Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Matchett Matches Hutton Happily

Listen, don't tell anyone this, I certainly don't want the news to get around, but I am perfectly capable of feeling sentiment. No, seriously, I am.

You see, the past two weeks, Kari Matchett was guest starring on Leverage, and it made me happy. Oh come on, don't act like you don't know why it made me happy (and, no, the answer is not that Kari Matchett is attractive -- she may be, but that's neither here nor there). Wait, really, you don't know why Kari Matchett being on Leverage made me happy?

You must be new here, but don't worry, you'll catch on soon enough.

Kari Matchett being on Leverage made me happy because it represented a reunion between her and her Nero Wolfe co-star, Timothy Hutton, who of course produced Nero Wolfe, directed some of the episodes, and generally entranced this viewer with his brilliant Archie Goodwin.

As was the case due to the repertory nature of the cast on Nero Wolfe, Matchett played many a role on the show. One of them, however, will stick with me forever. In the season two premiere, "Death of a Doxy," she played a showgirl. At one moment in the episode she comes over to Wolfe's brownstone (Wolfe does not enjoy visitors, particularly boisterously over the top ones) and has one of the most incredible entrances I've ever witnessed on television. She is loud and effervescent and her giddiness is infectious. It is a show-stopping performance and one that instantly made me into a Kari Matchett fan, so much so that I kept watching Invasion no matter how bad it got.

So, when two of my favorite actors who starred in one of my favorite shows reunite, I pay attention. Since Nero Wolfe, they both appeared in the miniseries 5ive Days To Midnight, but that was over four years ago, so if you ask me, it was time for them to get back together and do it again.

The two play against each other wonderfully, and Matchett has the ability to make all her characters pop off the television screen and into one's living room. Between that and Hutton's knack for making me love every character he puts on screen, I was just completely hooked on both parts of the two-part finale of Leverage.

Earlier in the season I was distressed that Leverage's tricks and reversal were neither tricky nor reversal-y enough. Well, they pretty much fixed that too by the end of the season. They were clever when they needed to be, and all the characters even remained interesting. Who could ask for more?

Well, me, of course. I could ask for more. I did ask for more. I do ask for more. And, we're getting more, we're getting a whole new season of the show come this summer. How spectacular is that? Hopefully Kari Matchett will be back too.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Trusting Trust Me's Cast

I have been watching Trust Me for the past few weeks and I have to say -- well, I don't have to, but I will -- I quite enjoy it.  How could I not, it's got Will Truman and Ed Stevens in it.  You know, Will Truman from Will & Grace and Ed Stevens from Ed

I know what you're thinking -- you're thinking I shouldn't refer to Eric McCormack as Will Truman and Tom Cavanagh as Ed Stevens, after all, Eric McCormack isn't Will and Tom Cavanagh isn't Ed.  The thing is, their characters have some striking similarities.  While I watched Will & Grace regularly and enjoyed it, I wasn't a terribly big fan of Ed.  I watched the show on occasion, and I always liked the characters, but never really got into the show itself.  So, when I refer to Tom as Ed and Eric as Will, I'm not trying to be insulting, I'm recognizing past work that I enjoyed and seeing that I still like the way the actors go about their job.

I wonder though if it bothers Tom Cavanagh to get cast as the goofball and Eric McCormack as the straight-laced high-strung guy.  The show is fun, and the two have great characters and chemistry together, but I wonder if they ever tried to switch the characters. 

Okay, I don't really, that's not the sort of decision that the actors get to make, I much more wonder if they would like the opportunity to switch characters.  Could Cavanagh play the straight guy?  Could McCormack play the wacky one?  It's not that Conner (Cavanagh) is solely funny and Mason (McCormack) is totally serious, obviously both parts require both actors to be at turns funny and serious, it's that each of the roles fit the personas we as an audience ascribe to the actors due to their other work. 

The upshot is, of course, that it works, it's not genius, but it works.  The two are funny together and the whole thing is vaguely believable (with more than a dollop of suspension of disbelief). 

For those who don't know about Trust Me, it's not Lie to MeTrust Me is the TNT advertising-based show, not the FOX human lie detector-based one.  Why networks would launch two series with two such similar names in such a short period I can't guess, but I can only assume that, in part, TNT liked Trust Me as a title far better than they liked Truth in Advertising (the show's working title).  Trust Me follows the foolish exploits of Conner and Mason as they negotiate the cutthroat world of advertising in Chicago.  And, as you may have surmised, Mason is the serious guy, Conner is the goofball, and the two are partners.  It is, as the en vogue saying goes, a dramedy, which I increasingly feel is the way shows are positioned so that networks (be they cable or broadcasting) can try to appeal to everyone – it's life, only funnier (similar tag lines have been used).

But, at least in the case of Trust Me, it works.  It's clever enough and amusing enough to make me want to watch every week.  I do, however, always find myself wanting more at the end of the episode.  I both want the show to be longer and for it to have greater depth.  Depth really isn't though of as a part of advertising though, is it?  Maybe the producers worked that out and that's why it feels vaguely shallow. 

Wow, smart producers, I have a new found respect for the folks behind Trust Me now.  Go them. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

High on Big Love, But Not so Much on The Oscars

So, you live in a Mormon family, not just a Mormon family, but a Mormon family that practices polygamy (I understand that the Mormon Church doesn't approve of the practice, I'm not suggesting they do).  You're the daughter of the first wife who was the only wife for quite some time.  You're uncomfortable with the very notion of polygamy and more than a little perturbed at your mom for allowing your dad multiple wives.

Polygamy aside, your parents are quite religious.  Sex before marriage is a big no-no, the very idea that you might be on the pill has practically caused your mom heart palpitations.  Man, if only she knew that your weren't on the pill (she didn't believe you when you suggested it), that you were instead knocked up.  Yeah, that wouldn't go over very well, in fact, it might get you booted from your family. 

The way I see it, that might be why you allowed yourself to get impregnated – the notion that your ties with your parents could be severed by them and not by you was, subconsciously, an attractive idea.  Obviously you would still be somewhat culpable for the ending of the relationship, but it would still be your parents that initiated that final confrontation.

Such has been the lot of Sarah Henrickson on Big Love this season, and it's been the most compelling storyline the family itself has had to deal with outside of the Juniper Creek hard-line Mormon compound in a long time.  Of course, the biggest problem for the show was how to have the storyline progress.  Sarah could always opt to tell her parents, get booted from the family, and the show could then have her go out on her own for a while.  Doable certainly, but that would only allow for a moment of conflict.  Having the baby in the bosom of the family doesn't seem like it would be true to the characters.  What then?

The show actually found a great way (great, not happy) out of it last night (so, if you didn't watch and don't want to know don't read anymore) – Sarah had a miscarriage.  The anger that her moms and dad ought to feel at her actions gets instantly pushed aside in favor of their fear and concern for their daughter.  Sarah will now be welcomed back into the heart of the family, and while there will be repercussions down the line for her actions, at this moment it's really all about making sure she's okay. 

