Thursday, February 28, 2008

Digging Up Some Dirt with Courteney Cox

The fallout from the writer's strike is going to continue to last for some time. Premiering this Sunday, March 2, is the second season of FX's Dirt, which, due to the strike, ended up only producing seven episodes instead of the initially ordered 13. This shortened season is a shame for the show, which I found too pointlessly dark and depressing in its first season, which seems to have a hit a wonderful stride in season two.

Season two starts off with Lucy Spiller (Courteney Cox, who also serves as an executive producer on the show) in the hospital after her fateful run-in with an attacker's knife at the end of season one. The stabbing has left Spiller a changed person, as Cox put it in a recent interview:

She definitely has a different outlook on life. She doesn’t take it quite so seriously. I think she’s a little more appreciative of what she has… I think she just likes her job more as opposed to needing to tell the truth for some personal reason. It’s more like, "Hey, I’ve got a great job. This is fun. I want to be the best I can be at it."

It's this "different outlook" that Lucy has which has helped morph the show into a far more enjoyable experience. Dirt still unquestionably attempts to shine a light on the workings of paparazzi and celebrity, and how the two feed off of each other, but it does it with a much lighter tone. Rather than being quite so depressing, the show opts to head in a slightly more amusing direction. It tackles issues that are just as serious, but does so from a slightly different point of view.

This season also sports a much more true to life look at celebrities, which Cox states was a very conscious and overt choice:

We thought that would be a good way to just start the season, and it is absolutely ripped from the headlines. We usually do a hybrid of celebrities and then add to the… [and] sum it up in a different way just for fun. But yes, it’s definitely relatable this year and I think it makes for just a more exciting television show.

Cox is definitely correct about that. In the first two episodes they focus on several different "ripped from the headlines" celebrity stories including Alec Baldwin- and Paris Hilton-based ones. It is entirely possible that at some point that the closer-to-life celebrities the show uses will become a tired ploy, but certainly in its first two episodes it is fun, fresh, and wholly enjoyable.

This season of Dirt also sports a couple of additions to the cast, including Ryan Eggold as Farber Kauffman, an idealistic young newspaperman who Spiller is able to take from the world of "proper" journalism into her tabloid. Though the wide-eyed naïf does little in the first two episodes to become a three-dimensional character, he still provides an additional note of levity and works wonderfully as a proxy for the audience.

Spiller and Willa McPhereson (Alexandria Breckenridge), one of the reporters at Spiller's tabloid, DirtNow, are able to explain to Farber, and thereby the audience, just how the notion of celebrity functions in Los Angeles. The lessons Farber learns early on (celebrities don't spend time in jail) may seem obvious to anyone who has turned on their television in the past few years, but getting the tabloid's take on the "why" is more interesting.

Also returning this season is photographer Don Konkey (Ian Hart), a schizophrenic who is finally taking his medication. Don finds much he has to adjust to at the opening of season two, from his cat's not talking to him anymore to having to take care of the recovering Lucy. It's a good change to last season's dynamic, which had her taking care of (and sometimes using) him.

Throughout the course of season one the show dealt with a season-long story arc of just how Lucy affected the lives of certain celebrities in Hollywood, and it was this that led to her eventual stabbing. With the show only getting to produce seven episodes this year instead of 13, the immediate question this reporter had is whether or not the audience is going to be left hanging halfway through a similarly long story arc. Cox ensures us they will not:

…luckily, what works in our favor this year, which would have not have worked last year at all, is that each episode is self-contained, even though there may be a character that goes over a few episodes you can watch each one and feel like you’ve wrapped up a story… [did] we have bigger plans? Sure, but does it work? Yes.

Despite these differences in tone and season-long story, Cox seems confident that not only will the show attract new fans, but that hopefully old ones "will enjoy the changes that we’ve made. She concluded with:

I think this year it’ll be more of a fun show to watch, where you’re kind of guessing who are we talking about… then we can give you a different perspective on it… It's just an all over more fun, lighter tone, but hopefully still outrageous.

If the rest of the season is as good as the first two episodes, she'll have nothing at all to worry about.

The second season of Dirt premieres on FX Sunday, March 2, at 10pm.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Top Gear Runs Hot, but quarterlife Leaves Me Cold

I know I'm a day late with this one, but hopefully I'm not a dollar short… Top Gear. The new season started on Monday night on BBC America, and though I'm not a gear head, I'm an instant fan.

I'd heard prior to the new season starting that the show was fun, but for some reason I'd never really got around to watching it. But, what with my usual weekly fare on hiatus there was a 45-minute window in my viewing schedule and I slotted Top Gear in. Now, frankly, I'm not quite sure what I did without it.

Okay, that's an overstatement. It's fun, but it's not the be all and end all of television. I'm going to continue watching for the rest of the season, though.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Top Gear focuses on driving and all things remotely relevant to it. They test cars, they talk to celebrities about cars (and make the celebs run the Top Gear course in a car), and last night they went searching for the best driving road in the world (it's allegedly in Italy). They also sat and had a chat with Dame Helen Mirren, and tested out a souped-up Volkswagen GTI. The show has three hosts (or, as it's a British show they may be "presenters"), Jeremy Clarkson (the man in charge), James May, and Richard Hammond. They're funny, personable, and their undying love for cars doesn't (usually) overshadow their ability to talk in a manner that you (assuming you're not a gear head) and I can understand. In fact, I laughed out loud repeatedly during the episode and certainly by the end felt as though I knew all of the hosts despite never having met them before. I'm going to reserve saying any more about it though until after next week's new episode (I am considering having my TiVo look for old episodes though).

Last night I stuck (at least somewhat) to a BBC America theme (it's rapidly becoming my favorite network, it's just too bad that I don't get an HD version) and watching the latest episode of Last Restaurant Standing, which continues to manage to stay above the usual reality/contest show in-fighting among contestants. Last night it was even the team that was most deserving to lose that got booted. What could be more perfect than that?

The team in question, a couple, one of whom was American, had absolutely no idea how to run a restaurant. How they even managed to get on the show remains something of a mystery to me. She is a wannabe-actress and he a wannabe-musician. She ran the front of the house into the ground and he didn't run the kitchen at all; he was far more interested in setting up his drum kit than ensuring a successful dinner service. Last night they had to figure out how much to charge for dishes and couldn't work out exactly what their expenses were (pretty much just the cost of the food) and how much they were going to have to charge in order to turn a profit.

It was like they woke up one morning, decided they wanted to be in the restaurant business, and thought that a reality show was the perfect way to make this new-found dream come true. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I think they really just wanted to be in front of the camera in order to boost their acting and music profiles.

One person who certainly shouldn't be in front of the camera, ever, is Dylan Krieger (Bitsie Tulloch), star of NBC's quarterlife (the Herskovitz-Zwick production that was on the web and has now been put on TV). This character, the center of the show, is a mid-20s wannabe writer who has opted to start a website giving all of her personal opinions about her friends – who they love, who they hate, and what she thinks about it. She is then shocked and upset when her friends get angry. Gee, I wonder why.

Judging from the ratings, I was one of the few people who watched it last night, and I'm going to watch again on Sunday (when the next episode airs), but I generally don't do well with self-obsessed individuals like Dylan, so I'm not sure how much I'll watch beyond Sunday.

The show is just teen angst pushed back into people's mid-20s. Worse than that though, the first episode featured wholly one-dimensional, stock characters who acted in entirely predictable (and inane) ways. I hope that just because it was made for "new media" that doesn't mean that they figured they could use old characters and no one would notice. I guess I'll find out on Sunday.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Justice League is Back... Again.

