Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Top Gear Takes the Show on the Road

Okay, last time for this season – which I only say because last night was the season finale – the genius that is Top Gear.

One of the great pleasures of watching Top Gear, or if you prefer Three Fools with Motorized Transport, are their insane cross-country trips.  We've been treated to a few of them this season.  There have been visits to the States (remember that one?  They were just a few miles from me and didn't bother to phone) and Japan, but last night we got one of the best trips they've ever done.  Last night, the boys went on a road trip in Vietnam. 

Their task was simple, just drive from the south to the north, going from Saigon to Ha Long Bay.  Okay, fine, that's not simple at all, particularly when the task has to be accomplished Top Gear-style.  That pretty much consists of giving the guys no information in advance and not enough money to buy a decent set of wheels.  In the case of this Vietnam road trip it meant them buying old motorbikes – and Jeremy Clarkson doesn't bike.

It was so big and episode so bad (in a good way) an episode that it required way more than an hour to pack it all in.  It took a full one hour and forty minutes to get the bad boy out there.  What I have to wonder though is why the episode wasn't two hours long.  If it had been two hours long we could have seen the Stig's Vietnamese cousin.  How did Stig's Vietnamese cousin not appear last night?  Was Stig's Vietnamese cousin in the full version, not the worldwide cut?

It's an intriguing enough proposition that he might be that I'm considering getting the episode from iTunes to find out.  I just found out a few weeks ago that at iTunes they don't air the worldwide version, they have a longer cut.  And, for what it's worth, I've also learned that from time to time over there at iTunes they do stuff like give away free episodes.  In fact, a quick of that Apple-based website indicates that the "Vietnam Special" episode runs one hundred and thirteen minutes, fully 13 minutes longer than the version we got last night, and in the version that aired over the air we got commercials.  Perhaps the Stig's Vietnamese cousin does appear in that version.

As for the episode itself, I find myself constantly amazed at much those three guys try to get under one-another's skin.  I have to imagine that when all is said and done they're able to get past their upset and work together, but there are clearly moments when, in the heat of filming they hate each other.  Last night May and Clarkson painted (with the help of some locals) Hammond's bike pink.  Normally, the show would give us Hammond's reaction upon first seeing his newly colored bike.  We didn't get that.  We only saw him riding the bike later and clearly unhappy. 

This, I firmly believe, is not a moment that was edited out (I'm sure someone will correct me if it was).  No, I think that Hammond was so absolutely livid that they couldn't show his reaction.  I don't really wish for him to have been livid, it just seems the most logical reason for them not showing it.  If it was simply edited out to show his reaction later, that would seem like some bad editing work, the impact of the immediate reaction being a better pay off in the situation.

But, even outside of the painting of the bike, the Vietnam trip has to rank as one of the best special episodes the series has done.  Like so many of the other road trips, this one was less about the specifics of the transportation and much more a travelogue.  It made me want to go to Vietnam – not during the rainy season and on a cheap, broken down bike – but it made me want to go and visit the country.  It showed the beauty of the country as well as some of the strife, it talked a little about its history and some about the people.  It was both funny and heartfelt.

So, though I have given them many kudos in the past, let me do it once more this season.  It was an incredible way for Top Gear to go out.  It educated (about the world if not cars), entertained, and left me wanting more.  What better season finale could there be?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Rocking the New Schoolhouse Rock!

Those of us of a certain age – whether we saw originals or repeats – vividly recall the goofy videos and songs that made up Schoolhouse Rock!.  The songs, which were surprisingly catchy ("Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function") not only entertained but maybe, just maybe, educated.  Now, the creators of the original series have attempted to recapture the Schoolhouse Rock! magic with Schoolhouse Rock! Earth.  The DVD, which is being released on March 31, features 11 new songs and one classic ("The Energy Blues") from the original series.

As the name of the DVD indicates, all the songs featured on the DVD revolve around the Earth and the environment and things we can do to protect our planet.  As with the original Schoolhouse Rock! series, the point very clearly here is to keep viewers intrigued while having them learn something.  Though often a tricky proposition, the producers are once again successful.

There is, almost without a doubt, a certain segment of the original Schoolhouse Rock! fanbase which, upon merely hearing of this DVD, will state that there is no way that it could ever be as good as the original, that the original captured a certain cultural moment and that the magic cannot be repeated.  Do not allow such naysayers to influence you.  Schoolhouse Rock! Earth will not only keep kids entertained over the course of its approximately 50-minute runtime, it might just convince them to turn off the lights when they leave the room or to walk somewhere instead of asking for a ride.  And, for the naysayers, the DVD even includes appearances from some original Schoolhouse Rock! characters, and the singing is done by the original voices as well.

The songs here are introduced by a trio of polar bears who also get to do a little singing of their own.  They are perhaps not as memorable as the poor little bill who wants to become a law, but still serve as a solid entry into the DVD.

The animation, though somewhat retro in its styling, is clearly leaps and bounds ahead of the original series' animation, something that comes through quite obviously when "The Energy Blues" is played.  That song has been digitally remastered, but still fails to look as clean and crisp as the newer animations.

The biggest disappointment in the DVD isn't the reimagining of our childhood, it's the fact that some of the lines in some of the songs seem to feature different audio levels.  A solo voice will come through at full volume, followed by a noticeably quieter group of voices in the next line.  However, this is only an occasional issue and certainly something that will not dampen a younger viewers' enjoyment.

The new songs are catchy ("You Oughta Be Saving Water"), the animations fun, and the original principle behind it all applied.  It may be true that you can't go home again, but that's no reason your child shouldn't go and visit your slightly remodeled old home. 

Schoolhouse Rock! Earth is a complete triumph in terms of being enjoyable, hopefully it will be as successful in helping educate about preserving our world too.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Chopping Block Gets Cut

On Wednesday night, NBC aired the third episode of The Chopping Block.  The numbers it received were dismal.  In the 18-49 demo, one that NBC tries to cater towards, the show ranked fifth in its time period… fifth.  That means it came in behind CBS, FOX, ABC, and The CW. 

After reading that do you even need me to tell you that the network has cancelled the show.  Sure, the entire season has already been shot and it's possible that all the episodes have been edited and are ready to go, but we won't be seeing them.  They may have given that old line about promising to air the remaining episodes in the future, but I don't know why they would.  Maybe they'll just throw it up on NBC.com and Hulu, that'll sort of count as "airing" them, right? 

Even though last week I complained mightily about the quality – or lack thereof – of the show, I'm sorry to see it disappear. See, I was the person watching the show.  I'm going to end up standing by what I said about the show last week – the potential for the show was really high, but it was never going to hit its full potential.  Never.

That failure is something I have a difficult time understanding.  It was edited in a manner which created a highly disorienting experience.  One was never quite sure watching what the rules of each challenge were, what the chefs were supposed to accomplish, and how they were supposed to get from point A to point B.  I've railed against overuse of narrative voiceover in the past, but The Chopping Block was in desperate need of someone to smooth the whole thing out.  White could have done it; he would have been great at it I think, but the series eschewed any such option.  So, what we saw were episodes as disorganized as the restaurants appeared to be.   

I'm not suggesting that the show would have been a success had it been more understandable – the numbers were very low even in its first outing – but at least then it would have had a shot.  There are, it should be noted, precedents for shows in the vein of The Chopping Block succeeding.  On the other side of the Atlantic there's Last Restaurant Standing (the second season is currently airing on BBC America) and over here there's Hell's Kitchen (season five currently airing on FOX).  Both of those shows use narrators to help tie things together and both make the challenges and tasks clear. 

NBC is having problems all over with their ratings right now, so why they wouldn't try to put their best foot forward with every series they launch is truly perplexing.  I find myself exceedingly curious as to the behind-the-scenes machinations that took place here.  Who decided to not make it clear to the audience what was taking place?  Why were these incredibly odd, seemingly lackluster, chefs and partner chosen?  Let's face it, having chefs ducking the responsibility of being in charge of the kitchen and not knowing how to run the line doesn't speak well of the show. 

