Thursday, August 30, 2007

Eureka, I Have Found It!

Earlier this week, I wrote about an episode of Psych, explaining just how disappointed I was that a show that prides itself on details would have, to me, a glaring continuity error. I went on to argue about how "when I watch a mystery and notice little things that don't make sense, I have to be able to trust that the writers and producers have made things not make sense on purpose — that there is a reason for the inconsistencies."

Last night's episode of Eureka actually provides a perfect example of exactly what I'm talking about. At one point in the episode, Henry Deacon is sitting in a lab monitoring an experiment, and he decides that in a small window on his computer monitor he is going to watch some wrestling. The scene ends with Henry sitting having the small TV tuner window open on his screen. It is a small moment, but one that I perked up immediately at, especially in light of my Psych article. The action of watching wrestling is completely uncharacteristic for Henry, particularly when he has a job to do. Are the writers of the episode simply being sloppy about introducing a new facet to Henry's personality, or is there something deeper at work? I assumed that there was, in fact, something deeply wrong with Henry and not with the writing of the episode. I gave Eureka the benefit of the doubt.

Happily, a few minutes later the episode returned to Henry and his television watching, though now he was completely ignoring the experiment in order to watch TV. Something was in fact deeply wrong with Henry and, as it turned out, the rest of the town of Eureka. The show had in fact put forward an odd moment, something to jar the viewer, and had done it on purpose.

It is true the Eureka always has odd logical leaps in its solutions to mysteries. There are things that don't make sense, that can't make sense, that never will make sense, but in its initial setup of the problem in this episode, people losing their intelligence, the first inklings of trouble were well presented.

So, while the end of the episode was a little too fortuitous and silly (I do not wish to belabor the ending because it involves much explanation into some of the peculiarities of the show and an overly in-depth recap of the plot), the writers of the episode were clever in revealing the problem. The first time there was an idea of a problem presented on screen it was a small, nothing little moment, something that could very easily have been overlooked. Yet, an astute viewer (or myself) is rewarded for paying attention to the show, its characters, and the "normal" events that take place in the town.

And, that's exactly how it should be.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Suspect That Can Only Be Divided Evenly By Itself And One Is A...

Television is a medium that constantly finds itself surrounded by naysayers. There are always those who insist that it does nothing but pander to the lowest common denominator - that it does nothing but hit new lows on a regular basis. Trying to argue with such people can be a difficult task, but come the second week in September there will be a new weapon to wield against such speakers of doom and gloom.

In a few short weeks Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, will be released to DVD after initially airing in the United States on PBS last November. Even before this season of the show, Mirren has been nominated for, and won, several acting honors for her work as Tennison, and this season proves no different, with her garnering several awards including an Emmy nomination (the awards will be presented on September 16, and she may well win).

Tennison is a ready-to-retire detective trying to cope with her father's rapidly declining health, her estrangement from the rest of her family, and her deepening problem with alcohol. As if that were not enough, she is working her final case, the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl, Sallie Sturdy. Repeatedly pushed to, and pushing herself to, the brink, Tennison somehow finds a way to keep going.

One of those ways is befriending a witness on the case, Penny Philips (Laura Greenwood). Penny, a teenager, is one of Sallie's best friends and may hold some key clues in the disappearance. Penny gets to see all of Tennison's faults, including her drinking, and remains moderately curious as to why Tennison would want to be friends with her, not that she is unwilling to use the friendship to exploit Tennison. The relationship is fascinating in that Tennison clearly sees much of her young self in Penny which is why Tennison befriends her. Yet, Penny's behavior is at turns kind and cruel, perhaps giving added insight into Tennison.

As far as the mystery itself goes, things remain murky and unclear early on, with numerous possible suspects lurking around every corner. As the story progresses, the solution to the crime becomes more and more apparent, finally clearly presenting itself to the audience before Tennison sees it. Whether or not this was intended is unclear; however, the show is no less interesting for the solution revealing itself well prior to Tennison spotting it. Mirren is absolutely riveting on-screen, completely owning every minute of Prime Suspect 7, and more than making up for any possible weaknesses in the mystery.

When the story does finally reach its conclusion, and Tennison's career reaches its end, the viewer is left in awe at the strength (and weakness) of this hero. It is a conclusion that perfectly befits Prime Suspect and Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison.

Even if one has not seen any of the other Prime Suspect series, this one is readily accessible to the viewer. It is, after all, a police officer trying to solve a mystery, which is something that everyone has seen before. Yet, through the writing of Frank Deasy, the direction of Philip Martin, and Mirren herself, the story is elevated from simple "police mystery" to something far, far better.

The DVD contains a fifty minute behind-the-scenes featurette as well as cast filmographies and a photo gallery. While any or all of those bonus features may be interesting to some of the audience, what truly sells the DVD is Mirren and her performance.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dirty Gems? No Worries, I'm a Gemsweeper

Lobstersoft's new puzzle game, Gemsweeper, has all the makings of an addictive desktop game. The levels are small, the game can be saved at any point and there is just enough challenge to the game to be fun without being overwhelming or all-consuming. There is even is a brief storyline to the game that makes it seems as though there is a higher, albeit foolish, purpose to one's playing.

The storyline revolves around a treasure hunter/archeologist and his helper at the ruins of El Dorado. The player, as the junior member of the team, must complete each level in order to help restore temples in the city.

Each puzzle consists of a multitude of tiles set up in a grid formation. Some tiles have gems beneath them and some do not. Above each column and next to each row of tiles there is a number that represents the number of gems hidden underneath each individual row or column. Thus, a 5 above a column with eight tiles in it means that there are five gems hidden somewhere under those eight tiles. The goal of each level is to find all the gems and eliminate all the blank tiles through mouse clicks. There is a time limit for each level and bonus points are awarded for making no mistakes. Conversely, mistakes can remove time from the level clock.

Though Gemsweeper looks different and has slightly different rules, it very much has the feel of the classic Windows game Minesweeper. The act of figuring out what is beneath a square or tile based on what else is around said square is inextricably linked with the addictive Windows game.

Gemsweeper, eschewing Minesweeper's randomness, opts on a regular basis to have the placement of the gems on any given level create a picture. While some of the pictures are cute, they also provide an added hint as to the solution for a level if one can figure out what the picture is supposed to be. Whether or not this is intended is unclear, but it does provide aid on some of the more difficult levels.
Along the way the player is provided with a guide of sorts, Professor McGuffog. McGuffog provides some hints on technique when the player makes mistakes, and often gives bad jokes at the end of each level based on the picture.

As the player completes levels and racks up points, they will improve their "treasure hunter rank," which seems to have no effect on the proceedings, save satisfaction in the knowledge that one is progressing.

