Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Kindler, Gentler Hell's Kitchen?

I am simply shocked about Hell's Kitchen returning Thursday night. I knew it was coming. I've known for a long time that it was going to premiere Thursday, but I'm still pretty shocked that it did. It was a summer show, and then last year, because of the writers' strike it was a late spring show, and now, apparently, it's a winter show. That, to me, is weird.

I was thrilled to see however that they'd made some decent tweaks here in the fifth season. First off, rather than doing a big long introduction to the standard first challenge issued to the contestants, which is where Gordon tells them to make their signature dish for him, the show jumped right into the challenge itself within the first minute of the show. It meant that a lot was edited out and the show went without a big introduction, but I think it worked really well, particularly for this show which, every time it comes back from commercial, insists on replaying the last 45 seconds (or so) of what happened before the break.

Last season the series was definitely feeling a little bit stale. The contestants were horrifically bad, there was little drama, and all the challenges seemed to be the same old thing we saw the year before (and the year before and the year before). To toss that out a little bit and rework the formula slightly seems like a good move for a show in its fifth season, particularly a reality show, and a reality show that FOX believes in enough to not just move up from the summer, but to launch in a post-Idol timeslot.

In terms of numbers, the show came in second place in the time period, behind CSI, but I don't think anyone ever figured that Hell's Kitchen was going to take down CBS's premiere franchise. Some of Kitchen's numbers are going to be the post-Idol bounce and some are going to be additional tune-in for the premiere, but the show does still seem to be doing just fine. Hopefully the producers tweak the formula for the series throughout the rest of the season, adding a little bit more spice to a show that was getting bland.

I was terribly concerned last night at one thing however – Ramsay didn't yell at the opening of the show anywhere near as much as he should have and he liked the vast majority of the signature dishes he tasted. The announcer had already told us that this year's contestants were the strongest ever, so he may have been told by the producers to like things more because it would help add credibility to that notion. That seems like the most likely explanation.

I just hope it's not a harbinger of Ramsay going soft on us, that's definitely not a "tweak" I'd like to see the show make. In the end, we're watching Hell's Kitchen to see Ramsay yell and scream and curse and get angry; it's not one of those nice-spirited cooking contest shows like Last Restaurant Standing. Plus, if Ramsay goes soft they can't call it Hell's Kitchen anymore, they'd have to change the name to Not Terribly Mean Kitchen.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Problem with Television Guest Stars

Special guest stars, as I may have told you in the past, pose a problem for television shows, particularly whodunits.

If you recognize the actor or actress's face when the police are questioning an individual, you know that the police are going to be revisiting that person later. Faces you and I know don't just randomly appear to be questioned by police in one scene and then passed on, never to be seen again. No, if you know the face, the odds are good that they were involved in a crime (or will soon become involved after the fact). From a storytelling aspect, it's an issue -- any surprise or shock is greatly reduced.

Looked at from the opposite end, from the position of the producers, putting a face that we know on television makes us more inclined to either tune in (if we know in advance), or stop our incessant channel-flipping when we spot them. Special guest stars are, in that way, a boon. I hope -- I supremely hope -- that the producers take into account the problems and not just the benefits when nabbing a special guest star.

Last night's Law & Order featured an appearance by Robert Iler as a "special guest star." Okay, maybe they didn't name him as such, but I'm sure that when people were flipping the channels at 10:08 last night (or thereabouts) they noticed "that kid from The Sopranos, you know, AJ, Tony's son."

Anyone who recognized Iler, even if not by name, knew he was instantly involved, somehow, in one of the criminal activities the cops were going to be investigating that evening. No, he may not be a "big" star, but the odds that he was going to be doing Law & Order solely to be the son of the guy who committed the murder were slim to none.

Consequently, it came as no shock whatsoever to find out that his character was involved in nefarious, illegal activities. I'm just happy that the show didn't wait terribly long to make it clear that he was involved and to have the cops go after him; it would have been a horrible L&O "twist" to have the good guys only figure out in the last 10 seconds of the episode that Iler's character was "the guy."

It seems to me that having Iler's character targeted in the first half of the show was a good way of utilizing the face recognition Iler has and still not trying to portray his character being guilty as the twist. It was actually something of a happy medium, although I do wish they could have gotten there even more early than they did, I think they hit on the character about 20 or 25 minutes into the show, and I would have loved him to have been fingered closer to 12 minutes in. And don't tell me that Law & Order cops never make an arrest that early -- they had the first guy in handcuffs at about 13 minutes in last night.

Like I said though, it's a tough problem to try and tackle. If I were grading them, I'd give them a "B" on the way they handled it (and I'm told I'm a harsh grader).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scrubs Hacks Into My E-mail

I would like to, if I may, tell you a brief, and, if I'm honest, slightly disgusting story (but, that's my prerogative, this is after all my column). 

About 10 months ago (give or take), my daughter issued a bowel movement into a potty for the first time.  My wife was at work at her hospital, so, naturally, I snapped a couple of digital pictures and shot her an e-mail with the pics attached.  I didn't do this out of pride or joy -- I figured that the first use of a potty in such a manner was at least terribly lucky in terms of timing and not so much skill based -- but rather for two other reasons.  First, I thought my wife would be pleased to know that our potty training, at least a little, was progressing.  And second (and the main reason), I did it for the laugh.  I was sure that my wife would only get a chance to sit down to check her e-mail when she was taking a break to eat something (they work hard during their 30-hour shifts), and that this type of picture was exactly what she wouldn't want to see as she was biting into a sandwich.  You might call that cruel, but I think that's definitely overstating it.

Why, you ask, did I tell you that?  Because I was watching TV last night and Scrubs stole the joke; they ripped it straight out of my life and put it on the screen for all to see.  Oh sure, if you asked them they'd probably claim that it's a common tale, that their iteration was slightly different than mine, or some malarkey about how they never could have known that I sent such a picture to a hospital for my doctor-wife to see. 

That all sounds good, that all seems plausible, but I ask you, really, how many people do you think send pictures of first poops like that?  Isn't it far more likely that they hacked into my e-mail (or my wife's), found the pictures and thought to themselves "gee, if we get picked up on another network next season because NBC has already announced that this is our last season we could totally use this joke.  You know what, this joke is just so funny that we need to do all that we can to convince ABC that as we're all part of the same big, happy, vertically integrated corporation that they ought to sign us up for at least one season so that we can somehow change around the joke but keep the heart of it the same and use it."   

What, you don't believe that?  You think it was far more dumb luck than anything else?  You may be right, I may be crazy, but I'm apparently the sort of crazy that sitcoms need to make the funny happen, and Scrubs last night was definitely funny, from the poop in the potty joke to the appearance of Sesame Street characters to the cookie pants, it all reminded me of just why I like the fact that they hacked into my e-mail, found the poop picture, and convinced ABC, based solely on that, to pick them up for another season.

Oh come on, at least admit that my argument is slightly possible. You can't prove it didn't happen that way.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Anyone got the Rent?

Going to a show on Broadway -- not just to a Broadway show -- is something special. Being around Times Square, the hustle and bustle, never knowing whether you're going to see the next huge star, and sitting in an old theater watching people perform is an experience to be treasured. Having attended both Broadway shows and Broadway-style shows mounted elsewhere are two wholly different experiences. The music may be just as wonderful, the book just as good, and the actors equally stellar, but the experience is still simply not quite the same (the same thing can be said of seeing a show in the West End). Watching the Blu-ray release Rent – Filmed Live on Broadway leaves one with the exact same sort of feeling.

