Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tigger Movie Bounces its Way to DVD

The wonderful thing about Tiggers (Tiggers are wonderful things) are numerable.  They range from Tiggers' tops being made out of rubber to their bottoms being made out of springs, from their being bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy to their being fun, fun, fun, fun, fun.  Perhaps however, the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is that Tigger is the only one.  Rabbit is certainly most pleased that Tigger is the only one (imagine what Rabbit would do if he had to deal with more than one Tigger), but as we learn in The Tigger Movie, Tigger is not always happy being the only one.  There are times when Tigger most definitely desires a whole Tigger-ific family.

Much of the film finds Tigger lamenting his lack of Tigger relatives and the rest of the gang from the Hundred Acre Wood, led by Roo, doing their best to makThe Whole Gange Tigger happy again.  They proceed in typical fashion for the animals from the Wood and end up solely making things worse before everything eventually works itself out again by the end.

The overall construction of The Tigger Movie is very reminiscent – purposefully, no doubt – of the original The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  The film starts out live action in a boy's room with a very similar voiceover by an omniscient narrator.  Additionally, the film does occasionally break the fourth wall, and from time-to-time flips pages in the book the audience is supposedly being read to from.

Similarly, several moments in the plot itself play off of moments from Poohs past – Rabbit gets angry at Tigger for his bouncing ways, homes are destroyed, and Pooh goes up a tree to find honey to name a few.  Nothing plays out exactly as it has done before, but there are several moment s in the film when one will get the sense of déjà vu. 

While at times this homage to the original Pooh feature seems a little crude and as though the writers (story by Eddie Guzelian and screenplay by Jun Falkenstein who also directed) here couldn't come up with more for the characters to do, more often than not it actually provides for a pleasant stroll down memory lane.  One gets the feeling watching the film that the reason some of the scenes are eerily similar to what Poohhappened in the first feature is that life in the Hundred Acre Wood plays out in much the same way day after day, and what with Pooh being a bear of very little brain and all that makes sense.

The songs in the film are fun and will certainly entrance the younger set.  On this 10th anniversary set, two of them are repeated in the bonus features, one as a Kenny Loggins music video and the other as a sing along.  Other special features include several games and a DVD-based storybook, but the highlights in that arena go to two Tigger-based episodes of the Saturday morning cartoon The New Adventures of Winnie The Pooh.  And, for added portability, a digital copy of the film is part of the release as well.

The Tigger Movie is more than just a cash-in sequel on a classic Disney movie, it is wonderfully fun all on its own and delivers (without too much heavy-handedness) morals about the importance of friends and family and everyone's desire to find loved ones. What more could one want from a trip to the Wood?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's 11:35pm - Conan or Letterman?

I have been, and I think always will be, a fan of Conan O'Brien.  When it was announced that Coney would be taking over The Tonight Show, to me, it sounded just about perfect.  In a debate between Leno and Letterman, I always came out on the side of Dave, but in one between Conan and Dave… well, for me that's harder to answer.  So, today, I've opted to take a look at some clips from both shows to try and figure out if I can possibly choose between the two. 

I had a great plan for this, I was going to embed a clip from Conan and then embed a clip from Letterman and then one from Conan and another from Letterman.  It was going to be a back and forth thing highlighting funny bits from both shows.  However, The Late Show with David Letterman doesn't actually allow you to embed clips, you have to watch them directly from their website.  That would be one point for Conan.

First clip: Conan O'Brien poking fun at a baseball team that deserves to have much fun poked at it:

See, that's just plain genius – the Mets are bad (sorry Met fan), the Mets probably ought to be better, but that's not the point.  No, the point is that what really sells this bit is not Mr. Met getting out of his car with the baseball bat, it's his actually smashing the window – it's funny that he gets out of the car and shakes the bat, it's hysterical when he actually smashes that first window.

First link for Dave:  Dave goes to the new Harry Potter movie.

One of the things Dave really has going for him is his general anger/bewilderment towards society at large.  The intro here is funnier than the bit, but they're both still funny.  If I were Dave, what really would have distressed me however is the fact that I paid to go see Harry Potter and I ended up at Transformers (this could be a rights issue, but if it is, they simply ought not to have put the clip online, and therefore I'm assuming it is here as it was on TV).  I understand both of those films are big budget Hollywood blockbusters, but that doesn't make them entirely the same.  That Megatron can't hold a candle to Voldemort.  I guess Dave was too upset by his date's actions to notice.  I'm calling this a tie.

Second clip: Shatner reading Palin's farewell speech:

A lot of this very definitely rests on Shatner's shoulders, and his ability to make fun of himself and someone else at the same time.  Even so, you have to give credit to Conan and his staff (let's not forget the staff, without them the show doesn't happen) for coming up with the idea… and for bringing Shatner back to read Palin's tweets on another night.

Second link: Letterman's Brüno Top Ten with Brüno.

Just like with Conan, what we have here is excellent use of a celebrity.  Sacha Baron Cohen may milk the thing more than he ought to, and Letterman does make a mistake in counting down the numbers, but he recognizes the mistake and points out just how much it doesn't matter anyway.  I think the Shatner bit may be funnier, but I'm still awarding a point to Dave because the Top Ten thing has to be one of the greatest – if not the greatest – bits in late night television… also, I desperately want this to end in a tie and already awarded Conan a foolish point for NBC providing the ability to embed clips and CBS not.


So, there you have it, two late night geniuses doing what they do best – making people laugh.  I think that there hasn't been a better time for late night television in general in years.  One guy has Paul McCartney back in the Ed Sullivan Theater and the other has that hair… you can't lose. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Calling Out The Waterboy

Sometimes looking at a new release slate for Blu-rays, one gets the distinct impression that all the good movies have already arrived in the high definition format. I can't believe that's the case — most people can probably tick off two or three dozen films they are waiting to see released to Blu-ray. And yet, before some favorites arrive on Blu-ray we get treated to half-baked fare like Adam Sandler's The Waterboy.

Sandler, most definitely a funny man and an actor who has shown some range in recent years, is not at his best in this Frank Coraci (Click) directed comedy. In the picture, Sandler stars as Bobby Boucher, a man who grew up in backwoods Louisiana. Boucher's only dream in life – his only ambition – is to be a waterboy for a college football team. It's actually a dream that he's already fulfilled at the start of the film, but his hopes are dashed when the coach of the University of Louisiana's football team, Red Beaulieu (Jerry Reed), fires him for distracting the players.