In addition to the main quest mode of the game (the rebuilding of El Dorado), there is also an arcade mode, which has the player solve an ever-shifting puzzle in order to uncover enough gems within the time limit to move on to the next level. It is only in arcade mode that the time limit ever becomes a real factor, and that is only at high levels. Consequently, the arcade mode, unlike quest mode, has a sense of endless pointlessness to it.

The graphics, while not cutting edge, need not be - they are bright, pretty and more than suffice in attracting the player. The music, too, is nice and airy. In fact, everything about the game practically screams, "oh come on, just play one more level… it'll only take a minute."

As with many a puzzle game, Gemsweeper keeps everything nice, simple and low-key. It never quite gets complicated or intricate enough in its levels to be truly difficult, and while that may distress some, it will keep the casual player involved for a longer period.

Gemsweeper does not have an ESRB rating, but contains no violence, graphic depictions of any sort, or foul language.

Four stars out of five.

Monday, August 27, 2007

USA's Psych Manages to Fool Itself

I am about to make Mary Ellen Santare very, very proud.

I was watching Psych this week (a show I generally love), and noticed an error and a related continuity problem. Shawn Spencer, our resident pretend psychic, was trying to ferret out a possible killer while teaching a high school class on what he called "Phsysics," or the physics of psychics. One of the students, in order to test Shawn's psychic ability, wants to play Jeopardy. The student goes and writes something up on the blackboard behind Shawn so that Shawn cannot see it. Shawn manages to avoid having to give the question, but that does not concern me. The problem is actually in the answer the student writes on the board.

The board reads "6.002… x 10^23 atoms/molecule" The question should be "What is Avogadro's Number?" or "What is a mole?" Or, at least it would be if the student had written down Avogadro's Number correctly, which starts off "6.022…" not "6.002...;" actually, it seems as though when carried out further the number used in the show is even more inaccurate as the later digits are wrong as well. As the scene continues, different shots of Shawn occur with the number behind him. This is all well and good, except that the number on the blackboard changes. At times it is, as the student appeared to originally write it, "6.002…" and at other times, it is the correct "6.02…"

For a show that centers around the main character being absurdly good at picking up small details in order to solve mysteries, this sort of continuity error is rather ironic and certainly quite glaring (at least if you had Mary Ellen Santare as a chemistry teacher in high school).

So, why am I telling you this?

Quite simply, because I was disappointed. Sure, the people that do continuity have an incredibly difficult and thankless task. It is true that people only notice when Julia Roberts goes from eating a croissant to a pancake, and never the myriad of details that are perfect. Yet, a show like Psych, a show that lives and dies on the basis of all the little things needs to be held to a higher standard.

Mysteries are only as good and only as clever as the people that make them. When I watch a mystery and notice little things that don't make sense, I have to be able to trust that the writers and producers have made things not make sense on purpose -- that there is a reason for the inconsistencies. To watch a mystery and have something be inconsistent due to an error in filmmaking hurts the storytelling far more than Julia Roberts eating a pancake instead of a croissant. It pulls the audience away from what is important and frustrates everyone in the audience that is trying to figure out the ultimate question of whodunit.

Where then does this leave Shawn Spencer, his pal Burton Guster, and myself? That remains to be seen. I am going to continue to watch, the show is still quite funny, often clever, and always well-acted, but I am going to be a little more wary too. For at least a little while, I'm going to be just that much more skeptical about Shawn and his "abilities."

And for that, I thank you, Mrs. Santare.

Friday, August 24, 2007

manstrokewoman Arrives on DVD

It seems as though for as long as television has been around, there have been sketch comedy shows on it. Some seem to last forever, while others are nothing more than a flash in the pan. Some sketch comedy is clever and laugh-out-loud funny, while some just sort of sits there. And then, somewhere in between all that is the new sketch comedy show from England, recently released to DVD, manstrokewoman.

Created by Ash Atalla (The Office, UK version) the series stars Nick Frost, Nicholas Burns, Daisy Haggard, Amanda Abbington, Ben Crompton, and Meredith McNeill, and each, always, plays some sort of neurotic 30-something weirdo. The actors are all able, and there are moments when these neuroses and the way they are portrayed are funny, but more often than not the concept behind the sketch tends to fall flat.

As an example, there is a recurring sketch where a man who has been dumped by his girlfriend tries to talk to her but always breaks down into hysterics. The woman then attempts to interpret what the man is saying in his sobs. She is virtually never successful, and the man becomes more and more distraught. That is it. That is the entire sketch. The first time around it is funny. Not belly laugh funny, but somewhat amusing, and certainly more amusing than the recurring sketch where a father constantly loses his son. But, the fact that there are second, third, fourth, and umpteenth instances of this exact same sketch being played out throughout the series make it, quickly, less than funny. The sketch is short every time, but being that there is little depth to it, that is merciful.

In fact, all the sketches are quite short and have very little depth to them. Rather, they are all quick little observations about our society - very short setups before the punchline.

That idea is not a bad one - quick ins and outs, no lengthy setups - but, the fact that there are so few actors in the series and so many recurring ideas greatly hurts the show. The viewer ends up wondering for the first third to half of any sketch if this is something new and different, or if they ought to be drawing a connection to a previous sketch. Yet, as the sketches themselves are so short one really does have to pay attention to understand what is going on. Spending such a large portion of the sketch trying to make a connection to previous ones hurts the viewer's ability to grasp whatever humor is there to be had.

There are certainly funny moments and funny recurring sketches. In one of the better examples of a recurring sketch, men are completely interested in whatever a woman around them is saying right up until the moment when she discusses her boyfriend. At that point their interest dies abruptly and the woman is completely stunned at the transformation. Even trying to figure out if the sketch is building on a previous one for thirty seconds does not hurt the punchline.

The manstrokewoman: The Complete First Series DVD contains all six episodes as well as a "making of" featurette, commentaries on the six episodes, as well as a couple of paragraphs on the band behind the theme music for the show.

There are funny moments in the series, but they tend to be outnumbered by less than funny ones, and the guessing game of "have I seen this sketch before" takes away a lot of the enjoyment of the series.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Now Streaming on a Computer Near You: K-Ville

For the past two days you have, hopefully, read my stories on K-Ville, FOX's new drama set in present day New Orleans and focusing on a couple of police officers played by Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser. 

In essence, the show is a relatively standard cop-drama with the hook that these officers are from The Big Easy and want to help put their city back together. Marlin Boulet's (Anthony Anderson) life is a struggle, with his wife living in Atlanta with their daughter, and Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser) has secrets he is trying desperately to keep.  Both have that "cop on the edge" quality that it seems is essential to being an officer on television today.