It was a smart solution to the situation, one that allows for a big emotional scene now and the possibility of a lot more later.  The importance of family gets placed front and center, and their "big love" is shown.  See, television can be smart and compelling all at the same time.

The Oscars however, I didn't find all that compelling.  There was a moment pretty early on last night where it was clear that Hugh Jackman was neither going to be funny nor allowed to really "host" the event.  There was also a moment where it became clear that the Academy was going to award Slumdog Millionaire with every single prize it possibly could.  I'm not saying that it didn't deserve a lot of the awards it got, it just sort of eliminated the suspense, and suspense is really all that keeps people tuned in to a four-hour-long event like the Oscars.  It had some good moments, stuff like the Tina Fey-Steve Martin bits and Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix, but on the whole it was dry and felt awfully slow.  They may have completed the entire event in less than four hours, but it sure didn't feel like it. 

Did it?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Article in Which I Forgive Top Gear and Mull Over Burn Notice

I complained back in the fall that the show Burn Notice was relatively formulaic, that anyone could write a general outline for an episode and that all that had to be done to get a script was some Mad Libs-style fill in the blanks. That is, of course, the case for a ton of procedurals, in fact, that's kind of what makes them procedurals.

The problem for me was more that I didn't want to lump Burn Notice in with CSI and Law & Order and even House. The show initially seemed so different from those other programs, but had started (perhaps due to a sophomore slump) to feel like any of a number of different procedurals. I think in this second half of the second season, they've done a little bit better of a job throwing some more meat onto the procedural bones. Plus, last week, they had a great "off-template" episode in which Michael spends most of the show as a hostage in a bank heist.

That episode was as much fun as it was because they managed to finally do what they had been unable to during so much of the fall -- they successfully mixed the long-term story of Michael's burn notice with the single episode plot. They accomplished this by having trapped in the bank with Michael Agent Bly, who fits into the overarching story. They can't bring those disparate elements together perfectly every week, but last week's episode showed that it can be done successfully on occasion. Honestly, I'm not even sure they should bring those elements together every week, it wouldn't be much fun if Tricia Helfer hurts and helps Michael on alternating weeks depending on whether he's cooperating or not.

Last night went back to more of a usual episode, but it still managed to keep some of the fun in it. I think that, to some extent, the success of any episode depends largely on the insights Michael gives the viewer. The show rises and falls on Michael's tips and tricks. So, last night, when Michael suggested that megalomaniacal killers are "by and large whining losers," it certainly helped the episode succeed. That's the kind of takeaway line that causes the audience to chuckle and have fond memories once the episode ends.

Speaking of fond memories, remember when Top Gear and I were best buds, before Clarkson, May, and Hammond didn't tell me they were coming to visit?

Well, I'm happy to report that Top Gear and I are still best buds, mostly because they're complete loons and I love them for it (I could never stay angry with them, never). Plus, they want to help save the world, and I'm nothing if not a "save the world" kind of person (okay, I'm not really a save the world person; go with me, though). Insanely, oddly, loonly (is "loonly" a word? If not I'm taking creative license and making it one), Topgear.com (U.S. Top Gear-types) are going to try to build a car that's going to be superfast, super-styled, get 70 mpg, and cost less than seven grand. I can't wait to see this unfold. Here, as a little taste of wonderful heading into the weekend, check out the promo:


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Getting That All-Important French Connection

It is often said when discussion a work of art "they don't make them like that anymore."  In the case of William Friedkin's classic, The French Connection, it's actually true.  The film, based on a true story, stars Gene Hackman as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle.  The film is a series of chases and reversals as Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) try and track down a massive drug shipment and is now available as a two-disc Blu-ray release.

The film centers itself on a drug ring starting in Franc which is bringing massive quantities of product to the streets of New York.  Doyle and Russo slowly, sometimes subtly (when the principals are concerned), stalk their targets.  They work long hours, brave the elements, and push the bounds of decency in order to acquire a measure of justice.  

Doyle is a hard-nosed, not terribly likable cop, more obsessed with catching bad guys by any means necessary than anything else in the world.  Though not always correct, Doyle has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and is willing to do whatever it takes to be on what he believes to be the right side.  While the conflicted or tormented hero is prevalent in today's film- and television-making, conflicted heroes tend to still manage super-human feats.  Doyle does nothing super-human, and while things are better in the film's world when it finishes, there is still a sense that not enough was done. 

The brilliant thing about The French Connection that it ratchets up the tension while always remaining down to earth.  There is nothing that takes place in the film that one thinks could not take place in real life.  Essentially, while the stakes are huge and the quantity of drugs involved enormous, the film manages to always remain low key.  Though a cop movie and a thriller, the characters remain human throughout, something we don't often see today.

The film spends a long time delving into the monotony of police working – tailing targets, rousting people for information, and building a case.  A good portion of the film feels like a documentary being shot as the case is being constructed.  Doyle and Russo show the audience the players and their parts, and once the audience has them down, things get put into motion.

The back of the case for the Blu-ray release describes the film as an "action-filled thriller," which is a relatively accurate assessment. There is one truly spectacular action set piece, where Doyle, in a car, chases an assassin on an elevated train through the streets of Brooklyn.  It is, according to the behind-the-scenes featurettes a chase that never actually took place in real life, but is one of the things for which the film is most remembered.

Amongst the bonus features there is an entire piece on the construction of that chase, in which Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni in the present day revisit some of the locations used for the chase and discuss not only the way the chase came into being, but how the film itself was brought to life.  Also included are commentary tracks on the feature by Friedkin, one by Hackman and Scheider, deleted scenes, and several more behind-the-scenes featurettes.  One of those focuses on Hackman's view of Doyle, and another features Friedkin talking with Sonny Grosso, one of the officers involved in the actual real-life story.  Perhaps though one of the most fascinating inclusions is one in which Friedkin sits down with someone to discuss color timing this Blu-ray release.  The viewer is taken through exactly what went into bringing this version of The French Connection to the viewer in terms of color, light, and darkness.  It is, the viewer is shown, an incredibly intricate, detailed process.

It is also, however, a flawed one.  Watching the release, one will notice incredible amounts of grain at times.  This is almost assuredly due to both the age of the film and the film stock that was originally used.  It is also, something that, to some extent is discussed in the color timing featurette, though in the featurette they talk about making sure that the grain isn't overpowering.  However, it is.  There are certain scenes which, in high definition, one sees the grain much more than the action, it is a disquieting experience, making one feel as though as much effort wasn't put into the release as clearly was.  The sound too has some issues – elements on the quiet side are just fine, but the loud end of what is heard in the 5.1 channel DTS-HD audio track is truly overpowering.  Shots ring out like explosions, and music in clubs deafen.