The books, music, and lyrics, all by Jonathan Larson, are wonderful, and the cast all have wonderful voices. A certain sense of joy at being a part of the show is definitely imparted by the actors, but there is still something unquestionably missing.

The story of Rent is that of a year in the life of a group of friends living the Bohemian life in New York City. More than a couple of them are suffering with the AIDS virus; they all have various personal struggles with love and friendship; and, as the name of the musical indicates, they struggle to pay the rent. It's a powerful story, even if it does seem dated despite having been written less than 20 years ago. Its message of hope and love is still a strong one, and will remain a strong one in years to come, but one imagines that future productions will end up being done as period pieces.

The sound is truly all-encompassing in this Blu-ray, with music coming from all the speakers when appropriate, and applause seeming to come more from the rear.  Additionally, it looks spectacular (it was filmed specifically with this release in mind). The colors are all incredibly crisp and it's easy to make out lots of detail on clothing and the sets.  In terms of color, sound, and picture quality, one might actually think they were there on Broadway.

The real problem with it is the camera work. The multitude of cuts, camera movements, zooms, and other camera changes are incredibly disrupting on screen. Rather than serving to highlight a face or an arched eyebrow or whatever director Michael John Warren was attempting to highlight, the camera work serves to pull the viewer out of the story and away from the cast. While the singing is, of course, constant, the camera changes still prove hugely disruptive for the performances. The viewer finds it incredibly difficult to get a sense of the stage, where the actors are, and what is actually taking place.

It is a disconcerting and upsetting experience -- the musical is a wonderful musical and didn't need the camera work getting in the way. One understands the impetus for Warren's decision -- static camera shots in a play where the stage changes very little over the course of two-and-a-half hours might be a little boring filmically -- but certainly in this case less would have been more, a lot more.

The Blu-ray is loaded with extras including several different behind-the-scenes looks at the cast, crew, history of the musical, and the "lottery" ticketing process to get seats in the front two rows. Additionally, the original cast returns to sing, with the current cast, "Seasons of Love" before the final curtain.

There is a lot to like about Rent – Filmed Live on Broadway -- the story of the musical's creation and Larson's passing, the success of the show, and, the musical itself are all engrossing. Unfortunately, the hyperactive camera work used to film the musical mars what could have otherwise been a truly incredible experience for the home viewer.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

13 Going on 30 - Like Big, but Still Enjoyable

Though it may be a little clichéd, sometimes sitting down to watch a movie is just a "feel-good" experience. The movie may offer little that is new - in fact it could simply be a very slight reworking of an earlier film - but the characters, or the songs, or the overall aesthetic make one smile. One only need look at the Blu-ray release of 13 Going on 30 for the perfect example of such a film.

Directed by Gary Winick (Bride Wars), the film stars Jennifer Garner as Jenna Rink, a newly minted 30-year-old. Originally a 13-year-old girl, Rink experiences the usual sort of torment common to teenagers, which prompts her to wish she were 30, and, presto, she wakes up the next morning and 17 years have passed. Rink finds herself the editor of a fashion magazine in dire straits.

Over the course of the film, Jenna has to navigate her new world. She learns about the backstabbing community in which she lives, that she hasn't been a very good person over the course of the 17 years she can't remember, and that perhaps, given the chance, she would have done things very differently.

The basic plot of the film is incredibly similar to the Tom Hanks' starrer, Big. The main difference between that movie and 13 Going on 30 is that Jenna wakes up 17 years later in her life (and in the world), not that she is simply one morning older while everything else has remained static (as was the case in Big). It is, to be sure, a minor difference in plot points, and the substitution of a girl as the main character rather than using a boy doesn't lead 13 Going on 30 to explore any new ground.

However, whatever its failings in originality, 13 Going on 30 is an incredibly fun film to watch. Garner is bright, perky, and wholly believable as a 13-year-old in a 30-year-old body. From her facial expression, to her attitude, to the way she carries herself, Garner manages to exude "young teen." In a movie that would otherwise seem like a poor retread of old territory, Garner manages to keep the film fresh and bubbly.

Starring alongside Garner are Mark Ruffalo as Matt Flamhaff, 13-year-old Jenna's friend who drifted apart from her over the years and Judy Greer as Lucy Wyman, Jenna's co-worker and best friend. Both – along with Andy Serkis, who plays Jenna's boss – turn in good performances, but 13 Going on 30 is Garner's movie from start to finish.

The new Blu-ray release of the film contains the standard deleted and extended scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a blooper reel along with the music video for "Love is a Battlefield" and "Jessie's Girl," both of which feature in the plot. There is nothing really engaging about any of the behind-the-scenes pieces, and the one on '80s fashion is instantly off-putting with its interviewing of teen models. The alternate beginning and ending scenes included on the Blu-ray provide a wonderful illustration of just why they weren't used, from the acting to the plot points that didn't make the final film. However, perhaps the most silly of the special features is the one in which the beautiful, rich, and popular stars of the film try to explain how they really, really were geeks and unloved in high school. There is little more off-putting than that sort of discussion.

In high definition, the '80s colors really come alive on screen, making one wonder what exactly people were thinking with their fashion choices in that decade and question why a retro return to the decade might ever be viewed as a good idea. As with so many romantic comedies, while 5.1 channel sound is present in the piece, there are few moments when one recognizes the need, or has an overwhelming desire, for the rear speakers to be put into play.

13 Going on 30 is not a perfect film, far from it in fact. Plotlines, like 30-year-old Jenna's boyfriend, are dropped, and even if one accepts the impossibility of 17 years worth of amnesia, all that follows is highly implausible. Even so, its bright spirit, peppy tone, and Garner's Jenna Rink more than compensate for any flaws in the work. One won't find any amazing truths in the story, but a good time will almost certainly be had watching it all unfold.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost Came Back... You Didn't Follow

So, Lost returned last night.  Now, if the ratings are anything to go by, you weren't that interested.  Yes, some of you watched, but far fewer than watched last year.  I'm not quite sure how that could be though.  How is it that you started watching this show, that you really paid attention to what was going on, and now you feel like you can just drop it?  Seriously, that's something I just don't understand.

Let's examine that idea a little more fully, shall we.

You sat down during the first season of Lost, you were like "smoke monster?," "where'd the dog go?," "wait, Locke was in a wheelchair?," "I don't get it, but I so want to know more."  And then, at some point you decided that you'd had enough.  Maybe you cared about The Others and what was in the hatch, maybe you didn't.  Maybe you fell off the train when the show started to flash forward instead of flash back.  Maybe you were good with that, but simply couldn't take the idea that Ben was going to use whatever was under The Orchid to "move the island."  Whatever the case, while a decent number of you are still watching the show, it's way less than the number of folks who used to watch.

Now, I've fallen off the train on other shows in the past, most notably Alias, which I really liked for several seasons, I simply couldn't accept anymore by the final batch of episodes.  But, Lost still intrigues me, every bend, every twist, every slight change in the story intrigues me even more.  I didn't watch the recap last night, but I definitely felt as though a mere two hours of the show last night was way too little.  What I want is a marathon of new episodes, I want to sit down and watch 12 hours of Lost in a row.