It is almost without question that the show will be criticized when it has a sense of humor (for not taking the events seriously enough) or when it is dark (for not showing the hope residents in the city have). The pilot does a fair job of handling the dark aspects without failing to find some humor, a line that will be tough to maintain. 

The real question however is whether or not the public wants to be reminded of the tragedy week after week. The show, creator and EP Jonathan Lisco tells us, will mainly be about the officers on the force, their relationship, and their reactions to everything that is happening, but the hurricane will always be there in the background. 

I do credit FOX and Lisco with treating the situation seriously. The show in no way feels exploitative and that by itself is deserving of credit. It would have been very easy for FOX to put out a show that willfully, openly capitalized on the tragedy, and K-Ville does not do that. This does not mean the show will be a success or that it will attract viewers, but it is a step in the right direction.

But enough of what I think. The pilot episode can be watched streaming from the FOX website (it will be active until August 31). Take a look and tell me what you think. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

There Is No Boat Involved With This Anchor, But She Is Up The Creek

"I really just want to be a news anchor." So said Lauren Jones last week in a conference call about her new show that premieres tonight on FOX, Anchorwoman.

Jones is a former WWE diva and used to be one of "Barker's Beauties" on The Price is Right. Today, she works as a model, but it seems that all her life she has wanted to report the news. Luckily for her, there's a city in Texas, Tyler, where the owner of a station needed to do something to boost his ratings, and the FOX network wanted a new reality show. Thus, Lauren got her chance and KYTX in Tyler got a huge publicity stunt.

Anchorwoman follows Lauren's travails as she learns how to be a reporter and all of her co-workers as they watch the proceedings. Jones tells us that the show is "about the underdog," which is both a good and bad thing. People love rooting for the underdog -- wanting to see the little guy triumph over the big guy is ingrained in our nature. So, if Jones is telling us that the show is about the underdog, there is a very strong chance that Jones succeeds as an anchorwoman, or at least everything is made to look as though she succeeds, thus eliminating the overarching question of the show (but no one would really watch for that reason anyway). The real draw is, of course, the fights and struggle to learn that take place behind the scenes.

The news has, or ought to have, a certain basic honesty and openness to it, and that which surrounds the news, like this show, ought to have the same. However, watching the pilot, that honesty is called into question. The news director at KYTX, Dan Delgado, is clearly unhappy about being forced to use Lauren as is Dan's team. However, Dan never really expresses how upset he is at the situation. How can he? He is clearly afraid, and not without reason, of speaking openly in front of the cameras. Some of his staff do not seem to have that problem, but those moments are few and far between, and even those seem less than candid at times.

In the first episode there are moments that clearly ring false as well. In practicing to be an anchor, Jones seems to have no idea what the teleprompter is. This is a woman who has spent a lot of time in front of the camera; whether or not she has ever read off a teleprompter I cannot say, but her not knowing what one is seems impossible.

Beyond that, one has to wonder why Lauren, if she has always wanted to be a news anchor as she says, never actually went out and tried to become one. Why did she not try and work her way up in this career path if it is what she truly wanted? As an attractive woman with on-camera experience, surely she could have found someone somewhere willing to take the chance and teach her properly, and not (as on the show) in an incredibly abbreviated manner.

As a WWE personality, Jones has to have some sort of acting skills, so there is really no reason why she should not at least be passable, after enough practice, at being an anchor. In the first episode, as she prepares to anchor, she does not even have to write any of her own news stories, so it truly is just reading lines.

If Jones wishes to go out and be an anchorwoman, I applaud her. I may wish that she went about it in the right way, but who knows, if I was given the opportunity to leapfrog a couple of spots I might as well. What I do know is that watching her leapfrog does not make me root for her, whether or not she is the underdog, an idea that itself must be called into question in a series that is so clearly set up for her to succeed.

I do not wish ill for Lauren, in fact, I hope for nothing but success for Lauren in her goal of becoming an anchorwoman. That being said, I hope she understands if I decide not to watch.

How to Get to K-Ville

About a year ago, Peter Liguori, then President of Entertainment at FOX Broadcasting Company, called producer Jonathan Lisco with an idea. Lisco tells us that Liguori said to him, "I want to do a cop show and I know it should be set in New Orleans." When Lisco asked for more detail, he was told by Liguori, again as told by Lisco, "Hey, you're the writer, you'll figure it out."

And, figure it out Lisco did.

This fall, FOX will be premiering their newest cop show, K-Ville, set in present day New Orleans. Lisco says that the post-hurricane city is the "context" and "backdrop," of the story. It is there to "enhance the narrative as opposed to be[ing] the set-piece of the narrative." Instead, the main narrative is about the officers on the squad, mainly Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) and Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser). Both are, naturally, flawed heroes who have a number of obstacles to overcome in their professional and personal lives. As Lisco says, "At the end of the day, the show is going to live or die based on your level of commitment to Anthony and Cole's characters and the surrounding cast."

One of the New Orleans police officers that Lisco did a ride-along with in his research for the show invited Lisco into his house at the end of the day. There, Lisco noticed that the place was "barely standing," and that the officer was sleeping in a sleeping bag on a plank on the floor, while trying to put it all back together. The officer's family had moved to Atlanta, but he stayed because he loved the job and his wife knew that. Not coincidentally, this is how we are introduced to Marlin Boulet in K-Ville's pilot. It is a strong introduction to a character. It instantly shows that the character on-screen is good, but struggles with problems of his own. Boulet is, as is shown in the pilot, a good cop, but one who is sometimes wayward, who bends rules. Lisco explains that this is a usual refrain in other shows he has written for (NYPD Blue and The District), where officers enforce the "spirit of the law" as opposed to the letter.

Trevor Cobb, on the other hand, is the exemplification of one of the key themes that Lisco wants to explore in K-Ville -- redemption. Cobb is a felon who escapes the jail when it floods during the storm. He has returned to New Orleans, faking his background somewhat, and joined the police force in an attempt to change his life. This is made possible due to the fact that due to Katrina, many of the criminal records in the city were destroyed. Lisco tells us, as everyone knows anyway, that Cobb's path to redemption will not be straight, but, he says, it will make for "great drama."

It all sounds quite dark and disturbing: a city that has been destroyed due to a storm, an officer who is an escaped convict, and another whose family has left him due to his wanting to stay in the city. How is it possible to find any fun or humor in the city and the story? Lisco points to shows like M*A*S*H for that, stuff that is "darkly comic, darkly satirical." He says that "just because I laugh doesn't mean that life ceases to be serious." He points out that people that live in the city are resilient and "laugh at the darkest things." This ought to allow for some levity to be brought into the story, while staying true to the city and the people.

