Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Doing a Little Waltz with Bashir

There are times when someone sits down to watch a film and after 90 minutes realize that they've been sitting there in stunned silence the entire time.  Did they like it?  Maybe, maybe not.  Was it a good movie?  Well, it was certainly a "good for you" movie.  But was it fun, was it enjoyable?  It was both technically impressive and entirely engrossing, but enjoyable, who knows.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the person you're talking to just finished watching Waltz with Bashir.  This 2008 release, which won a DGA award for Best Documentary, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category is certainly an experience.

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor – a documentary professor – who had an incredibly broad definition of what makes for a documentary film.  Waltz with Bashir unquestionably would fit my documentary professor's amorphAri's dreamous, widely encompassing definition, but it might not fit the standard definition.  The film, written and directed by Ari Folman, is an animated one. 

The main character in it is Ari, and his character spends the majority of the film remembering and interviewing people about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon (the First Lebanon War).  Within the context of the film, Ari is trying to remember what part he played – if any – in a massacre, and to that end, he is interviewing other people with whom he spent time during the war and/or folks who may be able to shed light on what happened.  The film, consequently, is loaded with flashbacks and functions much more as a series of short stories rather than a single story.

As for the truth behind it, and what makes this a documentary, all tales told by veterans in the film are true, or, at the very least, true for the people who told them (one of the themes the movie deals with is the vicissitudes of memory).  The vast majority of the real people who are turned into animated characters for the film are in fact the people to whom the stories happened (only two actors were used).  However, while the film strings the stories together into a single overarching plot, that part isn't necessarily true, Ari didn't go out and find friends from the war and link up with other people through them, he shot of the warput up an advertisement looking for stories from the war.

Is that relevant?  I don't know; that probably depends on your definition of "truth."  The stories from the war actually took place, they just don't necessarily go together, and don't necessarily fit with Ari's life in such a neat, pat, manner.  Plus, as I indicated above, the film is animated, which, for some, may hurt its truth claim.

As for the animation, it's absolutely brilliant and completely unique.  It may look a little like rotoscoping, but in one of the behind the scenes featurettes, an animator is quite clear about the fact that it isn't, everything in the film (save the last few live actions shots) is in fact fully animated.  Several of the featurettes deal with the construction of the film and the animation (there is also a Q&A with Ari Folman).  The entire piece was actually filmed first and then edited.  Storyboards were made from that, those were then roughly animated, and then the final film's animation was done on computer using the rough animatics as a guide.  The final result is a completely different visual look for the piece, one that is cartoony and stylized, but real in an oddly disturbing way.

Sadly, the Blu-ray release of the film doesn't do the actual animation any favors, as the many night scenes appear terribly grainy.  Additionally, the live action footage at the end of the film was clearly not shot in high definition (it is too old for that), and doesn't look particularly good when upconverted.  Both the Hebrew and English audio tracks for the main feature are far better than the video.  The sound is crisp and clear and even some of the more difficult accents completely intelligible.

Waltz with Bashir represents not just a brilliant achievement in terms of animation, but it tells a fascinating story – set of stories – about war and responsibility and action and inaction.  It is an examination of a what people do during war, what they forget, and where war leaves the survivors.  It is a powerful and wonderfully interesting film. 

Is it true?  Is it documentary? 

There's truth in it certainly, there's documentary in it.  Does the rest matter?

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Triumphant Return of Nova scienceNOW

Traditionally speaking, television in the summer is filled with reality shows, burn-offs of series that failed, and lots and lots of repeats. Cable has slowly started to change the game, launching lots of original scripted series over the summer. However, even many of those feel like they have a light-hearted air about them. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, then that when PBS has a summer television series, it too is a relatively light affair ("light" in PBS terms anyway). On June 30th, PBS's Nova scienceNOW is returning for its fourth season, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is retaining hosting duties.

Watching this season's premiere, the show seems to have undergone no major changes from last year to this, which, rather than being seen as a negative, this falls much more into the "if it ain't broTyson with sunglasseske don't fix it" category. The hour-long show is still divided into four separate stories, one of which is a biographical piece.

What the show really has going for it though is that it is fun. Every story every week is made in an extremely accessible fashion. Segments often begin with an amusing green screen introduction -- in the premiere viewers are treated to Tyson acting out pieces of Raiders of the Lost Ark and singing in various locales. It may just be my imagination, but the introductions seem expanded from previous seasons, but, even if they're not, they still do set a wonderful tone for the show.

As for the stories themselves in the premiere, one learns about making synthetic diamonds, using computers to control a singer's pitch, an examination of the trail investigators followed in tracking down the terrorist(s) behind the 2001 anthrax attacks, and a profile of Luis von Ahn, the genius professor who created all those ridiculous type-the-word-when-signing-up-for-this-so-that-we-know-that-you're-a-person-and-not-a-computer-things (they're called Captchas and Recaptchas).

One of the very impressive things about scienceNOW is that the show is not only able to handle a lighter-side story like Auto-Tune controlling a singer's pitch and have a breezy feel as a whole to it, but that it can quickly switch gears and examine something as serious as the 2001 anthrax attacks. The piece is, clearly, an incredibly serious one, and the show handles it with the gravitas that such a piece requires. scienceNOW explores the investigation from the point of view of the scientists involved, examining exactly how it was determined where the anthrax came from, something that required a lot of thinking and cutting-edge tests. The story is, certainly, far less light than the rest of the show, but it still meshes with that which surrounds it.

As I've done since the show's second season, I now must point out the real reason the show is as much fun as it is -- Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, is the type of person I always prayed would teach my college sciTyson singingence classes -- he is not only hysterically funny, but he helps the average person approach science in a wholly accessible and interesting way. I may question is choice of vests, but even those show that he is simply having fun, and making science fun. Really, it is the entire production team that deserves credit for making what could otherwise be rather dry incredibly enjoyable.

If my professors had made science one-fourth as fun as it is in Nova scienceNOW, maybe I'd have put my bachelor's degree to better use than simply reviewing science-based shows.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Doctor Who and "The Next Doctor"

There are certain moments in television, certain episodes, to which I greatly look forward. Yes, season premieres and finales are most certainly among them, "special" episodes for sweeps tend not to be. On my favorite long-running series though I hugely look forward to episodes in which new main characters are introduced and old ones disappear. It's a delicate balancing act, introducing a character, eliminating another.

These episodes tend to, hopefully, call for big things to happen, and I like to see how they happen. Law & Order is a show which, sometimes, eschews those big stories, people just come and go. Law & Order can get away with that, it's not so much character-based as mystery of the week-based. Doctor Who, however, can't. Doctor Who lives and dies by the Doctor and his companions. Introducing a new Doctor (and in the new series a companion) calls for something big, something huge. The same is true of eliminating a Doctor. It takes a special sort of evil alien creation or bit of bad luck for the Doctor to be forced to regenerate into a new form.

Thus, with only five appearance left by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, I headed into last night's viewing of Doctor Who - "The Next Doctor" on BBC America with great hope and high anxiety. Yes, David Tennant would still be the Doctor in four upcoming TV movies, but with his departure announced, with Matt Smith already cast as the Eleventh Doctor -- would the end of the Tenth Doctor be foreshadowed in "The Next Doctor?" Clearly, as the name of the episode indicates, some wanted us to believe so, but that doesn't actually mean anything. And, if there were hints, would they be obvious enough to glom onto without seeing the next four movies?

The answers to my questions? Who knows. If I had to guess, there is definitely a moment or two in the special that foreshadow the Doctor's death, but I wouldn't care to try to point them out. I'm not sure that they're point out-able, they probably will be once the switch to Smith comes about, but as of this moment, no. I'm going to refer to that as bad wolf-style hints. We all knew when the saying "bad wolf" kept popping up that they were leading us somewhere, that there were hints to be had, but they were exceedingly difficult -- if not impossible -- to actually put together into any semblance of the truth about what was to happen.

As for the episode itself, it was pure and true Doctor Who -- the plot was a little silly, some of the Doctor's knowledge odd, and the villain truly over the top. It was exactly what I was hoping for… except that it ended. I would have loved for it to have been hours and hours longer, but I guess I'm going to have to wait for the next series to get that.