I know, we'll never get the answers I want; I shouldn't hope that they'll ever be forthcoming, but I am curious.  I do want to know.  These sorts of questions eat at me.   At least I'm not a cat, then I'd be in real trouble.

Not Quite The One

To describe The One (2001) it is virtually required that one say something along the lines of "You see, there are multiple universes, and Jet Li lives in all of them. In one of these universes evil Jet Li has figured out that if he kills all the other Jet Lis in the other universes he'll become like a god. Only good Jet Li from a different universe can stop evil Jet Li." And so the movie is easily described and can be quickly dismissed as utter foolishness.

That would be an unfortunate mistake. Yes, the film is complete and utter foolishness, but it at least has the good sense to recognize itself as such. If it didn't, the viewer wouldn't be treated to things like a picture of surfer-dude Jet Li (deceased). Plus, the film also has pretty good special effects and a few memorable fight sequences.

Directed by James Wong (Final Destination), the film follows a pretty standard formula for an "action star takes dual roles" film. There are a couple of police partners who know all about the multiverse (that would be "multiple universes"), and who track evil Jet Li, played by Jason Statham and Delroy Lindo; there's good Jet Li's love interest, played by Carla Gugino; and a couple of cases of mistaken identity. It's Timecop meets Double Impact but without any appearances by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In the end, the only reason to sit down and watch The One isn't the routine but outlandish plot, it's to see Jet Li's fight sequences. While not spectacular, one won't walk away from them disappointed. Gabriel Yulaw (evil Jet Li) is able to dispatch cops at lightning speed due to his superpowers, but thankfully the camera puts everything into slow motion so that we can watch him perform takedown after takedown. The effect is quite a good one, as by slowing everything down evil Jet Li still moves at regular speed whereas everyone else moves in slow motion.

The best of the fights however is the inevitable climax where Yulaw takes on Gabe Law (good Jet Li), a carefully choreographed fight sequence where it is incredibly difficult to tell which Jet Li is the real Jet Li and which Jet Li is the stunt double wearing a green mask that ends up getting Jet Li's face superimposed on it.

The best of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, of which there are several, on the Blu-ray disc goes into exactly what it took to put together the good Jet Li vs. evil Jet Li fight. The film utilizes several different techniques (including the aforementioned green mask on the stunt double's face) in order to create the look, and it works very well. It may be possible to nitpick some of the details in the fight, but watching it straight through one will be far more impressed by the look of it than disappointed.

The Blu-ray transfer of the film is a pretty solid one, with great colors and sharp details, particularly for a film that is eight years old. The black levels are very good, and the special effects hold up surprisingly well in high definition. The audio mix features excellent use of surrounds and bass, and an audio track that is particularly clear (odd considering the incredibly silly dialogue that is spoken).

Outside of the featurette on how exactly the Jet Li vs. Jet Li fight was created, the release features a director and crew commentary, a look at the special effects, and an odd featurette which depicts the filming/photographing of all the various looks Jet Li had to do in order for us to see just how many different Jet Li's there are in the multiverse.

Better martial arts films have been made. Better multiple universe films have been made. Better Jet Li films have been made. However, The One still manages to combine all of those elements into an action flick which won't win any awards, but which still manages a couple of really good fights and a plot which you won't forget.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

These Ghosts of Mars Could Give You Nightmares

One expects certain things sitting down to watch a John Carpenter movie.  The acting needs to be stiff, the dialog over-the-top, the effects appropriately cheesy, and when makeup is required, it must be excessively gruesome.  Ghosts of Mars, co-written and directed by Carpenter, delivers on all counts.

The basic plot follows Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a policewoman and survivor of a recent attack on a Martian outpost.  Ballard spends the vast majority of the film recounting the events that led to the death of the rest of her squad (portrayed by Pam Grier, Clea Duvall and Jason Statham), and council interrogating her are none too amused by her tale.

Why would they be?  Her tale is full of spirits invading the bodies of humans.  The spirits convince the humans to mutilate themselves and murder the non-infected.  And, to make things that much more difficult, killing an infected human just allows the Martian spirit to roam free once more and infect a new host.  It's not your everyday sort of problem, but the film does take place on Mars.

Ballard's team was initially sent to the tiny outpost from their Martian headquarters to bring back a prisoner, the dreaded James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube).  However, once they realize what is happening with the infected humans, they turn to Williams and his merry band of thugs for help.  That's when the bloodshed, violence, and foul language occur.

In short, it's basically a low- to mid-level B-movie.  It's got an improbable scenario, a couple of attractive women, some death, a moderate amount of violence, middling gore, and none-too-great effects.  There's also talk about how the future is ruled by women and how to get ahead, women low on the totem pole must sleep with their female bosses.

Ghosts of Mars has everything it needs to be a top-level B-movie, but never quite goes far enough down the road in any direction, particularly in terms of the plot.  Why anyone in the film acts in the manner they do is impossible to decipher; there were certainly ways to keep everyone on the squad alive if anyone on the squad had taken the time to contemplate their actions.

Unfortunately, the Blu-ray release also fails to excel.  The black levels are very good, which is necessary in a film that is so dark, and there is plenty of detail, but from time to time there appears to be an issue with the focus.  While it is possible that the film was shot with the intent of having only a portion of some shots in focus, it seems wrong upon viewing it.  The issue certainly isn't one of depth of field, there are moments when part of someone's uniform will be sharp, but other parts are not.  It is also an issue only inconsistently, making it that much more disturbing.  The TrueHD 5.1 channel sound however, is quite strong, with good use of bass and the surrounds.

The extras included on the disc are relatively minimal.  There is a feature commentary with Henstridge and Carpenter, as well as some behind-the-scenes featurettes.  These behind-the-scenes looks are most notable for being mainly just "looks."  There is no narrator to take the viewer through the filming in the desert or to deconstruct the special effects, they are just shown and then finished with.

The bonus features seem to suffer from the same issue as the feature itself – a strong sense that they could have, should have, and with a little more effort would have, been stronger.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Putting on The Robe

Nowadays, people regularly go to the movies and see a very landscape-oriented picture, films are regularly presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1  (heck, people even have "widescreen" televisions in their living room).  This wasn't always the case.  In fact, for a goodly long time, the aspect ratio of a film in the theater was about the same as an old-school television.  With the advent of television though, the film industry tried to do different things, from 3D stuff to multiple projectors to widening the screen, in order to get people back into seats.  For its part, FOX went with a process known as Cinemascope (a name we all know and are very familiar with), and started to shoot movies in a truly widescreen aspect ratio, 2.55:1. 

The first movie FOX filmed this way, The Robe, has just been released to Blu-ray in fantastic fashion.  It is well worth taking a look at not only for its historical significance in terms of the motion picture industry, but because it is still a great movie.

One in an incredibly long line of Hollywood movies that deal with biblical times, the films stars Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, a Roman centurion and son of an important senator and Jean Simmons as Gallio's love interest, Diana.  Gallio makes the foolish mistake of upsetting Caligula (Jay Robinson) and is banished to Palestine.  Among other duties, Gallio finds himself on the squad sent to crucify Jesus.  As the soldiers wait for Jesus to perish, Gallio wins Jesus' robe in a game of chance, and, after wearing it, is driven mad.

The rest of the film finds Gallio struggling to regain his sanity and eventually learning the ways of Christianity from his one-time slave and current holder of the robe, Demetrius (Victor Mature).  While Gallio may find himself on the wrong side of the law with his newfound religion, he is fervent in his belief that he is on the right side of the Lord and becomes as strong an advocate for Christianity as Demetrius.

Yes, the film may be a little heavy handed with its own proselytizing and somewhat melodramatic compared to what we are used to seeing on the screen today, but the story still manages to be incredibly engrossing and Burton and Mature's performances are fantastic.  Burton was in fact nominated for an Academy Award for his role, losing out to William Holden for his role in Stalag 17.