The producers of K-Ville have certainly done their homework on the city, both before and after Katrina. In fact, Lisco tells us, it is something they continue to do today, with staffers cutting clips from newspapers across the country that feature any stories on the storm. He also seems to recognize that it can never be enough, there simply isn't time. However, he hopes that in some way the series can help rebuild the city, he already knows that his art director has been able to move his family back to the city and "recommit to the land" there. They are, he notes, bringing money into the city, but he thinks that, as in the case of his art director, they are bringing hope, too.

At this moment it is unclear whether that hope, real or imagined, will translate to viewers; whether levity brought to the story offends people or whether the darkness pushes people away. Lisco is well aware that after a time historical events are ripe for televising -- "they are safer to do" the further away they are. He knows he is working awfully close to the event in this case, and knows that he has to "treat the material with respect" in order to succeed. Lisco and his team have drawn a very fine line for themselves to walk. Leaning too much in one direction or the other will cause countless people to stand up and decry the show.

As it stands, the pilot is interesting enough that I will be tuning in for the second episode to see where it heads. Hopefully it will be somewhere worth going.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Being The Guy at The End of The Red Carpet

Yes, I was the lonely guy at the end of the "Red Carpet" this weekend. The carpet was in fact off-red, but I was the guy at the end of it. The music from Republic, a New Orleans club, was blaring out at me, which made it moderately hard to hear my interviewees, but the air conditioning was pouring out as well, which more than made up for the noise. And, there I was, with my little audio recorder and no press pass, basking in the music and the air conditioning, and trying (with help) to flag down the stars of K-Ville.

K-Ville is, for those unaware, FOX's new show about a group of New Orleans police officers in the present day, dealing with the rebuilding of the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Traveling through the city, it is clear that a lot of work still has to happen there, and the show, which films on location, will certainly chronicle some of that effort.

Up first for me were Dominic Purcell and Amaury Nolasco. Though they were not there as a part of K-Ville, they do star in some other show on FOX. It's something called Prison Break, wherein it seems guys break out of prison, go on the run, and then one of them ends up back in prison. They let me in on a little about what is going to happen this coming season, but you are probably not interested in that, so back to K-Ville

Then came a K-Ville guy, Blake Shields. He plays a younger cop on the force, Jeff "Glue Boy" Gooden. Clearly there was only one question to be asked, but Blake is not sure why exactly his character has that name. He has not yet asked, because he likes the speculation surrounding it. He does, however have a theory; his character is "a step behind" and the butt of some jokes on the force, "so they kind of mess with him… like he huffed too much glue in high school."

Next, John Carroll Lynch (Drew Carey's brother on The Drew Carey Show) came my way. After some good-natured ribbing about me being there on the carpet, he identifies his character, Captain James Embry as "one of the guys who stayed during the storm." Lynch thinks that this allows for a different sort of relationship between himself and the detectives, one that is "much more personal." After watching the pilot, it's clear that Embry is going to have to come down hard on some of his detectives during the season, but it is going to come from a different place than the normal "captain yelling at a cop on the edge" thing that has been seen hundreds of times already.

And then there was a vision coming towards me. It was Tawny Cypress (you may know her as Simone Deveraux on Heroes). She plays another officer on the force, Ginger “Love Tap” LeBeau. Clearly we all need to know what this means; is it a car thing or something else? Sadly I cannot tell you because she had to head on inside to the party.

But there was no time to worry about that, because there were still other folks on my list to talk to (and one can be forgiven when a child is pulling one inside). Plus, Cole Hauser, one of the two stars of the show, was going to be with me shortly. When he did make it over to me, I asked about his character's (Trevor Cobb) "nefarious background." This inevitably led to a discussion as to the meaning of "nefarious" and if it was in fact a word. I think I can happily say that Hauser likes "nefarious" and that if you see the word popping up in his speech in the future, you know where it came from. But is Cobb who he says he is? What is this Army Ranger experience? It seems only time will tell.

And lastly, there was Anthony Anderson, who plays Marlin Boulet, and is the other lead. Anderson has been in over 20 films on the big screen, and more than a few television shows. So, why is Anderson doing this show? Because he wants to "be able to shine on a light on a situation right here in New Orleans" that has all but been "forgotten in the news and in the media."

Is K-Ville that story of hope? Will the light that K-Ville shines on New Orleans last? And what about that lone, intrepid reporter on the edge of the red carpet? There is a lot of speculation on all those areas, and during my trip down to Louisiana I was able to sit with Jonathan Lisco, the creator and executive producer of the show and ask some questions. He was not able to tell me about the intrepid reporter, but he did have a lot of other answers. But, that is an article for another day.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Got Your Law & Order Right Here

I'll be one of the first to admit it, I do not watch Law & Order, or any of its ancillary shows, like I used to. Even so, it is SVU of which I most keep track. Straying slightly from the other Law & Order models, SVU cares far more about the detectives and their lives than is the norm. While this makes the revolving door cast of the original Law & Order a more difficult task on SVU, it provides added incentive to the long-term viewer and deeper storylines.

So, when NBC releases an extended teaser of the Law & Order: SVU season premiere, I tend to sit up and take notice. When the teaser features Cynthia Nixon (always my favorite actress on that HBO show) in a guest starring role and threats made to Detective Elliot Stabler's (Christopher Meloni) family, I really pay attention. I'm not saying that the clip (which you can view below) is anywhere near enough to get me to start watching on a regular basis again, but it does look good and certainly may get me to watch this season's premiere.

I will also say that Nixon's role appears to be a little over-the-top from the teaser. It may be that we just witness the most outlandish of her actions, or it may be that people are trying overly hard to get a guest star Emmy nomination.

What do you think? Is there a little too much there? Are you one of the people that still watch Law & Order or any of the L&O branded products? SVU is currently the most watched of the shows, but even those numbers are down. Will the Cynthia Nixon appearance help? Will it hurt? Will it have any effect whatsoever?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Damages Is Broken, But Not Beyond Repair

In watching this week's episode of Damages, I can't help but think that the producers are trying to be too clever.  By adding in so many different mysteries they find themselves this week with a twist that is no twist at all, a surprise that fails to in any way be a surprise. 

The entire plot this week revolves around Katie Connor (Anastasia Griffith) and her "one-night stand" in Florida on the weekend of Arthur Frobisher's (Ted Danson) trip down there. 

The other basic problem with Damages should now be apparent.  If you are a regular watcher of the show you know exactly what weekend I am talking about, and if you are not it would take me an incredibly long time to explain it.  It is a basic problem with serialized dramas - a serialized drama needs to generate a high enough interest level on the part of the viewer that they tune in every single week, because missing even one episode can leave the viewer hopelessly behind.  I am not against serialized dramas as such, long-time readers will know that I'm a fan of Lost as well as other serialized shows, but the serialized legal thriller Damages does not generate the same enthusiasm for me.