Bobby manages to land a gig, though at a far less prestigious school with a far less prestigious football team run by the far less prestigious Coach Klein (Henry Winkler). Predictably – and the whole thing really is quite predictable – Klein uncovers Bobby's incredible ability to tackle and Bobby ends up leading the hapless team to many victories only to be forced to face Beaulieu and his old squad in the championship game.

Much of the film is spent showing – but never really dissecting or exploring – the uncomfortable relationship Bobby has with his mother, played by a terribly miscast Kathy Bates. Mama Boucher doesn't like Bobby doing anything which might lead to Bobby's deserting her as she was deserted by her husband many a year ago. She does everything from refusing to let Bobby play football – he lies to her and does it anyway – to not letting Bobby date the girl of his dreams, Vicki Vallencourt (Fairuza Balk) – he lies to her and does it anyway... again.

The entire film plays out like an incredibly unfunny Mommy Dearest-type scenario played for laughs mashed up with the football stuff from Forrest Gump. Sandler appears to be coasting through the part, making Bobby a simple combination of characters that he already had in his repertoire. It gives the movie the same unfunny feel of any number of films based on Saturday Night Live sketches (even if Lorne Michaels' name is absent from the credits).

Actually, the entire film could be considered highly offensive to Cajuns and college football players… if it weren't so incredibly laughable (but hardly ever in a funny way). The film takes stereotypes to the extreme in almost every single character portrayed and never aims for three-dimensionality when it can substitute a flat joke for an attempt at depth.

The entire 90 minute runtime of the film unspools quickly enough and never really allow one to get bored. Fans of Sandler and his comedy will find enjoyable moments, but everyone else will just walk away from the film wishing that they had opted for Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison instead.

The Blu-ray release is as unspectacular as the film itself, displaying as far too grainy and with several scenes containing noticeable dirt and/or noise. Some of the colors do pop quite well, but never deliver that "wow" factor. The sound however does manage a few "wows" here and there, mainly with the various effects (which tend to be football-related). Every time an effect plays out, it appears noticeably louder than the dialogue track and with far more bass than one would think it should contain.

As for extras, The Waterboy contains… nothing, not a trailer nor an outtake reel, not a blooper nor a deleted scene. Much like the script and the characters, it is a wholly barebones affair, and one that makes you wonder why movies you really want to see haven't yet gotten the Blu-ray treatment.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Discovering The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Every Monday night – when there's a new episode – I sit down to watch The Secret Life of the American Teenager.  Don't ask me why, the reasons are too complicated to explore.  I don't mind telling you however that the show perplexes me in the extreme, and not just the plots, the way the whole thing develops.

Take a look at last night's episode, here we are, apparently in the middle of season three (I would argue that it may only be season two as at the end of what they're calling season one they said they'd be back with the rest of the season in a few months, and then that next set of episodes became season two).  The episode was centered on the school year finishing and what people were going to do over the summer.  Many of the kids are apparently going away, and the episode description for next week talks about it being the end of the summer. 

To me, that's odd.  How is that not the end of the season?  How did the producers plan to have the summer take place in the middle of the season?  What were they thinking?  Have they not watched TV before?  It's awkward, tell me it's not awkward, you can't, can you?  It's not a problem to do a summer season, to have a high school-based show focus on what happens one summer (like some swell jobs at Malibu Sands), but to skip the summer which takes place in the middle of the season… weird. 

I have to wonder if last night was supposed to be the end of a season and things got rearranged by the network.  To me, that sounds plausible, perhaps not less weird, but certainly plausible.  Why?  Because you don't finish a year of high school in the front half of a season, skip the summer, and then start the next year of high school during the rest of the season.  It's awkward.

Okay, fine, the whole show is awkward and weird.  How does Ben's dad, Leo, not care that he's marrying a one-time prostitute?  When the show started he seemed quite happy never to have another woman in his life following the death of his wife.  Now, all of the sudden, he's  been having a relationship with a one-time hooker and is going to marry her.  We haven't seen that relationship develop, it just sort of sprung up out of nowhere.  It's almost as if he hired her one night and fell instantly in love, convinced her to quit her job, and then asked her to marry him… all in one night.

I understand that high schoolers and inconsistent and subject to changing their minds every five seconds, but the parents on Secret Life seem to change their minds – in radically life-altering ways – just as quickly as the kids.  Those parents may be trying their best, but I don't feel like the message they're imparting to their kids – ones who so desperately need consistency and positive messages – are remotely good ones.  Last night Adrian put an offer on a house on behalf of her parents.  Her parents response to this action which they had no idea was coming?  They smiled and clinked their wine glasses.  If my kid ever tries to commit me to buying a house, there may very well be drinking, but it won't be happy wine drinking, and it won't be in front of the kid. 

I think that Secret Life has a lot to offer, and raises some great discussion topics for real world families, I just wish that they'd have some of those discussions on the show.  I feel as though all too often, the parents simply don't act in anything resembling role model fashion and that's troublesome.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead - Special, but Special Enough?

BBC America, in continuing its big week of sci-fi to help usher in their brand new HD feed, will be premiering the next Doctor Who special, Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead, this Sunday night at 8:00pm.  The second of the final five appearances by David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor (unless, of course, the rumored movie occurs) finds the Time Lord on a mysterious alien planet as the double-decker bus he was travelling on manages to make its way through a wormhole.

Along for the ride this time around as the Doctor's companion is Lady Christina de Souza, who is played by Michelle Ryan (Bionic Woman) in a far better Photo Credit:  BBCrole than her unfortunate turn as Jaime Sommers (not her fault, but it must be noted that the series wasn't a good one).  As explained by Ryan in the press materials, "Christina is a mysterious, adventure-seeking aristocrat and she is very much a longer, she's off in her own little world.  And she's very daring and exciting and smart and sassy.  She's a cool character."  Lady Christina also happens to be a jewel thief who has just managed to pull off an incredibly daring robbery.  It is actually in her attempt to escape the police that she finds herself on the same bus as the Doctor.