The visuals that make up The Robe are simply astounding.  As Martin Scorsese explains in the introduction the feature, this edition of The Robe has been painstakingly restored.  The color and clarity the feature has is far superior to more recent features that have been released on Blu-ray, and the print itself seems free of all dirt and scratches. 

The one quibble to be had with the look of the movie is that preceding some fade-outs and following some fade-ins, the color seems to pop to a completely different look.  It almost seems as though whatever process was used to color correct and restore the film wasn't applied to some of these fade-in and fade-outs.  But, the fact that it looks as good as it does, -- and it does look truly spectacular -- is amazing.

The audio mix is available in the original 4.0 channel format and as an HD 5.1 channel track.  While not as impressive as the visuals (the surrounds are used sparsely), the clarity of the 5.1 channel track is impressive.

The release also comes packed to the gills with special features.  The featurette on the making of The Robe is particularly fascinating, with several different historians and scholars examining the studio system of the time and what actually went into getting the project from novel form to the screen.  Another equally interesting piece focuses itself on how exactly Cinemascope came about.  There are also looks into Hollywood's fascination with The Bible, an audio interview with Philip Dunne, one of the authors of the screenplay, a look at the score for the film, and a couple of picture-in-picture tracks looking at the film's production.  The disc also contains original publicity material for the film and the aforementioned Martin Scorsese introduction.  There is even a commentary track on the feature with film composer David newman and three film historians, Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman.

The Blu-ray release of The Robe shows movie magic at its best.  The amount of effort put into creating the original feature over 50 years ago and to restoring it today come across in all the glory of high definition.  It may not have the most original of stories to tell, but it tells it with great vim and great vigor, and even if the plot isn't your cup of tea, any viewer will be completely entranced with just how brilliant the film looks.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Closer Look at the Crazy on The Celebrity Apprentice

You know me, I don't wish ill on anyone, but how absolutely fantastic was the end of last night's Desperate Housewives?  I'm not really going to discuss it today because I don't have much to say about it except for how utterly happy it made me, but boy did it make me happy.  Even if you didn't watch but have been paying attention to the promos and the news coming out of the show you know what happened last night.  I won't say anything as silly as "shocking, positively shocking" but it was definitely wonderful.

So, instead of the sublime, let's focus today on the ridiculous, The Celebrity Apprentice.  It's incredibly difficult to make heads or tails of why exactly the celebrities on the show act the way they do.  Last night was marked by not one, but two, weird, disturbing outburst.

The first one, of course, is the one that NBC spent all of its time promoting, "the Dennis Rodman meltdown."  For reasons only known to Rodman – all of the other men were asked and no one had an answer – Rodman went off on Clint Black last night.  Rodman started yelling about how they were supposed to be a team and act like a team, made a few threats, said a few curses, and stormed off.  To me, that sounds like perfectly normal Dennis Rodman behavior, odd and disturbing for a regular person, but exactly the sort of thing one would expect from Rodman. 

What I really didn't understand about the whole thing is why Rodman was upset about being excluded from the team.  Clint Black and the rest of the guys had just invited Rodman to take part in the discussions a few minutes earlier, Rodman had declined.  I would have thought that if Dennis Rodman was going to yell and scream about something for no reason he could have come up with a better tirade than the one he did, one that made it seem as though he has zero short term memory.

To me though, the more disturbing moment last night took place in the boardroom.  Claudia, the women's PM, prior to it being announced that the women lost, started to go after Melissa Rivers.  Claudia thought (not wrongly) that Melissa had tried to hog much of the work on the project for herself.  Melissa, though she had to have known that Claudia was going to attack her, seemed unprepared to defend herself.  She asked her mom (who was sitting right next to her) to help defend her. 

One has always gotten the impression watching Melissa, that as good as she may be at her job (and I really don't want to take anything away from her on that score), she relies too much on her mom.  Asking mommy to help fight the big bad Claudia was incredible.  Why Melissa wasn't ready with a retort to Claudia I'm not sure, but she asked mommy for help.

What could Joan do?  She came to her daughter's aid.  I'm not sure she should have, Melissa seems old enough to stand on her own two feet and fight her own battles, but Joan helped her anyway. 

Melissa had the perfect opportunity to change the way that everyone thinks about her, but she opted not to do it.  And, what's worse, is that I'm sure we're going to see the exact same thing happen again down the line.  Melissa may not have to ask for help next time, but I'd bet Joan will jump in and try to save Melissa once more.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blurring the Line Between News and Entertainment - Obama on Leno

Barack Obama, the President of the United States, appeared two nights ago on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I don't know about you, but to me that seems supremely weird.

Whatever Leno's show may morph into when he takes the 10pm timeslot next fall, right now his show is an entertainment one, and while I find politics entertaining (if a bit disgusting at times), I wouldn't say that having the President on really fits with the ethos of the show. Leno managed a good mix of lighter and more serious questions and conducted a fine interview, but I'm not sure that the interview ought to have been conducted at all.

It's no secret that I'm more of a Letterman guy than a Leno one, but I think that it would be weird if Dave conducted the interview as well. Late night talkers, save Nightline, are not news shows. The monologues of these comedy-based shows routinely go after politicians, past and present, but that still doesn't make the show news-based or the appropriate forum for President Obama to be discussing his agenda and strategies.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not against Obama as person nor as our President. I am one of the millions who voted for Barack Obama, and I feel just as much today as I did then that he is the correct person for the job. However, I don't feel as though his simply being the correct person means that he necessarily doesn't make mistakes, and, if I'm not wrong about him, he has to feel the same way. We're all human, we're all fallible, and I think that this may have been an instant of Obama's being fallible (thank goodness we're only talking a late night television appearance and not the economy).

The problem, I think, is that as good an interview as Leno may have conducted, I'd rather see our President go on news shows. I'd rather see him on Meet the Press on Sunday morning (I assume he has an affinity for NBC as he did Leno and not Letterman) than on late night. News shows have a certain responsibility to the audience that entertainment talk shows don't. News shows are, generally speaking, more unbiased than a late night talker, and are more on a search for truth (or ought to be). Entertainment shows are meant to be… entertaining, and they exist, by and large, to promote people, movies, shows, records, and other various things; that's their goal – promotion.

There is of course some overlap – if Obama appeared on Meet the Press he would be promoting his ideas just as much as he did on Leno, but David Gregory would be asking questions more directed at uncovering hidden bits, unintended consequences, and subtle points of Obama's plans. Gregory would be tasked, to some extent, more as a devil's advocate than Leno was required to be.

The line between news and entertainment is constantly getting blurred, and I think that to some extent such a thing is inevitable. Many people will tell you that there's a softening of "hard news" stories. FOX News doesn't find it necessary to remain objective and non-partisan, and increasingly MSNBC doesn't either. But, both those channels tend to remain true to their goal of presenting the news and opinions on the news (in some sort of "entertaining" fashion).

Pushing an entertainment show more towards news makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I think that's because, at least in this case, I'd rather have the guy running the country answer hard questions and defend and fight for his beliefs in the most challenging forum possible. I'm neither saying he's right nor that's he wrong with his economic stimulus plan, I just would rather he was required to actively defend it rather than just have someone lob easy questions at him.

But, you'll find the video below, judge for yourself.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Chopping Block's Potential Energy

I may have been way off base last week when I said that The Chopping Block could be a "cut above" other reality shows.  After last night's episode while it's still possible for the show to be better than others, it doesn't look like the show will ever reach that height. 

In science they refer to "potential energy" and "kinetic energy."  Most easily explained, potential energy is the total amount of energy inside a thing that could be released, the stored energy of an object.  Kinetic energy is the energy, in the form of motion, that is being given off.  Applied to The Chopping Block, I might say that the show's potential energy is massive, while it's kinetic energy is near zero.