The Cybermen certainly make for intriguing Doctor Who villains, they would kind of have to be to have been brought back oh-so-many times, but I'm still more of a Dalek fan (not that the bad guys can always be the Daleks, that could get kind of dull). It's one of the great things about the show (old and new versions), the recurring villains have become incredibly three-dimensional because different facets of their history and personalities have been explored through the years. Thus, in an episode like "The Next Doctor," even though we don't learn all that much about Cybermen and where they come from, who they are, etc., the long-term viewer can bring in all the Cybermen's past history to flesh the story out. Does that point out a weakness in last night's episode? Probably, but then again, I can't imagine anyone having tuned in for the special who didn't already care about the show.

In the end, I really can't wait for the rest of the specials and the new season (this last bit is a ways off in the future). At least, I won't have to wait for the next series to find out how the Tenth Doctor becomes the Eleventh Doctor, that's allegedly going to happen in the 2009 Christmas special ("The Last Doctor" being the 2008 special). And, fingers crossed, BBC America HD will be on the channel lineup provided by my cable company (the HD channel launches July 20) by the time that happens.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Steven Spielberg and Noah Wyle to Fight Aliens for TNT

News comes to us from TNT today that Noah Wyle has signed on to a pilot with them. In the as-yet-unnamed series Wyle is set to play the leader of a group trying to resist an alien invasion of Earth.

The series is going to be produced by DreamWorks Television and Steven Spielberg will have an executive producer credit. Spielberg also helped with the creation of the just-ended, incredibly long-running, Noah Wyle-starrer, ER. The script for this new pilot is being written by Oscar-nominated Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan), who, along with DreamWorks' heads Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, will also be an executive producer.

In addition to having worked with Spielberg previously, Wyle has also worked with the folks at TNT, having done four made-for-television films with them. The first, Pirates of Silicon Valley, aired in 1999, and the most recent, The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice, premiered just last year.

Few details about this new show are available at this point, which is not surprising considering Rodat's script is not yet finished. The press release did state that "the pilot opens shortly after aliens have wiped out most of the human population." That places the piece within a well-worn television genre, but one that it can be hard to find success in. Even so, TNT has a good track record in recent years launching television shows, and with Wyle, DreamWorks Television, and Spielberg on the project, the show should be an interesting one to see… whenever it ends up launching.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting Into Striking Distance

I hesitate to instantly, right out of the gate, damn a movie with faint praise, but the recently released to Blu-ray Bruce Willis action flick Striking Distance… isn't bad.  At least, in hindsight it isn't.  Oh sure, the movie wasn't well-received and even today isn't memorable (except maybe for the appearance of Robert Pastorelli, who, to me, will always be Eldin), but it's not the disaster some would have you believe.

Directed by Rowdy Harrington (Road House), Striking Distance has Bruce Willis as Detective Tom Hardy, a member of the Pittsburgh police.  The outset of the film finds Hardy having "ratted out" his cousin, Detective Jimmy Detillo (Pastorelli) for mistreating a suspect.  Hardy is also busy trying to track down a serial murderer.  In pretty short order, the film finds Detillo jumping off a bridge in order to commit suicide and the serial killer arrested.

The main story of the film actually gets going at that point, picking up two years after those events.  Hardy now works river rescue, has a serious drinking problem, and neither commands nor receives any respect from other officers.  However, someone is committing murders similar to the ones from two years ago, and taunting Hardy (so Hardy believes) with the bodies.  An obsessed Hardy goes after this new killer full bore, not caring whom he leaves in his wake.

All in all, it's pretty generic stuff.  Willis turns in the sort of solid, down-on-his-luck cop performance that we've all gotten used to seeing from him (think John McClane-lite).  Sarah Jessica Parker appears as Hardy's new river rescue partner and love interest, in a role in which she seems completely out of place having since done Sex and the City.  She's not bad here, it just is an odd place to see her.

In fact, Parker isn't the only big-name talent that appears in the film.  The cast of supporting characters is full of well-known actors including:  Dennis Farina, John Mahoney, Andre Braugher, Timothy Busfield, and Tom Sizemore.  Each and every one of them delivers in the film. 

Where then, if the cast is good and the notion behind the film intriguing does the thing falter?  Ostensibly, the film is supposed to be about the search for the new killer, but the search never really gets going.  There is no mystery that unravels, the film just proceeds until the final scenes, where, miraculously, the killer is revealed.  To that point in the film though, there are almost a half-dozen different people who could have been the killer, it almost feels as though the writers – Harrington and Marty Kaplan (The Distinguished Gentleman) – just chose a name at random and then did the big reveal explaining how all the pieces fit together.  The film clocks in at just under one hour and forty-five minutes, and feels as though had they shot for a full two hours the filmmakers could have concocted a far more satisfying, deep, story.  That, however, may have lowered the percentage of the film in which there are chases, curses, shoot-outs, and/or explosions. 

The Blu-ray release of Striking Distance, just like the plot, is a bare-bones affair.  There are no special features included, and while it looks and sounds good, there is nothing about it that is truly memorable.  The print is free of imperfections, the black levels good, and the 5.1 channel audio crisp-sounding and well-mixed.  Some may complain about the amount of grain visible in the print, but I choose to see that as an attempt at giving the movie a "gritty" feel as opposed to an issue in transfer.

In the end, I find myself leaving Striking Distance exactly where I entered – it's not god-awful.  One could go out and see better movies, but one could also go out and see far worse.  The cast is good, everyone delivers a decent (or better) performance, and searching out a serial killer can make for an interesting film.  In the case of Striking Distance, it should have made for a far better one than it did.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Promoting Watchdog Television

On last night's episode of Screen Time, Erin Medley and I discussed – in a terribly joking fashion – the notion that some sort of new version of Fight Back! with David Horowitz ought to exist (the Fight Back! website says that they're working on one now, but that doesn't mean we can't talk more about the idea for such a show in general). It's an idea I'd like to expand on here today, in a far less joking fashion.

For those of you not in the know, Fight Back! with David Horowitz was a brilliant program where they tried their best to help consumers out. Whether someone was having trouble with the phone company, a car company, or simply wanted to know whether an advertisement for a product was actually truthful, Fight Back did its level best to find out.

The example I best remember is them testing padlocks. An advertisement for a padlock existed where they shot a padlock with a gun to show everyone how it stayed locked even after the bullet pierced it. As I recall, they tried it out themselves and tried out other padlocks to see if they could withstand a bullet as well. It was fun, it was informative, and about 20 years later I still remember it. What more could anyone want from a television show?

This type of reporting is still prevalent today. Local news at television stations all over the country currently do this sort of reporting – helping someone get money back from a contractor or a supermarket, that kind of thing. However, I honestly believe that it ought to be done on a national level on a regular basis (news magazines do occasionally do stories along these lines). Even with the advent of the Internet and customer reviews being available for anything and everything, there are still a ton of scams and falsities out there.

Raise your hand if you've ever had trouble with the post office. The cable company? Your wireless carrier? Local phone? Internet? National chain store?

I'd place odds that you raised your hand to at least one of those, and if you didn't you instantly thought to yourself, "How about such and such, they're always a problem." Of course, the vast majority of us simply don't have the time and energy to put into making a company do the right thing. Some companies are of course wonderful and wonderfully efficient, doing anything and everything they can for their consumers. Other companies – and I'm not suggesting it's through malice – don't. A spotlight needs to be shone on these companies to help consumers who have been wronged… or to point out when the companies have done the exact right thing.

Quite obviously, there are other "watchdog" choices out there already, including the widely read Consumer Reports. I, however, being a TV person, want to see it on television, and not on a small cable channel either. No, I'm thinking big for this, I'm thinking national, and I'm thinking PBS. Think about it, a show that focuses on consumers having troubles could easily have trouble getting advertisers. PBS doesn't need advertisers in the traditional manner. PBS news shows have an investigative air about them which is not uniformly present elsewhere; they seem like the right choice.