It seems as though the number of "origin stories" in the comic book world vastly exceeds the number of superheroes. It feels as though every few years the origins of our favorite heroes and groups are reexamined, rethought, and retold. Taking these comic book legends and putting them on film (either animated or live action) allows for yet another telling of these ever-popular tales.

Releasing direct-to-DVD this week is a new look at the founding of Justice League (a group of the most popular DC comic heroes). Based on Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel, Justice League - The New Frontier provides origin stories for several superheroes as well as the founding of the League.

The animated feature boasts an impressive voice cast including David Boreanaz (Angel), Brooke Shields (Lipstick Jungle), Miguel Ferrer (Bionic Woman), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives), and Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess). However, with the incredible plethora of characters present in the feature, none of the actors truly get the chance to shine.

The story follows the founding of the Justice League and takes place from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s. At the outset there is a great amount of distrust due to Cold War paranoia surrounding the superheroes including the most famous, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman. In turn, the heroes grow to distrust the government and people that they have fought to protect for so many years. At the same time an evil entity known as "The Centre" has begun to affect the minds of susceptible individuals around the world. The Centre's goals appear to be nothing more or less than wiping humanity from the face of the earth, and no matter how much the superheroes may dislike the governments of the world, this is something they cannot allow.

Much of the runtime of the film is spent on the backstory of Hal Jordan, who becomes the Greeen Lantern, and a Martian named J'onn J'onzz, who eventually takes the superhero title Martian Manhunter. The film also delves a little into the crises of faith being had by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash.

There is a lot to like about the film, including its fun comic look, its distinct placement within a moment of our nation's history, and the teaming up of some of our favorite superheroes. However, there is so much packed into the 75 minute runtime of the film that the storytelling does suffer.

It is abundantly clear to any viewer that a significant amount of backstory and plot points have been dropped (like, one imagines, much of the story directly involving The Centre and its powers). Comic book fans who are aware of the story and the origins of the characters will easily be able to fill in the gaps from their own recollections. However, the average viewer, one who is interested in the characters but does not delve into the comic scene, may have trouble discerning what, precisely, is taking place at times.

The film certainly covers much breadth, but outside of Hal Jordan's story has little depth to it. This lack of depth and the sheer number of characters who make nothing more than momentary cameo appearances (like Aquaman introducing himself in the final moments of the film) give the unmistakable impression that a sequel will be forthcoming. This tale of the founding of the Justice League feels very much like the beginning of a series of films, and not a feature meant to stand by itself.

This film was enough fun that I hope another will follow (maybe a prequel even), but I certainly do wish that it stood better by itself.

The single-disc edition of the DVD contains a look at the history of the Justice League from its origins in comics to the present day as well as two separate audio commentary tracks and a look at the next direct-to-DVD animated DC Universe release, Batman: Gotham Knight.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Well Feather my Velociraptor and Call me Shirley (Nova Sure Does)

While in no way belittling those who study dinosaurs, it feels as though anytime a science documentary series is not quite sure what to do their next episode about dinosaurs are trotted out.  Dinosaurs are the "go to" animals.  People love them – they terrify, they awe, and for some reason, they inspire.  Though they've been extinct for millions, there seems to always be something new and different happening in the world of dinosaurs. This week, Nova trots out dinosaurs in their latest episode, the aptly titled "The Four-Winged Dinosaur." 

The episode follows the discovery and discussion surrounding a discovery of Xu Xing, a Chinese paleontologist who, upon receiving a fossil of a four-winged dinosaur recognized it as such (no one before him had seen, or perhaps recognized, such a creature). Xu Xing named the creature a Microraptor

No sooner had Xu Xing named the creature and written up a paper about it than alternate theories began to emerge.  Where Xu Xing placed the Microraptor in one family and felt that it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that dinosaurs evolved into birds, others disagreed.  Where Xu Xing pointed out how he imagined the bones to connect to one another, others disagreed, sure that leg bones plugged into sockets in a wholly different fashion. 

This week's Nova is fascinating precisely because it illuminates the vast array of opinions that scientists can have looking at the exact same material.  Nova actually has the scientists trade models with one-another and even with 3-D versions of the Microraptor the scientists cannot agree on how the pieces fit together.

What all the scientists do agree on, mostly because the fossil record is irrefutable, is that the Microraptor (as well as its larger raptor cousins) had feathers and not the type of skin they were depicted with in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park.  The documentary actually uses Jurassic Park to great effect, explaining how raptors entered the public consciousness via the film, and how perception was affected by the movie. 

The use of the mainstream film, while perhaps a little silly, is certainly a touchstone in our society and a great entry into the study currently being pursued.  No one could possibly mistake that film for a documentary, but Nova is clear to try a couple of differences nonetheless (they do not go as far as saying that we can't actually make dinosaurs, as they must assume that the audience is already aware).

In the end however, as stated above, the entire episode really boils down to a scientific argument between different dinosaur-studying camps.  The episode goes one step shy of actually putting the feuding camps into a single room, but the enmity felt between the two groups seems great enough that even if Nova had wanted to get them together they never would have acquiesced. 

Thus, the documentary is as interesting for the personal dynamics of the feuding scientific factions as it is for the actual discoveries presented.  In fact, I would love to see a follow-up piece that eschews discussion of the dinosaurs entirely and chooses rather to focus on the individuals piecing together the theories and why their thoughts differ so greatly. 

Nova - "The Four-Winged Dinosaur" airs Tuesday, February 26 at 8pm (a check of your local listings is never a bad idea however.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Cashmere Jungle's Lipstick Mafia

This was the week it finally happened. I confused Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle. I was watching both last night, one after the other, which probably had something to do with it. It's a mistake that I would not make again even if Cashmere Mafia wasn't done for the season.

Here's exactly what happened. Caitlin was in trouble with her boss for their makeup company having been dropped completely from the Fashion Week lineup. Caitlin was tasked with finding a designer in need of help. "Oh perfect," I thought "Victory is in trouble with her fashion designing and could surely use the boost."

It was so simple. It was so easy. I thought it was a little too obvious for the producers of the show to have concocted such a scheme; Victory has been in trouble for weeks and there Caitlin is, all of the sudden tasked with helping a designer during fashion week.

The only problem with my thought is that Caitlin and Victory are on two different shows. When I say "different" I don't mean different in concept, design, and execution as much as I mean different in name and network. Sure, they're vaguely different in the other three categories, but a quick glance at the television won't tell you which one you're watching.

The sad thing about it all is that Lipstick Jungle is head and shoulders better than Cashmere Mafia. I don't find either particularly exciting, but the NBC version is definitely superior. The characters are more interesting, the men drawn more fully, and the cast far, far more engaging. I have some serious problems with Kim Raver's Nico as being painted sympathetically for having an affair -- that's something that would never be done if it were a man doing it -- but the point is minor. Last night Nico made a terribly bad judgment call trying to buy off her boy-toy and the show didn't paint that in a positive light.

In the end however, it seems as though my distress and confusion about both shows will all come to naught. The ratings for neither are particularly strong and neither may return in the fall. Will we, the television audience, have lost something with their disappearance? I tend to think not. The Sex and the City movie comes out this summer and so by fall it will be on DVD and anyone jonesing for a fix of self-obsessed New York City women will be able to watch that over and over and over again.

I guess I'll miss Brooke Shields being on television on a weekly basis and Andrew McCarthy's oddly divorced from reality billionaire, Joe Bennett, but I'd bet that both Shields and McCarthy land on their feet.

Maybe though, just maybe, ABC and NBC will figure out some sort of new business model and combine the two shows into one. I don't mean just a cross-over from time to time, I mean a true single show. The four women on the ABC version could spend more time there and the three on the NBC one could spend more time there, but they could have regular interactions and then Caitlin could finally help out Victory just as I'd imagined she would.