For me, Lost is compelling television, it is, I am reminded after watching last night's episode, perhaps the most "appointment" show around.  When there is a new episode on, even if it's not the greatest episode they've done, I am intrigued, I am entranced, and I will be watching it live (with the necessary delay so that I can skip through the commercials, of course).  There are few shows I feel that way about.  Yes, I do watch most shows the night that they are, but there's a difference between watching them the night they air and as they're airing.

Frankly, that's why I'm completely and totally shocked that more people don't at the least, the very least, want to watch the show.  Fine, don't feel as strongly as I do about watching the show live, but watch it, how do you not want to watch it?  I don't mean to harangue you or anything, but how is it possible, even a little bit possible that you once watched the show and gave up on it?  Is it simply too intriguing?  Is it that the mystery is too deep?  Can you simply not afford those 45 precious minutes?  Is watching Simon yell at some poor person for being delusional about their singing about really that much more intriguing to you?

There are a ton of people who have dropped Lost from their viewing schedules, and I'm truly flabbergasted at how that could be, simply flabbergasted.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's Groundhog Day... Again

It's always nice when one can revisit a film 15 years after its initial release and see that the piece is just as good -- if not better -- than it was originally.  Such is the case with the upcoming Blu-ray release of the classic Bill Murray-Harold Ramis comedy, Groundhog Day.

From the late '70s early '90s, Ramis and Murray teamed up repeatedly (either as actors, or director/writer and actor) to produce several truly hysterical comedies.  The two worked together on Stripes, Meatballs, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack among other things.  Groundhog Day finds Ramis as the co-writer and director (with a brief cameo appearance) and Murray starting as self-obsessed weatherman Phil Connors.

The story finds Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman, heading to Punxsutawney to report on the Groundhog Day festivities in the small town and the weather prognosticator, the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil.  Connors wants little to do with the entire thing, including spending time with his cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), and producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell).  However, for reasons never revealed to the viewer, Connors finds himself reliving the same day over, and over, and over again. 

Connors, at first, stands in disbelief, but eventually comes to accept that he is experiencing the same day repeatedly.  The vast majority of the film depicts Connors exploring different pursuits – from bedding a woman in the town to trying to commit suicide (no matter what he does he always wakes up again on Groundhog Day) to trying to get Rita to fall in love with him to learning to play the piano.

The concept is one that could quickly become tedious – after all, it's the same day over and over again.  However, Ramis does a wonderful job of compressing time -- at one point during the director's commentary he states that the creative team behind the film figured that Connors has been living the same day for years on end -- so that we see that Connors has learned everything about everyone in town, but never have to spend the time watching him do the learning.  Additionally, while Connors certainly does grow and change, that growth is slow and always believable.  The progress Connors makes as a human being remains constant and funny.

Murray's Connors is the same sort of character that he played for years on end – smart, snarky, and more than a little annoying.  Somehow though, Murray carries off the almost-but-not-quite-everyman character exceedingly well.  In the hands of a lesser comedian, Connors would be hated by the audience almost as much as he is by his coworkers.  But, with Murray in the role, while the audience always understands why everyone hates Connors, they never quite feel that hatred – he's simply too much fun to watch.

The transfer for this Blu-ray release is a good one.  There is some grain visible in many of the outdoor shots, but that is likely due to the way in which the movie was originally filmed and has nothing to do with any inadequacy of the transfer.  The colors are all muted, but again, that is a stylistic choice, not a defect.  The 5.1 channel sound is up to the task, but as this is a smaller-scale comedy film, not much is really asked of the speakers.

The release itself is loaded with several goodies including an intriguing commentary track with Ramis, deleted scenes, and three featurettes.  Two of these featurettes feature behind-the-scenes looks at the film and its production, whereas the third (oddly, and yet in keeping with the goofiness of the piece) is a documentary look at Groundhogs.  While new interviews were filmed with MacDowell and Ramis, the lack of new footage with Murray does stand out.  There is also a picture-in-picture commentary track featuring "Needle Nose" Ned Ryerson (Stephen Toblowsky), one of the many characters Connors encounters repeatedly during his day.  In the commentary track, Ryerson pops up on screen from time-to-time, asking questions of the viewer and providing tidbits of information.  It's cute enough, but more of a curiosity than anything else.

Anyone looking for a movie that is funny even with repeat viewings or who is a fan of the those involved in this piece would do well to pick up this release.  Groundhog Day is an example of a truly funny comedy which not only manages to make the viewer laugh, but also explores some of the more serious aspects of life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

HIMYM Goes a Long Way for a Joke

Last night marked the first night of FOX's latest (greatest?) Monday night lineup. It's actually a really solid couple of shows – 24 and House. At least on the first night of the new lineup, FOX was able to come away with a win in the 18-49 demographic, and I was certainly watching both hours of TV. Of course, I watched a lot of TV beyond just FOX's dramas; I also took a gander at The Secret Life of the American Teenager and good old How I Met Your Mother.

Now, How I Met Your Mother regularly plays with time, jumping forwards and backwards to make things funny and create surprise reveals. They certainly did as much last night, allowing us to believe that the three story segments we were witnessing were all taking place on a Tuesday when in fact some were on Tuesday, some were on Wednesday, and some were on Thursday. It's the exact same sort of trick used to great effect in Silence of the Lambs – we all think that the Feds are outside Buffalo Bill's house, when in fact it's only Clarice. We as viewers have been taught to assume when one camera shot cuts to another that the two things follow one another in time and, in the case of shots inside a house and outside a house like in Silence, in space as well. Of course, they don't have to be, which is what HIMYM illustrated last night.

Normally I don't mind jumping backwards and forwards in time; there are moments when it seems that HIMYM goes an awfully long way to get a chuckle, but I tend to think that they're clever enough that they can get away with it. Last night though, I just don't think it rang true.

If you'll recall, Lily went to a liquor store where the owner said to her that he wouldn't necessarily call it the "storm of the century" (it's pretty early in the century), or even the "storm of the year" (same reason). Now, if we were to believe that Lily was there on Tuesday (as was the implication), that seems acceptable. However, Lily was there on Thursday, meaning that it had been snowing for three days straight. "Storm of the century" may still be a little dramatic, but surely "storm of the year" isn't out of line for 72 hours of snow in the city of New York.

Nitpicky? Maybe, but still true. Unless global warming is messing up the atmosphere at a far greater rate than anyone anticipates, a single 72-hour snowstorm pretty much qualifies as the "storm of the year" in New York.

Okay, maybe I shouldn't be so nitpicky about the whole thing, as the show was building to a solid dramatic crescendo with Marshall picking up Lily at the airport accompanied by the Arizona Tech Marching Band. But, I am going to be that nitpicky, I am. I still liked the episode, I still thought it was funny, I still like the characters, I just believe that they did in fact push a little too hard in trying to get us to accept that everything was taking place on one day when it wasn't. It would have been easy enough to have the liquor store owner have some other quirk (or no quirk at all). I think it was just one joke too many.

Speaking of one joke too many, Secret Life, which was at one time a funny, heartfelt drama, seems to have moved almost completely to being a semi-serious, heartfelt comedy. They seem to be pushing the comedy over the reality lately, and I feel like it's not quite the show I was sold on last year. I'm putting it into the "making me nervous" category instead of the "yeah, I like that show" one. Hopefully they straighten things out soon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

To Hit 100, Desperate Housewives Goes in Reverse

I was struck by two very different thoughts while watching TV last night. The first is that it's awfully hard for a show to do the kind of episode Desperate Housewives did this week. I think that they did it well, it's just a difficult task.