A half-hour a week focusing on consumers who have been wronged by companies, companies who have been wronged by consumers, and experts helping us all figure out the exact right way to say, "Actually, I'd really like to talk to your supervisor's supervisor's supervisor." The program wouldn't go out to attack anyone, simply to investigate the truth of an issue and make sure an appropriate solution is implemented. It's the Better Business Bureau, but on television.

I'm thinking Internet petition — who's with me?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sure, There's No Way Back, but you Wouldn't Want to go There in the First Place

It is essentially a rule of Hollywood -- become a big enough star and all your early work (the stuff from before you were a global superstar), no matter how bad, will get released to every new medium. While there is absolutely some sort of pride that an actor or actress can take from this, it can also be somewhat embarrassing. That has to be the exact sort of issue Russell Crowe is going through now that No Way Back has been released on Blu-ray. The film, which stars Crowe as a rogue FBI agent struggling to get his kidnapped son back, is certainly a minor work in the Crowe cannon, one best left forgotten.

Zack Grant (Crowe) starts the movie in charge of a sting operation to take down the son of mafia kingpin, Frank Serlano (Michael Lerner). Things don't go as planned, the son dies, and Grant's only lead after things go south takes him to the Yakuza member named Yuji (Etsushi Toyokawa). It would be all well and good, Grant good turn Yuji right over to the FBI if Serlano acting in "good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander" mode hadn't kidnapped Grant's kid.

The rest of the movie finds Grant trying to brink Yuji to Serlano despite Yuji's best attempts to waylay Grant. Some of those actually make for the best moments in the film -- particularly the utterly impossible landing of a 747 on a miniscule backwoods runway. That particular scene is unquestionably the height of the film's "so bad it's good" moments.

Because every film, even an action one, requires a love interest, No Way Back offers us Helen Slater's incredibly over-eager and naïve flight attendant, Mary. Grant, already in a bad movie, isn't particularly nice to Mary, but, watching the film one might think that he actually doesn't go far enough.

The film is almost made more interesting by the fact that there are multiple bad and good faction out following Grant and company, but the rapidity with which every group except for the hero's moves negates that advantage almost entirely. The rest of the advantage is eliminated as soon as one considers the fact that no matter whether Grant is off road or on, everyone is able to find them instantly. It is as though Grant has a hidden tracking device on him that both the cops and robbers have access to and which Grant knows nothing about.

One of the other main reasons that the film fails is that the result is never, ever in doubt, as much as the film might wish it were. There's a whole lot of hemming and hawing over whether or not Grant will turn Yuji over to Serlano in order to get back his own kid. Grant insists that he absolutely will, and everyone on screen seems to accept that. The audience, however, won't buy it for a minute -- in movies, FBI agents don't turn one bad guy over to another bad guy in order to rescue the innocent kidnapped party. It just doesn't happen, particularly in films that are as by-the-book as this one.

The Blu-ray release contains no special whatsoever, and isn't particularly good in its own right. Much of the film is dark, but there's absolutely no differentiation between one black and the next on screen. Where does black hair end and a shirt begin? Where does the shirt end and the background begin? It's incredibly difficult to tell with the poor visual quality of the release. The sound too has some major issues. All too often, the dialogue comes out murky and muddled, Crowe talking in a large open area will sound like him in a tightly confined space talking through a thick layer of gauze. In short, neither the audio nor the video presentation do anything to convince the audience that the release is more than a way to use Crowe's star status to cash in on a poor movie.

If one is truly desperate for Russell Crowe or just curious as to what Ian Ziering looks like as a skinhead, No Way Back may have some redeeming qualities. If one is looking for decent action or an adequate cops and robbers and other robbers flick, this will not fit the bill.

There is no Reason to try Cracking The Code

It would be very easy to sit back, call the new Blu-ray release The Code a bad movie, and wash one's hands of the entire affair.  It would take little skill or effort to state as much, and undeniably, one would be exactly correct in their assessment – The Code is a bad movie – but without a deeper look at why that's the case, we may be doomed to have Hollywood repeat the same mistakes in future efforts.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact), The Code stars Antonio Banderas and Morgan Freeman as super-thieves, Robert Forster as an obsessed detective, and Radha Mitchell as one thief's love interest and the other's goddaughter.  So, in describing the problems with the film, one can't simply say that there was a lack of talent either behind or in front of the camera.  It wouldn't be inaccurate however to state that the direction is sloppy and the acting wooden – it does seem as though everyone involved in the production has performed far better in other projects.

Could the issue with the film then be its genre? Certainly not.  One can't simply dismiss an entire genre of film as less than worthwhile, and even if one could, one wouldn't say that of the heist genre.  No, heist movies have a long and glorious tradition in Hollywood and the rest of the world.  Watching the robbers try to break into the unbreakable bank/hotel/vault/company/government building and watching the feds/police/mob/private eye/lone gunman go after the robbers can be incredibly fun, and has been incredibly fun on more than one occasion.  The heist genre has not, and may never, go stale, so that's not the issue with The Code either.

It would be far more accurate to say then that where The Code goes wrong is with the script penned by Ted Humphrey and the way it is executed by the cast and crew.  The heist in question in the film involves two thieves teaming up in order to rob an evil company.  It's certainly not a bad notion; it's worked to great effect in other films, but unfortunately it fails here.  The film never gets going in any discernible direction –  tension is never built, characters are never drawn in three dimensions, the heists that take place are uninteresting and ill-conceived, the cops inane, the love story foolish, the reversals both obvious and tedious.  The film essentially looks at honor amongst thieves – at least that's what it purports to do, it never actually does more than throw the question out to the audience. 

The film is, simply put, a cheap amalgam of a dozen other heist films.  The internal logic of the film is flawed on a myriad of levels, but even if it weren't, the heist itself is wholly uninteresting.  The film seems in such a rush to get to the inevitable reversal (or two or three) that is going to take place after the robbery, that it doesn't bother to spend any time making the robbery itself interesting, or the cops and thieves on the opposite side anything but the flimsiest window dressing.

The Blu-ray release of the film, may look somewhat better than a standard DVD would, but it is certainly nothing to crow about.  It is crisper and cleaner than a DVD, but there isn't the "wow" factor one expects from a Blu-ray – colors seem washed out, the film over-exposed in unintended ways, and the 5.1 channel sound never really all-encompassing.  On the upside, the black levels are good, which helps with the number of dark scenes the film contains, and there is certainly no grain, dirt, or imperfections in the print.

As for special features, there are some brief cast and crew interviews and a behind the scenes featurette, which includes a bunch of moments from the filming of the movie.  The featurette is not strung together into any sort of overarching tale about the making of the movie, it's just there.

Throughout The Code, the audience repeatedly hears statements about never assuming anything.  While that's usually a wise tactic – assuming can lead to serious trouble – one would be perfectly safe assuming the onset of boredom watching this film.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Takes off on Blu-ray

Not every comedy is a mindless series of fart and boob jokes.  That type of fare unquestionably has its place in the pantheon of filmmaking genres, but a comedy can certainly also provide a deep, hard-thinking, sobering look at our world.  To know that to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt, one only need look at the Stanley Kubrick classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Which, not so coincidentally has just made its way onto Blu-ray in a "45th Anniversary Special Edition."

The film, originally released in 1964, stars Peter Sellers (in three different roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens (as well as a young James Earl Jones in a supporting role).  Strangelove follows an attempt on the part of General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) to eliminate the Soviet Union with a massive pre-emptive nuclear strike and the aftermath of that attempt.  Never has the apocalypse and the end of all mankind been quite so funny.

As the film progresses, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) learns what Ripper has done and invites the Soviet Ambassador into the War Room to try to make amends, much to the chagrin of Joint Chief of Staff Buck Turgidson (Scott).  Muffley is only somewhat successful – the ambassador certainly feels for Muffley, which leads him to informing the folks in the War Room about a "Doomsday Machine" the Soviets have invited.  The machine is meant to prevent any nuclear strikes as one a strike occurs the machine will make the entire planet radioactive for almost 100 years – clearly an effective deterrent, that is, it would be if the Soviets had bothered to tell anyone they built it.