Spoiler time – last night, for the second week in a row, Marco Pierre White didn't actually have to chop anyone from the competition.  The team that ended up disappearing did so of their own accord, of their own whims, of their own wishes.  Simply put, they quit.  Two weeks in a row now a team has quit rather than getting fired.  Yes, it may have looked bad for Chad & Mike who went home yesterday, but if they'd fought at least a little they certainly could have stuck around another week at least.

There's definitely something to be said for reality show contestants that realize that they ought not win, it shows a certainly amount of sense on their part.  I can and do respect the fact that Chad felt as though the best team ought to win and that he and Mikey weren't that team, but having two teams quit two weeks in a row isn't the sort of thing you hope for when you're watching a show. I can't imagine it's what the producers wanted either, I can't imagine it's who they thought they were casting.  Chad ought to have fought a little for himself, just a little.  No? 

Okay, no more spoilers

Truthfully, the show seemed to be falling apart on other levels too last night.  Last week, I found that I loved much of Marco's commentary.  This week, not so much.  I love hearing him speak, I think have those extended segments with him is a great idea for the show, but what he was saying last night was downright foolish. 

Early on, he said that the most important thing in the restaurant was the environment that you sit in, the look and feel of the front of house.  Thirty seconds later he said that front of house was equally important to the kitchen.  I get that they can be equally important, but he kind of put the emphasis on "the" when he said "the most important" talking about the environment that you sit in.  He said it with the clear intent that the front of house was the most important thing, as in not tied with anything else, in its importance level.  To instantly negate that saying that front of house and kitchen are equally important means that what we as an audience got was a poorly edited program.  Whether or not Marco went from saying one thing to saying the other immediately is irrelevant, the show should have cut out one of the two statements.  If they strung together two thoughts of his to make them one, that's even worse, but either shows a lack of thought and effort.

I shouldn't really have been surprised when what came next, the challenge for the week, wasn't actually even explained.  It appeared as though the teams had to redesign a single corner of the restaurant to look different from the rest of the place.  At least, that's how it was explained.  That wasn't what the challenge was though, the challenge was to redesign the corner with an idea that the teams were going to later rework the whole place to look like the corner.  Again, not explaining that to the viewer showed a lack of effort.

In the end, that was kind of the hallmark of last night's episode – there was a lack of effort on the chefs' part, there was a lack of effort on the servers' part, there was a lack of effort on the producers' part.  Maybe they'll figure it out next week, but I'm no longer going to keep my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The End is Tigh... I Mean Nigh - Battlestar Galactica Draws to a Close

I sat down last night and watched the hour-long final Battlestar Galactica behind-the-scenes special entitled, oddly enough, Battlestar Galactica – The Last Frakkin' Special. As you know, as we all know, Battlestar Galactica concludes its run as a series with a two-hour finale this Friday night. Oh sure, there is already a TV movie scheduled, but this is its final episode as a "regular" series.

No, I don't put the "regular" in quotes above because BSG was an extra special truly swell series. It was, but that's not why I put in the quotes. I used them because to suggest that the series has had a regular run, with nearly a year between the first half of the final season and the second half certainly makes it an irregular run.

When I watch BSG these days, I'm amazed at how dark it feels the series has gotten; it actually feels more bleak now than it did when it began, and it began with the near-total destruction of humanity. I've come to decide though that it's probably not more bleak than that, but it certainly is darker than the moments when it appeared that humanity was going to make a huge comeback, when they destroyed the Resurrection ship and seemed on the right path. They still had troubles at those moments, but it looked like everything was going to work out in the end.

Where are they now? Well, the Galactica, the big ship that protects them all, is falling apart, and Adama and his loyal band of followers are going to be taking the ship to the Cylons' base this week in a last ditch attempt to rescue a human-Cylon hybrid. I'm betting that they don't get blown up five minutes into the two-hour final episode, but anything is possible -- it is, after all, the final episode (of the "regular" series).

It was suggested on the special last night that they were going to be far more concerned with the characters and what happens to them than the overarching story here in the finale. Apparently the actual plot was a tough nut to crack, so the writers used something of an end around approach to it. That seems to make sense as an idea; after all, if viewers didn't care about the characters they wouldn't have stuck with the show for so long.

Make no mistake, the show may be a sci-fi based one, but as everyone who has worked on it is happy to tell you, it really is so much more than that. It's a show with characters at its heart, and while the series may take place in the future, there are episodes where it's certainly incredibly easy to forget that little piece of information. It may always have been a funhouse distortion of our world, but it was still possible to figure out where they were drawing from a lot of the time. Yes, that's true of most good sci-fi, but BSG really does seem to have taken that notion further.

I really do believe - and hope I'm not wrong - that the final episode will be a no holds barred affair, that the producers won't hesitate to eliminate characters if their arc calls for it. The upcoming TV movie is actually Cylon-based, examining their "plan," and what their goals have been before and during the time the series takes place. It would, therefore, be completely possible to eliminate everyone on board Galactica and still have them appear in the movie; they'd just be there at a moment before they died.

I'm not saying that we will lose all the characters, I'm not even saying that we'll lose any (I'd bet though on one or two meeting their makers), just that it would be possible. Future TV movies (if there are any) can always continue to fill in the gaps with the story as the producers did with Razor.

I really don't know what will happen, but I am excited to find out. The producers have proven themselves, repeatedly, to be clever people; in fact virtually everyone on the show has acquitted themselves admirably. What will happen on Friday night? We'll have to tune in and find out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

House... Gregory House.

Now, I like House as much as the next person… well, almost as much as the next person, but I simply don't approve of the show going off and misrepresenting James Bond and/or James Bond villains. House may be a great character, but James Bond is my hero, and you don't mess with my hero, even if you're a great character.

No, this isn't a small, little thing. This is messing with one of the greatest characters of all time. That's simply not acceptable.

You see, House was sitting there last night, smoking a cigar, stroking a cat. He was pretending to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld and he said, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die." Don't give me any excuses about how it was Thirteen who suggested he was Blofeld, not House. House accepted the statement that he was pretending to be Blofeld, House thought he was pretending to be Blofeld, and it worries me that the writers thought the same thing.

Sure, famous line from the world of James Bond: "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die." Great line. It was uttered in fantastic fashion while Bond was strapped to a table and a laser was about to bisect him, starting with his genitalia. It is a line said in what might be the most famous scene from one of the most famous Bond movies by one of the most famous Bond villains. Sure, Ernst Stavro Blofeld is one of the most famous Bond villains, but Ernst Stavro Blofeld wasn't the guy who said "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die." It was said by Auric Goldfinger… in Goldfinger. Blofeld wasn't even in that movie, SPECTRE (Blofeld's organization) wasn't in the movie.

The writers of House have, repeatedly, proven themselves knowledgeable about pop culture and this was a pretty easy reference to correctly source. So how did they miss this?

Well, my big worry is that they didn't. I've liked their writing, I've liked how they haven't treated viewers like fools, and now I'm worried that they have, that they did. I'm worried that they were well aware that the line House quoted was originally said by Goldfinger, but Goldfinger didn't have a cat and they did. Perhaps someone originally suggested that they use the line; someone else pointed out it was said by Goldfinger, not Blofeld; a decision was made to use the line and reference Blofeld anyway. The problem is that such a decision might imply that the writers figured that we, the audience, wouldn't notice. Such reasoning would mean that they decided to treat us as foolish, as uninformed, that they figured it was okay to pull a fast one on us.

It's not okay to pull a fast one on the audience like that, and I don't want to think that the producers tried. What then were they thinking? Did they honestly not realize they were misattributing the quote? Had no one in the writers' room seen Goldfinger?

I tend to think that the most likely answer is that they knew they were misattributing the quote and decided it didn't matter. They weren't trying to pull a fast once on the audience, they just didn't think that misattributing the quote mattered, Blofeld stroking a cat was a great reference and they felt that it was something House might say and do. Fine, but that doesn't really please me -- you don't mess with James Bond references, you just don't.