Things in Who-land are never quite as easy as they ought to be – after all, it wouldn't be much of an episode if they could just turn the bus around and drive right through the wormhole – and the bus finds itself stuck in sand in a massive desert on an alien planet.  Oh, and a sandstorm which isn't a sandstorm but actually a bunch of metal exoskeleton animals which take whole vibrant planets (like the one the Doctor is on) and turn them into a desert wasteland just happen to be on their way to the bus, the wormhole, and Earth.Photo Credit:  BBC  And then there are the insect aliens, the Tritovores.  Are they good?  Are they evil?  Or are they just dung-eaters?

The story makes for a perfectly good Doctor Who episode, but this is supposed to be a "special" and I'm just not sure how special it is.  To be sure, it's approximately 15 minutes longer than a regular episode, and some of the views of the desert certainly indicate more money spent making the special (they did actually go to a desert to film parts of it), but it fails to really get the audience's pulse-racing as has happened in any of the season finales for the new series.  The scale of production here is certainly larger, but the story is not.

In speaking of the deserts, Tennant states, "we got some incredible shots, I mean I think you'll notice it on screen that we went a long way, and that the director and the camera particularly made it count."  Perhaps most important, Tennant adds to that sentiment "I think it'll look like an alien planet in a way that nothing we've ever done before has ever quite managed… it's an extraordinary sight, just miles of sand and the blue skies…"  He is quite right, the desert shots that Planet of the Dead contain are spectacular and they do give the planet far more of a realistic feel than is often the case in a Who episode.  

As an episode certainly, this is a good one, outside of the landscape, the repartee between the Doctor and Christina is fantastic, the two actors play off each other wonderfully and are great to watch onscreen together.  What witPhoto Credit: BBCh the possible destruction of the Earth and every living thing on it, the stakes are high enough here as well, but for those people out there looking for something truly special or looking for something more than an episode there's not a lot extra here. 

Again, it's not bad, it's a good episode, it's a beautifully shot, well-acted, nicely developed episode, and with the beautifulness of it, it is a great addition to BBC America's first week with an HD feed.  However, those people out there yearning for more from Doctor Who in this year without a full season may find themselves still yearning when the end credits roll.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead premieres July 26 at 8:00pm on BBC America.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Good and Bad of Being Human

You've got your vampires, your werewolves, and your ghosts, and never the thrain shall meet… or something like that. Okay, so sometimes vampires meet werewolves, but ghosts rarely wind up involved in those mash-ups. But now, fans of all three supernatural creatures can rejoice, because BBC America's Being Human, which premieres this Saturday night, takes all three creatures of the night and mixes them together into an otherworldly parfait.

Is it an utterly delectable, none-too-fattening treat? Well, it's not undelicious, but it's not exactly a truffle from La Maison du Chocolat either.

The series revolves around three twenty-somethings: George (Russell Tovey), a werewolf; Mitchell (Aidan Turner), a vampire; and Annie (Lenora Crichlow), a ghost. George and Russell have, for various reasons, decided that theyPhoto Credit: Touchpaper Television & BBC'd rather not live in the shadows anymore, so, while they're not divulging their secret identities, they are renting a swell house and trying to fit in with the world at large. They're both hospital porters and just generally doing everything they can to, well, try to be human.

Annie's issues are slightly different. Being a ghost she can't readily be seen by people. At the outset of the pilot, she actually seems to be coming back into focus for more folks, but that all falls apart after a little almost encounter with her onetime fiancé, Owen (Greg Chillin).

The show operates on several different levels. There are crucial backstories as to how George, Mitchell, and Annie ended up in their current not-quite-human states; there is the mythology as it exists in this series of the various creatures; the present day intrigues of the various supernatural sets; and the actual human bits. It is a lot to try to cram into every hour of television and doesn't always gel perfectly.

Perhaps a lot of that is due to the character of Mitchell, the resident vampire. Where George and Annie have serious issues they're dealing with, their characters are written in a more lighthearted fashion. Mitchell feels far darker than that. George and Annie struggle, but they joke. Mitchell – at least in the first three episodes – mainly just struggles. His character fits in with the concept of the show, just not with all the characters around him.

While that is a criticism of the show, one definitely gets a feeling through the first few episodes of the series that Mitchell is darker on purpose. The viewer learns early on that the vampires have some sort of weird, powerful network in the city, and they tend to stand far more on the side of evil (even if they're cops) than good. Mitchell doesn't approach the evil side, but unlike George and Annie, he is surrounded by many more of his own kind and has to contend with that social network as well. Plus, as we're told early on in the series, the vampires tend to think something big (and perhaps bad) is about to take place. It all necessitates Mitchell's being more dark, but his character makes the show a lot less fun.

George and Annie do know others of their species, just not as many, and werewolves and ghosts apparently don't have large social circles. Still, their encounters with their own kind are serious, heartfelt, and sometimes evil, but when they reenter "normal" society, they are able to maintain a far more lighthearted nature, and one that seems to fit better with the overall sense of the show.

Going beyond the supernatural, Being Human does deal with a lot of real, down to earth issues, everything from dating and relationships to work to one's place in society. Watching these three people trying to figure out who they are, and how they can best approach the world at large is fascinating, and at times truly heartbreaking. The best example of this is with Annie and her having to watch her one-time fiancé dating someone else while she is still in love with him.

Though not always a perfect mixture of the natural and the preternatural, Being Human does manage to do a decent balancing act in the first three episodes of the season. Enough questions are asked and avenues opened for exploration that it could be fascinating to see where the show goes in the future. It could very well wind up being Buffy-esque (and certainly owes a lot of itself to Buffy) and remain highly enjoyable for years to come. At this point though, it is simply like, but not love, at first bite.

Being Human premieres on BBC America Saturday, July 25, at 9:00pm.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Distinct Lack of Fire on Hell's Kitchen?

Sometimes I'm not quite sure how to approach an issue.  Take today's column for example.  There was absolutely no doubt in my mind heading into last night's Hell's Kitchen premiere that the column would be about it, that was set, after watching the episode though the only question was how to write it. 

You see, there's the traditional review path:  "Hell's Kitchen premiered it's new season last night, a season which is following quickly on the heel's of its last season.  The show, which has established a basic routine tweaked things here and there, but by-and-large maintained the status quo.  It must be said however that this time out the chefs do seem of a lower caliber than last season."

There's also the irate path:  "My goodness, what were the producers of Hell's Kitchen thinking?  That bunch of clowns they put before us last night in the season premiere has to be the most ridiculous group we've gotten in a long time.  Were they rushed into production to the point where they simply opted for rejects from previous seasons rather than actually searching for competent talent?"