Even so, Friedkin's work is still astounding, and the five Academy Awards it won, including best picture, director, and actor remain a testament to The French Connection's greatness.  The movie and characters are clearly a product of their time, but it remains a powerful film today, with a storyline that is that is incredibly engrossing, one that demands all of the viewer's attention, but that rewards it at every turn. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sitting Down Watching Last Restaurant Standing

It is always an interesting experience after watching the first season of a reality show to tune into the show's second season.  Things often change, dramatically.  The producers have figured out new and possibly better ways of approaching the same concept. The changes, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, often have a profound effect on the viewing experience.

A few weeks ago, Last Restaurant Standing returned to BBC America for its second season.  I watched and greatly enjoyed season one, but for some reason was on the fence about season two.  I wasn't terribly sure I wanted to add another show to my already overburdened schedule.  However, I opted to do so and haven't regretted the decision once.

Things have been subtly altered this season – the show is down to two inspectors working with Raymond Blanc, not three; rather than everyone staying together at a mansion, the teams are all at different hotels near their restaurants; the set being used for meetings with Raymond is different; and, there are, different couples.  However, the core of the show, Blanc, has remained constant.

The television world is littered with "celebrity chefs."  Gordon Ramsay is practically a household name, Rocco DiSpirito had a highly publicized show a few years ago, and NBC will soon be bringing Marco Pierre White to its network for a show somewhat similar in concept to Last Restaurant Standing.  There's Tom Colicchio on Top Chef and Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, and Giada De Laurentiis on the Food Network.  I could continue, but I think you probably get the point – they're everywhere.  However, I like Raymond Blanc, I'm not quite sure why Last Restaurant Standing insists on throwing subtitles onto everything he says, his French accent isn't that strong, but I still like him.  Blanc has an air about him, a kind of high brow attitude, that many of the other celebrity chefs lack – perhaps it's the aforementioned French accent. 

In any case, far more than many of the celebrity chefs on TV, Blanc is riveting.  One gets the sense that he truly knows not just how to cook, but how to actually run a restaurant, the ins and outs of it all.  Blanc makes his point not by screaming at the top of his lungs, not by getting down and dirty with everyone, but by calmly explaining the proper way to do things, the proper way to run a restaurant.  Blanc doesn't appear to be a chef sitting there talking to the other couples, Blanc appears more like a CEO with hands-on experience.  He looks like someone who has been there in the trenches and while he's fully capable of returning to them if necessary, he's now ready to teach others what to do.  It's a far more relaxed attitude than we're used to getting on TV here in the States.

Between Blanc and the contestants, many of whom have tons of talent but little know-how, the show is fascinating.  Blanc assigns them a task to complete at their restaurant (last night it was to maximize profits and use of a half a pig), has people go out and see how the teams do, and then decides whom he wants to take a closer look at and possibly eliminate.

Perhaps the best way to describe Blanc in the show is as a puppet master, pulling the strings and making the contestants dance.  He doesn't browbeat, he isn't over the top, he just explains what needs to be done and expects it to happen. 

It's one thing I'm glad the show hasn't changed between seasons.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Holiday Television Weekend Blues

I simply do not understand what happened over the long weekend.  Where exactly was it written that I should be heartbroken more than once over the course of the three days?  What did I do to distress the all-powerful media gods?  Let's take a look at specifics, shall we?

First up, Salma Hayek, star of The Salma Hayek Show (the show formerly known as 30 Rock) and my dreams got married… and not to me.  That's right, she didn't marry me.  She didn't even ask my permission to marry someone else.  She didn't call me to inform me she was marrying anyone.  She didn't even send me an invitation to reception.  What's up with that?

Oh sure, you say that I wouldn't have flown to Paris on short notice to attend the wedding.  You don't know that, I might have gone.  Airfares are really inexpensive right now.  Plus, it's not like she and her new husband don't have the money to pay for a ticket for me, is it? 

Fine, let's set that aside for a moment, I understand that Salma Hayek ever saying anything to me is a long shot.  So, that news by itself wouldn't have destroyed my weekend.  Oh no, it took more than one event to do that.

With that in mind, I submit to you that last night I was hurt by Top Gear, a show that I have referred to as the best on television.  Top Gear was back in the United States, and not just the United States, but San Francisco, my backyard.  They couldn't have popped by for a nice cup of tea?  They couldn't have rung me up on the phone and asked me to meet them for fish and chips or bangers and mash?  What's up with that?  Quite honestly, even a single, local, not long distance, phone call to say "good show, chap" would have been more than acceptable. 

It is true, good things happened over the course of the three days, we got one of the best season-premiere episodes of The Amazing Race in quite a long time.  Watching those folks get cheese down a hill and jump from the GoldenEye dam was hugely entertaining.  However, the bad still outnumbered the good.  People just don't seem to be watching the shows I would have them watch, of course, on Monday I would have them watch almost everything, but that's neither here nor there.  What I'm talking about specifically here is ChuckChuck is a fun show and unlike anything else on television, but last night it came in fourth in its time period.  Fourth.  Okay, it's true that I generally watch three different shows in the 8pm hour, but CBS was airing comedy repeats and I've never understood the appeal of The Bachelor.  So, in my mind, it should have been second behind House, not fourth. 

I don't want to see Chuck disappear at the end of this season, I really don't, but with NBC losing five hours of real primetime for Jay Leno next fall, I think few shows on the network are safe, and something that comes in fourth in its time period, with one of the networks in front of it airing repeats, it's hard to call Chuck "safe."  Maybe tonight will bring better TV news, Leverage is starting the first part of its two-part finale tonight, and that's a show I like and it's been renewed for a second season.  Probably though that means something horrific will happen to it and we'll never see it again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sony Brings Some Good Movies to Blu-ray

Someone at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is deserving of heaps of praise. On February 17, Sony is releasing onto Blu-ray for the first time ever Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi, and a double-feature with Capote and In Cold Blood. All four films have won multiple awards, including being able to count 13 Oscars between them. The names that appear among the discs is equally impressive, including among others: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ben Kingsley, Richard Attenborough, Richard Brooks, and Quincy Jones. Plus, each disc looks outstanding.

Outside of them each being classic, award-winning, character-driven films, the titles themselves seem to have little in common. Gandhi focuses itself on one of the greatest men of the 20th Century, whereas In Cold Blood is focused on, perhaps, some of the worst. Capote examines the troubles of one of the most well-known writers of his day and Kramer vs. Kramer is the story of an average guy just trying to do his best.

Capote is the story of Truman Capote's writing and researching In Cold Blood. Released in 2005, the movie features Philip Seymour Hoffman as the titular character (a role for which he won an Academy Award). The portrayal is a "warts and all" look at one of the most talented writers of his day, a man who had little problem standing in the spotlight and, in this case, playing with the progression of a court case in order to suit his own purpose. It is Hoffman's portrayal of the man that makes the film captivating, and makes us case for a man who did some highly unlikable things.