Let me just say that one of the other big possibilities is something I can't accept. Some of you might suggest that no one in that room knew who said the line or that House inspires such fear in his minions that no one would dare speak up. I refuse to accept either of those ideas, the first because I find it impossible that House and Thirteen would know the line but not the speaker and the latter because House's minions talk back all the time.

So, tell me, what exactly do you think took place with that line?

Monday, March 16, 2009

How Not to Pack for The Amazing Race

I'm always amazed by people on reality shows.  They go out there and do things you'd never imagine.  The way they carry themselves, the way they act, so much of their whole persona amazes me.

Let's start with a little hypothetical today.  You're on The Amazing Race.  You know that you're going to be going all over the world – cold places, warm places, and everywhere in between.  You really don't have a ton of space to pack clothes, so need to really focus on the important stuff.  Oh sure, you know that other teams are going to have space (and you probably do too, or at least a second pair of shoes) for some pretty big boots, but what about the rest of your bag.  I think that sweatshirts and t-shirts and jeans are probably the way to go.  How about skivvies though?  What are you going to wear undergarment-wise?

Perhaps you'd pack some long johns, after all, the odds of visiting a cold place aren't all that remote and you can buy long johns that roll pretty tight.  If you're a man, after you've made that decision the question pretty much boils down to whether you prefer boxers or briefs, and you're going to go with the one you prefer.  If you're a woman, things can be more complicated, I get that, really I do.  I just don't think that, were I a woman, I'd make the same choices Jennifer and Christie did. 

Jennifer opted to save space in her bag (I'm guessing that was the reason anyway) by going commando.  Christie – I'm not sure if it was a fashion decision or a space one – went with a thong.

Now, as I mentioned above, you're on a reality show.  Yes, it's a reality show that tends to demean people less than the average one, but it's still a reality show.  Would you really be going commando?  There was every possibility of being forced to change or get semi-naked mid-leg, so I'm not sure, unless you're something of an exhibitionist, why you'd want to do go without bottoms.  As for things, they just don't seem comfortable, so unless you were on a fashion-based reality show I'm not sure why you'd choose them either.  Wait… maybe the point of the thong is that they are uncomfortable, maybe Christie figured they'd help quicken her pace.

Okay, thongs maybe we've come up with a reason for, but not going skivvy free, that I don't get.  And, Jennifer got what she deserved when last night's trip to Siberia required her to run almost a mile and a half in skivvies, which the producers apparently lent her.  So, I guess the makers of the show were prepared for such foolishness, and I guess I should have been expecting such a stunt. I just wasn't, I simply wasn't.

I'm not going to ask any of you out there whether or not you choose to go commando on a regular basis; that's a personal decision of yours and not one to which I need to be privy.  What I would like you to sit there and consider though, is even if you had a tendency to not put on a traditional bottom layer of clothing, were you going on a reality show and going to be seen by millions of people, do you think you might, just maybe, consider actually wearing some sort of undergarment. 

Bill Cosby used to do a great routine about mom's always wanting to know that if their kid was in an accident if they were wearing clean underwear.  The idea being, I think, that you should always be prepared for the world to see you in your skivvies.  In my mind, parents would be far more disheartened to learn that you had to borrow underwear on national television than wore a dirty pair.

There had to be space in Jennifer's bag for underwear, there just had to be.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The End Times: ER, Harper's Island, and Battlestar Galactica

I am, as they say, giddy with excitement.  I'm happy, pleased, and greatly amused.  I know you're dying to find out why, so I'm going to tell you. 

The reason for this happiness is multi-fold (and none of those folds involve the weekend being upon us).  First, my Harper's Island screener arrived today.  I know, I know, I haven't seen the show, I've done little more than read about it for months on end and, more recently, watched CBS promos.  Even so, it's a show I've been greatly anticipating since I first heard about it, and to finally have the pilot in my grubby little hands amuses me.  Naturally, there is a chance that I will be let down by what I watch, but I'm looking at the positive side of things today – there's also a chance I'll be overjoyed.  Only time will tell, and don't worry, when I know how I feel about it, you'll know how I feel about it. 

Just FYI, the Harper's Globe website is live and there are apparently going to be webisodes there starting on March 18.  There are apparently a bunch of "hidden" websites out there too.  That sort of thing is fun, as long as the info contained on the various web portals doesn't overshadow the show itself.  I don't want to have to go to the internet to solve the puzzle, it's fine for the internet to make it easier, but it shouldn't be required.

Next up – as it's Friday, it's a Battlestar Galactica day.  Including tonight there are only two episodes left.  That's not a lot, and the producers have a huge amount of work ahead of them if they're going to give some semblance of a resolution.  I'm not looking for everything to be all nice and pat, I'm just looking to feel satisfied with the resolution, even if my satisfaction comes via the form of some sort of cliffhanger.  It's okay if they open a whole new can of worms provided the one we currently have is pretty much over.

Finally, speaking of finales, ER's is fast approaching.  Last night's episode featured Eriq LaSalle in front of the camera (he's directed episodes), as well as (I'm sure you already know this) the return of Julianna Margulies and George Clooney.  After so many in the last third of ER's run, it's really nice to see that they're still pulling back into the show the original cast and giving us some closure there.  I was thrilled to see that Doug and Carol are still together, and hear that Benton and Cleo are still together.  The scary thing is that the writers must have worked out how old Benton's kid, Reese, would now be, and reminded us.  He's 13!  13!  We saw Benton hold Reese in his arms when he was a baby, and there was a long story about Reese's trouble hearing when he was young.  Time does fly.

To me, Anthony Edwards' return earlier in the season, and now LaSalle, Margulies, Clooney, and Wyle returning is the right way for the show to go about getting closure.  They're reminding viewers of the good times and what made ER a great show.  I don't think they're doing it at the expense of the current cast either, which would certainly upset a contingent of the fan base.

I do not imagine that the series finale of the show will hit the incredible heights of the greatest television series finale of all time, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," which still actually ranks as the highest-rated television show ever, but the show feels poised to do something special.  I debated going back to the show for the entirety of its last season, and while I'm happy not to have done that, I will be tuning in from here on out to see what they have in store.

I don't think I'm going to be disappointed.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Sharper Look at The Chopping Block

Last night, to much fanfare and few viewers, NBC premiered its latest reality series, The Chopping Block.  Most easily described as a mix of the British show Last Restaurant Standing and Hell's Kitchen, the show introduced U.S. audiences to chef Marco Pierre White, whom NBC put front and center on the show's advertising campaign.

The promos for the show attempted to depict White as a harsh, abrasive man, someone loud and bombastic, an individual even more over the top than Gordon Ramsay.  In fact, during the opening of the show, The Chopping Block touted the fact that not only has Ramsay trained with White, but that White hosted the British version of Hell's Kitchen, which Ramsay has done to great success here in the U.S.  I thought White was great last night, but he was certainly not the guy whom we saw in the promos.

Oh, don't get me wrong, White looks big and scary and forceful.  He certainly seemed like the kind of guy whom people listen to.  In short, he had a fantastic presence.  What he didn't do was yell, he didn't shout at anyone, he didn't make anyone cry.  I'm not saying he won't do that later, and I'm not saying he doesn't have the ability to be over the top, he just wasn't last night.  White was able to convey his desires and wishes forcefully, but quietly.  It was great and a huge change from what we're used to seeing in reality television in the States.

We're going to discuss the actual elimination for a minute, so if you don't care to have anything spoiled for you, don't read the next two paragraphs… 

It was a virtual certainty that Than and Zan (those are nicknames for two brothers, but why they were given those nicknames were never explained) were going to be going home after the Black team's restaurant performed abysmally.  And then Khoa piped up and said that he and his cousin would quit, that they didn't like the fighting amongst the team. 