Strangelove, made at the height of the Cold War, takes a lot of reality and facts and twists them just slightly, turning everything just enough where one knows that this hasn't happened, but where one is sure that it could (despite what the crawl before the movie states).  Everything progresses in an exceedingly logical, if ludicrous, if fashion, and watching the film today the audience can't help but wonder what everyone in  the world was possibly thinking 50 years ago.

Watching the Blu-ray today one will also be incredibly impressed that the film was initially released in 1964.  While grainy due to the film stock used, the print is perfectly clean and looks far better than any 45 year-old film has a right to look.  The brightness of certain shots does appear to waiver, and some definition is lost in the darkness of the War Room, but for an older film it is a very good release.  The sound has been redone in a 5.1 channel TrueHD mix, but the original English mono track is still available.  While the 5.1 channel sound does add a little to some of the battle scenes, it doesn't represent a huge leap forward for the film.

A number of featurettes are included on the disc, including an interview with Robert McNamara and docs on the film's relation to world events at the time, Sellers, and Kubrick.  Also included are split-screen interviews with Scott and Sellers which were initially intended for use in local markets.  Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is a picture-in-picture/pop-up trivia track which provides viewers with additional Cold War info.  The Blu-ray release also contains (built-into the packaging) a booklet on the film and some of the actors involved.

Full of great performances (including all three of Sellers'), an almost-true-to-life story, and more than one laugh-out-loud moment, Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb represents a masterwork by a master in filmmaking.  It is a darkly satirical look at not just a single moment in time, but at an entire line of thinking that may still be all too prevalent in the world.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nothing Addictive About Confessions of a Shopaholic

Both as a society and as individuals, we seem to increasingly find ourselves addicted to things.  Whether it's an incredibly enthusiastic obsession with television, a compulsion to check one's fantasy baseball team on an hourly basis, or a shopping fixation, there seems to always be something on which to spend every last ounce of energy and time we possess.  It should then come as no surprise when a successful series of books focusing on a so-called "shopaholic" is turned into a motion picture, after all, while we may not have Becky Bloomwood's addiction to shopping, we all recognize the same obsessive tendency in ourselves.

Based on UK writer Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic novels, Confessions of a Shopaholic, director P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding) and star Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) attempt to bring the character and conundrum to life.  They don't succeed.

For the filmic version, Becky Bloomwood finds herself in New York, working for a magazine she despises, an addiction to high fashion clothes, and credit card debt.  Through a series of light-hearted – and ludicrous – reversals, she quickly finds herself working at a finance magazine, working for the obviously soon-to-be-love-of-her-life Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) at a financial magazine for the average person.  The irony is clear as Becky finds herself unable to manage her own finances and yet brilliantly tells others how to manage theirs.

The entire film unfolds as a series of episodes from Becky's life, all of which have been strung together into a mostly cohesive whole.  Though it is amusing at times, the film never does anything that is in anyway unexpected – even the characters seem well aware from the start of the film where they're going to find themselves in an hour and forty-five minutes.  Even with the love story it doesn't appear as though there's some sort of magical, fairy tale love or issue of destiny involved, instead Becky and Luke seem to end up together solely because she's the female lead, he's the male lead, and in a romantic comedy that's just how it goes.

It's all very light-hearted and brisk, and enjoyable in a background noise sort of way, but the stakes never feel appropriately high.  Becky does find a debt collector after her, but he seems more obsessed with finding her because of how horribly she's lied to him, not because of the amount of cash she owes.  In fact, the amount of money that Becky seems to have spent on high fashion items makes her the best shopper ever.  For an individual who spends all her time buying the newest, latest, greatest, fashion items from the most expensive fashion houses and who has no money whatsoever, Becky owes remarkably little cash.  What's worse than that, is that no one seems to acknowledge as much.  It is as though when they adapted the British novel to a U.S. screenplay they just scrubbed out all the pound signs and threw in dollar signs, without ever acknowledging the exchange rate.  If high fashion only cost what Becky spends on it, there would be a whole lot more people out there with the newest Prada shoes.

The film falls down in other areas besides the money issue however.  Watching Becky in the workplace early on, one is absolutely astounded that she ever got employed anywhere.  When she begins her new job she shows up late to a meeting, and begins to loudly sharpen her pencil, thereby interrupting everyone and bringing the meeting to a crashing halt.  It's as though she is in middle school, not a writer who has worked at other magazines or someone who has ever attended any sort of business function. 

Joan Cusack, John Goodman, and John Lithgow all manage to make smallish appearances in the film, which only serve to leave the audience utterly flabbergasted at why the three would have bothered.  At least Kristin Scott Thomas gets to be over-the-top and fun as the head of a fashion magazine, the other three are just… there.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is the quality of the Blu-ray release.  It is, as one would expect from a new fashion-focused film, incredibly sharp and bright, with all the patterns on every outfit Becky wears perfectly visible.  The sound is just as crisp and clean as the picture, with every utterance of the words "Yves saint Laurent" coming across as some sort of monastic chant.

The release also contains the necessary deleted scenes and bloopers as well as some music videos.  As for behind-the-scenes bits, the audience is treated to discussions of fashion in the film and how items worn were chosen, the aesthetic look that they were trying to achieve, etc.

In the end, Isla Fisher actually almost pulls the entire thing off.  Despite the utterly nonsensical things the character does and the complete lack of dramatic tension, Fisher's charisma and charm come through to such an extent that it all almost works… almost.  The fashions exhibited in the movie may be fabulous -- I'm certainly no judge of that – but without a decent story to back them and Fisher up, there just isn't enough in Confessions of a Shopaholic to make it worth more than a rental on an otherwise slow night.

Nothing Addictive About Confessions of a Shopaholic

Both as a society and as individuals, we seem to increasingly find ourselves addicted to things.  Whether it's an incredibly enthusiastic obsession with television, a compulsion to check one's fantasy baseball team on an hourly basis, or a shopping fixation, there seems to always be something on which to spend every last ounce of energy and time we possess.  It should then come as no surprise when a successful series of books focusing on a so-called "shopaholic" is turned into a motion picture, after all, while we may not have Becky Bloomwood's addiction to shopping, we all recognize the same obsessive tendency in ourselves.

Based on UK writer Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic novels, Confessions of a Shopaholic, director P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding) and star Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) attempt to bring the character and conundrum to life.  They don't succeed.

For the filmic version, Becky Bloomwood finds herself in New York, working for a magazine she despises, an addiction to high fashion clothes, and credit card debt.  Through a series of light-hearted – and ludicrous – reversals, she quickly finds herself working at a finance magazine, working for the obviously soon-to-be-love-of-her-life Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) at a financial magazine for the average person.  The irony is clear as Becky finds herself unable to manage her own finances and yet brilliantly tells others how to manage theirs.

The entire film unfolds as a series of episodes from Becky's life, all of which have been strung together into a mostly cohesive whole.  Though it is amusing at times, the film never does anything that is in anyway unexpected – even the characters seem well aware from the start of the film where they're going to find themselves in an hour and forty-five minutes.  Even with the love story it doesn't appear as though there's some sort of magical, fairy tale love or issue of destiny involved, instead Becky and Luke seem to end up together solely because she's the female lead, he's the male lead, and in a romantic comedy that's just how it goes.

It's all very light-hearted and brisk, and enjoyable in a background noise sort of way, but the stakes never feel appropriately high.  Becky does find a debt collector after her, but he seems more obsessed with finding her because of how horribly she's lied to him, not because of the amount of cash she owes.  In fact, the amount of money that Becky seems to have spent on high fashion items makes her the best shopper ever.  For an individual who spends all her time buying the newest, latest, greatest, fashion items from the most expensive fashion houses and who has no money whatsoever, Becky owes remarkably little cash.  What's worse than that, is that no one seems to acknowledge as much.  It is as though when they adapted the British novel to a U.S. screenplay they just scrubbed out all the pound signs and threw in dollar signs, without ever acknowledging the exchange rate.  If high fashion only cost what Becky spends on it, there would be a whole lot more people out there with the newest Prada shoes.