What, pray tell, do I mean by that? Ah, good question – last night Desperate Housewives went out and created a brand new character, Eli Scruggs, who they then made a crucial element of so many of the decisions made by the women of Wisteria Lane. Here's this guy, this handyman, who has been in no episodes before last night and (as he died in the episode) will presumably not be in any again, but we are made to believe that he was present around the time of so many of the crucial decisions which have shaped the show, that he's been there in the background, behind the scenes.

It's a tough sell. If this guy was as all-important as last night's episode led us to believe surely we would have seen him before now. Of course, prior to the writing of last night's episode, Scruggs had never been conceived of, no one ever imagined he existed, which is why we've never had any indication of there being such a person involved with these women (IMDb claims that Beau Bridges appeared as Scruggs in the episode last week as well, but ABC's press website seems to indicate that he did not, and, for the life of me, I don't remember him being there, but, even if he was, the point holds true, save for the conception starting one episode earlier).

There were a couple of moments where Scruggs being around definitely did not ring true, most notably his pushing Bree to write her cookbook and his being present at Mary Alice's just prior to her committing suicide. However, for the most part, I think that the producers were able to wedge Scruggs into old plotlines in a believable manner, particularly his getting Lynette's daughter out of the car, as that was a crucial, though very small, moment.

In the end, I think it was a good way to do something different and special for the show's 100th episode. It wasn't big or flashy; instead it was a revisiting of great old stories from a new perspective. It may have been a safe choice, but it was carried out exceedingly well.

My other thought last night was that last year's writers' strike is still affecting things. Big Love and Flight of the Conchords returned last night to HBO after, I think, about a year and a half (maybe slightly less) of being gone. That is not just because of HBO's sometimes overly long production cycles (Sopranos anyone?), but because the strike mucked with the production cycles. Look at Rescue Me, or, try to even find Rescue Me; they managed to air some webisodes last year, but haven't yet aired a new season due to the strike.

It's amazing to me, it really is. The effects of the strike are incredibly far-reaching, and aren't done being felt. I hate to be so clichéd, but it really is the throwing a pebble into a lake (not that the writers' strike was a pebble). It all makes me wonder what else would have been different if the writers hadn't been on strike. Would NBC have had time to develop enough programming that they wouldn't be giving Leno five hours a week of primetime next year? Probably, but who knows what could have been.

Maybe I'd have been given five hours of primetime -- think what a wonderful world that would be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thursday Night Television - Fun, but Factually Incorrect

Last night, after our Commander-in-Chief spoke I had the good fortune to do something fun. I watched TV.

First up, Kitchen Nightmares. For the uninitiated, that's the show where Gordon Ramsay goes to bad restaurants, yells at everyone, and magically turns everything around at the last minute.

The better nights of the show are the ones that are like last night. Last night there was no miraculous turnaround; things seemed to, possibly, be headed in the right direction with Café 36, but there were absolutely no indications that the restaurant would survive. Ramsay spent the entire evening railing against the head chef of Café 36, a gentleman who went by the name of Pinto -- no one said "like the bean," but I'm sure they were thinking it. Anyways, Pinto was a bad cook, he even admitted to doing things at Café 36 that he wouldn't have done if it were his own place because they were pretty poor practices. Class. Class all the way.

I did, I must say, have a problem with the way things went down (don't I always?). Pinto's last night at the restaurant was the night of Café 36's big relaunch; however, we never actually saw Pinto quit or get fired. It wasn't even made clear which of the two happened, only that one of them did. Did the crews pack up and go home instantly? I can believe that there was no one in the restaurant from the show when whatever happened happened, but would it have completely killed the show to get one of the owners or Pinto on camera to explain what took place? Would it really have cost that much more?

That sort of shoddy storytelling distresses me. Yes, I want to know that Pinto left the place and that the sous chef was promoted, but after spending an hour watching it all unfold, I don't think it's asking too much for us to be given the ending from a participant in the events, not the voiceover guy (no offense voiceover guy, I do like your voice, it just wasn't appropriate here).

I felt almost as cheated when my TiVo promised me two new episodes of My Name is Earl but only delivered one. I think that probably had something to do with Bush's speech. I know it wasn't my TiVo's fault, but it hurt me anyway.

Yes, the one episode of Earl we got was funny, but it was a "to be continued" and I was sort of expecting the second episode to be the continuation rather than a repeat. A quick glance at the descriptions of the episodes on my TiVo would have disabused me of the notion as the 8:00 episode was the one described in the 8:30 synopsis, but I didn't look at that until later.

You know what actually saved the evening? A double-dose of Salma Hayek. Last week I discussed my utter confusion at having her miraculously appear on my television while I was watching 30 Rock (anytime she appears on screen it is truly a miraculous experience). Well, last night I was expecting it (yes, still miraculous). Plus (follow me here this could get confusing), two nights ago she was on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, but that was after my bedtime, so, naturally, I TiVoed it and watched it last night. That's probably also why I wasn't too angry at my TiVo for only giving me one new Earl instead of two.

Do you know what she said? Do you know? She said that she was going to do six episodes of 30 Rock! Six episodes!?! How spectacular is that? Last night's 30 Rock was episode two, so, if my math hasn't failed me, there are still four more episodes to go! Four! I'm excited, can you tell?

And, if you watched NBC's lineup last night you're well aware that the funniest show of the night was definitely the Salma Hayek one. I think as long as she's on it I'm going to call it The Salma Hayek Show. Unfortunately, Salma Hayek wasn't in the funniest scene in her own show. She was there for the Mr. Templeton song and the Dunkin Donuts thing, but not for Liz Lemon's dance or the lollipop joke ... that's right, the lollipop joke. Subtle, but that's what made it funny. That Salma Hayek Show, it's a winner.

Now, in closing, I have to tell you something that I normally wouldn't. I do this for my wife (she won't read this, but that's not the point). At the end of The Salma Hayek Show, Jack suggested that Liz or he may have gotten sick from the flu shot; as he explained it, the shot is "a small dose of the virus itself." That is wholly and completely untrue, one cannot get sick from the flu shot.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lakeview Terrace Not Among My Favorite Neighborhoods

All too often watching a movie one gets the sense that the movie went into production before anyone actually knew the plot, that the film was made based on a one-paragraph synopsis and signed contracts with a few actors.  Then, while the initial idea may have been great, the screenwriters and director find themselves completely unsure of how to flesh out the single paragraph into a two hour film.

As an example of this might work one only has to look at the upcoming Blu-ray release, Lakeview Terrace.  Directed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), the film stars Samuel L. Jackson (who was signed to the part before LaBute came on board according to the featurettes), Patrick Wilson, and Kerry Washington.  Wilson and Washington are Chris and Lisa Mattson, an interracial couple that has just bought a house on Lakeview Circle in Los Angeles (yes, the film is Lakeview Terrace, and while that may be the neighborhood, it isn't made truly clear and certainly isn't the name of the street).  Jackson plays Abel Turner, their next door neighbor and a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.   

While everyone in the neighborhood seems to really like Abel Turner and love having a police officer for a neighbor, Chris and Lisa feel differently.  They quickly come to recognize something dark and ominous lurking beneath Abel's jovial exterior.  It turns out that Abel doesn't like interracial couples and would rather not have one living on his block.  Abel then proceeds to terrify and torment the Mattsons in an attempt to get them to move.