One could take the slightly bemused path:  "To be honest with you, I'm not quite sure what I saw last night on Hell's Kitchen.  It was fun certainly, but the cooking seems to have been diminished this year in favor of hysterics.  I know that if it was me, I wouldn't have gone toe-to-toe with Ramsay like Joseph did, but perhaps he has an ingenious strategy.  Perhaps the producers first came up with a carnival credit theme for the season and then chose chefs who would best fit that theme."

So many choices… what to do… what to do… okay got it…

There's always a danger doing a new season of a reality show like Hell's Kitchen so quickly on the heels of the previous season.  The show could end up stagnating, doing nothing different whatsoever.  The show could also, simply not have the time necessary to come up with great new ideas and simply go gimmicky and ill-thought out.  I would have preferred the former, what we got was the latter.

I'm not even sure we can talk about the chefs.  I'm not even sure we can call them chefs.  Oh, I know that they call themselves chefs, but they don't seem like chefs to me.  There is always a lack of professionalism present in Hell's Kitchen's chefs, but last night I'm not sure we saw any professionalism.  I know that it makes sense for the producers to not show us the professionalism early on (otherwise we couldn't see how Ramsay molds the chefs over the course of the season), but putting food in a freezer instead of a fridge, not being able to section a grapefruit even after being told more than once by more than one person how to do it, and having a fight with Jean-Philippe are serious problems.  I liked Van right up until he went after Jean-Philippe – no one attacks JP in front of me, no one.  That hothead needs to go home.  And, that's not even talking about Joseph repeatedly showing his hatred of Ramsay and everyone else.  Did they just get that guy from central casting?  He's a plant, right?

Beyond the chefs though, the rest of it seemed ill-thought out.  One big example – the shrimp cocktail.  After losing the challenge in the second hour – a challenge which started with the completely ridiculous dropping of shrimp from the ceiling –  the women were told they were going to have, as their punishment, to clean shrimp and prepare lemons for shrimp cocktail for the following night's dinner service.  Ramsay explained that everyone in the restaurant would be given the shrimp cocktails.  Did they serve the shrimp cocktails?  Yes, yes they did, but only after Ramsay decided that the chefs couldn't cook anything and that he was going to shut down the kitchen.  I have to believe that the shrimp cocktails were always meant to be used in that capacity, they were always meant to go out once Ramsay shut down the kitchen… something we're supposed to believe he isn't required to do. 

There's no other explanation.  When was that shrimp supposed to go out to the dining room?  Entrees were being prepared.  It wasn't on the appetizer menu.  I would have imagined the logical time to serve the shrimp cocktail was as soon as everyone walked into the restaurant, but it wasn't put out then. Was it supposed to be dessert?  That's the only other choice – it wasn't a set up, Ramsay wasn't required to shutdown the kitchen, the shrimp cocktails were going to be dessert.  Dessert, yeah, that's the ticket.  Plus, I have this bridge in Brooklyn, if you're interested, I'd be willing to part with it for a nominal fee.

I know that we're still early in the season, but I'm nervous, very nervous.  The show is getting a little long in the tooth, perhaps it needed a bit more of a rest and some time to refresh itself before coming back for another season.  Last night certainly gave that impression.  We'll just have to wait until next week and see what happens then.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer and the Time Lord

There is this thing out there called "summer television."  Every year, broadcast networks treat their audiences to burn-offs of shows that failed be they good or bad (see Pushing Daisies, which was certainly the former) and billions and billions of hours of reality television.  Seriously, the amount of reality television networks throw out there during the summer is staggering, simply staggering.  And, whomever came up with this genius plan of having two hours one day for a performance show and thirty minutes or an hour the next day for a filler-laced results show ought to either be promoted or blindfolded and given his final cigarette; I can't decide which, but I know one of those two is the right choice.

I watch my fair share of reality TV, and I watch my fair share of summer burn-offs (though I did refuse to restart Kings), but for the past two summers I've become ever more obsessed with one thing and one thing only – the Who-niverse, and mainly in the form of the pappa program, the inimitable Doctor Who

This summer, of course, is a great summer for all Who fans, what with Torchwood: Children of Earth airing right now on BBC America (read my review); one Doctor Who special, The Next Doctor, having aired already (my thoughts); and another one, Planet of the Dead, coming this Sunday (the review is written, but you're just going to have to wait a few days to read it).  But, my obsession extends beyond the new, it goes into the old as well.  I'm digging through wikis, I'm googling old episodes, I'm figuring out the difference between Dalek factions, and I'm watching every episode that my TiVo can grab (and with the new series currently airing repeats on PBS stations, BBC America, and SyFy, that's a lot of episodes).

I am still though quite dissatisfied, there's too much out there – the once and future show has aired for decades, they've gone through ten Time Lords.  Sure, Paul McGann only starred as the Eighth Doctor in the one backdoor TV pilot that never launched a new series, but his doctor has appeared in radio plays – with McGann – as well as books and comics.  And, let's not forget that it seems as though the Eighth Doctor was the one who participated in the Time War, that's huge.  How do you not want to know more about that (and, when will there be more to learn?)

Then there's the issue of canonicity which I can't even begin to touch.  Does the McGann movie count (the new series would have us believe so)?  Do the books in general count?  Radio?  Internet?  Comics?  There are dozens of guides to the series out there, at least one of them is multi-volume, but I'm not convinced that puts an end to all the questions nor that they will give all the answers (even if one could spend the time to read them all)

Actually, I think that the copious amounts of material that exist in the Who-niverse are exactly what make it such great summer fun.  If I can spend three months every year learning about the previous adventures of the Doctor and his companions then eventually I'll be able to catch-up… you know, in something like 30 years.  What I really need (do you hear me, BBC?) is a complete set of all the Doctor Who episodes from the original series on DVD.  I don't think that they're all available on DVD yet, and I shudder to think what the price would be on a complete set of the Doctor's adventures, but my goodness, imagine the fun that could be.  That by itself could take me five or six summers to get through.  They'd be great summers, and I'd be bleary-eyed and more than a little pale by the end of the them, but they'd still be great.