The film falls down in other areas besides the money issue however.  Watching Becky in the workplace early on, one is absolutely astounded that she ever got employed anywhere.  When she begins her new job she shows up late to a meeting, and begins to loudly sharpen her pencil, thereby interrupting everyone and bringing the meeting to a crashing halt.  It's as though she is in middle school, not a writer who has worked at other magazines or someone who has ever attended any sort of business function. 

Joan Cusack, John Goodman, and John Lithgow all manage to make smallish appearances in the film, which only serve to leave the audience utterly flabbergasted at why the three would have bothered.  At least Kristin Scott Thomas gets to be over-the-top and fun as the head of a fashion magazine, the other three are just… there.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is the quality of the Blu-ray release.  It is, as one would expect from a new fashion-focused film, incredibly sharp and bright, with all the patterns on every outfit Becky wears perfectly visible.  The sound is just as crisp and clean as the picture, with every utterance of the words "Yves saint Laurent" coming across as some sort of monastic chant.

The release also contains the necessary deleted scenes and bloopers as well as some music videos.  As for behind-the-scenes bits, the audience is treated to discussions of fashion in the film and how items worn were chosen, the aesthetic look that they were trying to achieve, etc.

In the end, Isla Fisher actually almost pulls the entire thing off.  Despite the utterly nonsensical things the character does and the complete lack of dramatic tension, Fisher's charisma and charm come through to such an extent that it all almost works… almost.  The fashions exhibited in the movie may be fabulous -- I'm certainly no judge of that – but without a decent story to back them and Fisher up, there just isn't enough in Confessions of a Shopaholic to make it worth more than a rental on an otherwise slow night.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obsessed with TV? Who, Me?

As many of the columns I've written would indicate, I'm moderately obsessed with television.  Oh no, not in a "Hi, my name is Josh and I'm a TV-aholic" sort of way, much more in a "I don't have a problem turning off the TV… really" kind of way.  You see, I could turn the TV off anytime I wanted to, I just don't want to.  Plus, it doesn't impact my life in any sort of a negative way, I've actually managed to build a career out of my obsession.  To be a sommelier one has to be somewhat obsessed with wine, but that doesn't mean that a sommelier is an alcoholic. 

In fact, I might argue that I'm not quite obsessed enough with television, that I haven't spent quite enough time watching and studying and learning and spending every waking minute with television.  How have I come to that conclusion?  I find myself unable to score higher than 75% in David Hofstede's Obsessed with TV: Test Your Knowledge of Every Channel book/game.

Part of an ever-expanding Obsessed with line from Chronicle Books, Obsessed with TV is a book which contains 2,500 television-based trivia questions and a little screen in the lower right corner which allows players to select a multiple choice answer.  The game allows for one or two players and can either choose a question randomly or allow the user to select a question.  Players are asked everything from the relatively easy "Which actor provided the voice of KITT, the talking car on Knight Rider?" to things far, far more difficult.  At least, they were far more difficult for me.  The questions tend to require very specific knowledge of television shows, things one either knows or they don't.  While some answers can be worked out by process of elimination, the vast majority don't lend themselves to SAT-style test-taking skills.

For those whose television knowledge is limited to specific genres or categories, the book is divided into sections (though the random questions that get chosen come from all).  Chapters exist on comedies, dramas, reality TV and game shows, action, sci-fi and fantasy, kids' shows, music and variety, TV icons, awards, and a general "anything goes" category.

While the book is certainly just that, a "book," it is certainly not readable in a straightforward manner, the book is essentially only the trivia game.  Most pages do contain extended paragraphs on the history of television, and while they're interesting, they always feed into a question.

On the whole, for those of us obsessed with television -- in a totally healthy and completely safe way -- Obsessed with TV not only brings back great memories of shows gone by, but serves to illustrate just how much of our lives have been wisely spent sitting in front of the tube.  It represents a vindication, an acknowledgment that all those hours consuming the offerings the set put before us were not in vain, that knowing the name of the dolphin on Seaquest DSV has enriched our lives (if only momentarily).

With approximately eight to 10 questions on a page (or 16 to 20 on two facing paces) and 2,500 questions in total, a lot of back and forth page-flipping does occur when answering questions in Random Question mode. That does dampen one's enthusiasm for playing the game, particularly when it feels as though one has to keep skipping from the front of the book to the back only to find themselves at the same front page again two questions later.  While a larger size book or smaller font might also hamper one's enjoyment of the game, it does seem as though perhaps random trivia challenges that stayed within a single chapter might be warranted. 

Maybe such an enhancement will find it's way into a Next Generation version of the book. After all, one has to imagine that more than 2,500 questions could easily be written on the history of television.  For now, however, anyone remotely infatuated with television will find it easy to spend hours with Obsessed with TV - there aren't even any commercial breaks to ruin the experience.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Greatest Game Ever Played Makes for a Pretty Great Movie Too

A few years ago, it was suggested to me that I sit down a and watch The Greatest Game Ever Played.  I was told that not only was it well-directed, but that it told an interesting -- and true -- story and exhibited an incredible enthusiasm for the game of golf.  Naturally, I sat right down and watched the film, after all, the advice came from the golf pro giving me lessons.  The Bill Paxton (Frailty) directed picture has now come to Blu-ray, and consequently, it is now my turn to pass on the advice my instructor gave me – watch this movie.

The Greatest Game Ever Played focuses on the 1913 U.S. Open, and the showdown between young amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) and golf elder statesman Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane).  Though the two men grew up on opposite sides of the Atlantic at different times, the film shows how they both found themselves on the outside of a gentleman's game, looking in.  The men came to golf in different ways -- Vardon learned to play as a way to get back at those who took his family home when he was a youth, and Francis for the far more simple reason that he lived across from a country club and could make money as a caddie -- but were both treated poorly by those who "belonged."  Even so, the film makes it quite clear that both Vardon and Ouimet longed for acceptance into a society which didn't want them.  The film is, at its heart, one which focuses on a form of social injustice – money, it correctly argues, neither makes one a better person nor gives one magical golf powers.

However, if the film were solely a message movie, it would be nowhere near as thrilling and exciting to watch as it is.  Paxton's direction of Mark Frost's screenplay (based on Frost's own book), depicts golf in brilliant and dizzying fashion.  The film gets into the mind of Vardon, Ouimet, and some of the other participants in the tournament, helping the audience visualize just how a sportsman is able to block out the world around them and focus on the task at hand.  Paxton doesn't just stop by depicting one focusing technique, he gives Ouimet and Vardon very different methods, showing that there is not a one size fits all method of concentration. 

Despite being a movie about the "staid" game of golf and revolving around a story that takes place nearly a century ago, Paxton is able to incorporate CGI work and some truly fancy editing techniques to help the film build to its crescendo.  Paxton is able to get the viewer's heart pumping as though they were watching Tiger take on Rocco (or insert your own edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting, sports moment here).

The performances, on the whole, are good ones, although LaBeouf does seem a tad too earnest and fresh-faced as Ouimet. Josh Flitter, who plays Ouimet's 10-year-old caddie, Eddie, is however the most distressing of the actors.  The character, even if it is true to life, is simply too cutesy for the film.

The video and audio quality of the Blu-ray are truly outstanding.  The textures on clothing, the blades of grass, and the patterns on golf balls all come across in crisp, brilliant 1080p high definition.  The sounds of the gallery thunder around the viewer as every stroke is made.  The dialogue and music come across equally well, every word is understandable and there is absolutely no need to sit with the remote in hand constantly adjusting the volume.  The clothing, clubs, and mannerisms make one believe that the film takes place a century ago, but no attempt is made to make the audio or visuals feel remotely that old.

As for special features, the release is a little sparse.  Two commentary tracks exist for the feature – one from Paxton and the other from Frost.  While Paxton spends a lot of time going through his thinking and how the film was put together, Frost focuses himself on the truth behind the events.  There is also a traditional making of documentary, as well as one on the 1913 battle between Ouimet and Vardon.  Finally there is a piece filmed in the early 1960s, just before another U.S. Open at the same country club in Brookline, MA in which Ouimet is interviewed.  Though some of what Ouimet discusses is nominally interesting, the discussion is nowhere near as captivating as the film itself.