The film has the feeling of being pitched to the studio as "what if there was this cop whom most people thought was nice, but he wasn't.  What if he hated his neighbors, what would happen when they tried to tell the police about this one officer?"  None of the reasons for the bad cop's being bad were worked out, no clear idea was had as to what exactly the bad cop would due to torture his neighbors, and no explanation was given for how this cop could be so bad and yet have fooled the rest of his neighbors.  In the film, Abel is so unhinged that he torments the nice interracial couple, not the neighbor who beats his wife. 

Eventually, Lakeview Terrace does provide a reason for Abel's actions, but never one for how he could have fooled the rest of the neighborhood.  However, the reason Abel gives to Chris is so ludicrously silly that one can't truly fathom how it is that Abel manages to cover his bad guy attitude in his day-to-day life. 

Nothing in the film seems truly thought out.  The Mattsons have purchased this house as a "starter house," but what the audience is shown is the single nicest starter house ever created.  Not only is it huge with a gorgeous view, but it seems brand new inside and has a lovely large pool, hot tub, and barbecue area in back.  The folks working out the locations and sets clearly were not thinking "starter house."  It is the sort of disconnect that is present throughout the whole film.

Even when the end of the movie mercifully arrives, one can't shake the feeling of how downright foolish everything that transpires actually is.  Abel gets what's coming to him in a finale that either defies logic or proves the hero to actually be a bad guy.  The audience is left to decide whether the screenwriters (David Loughery and Howard Korder) simply wanted to see the bad guy "get it" no matter or what if they were trying to say that, in the end, Chris is a villain as well.

This last idea is a notion that is sort of supported through the film, Chris certainly allows himself to be provoked by Abel more than he ought.  However, if Chris is a villain one has to conclude that the film comes down against interracial couples, something it surely cannot mean to do. 

Jackson is certainly the star of the piece, and gives it his all in scenery-chewing Snakes on a Plane mode.  It's a performance that one feels Jackson gives all too often these days in lieu of his actually developing a character.

The Blu-ray release contains the required deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and cast and crew commentary.  Nothing in the behind-the-scenes pieces ever really explains away all the inconsistencies, plot flaws, logic gaps, and other errors with which the film is loaded. The Blu-ray also will contain some BD Live features when it is released on January 27th.

As for the technical side of the disc, the image looks good, though is certainly not spectacular.  The 5.1 channel sound seems to hardly ever be taken advantage of, there is a street scene early in the film where the traffic noise is directed to the rear speakers to good effect, but when a wildfire threatens the homes, the sound doesn't seem to back up the visuals.

In the end, the basic notion behind Lakeview Terrace is a good one, and a one paragraph synopsis makes the film sound intriguing.  However, that one paragraph synopsis is never really turned into a full-fledged film.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

No Idol, But Not Idle

Let's see, what happened in the world of television last night?  Was there anything possibly new, different, and/or interesting on the TV?  Hmmm…

Well, I know that I'd love to talk about Top Gear, I watched an episode last night, but it wasn't new, it was just sitting there on my TiVo, begging to be watched again.  Even so, as it wasn't new, let's pass on our usual Top Gear discussion, shall we?

I also watched a couple of episodes of Scrubs, those were both new.  I'm still up in the air on the J.D./Elliot relationship.  The two certainly have a long history, and one of last night's episodes delved into the possibility of the two of them rekindling their romance, but I don't know if that's the sort of thing that I'd like to see happen.

You may recall that one of the overarching plots of last season, and certainly how NBC promoted the "final" season, was the question of J.D./Elliot romance.  Of course, that whole thing never got resolved due to the pesky WGA strike (not that the writers or their strike was pesky, the pesky bit was it cutting short the television season, they had very good reasons to strike). 

The question wasn't touched for the first two episodes of this new season, which made me wonder if on ABC the show was going to head in a slightly different direction.  Last night however, the romance question was back with a vengeance.  It's still unclear if J.D. and Elliot will be together by the end of the series, but it definitely looks like they're going to make another go of it.

Separately, I did think it odd that Turk didn't appear in the first episode last night.  They mentioned him, J.D. certainly had thoughts about him, but he himself didn't appear.  No one acknowledged that he wasn't there, but he wasn't.  I'm not saying that it portends anything, just that it was odd, I can't immediately recall another episode without Turk, though it's certainly possible that it happened.

Anyway, off of Scrubs and back to new and different things that were on TV last night.  My television definitely showed the first episode of The Beast, the new Patrick Swayze A&E drama.  Swayze plays this possibly rogue undercover cop, Charles Barker, whose new partner, Ellis Dove (played by Travis Fimmel), is approached about squealing on Barker.  Okay, the approach is made at the end of the pilot, but as the entire show has been advertised as the rookie investigating the seasoned agent I don't feel like I'm giving anything away there.

Did I like it?  I did.  I found it fun watching Swayze in semi-bad guy mode, but still couldn't get out of my head that Newsweek article I mentioned the other day.  Quite obviously Barker is that morally ambiguous character Joshua Alston was writing about and I spent so much time while watching the pilot thinking about that.  Barker isn't drawn any differently (at least in the pilot) from the basic Vic Mackey mold.  That's problematic for the series, particularly when The Shield was so well publicized and liked.  Still, Swayze nostalgia could help boost The Beast

Other new shows… I also watched Leverage, but we've talked about it a lot lately, so I'll take a week off from that.  And, that's about it.  I watched nothing else, fully a quarter of televisions on between 8 and 10pm were turned to FOX, but not mine.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Swing Vote Puts the Pendulum Into "Distinctly Unfunny"

There is a contingent of the world's population (perhaps a large contingent) that thinks the average American voter is less than intelligent.  There is another contingent of the world's population that thinks the average American politician is less than intelligent (these contingents definitely have some overlap).  Kevin Costner's latest movie, Swing Vote, explores both these ideas, with about as much success as the average American politician. 

That is to say, depending on how you see the movie it is either a crashing success or a terrible bore.  If one wants wit, depth, and an actual exploration of politics and the population's relationship to elections one will be exceedingly disappointed with the film.  If one wants little more than silly platitudes and an uplifting ending complete with an eleventh hour-turnaround by the main character, one couldn't ask for more.

Swing Vote follows Bud Johnson (Costner) and his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) as Bud finds himself at the center of a firestorm in a contested presidential election.  Bud is left with making the final decision on who will become the next president – the incumbent, Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) or the Democratic challenger, Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper).

How exactly it all came down to Bud's decision, is a little up in the air.  Molly ends up voting in Bud's name, but the electronic voting machine gets unplugged halfway through and ends up registering an error.  The election overall is terribly close and New Mexico (Bud's state of residence) is undecided.  Apparently New Mexico is undecided because one county is undecided and one county is undecided because one city, Texico (Bud's city) is undecided, and apparently Texico is undecided because Bud's vote didn't register. 

Not only is the notion foolish, but it is entirely impossible for the election to come to that point.  And that, sadly, helps destroy the entire movie.  "Suspension of disbelief" doesn't allow one to go quite that far, particularly when this is supposed to be a down to earth story about regular people making a difference.  Essentially then the movie's statement is that the average person can make a difference, but only when the system goes horribly awry in a completely fictional way; anything short of an imaginary break in the system render's the importance of the individual null and void.  Clearly not the message the movie is going for, but the one that it delivers nonetheless.

