it is certainly good, but it is not an unmitigated good. The ending ought to be tinged with some sadness and a sense of unfairness, but those aspects are completely glossed over.

On the whole, with a depressing and sometimes convoluted message, the movie is unable to completely shake off its shortcomings. It has its moments, but with a little more work could have been a lot more.

Provoked opened in NY and LA on May 11, and it expands nationwide on May 18.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

ABC All But Gives Up on the Funny This Fall

In recent years ABC has done a wonderful job developing new scripted hour-long series. They’ve had cultural phenomena galore, from Lost to Desperate Housewives, to Grey’s Anatomy to Ugly Betty. To be sure, they have put out some clunkers, too (Day Break, which at the very least was interesting in concept though poor in execution), but on the whole, their hour-long programs have done well. They’ve been far, far less successful on the thirty minute comedy end however (as is true among all the networks).

ABC is not poised to change this around for next season, as they are completely forgoing any sort of two-hour comedy block. At the opening of the fall season, ABC will have three comedy series on TV, all of them brand new. According to Jim is gone, George Lopez is gone, Knights of Prosperity is gone. Oddly, the unfunny, poorly written Notes from the Underbelly will be back once Dancing with the Stars completes its run.

Come the start of the fall season, ABC’s lineup will look like this (new programs are in bold):









America's Funniest
Home Videos



Extreme Makeover:
Home Edition

Dancing with
the Stars



Ugly Betty

Men in






Results Show



Murder Club


Sam I Am


Brothers &



Dirty Sexy




The three new comedies: Sam I Am, Cavemen, and Carpoolers all have “interesting” hooks.

Sam I Am focuses on Sam (Christina Applegate), a woman who has just emerged from an eight-day coma with amnesia. She discovers that she wasn’t actually a very good person and tries to change that now. Having trouble figuring that one out? It’s easy, just think My Name is Earl, substitute Sam for Earl, a coma for a car accident, and amnesia for karma. See? Simple.

Carpoolers has a bunch of men, all at different points in their lives. There’s the recently divorced playboy guy; the timid homemaker/breadwinner guy; the newlywed guy, the traditional, old-school guy. They commute to and from work together and discuss their lives.

Then, there’s Cavemen. Please note that while I sometimes write jokes that fall flat, the following is completely serious: Cavemen is a show inspired by the Geico insurance caveman commercials. They live in the South in the present day, but are cavemen. They just want to be treated like everyone else, but they keep getting singled out because… they’re cavemen. One hopes that ABC has taken into account the history of racism in this country in general and the South in particular and that they will deal with these outsiders who are treated differently with some degree of tact.

As for the dramas, as we all know by now, Private Practice is the Addison Montgomery spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy (the backdoor pilot aired as a special Grey’s two hour event a couple of weeks ago).

Pushing Daisies focuses on a detective who can touch people and bring them back from the dead. He’s done this with his dead girlfriend, but if he touches her again she’ll die… forever. It’s a new kind of procedural.

In the more traditional procedural vein is Women’s Murder Club, which has four high-powered women at its center: a detective, a D.A., a medical examiner, and a reporter. They are friends and solve crimes together, each using their unique talents.

Because four seems like the right number of people to center a show on, Big Shots focuses on four male friends who are, corporately speaking, big shots, running companies, making deals, you know, that sort of thing. Women, as the audience will see, they’re not necessarily so good with.

Lastly on the schedule for the fall is Dirty Sexy Money. Starring Peter Krause, the show focuses on a lawyer who steps into his father’s role as personal attorney for a high-powered family. He’s able to do good with the money he makes, but is drawn into their web of lives, deceits, and semi-nefarious goings-on.

Appearing at some point down the line on ABC’s schedule will be Cashmere Mafia, which is the other Sex and the City a few years down the line show by Darren Star (who produced Sex and The City). This show should not be confused with NBC’s Lipstick Jungle, from Candace Bushnell who wrote Sex and the City.

Of course, there are other series set to go on down the line too (even an Oprah series called Oprah’s Big Give).

Dharma-philes will note that Lost is not listed above. It’ll appear though, there’ll be 16 episodes this coming season, but they’re going to hold them until they can do all 16 back-to-back (24 style).

Dinosaurs: Like Jurassic Park, But They Open Doors in a Good Way

People say that the traditional sitcom is becoming extinct. Ratings for them are down and the plots seem recycled -- there’s a certain "been there, done that" feel to many traditional sitcoms. Looking at the recently released Dinosaurs - The Complete Third and Fourth Seasons shows that there can still be relatively fresh takes on the traditional sitcom mix.

Unquestionably, there are numerous episodes in these two seasons that aired (or would have had the show not been taken off network TV) fifteen years ago that could easily, with only minor alterations here and there, be next week’s According To Jim, or even an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Take for instance an early episode in the third season of Dinosaurs, in which the father, Earl, is forced by his wife, Fran, to change their baby’s diaper. Earl, in classic, stereotypical fashion, deems this woman’s work and initially balks at the idea. As the episode progresses Earl realizes that the baby simply ought to be potty trained. Hilarity ensues as Earl tries to do this.