It's a thought.

Hacking and Slashing Through Zemeckis's Beowulf

In the motion picture industry it seems that technological improvements never cease.  Sometimes they lead to amazing and wonderful things (the original Star Wars) and sometimes they don't (Star Wars:  Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace). 

A few years ago Robert Zemeckis directed the motion capture animated film The Polar Express.  It looked… different.  At moments it appeared amazing, but there was an almost inhuman look to the characters that was disturbing.  Just released to DVD is Zemeckis's next foray into the world of motion capture motion pictures, Beowulf.  This new movie has a much improved look to it, and while not all the characters always look quite alive, it is still a spectacular visual experience.

Based on the old English epic poem, the movie follows the hero Beowulf (Ray Winstone) as he battles Grendel (Crispin Glover), Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), a dragon, and his own internal conflicts.  The main star of the film however is not any of the characters, but the animation itself.  It is a film where style trumps substance.

The film looks truly outstanding, and a quick glance at what is taking place in some scenes might actually lead one to believe that they are watching a live action film, not an animated one.  Extended viewing, of course shows this to not be the case, particularly with some of the impossible tracking camera shots, the look of Grendel, and the huge swooping Dragon.

The basic story has the hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), appear at the Kingdom of Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) in order to slay the monster, Grendel.  After accomplishing this task, Beowulf is asked to set about killing Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie).  He's not quite as successful here as with Grendel, and instead falls prey to Grendel's mother's seduction, for which he is rewarded Hrothgar's kingdom but loses his will to live and sense of self-worth. 

While more often than not visually impressive, the film's main drawback is that in many scenes it plays out in an overly juvenile fashion.  In particular, the scene in which Beowulf fights Grendel features Beowulf doing so in the nude.  While that may be perfectly fine, the ways in which the movie hide Beowulf's genitalia is reminiscent of the nude scene in Austin Powers and many similar films.  After the umpteenth candle or spear or sword or hand that just happens to appear over his crotch, one gets the feeling that it was done more for the laugh than to preserve the PG-13 rating.  Surely a few shots of Beowulf from the waist-up could have been inserted instead of a carefully placed sword.

When released theatrically, the film was available in both a 2-D and a 3-D format.  There are numerous disconcerting moments watching the film on DVD in 2-D where it is quite clear that the shot only exists in order to stick out at the audience; the framing and placement for a 2-D film is abysmal. 

The DVD release features the standard and all too-predictable assortment of extras, from deleted scenes to making of-documentaries.  They are nominally interesting for the science and technology that went into the picture, but there is nothing present that is truly above and beyond.

Though foolish and over-the-top at moments, this filmic version of Beowulf is still an enjoyable ride with a great cast doing the voices (Robin Wright Penn and John Malkovich are present in addition to those named above).  Purists will, of course, complain about changes from the poem, but don't let that deter you.  Though an animated feature, this is not for the kids and will almost surely entertain action-adventure craving adults.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What the Television Networks will do to Spite Me

Fine, I get it, I see where I stand. Week after I sit here and tell people how great the cast is on Law & Order, how it's really gelled once more, how it's fun to watch again, how I'm impressed story after story. So, what's the result? Jesse L. Martin is leaving the show. I tell you that it's finally great and wonderful again, so it has to be changed. Of course it does. In honor of that, let's take a look at what else will could make my television viewing life complete.

First, Omarosa could be given her own show, and I mean really her own show rather than her just co-opting Trump's. Every week could feature Omarosa picking someone off the street and hurling epithets at them. She could look at someone, size them up, decide whether a personal attack aimed at the individual's mother, brother, or receding hairline would best throw them for a loop and begin yelling. For Sweeps I imagine that she could be sitting in a security office somewhere, and a speaker would transmit her voice to random passersby. Someone would just be walking down the street and they'd hear her voice: "Hey, fatso in the blue jeans and ripped t-shirt. That's right, Tub-o, I'm talking to you. I spoke to your wife last night and she says you're a terrible father." It would go on like that for an hour, but would be nothing in comparison to the next entry into primetime.

Imagine, if you will, a behind-the-scenes documentary about ER. Every week this new series would show a clip from an early season of the show (anything prior to season 6), then show a scene from a later season, pointing out the striking similarity between the two (as many of ER's plots in recent seasons have simply been rehashes of old ones, this would be simple). The current cast, directors, producers, and other miscellaneous crew would then come on and talk about how the scene is so much better the second time, how the show never really figured out how to do a plot the first go-round, and it wasn't until they decided to dust off the old script that they really figured it out (mainly, it turns out, the lighting the first time around wasn't quite dim enough).

Finally, a comedy about the funniest period in human history -- Ancient Greece. Except, rather than doing it as a period piece, the ancient Greeks will be magically transported to the present day. Not only that, but they're all petulant teenagers attending an uber-rich school in New York City. Week after week, the ancient Greek teens (who have started their own club) humiliate the other teens around them. Rather than doing it on the Internet however, the Greek teens write plays and one of their rich fathers gets them the stage in Central Park to perform them on.

I've often been asked whether there is a world in which I would stop watching television. Nope. Even if the above slate of shows made the air I'd still probably watch from time to time (and sadly, I wouldn't be the only one).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Highlander - The Source Makes Me Wish the Franchise Wasn't Immortal

Some franchises never seem to go away. They may ebb and flow, but they do not disappear. Some franchises appear to be immortal.

Such has been the case with Highlander, a franchise that started with a film in 1986, has had three other theatrical releases, no fewer than three television series, animated features, novels, comic books, and last fall a made-for-television movie that is being released on DVD on February 26.

This latest feature film to enter the canon, Highlander: The Source (directed by Brett Leonard), follows the story of Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), the lead character in the Highlander television series. Without a basic knowledge of the other movies or television series (the latter helps far more than the former), everything that takes place in this film is wholly indecipherable. A bigger problem is that even if one is aware of what happened in the various series and films, there is little present to care about here.

The movie picks up an unspecified number of years from the last film, Highlander: Endgame, in a dystopian future where gangs and violence seem to run rampant. Duncan has turned away from his quest to become the final immortal in the world, preferring to brood after losing the love of his life because, as an immortal, he can't father children.

He is soon convinced by an old friend, Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes), to team up with several other immortals, including Duncan's old friend Methos (Peter Wingfield), in a quest to find "The Source." The Source is the mythical, and alleged, root of their immortality which is protected by The Guardian. Also along for the ride is Duncan's ex-love, Anna (Thekla Reuten) who has been receiving visions about the location of The Source. Exactly why Anna gets these visions is never explained by the film.

In fact, very little is ever explained by the film. It just jumps from one scene to the next, with the immortals constantly faced by marauding gangs and the incredibly obnoxious Guardian (Cristian Solimeno), who has the amazing ability to run very quickly. The Guardian is present every step of the way on the immortals' quest, always mocking and making fun of them, but rarely ever going for the kill. By the end of the journey, Duncan is the last immortal standing and has to go one on one against the Guardian whose power seems to ebb as Duncan's grows (again, why this happens is never made clear).

In the vast majority of the franchise's incarnations, Highlander weaves a present- (or future-) day story alongside one from the past. The immortals' lives seem to repeat themselves, and it is through a reexamination of where they came from that they are able to progress. While there is a 30-second portion of the film that deals with the past in this movie, it serves more as a brief explanation of The Guardian's origins than anything else.

Additionally, the Highlander franchise has placed a premium on swordplay (immortals can only die by losing their heads, so swords tend to be their weapon of choice against another immortal). While the immortals in this film do carry swords, there is little to no swordplay present.