What say you, BBC – can we get an über-complete Doctor Who DVD set?  Comic-Con is this week, surely now is the right time to announce it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth has Arrived

There is a big danger in taking an already short television season and turning it into a single multi-episode storyarc.  If the story isn't successful – if it isn't compelling, if the character arcs aren't interesting, if anything falls out of place – one could be putting the fate of the entire series into jeopardy.  It's a gamble, a risk – a risk that should pay great dividends for Torchwood and its creator Russell T. Davies with the new Torchwood: Children of Earth five-part series which will be airing on BBC America for five nights in a row starting on Monday July 20 at 9:00pm.

Based in the same universe as Doctor Who – or Whoniverse, if you will – Torchwood is the name of a top secret government organization founded by Queen Victoria with a mandate to protect the world from all sorts of alien baddies, that is to say, the likes of the Doctor himself.  The Queen and the Doctor didn't see eye to eye, but that's neither here nor there, the upshot of it all is that Torchwood has changed a little during the intervening years and is now run (at leastPhoto Credit: BBC Torchwood Three is) by a good friend of the Doctor's, the inimitable and practically eternal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). 

Children of Earth finds the cast slimmed down following the untimely ends of two members of the Torchwood staff, Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) and Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), in season two.  Consequently, when the aliens come calling this time around, only Captain Jack, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) are present to save the world from certain doom.

If that all sounds a little fantastical and ludicrous and more than a bit complicated, don't worry about it — one of the strengths of Children of Earth is that it's written so that even the uninitiated can figure out what's going on after playing a minimal amount of catch-up (or more quickly if they're sitting next to someone who has already been indoctrinated while they watch).  The upshot of it all is that Torchwood are the good guys and they're going to save the world… or die trying.  As Davies states in the press materials "…we're telling a brand new story.  It's been deliberately written so that no one will be lost – and at the same time, the faithful viewer will discover so much more about the members of the Torchwood team."

As for the bad guys, this time out it's an alien race known only as the 456, they're called as much because that's the frequency on which they originally broadcast a message to Earth in 1965.  In the opening moments of the season though no one knows that the 456 are on their way, all anyone knows is that all the children of Earth (at least the awake ones) have stopped simultaneously.  Quickly though the 456 are able to do more than stop all the children, they're able to use them to broadcast their first message to the world:  "We are coming."  The 456's plans go well beyond just using children as radio receivers Photo Credit: BBChowever, and England, Torchwood, and the world soon find themselves in dire straits.

While it is most definitely science fiction based, Torchwood: Children of Earth, like all the best sci-fi, isn't exclusively concerned with aliens and the future and improbable (or impossible) events.  Torchwood succeeds – and make no mistake, this season does succeed, and more than previous ones – because it is concerned with characters and is able to center itself in the world in which we live.  Children of Earth spends a significant amount of time examining the hypothetical politics of an alien invasion, looking at the best and the worst that we, as a world, might do in the face of obscene alien demands. 

The humble heroes of Torchwood find themselves not only fighting aliens, but their past, and a threat from within their own government.  This season is most definitely a dark look at our world, not just because the story has a focus on the 456's relationship to children (though that is a lot of it), but because it shows a myriad of groups and factions all out for themselves.  Whether it's to protect themselves in the future, hide their tracks in the past, or just plain live through the present, Torchwood not only shows how poorly non-sympathetic characters might act in a dire situation, but how even sympathetic ones can do the wrong thing.

This five-part single episode story, Torchwood: Children of Earth, is so astounding and so good because it not only has a huge scope but because it doesn't lose the small stories, the stories of both the folks at Torchwood and their loved ones, like Eve's husband Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) and the stories of some of the members of the government who find themselves involved with the 456. 

All three members of the Torchwood team, Captain Jack, Gwen, and Ianto, are given their own Photo Credit: BBCseparate storylines and separate interests as the plot of this mini-season progresses.  There is certainly enough for each of them to do, and for each of the actors to play with, that fans of the series will be satisfied and newcomers will be able to get a feel for each character.

On the non-Torchwood side of things, a particularly good job is done by Peter Capaldi who plays John Frobisher, a lifelong civil servant who still finds himself working for less than reputable politicians.  Frobisher may be the most sympathetic – and the most sad – of all the characters who appear, he is a man who tries his best and who may know more and better than all of those around him, but who is never given a chance by his political bosses who come and go.

In discussing Torchwood, Barrowman said "in series one we were crawling, series two we were walking and now series three we're running."  It is true that Children of Earth is an experience that will leave the viewer completely breathless by its conclusion, after watching the first four hours back-to-back I found myself terribly distraught that I hadn't allotted enough time to watch the last episode right then as well. 

Anyone with any interest in science fiction would do well to watch Torchwood: Children of Earth, and anyone who just likes good television should tune in as well.  The series, which has been above average until now, has fPhoto Credit: BBCinally really hit its stride and makes for an excellent weeklong experience. 

At this moment, Russell T. Davies has said that he hopes to do a fourth season, that he has an idea for it and is just waiting on the go ahead from the BBC.  With any luck, it won't be too long before he's able to tell us "we are coming."

Torchwood Children of Earth airs five nights in a row on BBC America starting this Monday at 9:00pm and is something not to be missed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Chasing After the Midnight Express

It is often said that the punishment should fit the crime. As a concept, that makes total and complete sense. The realities of the statement however don't always quite match up. One person's idea of the correct punishment for a crime isn't necessarily another's; one nation's concept is sometimes radically different from another's. It can all depend on the populace, the time period, the manner in which the law was broken, and an infinite number of other factors. Consequently, it can be incredibly difficult for people in one part of the world to properly assess punishments handed out in another part of the world.

The 1978 film Midnight Express is a brilliant movie, well told, well acted, well shot, and absolutely riveting. Where the film utterly fails is that it makes no attempt at understanding the country, prisons, and laws the film rails against.

Based on a true story, the Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) directed film follows Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, Chariots of Fire) as he attempts to smuggle two kilograms of hashish out of Turkey in 1970. Hayes unfortunately timed his attempt to just follow some airplane hijackings and tough talk from Richard Nixon. It led to the airport being on high alert and Hayes being caught.

After serving the vast majority of his initial four year and two month sentence, a prosecutorial appeal changes his sentence to 30 years. For Hayes, who has already suffered the indignity of life in a Turkish prison for almost four years, the new sentence is too much to take, and he quickly finds his prison life spiraling out of control. The pain and disbelief and hope Davis exhibits as Hayes throughout the film is one of the factors that really make the piece work. The performance is an outstanding one and earned Davis a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Male.