Though perhaps geared towards a slightly younger audience, The Greatest Game Ever Played, is a truly wonderful look at the game of golf and its early days in the U.S.  It conveys so much of what makes golf a great sport -- the skill it requires, the love people who play feel for it, and the sense of pride and accomplishment one has after hitting a truly perfect shot.  If one is ever trying to understand why someone would go out one weekend and spend four hours hitting a little white ball into sand, a tree, and then into a creek, and cursing the entire time only to do it again the next weekend, look no further.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Taking a Trip on Air Force One

Whether flying through hyperspace, cracking whips, or just desperately trying to remember who he is, Harrison Ford has created a plethora of memorable characters in truly outstanding films over the course of his Hollywood career.  In 1997, Ford got the opportunity to play the President of the United States in Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One, the result is not just a good action movie, but one of Ford's most unforgettable roles.

Ford stars as James Marshall, an ex-military man elected President who is returning from Moscow after making a speech outlining his administration's stance on terrorism.  Unfortunately for him, on his way home, his plane his hijacked by a group of terrorists led by Gary Oldman's Ivan Korshunov.  Korshunov and his friends are more than a little perturbed by the fact that at the start of the moviHarrison Forde Russian and U.S. Special Forces capture the leader of Kazakhstan, Ivan Radek, a general who has caused genocide and sponsored terrorism.  Korshunov's plan is presented to the audience as a simple one – hijack Air Force One with some help from the inside and make the U.S. convince Russia to let Radek go.

The whole plan – while absolutely ludicrous if one takes these sorts of things seriously – goes exceedingly well, right until the terrorists lose track of Marshall and he does his best John McClane impersonation, taking out the terrorists one by one and doing his best to protect the hostages, which include several of his top advisors (and, for some reason, a Major played by William H. Macy).  The terrorists attempt to fight back, but, well, you can guess exactly where the whole thing is headed, can't you?

Yes, on the face of it, the entire movie sounds like something that Hollywood puts out over, and over, and over again.  Air Force One ought, however, to be thought of as the "best of breed."  While movies like this have been made before it and continue to be made after it, the excellent production values (save the final CG crash, which, even if it is supposed to simulate what would actually happen in the situation looks terribly cheesy in comparison to the rest of the effects), the stellar performances by the entire cast, and Petersen's incredible ability to ratchet up the tension despite the fact that everyone knows exactly where the movie is headed all combine to make this a simply outstanding film.

One of the reasons this is the case is the squabbling that takes place on the ground inside the White House.  The Secretary of Defense, Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell), and the Gary OldmanVice President, Kathryn Burnett (Glenn Close) find themselves arguing over who is in charge –  they even call in the Attorney General (Philip Baker Hall), asking him to bring a copy of the Constitution with him –  and the best course of action.  The fight does not hamper their performance during the crisis, but is absolutely believable. 

Of course, the film is really Ford's, and the few scenes between he and Oldman – who, as always, delivers an exceptional performance – are worth the price of admission by themselves.  These are both actors clearly at the top of their games in the film, and could each hold the entire movie together without the other.  The fact that they both appear, and appear so strongly, is a true boon for filmgoers.

The Blu-ray release of the film is good, but nothing truly special.  Only one special feature accompanies it, a director's commentary featuring Petersen.  The visual presentation, however, is quite a good one.  The blood is just the right color red and the print, though grainy, is a clean one.  The sound, while excellent with explosions, wind, and gunfire (especially in the surround speakers), is a tad troubling when it comes to soft dialogue, particularly Oldman's, which sounds somewhat muddled at times. 

Air Force One is a straightforward action film elevated by its direction and performances.  Even on Blu-ray, it'll have audiences standing and cheering when the outcome – which is inevitable from the moment the film begins – finally arrives.  Watching the film, one can almost see a world where should Harrison Ford ever decide to make a run for President, it's possible that he could win simply by running a campaign in which this film is delivered to each and every American voter as campaign material.  "You know who I am?  I am the President of the United States."  Indeed.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Glory not Glorious on Blu-ray

With 1989's Glory, director Edward Zwick, working with a screenplay by Kevin Jarre (which was based on two different books) and the letters of a Civil War colonel, created an incredibly memorable look at the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. The regiment is notable for being the first African American regiment to fight for the North. The tale that Zwick puts forth is strong on character (even if many of them are composites), story, and heartfelt emotion.

The film opens with Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) fighting at Antietam, and afterward returning home to Massachusetts. It is there where the notion behind the 54th is explained to him, and where he is offered its command. Though initially hesitant, Shaw accepts the command and gets his friend, Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), to accept a position as second in command of the regiment.

Much of the film is spent showing how Shaw, a very by-the-book leader, not only molds his men into soldiers, but how they mold him into a better human being. In leading his men, Shaw is depicted as possibly harsh, but always doing the best that he knows how to do for those he commands. The men under his command, including Forbes, vehemently disagree with some of his actions in training the 54th, but there is never a doubt in the film that Shaw is a good man -- he simply needs to learn better how to deal with people from a different background than his.

Shaw begins to understand things as his pays more attention to those under his command, particularly John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), who is eventually elevated to Sgt. Major of the regiment, and Private Trip (Denzel Washington in a role which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Rawlins is the wise, older, sensible man who understands the realities of the war and the world but still believes in good, whereas Trip is the hard-headed, angry young man rebelling at a world that is unfair and unjust. Trip's goal isn't simply to help the North defeat the South, but to gain revenge on anyone and everyone who may ever have been responsible for the problems he's had. It's not that Trip is unsympathetic, he may be the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, he just has a very harsh worldview.

As the film progresses, the men learn what Shaw requires of them and Shaw learns how to be a leader. Both end up seeing the world just a little better from the other's perspective. And, essentially, that is what the film is about -- it's not just the semi-fictionalized story of the 54th, it's about learning to understand and respect those of a different background.

However, the film is a war film, and consequently has some terribly bloody and violent battles. There is nothing here that quite equals the gore visited upon the audience in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but Zwick doesn't soft sell anything either. The film opens with the terribly bloody battle of Antietam, and climaxes with an ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner.

Save Shaw, the majority of the characters the film depicts are composites, they are amalgams of several different individuals and meant as stand-ins for ideals and points of view. Creating such stand-ins often leads to shallow characters, but Jarre and Zwick manage to avoid that pitfall, instead giving the audience fully-rounded three dimensional characters. Perhaps the best of them is Andre Braugher's Thomas Searles. Searles is a free African American who grew up with Shaw and ends up under Shaw's command. He finds himself with a completely new and different perspective of the world, encountering African Americans unlike those he has previously known and seeing a new, and not a positive, side of his lifelong friend.

The biggest disappointment with this film is the quality of the release itself. There are not only bits of dirt and imperfections in the print itself, but in at least one scene the coloring changes – what were gold buttons on a soldier's uniform in one shot turn silver in the next. While it is possible that such a change is due to the length of time it took to film the scene and the changing angle of the sun, fixing that would have been easy. The sound is none too great either -- even on the battlefield one does not find themselves surrounded by the sounds of war as one would expect.

The Blu-ray contains behind-the-scenes featurettes, a director's commentary, deleted scenes, as well as historical accounts of the 54th. All of them however have appeared on previous releases. The only new special feature here is a "Virtual Battlefield" that allows one to click on certain map points and learn more about the 54th and the Civil War.

This entire release of Glory doesn't do justice to the film. There certainly seems to be a lack of effort put into the release – one can't even bookmark scenes from the film. The movie is, certainly, a good one, but if one already owns it on DVD there is certainly no reason to "upgrade" to this Blu-ray edition.

TNT Gets Ready for Summer with more Original Programming

This summer TNT will once again be airing new episodes of multiple original series. Their slate is a combination of new shows and returning ones. Even better than that though, most of the series are good fun to watch. Their lineup of originals includes: The Closer, Saving Grace, Wedding Day, Dark Blue, Raising the Bar, Leverage, and Hawthorne. The network has divided the premieres of these shows into three different nights in June and July.