Between that, the ultra-low budget appearance of the special effects, uninspired directing, woodenness of the acting, and paper-thin story, the franchise has seen better days than what Highlander: The Source has to offer. The film adds nothing to the mythology of the immortals (and in fact negates things that have come before) and no one except for the most die hard fan of the franchise will find their time well spent.

The DVD release of the film contains a feature-length documentary on the making of the film, a tribute to Bill Panzer (a producer and writer on several of the entries into the franchise), and comparisons between storyboards and actual scenes in the film.

It is entirely possible that there is still some life in the Highlander series (I, for one, hope there is), but The Source marks a low point from which the producers may find it hard to escape. If it is true that "there can be only one," this isn't it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Spring of my Televisual Discontent

It's a weird feeling.  The writers' strike is over and I feel like television is now starting to wind down, when instead I ought to think it is spooling back up.

American Gladiators is done.  Las Vegas is done.  Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles is winding down.  There's a lot of TV out there that just isn't going to come back until September at best.  I know, there are a bunch of things that are going to be coming back (How I Met Your Mother for one), but it's all left me feeling very empty inside. 

Sure, The Riches (which I complain about but enjoy) is due to start up soon on FX, but the season is only going to be 7 episodes instead of 13.  The same is true of Dirt which starts in about a week and a half. 

There's this notion that the TV season is going be "salvaged," to some extent anyway, but I just don't see it.  Or, more accurately, I just don't feel it.  A lot of series will, in the end, be able to pull out 19 or 20 episodes from this season, but the stutter-step airing of them leaves it all feeling rather hollow. 

Part of that is the fact that summer series are already arriving.  Big Brother has started airing, Hell's Kitchen will be coming in April instead of June, and after Knight Rider this past Sunday, NBC promoed the return of America's Got Talent (after watching America's Got Talent, I can assure you the title is a blatant lie).

And, did you watch Knight Rider the other day?  NBC is contemplating turning it into a full-time real-deal (or as real as such a thing can be) television series.  They're contemplating giving that an hour of primetime a week.  Watching the show though, it felt as though the writers had gotten about halfway through the story before they went on strike and NBC decided to film it and air it anyway. 

I hope (and pray) that come this fall things will be better, that some sort of creativity can still bloom in the shortened television development season, but I'll be honest, I'm disheartened.  Maybe I shouldn't be, maybe there's still awesome out there, but the notion that Reaper is coming back just doesn't do it for me. 

I long for the dismal Jack Bauer episodes we were treated to in season 3 (trust me, last season was better).  I'm hoping that the super-twins from Heroes come to the rescue.  It's actually crossed my mind to start watching Carpoolers.

At least there's always BBC America.  Seriously, you should watch Last Restaurant Standing.

Monday, February 18, 2008

An American Gangster Comes Calling

Packed with star power, American Gangster entered theaters late last fall. With Ridley Scott at the helm and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe on screen together for the first time in a dozen years, the film was sure to receive decent box office returns. More importantly than that though, the "based on a true story" gangster film is great fun to watch.

The film is really two separate stories, one with Washington and one with Crowe; the two actors do not even share a scene together until the final minutes. One of the stories follows a crime boss, Frank Lucas (Washington), and the other a cop, Richie Roberts (Crowe), who is out to take drugs off the streets. Roberts doesn't set out to get Lucas -- he doesn't even know Lucas exists when he begins -- but his investigations eventually lead him there.

At the outset of the film, Lucas is working for "Bumpy" Johnson, a gangster in Harlem, who teaches Lucas everything he knows about the right and wrong way to do business. Lucas views Johnson as a great man who always helped the community and takes Bumpy's lessons to heart. A power void is left when Bumpy dies of a heart attack and, in the end, it is Lucas who is able to fill that void.

Lucas's genius, and the way he was able to get to the top, is due to his figuring out how to get members of the U.S. Army to help him smuggle heroin into the United States. His supply line was inexpensive enough that he could keep the heroin far more pure than his competitors and still manage to sell it at a lower price. Lucas's plan works out so well that the Italian mob ends up working for him instead of vice versa.

Roberts, meanwhile, is the last honest cop in the New York tri-state area. He becomes an outcast for turning in a million dollars in unmarked bills that he and his partner easily could have stolen. Becoming a pariah is too much for his partner, who ends up overdosing on Lucas's heroin. Roberts is soon put in charge of a task force charged with curtailing the drug trade in the area and soon finds himself in hot pursuit of Lucas and his organization.

Scott deftly handles the movie and its two intersecting tales. Even at two hours and 38 minutes for the theatrical version (and closer to three hours for the "unrated extended version") the film rarely drags and almost never repeats itself. From beginning to end, it is a great look at these two men who would do anything for what they believed. More time is spent with Lucas's rise and management style than Lucas putting together his case, which sometimes does leave the viewer wondering how logical leaps were made, but never are the leaps too big to be believed.

The biggest complaint to be made about the movie is that putting it together is almost too easy. There is a certain amount of retread in the picture, a distinct feeling that one has seen it before. Lucas, though a hardened criminal and a cold-blooded killer, is the loving family man who takes his family in, buys his mother a house, and makes sure his brothers are all employed. Roberts, despite being a great cop (and an honest one), is unable to keep his marriage together and can't even keep his promises to see his son. It is the good guy who lives on the edge, who flirts with disaster, and the bad guy who is happily ensconced in the loving bosom of family.

The film is, as stated above, based on a true story, so Scott may just be dealing with drawn from life material, but some of the moments do feel old. The cop-on-the-edge and family-man gangster are now well-worn images in the minds of the public however, and care must definitely be taken in constructing the characters so that they are more than these cardboard stereotypes.

The film does go much of the way needed to establishing these men as three-dimensional and the charisma of Washington and Crowe is more than enough push it the rest of the way. Both actors seem at the top of their game here and it is a shame that the two men are not on screen at the same time for more of the picture.

American Gangster comes to DVD on February 19 in several different editions, including a "2-Disc Unrated Extended Edition." This edition features not only the theatrical version of the film (which has a commentary with Scott and writer Steven Zaillian), but also the extended version; deleted scenes; a full-length making-of documentary; and other documentaries that examine how the production came together, the research involved in it (including interviews with Roberts and Lucas), and the moment in New York's history that the film examines.

Though not always new and different, American Gangster is a good movie put together by people who can tell a great story, and with wonderful actors who give it their all.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nova Goes Ape (and not the Grape Variety)

In Nova's latest episode, the series makes it quite clear that we still have a lot to learn about the world in which we live.  Specifically, the show focuses on apes, and how they act differently than we once thought they did.  For instance, some like to go swimming and can use sticks to poke at things.  Others have the ability to learn how to count and operate simple machines.  They still don't learn in the same way as humans, but they do learn.

The whole episode is, nominally, interesting, and some of the experiments are intriguing, but, as a whole, it leaves the viewer wondering why they bothered watching, or why the producers bothered putting the whole episode together.  Watching an ape learn that if they spin a disc and pull on a lever they can get a grape is all well and good, but the episode fails to really paint a larger picture.  It makes some stabs at establishing a grandiose theory or opinion, but nothing that really satisfies.

The episode goes into great detail on how different groups of apes in different parts of the world act differently, and how some exhibit more human characteristics than we might think.  It also goes into how some of these characteristics might place certain ape groups within the definition of having a culture or civilization. 

One of the basic problems with all these talks in advancement from what we thought we knew to what we're now learning is that the former is never really established.  There is little to no discussion in the episode about how and why we came to our initial assessments of apes in the way that we did.  There is no talk of whether our original opinions came from observation, inference, or were simply pulled out of thin air.  As such, it is difficult at times during this episode to understand why some of what the audience is shown is as astounding and wonderful as the scientists certainly believe it to be. 