Davis' costars are equally brilliant, with Irene Miracle (Billy's girlfriend, Susan) also earning a Golden Globe (Best Motion Picture Acting Debut – Female), and John Hurt, who plays a fellow inmate, a Golden Globe win and an Oscar Nomination (supporting actor, both).

Midnight Express needs to be looked at less like an expose on Turkey in general and the Turkish prison system (unquestionably not a great one) in particular, and more like one's mans view of it. The film attempts to put forward this idea by doing things like never utilizing subtitles when Turkish is spoken, but is not wholly successful at it. The film only ever shows a small segment of the Turkish population, but that segment is seen in an almost entirely negative light. As discussed in one of the behind the scenes featurettes, this was a critique made against the film upon its initial release and it is one that is still valid today. The story is just one man's story, but the view it presents of Turkey and the Turkish, even at the airport where Hayes was trying to do something very illegal, is a damaging one.

In an attempt to make the audience remain wholeheartedly on the side of Hayes, the illegality of Hayes' actions are downplayed. We may not agree with Turkey's system of justice – and I don't think anyone would approve of the prison system as it is depicted – but Hayes' main upset in the movie comes from the fact that extra years are added to his sentence due to the reinstatement of a smuggling charge… and Hayes was smuggling. He was being made an example of by the Turkish criminal justice system, and we do the same thing in the States on a regular basis (Bernie Madoff getting 150 years, for instance). That doesn't make the actions of the jailers – if true – right, but the film doesn't ever really redeem Hayes for his actions, they are just glossed over.

The Blu-ray release of Midnight Express is solid if unspectacular. Most of the film looks very good, delivering a dark, morose, feel to a dark, morose, film. There is a minimal amount of grain, and good detail in the visuals. More than one scene however has a lot more grain and a lot less detail, it is as though those scenes came from a different, less good, print of the film (or simply weren't corrected in the same manner as the rest of the film). The sound in the film is also not without problem; while it tends to be clear, the range of the volume is just too great at times, with quiet scenes requiring the sound turned up and loud ones requiring it turned down.

The release comes with a photo gallery, a commentary track with Parker as well as a booklet about the making of the film written by him. There are also several behind-the-scene featurettes—one focusing on the memories of the producers and how they became involved, another on the production itself, and one on the finished film. Essentially, these three really fit together as a single documentary, but have been split here for an unknown reason. There is also a short featurette on the making of the film which appears to have been made upon the film's initial release and is little more than a promo piece for the movie.

Midnight Express is a great film, one completely deserving of the accolades, awards, and nominations which it garnered upon its initial release. It is gripping and takes the viewer into a world which they would normally not visit. However, it is also a film which cannot be simply taken at face value. It is great at drawing the viewer into the trials and tribulations that Billy Hayes experienced in Turkey, but it is a movie told through his eyes (and based on the book he co-wrote on his experiences) and consequently has all the bias of that single point of view.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

And Knowing is Half the Battle: G.I. Joe Hits DVD

Ah, the fabulous, freewheeling 1980s, a time when nothing was off limits, a time when a company could take a decades old toy and give it new life by creating a cartoon to promote the toy.  Throw in a few public service announcements about avoiding strangers, getting out of the water during a thunderstorm, and the right way to escape from a burning home and you could almost call the series educational and acting towards the betterment of humanity.  Sly? Maybe. Misleading?  Perhaps.  Pure marketing genius?  Absolutely.  Plus, the show could be just plane good fun, as it was with G.I. Joe, a series which is now being released – at least in part – to DVD.  Currently available for purchase is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Season 1.1, a four DVD set which features the first 22 episodes (some of which were originally broadcast as three different multi-episode storyarcs).

The storylines in the series tend to be relatively simplistic – Cobra, led by Cobra Commander, has come up with a nefarious and deadly plot for world domination.  The one group that can stand up to Cobra is "America's daring, highly trained, special mission force," G.I. Joe.  The good guys, led by Duke, appear poised to fail, allowing Cobra to finally win, right up until the Joes manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, save the world, and send Cobra scurrying away with their tails between their legs.  It's an age-old story, but it's a good one and it works here, especially as the audience its geared towards is a young one.

The real standout in the series isn't the stories, it's the characters, and well it ought to be as the show was designed to sell the characters.  Each one is distinctive and colorful, particularly Cobra's bad guys – Cobra Commander himself, Destro, Baroness, Major Bludd, Zartan (granted, he's semi-freelance, but he's a bad guy), The Crimson Twins, and Storm Shadow among others.  It's not that there aren't a load of fun good guys with over-the-top personalities – perhaps Roadblock and Shipwreck chief among them – but the bad guys are just more fun, even if one is just rooting against them.

While those looking for Serpentor or Sgt. Slaughter may be disappointed to find that they're not present in the set (those characters didn't appear until season two of the series, and the full series is due out on DVD soon), there is still plenty of enjoyment to be culled from the series.  Of the multi-episode arcs, the best may be the "Pyramid of Darkness" plotline, which features a Cobra plan to put massive cubes in the four corners of the Earth and when said cubes are combined with a laser in outer space they form an pyramid under which nothing electrical will work.  It is a completely typical plot – Duke even gets captured in it (Duke seems to get captured on a regular basis) – but the inclusion of the Stark Trek Tribble-esque Fatal Fluffies really puts it over the top.

The animation in the series is typical 1980s cartoon – bright and colorful and none-too-detailed or complicated.  The prints that appear on the DVDs themselves are good but not perfect – some bits of noise are certainly present.  The multi-episode arcs are each watchable as single pieces so the credits don't have to be watched again, but every episode still includes all the to- and from-commercial bumpers which, while fun in a nostalgic sort of way at first quickly become old.

In terms of special features, the discs include the ever-famous "Knowing is Half the Battle" PSAs, a multi-part discussion with writer Ron Friedman, Hasbro G.I. Joe toy commercials, a presentation from the 1963 Toy Fair (where G.I. Joe was introduced), and a printable script for one episode.