Also a biopic, though one with an entirely different scope, Gandhi attempts to tell the story of a man who not only influenced the course of one nation, but several. As presented, Gandhi's vision of the world and what it could and should be is one of love and wisdom and something that we should all strive for. It is a much more glossy look at Gandhi's life than one Capote puts forth about its title character. Gandhi is shown in the movie to have faults, but the film centers itself on all the good the man did over the course of his life.

As Gandhi, Ben Kingsley shines, giving perhaps the best performance of any of the actors in these four pieces. The extent to which Kingsley embodies the man he is portraying is astounding. After watching the film, one is practically convinced that what they have just seen is Gandhi. The film itself manages to be both an incredibly large story about the progression towards nationhood of India, but also an intimate look at one of the largest driving factors behind that progression. Though he worked with a limited budget, Attenborough manages to bring the massive scope of what Gandhi did and how to life.

A fitting second half to a double-feature with Capote, In Cold Blood is the film that came out of the book Truman Capote is shown to be working on in Capote. In Cold Blood features Richard Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard Hickock, two mean who brutally murdered a family in Kansas in 1959. Capote never really examines the crime itself, whereas In Cold Blood is solely focused on what led to the crime, what happened in its aftermath, and who these killers were. Watching these men plan the crime and what they did following it is truly riveting.

Watching the two films back-to-back (in either order), provides a terribly interesting experience. Though made almost 40 years apart, with a different production team, and different actors, the two films fit together perfectly. It is easy to move back and forth between the two, seeing how they relate to one another, and to pair the different actors as the same characters.

The final film, Kramer vs. Kramer, is perhaps, the largest outlier of any of the four movies. It features Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a divorcing couple, Ted and Joanna Kramer. Joanna disappears early on in the film, and Ted is left to juggle his new found single parent responsibilities and his job at the same time. By the time he works it out, Joanna returns and demands custody of their child, something Ted isn't ready to give up.

Kramer vs. Kramer isn't about a horrific murder or a famous individual, it solely concerns itself with issues that the average person could easily find themselves facing. As such, it is far easier for anyone watching to truly feel a part of the goings-on and to feel as though they have a stake (one either side) of the tale. Both Streep and Hoffman won Oscars for their roles in the movie, and while the film may take Ted's side more than Joanna's, it is very careful to show both individuals as flawed but caring.

Save Capote, none of the four films here feature perfect prints, and with the other three films all being 25 years old or more, one wouldn't expect them to be perfect. What they are, however, is truly outstanding. Yes, there are bits of dirt or imperfections in prints, but they all look far better than anyone might expect. In Cold Blood, the one black and white feature, has an incredible level of clarity and sharpness to it. One can pick out nuances in shading, in light and dark, to a wonderful degree. The other films (save Capote) all show their age a little, but are all still outstanding prints. Additionally, none of the sound is murky or muddled. There are few explosions to wow anyone in any of the four movies, but neither will anyone watching struggle or strain to make out dialogue or play with the remote, quickly adjusting between loud and quiet scenes.

Only Capote and Gandhi find themselves with a substantial number of bonus features in these releases. There are no bonus features specific to In Cold Blood in that two disc set, and Kramer vs. Kramer contains only a single behind-the-scenes look at the movie. For its part, Capote contains a documentary on Truman Capote himself; a making-of piece; and two commentary tracks on the feature, one with director Bennett Miller and Hoffman and the other with Miller and cinematographer Adam Kimmel. It is Gandhi which goes above and beyond in terms of bonus features as the film has been given a two-disc release just for itself here. There is a "picture-in-graphics" track that accompanies the feature looking at some of the real life moments from Gandhi's life, and copies amounts of behind-the-scenes discussions on the second disc. The best of these are Attenborough's recollections of what went into creating the film (it was something he worked on for 20 years). In these discussions, Attenborough shows himself to be not just an incredible filmmaker, but clearly a wonderful storyteller as well.

Obviously putting out these three releases the week prior to the Academy Awards was a marketing tactic designed to capitalize on these films' critical successes. However, that being said, the films have all been given good quality releases of their own. One would certainly have liked to have seen more in-depth recollections on Kramer vs. Kramer, but even 30 years later the film remains compelling enough that it doesn't require a huge amount of bonus features to make it worth purchasing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

If it Were I, I Wouldn't Spend Any Nights in Rodanthe

Put together a couple of A-list stars who have worked together in the past and an author with a proven track record and you have a surefire film success, right? Well, not necessarily. You could find yourself with a great movie and a massive success. You could also, unfortunately, find yourself saddled with Nights in Rodanthe.

Starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who appeared opposite one another in Unfaithful, and based on the book of the same name by Nicholas Sparks, Nights in Rodanthe is a film which can barely even feign giving insights into the human condition. Directed by George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues), the film purports to tell the story of two people, Adrienne Willis (Lane) and Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere) meeting and falling in love over the course of a few nights in Rodanthe. Both Adrienne and Paul are dealing with personal crises of their own, and they happen to meet when Adrienne agrees to watch over a bed & breakfast Paul is booked at for a friend. Save Paul, the B&B is empty, and the two consequently learn much about each other before, during, and after a none-too-memorable rainstorm that is clearly supposed to be far stronger than it is presented as being.

In fact, the same could be said for the entire film, though running a brief 97 minutes, from about 97 seconds in everyone in the audience knows exactly where the story is headed, but the characters simply aren't interesting enough to make us want to watch them get there. The love the two grow to feel for one another and all the issues they deal with together and separately are supposed to be massive, life changing things. But, nothing is done to ever get the viewer to invest in either of the characters, there is simply no reason given for us to care about either of them except for the fact that it's Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The movie has nothing to offer the viewer but the two stars and Sparks' pedigree (if one enjoys his genre).

I don't wish to ruin anything for viewers, but the story does take an unexpected turn towards the end, a turn which does nothing but infuriate the viewer at how far out of left field it comes. There seems little reason for the final moments of the film to proceed as they do, except that the people working behind the scenes on it didn't want the audience to be able to say "I knew all along that would happen." The end isn't built to, it isn't appropriately set up, it just happens. Consequently, it is just as foolish as everything that comes before it.

The Blu-ray release doesn't even sound or look that good. The storm that hits Rodanthe doesn't look real, and it certainly seems as though Lane and Gere were simply standing in front of a green screen for much of the outdoor portion of the storm. The audio levels appear off as well. Loud scenes are incredibly loud, and quiet scenes overly quiet. Watching the movie one will sit there with the remote constantly adjusting the volume to ensure that they can hear conversations without blowing out an ear drum.