To be sure, I think Damages is often well-written and well-acted, but I'm just not that enthralled.  To help me explain why I need to, in detail, discuss this week's episode and Katie's boyfriend, so, be warned:


Was there ever any doubt in anyone's mind that Greg, Katie's not-so-married guy was lying about who they saw with Frobisher in the parking lot?  Was it not clear that he was the link?  Frankly, from the moment he first appeared it was clear that he was involved in the whole Frobisher thing, the way he was introduced, when he was introduced, and the secrecy around him made any other conclusion untenable.  I did not know that he was lying about being married, but his being involved in Frobisher's nefarious doings was clear.  Why the producers would try to convince us otherwise I can't fathom. 

Then, this week's writing was actually a huge let down. When Katie was practicing being deposed she has flashbacks of how she got to this point.  We're only four episodes in and the whole case at this point hinges on Katie. I think that we probably could have figured out without flashbacks what exactly is going on in her mind.  It got worse from there though, didn't it? 

When she is actually being deposed she goes off about sex and drugs to Ray Fiske (Zeljko Ivanek).  That was just plain silly.  It was explained to her that the goal was to make her likable to the jury.  Her going off on her sexual and drug escapades does not make her likable.  There is a difference between telling the truth about what happened, which is what she was supposed to do, and flaunting her problems, which is what she did. 

Thank God Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) doesn't need her for the trial, because she would now be a worthless witness.  There are only two possible reasons Patty did not bite her head off at the end of the deposition:  1)  the writer's didn't realize the mistake they made in having her rant as she did, and 2) Patty didn't need her anyway and didn't care, and the writers failed to realize that to be true to Patty's character she would've bitten Katie's head off anyway in order to keep up appearances. 

And, speaking of Patty, she's just plain mean.  There is absolutely no reason that she could not have still recommended Tom's kid for the music school.  She could absolutely have said to her contact "he doesn't work for me any more, we had some professional differences, but Tom is a great person and his daughter cares more for music…" yada, yada, yada.  Her meanness is meant to be excused by the troubles she is having with her son, but it is not.  The way she is treated by others indicates that her attitude goes back way farther than the length of her son's problems.  It's a foolish excuse to be pawned off onto the viewer. 

I should say that I think Damages to be a perfectly fun legal thriller.  I watch on a weekly basis not because I'm obligated but because it is fun enough, it's just not  spectacular.  I think that with some changes here and there it really could be outstanding, and I hope that by the end of the season they achieve that level, but it isn't there yet.  Maybe next week. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wending One's Way Through a Labyrinth to Get The Dark Crystal

There is always something wonderful about revisiting movies from one's youth, and finding out that they are as good as you remember. This feeling is even more thrilling when it is clear that others like the films as well and that a certain amount of care and effort has gone into re-releasing them. Happily, this is the case for two new DVD editions being put out August 14 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Jim Henson Home Entertainment.

Though they have both been released before to DVD, the new editions of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are truly spectacular (and both remastered in high definition). The former is labeled as the "25th Anniversary Edition" which seems correct as the movie was released in 1982, while the later is simply an "Anniversary Edition," which is moderately odd as the film was released in 1986, making this the 21st anniversary (maybe it is an anniversary edition because it is old enough to drink?).

Whatever oddities might exist in the name of this release of Labyrinth, it is the better of the two movies. Starring a young Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, the film chronicles the quest of a girl, Sarah (Connelly), to retrieve her infant step-brother from the Goblin King Jareth(Bowie), who has kidnapped the child. Jareth only did this because Sarah, rather impetuously, asked him to, only to regret the decision moments later. Being a sporting sort of Goblin King, Jareth agrees that Sarah can have the child back if she is able to successfully negotiate his labyrinth within 13 hours.

Directed by Henson himself and executive produced by George Lucas, the film is full of wonderful creatures and has great wit and imagination. Sarah encounters numerous friends and enemies on her journey through the labyrinth to Jareth's castle, and each type of creature has a distinct look, feel, and personality. The majority are, as this is a Henson film, muppets, puppets, and various people in costumes, and voiced by the likes of Steve Whitmire (who would later become the voice of Kermit), David Goelz (The Great Gonzo), Kevin Clash (Elmo), Brian Henson, and Frank Oz. In short, it is the standard (and wonderful) assemblage of talent from Henson's stables, and a great deal of fun to watch 21 years later.

The Dark Crystal, co-directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, is equally impressive in production design, even if the story is moderately obtuse. The story of the film involves the evil race of Skeksis trying to consolidate their power as the good Mystics fight for the survival of the planet while a Gelfling that they helped raise named Jen tries to reunite the Dark Crystal with a shard that broke off centuries ago and led to the ruined state of the planet. The film requires an incredibly lengthy voiceover at its outset in order to set up the tale of good versus evil, and, while easy to follow, it is an awkward way to open the film. From here, happily, the film does get more engaging. Though they are muppets, in true Henson fashion they do seem alive, and, like Labyrinth, great care seems to have been given in making sure each character has a distinct personality. The puppet work is excellent and, like Labyrinth, creature design fantastic. In fact, Brian Froud, the conceptual designer for both films, provides a commentary track for each, and goes into great detail on both.

Both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are two-disc editions, with the second disc on each providing more bonus features than you can shake a stick at. There are numerous interviews, original footage that did not make the movie, and concept art to name a few.

Though both films are still fun to watch, it is Labyrinth, the less successful at the box office, that holds up better years later. The story is more accessible and David Bowie's songs and interactions with the various muppets are great fun. Even so, The Dark Crystal is still enjoyable, and certainly ought to be watched before the long-gestating sequel, Power of the Dark Crystal, ramps up for an alleged release next year.

I think that the world of Jim Henson's imagination might just be the best possible place to grow up. And, if you already have grown up, it is still a place to visit on a regular basis.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Jackie Chan Gets Involved in a Crime Story

Though he is best known for his comedic roles and humorous stunt work, Jackie Chan has, on occasion, been known to take on more serious roles. They still involve fisticuffs and gunplay, but far less humor. One such of work of Chan's, Crime Story, has recently been released in a "Special Collector's Edition."

Crime Story is based, loosely, according to the afterword given in the movie, on the true story of the kidnapping of a billionaire in Hong Kong. Chan, naturally, plays the police officer, Inspector Eddie Chan, assigned to the case who does anything and everything in his power to see the safe return of the billionaire. He engages in a cat and mouse game with Detective Hung (Kent Cheng), a dirty police officer behind the kidnapping. From early on in the film Chan has suspicions about Hung, but cannot prove anything. This is odd because as the villain of the piece, Hung is completely irredeemable. It is at times laughable that the other police officers do not simply look at him and arrest him on the spot for so obviously being a criminal. However, this does not happen. Rather, Hung is sent with Chan to track down the criminals, all the while exuding the oily feeling of a cop on the take.