Furthermore, without having established the proper base-level knowledge and its origins, one has trouble determining whether some of the observations being made about apes represent a leap forward in what the apes are doing or a change in our understanding about what the apes are doing.  This is particularly true at the outset of the episode, when a discussion of chimps and their dislike for water and swimming takes place. 

In the end, the main problem with the episode boils down to the fact that the narrative simply isn't as well put forward as it truly needs to be.  The voiceover needs to do a far better job establishing ape theory, its changes, and its advancements.  Without a stronger storyline the episode devolves into a series of unconnected vignettes, some of which prove more interesting and some less.  Going from one of these vignettes to the next though can be disconcerting.  One can't quite understand why the switch is occurring and why the viewer should bother truly caring.

There are interesting things that can be learned from watching Nova's "Ape Genius" episode, but it requires wading through a lot of material and dissecting it on one's own.  Television watching need not be easy, but the show needs to help the viewer a little bit more than this one does.

Nova – "Ape Genius" airs Tuesday, February 19 at 8pm, though any simian can tell you that you ought to check your local listings to be sure.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lipstick Jungle and Celebrity Apprentice Rile Me Up

I shouldn't be -- I know I shouldn't be -- but I'm just completely infuriated. Last night I watched The Celebrity Apprentice, which I know I've ranted about before but am about to do so again, and Lipstick Jungle (okay, I watched Lost too, but that I just loved, it didn't upset me at all).

On The Donald's show, which is becoming more ludicrous with every passing episode, Omarosa and Piers Morgan butted heads repeatedly last night. Piers is no saint, that's true, but Omarosa's attacks were beyond personal. Her attacks didn't just go after Piers, but went after his family as well. It was inane, it was childish, and they were even on the same team for this task.

Now, amazingly, their team won. Despite Omarosa's interrupting the entire task repeatedly and bringing in no money whatsoever on her own, the team won. In the boardroom, Piers explained exactly what Omarosa had said about him and how it was unacceptable. He was right. There's absolutely no reason that Omarosa should be attacking this man's family and his ability to raise his children. Frankly, had it been me, I would have hit her (for which, I'm sure I would have been fired). However, Trump, while acknowledging that the two of them shouldn't work together again, refused to step in and do something about Omarosa. He didn't even bother to admonish her for her actions.

One has to wonder if, looking back on the season, Trump now realizes how horrible she is? Maybe he's come to the same conclusion that surely everyone has by now, that Omarosa is no longer entertaining to watch, even as someone to root against. I think the man ought to issue an apology.

The other people that ought to apologize for yesterday are the writers of Lipstick Jungle. Last night there was a hubbub (or brouhaha, if you prefer) on the show about a tell-all book that was going to come out about Wendy (Brooke Shields's movie executive character). Apparently in the book there was a bit about how she postponed her child's third birthday party in order to work. When complaining about the unfairness of the attack against her, Wendy stated that if a man had canceled the birthday party it would have been okay, that no one would have complained or thought twice.

What world are these writers living in? How can anyone imagine that to be the case? If anyone cancels their child's birthday party in order to work, they ought to be taken to task for it. It makes no difference if they're a man or a woman, you just don't do that in order to work. You just don't. And, if you do, you certainly deserve to be called out for it. Of course you do.

It is possible that the writers didn't believe what they were saying, that it was supposed to provide insight into the character of Wendy and the alien planet on which she lives, but that seems unlikely. Why would they want to so alienate one of their main characters from the real world? If the point of the show is to illustrate the triumphs and travails of high-powered women, to show their struggle between the personal and the public, why make a character completely misunderstand the reality of the world around them? Does Wendy truly feel so persecuted?

Unquestionably, there are injustices working women have to face, I don't think that anyone would deny that. It's actually for just that reason that the show need not make up ones that don't exist.

I simply can't fathom why anyone would believe it okay for a father to cancel a birthday party and a mother not. Seriously, if there's anyone out there that thinks that's okay, speak up.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Law & Order all About Content, Cashmere Mafia all About Clothes

If you're like me (and really, who isn't?), you stopped watching Law & Order a couple of seasons back. Figuring that its best days were behind it, that the new cast was simply no good, and that the "ripped from the headlines-ness" of the show had run its course, we found better things to watch on Wednesday nights (like maybe Lost twice in a row in order to pick up all the little things we missed the first time around).

Well, Lost is now on Thursdays and the cast is far improved from what it was a short while ago, so there's no reason to not be watching Law & Order again. Jack McCoy is now the D.A. (on an interim basis right now, but he's going to run once the current term is over, I'm sure), and the new crew of folks is just incredible. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache bring an edge to the series that has been missing in recent years (and, both are from the vastly underrated series Kidnapped, which was on NBC briefly in the fall of 2006).

Last night, John Pankow was on in a guest-starring role, and he too, was spectacular. I've always seen Pankow as Paul Buchman's shlubby cousin Ira on Mad About You, but in the role of a sleazy A.D.A. he was wonderful. Sure, I kept waiting for him to talk about Uncle Burt and Aunt Sylvia, but he didn't,; rather he not-so-slyly tried to put one over on Jack McCoy and got himself fired in the process.

I'd understand if you still missed Lenny Briscoe, and that's why you weren't watching Law & Order, but trust me, you'll like the new guys. The don't have the same sort of morbid humor Bristow did, but as "cops on the edge" they're good, and the cases are again interesting.

What's not interesting, and fails to be most of the time I watch (and airs opposite Law & Order), is Cashmere Mafia. Last week it was explained to me that I just don't "get" the program because I'm a guy. That if I was a woman I'd look not just at what was happening on screen, but what the people were wearing, because, I was told, the clothing is fantastic.

I watched the episode with this clothing caveat in mind last night and can honestly say that except for the pink scarf with the skulls on it that was shredded I can't remember a single item that anyone wore at any point. Not a one. Maybe I was too focused on the incredibly silly plotlines still. But, you know what I decided? Anything that any of the characters wear ought to be secondary to what is actually taking place. If this was the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show I'd understand why the clothing would be more important than the plot, but this is, allegedly, a scripted drama. Why wouldn't one care far more about what was taking place than who was wearing whom?

And no, for the record, I'm not sitting here in an undershirt and boxers while I type this. I have a wonderful pair of Gap jeans on, and a Brooks Brothers striped rugby polo. It may not be high fashion, but it's comfortable and sane.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

American Gladiators' Filler (and Commercials) Far Less Delicious than a Jelly Donut's.

So, it seems as though the writers will be heading back to work soon. There is not yet a complete list of which shows will resume production for the spring, will shows will just opt to return in the fall, and which shows will never be heard from again. Partial lists have been compiled, but until the writers vote to return to work it's all relatively speculative anyway. Therefore, let's ignore all of that for now and focus on what matters, namely, American Gladiators.

You think I jest, but I do not. We're talking about American Gladiators whether you like it or not (admit it, you like it, you just don't want anyone to know). I like it too, but I have some reservations. The 90 minute editions NBC has been airing for the semi-finals add in one more event, which I think is better for the show, but the longer edition also sports an extra 15 or 20 minutes of commercials. No joke. I started watching it on my TiVo about 10 minutes late last night, had caught up before we were at the 30 minute mark, and paused and restarted the show several more times before all was said and done. It certainly felt like at least half the show was commercials.

To be clear, I'm not saying half the show was commercials, just that it felt like it. And whether it was or it wasn't, if it felt like it there's a problem. Somehow the producers have to figure out a way to restructure the breaks so that the perceived commercial time decreases. Cynics out there would argue that they've already done as much, and what felt like half the show being commercials was probably closer to two-thirds, but I doubt that.