First up, on June 8 at 9pm, the fifth season of The Closer will begin. The show, featuring Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, has been one of the shows that TNT has built its brand around in recent years. Sedgwick has been nominated for multiple awards for the series and brought home a Golden Globe in 2007.

On the same night, immediately following The Closer, TNT will be airing the second season premiere of Steven Bochco's Raising the Bar. The show, which stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar, is one that I was very ambivalent about during its first season. It seemed like no more than your typical lawyer drama featuring public defenders and assistant district attorneys. The first two episodes of the second season do seem moderately more interesting; it is as though the show has found its niche. The show no longer has to spend copious amounts of time introducing us to characters we already know and mostly understand, and can just get down to storytelling and ridiculous antics – two things that are done very well in the first episodes of the new season. Raising the Bar last year did not earn a Season Pass on my TiVo, but season two will.

Wedding DayTNT's next premiere night is June 16, and on that night the network will deliver two new shows and one returning series: Wedding Day, Hawthorne, and Saving Grace. Taking the last -- and the show that airs at 10pm -- first, Holly Hunter is back as the troubled-but-great-at-her-job police detective Grace Hanadarko. She doesn't quite see dead people, but she does regularly get messages and advice from her "last-chance angel," Earl. The series, not quite as decorated as The Closer, has still earned Hunter two Screen Actors Guild nominations. While Saving Grace has never quite been my cup of tea, it does have the hallmarks of a well-produced, potentially interesting series and asks questions of itself and the audience.

The show that starts off the night of the 16th at 8pm, Wedding Day, does not. The series is something of a departure for the network as it is a reality show from Mark Burnett. The show, if it came from the right production company, could easily have been named Semi-Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition, but as it's a Burnett production, it can't get that "Extreme Makeover" tag. The series features two "celebrity" wedding event planner/wedding producers, Alan Dunn and Diann Valentine, who help one lucky and unsuspecting couple get the wedding of their dreams on a weekly basis. The couples are shipped off on vacation (New York City is apparently popular) for a few days as the wedding planners and the couples' friends and families put the whole thing together. Predictably, each show ends with the wedding and reception (MC'ed by our celebrity planners). Essentially, it feels like one is simply watching someone else's wedding video and is none too compelling.

The last new show on the 16th (even if it airs at 9pm, in the middle of the lineup) is the Jada Pinkett Smith starrer Hawthorne, which also happens to be the name of Smith's character. Christina Hawthorne is the Chief Nursing Officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital, has a daughter, and struggles to keep everything together both personally and professionally. The show also stars Michael Vartan (Alias) as Dr. Tom Wakefield, an oncologist, friend, and the hospital's chief of surgery. Though it's always tough to judge a show solely based on the pilot episode, Hawthorne as a character and a show are absorbing enough to have one tune back in for more. Seeing Hawthornea nursing administrator's perspective on a hospital isn't wholly outside the box, but it's not something routine on television, and Smith is certainly good in it.

TNT's last premiere night is on July 15, and will feature the series premiere of Dark Blue at 10pm with Dylan McDermott, and the second season premiere of Leverage with Timothy Hutton. McDermott plays Carter Shaw, who is in charge of a team of undercover police officers, whereas Hutton plays Nathan Ford, a good guy doing illegal things with a team of thieves in order to help those in need. Look for more on those shows as the premieres approach.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Bruce Campbell on Burn Notice

On June 4, USA's Burn Notice will begin its third season. The premiere episode is a straight continuation of the second season finale, picking up with burned spy Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) swimming the Atlantic after getting dropped out of a helicopter.

It's a pretty great start to what, early on, seems like a pretty great season. The first three episodes feature Michael getting back to business and meeting up with old enemies now that he's no longer off the grid. Even the cops, in the form of Moon Bloodgood (Journeyman), are after him.

As for Michael's pals Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) and Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell), they're back too. Fiona finds herself concerned for Michael now that their on-again, off-again romance is on again. Her distress that Michael may end up leaving Miami to become a spy once more has thrown a wrench into their temporary happiness. For his part, Sam, the lady killer and ex-Navy SEAL is living with Michael's mom, Madeleine (Sharon Gless), and predictably has himself a new lady with a nice car that she has let him borrow.

On a recent conference call, in explaining how Sam manages to have such success with women, Bruce Campbell tells us "…It's his special skill with the ladies. So it doesn’t matter that he has no job or car or place to live. Sam can still get the ladies because, obviously, he's doing something with or to the ladies that is very successful, which we can’t discuss here."

There is, Campbell says, absolutely no chance though that Sam will mess up his rich woman mojo by mixing it up with Michael's mom. "… Sam and Madeline will never hook up, because it's Mike’s mother; it's too creepy. It would be something where I think Sam would feel uncomfortable with that, and as it is, Sam already behaves a little differently when Maddy’s around because it is Mike’s mother. Like, Sam will never really yell at Maddy... they’ll bicker sometimes, but he respects her as Mike’s mother."

In general, Campbell seems quite happy with the show and what it has to offer, stating specifically "what I like about Burn Notice is that none of us are the young, pretty face. Donovan has been around for 20 years, I’ve been doing this for 30, and then Sharon Gless has been doing it for 40, and I think Gabrielle has been doing this since she was a kid, so she's probably 30 years at this. So, I like the fact that… they’ve [USA Network] really taken it upon themselves to do character-based shows, not something that's based on your age or your beauty. So I'm really glad to be part of a mature ensemble cast where we're not worried about all the wrong things."

It is certainly clear from what we've seen so far that Campbell relishes the role of Sam, playing up all of Sam's greater and lesser qualities. In fact, the entire cast seems really at home in their roles, be it chatting about small things and fixing Madeleine's house after an explosion, breaking into a storage unit in the middle of the night, or swimming a few miles in the Atlantic.

The third season of Burn Notice brings back all that has made the show popular and so much fun – great humor; action; an intricate, ever-developing story; and the sort of interesting, fully fleshed-out, oddball characters that USA has built its brand around. Perhaps the show is becoming a little over the top with its subtitling of characters upon their introduction – what once was funny and different seems all too foolish now – but the quibble is a small one. In the first few episodes of the new season the series seems to have avoided the pitfalls of the all-too-predictable storytelling it fell into last season, which is just another sign that things are looking up for the show.

In short, Burn Notice is a summer show not to be missed.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Church Complete - Beautiful and yet Utterly Confusing

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete is at the same time blindingly brilliant and horrendously dull. The computer animated spectacle -- and make no mistake, it is a spectacle -- takes place two years after the events that occurred in the video game Final Fantasy VII. The game's success -- it was hailed by many as a masterpiece of gaming -- encouraged the creators to go out and spawn spin-off titles in the same universe and then to create Advent Children direct-to-DVD and now to create an updated and expanded Advent Children for Blu-ray.

Starting with the good, the animators in Advent Children Complete have created a world that is ultra-detailed and in some shots one might be convinced that what they are seeing is real. Not having seen the DVD version, I can't state how much of a leap forward the Blu-ray release is, but it does look absolutely incredible. The graphics are sharp and clean, the blacks rich, the textures unbelievably well-defined, and the range and subtly of the colors incredible. One could spend the entire two-hour feature marveling at the hair the characters sport. Sadly, the facial expressions are somewhat lacking when compared to the rest of the detail. Additionally, the sound is less outstanding. While it is 5.1 channel, for battles that seem to range all around the viewer, the effects seem, disconcertingly, to remain fixed mainly in the front speakers.

As the film is based on a video game, or at the very least an outgrowth of one, the fighting scenes are what truly stand out in it. They are certainly in no way whatsoever realistic -- the physics of the universe the characters inhabit is vastly different from the physics of our universe -- but that doesn't make them any less marvelous to watch.

Then there's the bad -- the story. It is a massive disappointment. It's not that it plays out merely as bad science fiction, it plays out as bad science fiction that is completely incomprehensible to anyone who has not played Final Fantasy VII either recently (it came out in 1997 for the original Playstation) or a good memory of it. Without that, the viewer will either spend much of the movie trying to piece together what is happening or simply give up on it and focus on the visuals.