Hung working with Chan becomes most silly when the two head to Taiwan. Despite Hung pulling repeatedly for the two to spend the government's money and relax, they almost by chance happen upon the correct den of thieves. It is as though there is one group of criminals in all of Taiwan and the real trouble just happens to get going upon Hung and Chan's arrival in the country.

Director Kirk Wong keeps things moving, but the film is never deep enough for the plot to be intriguing. Chan, in his role as a detective, seems only semi-believable. Part of this is because of the radical changes exhibited by the detective from the beginning of the film to the end without any sort of a logical progression.

At the film's outset, Chan has trouble with the idea of firing his gun at people and hurting others. He is even seeing a doctor to discuss these troubles. However, this plotline and aspect of Chan's personality is completely dropped as the film gets going, and Chan is able to fire at will against his enemy as well as face them in hand-to-hand combat, even when said combat is in a police station and the criminal in question could easily be questioned in a more conventional manner. While such a transition can work in this type of film, it needs to be more carefully and thoroughly addressed in order for it to be believable.

Crime Story is at its best when it eschews plot in favor of action and stunts. I dislike seeing someone like Jackie Chan pigeonholed into just doing high-flying stunts and fight scenes, but it is during these moments in the film that Chan excels and Crime Story becomes worth watching. Whether he is on rafters high above the ground, in a police station, or on a boat, his stunts are a great deal of fun to witness.

The new "Special Collector's Edition" contains a commentary track with the director and Bey Logan (who does many commentary tracks for the "Dragon Dynasty" DVD releases, of which this is a part). There is also an interview with Kirk Wong and another with the writer of the film, Teddy Chen. Additionally, as seems de rigueur these days, there are trailers and deleted scenes as well. Upsettingly on this DVD, both the original Cantonese mono track and the Cantonese 5.1 channel track are not always in sync with what people are saying and this proves quite distracting during the film.

The plot may not be the deepest, and liberties taken with the "true story" nature of it, but Chan's fisticuffs and stunt work are enough to pull the movie through, making it, on the whole, better than average.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Getting Father Brown off My Chesterton

In 1911 G.K. Chesterton published his first series of short stories about the priest-detective Father Brown. Over a half a century later, the BBC adapted the character for television, and three decades after that, the final six episodes of BBC the series have made it to DVD in the States.

The series stars Kenneth More as Chesterton's famed detective, with Dennis Burgess as Brown's sidekick, Flambeau. While I will always have a soft spot for Alec Guinness's portrayal of the detective, More is wonderful in the role as well. He truly seems one with the role and the cassock, fully understanding the wit that resides within Chesterton's hero.

For those who are unfamiliar with the character, Father Brown is, as his title would suggest, a priest who, for whatever reason, constantly finds himself embroiled in some sort of mysterious intrigue. He tends to play his cards quite close to his vest, and only gives obtuse answers and questions until he is ready to reveal whodunit. At times Brown seems to be obtuse on purpose, and at another moments he simply seems daft; it is never quite clear whether Brown is just playing with everyone around him. Kenneth More is exceptionally good in the role at walking this fine line.

The majority of the episodes in Set 2 eschew the standard murder mystery formula that has someone die within the first five minutes and leave the rest of the episode for the detective to solve the crime. Rather, the episodes spend a great deal of time on the side characters in each episode. It is often nearly halfway through an episode or later before a crime actually occurs.

By treating the episodes in this manner, wonderful performances are allowed for by those who will meet their demise. In particular, Bernard Lee (the first "M" in the James Bond movies) as John Raggley in episode 2, "The Quick One," is spectacular as the outspoken, hated, town malcontent. It is no surprise to anyone when he dies, but allowing the actor to rant up and down the screen for the first half of the show truly helps establish more character and a stronger feeling of time and place than a traditional murder mystery would.

Father Brown Set 2 contains six episodes, each approximately an hour long, all of which put Father Brown into new and different situations. One of the funniest of these is the first, "The Actor and the Alibi" which has Father Brown backstage at a theatre troupe. The discussion of actors, actresses, and entertainment in general provides the opportunity for more than a few knowing winks to the audience.

And truly, that is what Father Brown is all about -- knowing winks. The series, like the character, is at turns smart, funny, and moderately exasperating in its desire to not reveal the solution. It is often impossible to figure out the answers ahead of time, which for armchair sleuths may be upsetting. However, the character of Father Brown, as well as the supporting cast, is often more than enough to hold the audience's attention, even if the mystery does not.

The video quality of the episodes tends to be quite good, though it is moderately disconcerting when the medium the episode was filmed on changes. For instance, in "The Actor and the Alibi" the scenes filmed on stage look completely different than those filmed backstage (it may be that backstage used video and on stage film). While both look fine separately, their juxtaposition can be quite jarring.

Despite any small concerns about the video quality, which are understandable in a 30-year-old television show, Father Brown Set 2 delivers everything expected of Chesterton's inimitable detective and is a good deal of fun to watch.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Can There Be Any Doubt That Noah Bean Gets the Brunt of the Damages?