From that point, the film gets exceptionally foolish, with the candidates heading to Texico, New Mexico in order to pander to Bud and his every whim.  The promises they make Bud fly in the face of everything their respective parties stand for, but they're constantly pushed by their respective advisors, played by Nathan Lane and Stanley Tucci, to do it anyway.

The point of it all is to lampoon the political process and politicians while also – as mentioned above – showing the importance of the individual.  Technically, I suppose, the film is supposed to be funny.  Just as with showing the importance of the individual however, Swing Vote completely fails in its attempts at humor.  It has a great, very funny cast, and many cameos, but those apparently exist as a substitute for scripting humor into the work.

Make no mistake, Swing Vote's notion that individuals should vote and be well informed is both good and accurate, it just illustrates the point in a lackluster fashion.  Most of the actors end up coming off as unfunny caricatures, and while Carroll is often very good, she does have some trouble expressing the upset and anger necessary for her role.

The extras on the Blu-ray are just as predictable as Bud's phenomenal turnaround from uninformed lout to caring voter.  Included are a behind-the-scenes look at the production, deleted and extended scenes and a commentary with writer/director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Jason Richman.

Presumably anyone that owns a Blu-ray player that wishes to have a copy of the film in their possession at all times will go out and buy Swing Vote on Blu-ray instead of in regular DVD format (I know I would).  However, there is nothing that truly stands out in the transfer either in terms of sound or video.  There is nothing to truly complain about in the transfer either, in fact, much like the film, it all just sort of exists and remains wholly forgettable.

In the end, Swing Vote has a truly talented cast full of both excellent comedic and dramatic actors.  They are however, hampered by a script that sets in motion a ludicrous idea and then is never quite sure where to go with the story except for all the obvious places.  A segment of the population will certainly find the movie charming because their love of both Costner and Carroll's smile and heart along with the final intended message will be enough.  Those people may also be the ones however for whom campaign promises mean more than actual actions once in office. 

Swing Vote makes for a great 30 second spot, promising everything anyone could ever hope for in a movie, it just fails to deliver once you've shelled out your money.

Monday, January 12, 2009

24 Goes All John McClane-y

I love the notion of terrorists taking control of our air traffic control systems, well, I love the idea in film and television anyway.  24, of course, did it last night.  Terribly fun to watch, it was almost as fun as when the terrorists did it in Die Hard 2: Die Harder.  Now, I think Jack Bauer is probably better than John McClane from Live Free or Die Hard, but I don't think he's better than McClane in Die Hard 2, after all, you remember that great ejector seat thing, don't you?  If only Jack's wife wasn't dead, but was onboard one of the planes in the sky, then maybe I'd give the edge to Jack, but bringing back one dead character was enough for 24's first episode of the season I guess.  At least no one at the FAA gave the order last night to "stack'em, pack'em, and rack'em."

Okay, let's forget for a minute that messing with airplanes heading into or out of DC has been done before with great success, I really liked the 24's season premiere.   Turning the once-dead Tony Almeda into a bad guy is, if you ask me, kind of a cop out in terms of villains, even if he doesn't seem to be this season's Big Bad.  No?  Doesn't it seem just a wee bit too easy to have Tony be our bad guy?  After all, please remember, Jack suspected him of being a mole at CTU back in season one (that turned out to be Nina, but that's a different story).

Speaking of moles, I know that I've complained about this in past seasons, but why does there always have to be a mole?  Are we, as an audience, really to believe that each hand every intelligence agency that our government has is infested with moles?  They did get that little bit of the plot out of the way in the premiere though, so hopefully we won't see another mole for the rest of the season… fingers crossed.

As for the single most interesting thing in last night's premiere – hands down that has to be Jack explaining how it's okay for the federal government to be investigating -- and quite possibly indicting --  him.  The show is so incredibly right-wing in its view of the world, that I guess someone felt the need to pull it back to the center just a little bit.  I don't think Jack was really saying that he should be convicted, just that investigating and arresting him wasn't necessarily out of line.

But, in the world of 24, as a recent Newsweek article pointed out, Jack is never wrong in his actions.  He tortures people because it's the only way to get his job done and save lives.  As the article suggested, it would be terribly interesting to see Jack torture the wrong person and have to deal with the consequences.  It will be interesting to see if Sen. Blaine Meyer still wants Jack convicted at the end of the day.  In a normal show, Meyer wouldn't, Jack would have done something to convince Meyer that Jack's methods are necessary for the preservation of the free world.  On 24, the season might end with Jack going to prison, just because the producers like to do that sort of thing.  Again, remember, he was arrested by the Chinese once.

Only time will tell what happens to Jack, but happily for me, I'm still interested in finding out and very much looking forward to tonight's two hours.

Friday, January 09, 2009

How Did Salma Hayek Manage to Sneak Her Way Onto My TV?

Regular readers will know that I truly enjoying watching Salma Hayek on screen.  Some would call it a fascination, some would call it an obsession, a judge might order me to stay back 100 yards.  Whatever the case, I tend to go out of my way to watch her in movies or on television.  It almost broke my heart that Bandidas didn't get a big theatrical release in the U.S., after all, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in the same movie, I think that guarantees a 10 million dollar opening weekend (not counting the tickets sold to people who aren't me).

So, imagine my shock when I turned on 30 Rock last night, I show I already watch on a weekly basis, and saw this woman who looked incredibly like Salma Hayek.  I hadn't heard that Salma (I'm on a first name basis with her) was going to be on the show this week, just that NBC was airing new a new "Comedy night done right," which was, of course, something of a lie because The Office was a repeat.  I diligently looked up the episode description on my TiVo and didn't see Salma's name, but I didn't see Peter Dinklage's either and Liz was definitely macking on Peter Dinklage. 

I kept watching the show, and every time the character of "Elisa" appeared, I thought to myself – "that's Salma, I know Salma, and that's Salma.  Salma, Salma, Salma.  I wonder why I didn't know that Salma would be here.  Salma, Salma, Salma."  I semi-regularly think "Salma, Salma, Salma" anyway, but the rest of the thought process was certainly valid, and definitely concerned me.

How did this slip by?  How did it go unnoticed by me that Salma would be present?  I don't watch Ugly Betty during the regular season (I catch up when the DVDs are released), but I was fully aware of every single episode of that series that Salma Hayek was on.  So, I find it unfathomable that I missed this, but apparently, I did.

I would certainly like to think that the blame lies with NBC, that they simply snuck her by me by poorly advertising her appearance, but I can't be sure that's the case.  I haven't been watching the network as much as I used to what with Chuck and Heroes gone for a few more weeks and My Own Worst Enemy canceled, but I Certainly watched Knight Rider and Law & Order this week.  I would have thought that I would have seen a Salma promo there.  I didn't even TiVo Knight Rider, I sat there watching every last commercial, so I couldn't have simply fast-forwarded through a Salma promo.

NBC has to have promoed her appearance, they simply have to have.  I fully believe that the blame for not knowing about this guest starring role lies squarely with me.  I am chagrined.  I am embarrassed.  I owe myself better than that.  And better I will do, I've already informed myself that Salma will be appearing on next week's 30 Rock too.  My TiVo is ready and waiting.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Former Teen Idols Waste My Evening

At the behest of Erin Medley, who recommended on our radio show this past week that I watch Confessions of a Teen Idol, I set my TiVo up to air one of VH1's umpteen repeats of the premiere.  Last night, I had the "good fortune" to have a hole in my viewing schedule which I managed to squeeze this little reality nugget into.