Is it just my being nostalgic for the days I used to race home to watch G.I. Joe or does this 20-plus year old series still have some life in it?  The storylines are easy to follow, the good versus evil battle absolutely classic, and the characters colorful – nostalgia may play a small factor in my enjoying the series, but even those with no prior experience (if they're of the right age) should find a lot to like in this series.  And, with the new movie on its way out, there are probably even semi-related toys that can be purchased easily again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Spying on The Echelon Conspiracy

Sometimes watching a film one has to wonder how exactly the producers got so many name actors to be in such a bad movie.  Coming soon to Blu-ray (after an incredibly short stint in the theaters) is The Echelon Conspiracy, a movie with a big name cast and yet very little that might make it worthwhile. 

Ving Rhames, Ed Burns, Shane West, Jonathan Pryce, and Martin Sheen.  These are all pretty well known names, and seeing them as part of a single cast might make one think that the film was destined for, at the very least, a wide release, even if the release is during a slow period.  IMDb however notes that The Echelon Conspiracy only opened on 400 screens and doesn't even bother to track its take on any weekend besides its opening one.

The Greg Marcks (11:14) directed film features a nonsensical plot about a poor IT guy, Max Peterson (West), getting a next-generation phone in the mail while on a business trip.  Text messages start appearing on the phone which give Peterson all sorts of important information, handy things like the fact that the plane he is booked on is going to crash, what table to sit at in a casino, which slot machine to play, that sort of thing.  Who has given Peterson the phone?  He has no idea.  Why does he listen to the phone?  Goodness knows.  In fact, the entire first portion of the film really only features an incredibly perplexed Peterson wondering at all the strange things going on around him. 

Unfortunately for West, as Peterson is by himself and seemingly doesn't believe in talking when no one else is around, West is forced to play Peterson's confusion with a series of comically unfunny eyebrow raises, grimaces, and quizzical looks.  West, who has had far better moments in his career, simply isn't given a lot to go with here.

Over the course of Peterson's following the magical phones instructions he manages to run afoul of the head of security at a casino in Prague, a former FBI agent named John Reed (Burns).  Also following Peterson is current FBI agent Dave Grant (Rhames), who just happens to be the guy who gave Reed the old heave-ho from the FBI, something he did at the behest of the head of the NSA, Raymond Burke (Sheen).

As it turns out – as if anyone needs me to say this – there just may be a massive conspiracy taking place someone or something may be out to destroy the world, and Peterson plays an incredibly important part in that game.  Jonathan Pryce, however, doesn't.  Why exactly he appears as Reed's current boss, the owner of the casino and goodness knows how many other things is anyone's guess.

Eventually, things are made clear… well, as clear as things can be made in a movie that has a plot so foolish and impossible.  Taking any time to stop and think about what is actually taking place and the reasons for it will either result in one's being able to point out a half-dozen or so major plot flaws or simply cause one's head to explode.  The only question that may be worth asking about what takes place in the film is why exactly no Czechs live in Prague – only Russians, Brits, and Americans.  The movie doesn't, on any level, work.

The exact same thing can be said of the Blu-ray.  The movie is impossibly grainy at times, and the amount of digital noise present in some scenes is wholly distracting.  One might expect an imperfect print of a film that has been played in theaters a thousand times and is 30 years old, but The Echelon Conspiracy certainly ought to look better, ought to be cleaner, than it is.  The 5.1 channel TrueHD sound is also a disappointment.  Only occasionally do the bullets whizzing around make it to the rear speakers, forcing one to wonder where exactly the bullets disappear to.

As for special features, the Blu-ray release lacks any.  It is a truly bare bones affair.

The Echelon Conspiracy careens from one improbable and altogether ridiculous moment to the next, pausing only long enough for West to come up with another way to look bewildered (seriously, he has a lot of them).  It is a film which proves that even a cast full of very capable actors can't always rise above the material their given.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Is Raising the Bar Raising its Game?

Every week this season that I've turned on Raising the Bar – and that's been all of them – I've wondered why I didn't like the show anywhere near as much last season.  Last year, I watched several episodes of the series and found that it was no more or less than your average legal drama, and that Mark-Paul Gosselaar did just a little too much crying.

Well, he still is tilting at windmills this season (no matter what he said last night), but at least his crying has abated.  But, that doesn't really seem like all that was missing last season, the show was just very by the numbers and I was never terribly interested in any of the characters.

Okay, so I'm not quite sure that I'm interested in them now all that much either, at least not beyond all of them.  The show has a lot of characters running around… a lot of characters.  It's impossible for the series to develop full plots for all of them, and that really shows this year.  Just look at Richard Woolsley (Teddy Sears), he finally got more than 30 seconds of screen time last night, but his plot, which involved him pleading out a case without figuring out what it was about first, felt very familiar.  I don't remember last season well enough to know if they did that exact plot then, but I know that I've seen something Gosselaar photo by Karen Neal similar before (even if it was on a different show).

The big character – Jerry Kellerman (Gosselaar) – is obviously the focus of every episode, but they do seem to have trouble bringing in the other characters regularly.  Certainly this season we've learned very, very little about our prosecutors, save that Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) is dating a cop who helped kill one of the women Kellerman has defended.  That has to be headed somewhere, I'll be sorely disappointed in the series if it doesn't, but I have the sense that it may not come back for weeks on end.  The show did appear to drop a hint in last night about her dating the cop – she left drinks with everyone saying she had plans – but that was it, nothing specific.   

The one other character who seems to get a little bit added to their story on a regular basis is Bobbi Gilardi (Natalia Cigliuti), Kellerman's would-be love interest.  Her story has been all about her divorce and pushing off Kellerman until that was finalized.  Those papers came through last night, but I'm not going to ruin the episode's final moments for you, suffice to say that next week's episode should prove a good one.

It is despite this lack of ability to give depth to many of the characters' story arcs due to the breadth of characters that the show is working this season.  Frankly, if they're not able to really explore the characters I'd rather that they not give us tiny bits of nonsense which only lead us to believe that the characters are gross stereotype.  Actually, I think the reason the show really works is that the cases this season have been interesting.  The series, while it definitely gives more weight to the public defenders, tends to leave things just a little bit open about right and wrong in a case.  Despite Kellerman's constant bemoaning of the justice system and the injustice it creates, the show is pretty good about showing that things aren't black and white and exploring the push and pull between prosecutors and defense attorneys that make for justice.  It makes the show a good one even if most of the characters aren't yet that three dimensional.  It's also why I'm intrigued this season and going to continue watching.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Wii are Distressed with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 Hitting One Out of Bounds

Now, I'm all for tough scoring in golf. I've never been one of those people willing to kick a ball out of the rough or improve my lie. Consequently, my golf scores have never been very good – I've always wanted to break 100, I've come quite close to breaking 100, but I've never actually gotten there. It vexes me, but one day I'm convinced that I'll get there, it's going to take some work, but I'll get there.