While some stars may have the luxury of playing murdered characters and still be able to claim I Know Who Killed Me, Noah Bean, who plays dead fiancé David Connor on FX's Damages has no such luck. In a recent interview for which I was able to submit questions, Bean was asked how he prepared for a role in a show that operates during two different time periods, in one of which his character has died. He responded that:
…our producers are very tight-lipped even with us on what’s going to happen in the next episode. And we don’t really get the scripts even until the last minute. And a lot of times … I’ve been begging them to tell me who did it to me and why and everything like that. I can’t get anything out of them. We’re in episode seven, so we definitely do know a bit more than the rest of America, but you just got to play every scene for the scene. And it’s fascinating because then you know the next week, you might find out that you were lying in that scene. Or that suddenly something is revealed that with all the Katie Connor stuff that I think none of us really knew what was — and that’s going to continue on in the next few weeks of it getting more complicated and more things revealed that none of us had any idea. It’s a lot like life. You kind of go along and then all of a sudden, something is revealed and you could be suddenly playing a different tactic or different motive. It’s like taking it one day at a time. And our producers will tell us just enough to get us to where we need to be for that scene, but it’s exciting. We’re finding out new things just like the rest of everybody else.
Lying, changing motivations, different tactics. And this all coming from the guy who plays a doctor on the show, not one of the lawyers. Is there some sort of irony that the doctor ends up dead at the end of the timeline? Noah did not answer that question, but did give us some insight as to what he thinks about playing a guy who ends up dead:
…at first, I was kind of thrilled because I thought this was just great. I get one season on this great show. And then once we started shooting it, I was like, “Darn it, this stinks" because it’s so great. It’s just gotten better and better and better, the show as we’ve continued shooting. So it’s a little bit of a bummer, but I think it’s going to be sort of fascinating. I think the guys, our writers and our creators, have got some really cool story lines that are going to kind of build up to the end of the season and then like you said, I think that we’ve all kind of got no idea where this may go. So who knows? It may not be the complete end of David Connor, although I don’t think I’m going to be coming back to life from these days in this. Yes, so it’s—I think it’ll be the build-up as we get further and further into that of who did it and why they did it. I think it’s going to be some really fun stuff to play and to watch. It’s kind of a bummer, but the same time, it’s exciting.
Taking a second to examine these two answers, we are only left with more questions. What could Noah mean that "it may not be the complete end of David Connor?" He also said that he does not get the scripts terribly far in advance, so he cannot know the ending yet, or could he? Might he be lying to us all?  He admits that David won't be coming back from the dead (the show is based in the real world, not a supernatural one), but does this tell us anything about possible directions that the producers may be contemplating for season two? Is it possible that Ellen Parsons' (Rose Byrne) life is connected with more than one case at Hewes and Associates? That seems just a little too fortuitous, doesn't it?

As this season of Damages continues to unfold, more and more questions are being asked of the characters and the audience. Eventually, one assumes, things will get wrapped up, the story of both David's murder and the court case being tackled at his fiancee's firm will come to some sort of conclusion. Will David be the only person not left standing at the end? As Noah said, they are only shooting lines for the seventh episode right now (the season will run for 13 episodes), so he is not quite in a position to tell us.

Damages airs Tuesday nights on FX at 10pm.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reality TV: Catching Lighnting in a Bottle

So, I've been watching a lot of summer reality programming and boy, are my eyes tired.

Seriously, from the ex-celebrities that have shows to the insane individuals that think they can cook, make movies, or find buried pirate treasure, I just wonder where the producers find them. Are people in this world that desperate to be on television that they don't mind acting stupid for money? Or is that not it? Is it laziness? Is it based in the belief that it is just too hard to become a head chef the normal route - I'll go on TV and leap years ahead in my career path? I'll just go on TV and forget learning how to actually make a movie and work my way up and earn the respect of those around me and instead get some million dollar movie deal (if we're really being honest here, the winner of that show probably gets a tiny little office and the chance to do nothing for a year).

But, for all the crashing, burning, and silliness, there is unquestionably something addictive about some of these shows. And that is the real trick to it. Hell's Kitchen is running its third season right now and has been upped for a fourth. It's Survivor in a kitchen -- everyone has seen it and everyone knows what it is, why should it be popular? Or, why should Pirate Master, Survivor on a boat made by the guys who make Survivor, not be? Some of the contestants on these shows (Boston Rob) have been able to make a career out of going on various shows, promoting themselves on the shows, and now even developing shows of their own.

What makes a reality show or a person on a reality show successful then?

There are a multitude of factors, there always are. It's marketing, it's positioning your show in the right time slot, having the right mix of people, the right host, and, it's about luck.

Corey Haim and Corey Feldman certainly had luck on their side back in the 1980s when they became teen heartthrobs, but watching their current reality show, The Two Coreys, it seems unlikely that they will be able to capture that lightning in a bottle a second time. Paula Abdul was huge 20 years ago, but as of late has shown herself to be… well, we all saw the television interview, didn't we?

There is another way to look at it, though. Perhaps the people on the reality shows in question, be they regular people or celebrities, consider simply getting on television for those few extra weeks to be lucky. Sure, it would be nice, their theory might run, for the show to be a success and a springboard for even greater stardom, but that would be just icing on an already delicious cake.

So, maybe even if Boston Rob's Tontine never actually airs on a network, simply getting to make it is a win for him. It certainly allows him to keep going a little while longer without a day job, and I think we can all call that lucky.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Woo! It's Time to Get Hard-Boiled

John Woo is an undeniable master of the action movie. Unquestionably, the man has made some lesser works, but there was a period of his career in Hong Kong where turned out one mind-blowing movie after another. Arriving at the end of that time is the epic crime movie, Hard-Boiled.

This movie represents yet another collaboration between Woo and Chow Yun-Fat (they had previously worked together on the A Better Tomorrow trilogy among other places), and it has everything one would expect from a collaboration between them. The story follows Inspector Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) as a cop on the edge as he and an undercover cop, Alan (Tony Leung), who is posing as a member of the triad, go after organized crime in Hong Kong.

It is true that this plot sounds neither new nor underused, but in the hands of John Woo, the film is a sight to behold. Woo's talent lies not with the telling of the story, but in his choreography of action sequences, and Hard-Boiled boasts some of the best around.

The film starts with a huge gunfight in a teahouse, where a member of the Triad end up killing Yuen's friend. While Yuen takes out the murderer, he becomes hell-bent on destroying the criminal bosses that employed the murderer. While loyalties and allegiances switch throughout the film, Yuen shows himself willing to defy anyone and everyone that might get in his way.

On the flip side, Leung, in his role as undercover cop, begins to lose his way. He suffers grave moments of doubt, and wonders whether he is going to end up on the right side of the law in the end. While the movie does not really doubt the character and where he will end up, Leung is more than convincing in the role.

The film is pretty short on speaking parts for women. The one notable role is that of Teresa Chang, played by Teresa Mo. She is Yueng's boss and girlfriend, and does play an important role in one of the climactic scenes. Even so, while she may be good in the role, it is neither particularly demanding, nor is Teresa a particularly strong character.

As stated above, it is not a very original plotline, but the three main action set pieces - the teahouse, a warehouse, and the hospital - are filled with explosions, deadly accurate gunplay, and even have some humor tossed in for good measure. One of the most impressive things about the film, and the genre, is the realism with which everything is filmed. There are explosions and gunplay, yes, but everything that happens appears to be completely real, there are no huge CG effects that take the viewer out of the moment. Rather, the viewer is simply awed by the fact that the actors and stuntmen are actually doing these things.

During the final scene in the hospital, there is a single, nearly three-minute long tracking shot that follows Yun-Fat and Leung as they gun down members of the Triad. The precision and accuracy required on the part of everyone involved in the shot is tremendous, and the result is outstanding.

Hard-Boiled has just been released as a two-disc "Ultimate Edition." The first disc, in addition to the film itself features an audio commentary by genre expert Bey Logan, and the second has interviews with producer Terence Chong as well as interviews with co-stars of the film and a featurette with Woo.