I could try to delve into the narrative here and explain all about Cloud and how he killed Sephiroth, what the deal with Geostigma is, what Rufus Shinra has to do with it all, which is tied up with why the planet they live on is in disarray, who Kadaj is, and why Kadaj is searching for his mother, but it wouldn't really make very much sense. If somehow it did make sense that would be a pretty good indication that I'd spent far too long going into it all or that you knew the whole story before I began explaining it.

Fortunately, the Blu-ray includes as bonus features a nearly 24-minute digest of what took place in the original game and an almost 30-minute synopsis of what took place in Final Fantasy VII Compilation, which is the name given to the spin-off titles in the same world. If one dares to venture into Advent Children Complete with a desire to understand what is taking place in the film they need the requisite information contained in these synopses. Also included on the Blu-ray is "On the Way to a Smile – Episode: Denzel" which gives background information on another of the characters in the movie, and while not essential viewing, it does help one understand Denzel's point of view in the film.

It is not wrong to necessarily expect an audience member to have some sort of background knowledge when sitting down to watch a film or television show but unfortunately, the amount of knowledge required here is just too great for something that is, after all, the first film. What the creators of this movie have ended up with is a truly dazzling and dizzying world both in terms of the visuals and the story -- the visuals for how amazing they truly are, and the story for how perplexing and indecipherable it is.

The Blu-ray release also features various Advent Children trailers and a trailer for the upcoming game Final Fantasy XIII. Anyone who has ever ventured into an RPG game will be impressed by what they see there.

Big fans of Final Fantasy VII and its various spin-offs will undoubtedly love Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete and all the extra bonus goodies it has to offer in its expanded format. Everyone else will undoubtedly be impressed by the animation and left dumbfounded at the absurdity of the tale. Essentially, it's just a non-interactive video game, and viewed in that context perhaps it does deliver. Those looking for a movie, though, will not be impressed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Conan Premieres on The Tonight Show

After numerous years of Jay Leno, whose departure from The Tonight Show has been well chronicled, as will his new NBC primetime program, last night marked the first Tonight Show of a new era.  Tonight, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien premiered.  The big question about the show, would Conan's comedy at 11:30 be the same edgy brand he delivered at 12:30, was answered… at least for a little while.
 
As a fan of Conan and his years on Late Night, I'm happy to report that his version of The Tonight Show did not shy away from the sort of humor that made Conan and his old  show popular.  One of the first jokes he did during his monologue not only took a swipe at NBC, but also the show's sponsor, GM, and the state of California's massive budget deficit.  Better than that though was later in the monologue when Conan took swipes at his own semi-celebrity and alleged would-be creep status.
 
The cold open, a pre-taped bit (viewable below), featured a worried Conan realizing that he had forgotten to move to L.A. to host the show.  We then got to see Conan running across various parts of the United States on a cross-country trip, including him running on the field (and getting in trouble for it) at Wrigley.  In a later taped piece, Conan "helped out" on a Universal Studios backlot tour and convinced the driver to  not just drive in circles for no reason but also into going onto Los Angeles surface streets and stopping at a 99-cent store to buy stuff for the folks on the tour.  It was certainly classic Conan and something his Late Night audience has come to expect.  The in-studio audience was certainly into the bit, and supposedly unprompted, started chanting "circle, circle" as the bit ended.
 
In possibly the funniest moment of the night, Conan's first act behind the desk was not only to thank Leno for taking care of the franchise, but also to caricature him.
 
Conan's first guest was Will Ferrell, who also appeared in Conan's final Late Night, and tonight wasn't necessarily tame either.  While Ferrell opted not to do his slutty stripper leprechaun thing (I'm not sure whether that's a positive or a negative), he did get carried onto the set, called Liza Minnelli a communist in order to win some Tony votes, and sang a goodbye song for Conan and the show.  While Ferrell was funny and having an A-lister like Ferrell as a first guest is always good, it doesn't guarantee the show will be a success.  Though few remember the short-lived series, Will Ferrell was John McEnroe's first guest on the tennis star's CNBC primetime chatter, McEnroe (Sting also appeared in that episode).  Certainly however, no one believes that Conan's Tonight Show will disappear in the same six months it took for McEnroe to go off the air.
 
Also appearing tonight was the band Pearl Jam, and happily, back with Conan was Andy Richter. Richter, who was originally Conan's sidekick on Late Night but left the series several years ago, is back with him now in the role of announcer on The Tonight Show.
 
Conan's first episode on The Tonight Show was the sort of truly funny, often but not always well thought out, show that fans of Conan have come to expect and which NBC must have been hoping for.  It was a great beginning and hopefully Conan's show won't disappear quite as quickly as either he or Will Ferrell joked it would.


 

Monday, June 01, 2009

I Guess, Hypothetically, It Could Happen to You

Currently running before many a film in theaters is a series of ads reminding people to not talk on the phone (or text) during a film. Of course, the ads don't start out there, they start out by showing the umpteen million ridiculous phone calls that have to take place in order to get a movie made (hence the series' tag line: "It takes many phone calls to make a movie and only one to ruin it").

One of these ads features a screenwriter who has written a movie about Jack the Ripper. As the commercial progresses this true story gets morphed into something utterly ridiculous, perhaps successful, but ridiculous. The "based on a true story" idea gets perverted into something ludicrous. For those out there who think the commercial is a joke, I submit for your consideration the 1994 film It Could Happen to You.

The film, which stars Nicolas Cage, Bridget Fonda, and Rosie Perez, is actually – according to the box – "inspired by a true story." In the filmic version of the story a police officer, Charlie Lang (Cage), buys a lotto ticket for his wife, Muriel (Perez), but promises half of the potential winnings to a waitress (Fonda) when he doesn't have the tip on a two dollar bill. The ticket comes up as a four million dollar winner, Lang makes good on his promise, and Muriel winds up hating her husband.Before you feel too bad for Charlie, remember that this is a romantic comedy and that Muriel is played by Rosie Perez with all the obnoxious whine in her voice that she can muster. She is nearly as unlikable a character as anyone can imagine – if she strangled puppies the portrait would be complete. On the other side, the waitress, Yvonne, is incredibly likable and just happens to be coming out of a bad marriage herself.

It's a beautiful true story -- the cop and the waitress meant to be together, the whole city of New York coming to their aid, and the wretched exes left to get their just desserts. It's also not so much true. In fact, it's hardly true at all. The true points are, essentially, these: there was a cop who split his lotto winnings with a waitress. That's it. The cop and the waitress had actually been friends ahead of time, they picked the numbers together, they ended up winning six -- not four -- million, neither worked in New York City, and 10 years later both remained happily married to their original spouses.

As a romantic comedy goes, the film is a strict paint by number affair, following the well-worn, well-established formula that we all know to expect. What is most unfortunate about the film though is not it's strict adherence to the formula, it's the fact that it tries to pass itself as remotely true. There's even a narrator (played by Isaac Hayes) who appears repeatedly just to further establish the veracity of the story. Obviously viewers shouldn't take a "based a true story" claim to mean that a movie is true, but this film stretches the claim to the extreme. Yes, this film only claims inspiration from a true story, but they're trying to have the viewer draw the same conclusion as "based on a true story" would. Imagine if the new Star Trek movie had been touted as "inspired by a true story," after all, people have gone to space. Surely the notion of the space race helped inspire Roddenberry initially, so technically the claim could be true, it would just never be made because of how silly the idea is.

The Blu-ray itself contains no special features and is a strictly average presentation. It is 5.1 channel without much of a need for the surrounds, the colors are middling, and the textures are none too defined, despite it being in high definition. There is a grainy nature to the film that seems odd for a film from the mid-'90s, but perhaps the director, Andrew Bergman (Striptease), was attempting to make the film more of a "classic" love story or a cinéma vérité look to add to the shaky truth claim it is staking out. Whatever the truth of the reason for the look is, on Blu-ray it looks distinctly mediocre.

If one is looking for a purely forgettable romantic comedy, It Could Happen to You certainly foots the bill. It will neither astound nor disappoint, at least, that is, as long as you're not hoping to see anything akin to a true story.