In case you haven't heard of this show, it features a bunch of 1980s and '90s "teen idols" trying to get back just a wee little bit of the fame they either threw away or which passed them by.  These one-time heartthrobs (folks like Jeremy Jackson and Christopher Atkins) have decided that they want to make a big comeback, and put aside whatever it is that they currently do – grand stuff like building swimming pools, working in "business," or performing on a cruise ship – in order to recapture that which they (apparently deservedly) lost.  Frankly, the whole thing is a little embarrassing and I felt more than a little dirty watching it. 

I completely grasp the fact that these one-time stars would love to be stars again, and that they all want to use this show as a springboard to greater success.  I actually believe that these guys have a greater chance of using a reality show to garner greater film/TV success than the typical reality show star (all of whom I tend to believe want to build on their reality TV fame with more roles down the line), after all, these guys have actually been a part of the business previously. 

But, my understanding of what these guys are trying to do and my belief that they have a greater shot at success then most does not in anyway translate to my liking them or the show.  These guys are all whiny and petulant, and I firmly believe that the vast majority haven't changed, at least in terms of their massive desire to hobnob with the rich and famous and have women run after them (from what we saw anyway). 

There seemed to be some sort of sick one-upmanship taking place on the premiere.  They former stars would talk to one another and their therapist about all the horrid things they'd overcome and/or how they were so much wiser now than they used to be.  It was as if they were looking directly into the eyes of their fans – or, more likely a casting agent – and begging to once again be taken into the bosom of fame.  It all reeked of desperation and certainly didn't endear any of them to me. I'm very happy that they all learned from their mistakes, but that doesn't mean I have to care what happens to them now.

The former stars' manipulative gestures went well beyond simply sobbing and moaning about their lost fame, various cast members did everything in their power to try and garner more camera time (and therefore have more casting agents eyes on them).  One of them tried to hawk his nutty lifestyle and health remedies, another pretended like they were going to leave the show because they were oh-so-unhappy with how Scott Baio (host and producer) and Jason Hervey (producer) dared treat them.  Never was there a real intent on this former star's part to leave, he just wanted to ensure that the editors had to give him more screen time. 

It's a trap I won't fall into, which is why I haven't mentioned his name and why I pretty much done speaking about the show… now.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Scrub-bing in for One More Season

Boy, was last night a fun night of television. First up was Leverage, which really seems to have hit its stride. I was, as you may recall, initially concerned over the fact that the show's twists weren't very twisty. Happily, they seem to have abandoned the notion of doing a twist the past few episodes. It's a change that works far better for the show -- no twist is better than a disappointing one, and, by the way, who ever said that every crime show had to have a twist?

What I'm really curious about is how people find our Leverage team. To me, it seems very A-Team-like. After all, it's a bunch of criminals (whether wrongly accused or not) doing good deeds for those in need. What's more A-Team than that?

While I'm a fan of many of the cast members of the show, the guy who I think I might like best on the series is Hardison, who is played by Aldis Hodge. Hodge is someone who, to this point, has never been on my radar, although he's had a lot of roles (including a recurring one on Friday Night Lights). Hardison's background briefings and explanations of what the team is going to do (or has done) is definitely one of the show's highlights. As I may have said before (I've certainly thought it), his speeches combine humor, cutting edge technology, and straight-up information in an entirely wonderful fashion. I'm actually always a little saddened when the briefings are over, because they might be the best part of the show.

Actually, my biggest complaint about last night's episode has nothing to do with the story, acting, editing, or directing. It's a complaint I have about so many shows and movies, and while I'm sure there's a valid explanation, it's something that's always bugged me. I've never understood why people on television shows and movies always pretend to drink from empty cups. Almost anytime there's a beverage container shown where we can't see the beverage in it, the container's empty. Simply looking at the way the people handle the cup, that's apparent. A paper coffee cup without coffee has no weight and handles differently than a paper cup with coffee in it. It's all too obvious when there's nothing in the cup. Surely the prop folks could come up with a weighted cup or fill a cup with stones so that the look could be, approximately, correct. Couldn't they?

Up second last night was the return (albeit to a new network) of Scrubs. I have to say, I was terribly worried that the show would be a shell of its former self for this season, but it doesn't seem to be, at least not from the two episodes we saw last night. Sure, it may not be quite as witty or insightful as it once was, but there was still something to recommend it.

The first of last night's two episodes did cause me to laugh out loud a couple of times, while the second episode was the one with "heart." It was one of those episodes that had funny moments, but much more focused on the serious side of working in a hospital. Quite honestly, I prefer the funny episodes, but I think I still understand why they do the serious ones.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the addition of Courteney Cox. She was funny and her character definitely fits in well with the rest of the weirdos at Sacred Heart.

The more that I think about it, the more I think that it being good last night is more bittersweet than truly wonderful. The numbers for the show last night weren't great, and as happy as I am to watch the show still, I can't imagine that this won't be its final season. If this season was a massive disappointment – unfunny and unlikable – it would be far easier to say goodbye.

Oh well, I guess I'll have to suffer with good TV and upset about it ending.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Night of Top Gear and Secret Life

In describing how flat, non-stylized, utilitarian things can still be beautiful and function perfectly, a wise man said last night, "Look at Keira Knightley, she's just an ironing board with a face, and she works." I'll give you three guesses who said that, and your first two don't count.

That's right, my good friend and yours, Jeremy Clarkson, uttered those very words last night on… Top Gear! If you wasted your first two guesses on Richard Hammond and James May, I appreciate your knowing what I'm going to talk about, but you really have shown that you don't watch the show.

I know, I know, most people don't watch the show, most people don't get BBC America, but that's no excuse. Top Gear is, I'm told, now available for download from iTunes the day after an episode airs. It looks to me as though it's $1.99 an episode and for the previous season, $14.99 for the iTunes Season Pass, and a mere $9.99 for this season. $9.99 is well worth the price; you're going to get far more laughs, action, and actually manage to learn a little something for that $9.99 than if you went out and blew it on something like a ticket to Transporter 3.

Really, that's what we're talking about here -- you could go out and see a barely scripted, nonsensical 90-minute romp (that's not specific to Transporter of any of the films in the series, just a general statement of fact), or you could buy far more viewing hours of Top Gear at the exact same price.

Wow, okay, that's a lot of shilling for Top Gear, and while it's something I totally approve of, it wasn't my intent to shill. So, let's press on.

One of the shows that returned last night following a substantial hiatus in the midst of its first season was ABC Family's Secret Life of the American Teenager. I thought the first season of the show was cute enough, not without some problems, but cute enough. Last night's episode, though, I thought was severely disappointing.

It featured Amy and Ben figuring that they ought to get married. Well, Amy decided on it after her mom acted well and truly insane to Amy. I can't delve into all of that, but accept it when I tell you that Amy's mom, Anne, acted wholly incorrectly suggesting that she wouldn't help Amy with the baby because Anne wanted to do what she wanted to do. Nice idea of family there. But, anyway, Amy and Ben, both underage, opted to get fake IDs in order to get married. Yeah, because if you get married with a fake ID that'll be valid, particularly when people with fake IDs signed as witnesses.