The extras on the Blu-ray release are, mercifully, brief. There are some alternate scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette in which Lane, Gere, Wolfe, and Sparks talk about the film and what brought them to it, a profile of Sparks, a behind-the-scenes look at Emmylou Harris' creation of the movie's title song "In Rodanthe," and a music video. The Blu-ray release also comes with a digital copy which can be imported to one's computer.

Outside of the stars, Nights in Rodanthe has little, if anything, to recommend it, and even Gere and Lane can't save the audience from the utter boredom they'll feel watching the story unfold.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Toe-Tapping with High School Musical

High School Musical is one of those phenomena things that's hard to explain.  What started out as a made-for TV movie on the Disney Channel has turned into a massive, astounding success.  It has spawned, among other things, two sequels, one of which was another made-for Disney Channel original and the other a theatrical release which has gone on to gross over 90 million dollars domestically.  The original Disney feature has now come to Blu-ray.

The story is simple enough – boy and girl from different worlds fall in love despite what their friends and family have to say.  It is, to use Disney terminology, a "tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme." 

The boy, in this instance is Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and the girl is Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Anne Hudgens).  Troy is the star of the basketball team and Gabriella is the brainiac new girl who constantly find herself switching school due to her family's moving.  The two actually meet and start their romance over Christmas break, when both families are on vacation, only to return to school in the new year and find that they're now at the same place. 

Troy's friends, the members of the basketball team, led by Chad (Corbin Bleu) become worried about Troy losing his focus on their upcoming championship game, and only become more distressed when they find out that Troy wants to… gasp… sing in the musical opposite Gabriella.  The brother and sister who star in all the musicals, Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), become upset that their supremacy in that arena is being challenged, and Gabriella's friends aren't so sure about this turn of events either.  Of course, by the end of the movie everything works out just fine (even if Sharpay and Ryan don't get their lead roles).

Anyone who has heard of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Grease, or a myriad of other similar tales will recognize that very little in High School Musical's plot hasn't been seen before.  But, perhaps that's because there's something inherently true about it, about the struggle we all have as youths to find our place and where we "fit in."  And, certainly one of the reasons High School Musical manages to succeed is due to the infectious enthusiasm on the part of the cast in nearly every single scene.  The songs that are sung throughout the film are, if not horrifically original, incredibly toe-tapping, and the dancing over-the-top and fun to watch.

Oddly, there are parts of the plot that if one thinks about too much don't seem to fit with the overall feel of the film (like the trophy case which presents Troy's father as a basketball hero and which also seems to indicate that he must have become a father not too long after his high school success, perhaps even during it).  But, with the film's 98 minute runtime and a ton of songs to get through, none of these incongruous moments is focused on for long.

The Blu-ray release is the "Remix" edition and features a number of bonus features.  There are a couple of basic behind-the-scenes featurette, sing-along subtitles, some music videos, and two different dance featurettes which attempt in various ways to teach the viewer how to do the steps from some of the songs.  One of these last featurettes actually features many of the stars of the film, and presents the steps for two dances at slow speed, half speed, and full speed.  Anyone who wanted to learn the dance moves for those songs (and who had the ability to do them) probably could from what they're shown.  Unfortunately, the bonus features (the dance lesson included) are presented, but not filmed, in widescreen format (they are listed as existing solely in standard definition on the Blu-ray case).  Consequently, the people on screen generally appear stretched out, but when the featurettes flip to scenes from the film, those are presented in the proper widescreen aspect ratio.  The problematic stretching is terribly disconcerting and something that should have been considered prior to the release.

The feature itself looks spectacular on Blu-ray, with bright, vivid colors (and, naturally, flawless features on all the stars).  The 5.1 channel sound is also presented well.  There are no explosions – save in musical form – in the film, but the 5.1 channel sound still makes one feel present in any crowd scene. 

For adults, High School Musical may appear slightly hokey and over the top, something which won't bother any tween.  If adults are able to set aside the overall generic nature of the plot and simply focus on the good time everyone on screen seems to be having singing and dancing, they too will enjoy the film.  Tweens, of course, are already sold on it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Examining the Fringe

I don't know about Fringe, I simply don't.

I watch the show every week, or at least on the week's that there are new episodes, but I can't figure out if I really enjoy it.  I think that, perhaps, the reason I'm so up in the air about the show is that I find the episodes so terribly uneven. 

Fringe has weeks were I think the show is terribly fun and smart and fascinating.  Most of those are the weeks that deal with the big-picture story instead of the freak-of-the-week stuff.  Some of those FoW episodes are good, particularly the massive-sized cold virus one.  That was just the right amount of disgusting and weird. 

Okay, that episode may have had something to do with the larger story as well, in fact it probably does.  It's almost certainly of this "Pattern" which now may be related to the notion of a multiverse and a war between our Earth and Earths that aren't quite our Earths.  Does that make sense?

See, that's another problem with the show, it doesn't matter how much attention I pay to the show, how much I concentrate on what's going on, I find it very hard to remember from one week to the next what's going on with those episodes that may or may not be part of the larger picture.  I'm not quite sure why that is, but I'm placing the problem squarely on their shoulders, not mine (mine already hurt from a little too much Wii Fit-ting yesterday, but at least I beat the trainer in the highest level of one of the challenges). 

I think that a lot of the problem relates to the fact that the show is so very obtuse about such things.  Massive Dynamic has their hand in everything that takes place, but we, right now, don't know terribly much about what they're doing and why and who they're working for.  They're evil, they're not evil; they're good, they're bad, they're ugly; they're fighting for us, they're fighting against us, they're fighting for us but are against us anyway. 

I'm not against the obtuseness, it's certainly Fringe's prerogative, and by keeping things murky they certainly help keep viewers tuned in… at least they do right up until they don't.  Right now I think it would be great to sit down at the end of the season and watch the entire thing on DVD when it comes out (and you and I both know that it will be released this summer).  My Tuesdays aren't currently business enough however for me to need to shunt all of Fringe to summertime viewing, but I can see a world in which they would be, and why it is that Fringe, a show that allows information to trickle out ever so slowly, would get moved to a point where I could watch all 22 episodes over the course of five days instead of 40 weeks.

But, then again, last night's episode was just outstanding.  It really advanced the overall plot, it kept me completely entranced, and I can't wait to find out more about this battle between parallel worlds.  Of course, now we're not going to get another episode for a while.  If Fringe comes out with a one-off episode upon their return instead of advancing the larger plot I'll probably be massively disappointed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rethinking This Season of 24

We are now at that point in the 24 season where I completely stop caring and debate whether or not I should bother continue watching the show.  It happens every season right around this point, and I think that's because the show unfolds the same way every season. New threads are being ludicrously introduced, the threat of moles within the government is growing ever-larger, people are having illicit affairs at the office, and apparently, this season, Bill Buchanan is allowed to run ridiculous operations straight out of the Oval Office.