It’s an absolutely classic sitcom setup, and could be seen any given week on any family-based sitcom, be it I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, According to Jim, or Dinosaurs.

While some of the storylines may be familiar, Dinosaurs does have one outstandingly different aspect to it from all those other sitcoms: the family in question, the Sinclairs, are dinosaurs living in the year sixty million and three B.C. (they even reference that they’re counting down to something but aren’t sure what). Created by those fantastic folks at Henson’s creature shop, they are a mixture of puppeteering and computer controls and they are at work in all the members of the family: Earl (the dad), Fran (the mom), Robbie (the brother), Charlene (the sister), Ethyl Phillips (the grandmother), and Baby (the baby). The Sinclairs live back in prehistoric times, but have all the modern amenities we take for granted today (mainly television).

Not all the plots are as interchangeable with a present-day based sitcom as the above one either (certainly a good thing). The show is at its best when it mocks, or at the very least questions, our society today -- which, happily, it does on a regular basis. No one is safe from skewering in this sitcom. There are episodes that focus on television, what is on and what could or should be on, episodes on scientific advancements, puberty, and many on family life in general. Despite its taking place millions of years ago, the family is unquestionably of today.

It’s a wise, witty show, that on a few too many occasions opts for the cheap, fast, easy joke rather than going for something longer and deeper. This seems to mainly be a result of it being a family oriented program and keeping in many jokes that operate at a level that is easy for children to understand.

If there is one breakout character in the series, and it’s certainly the one your children will most love, it’s Baby Sinclair. Baby, voiced by Kevin Clash, is the character that got all the catchphrases in the series, most notably “not the mama,” (how Baby refers to Earl) and “I’m the Baby, gotta love me.” While usually cute and innocuous, there are moments during these two seasons when Baby’s attitude and mannerisms are pushed over the edge into the realm of the obnoxious (at least for adults).

Extras included in the four-DVD set include a close-up look at Baby Sinclair and another piece that looks at the show’s ability to go after our society. There are, additionally, commentaries for some episodes and hidden “Dino eggs” that reveal other extra content.

Monday, May 14, 2007

NBC Gets All Geeky This Fall

My goodness, the joy, the happiness, the wonder - NBC has released its schedule for the 2007-2008 television season! That’s right, the upfronts have begun, NBC is trying to figure out a way to stop the bleeding, something that they said last year would happen with this past fall lineup (Studio 60, anyone?). Needless to say, those plans didn’t quite work out and despite airing professional football in primetime, the network still saw its ratings drop. At least they’ve gone back to arguing that their shows are quality, and they say that quality is what they wanted all along in their press release.

Well, until they start scrambling and changing things around before September even gets here, this is what NBC unveiled as their lineup, with new shows in bold (Sunday is the schedule for once NFL football ends in January):

Sunday MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
8:00Law &
Deal or No
The Biggest
Deal or No
My Name is Earl1 vs. 100
Singing Bee
8:3030 Rock
The OfficeLas VegasDrama

JourneymanLaw &
Order: SVU
LifeERFriday Night

Of course, one of the most interesting things to note isn’t in that grid: NBC-Universal will have USA Network air new episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent before they air on NBC (CI is not currently on the network schedule, but it will appear… eventually). This won’t help the ratings on the broadcast network, but may help USA (ah, the brave new world of massive, behemoth, ridiculously huge media corporations).

Happily, Scrubs is back for, allegedly, the final season. Friday Night Lights is too (they’re not saying it’s the final season, the ratings are). Maybe NBC is trying to be a niche network, not a broadcast one, after all, they’re airing 30 new half-hours of The Office, which I like but just doesn’t do all that well in the ratings (again, they argue they’re going for quality shows, but that’s out as they are still airing Deal or No Deal and 1 vs. 100).

NBC announced several new shows today, including: Bionic Woman, Chuck, Journeyman, The IT Crowd, Lipstick Jungle, and Life. I will reserving judgment on the shows until I see them (cause that’s the right thing to do), but what follows is a brief taste on what these things are actually about.

Bionic Woman, though it seems like an odd choice, is produced by David Eick who is part of the new Battlestar Galactica, which is a wonderful update. Two other producers, Jason Smilovic and Michael Dinner were a part of Kidnapped, a show cancelled before its time.

Keeping in the sci-fi realm, Journeyman is about a newspaper reporter who can travel through time and Chuck focuses on a tech-support guy who manages to download server containing spy information directly to his brain. Then there’s The IT Crowd, a mid-season comedy replacement focusing on IT types and imported from England.

Life is a different kind of cop show (never heard that one before, have you?) where the cop in question just got out of prison (I wonder if he’ll have a problem with authority and will break the rules on a regular basis).

Speaking of “different kind” of shows, there’s Lipstick Jungle, a Sex in the City-esque thing from Sex in the City creator Candace Bushnell. It’s the same, but it’s different, it’s updated, and it’s based on her novel Lipstick Jungle, not Sex in the City.