Leaving aside the foolishness of the idea that Khoa didn't realize that there would be fighting, backstabbing, and general angry between the various teams put together to comprise a single kitchen, let's think about White's response.  More often than not, when someone quits in a reality series, at least early in a season, before proving themselves, the host of the series does something like calling them weak and foolish.  Think about what Trump did with Dice a few weeks ago on The Celebrity Apprentice.  White, however, didn't do that.  He sat there, looked at the camera, and explained to us that the way Khoa explained himself was almost admirable, that there was nothing to do but to give Khoa "respect."  What's more, one actually truly believed that White meant what he was saying, he wasn't just blowing smoke. 

I'd guess that by the end of the season we'll see White make someone cry, that even if he doesn't raise his voice, he'll so intimidate someone that they'll lose it.  I'm not convinced though that he'll do it by simply raising his voice, I think he'll do it with the force behind his words, by his bearing and presence, not through sheer volume. 

It really is a shame that no one watched the show last night, it came in fourth place in its time period, it may be similar to a lot of what we see, but it really appeared as though it could be a cut above.  It actually was a little more laid back than the average reality show and, forgive me for saying this, seemed, somehow, a bit more British.  White was more Raymond Blanc than Gordon Ramsay, and while I love Ramsay that was a nice thing to see.  Of course, as we're the colonies and completely uncouth, that may be why people didn't tune in.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Trust Me, They're Selling Something

If you've been watching Trust Me, you know that last night's episode was a long time coming.  I think every single week the show has mentioned Dove hair care products in one way or another, usually relating to Sarah Krajicek's being placed on the Dove account (much to her chagrin). 

You and I know that Dove has, assuredly, paid for every single mention, and that the producers were almost certainly told that they had to incorporate Dove in some fashion.  It's an advertising show, so it was pretty easy to figure out how they were going to do it – just have someone develop an ad campaign for Dove as an on-going plot.  It's an easy, and natural way to solve the problem – have the ad agency working on an ad for a real world product. 

Of course, while little snippets every week are nice, it's not a shock to imagine that Dove could want more, and, last night we got our Dove episode.  That's right, the vast majority of the episode revolved around the team coming up with a campaign for Dove, the plot went from a minor recurring one to the main theme of the night.  That, too, worked naturally because just about every week one ad campaign, generally for fictional companies, has taken center stage.  It didn't seem forced to have Dove take center stage this week, and although the characters were figuring out the best way to shill Dove to people in their world, it didn't feel as though they were shilling it to us (which, of course, they were).

Stories about the rising cost of producing TV series, dwindling market shares, and all manner of other issues are constantly being written.  There's always somebody standing up bemoaning the way things are, the way things will be, or explaining why their method to offset costs is the best. 

Trust Me's method for offsetting costs is, actually, a great one for the series.  They mix the creation of advertising for fake companies with the advertising of real ones, and rather than trying to do it in a subtle fashion (like Knight Rider panning over every single Ford logo they could) and come up looking deceitful, Trust Me brings it front and center; they're open and honest about creating the perfect ad for a specific, real, product.  To me, that feels like a better way to go about it. 

I'm not going to say that advertising doesn't work on me – I'm neither that conceited nor that foolish – but I do like people to be up front about the fact that they're advertising to me.  Here's Dove.  Here's Bertolli.  Here's Dove again.  And again.  And again.  Obviously not every show can be quite so clear about what they're doing, Trust Me has a lot of leeway being that they're a show that revolves specifically around advertising.  However, it still a great way for this series to go about getting extra money for a series that can't be cheap to produce.

Television is all about advertising, it's all about selling.  We, the audience are being sold and being sold to at the same time.  We should expect television to be doing that, they don't exactly hide the fact that that's their plan.  I just like how Trust Me goes about it.  I don't trust them to be as open and honest always as they have been with the Dove stuff, but I still like the way they went about it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nathan Fillion's Castle

Nathan Fillion is just one of those guys I root for. We all have people like that -- for one reason or another the people whom they portray on screen captures our imagination, the actor has a certain way of carrying themselves, of delivering lines, of doing what they do. For me, Nathan Fillion is one of those guys.

I didn't know who Fillion was back when he was on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, nor when he appeared as Caleb on Buffy. No, I watched the first sporadically and the second religiously, but I didn't know Fillion. The first time I realized I enjoyed watching him was, I think, when many Fillion fans realized it -- with the premiere of Firefly. Of course, Firefly didn't last all that long, so I didn't really have a good chance to know Fillion at the time, I just knew that I was intrigued.

By the time he appeared, three years later, in Serenity, I was well aware of who Fillion was. I had watched all of Firefly on DVD, and had been looking forward to the film for some time. Of course, I didn't only seek out Fillion as Malcolm Reynolds; I watched him in Slither, an episode or two of Drive, Waitress, Desperate Housewives, and last night (and the reason I'm telling you all of this) on Castle.

Castle is ABC's new show with a terribly old premise – killer uses writer's work to commit serial slayings, at least that's what happens in the pilot. The writer, Richard Castle, is played by my old friend Nathan Fillion, and opposite him is Stana Katic as Kate Beckett, the police officer hunting down the brutal murderer. Castle is juvenile, sophomoric, and goofy, but has a great eye for people, and Beckett is the world-weary, nose to the grindstone cop. You know how it goes -- she doesn't want to work with Castle, but as Castle may be able to shed insight onto the killer she has no choice.

It could be a one-off, two-hour, made for television movie, but it's not. See, Castle just killed the character he's written several successful novels about, and is looking for a new hero. See where this is going yet? That's right, by the end of the episode Castle has decided that his new character will be based on Beckett, and that he needs to spend time with her, following her around, in order to get a feel for how to write her. She's against it, but as Castle is buds with the mayor, she's got no choice.

It's hammy, clichéd, and forced, but at least it's an opening and shows have proceeded with less of a plot. Think about it -- guy drops academic fiancée off at a sports bar while he goes to see his ex, guy doesn't return, fiancée gets a job at that bar, show becomes massive success. See, shows have worked magic with less. I'm not saying that Castle will be the success Cheers was, but I'm not counting it out because of the weak excuse to continue.

No, far more concerning in last night's episode were the rest of the stock characters – ex-wife who happens to be publisher of Castle's novels, goody two shoes daughter, boozy flirty mother. It's almost as though the series has created broad, shallow characters who could have appeared in Castle's books to surround their main character. Now, if that's the case, I can take it as something of a joke and move on, but I'm not yet convinced enough that they were intended to be so stereotypical. Only time will tell there.

Fillion and Katic do seem like fun, and hopefully more deep, characters than we were led to believe, and the show did have a couple of good scenes in it. Of particular note was one where Castle is playing cards with some unnamed other authors. Those authors were Stephen Cannell and James Patterson, and they were kind of just thrown in there. References were made so that you could work out who they were, but show didn't smack you over the head with it which was nice.

A few good moments every episode, a few good murder mysteries, and characters who get slightly more deep over time, and Castle could turn into a really good show. Right now, the premiere was good enough, and so with Fillion starring I'll be tuning in for a few more episodes at least.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Amazing Race Opts for One Hundred Words Instead of a Picture

It's always interesting to watch a reality show and see what the producer show – or don't show – us.  Is the way the show was pieced together an indication that there was simply too much material to include it all, that things were edited to make them look closer than they were, or that the producers have chosen – for reasons unknown – to not fully divulge everything.  Probably the answer is usually an amalgam of all these possibilities, and maybe even a few more.

Last night's The Amazing Race provides the perfect example of this.  The show began with several teams missing an important connecting flight that was going to take them from Moscow to Siberia.  Normally, the producers revel in showing us the antsy look on the faces of the teams as they run for a plane they won't catch or as they sit on the tarmac – it's pretty much the standard operating procedure for the show.  It ought to be the SOP as well, missing those connections, whether it's during a footrace or sitting on a plane that isn't taking off is routinely the cause of eliminations on the show.  The contestants know that, so seeing the knowledge that they're behind the eight ball sink is huge.  That's the moment when a team realizes that they may not win a million bucks after all.