I'm not going to lie to you, I think it would have been far more intriguing, far more daring and risky on the part of the producers, to have allowed things to get much worse before allowing Jack to do anything about it.  Think about it, the day started with Jack at a Congressional hearing, being grilled about his past actions and his flouting of the law.  We got a few minutes of Jack being asked questions while the world started to unravel.  Wouldn't it have been far better to have Congress spend the whole day asking Jack questions as we got to see things get worse and worse and worse. 

Kurtwood Smith could have sat there on his high horse yelling at Jack repeatedly while we got to see the nefarious terrorist plot unfolding.  The producers could have shown us the incompetence of the FBI and/or any other federal agency that isn't CTU.  Maybe, just maybe, Smith could have been getting intelligence updates handed to him by aides as he kept asking Jack about his "questionable methods."

That is the 24 I would have liked to have seen this season.  Frankly, that's the 24 I feel like we were promised by the promos.  It would have been daring, it would have been exciting, and it would have been far better than Jack fighting a "foreign element" on U.S. soil once more.  We've seen that, we've seen that just about every season of the show.  I don't know why I expected more, but I did.

Of course, the tactic could have failed miserably, it could have alienated the core 24 audience, convincing them that the show had "jumped the shark."  But, I've always been of the opinion that you can't win if you don't play, and to me it feels like the producers may have taken the field this season only to walk off after the first few minutes of the game. 

Now, I fully expect that they're going to be able to ratchet up the tension and make things exciting enough for us, but right now I'm spending my time thinking about other ways the season could have gone.  Better ways that the season could have gone.  I'm still up in the air about this new book of Heroes, but at least they seem to be trying something different.  Who knows if it'll work -- right now I think it hasn't -- but there's still time for it to improve, and I give them credit for doing something different. 

If only 24 had given us the Jack Bauer hearing that it promised.  It may not have allowed Jack to go out and shoot and torture with the sort of regularity he enjoys, but he would have been tortured, and it may have made this the best season yet.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Horror Hosting Brought into the Light of Day with American Scary

There was a time during the history of television when much more program was locally originated than is the case these days.  With smaller budgets and lots of time to fill, channels aired lots of movies which they could buy inexpensively.  Sometimes stations would hire "hosts" to introduce the films, talk a little bit about them, and maybe even pop up before or after commercial breaks (kind of like a precursor to Robert Osborne's job).  They were, usually, goofily dressed and more humorous than terrifying.  The new documentary American Scary delves into the history of the group of hosts who were hired to introduce horror films.

The piece is a truly fascinating one, which features more than a few horror hosts, film critics, and other talking heads.  They all delve into the history of the horror host in general, and in the hosts' cases, how exactly they got started down such an odd path.  The answer is, very often, similar among any group of hosts.  Older hosts tended to already working at the station and the station needed someone to introduce these movies.  Later hosts seem to have gotten into it out of a love of watching those who came before them.

The film, more or less, follows the story of horror hosts from their initial appearance in the 1950s straight through to the present day.  It does a fairly adequate job of examining how the idea came about to where it's headed in the future (the internet seems most likely).

Ironically, the film lacks and desperately needs exactly that which they examine – hosts.  American Scary eschews a host and even an omniscient voiceover person to help make things clear to the audience.  Instead, it relies solely on the talking heads being interviewed, and cutting together bits and pieces of their interviews to help tell its story.  For the most part this works, it's almost as if there is a single, well-established among those in the know, history of the horror hosting phenomenon.  However, there are a few occasions in the film where the interviewees seem at odds with each other (which host appeared first), and where things get a little murky.  Having a narrator would have made the through-line far more easy for the audience to grasp at these moments.

Scary also features one thing it most definitely should not – background music seems to be playing through the entire documentary and quickly becomes obnoxious.  Judicious use of music would have helped underscore certain points and have made transitions easier to grasp, particularly with the lack of a narrator.

The DVD release features an audio commentary track, a "pitch reel," some extra interview footage, a discussion of national TV horror hosts, and footage of a horror host wedding.  That's right, during the filming of the documentary two horror hosts got married in full horror host regalia and with folks in the audience dressed up too.  It's clear why the wedding didn't make the film itself (it's not really on point), but it's still intriguing to watch.

Much of the footage of the older horror hosts doing their thing is of rather low quality (as one would expect), but despite that, and the lack of a narrator, anyone interested in television of a bygone era will find themselves intrigued by American Scary.  It doesn't really break new ground, but it's a fascinating 90 minutes nonetheless.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Searching for the Miracle at St. Anna

More than many filmmakers, Spike Lee's movies all seem to have a distinctive point of view.  Spike Lee movies have a tendency to use the story to service a larger message or agenda, one that exists outside of the film.  Lee's 2008 feature film, Miracle at St. Anna is certainly no exception. 

James McBride wrote the screenplay, based on his own novel, which tells the story of four African American soldiers, all members of the 92 Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers, during World War II.  The majority of the film finds these four men, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), and Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), in a small Italian village behind enemy lines. 

The men ended up there when one of them, Train, saves an orphaned Italian boy, Angelo Torancelli (Matteo Sciabordi) in the midst of a battle, and are quickly assigned by their white commander (who is miles away) to capture a German soldier – any German soldier – in order to extract upcoming battle plans.  The soldiers run into the Italian resistance and eventually learn all about Angelo and his troubled past.

While the vast majority of the action takes place during the Second World War, the film begins and ends with a truly captivating frame that takes place in 1983/4 with an older Negron, now a postal worker, murdering one of the patrons of the post office.  It is a reporter, Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who learns all about Negron and his life (direct from Negron himself), after finding the head of a famous statue in Negron's closet following his arrest.

Lee and McBride do a wonderful job of depicting the World War II Buffalo Soldiers, and the adversity they faced both from the enemy and their allies and commanders.  In one of the most interesting sequences in the film, as a battle with the Germans is about to commence, the soldiers hear broadcast from a truck a German woman talking to the African American soldiers in English about how they aren't appreciated by their commanders and how they would be if they changed sides and fought for the Germans.  While the second half of the statement is obviously patently false, the film makes it clear that the first half isn't necessarily that far off (depending on the specific commander, of course). 

Miracle wisely eschews giving any easy answers.  There are good U.S. soldiers and bad ones, Italians fighting for and against the Resistance, and even brutal and kind Nazi soldiers.  The only thing that the film makes plain is that war is brutal for everyone, from those involved to innocent bystanders.

The film, while bloody and horrific at times, is actually rather subdued in its depiction of carnage when compared to other recent war movies.  There are moments when atrocities are shown, but there are no extended scenes with body parts flying everywhere.  The gore in the film is used in support of the story as opposed to standing in for it.