For a show that handled everything in its first run of episodes in a manner that was, more often than not, reality-based, to open with such a foolish plot distressed me. Has the show decided that reality isn't the way to go? I'd be really disappointed by that, it's not the way the show has thus far expressed its worldview and doesn't seem to fit with the more "message"-based show they've been thus far.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Legendary This Game is Not

It seems as though all too often a great idea for a video game becomes a less than amusing game. Ideas are, sadly, sometimes hard to translate from paper to bits and bytes. As a case in point, take the recent PlayStation 3 release Legendary.

Legendary sounds like it could be a great game – it starts with the player opening Pandora's Box and unleashing hordes of evil beasties into the world. You then has to battle through the beasties, trying to put together the pieces of exactly why you were hired to open the box in the first place (you're something of a thief and were on a job). There are evil groups and nefarious plots at work, plus there's the matter of sending all the evil creatures, among them gryphons, werewolves, and firedrakes (oh my!) back from whence the came.

For a first person shooter, that's a pretty solid plot. Unfortunately, Legendary never really delves into any of the questions, the player just goes through each level – all of which pretty much look the same – blasting enemies. Yes this is a first person shooter, so some over-the-top blasting of enemies is required, but the lack of differentiation between levels and depth in the story makes one feel as though the genre hasn't progressed passed Wolfenstein 3D.

The graphics in Legendary are, at best, as uneven as the plot on which the game is built. None of the levels look terribly great, but neither are they boring (at least the first time you see each of the various terrains). The creatures on the other hand are far more variable. The werewolves – seemingly the game's centerpiece creature – look quite good, but some of the others, like the firedrake, are just kind of there.

However, plot, mundane level design, and uneven graphics aside, the biggest problem with the game is that it's simply obnoxious. From the first moment you get to actually play the game, it's clear that you know far better how to proceed than the game. Picture this – you're in a museum, you've opened Pandora's Box, the museum is breaking apart. Do you A) jump over the little thing blocking the stairs and get out, or B) wait for your partner who is not in the museum to rundown for you what exactly is taking place and for her to suggest you make your way out. If you chose "B" you probably won't mind that on your way out of the museum you can't initially jump over objects because the game hasn't taught you how (and clearly you're too foolish to read that page of the manual) and that if you follow your partner's instructions you'll exit the museum too soon and have to wait for the monsters to clear you a path before you can proceed further. However, if you're the kind of person that sees a building falling down around them and think "golly gee, I should exit this place" and then tries to do just that, almost everything that follows will annoy you.

Your character, Charles Deckard, as a result of his opening Pandora's Box gets a swell Animus tattoo on his hand at the beginning of the game. After dispatching an enemy, Deckard can suck up their remaining life force, which is then used for healing and a few other small tricks here and there (energy pulses, repelling things, etc.). It's an interesting notion, and even if I can't quite wrap my head around why the tattoo should allow Deckard to use Animus to heal himself, I can accept that it does.

What's harder to accept is that in this day and age, too many things in Deckard's world cannot be interacted with. When one comes across a person on the street (or in the subway), it may not be good manners to shoot them (unless they're evil) in a game, but I fully expect to be able to shoot them. Legendary doesn't allow that, like magic, your bullets will pass right through anything the game doesn't want you to bother with… usually. You see, you can do some pretty good blasting of furniture and some other inanimate objects… sometimes.

In the end, that's pretty much sums up Legendary – there are good ideas there, and some things are handled well, except when they aren't, which is most of the time. There's a multiplayer included in the game as well. It consists of pitting a maximum of four players against another four in various formats like capture the flag and deathmatch. Werewolves are integrated into the multiplayer, but after playing the main game you probably won't want to see them anymore anyway.

As to the actual mechanics and fun involved in the multiplayer, that's a little bit harder to say. This reviewer spent hours on end trying to join multiplayer matches and creating my own and waiting for others to join it. Sadly, only once did I manage to find another player and they quit after a mere 30 seconds. As the game has been on store shelves for over two months enough copies ought to be in existence to make a multiplayer match a reality. Why aren't people interested in multiplayer Legendary? If I had to guess, I'd say it's because their disappointment with the regular game was so great they didn't want to spend more time with it, but that's just conjecture.

I do know for a certainty that I won't be putting the game back into my PS3 for some time to come, it's a good idea that's just carried out in very poor manner.

Legendary is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for blood & gore and intense violence. This game can also be found on PC and Xbox 360.

Two stars out of five.

Assessing the Damages

Well, it took long enough getting here, but the New Year has finally arrived, and that seems to mean, for both the broadcast networks and cable that it's time to roll out a bunch of new shows.  Or, at the very least, new episodes.

I could be wrong, but I just don't recall so much TV starting up so quickly after the new year in the past.  I always felt like I used to have an extra week to wallow in my new show-less misery.  But, alas, my wallowing in that sort of misery is not to be.  Now, I instead get to wallow in my misery about returning shows not being quite as good as I would like.

As an example, let's take a look at Damages, which begins its second season this Wednesday night on FX.  Now, as you may recall, I wasn't a terribly big fan of the first season.  I thought, initially, that it was a show with potential, but as the season progressed I decided that the writers were trying to be too clever for their own good and they had therefore ignored a myriad of plot/logic flaws.  I then became further disenchanted when Glenn Close, who was great in the show, received tons of awards notice in various Best Actress categories.  You see, while she was great in the first season, it would take someone who didn't watch more than a couple of screeners to believe that she was the lead and not a supporting actress.  That sort of thing happens all the time (please note, Forest Whitaker was outstanding in The Last King of Scotland, but that he wasn't the lead in the film), and it never fails to upset me.

So, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch the first two episodes of the new season of Damages last night.  The show has opted to stick with the structure from last season of starting an episode in the future and then going to the past for the main plot, and, presumably, by the end of the season will have the present meet the future.  This time around though, it's not a murder mystery we get, but rather Ellen Parson (Rose Byrne) holding someone at gunpoint.  It's far less dramatic.  Far, far, less.  Of course, as the show was overly dramatic with it's scenes from the future in season one, that could be a good thing.

Somehow though, it's not.  The first season, even if I thought it wasn't well plotted, at least sucked the viewer in.  This season, I guess we're supposed to be wondering (at least initially) who Ellen's holding hostage.  The basic problem though is that I just don't care.  Please remember, Patty Hewes (Close), Ellen's boss, tried to have Ellen killed in season one, and we're supposed to believe that Ellen is still working at the firm (in order to send Patty to jail).  Quite obviously Ellen is under a lot of stress (she's also still mourning the death of her fiancé), why should we at all be surprised that she snaps at some point? 

I really do like that the whole thing is starting a little more slowly this time out, hopefully it'll mean that the producers don't lose track of all the bits and pieces, as they did last season.  But, while the acting is still stellar, after two episodes I just don't know why I should care at all about the case and the people.  Not a single one -- save Tate Donovan's good guy Tom Shayes -- is remotely believable, nor are the situations as presented.

Equally unrealistic, and premiering the night before Damages is FX's Nip/Tuck.  That series though has the advantage of never really pretending to be believable.  McNamara, Troy, and the rest of the gang are so foolish (and always have been), that even when they wallow it's fun to watch because of how over the top the wallowing is. 

I'll probably stick with watching both shows through their whole seasons (mercifully, they should be short seasons), but I don't really consider either "appointment television."  Now Scrubs, which is starting its new season this Tuesday on ABC, I have a date with.