Why then, did we not see any of the teams miss their connection yesterday?  Rather than showing us the light going out in people's eyes, the show skipped ahead to the folks who did make their connection landing in Siberia, only to then backtrack and have a couple of folks recount the missed connection (we still never saw it).  It was massively disappointing, if an important element of the reality show is for us to take pleasure in how miserable others are, seeing folks miss the flight was a big moment.  Even if you take a more positive view of reality TV, and suggest that it's not about the misery of others, but living vicariously through others as they experience your dreams, it's still a truly human and touching moment that ought to be milked for all it's worth, isn't it?

Part of the reason we didn't see the missed flight is probably that there were simply too many teams to show them all (I'd argue that showing one or two would suffice), and that the show already needed to be so packed with teams doing poorly on other areas that there was no time to spare.  But, I wonder.  I'm not sure that the teams that missed the connection out of Moscow were all on the same flight to Moscow, so each of their tales would have been unique and valuable.  Additionally, any time we miss anything on camera, I wonder if there was some other – perhaps nefarious, perhaps not – reason.  Was the camera turned off for some reason?  Did the sound man fail to get sound?  Would showing us the exact way that the missed connection occurred make someone (contestant or not) look wretchedly bad and did the producers want to avoid that?  I can't answer those questions, the producers probably can, and even if the truth isn't salacious, it's something I'd like to know.  I don't like hidden things.

Probably it's my desire to have everything be obvious that caused me to not mind so much the fact that The Race tried to make the end look closer than it was.  Sure, it was a misdirection, but it was something of an obvious misdirection as the amount of light in the sky between the second to last team's arrival at the checkpoint and the last team getting there was quite different.  That's one of those things the show does to try and make things more exciting, that I get.  This other issue, the missed connection, that I want to know more about.  Thoughts?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Carter Bays Talks About How I Met Your Mother

Scoops, spoilers, hidden answers, inside knowledge, a look into the minds of the producers.  Call it what you will, but there are certain shows out there you're just dying to try to learn more about.  One hopes that being part of a conference call with an executive producer will help provide such insight.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't.

Yesterday, Carter Bays, one of the creators and executive producers of How I Met Your Mother took some time out of his day to give us a look into the production, answering some questions about the rest of the fourth season and possibilities for what could come down the line.  So, let's get down to business, shall we?

First off, I can report that due to Alyson Hannigan's being "with child," the season finale for the show has already been filmed.  In fact, it was filmed way back in January so as to ensure that she would be available.  The final few episodes leading up to the finale are still being written/tweaked, and the writers have found themselves writing to a finale that was already in the can for a significant portion of the season.  Though not necessarily the normal way of proceeding, it's certainly something that hasn't seemed to hurt the creative output as this past week's episode was one of the funniest of the season.

When asked, Bays attempted to remain mum about whether or not Ted (Josh Radnor) would meet the mother at the end of this season.  He refused to answer the question directly, suggesting he didn't want to spoil anything.  However, when asked about the potential for the next season, Bays stated that there would be a slight shift in setting and that the season would "bring us closer to meeting the mom."  That latter remark would certainly indicate that we will not be seeing her come the end of the current season.

Ask any fan of the show why they like it and eventually an answer will come out about how the show manages to wisely, and regularly, recall old episodes and foreshadow things that will happen down the line.  One of the recurring jokes has been a "slap bet" between Marshall (Jason Segel) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), which resulted in Marshall being able to slap Barney a total of five times at any point that Marshall may wish. 

The first two of these slaps were quickly disposed of, and the third, which took place last season, had a huge buildup.  In an early episode of season three, Marshall called Barney to let him (and us) know about a website with a countdown clock, a countdown to the third slap.  The slap, of course, occurred right on schedule and still managed to be surprising and funny.  When asked about the final two slaps, Bays discussed the fact that the show would try and stretch out the length of that recurring joke as long as it could, that if the show runs for five more seasons, they wouldn't want to blow all the slaps right now.  He also acknowledged the pressure of having to keep upping the ante with the slaps.  With only two left, there are none to waste.

Bays also touched on another fan favorite recurring joke, Robin Sparkles, the '90s teen singing sensation alter ego of Robin Scherbatsky (Smulders).  So far, the show has revealed two hilariously retro (to the '80s because, as explained, the '80s only arrived in Canada, Robin's home, in the '90s) videos and songs, including "Let's Go to the Mall!"  The second Sparkles song, "Sandcastles in the Sand," was discussed on the show as being the "other" one; however, Bays revealed yesterday that the possibility for more still exists and that the book on Robin Sparkles isn't yet closed.

Though he revealed few specifics about what the future of How I Met Your Mother would hold, Carter Bays made it apparent that the writers of the series are still hard at work thinking up new, wacky things.  Will we see Barney pitch for the New York Yankees next season?  Maybe (it was a discarded idea that may come back).  Will Barney get together with Robin?  Tune in and find out.  Will the yellow umbrella return?  Definitely.  Who exactly will Danny Glover be when he guest stars on March 30?  That we didn't find out, but we don't have too much longer to wait to get an answer.  Hopefully CBS won't keep fans in suspense for much longer on the show's status for the fall either.

But, whatever happens, remember that we can always go to the mall.

No Fear of Primal Fear

The legal thriller is a well-worn filmic genre. You've got your prosecutor – either well-meaning and seeking justice or just looking to put someone's, anyone's, head on a stake. You've got your defense attorney – either well-meaning and seeking justice or slimy, corrupt, and more often than not still likable. There are star witnesses, shocking reversals, incredibly improbable moments, and a resolution that is neither nice and tidy with a bow on it or one that is open, dark, and attempts to make you think just a little bit more about the world.

Yes, the legal thriller is a well-worn filmic genre. The trick in making a good one is to make the case itself truly compelling, to get great actors, and to give them three-dimensional parts to play. Primal Fear, about to be released on Blu-ray in a "Hard Evidence Edition," manages to do what it takes to elevate the genre.

Starring Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Andre Braugher, and John Mahoney among others, the film certainly has the cast required to add depth. And the plot, which revolves around the murder of a less than scrupulous priest (this was filmed back before the Catholic Church's semi-recent scandals), remains riveting throughout the two hour and 10 minute runtime.

Gere stars as Martin Vail, a hotshot defender, and Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy found at the scene and arrested for the murder. While the film has relatively cliché moments, like finding out that Vail had a relationship at one time with the prosecutor, Janet Venable (Linney), the back and forth between Vail and Stampler, and the building of Vail's case more than make up for any plot point weaknesses.

Forgiving the Blu-ray its ridiculous title of "Hard Evidence Edition," it actually represents a pretty solid release. The quality of the print used is nearly flawless. The colors are muted but the picture is still full of detail. Much of the film is dialogue-based and in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sounds perfectly fine, with good, even levels, but the music, whether it is part of the score or present in a scene is outstandingly clear and crisp.

The extras on the disc include a commentary track with the director (Gregory Hoblit), one of the writers (Ann Biderman), and producer (Gary Lucchesi) among others. There are also three different behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of them deals with the making of the film in general, and another focuses on the truth behind some of the psychology involved in the film. The third, which focuses on Edward Norton and how he was cast in the piece is by far the most interesting. It gives a little bit of insight into how movies get made that usually isn't included among featurettes. Of course, the inclusion of Norton in interviews and Linney only serves to highlight the lack of Richard Gere interview footage (presumably he declined to participate). Much of the behind the scenes discussion is about Gere, his style, and how he approached the film; to not have him speak and to present other actors feels very odd.