The biggest disappointment in the piece is that the frame never feels fully developed.  The movie begins and ends with the frame, but one never gets the sense that we are told enough about it.  John Turturro and John Leguizamo both appear ever so briefly during this part of the film, but disappear before it's ever made clear why the film bothered creating the characters.  However, with a runtime of 160 minutes, it could simply be that the rest of their scenes (if they were shot) ended up on the cutting room floor.

Unfortunately, this disappointment could be placed under a larger umbrella of the film simply having too many storylines to deal with.  There is a story with the Resistance which isn't discussed as much as it ought to be, one with the Nazis that fails to be delved into, both of which deal with the "miracle" that took place at St. Anna.  While the movie is a good one, too much is left unsaid for it to be a great one.

The Blu-ray release of Miracle at St. Anna features excellent sound design, which places the viewer squarely in the middle of all the battle scenes, with bullets whizzing past.  The film's colors are all subtle – there is nothing bright about this war – but there is no damage to the film present (one wouldn't expect there to be for a new release), and the black levels are quite dark. 

As for special features, the disc contains two featurettes delving into the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  One is more of a straight documentary-style piece, while the other features a roundtable discussion with African American WWII veterans.  Both clock in at under 20 minutes and prove more than a little interesting.  The history lessons, both first and third person, are quite memorable.  The disc contains the usual assortment of deleted scenes as well, some which may have improved the failings in depth the movie has, but certainly not completely fixed them.

Watching Miracle at St. Anna will leave the viewer with the impression that they are watching a great talent at work on a great idea.  Unfortunately, putting together great talents and great ideas don't always make for a great film.  There is a lot to like in the piece, a lot to chew on after the movie is done, but there is simply too much here that isn't explored as it ought to have been to make this a great movie.  The film would likely have been helped by either having an epic four hour runtime or a fewer subplots to discuss.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Shaun the Sheep Makes Me Want to Follow the Flock

It may seem like a silly statement, but it's one of those things that is all too often forgotten – perhaps the most important thing in creating a television show or film is the ability to tell a good story.  Many times storytelling takes a backseat to  production styles, editing techniques, or performances.  All of those things are, unquestionably, important, but when it comes right down to it, if a creative team can't tell the story there is going to be something fundamentally lacking in whatever gets produced.  And, looked at from the opposite side, if one has the ability to tell a great story to tell it, it can be forgiven if some of the other elements are not as sharp as, perhaps they should be.  In the end, it is the performances, the editing, the production style, and all the other ancillary things that ought to be put into service to tell the story, not vice versa.  Importantly, very importantly, the story itself need not be the greatest, deepest, most profound story ever, it just needs to be well told.

The upcoming DVD release Shaun the Sheep:  Back in the Ba-a-ath, produced by Nick Park and Aardman Animation (the folks behind Wallace & Gromit) features storytelling at its finest.  The series, which has appeared on the Disney Channel, features brief episodes, each approximately (on average) six to seven minutes in length.  Featured in the series is Shaun, his sheep friends, Bitzer the sheepdog, The Farmer, and The Naughty Pigs. 

Filmed using the same sort of stop-motion techniques Aardman has used to great success in Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit, and other Aardman work.  And, just as in those other Aardman works, there is a sense of wit and cleverness in each of the eight episodes of Shaun the Sheep included on this DVD.

Shaun, for those who don't know, first appeared in the Wallace & Gromit short "A Close Shave."  He subsequently appeared in Cracking Contraptions before finally being given a chance to shine by himself, and shine he does.  Though " just" a sheep, Shaun, as with all of Aardman's animals, is highly anthropomorphized.  Shaun and the rest of the Flock spend the vast majority of their time trying to outwit The Farmer, Bitzer, and anyone else who might get in their way.

In "Take Away," a typical episode of the series, the Flock finds itself distressed that The Farmer dared to get pizza and did not share any with them.  Consequently, a few of the sheep dress up as a human and venture into town to get some for themselves.  Along the way the scare and mystify people before somehow managing to convince the pizza guy to give them their pies despite their lack of cash.

Perhaps it is because stop-motion animation is an incredibly difficult process and consequently even the tiniest elements of the production have to be worked out in advance, but Shaun the Sheep has the sense of being perfectly put together.  Even the smallest of jokes are well-thought out and executed.

In the end, Shaun the Sheep is an incredibly amount of fun for both young and old.  Some of the jokes are too subtle for younger viewers, though all will enjoy watching the truly odd antics of the Flock, things like a Rocky-esque montage in the episode "Shape up with Shaun" in which Shirley the Sheep attempts to lose weight.

Shaun the Sheep doesn't attempt to tell large stories, they all range from the aforementioned ones to things like problems during bath time, but the stories are all well-executed, and, more impressively, they all use a minimal amount -- if any -- dialogue.  However, anyone watching will easily be able to discern what is taking place. 

The DVD is short on extras, it contains a sing-a-long version of the theme as bonus material and that's it.  Worse than that, rather than placing the words on top of the video, the video is made tiny and the words are placed underneath it.  And, oddly, if one hits "play all" from the menu, the sing-a-long and some trailers for other shows play after each of the episodes of the show finish. 

Even so, Shaun the Sheep is great where it really counts, in keeping the audience truly entranced at the characters on screen and their antics. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Oliver and Company Comes Back for Some More

The folks over at Disney have a talent for taking stories that already exist and reworking them to fit into the Disney ethos.  They've found varying levels of success doing it with fairy tales, novels, historical accounts, and legends.  And, whether they results are incredible or rather disappointing, there is still something indefinably "Disney" that manages to link them together. 

Ending up neither on the legendary but nor on the disappointing side is the 1988 feature Oliver and Company.  Based on the classic Charles Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist, Disney has updated the story to place it in late-1980s New York City.  And, to truly make it a Disney piece, rather than having humans as the main characters, Oliver, the Dodger, and his gang are all cats and dogs.  Animated humans do appear, but save for Jenny, the little girl who falls for Oliver, the humans all find themselves in supporting roles. 

In this version of the story, Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is a cat who finds himself without a set of humans to adopt him.  Hungry and alone he meets up with Dodger (Billy Joel), who promises to get him food, but Oliver quickly finds himself betrayed.  A hop, skip, and a jump later, Oliver winds up working with Dodger and the rest of the gang, voiced by Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise (as Fagin, who is human), and others.

Rather than really entering a life of crime however, Oliver randomly meets, and ends up with Jenny (Natalie Gregory), only to have her fall prey to a kidnapping plot.  Of course, as this is a Disney movie, the bad guy, Sykes (Robert Loggia) finds himself done in (rather gruesomely for a Disney film) in the end.

The film runs a brief 74 minutes, but manages to include songs recorded by Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, and Bette Midler (who plays Georgette, Jenny's dog).  The film itself appears rather grittier than most Disney pictures with its dark view of much of New York City, but then again, the portions of the city Oliver frequents probably ought not be depicted with rose-colored glasses.