Gladiators has this horrific, momentum killing tactic of going to a commercial break just as the contestant is about to start an event. I know that the contestant doesn't actually have to wait for the show to return to start the event (it is all pre-recorded), but the momentum for the audience is still disrupted. But, these 90 minute shows apparently even go to commercial before the first event takes place. Last night, after a little recap of what the male contestants did in their preliminary rounds, the show went to commercial. It was six minutes in before the first event started. That's an awful long time when you consider that fact that each contestant is only doing five events plus the Eliminator.

How about I just end today's ranting and raving with this: it's just too much filler, and if the producers only add one more event for this Sunday's two hour finale I'm going to be hugely disappointed. Figure that each event takes no more than five or six minutes. So, adding one more event and another half-hour to the show this Sunday would mean that there would be an extra 25 minutes (or thereabouts) of commercial and filler. Laila Ali and Hulk Hogan, nice though they may be, are relatively stiff as hosts and the male gladiators ridiculously over-the-top every time they open their mouths. The show just can't make the filler interesting, so how about no doing it? I think we'd all just like to see more pummeling.

Who knows, maybe they'll figure it out for season 2.

Affleck and Affleck Manage to Get Gone Baby Gone

Sometimes, when all else fails, one has to stop, assess the situation, and come up with a new strategy. It might cost a lot emotionally, mentally, and physically to do so, but the pause might lead to better things down the road, possibly even a happy ending. Even if things don't work out perfectly for the protagonist of Gone Baby Gone, things seem to be looking up for its director, Ben Affleck.

For the past few years, Affleck's acting career seemed in peril as movie after movie performed below expectations at the box office. So, the star took a break from being in front of the camera and decided to go behind it for a change. Along with Aaron Stockard, Affleck adapted Dennis Lehane's novel, Gone Baby Gone, and turned it in to a solid feature film directorial debut.

The movie is a gritty thriller that follows private detective Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) as they search for a missing young girl. The two are helping (and sometimes hampered by) the Boston Police Department in the form of Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), and Detective Nick Poole (John Ashton).

Hired by the missing girl's aunt and uncle, Kenzie and Gennaro are brought onto the case because they are from the neighborhood and supposedly can get people to talk that might be unwilling to discuss matters with the police. The tactic works and Kenzie and Gennaro are able to give the police a leg up they might not otherwise have gotten.

As the film progresses, the intrigues get deeper and deeper and the double-crosses more serious. By the end of the film, Kenzie is forced to make choices that will have a great impact not just on the girl's family, but himself as well.

It may seem, at first blush, that by casting Casey Affleck in the lead role, Ben may have taken some sort of shortcut or that he couldn't get a bigger name. However, Casey is wonderful, and wholly believable, in the film and it certainly proves to be one of the best performances he has done.

There are some moments, most notably bits and pieces of the voiceover, that fall flat, but that may be due to a stiltedness in their wording as much as Casey's inflections. The rest of the performances are strong as well, most notably Amy Ryan (who awas nominated for an Academy Award for this role) as the missing girl's mother and Titus Welliver as the girl's uncle.

The subject matter -- the kidnapping of a child -- is a serious one, and Ben Affleck does well to explore the humanity (both good and bad) that surrounded the girl in her family and kidnappers. The movie does not provide easy answers of any sort, and the viewers finds themselves struggling with right versus wrong just as much as Kenzie and Gennaro do.

Ben Affleck manages the film and pacing well, striking a good note between dialog- and action-heavy scenes. As noted, much of the acting is quite good, which certainly reflects upon Affleck as well.

The film may not be quite as deep as one may hope, and the twist at the end is relatively easy to spot, but despite that, the film is still enjoyable to watch. It certainly is a good first effort behind the camera.

The DVD release features the standard assortment of extras - deleted scenes, an extended ending, a couple of behind the scenes documentaries and a commentary track with Affleck and Stockard. While they're somewhat interesting, the film doesn't need the enhancements to be worth purchasing on DVD.

I look forward to Affleck's next effort from the director's chair.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Astrospies Space Race

Imagine for a moment orbital space stations that house astronauts and have telescopic lenses not pointed towards the stars, but rather down onto the earth. Maybe some of these space stations have guns mounted to them so as to ward off possible enemy attacks.

It may sound a little out there, possibly even like the plot of a James Bond film (in reality it's similar to a couple of James Bond film plots), but the ideas were drawn up during the height of the cold war. The Soviets even launched their gun-mounted space station and managed to take some photos. This week's Nova episode delves into the story of the Soviet and U.S. "astrospies."

According to the episode, the United States came up with the plan for their astronaut-spies after processing a roll of film that came back from a camera up in space and rather than seeing Soviet missile sites saw the tops of clouds. The theory was that a person in space would have had the good sense not to photograph the clouds and would have gone on to a secondary or tertiary objective, saving film, time, and energy. The theory sounded solid enough that over 1.5 billion dollars was pledged to it by Lyndon Johnson, and the United States began to develop a "Manned Orbiting Laboratory" (or MOL) which was just a cover story for the real spy games going on. Air force pilots were trained for the job, and they, along with numerous scientists, worked for years at getting the whole thing off the ground.

Half a world away, the Soviets were doing the exact same thing. Unlike the United States, the Soviets even managed to launch their space station, Almaz, and sent several different missions up to man the observatory.

In classic Nova fashion, the show has found old video footage, stills, and people willing to talk on camera about what exactly took place during this secret space race. It is a truly spectacular, and completely dated, piece of history. The notion of doing such a thing now, as one of the experts points out, is silly -- computers and technology have progressed to the point where a man up in space to take photos simply isn't needed. After all, if one's picture doesn't have to be terribly current, there's always Google Maps.

As the show is quick to point out, no one knew what the future would bring, and everyone felt that it was better to be safe, and a little more poor, than sorry. The individuals interviewed from the U.S. team seem to not mind in any way that they did not receive the same accolades that their public counterparts did; they believed their work may have been more important and recognized the need for silence.

What the episode does not, and cannot possibly (though it would be an interesting exercise), delve into is what our current world would look like if both nations had been successful. What would have happened if cosmonauts on Almaz had shot at a U.S. satellite (the U.S. was looking into the possibility of firing projectiles from space itself)?

From start to finish the episode is a wonderful look at an unseen chapter in world history. It makes one wonder what the United States is up to, off the record, today. I guess we'll just have to wait 30 or 40 years to find out.

Nova's "Astrospies" airs on Tuesday February 12 at 8pm, but definitely check your local listings to make sure your local affiliate isn't pulling a fast one on you.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Words of Caution to The Celebrity Apprentice and Donald Trump

There is a basic contract that exists between reality TV show watchers and reality TV show producers - we, the watchers, will accept the rules as you set them forth, ludicrous though they may be, provided that you (and the cast) do, too. Sure, a couple of tricks and surprises are fair, but if we're given the criteria by which people will be booted from the island, house, boardroom, or whatever it is, we expect it to be upheld.

Look at last night's Celebrity Apprentice and the ever-growing embarrassment that is Donald Trump. A few weeks ago Gene Simmons was fired because he brought two people back into the boardroom who did nothing wrong during that task. Trump explained to Gene that he was making a mistake, that Nely Galán ought to be brought back, and that Trump couldn't fire the people Gene wanted to bring in because he wouldn't base his decision on past transgressions. Okay, fair enough, Trump will only fire based upon the task at hand. Good to know.

Last night, Trump decided to fire poor Nely solely because he had the opportunity to do so; she had done nothing at all wrong in the current task (outside of not being able to convince the PM, Omarosa, that she was wrong, and we all know Omarosa takes advice from no one anyway). Trump made it clear that Nely had gotten lucky earlier in the season and that he was going to rectify that tonight. He fired Nely, despite Omarosa's concept being the sole reason the women lost.