However, while the film was marketed as Gere's, it was Norton's breakout role, and it is he who truly shines in the piece. Looking back at Primal Fear 13 years after its initial release one won't find anything new, different, or genre-breaking about it. It is simply a solid legal thriller which revolves around an interesting case and features great performances.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Did You Say the Pagani Zonda or Panda Honda? Either Way, I'd Take the Veyron

Okay fine, I wasn't going to discuss, but it sat with me all day yesterday and vexed me, so I have to talk about it.  The Bugatti Veyron, your favorite television show and mine has famously raced it against things like an Eurofighter Typhoon jet, but up until this week (in the United States anyway, which I get is somewhat behind England with the show), had never raced it around their track.  Clarkson, Hammond, and May have previously explained that Bugatti wouldn't allow it, perhaps they were scared, perhaps they were worried, perhaps they simply thought it added to the mystique of the Veyron.  Whatever the case, up until this week Top Gear had never taken the Veyron around the track.  Up until this week.

The Bugatti is now up on the Power Lap board, and, (this is a spoiler if you care about such things as the time it takes a Bugatti Veyron to go around Top Gear's track) it is not in first place.  In fact, it wasn't in first place immediately after it's lap, and then they put a second car around the track last night, a Pagani Zonda F (fast car, slow website), and that too beat the Veyron.

Watching these miracles of miracles unfold I was left with several questions.  First and foremost, and the one I think the show really should have answered but didn't – why did Bugatti finally allow Top Gear to take the Veyron around the track?  It seems like a great oversight for the show not to finally discuss – or at least make a joke about – Bugatti's finally acquiescing.  If any of you reading this watched in England, please leave a comment and let me know if they discussed it there, I have a sneaking suspicion that due to the added commercial time in the U.S. airing of the show we lost Bugatti's explanation.

My second question, after studying both the Veyron and the Zonda F with my limited car skills, is why someone would choose the Zonda F over the Veyron.  The Veyron has a greater top speed, greater horsepower, and goes from 0 to 100 and 0 to 200 km/h faster than the Zonda F.  Plus, the Veyron looks way cooler than the Zonda F.  Yes, the Zonda F looks pretty cool, but not like the Veyron, not like the Veyron at all.  The Zonda F looks solely like it belongs at a track, the Veyron looks like you could drive it around regularly.  You probably can't, but it wouldn't look out of place in your driveway. 

I know, it only wouldn't look out of place in your driveway if your home is some sort of six million dollar estate, because the Bugatti Veyron is one expensive car (calling my local dealer, they ballparked it at 1.5 million bucks).  But, let's forget price, it's wholly irrelevant to our discussion, and, after all, it's rather gauche to talk about money, isn't it? 

Okay, maybe you'd take the Zonda F because it went around the Top Gear track slightly faster than the Veyron. But that's about the only reason, isn't it?

So, anyway, there you have it, what ought to be massively big news – Top Gear took a Veyron around the track.  How can you not be excited?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fallon Debuts, We Reviews

Last night, Jimmy Fallon debuted his new version of Late Night. His cold opening featured a bit with Conan O'Brien, while it was funny, much of the rest of the show wasn't. There was a bit that featured audience members licking random objects – a lawnmower, an all-in-one printer, and a fishbowl – for ten bucks; and an incredibly stilted, uncomfortable interview with Robert De Niro among other things.

From the opening monologue, through the comedy bit, and until the end of the interview with De Niro, Fallon seemed incredibly nervous. The monologue Fallon delivered at the opening of the night featured him shifting in place, hopping from one foot to the other, and with some relatively poor delivery of the jokes. His "slow jamming the news" bit, where he and The Roots did a slow jam song to discuss issues with Obama's bailout bill, caused at least one laugh out loud moment, and certainly appeared to be something that could have a bright long term future on the show.

Again, Fallon was definitely nervous during the bit, but, as I pointed out yesterday, he ought to have been nervous. The question ought not be how scared was Fallon, but how much of a glimmer of hope for a better, brighter future for Fallon was there.

There, I think the answer is pretty positive for NBC, Fallon, and Late Night. For his second interview of the night, Fallon interviewed Justin Timberlake, and that interview went far better than his chat with De Niro. Timberlake and Fallon worked together on Saturday Night Live, so the two knew each other previously, and as big a singer as he is, Timberlake doesn't have the same cultural icon status that De Niro does.

The chat between Timberlake and Fallon may have been a little too much "inside baseball," with a lot of references to the twos' previous work together, but they were able to strike up a rapport, and Fallon was visibly far less nervous there. I think that the Timberlake interview, and Fallon's level of comfort with it, is a better reference point than the De Niro interview or his first monologue.

Fallon is, of course, a comedy guy, so some may find his nervousness with the monologue distressing; after all, he's assuredly done stand-up before and certainly delivered more than one bit of comedy on Saturday Night Live. Fallon had great delivery and timing on the "Weekend Update" segment of SNL, and I'm sure that it was those segments that convinced some of the folks at NBC that Fallon could handle the Late Night gig.

Nerves are nerves, Fallon will get past those nerves, he'll settle down. He's familiar with live television, he's familiar with comedy, and he showed last night with Timberlake that he can (or at least will be able to more regularly) conduct a good interview.

In short, there was nothing truly brilliant about last night, but it did appear that all the necessary pieces were there for Fallon to have a good run hosting the show. He just needs to breathe and to be given the time to take that breath.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Good Luck Jimmy - A New Era in Late Night Begins

Oh NBC, you're a font of material, really you are.

Mainly today, there's a major bit of business -- Jimmy Fallon starts tonight. What was Late Night with David Letterman and then became Late Night with Conan O'Brien is now Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. That's huge.

Conan was in charge of the show for longer than Dave, but even Conan acknowledged in his last episode that it all sprung from Letterman; he didn't quite say it, but essentially, the show was really Dave's. Carson retiring, Dave leaving Late Night, Leno being brought in for The Tonight Show and Dave's eventual move to CBS have been much chronicled. Books have been written, and adapted for television; it was a massive shift and one I remember quite clearly. Sure, things have been somewhat smoother this time around with Leno's departure from The Tonight Show and Conan stepping in, but due to what happened last time around any of the shifts are momentous.

Late night talkers (much like morning news shows) make a lot of money for the networks (and also don't do a bad job promoting the network's other products). CBS is apparently currently talking with Letterman about extending his reign over there, with his current deal already netting him (it is thought) 30 million dollars annually. CBS wouldn't be paying that to Letterman (not the show, Letterman) is they weren't seeing returns. There's money to be made in late night, whether it's Late Night, Tonight, The Late Show, or any of the other network shows.

Fallon starting his tenure is huge, not as big as NBC moving Conan and doing that weird Leno primetime thing next fall, but huge. It's the sort of moment that anyone who follows the machinations of the television industry watches intensely. Tomorrow you'll see a whole lot of opinions about Fallon everywhere. Most of them will be negative. Not because the show wasn't good (although that's what will be said), but because the show is no longer what Conan did or what Dave did. Fallon may be bad -- frankly I'd be surprised if the show was really good tonight -- but the important question isn't about what Fallon does tonight. The important question is if Fallon will be there in a year, in two years, in a decade.

Once upon a time, I worked on a nightly cable talker, not the news-based kind, not really even the funny kind, the celebrity interview-based kind. Sadly, we premiered in July and were canceled in December. I think Fallon will do better than that; I hope Fallon will do better than that. But, late night talk is a brutal field and Fallon is going to need time to make the show his, to grow into the role.

A lot of people are going to be writing tomorrow about how the show is dead in the water, and how Fallon needs to be let go so the should can head in a different direction. Heck, I may write a review tomorrow where I say that the show wasn't particularly funny and Fallon wasn't terribly good. You just remember if you read that, and any other negative review, that Fallon ought to be given some time to figure out who he is and what his show should be. He'll get better, the show will get better. And, if he's great tonight, he'll still get better down the line.

Good luck, Jimmy, I'll be watching.