All in all, the film is a dizzying array of gunplay with Chow Yun-Fat somehow going after everyone with a gun in each hand and a toothpick in his mouth. For fans of action movies, Hard-Boiled should not be missed.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

One Byrne, Some Blood, And A Lot Of Damages

FX's new series Damages, which aired its second episode this week, features Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, a young legal associate at a firm run by Glenn Close's Patty Hewes.

The series takes place in two distinct time periods, six months apart (though presumably that distance will decrease as the season continues). In the earlier time period, Parsons has just started her new job at the law firm and is starting to find her footing after graduating from law school. In the later time period, Parsons has been taken into custody for questioning by the police as her boyfriend has been found murdered in their Manhattan apartment. It is certainly going to be an interesting season for Ellen Parsons. Speaking to reporters about her character, Byrne had this to say:

…she’s still kind of getting formed in a lot of ways. But she’s very instinctive. I think she’s really smart. I think she’s kind of a little naïve. You know, I mean, she graduates from law school and she’s applying all this stuff she’s learned into the real world. And it’s exhilarating, and the adrenaline is fantastic and amazing. But I don’t think she really realizes the sacrifices she’s going to have to make, and the world that she’s in now.

As her boyfriend is dead, there will, unquestionably, be sacrifices. The entire story is an interesting one, because we, the audience, get to see exactly where this poor girl is headed. We know she's going to go from a beautifully pressed, perfectly tailored outfit to drenched in her boyfriend's blood. Whether or not she did it, everyone knows that her character is going to change hugely from the beginning of the timeline to the end. Byrne tells us that we will start to see these things about halfway through, and tells us the changes will start small:

...her behavior is going to start changing little by little, and very subtly. It’s not going to be like a hammer in your face. But, I think, just little things that she starts to do that I’m not even sure she knows. Subconsciously, she starts to change ... in little ways. And it’s going to be really interesting to see, you know, exactly who she is by the end.

Speaking of endings, Byrne was also asked a question about the (in)famous ending to The Sopranos (of which she was a great fan), specifically, did she like it:

Well, at first, I felt cheated, I think, like the rest of America, probably. I felt very... shocked, and like my reception had dropped out. But then, on reflection, I loved it. I thought it was very smart, and just in keeping with the whole show. You know, he never really did what you wanted him to do. He just took it the other way again. And, I don’t know. I thought it was really, really smart. I mean, it’s kind of the best show I ever saw. I really liked it.

Personally I am still on the fence about Damages as a whole; it has some interesting aspects to it, but I find some of it quite disconcerting. The difference in look and feel between the two time periods I find to be overly stylized, and it is serialized to such an extent that missing a single episode may prove to make it impossible to understand. Even so, the trip from one period to another may be worth it. Hopefully the writers and producers of Damages are able to replicate in their finale Byrne's wonder, amazement, and love of the conclusion to The Sopranos. Hopefully they're able to take "it the other way" and do something truly unexpected.

Damages airs Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sure, it's a Great Performance, But Will You Respect Yourself in the Morning?

In the latest episode of Great Performances, entitled "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," the show makes an attempt to recount the history of Stax Records, one of the most influential, and different, record labels of the last century. There are a number of different threads that the episode attempts to follow, some with more success than others.

The story of the music itself is well told, what Stax was putting out there, who the artists were, and the response in the country. Less well told is the racial aspect of the company and its recordings. Stax was founded by two white people, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (brother and sister), but ended up with mainly African-American recording artists putting out a "black sound" that tended to find cross-over success. While this was not their intent, they were people to whom race did not matter. And, finally, very poorly told is the story of the internal politics of the record company. These last two threads are, I suspect, often the same, but the documentary never actually ties them together (one of its weaknesses), so I leave them separate here as well.

Most people in this country know Stax music, even if they do not identify it with the label. Otis Redding was a Stax artist, and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" a Stax song. He wrote and recorded "Respect." Isaac Hayes was a Stax artist and "Theme from Shaft" a Stax recording. It is a record label that lasted from the late 1950s to 1975, and put out hit after hit after hit, defining the "Memphis sound." The story of the records, songs, and artist of the label, is the strongest part of the documentary. It is truly a wonder that such a small label was able to do so much. This thread of the documentary is well told and enlightens people that may not otherwise realize where all this music came from. It also provides a background as to the thoughts, feelings, and motives that went into the songs themselves.

Intersecting with this thread however is the story of race within the company. Early on at Stax it is clear that race was not an issue. Most of the interviewees seem to identify the change as coming following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered at a hotel in Memphis frequented by Stax people. After this point, something changed at the record company. Of course, something changed in the country too.

And, here is where things get truly murky in the documentary. Though there is a narrator, and a great one, Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary chooses first-hand accounts over Jackson on numerous occasions. This leads to an incredible amount of confusion. The over-arching story of what happened at Stax following the assassination of Dr. King becomes lost. It is clear that there was an internal power struggle. For some reason, and the documentary never makes it clear why, Estelle Axton left the company. Jim Stewart says he had her leave. Estelle says she chose to leave. Others say it was a difference of opinion between Al Bell (an up-and-coming executive at the company). Yet, this huge change at Stax is given scant attention in the documentary. It is crucial for everything that follows for this story to be well told, and it is not.

At some point, the record company brought in a "security" man named Johnny Baylor, because some people from Memphis came into the offices with a gun. The people with guns wanted money from Stax. Why they wanted the money, who knows. Why they chose Stax, who knows. Why the Stax people then bought guns, who knows. But, what is made almost clear is that Baylor was a problem from the beginning. While no one from the outside brought guns in anymore, Baylor had no problem brandishing his. Why Baylor stayed at Stax instead of being let go, who knows.

From here, the lack of a distinct point of view for the documentary truly destroys what is left of the show. Towards the end of Stax's existence, it got into legal and financial trouble. When he talks about it, Bell states that they paid back their bank loan to Union Planters Bank (UP), almost immediately and UP got scared. A person from UP interviewed for the show states that Stax owed them 10 million dollars in outstanding loans. One of these people is wrong. The documentary never states which, but the fact that there were no less than 14 indictments handed down directed at Stax and or Al Bell (again, it is not made clear), would argue that there was something questionable happening, be it in the company's relations with the outside world or within the company itself. Bell was, it should be noted, cleared of all charges.

The story of Stax Records is fascinating one, but one that is not told properly in this episode of Great Performances. A choice must have been made in producing this documentary to let the story, or the people involved in the story, tell what happened themselves. What the audience is left with however is something of a jumbled mess where nothing is truly clear except that the music was one of a kind.

Great Performances: "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story" airs Wednesday August 1, at 9:00pm, but do check your local listings anyway.