NBC is also initiating a “Game Night” on Fridays, with a rotation of various game shows in the 8pm hour, before heading into Las Vegas at 9 (the city being all about games) and Friday Night Lights at 10 (football being another game). For those of you that don’t know this yet, Thomas Magnum has signed on as a new star (James Caan is out after the premiere).

And, it should be noted that ER is coming back… again. Now if they can only get Noah Wyle to come back too they’d really have something.

There’s certainly lots of new, different, and weird taking place on NBC this fall. Will they save the world? Only time will tell.

And, while you're waiting, let's see if the new bionic woman can help...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Lohan has Serious Trouble Following More Than One Georgia Rule

Somewhere inside Garry Marshall’s latest directorial effort, Georgia Rule, there is a very good movie. However, as the film currently exists, it is nothing above average. Starring Lindsay Lohan, Jane Fonda, and Felicity Huffman, the film focuses on three generations of women in the same family. They are all stubborn and pig-headed in their own way, but only two of the three, Georgia (Fonda) and Lilly (Huffman), have redeemable qualities. Lohan’s Rachel is wholly unlikable and unforgivable, no matter what difficulties she had to suffer through as a child. Problematically, it is Lohan’s character that is at the center of the film.

From the very first scene in the film - Rachel ranting and raving while walking next to her mother’s car as her mom is driving - Rachel rubs the audience the wrong way. To some extent this is the goal of the filmmakers, as Lilly is bringing Rachel from their home in San Francisco to Idaho to live with Georgia for the summer. Rachel is a classic troubled child: disobeying her mother and stepfather, doing drugs, drinking, and acting out in any way that might provoke a response from her mother.

As the film progresses, the audience watches Rachel say and do shocking things simply out of a need for attention. Eventually, she attempts to hurt her boss for the summer, Simon (Dermot Mulroney), who is trying to get over the loss of his wife and son and is kind of sulky, by telling him that she was molested by her stepfather, Arnold (Cary Elwes).

It is Rachel’s belief that by springing this on him he will realize that he’s not the only one with problems in his life and therefore suck it up (she’s not the brightest girl). Simon, feeling it his responsibility to tell her family, informs Georgia about Rachel’s confession. Rachel instantly claims that she was lying and only wanted to upset Simon. Georgia calls Lilly, who had returned to San Francisco, and Lilly immediately heads back to Idaho.

The rest of the film follows the effects of Rachel’s announcement and subsequent denial. She continually goes back and forth about when she has been lying and when she has been telling the truth. Lilly, who has inherited an alcohol problem from her now-deceased father, starts drinking again, and Georgia is left to pick up the pieces (a task made that much more complicated by the fact that neither Rachel nor Lilly like her).

Arnold ends up driving to Idaho in order to defend himself and right his marriage. And the machinations continue. There is also a subplot revolving around a Mormon boy, Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), and Rachel’s relationship with him (sexual and otherwise). As there is already an attractive older woman, an attractive middle-aged woman, an attractive younger woman, and an attractive middle-aged man in the film, the inclusion of Harlan feels much more related to the need to provide an attractive younger male lead as well.

The film could be an extremely interesting look at a family in crisis, at their love and loss, and their trying to find their way together. That’s certainly the goal. Fonda, Elwes, Mulroney, and Huffman all seem to have both the acting ability and characters that are written in such a way as to allow for this film to exist. They’re all good in their roles, particularly Huffman.

Certainly, it’s not fresh ground for a movie to explore, but its mix of laughter and tears and capable direction by Marshall are able to make the viewer forget the areas of retread. Georgia Rule is at its best when the story moves away from Rachel to Lilly.

It is at that point that it takes on a sense of importance, gravitas, and realism that doesn’t exist when Rachel is center stage. Lilly is a human being unable to reconcile her love for her husband and her daughter. She is struggling with her own demons in a way that truly makes the audience feel for her. Though it is a mistake to have the film be this way, Lilly is not at the center of the movie, and therefore the film never really explores her character and issues as fully as it should.

Sadly, it is Lohan’s Rachel that is at the center of the film’s narrative, and her character doesn’t work. Lohan is completely unable to take Rachel beyond being a petulant, purposely self-destructive, obnoxious teenager. Obviously, no child should ever be molested, it is something no one should ever have to deal with. While I will not say how the film ends, whether or not Arnold did in fact touch his stepdaughter, I was rooting for him not to have done it, not because no child should go through that, but because I wanted Rachel to have to deal with the ramifications of this massive lie. I wanted her to suffer and to permanently destroy her relationship with her family due to her lying about this. She acts so horribly throughout the movie, that even if Arnold did touch her, it doesn’t begin to forgive her actions. That seems to be both a result of Lohan not having the ability to pull off any of the more serious moments the role calls for and the character being written as far too annoying in general.

In an otherwise warm, touching, caring, emotional movie, it is upsetting to have a character at the center that is so unlikable. It significantly detracts from this film, and stops it from being anything more than average fare that may prove as effective counter-programming in Spider-Man 3’s second week of release.