Why, exactly, did he do this? What possessed him to fire her when he so clearly ought to have fired the person who was actually at fault?

Ratings. In The Donald's mind, Omarosa must mean ratings. If Omarosa is there more controversy will exist and the ratings will be higher. Though Trump, like Omarosa, listens to no counsel but his own, I have a few words advice for the Hairpieced One - by firing undeserving candidates you are undermining the very notion of the game you have everyone playing. The audience will not stand by you through this. We all know why you did what you did and it is wholly unacceptable. We've put up with a lot from you, from your condescension to every woman who has ever appeared on the show, to your getting rid of George Ross so that your kids could sit in the boardroom mutely, to your bluster about having the top-rated show on television despite what the actual ratings were. Your getting all vindictive on Nely last night and saving your pet project Omarosa may have been the last straw though. Right up until that point a number of us were actually looking forward to the rest of this season and the already ordered second edition of Celebrity Apprentice.

Mr. Trump, you are on thin ice. We all know that it's your decision to make, and that you can fire anyone for any reason you please, but we get to make a decision too, and those of use who still watch are about a half-second away from changing the channel.

Omarosa is not ratings gold, but you insist on clinging to her like a drowning man clings to an inflatable life raft. Sadly though, your life raft has a hole and is quickly deflating. You would do better to let go and allow her sink to the icy depths of the ocean alone, because if you keep hanging on she is going to take you down with her.

But after your performance last night, there will be a few more people to wish you "bon voyage" if you decide to keep holding on.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Train Wreck Television Rules on Wednesday Nights

What is wrong with Wednesday television? If you ask me, there is some sort of drastic, major, monstrous, huge problem with it.

First, The Moment of Truth. People watch this. It's as close as television has ever gotten to televising a train wreck and apparently we're all rubber-neckers. Seriously. These depraved, money-hungry individuals go on the show and reveal their deepest, darkest secrets, or they would if any of them went far enough along in the competition to where the questions were actually personal. I think that in last night's hour of television (44 minutes or so without commercials) something like 12 or 15 questions were asked, and virtually none of them were personal.

Reality television as a whole seems to have decided that pauses are the same as creating tension, and they're not. In The Moment of Truth not only does the host pause before asking the question, the guest pauses before answering it, and then the pre-recorded voice pauses before stating whether the answer was true or false. If all those pauses were removed perhaps some truly prying questions could be asked (no, it's not prying to ask if an underwear model ever stuffed his shorts).

The real question is though, why you, the viewer, want to see someone's life fall apart. Is our society so far gone? Do you really want to watch a real person confess on television to cheating on their spouse and be handed $100,000 for divulging that? We should all be embarrassed. I don't say this often, but it's degrading and disgusting, and not just to the contestants, to the viewers too.

Frankly, the whole spectacle makes Cashmere Mafia look like award-winning television, and it most definitely is not. The women on the show are constantly humiliated and embarrassed, and in no way true to life, but it's still head and shoulders above The Moment of Truth. Watching Zoe shamelessly flirt with her "work husband" and head down the primrose path to cheating on her loyal spouse, whom she berated the other week for contemplating working for someone who had a crush on her, makes me slightly queasy. If Zoe chooses to sleep with this new schmo the producers will probably couch it in some sort of acceptable mid-life crisis/self-exploration thing.

The one thing that made me remotely happy on television last night was Law & Order. I really think the new cast has reinvigorated the show. The "ripped-from-the-headlines" thing can be a little silly (like last night's mortgage crisis thing), but the often ambiguous endings more often tend to make up for it. Last night the presumed killer disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Was she even guilty though? Who knows. And there won't be a chance to dwell on it either as someone new will die next week. The whole case this week was a disaster, and a total and complete train wreck. But, it was fictional, and that's why it's the kind of train wreck I like to see on television.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Charlie Brown Sends a Valentine to All of Us

In this day of South Park and The Simpsons, there is something refreshing about going back and watching a couple of Peanuts specials.  With Valentine's Day on the way people will have the chance to do just that with the recent release of a remastered edition of Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown.  The DVD release includes not just the titled program, but two others, You're in Love, Charlie Brown and It's Your Fist Kiss, Charlie Brown, as well.

Watching all three titles it becomes clear that there is a reason why Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown is the most famous of the episodes included.  The story follows Charlie Brown as Valentine's Day approaches, and passes, without him receiving a single valentine.  Most notably, of course, he wants one from the little red-haired girl, not that she notices him at all.  The rest of the Peanuts appears in the episode as well, and their trials and tribulations with love are simultaneously funny and heartfelt. 

The best of the Peanuts cartoon strips, movies, and television specials have a humor and wisdom to them that current shows eschew almost completely.  Charlie Brown's troubles (and to a lesser extent those of the rest of the group) are universal.  We are all able to completely put ourselves in Charlie Brown's shoes because we've been there.  The main difference comes in that his troubles are somewhat accentuated.  Where we might dream of showing up for a final exam 3 hours late due to circumstances entirely beyond our control and wake up in a cold sweat about it, Charlie Brown actually would show up 3 hours late.  Where we might dream that no one (even the people that give everyone a Valentine's Day card) might send us a card for Valentine's Day, Charlie Brown actually doesn't receive any.  It makes him an incredibly sympathetic figure.  The other "bonus" specials included in this DVD release are moderately less successful in creating this sense about Charlie Brown.

The better of the two is You're in Love, Charlie Brown, in which Charlie Brown does his best to let the little red-haired girl know his true feelings before the end of the school year.  His multiple attempts to introduce himself and to ingratiate himself to her fail in true Charlie Brown-style.  The episode proves moderately interesting, but is a little too one-note when compared to Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown

The last special, It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown is, in virtually every way, a let down.  Not only is the little red-haired girl given a name, Heather, but the episode actually depicts her, repeatedly.  Here, Charlie is tasked with escorted Heather to the big Homecoming dance.  He frets about it throughout the football game where, due to Lucy's repeatedly pulling the football away from him, he fails in his job as kicker, and is consequently blamed for the loss.  Despite this embarrassment though, Charlie manages to perform admirably as Heather's escort at the dance, even giving her a ceremonial kiss.  However, by the next morning, Charlie Brown can't remember anything that took place at the dance.

In Charlie Brown's world things just aren't supposed to work out that well and the addition of his amnesia seems like a cheap way of dampening his happiness.  If Charlie Brown was finally to succeed he ought to have done so.  This deus-ex-machina resolution to the plot, which though successfully reestablishing the quintessential Peanuts norm is wholly unsatisfying.  Worse still however is actually seeing (and naming) the little red-haired girl.  She went from being a universal ideal to solely Charlie Brown's ideal and the transformation is not a good one.

Despite the shortcomings in this final episode, the first two are worth the cost of the DVD.  And, better than that, if one selects "play all" from the DVD menu only the first two specials play (Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown appears first followed by You're in Love, Charlie Brown, and then the DVD repeats Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown), the third is completely ignored.  It is as though the individuals responsible for creating the menu were well aware that the viewer would be better served by skipping It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown.  It's not a bad idea, and one I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone buying the DVD.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Gladiators Get Terminated

Let's face it, no matter how much we wish it were different, life's not fair. It just isn't and it never will be. I just wish that television reality shows could be more fair. Maybe "even" is a better word for it.