These songs, The Joel, Midler, and Lewis songs all may have been written for this film, but sound very much in the same vein as other work by the artists – were one to attend a concert by Billy Joel in which he sang "Why Should I Worry" unless one knew the song was from the film it would fit perfectly into a set list with other Joel music. 

Like much of the film are fun, but one can't help comparing them to some of the truly outstanding numbers that have appeared in other Disney pictures.  It's a comparison that ends up finding the songs, and the movie somewhat lacking.  There is nothing wrong with Oliver and Company, it's got great source material, a good cast, and some fun songs, it's just not Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King (this film does predate the last two movies in that list). 

The new 20th Anniversary release of the film contains an interactive game; two animated shorts featuring Pluto including the Academy Award winner "Lend a Paw;" Sing-along versions of two of the songs; trailers; and two behind-the-scenes pieces on Disney movies, one on animals in general, and one specific to Oliver.  Both of the behind-the-scenes looks appear to be strict promotional material originally made for the film's initial release.  However, the Oliver-specific one is fascinating for its discussion of computer animation, which clearly is something Disney was just beginning to tinker with at the time.

Oliver and Company is a fun movie.  It's not one that will stick with audiences as other great Disney films do, but it has enough to recommend it from the appealing animals to the work's pedigree to the songs to the voice actors.  But, when you're finished watching, you may not find yourself asking for some more.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Monday Night Television Gets the Best of Me

When we are young, we are foolish. As we grow old, we become more wise. Allegedly that's the case anyway. Frankly, I'm not so sure that it's the reality.

Several months ago, I lamented the idea that I was going to try to watch six-and-a-half hours of television on Monday nights. It was certainly achievable (sort of anyway, and only because the gods have created TiVo), but seemed like Monday night already had more than its fair share of shows to interest me. See, that's the foolishness of youth. Right now, I look back on those days and think that six-and-a-half hours is far less than what I'm currently trying to accomplish. That's the foolishness of (slightly) older age at work.

Last night I sat down and attempted to watch House, 24, Top Gear, Heroes, Chuck, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Trust Me, and How I Met Your Mother. That's a whole extra hour of television. What in God's name am I thinking? What in God's name are the television programmers thinking?

At this point, I have no choice but to believe that the programmers at the cable and broadcast networks have sat down and purposely tried to make my life slightly more difficult than it actually has to be. Oh, I can see them right now, with their assistants all scurrying out for bagels and coffee ("two tall lattes, each with two-and-a-half Sweet-n-Lows placed into the cups prior to the latte being made. Don't just get a venti or a grande, the proportions are wrong, and I'll know if the Sweet-n-Low went in after not before, believe you me."), they sit down at their big conference table overlooking Burbank or Century City or some neutral ground. Bagels and coffee arrived, assistants properly chided, the lights dim, and a shadowy figure at the head of the table queries "what, precisely, can we do to make Josh's life more difficult today?" At that point the maniacal laughter begins, and that, ever so slowly dissipates, miraculously turning into the Stonecutters' song. Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star, indeed.

A tad colorful of a notion? Possibly. Maybe they're not specifically mentioning my name, but I simply can't fathom why all those shows need to be on one night of the week. And, if you look at that list, you'll notice that I'm not even watching some of the more popular Monday shows (Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami just to name two). To me, it's just odd. Is there, perhaps, some sort of notion at play that if the networks get us to tune in at the beginning of the week we'll end up losing our remote and consequently stay tuned throughout the whole week, never changing the channel. Is there an argument that people are so foolish that if you promote a Monday night show on Thursday folks won't remember over the weekend, but if you promote a Friday night show on Monday people will?

I haven't actually seen any such promos, but it seems to me that there has to be a televisual "flow" argument being put into practice here. Essentially, "flow" is the notion that everything that airs on a single channel is made to work together, to move fluidly from one thing to the next, be it scene to scene, scene to commercial, or show to show. So, an expanded view might suggest that it now goes night to night as well, hence the idea of programming a strong Monday evening.

Of course, it could just be that shows that I like are randomly put on Monday evenings and that no greater conspiracy or notion of flow is at work at all. Honestly, I'd rather think that people are out to get me.

Remember – it's only paranoia if they're NOT actually out to get you, if they are, it's just being smart.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Looking for One "Super" Bowl Ad

The day after the Super Bowl is, all too often, filled with recriminations and complaints and distress. Epithets are tossed around, complaints are issued, there's a ton of, for lack of a better term, Monday morning quarterbacks always willing to issue their two cents. No, no, I'm not talking about recriminations for blatant stupidity (please see Belichick's leaving the field before the end of the game last year for the perfect example of stupidity or worse), I'm talking about the quality of the commercials.

No, I don't think that the commercials are the real reason for watching, although many do feel that way. I was totally and completely engrossed in the game, particularly during the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, but the Super Bowl is also one of the rare times I pay attention to the commercials that are on my TV. Yes, they're always there in the background somewhere (save for when I'm TiVoing, which is often), but during the Super Bowl I actually pay attention.

I remember being a kid and being terribly excited about the new commercials. They were filled with people I knew, were hysterical, and just so… flashy. Perhaps my all-time favorite was the first of the Jordan/Bird McDonald's spots – "nothing but net." In recent years I recall nothing but disappointment -- the Bud Bowl is gone, and all too often the jokes revolve around people getting hit in the groin. Probably the groin thing was present when I was younger, but as I was younger it was funny. Now, while the production value difference is still apparent (except if you're Cash4Gold), I much more find the commercials "cute" than I do funny or good.

There are still one or two exceptions however, and last night, though I thought many moderately clever, there was one commercial which stood head and shoulders above the rest. No, not the crystal ball one (remember, that ended with a shot-to-the-groin joke), and certainly none of the Clydesdale ones (clever, perhaps, but not top shelf). No, last night the best commercial was for Hulu. It occurred at some point during the second half, so I'm not sure if you were paying attention anymore. It started subtly, and just built and built and actually forced you to pay attention to get the funny. While the entire thing has to be seen to be believed, here is just a taste of the wonder that was heard issuing from Alec Baldwin's mouth during the commercial -- "TV only softens the brain, like a ripe banana," and "Once your brain is reduced to a cottage cheese-like mush we'll scoop them out with a melon baller and gobble them right on up."

Genius, pure genius. Of course, I like that and I like 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies and that probably means that I'm hopelessly out of touch. So, for the record, I also liked the koala drinking coffee getting punched Careerbuilder spot. But let me say this: if you watch this clip and happen to think it funny you ought to give 30 Rock a try, seriously. You'll like it, really you will. I'll give you, it's not a guy getting hit in the gonads, but it's funny. And, I'm sure that this cute little embeddable widget below will, if you press the right thing, take you right over to Hulu, where full episodes of 30 Rock are available.

So, without any further ado, take it away Alec...