Take a look at last night's American Gladiators. I know that it can't be easy to establish any sort of parity between the contenders. They may all perform spectacularly in whatever tests and trials they are given before being on the show, but that doesn't ensure a close match (not everything, after all, can be as spectacularly even an event as my Giants taking down the "perfect" Patriots this past weekend). Evan was just head and shoulders better than his competition, Anthony, last night. It wasn't remotely close. As much as I may have wanted Anthony to win (and I did), I'm not sure that Evan is beatable. He flies through the Eliminator unlike everyone else in the competition.

Evan doesn't look like anything special, and to have him become a Gladiator next season may be a disappointment as he's in no way as built as the muscle-bound male gladiators (he may most closely resemble Siren on the women's side), but in his two appearances he's been unstoppable. He held a record in the Eliminator after his first round that was head and shoulders better than everyone else. Then, last night, he beat his own record. Short of an injury it seems like he's got this thing wrapped up (but the same was said about the "perfect" Patriots before the Giants gave them what for).

Maybe the best analogy for Evan is that he is to American Gladiators what Summer Glau is to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. You look at Summer Glau and think to yourself, well, she's clearly fit, but that doesn't make her strong. Then she does something that requires ridiculous strength and you realize that she (fine, her character) has a metal endoskeleton and is far more than she appears. I'm not necessarily  suggesting that Evan has a metal endoskeleton, but he is definitely out to terminate everyone that stands the way of his vision of the future.

Obviously Evan's vision of the future is him in Gladiator spandex. What exactly is Summer Glau's character, Cameron, imagining when she sees the future? Last night she visited the warehouse that would become the Terminator factory in which she was built. Perhaps I'm reading a little too much into her computerized gaze, but she seemed almost reverential when discussing it. She went home again last night, though it wasn't yet her home because she wouldn't be built for a number of years still (ah, the paradoxes of time travel). Is it possible that Cameron's model of Terminator has a Data-style emotion chip? Why would Skynet have gone out and pilfered an idea from Star Trek anyway? Surely Skynet would have realized that Data's emotion chip didn't work out so well for the android.

Okay, great, nice digression there, but back to the matter at hand, which I'm going to turn over to you to answer: did Cameron seem reverential to her future home? Does anyone think she may actually have feelings?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Helping to Prop Up That Last Restaurant Standing

By now the conventions of reality television contests are well understood.  Even when shows in the genre hop across the pond they are quickly understood and digestible.  Minor differences may exist here and there, but anyone tuning in to BBC America's Last Restaurant Standing which premieres on February 12 (with a special sneak preview on February 7) will easily recognize virtually everything they see.  Better than that though, they'll enjoy it.

Last Restaurant Standing is one of those truly enjoyable reality shows.  There are nine teams of two, each vying to open a restaurant with chef Raymond Blanc.  Though all the teams live together, every team operates a different restaurant.  The three teams that perform the worst during a week square off one more time in order to determine which team will be eliminated.

Rather than using the Hell's Kitchen-style quick, down-and-dirty competitions, things on Last Restaurant Standing are far more in-depth.  In the premiere episode, the nine teams randomly select which of nine different restaurant spaces they will receive.  After visiting the space, they determine what type of restaurant they would like to open and do everything from naming the place and choosing décor to determining the menu and taking reservations for their opening night a week hence.

Following that first open night for the restaurants, during which they are each visited by a judge, the three bottom teams are selected by Blanc and his judges and face elimination.  For this first elimination challenge the teams are made to compete with each other to secure different clients for various events (one is a 21st birthday party, another is a retirement dinner, and the third a charity auction), and then ensure that the client is happy and that the event runs smoothly.

Thus, teams are only nominally competing against each other.  If teams run their restaurant well, more than likely they won't end up in the bottom three and thus can't be eliminated, they need not make sure other teams do badly.  Certainly it could get ugly between teams down the line, but unlike so many other reality shows that need not happen.

As for our host, Raymond Blanc, while not easy-going, is a far more laid back host than other transplants from Europe (like the epithet-hurling Gordon Ramsay).  He is no less serious about getting into business with one of these contestants than Ramsay is during Hell's Kitchen, but Blanc feels more like a puppet master, pulling the strings from behind a desk.  Ramsay always seems to opt for an electrified cattle prod to a contestants backside rather than the constructive criticism Blanc issues. 

Outside of seemingly vaguely high-minded (perhaps all the beautiful castles, palaces, and "country manors" help with that), the show is downright fascinating.  The couples are interesting, and while few reality show contestants seem truly "deserving," the nine teams in question seem to have a vague (but only vague) idea of what they're doing. 

The premiere episode is two hours, which, despite its length, is well-paced.  The first hour is devoted to the couples starting their restaurant and their opening night, and the second to the elimination challenge.  Future episodes will only be one hour in length.  Rather than condensing the show to a single hour, future episodes will either be a regular one with all the teams at their respective restaurants or an elimination challenge.  This is a far cry from U.S. reality competition shows which are bent on sending someone home every week.

BBC America's Last Restaurant Standing is a reality competition show where a team competes against itself as much as it does the other teams around it.  It's just different enough (and fun enough) to be intriguing and yet familiar.  For those looking to while away a winter's night in front of the warm glow of the television it is a great choice.

Friday, February 01, 2008

If We Own the Night Together, Will You Buy Me Out?

Sometimes sitting down to watch a movie one gets the impression that the director was sticking to a straight paint-by-numbers ethos. Police dramas dealing mainly with a single family are particularly easy to do in this matter. One only has to show the good policeman son, the wayward son, the disappointed policeman father, and their love interests to know exactly where everything is headed. One can practically determine exactly how much is left of the movie based solely on the number of times the brothers have fought. Once the inevitable car chase occurs, the timeline becomes even more clear.

The James Gray (The Yards) directed We Own the Night is just such a movie. While it boasts a good cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and Robert Duvall, the film never strays from showing exactly what the audience expects to see exactly when they expect to see it.

Phoenix stars as Bobby Green, a nightclub manager who has eschewed the bosom of his family, and has even started to use his mother's name. His father, Albert Grusinsky (Duvall), is a deputy police chief and brother, Joe Grusinsky (Wahlberg), has just been promoted to run a task force that will have him going up against the drug trade. Joe warns Bobby that he has gotten information pointing towards Bobby's club as a drug spot and ends up raiding the club.

After recriminations and a devastating injury to Joe, Bobby decides to fight for justice, going to work for the cops and re-embracing his family. After wearing a wire; getting caught in a shoot-out or two; ending up in a car chase; fighting with his girlfriend, Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes); losing a family a member; and discovering a dark secret about where the drugs were originating, Bobby savors a bittersweet victory. It all unfolds exactly as one knows it will from the moment the opening titles begin.

While there is sometimes comfort to be found in the bland and predictable, such is not the case here. The film is almost saved by good performances from Phoenix, Duvall, Wahlberg, and Mendes, but not quite. Perhaps, just perhaps, if We Own the Night didn't come so closely on the heels of the far superior The Departed, which also featured Wahlberg, it would be more enjoyable.

There is a quite telling moment included in one of the DVD release's behind the scenes documentaries. When discussing the car chase Gray first quotes Stanley Kubrick as saying that the director's job is not to do something different, just better, and then he proceeds to explain how his car chase was unique because it featured point of view shots and weather was a factor. That, more or less, is what the film amounts to as a whole. The film may lean more towards Bobby's point of view than a similar work, and, well, it rains.

Sadly for Gray, the point of view angle doesn't feel as though it is new or different, and rain just means wet, not added drama. Watching the DVD release and its special features, one is led to the inevitable conclusion that the tagline for the film ought to have been, "not new but slightly different and, there's weather."

More seriously, one does get the sense watching the film that Gray is a good director and the cast quite talented. They are all just trapped in a strictly generic feature. And for that Gray has no one to blame but himself as he is the sole credited writer of the film.