One place where my golf game does excel (and has for years) is in videogames. Okay, so it's not real, but it's still pretty thrilling to put up a 59 at St. Andrews (take that, Old Course!). As with just about any fan of computer- or console-based golf, I like my Tiger Woods, and having a Wii, Tiger is just about essential. This year, as has been widely reported and reviewed, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 for Wii added a cute little device called WiiMotion Plus to the mix. WiiMotion Plus gives an added sense of "touch" to the game by enabling the controller to better mimic a player's actions. For me, it made buying the new version of Tiger, even though I had one from a couple years ago, absolutely necessary.

It was a great purchase, I'm thrilled with the game. This new version of Tiger is as close to actually playing golf as I've ever come on a computer or console. However, it's not perfect. I've noticed a preponderance of lip-outs – that annoying moment where the ball circles the hole or dips into the hole only to come back out again. Oh sure, that should happen from time to time, but they do seem to occur with a little too much frequency in the game.

While distressing, that is the sort of thing I can learn to live with, the sort of thing that I can accept. After all, I'm still shooting in the low-60s, just about 40 strokes better than my real-life scoring average. Today though I encountered a completely new facet of the game, one that makes it much harder to love the program. I like to think of this new problem as ultra-tough scoring, and unfortunately, it's not a difficulty setting that can be altered. Having perfect touch one won't help this one, it's just the sort of thing you have to suffer through. Here, have a look at exactly what occurred:

To be clear, I hit the ball from the fairway, landed it just beyond the hole, and the ball trickled back oh-so-beautifully into the cup. Normally, that's just the sort of thing you hope to happen. In this case, Tiger informed me that I'd hit the ball out of bounds. Since when is in the cup out of bounds?

In the past, EA was able to beautifully mock an error in the game which allowed golfers walk on water, literally. There was a specific moment in the game where, a ball hit into the water would float, and a golfer could go out and hit there next shot (the Jesus Shot, if you will). For the Tiger edition the following year, EA went out and made this video as a response:

That error probably allowed for easier scoring (what with no penalty for puting the ball into the hazard), and too easy scoring has been one of the criticisms of the series.  This error however seems to overcorrect the problem.

Maybe they'll work it out next year…

Friday, July 10, 2009

Can Royal Pains Ever Achieve Greatness?

After several weeks of watching it, I find myself totally and completely unconvinced by Royal Pains. I'm not saying that it's bad, I'm not even saying I dislike it, I'm just saying that I don't get it.

Watching the series I have the very strong impression that I'm supposed to like it, that I'm supposed to find it witty and clever and just generally awesome. I don't. I think all the characters are fine. I think all the actors are fine. I'm okay with everything that takes place on the show, I'm just not so enthused and I really think I should be.

I had the same sense with another USA series last year, and ended up deciding that instead of just not being enthused with In Plain Sight, I passively disliked it (I removed it from my TiVo Season Pass list, otherwise the dislike may have become active). Royal Pains isn't like that—I don't have any dislike of the show, I'm not even anywhere near removing it from my TiVo list, I just feel… blah about it. How is that possible?

I don't want to remove it from my TiVo list, because I honestly think it may become fantastically fun and wonderful. After watching the first half of every episode though I end up deciding that the show will not be becoming fantastically fun and wonderful this week, but that greatness still may be just beyond the horizon. Who knows? Maybe it is.

Maybe next week I'll decide that Evan R. Lawson (Paulo Costanzo) is the greatest sidekick ever and oh-so-much better than Costanzo's character on Joey. Right now though, he's just oh-so-much better than Costanzo's character on Joey.

Maybe next week I'll decide that Jill Casey (Jill Flint) is believable as a hospital administrator, because right now she isn't. It's not Flint's fault, Flint makes Casey believable as a character, but I'm not seeing how that character runs a hospital, even a sad little local one.

Maybe next week I'll decide that Divya Katdare (Reshma Shetty) is a fully-fledged character, there are definitely hints that she might be. Right now though, it feels like she just exists on the show because someone somewhere in the development process realized that the show was terribly monochromatic and desperately needed some diversity.

Maybe next week I'll decide that there's actually some semblance of a reason that makes sense for Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein), our main character, to have stayed in the Hamptons in a job he seems so much to dislike. He's been against this "concierge doctor" thing from the beginning, and even when he seems to grudgingly accept it, he still seems to not like it. I just don't buy that he has to be doing it though. Maybe next week I'll get his motivations, maybe next week I'll believe them. At this point I don't.

I don't feel as though any of these obstacles are insurmountable – perhaps more insurmountable is the fact that almost all of Lawson's rich clients are unlikable, but that too can change. No, most of the problems the show has are things that can be fixed, altered, edited, corrected with time and a little bit of effort. That's why, it seems to me, I'm still on board, it's why I haven't deleted the Season Pass from my TiVo.

For Royal Pains, greatness may be just around the corner, and it's my hope that eventually the show will both reach and turn that corner. I don't think it's a moving target, but it still may not be easy to get to. I'm hoping it does though. I'm rooting for it and not just because I've invested so much time, because I think it has a chance.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Leverage Returns and Dark Blue Premieres

Next week, July 15 to be exact, TNT will be launching its third wave of summer original programming. This time out it's the premiere of the second season of the Timothy Hutton-starrer, Leverage at 9pm, followed by the series premiere of Dark Blue, executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, at 10pm.

At the end of the first season of Leverage, the show appeared to be firing on all cylinders – the stories interesting, the cons fun, and the repartee between the cast members witty. The second season doesn't start out quite as strong.

The finale of season one found the team sacrificing their home base and going their separate ways, which means that a portion of the opening episode of the new season has to be spent putting the band back together. That particular task is actually accomplished quite smoothly, and while the con the team works up is good enough, the problem is the criminal. When the "big reveal" is finally made and the bad guy talks about all his plans, the audience will just be left sitting there in disbelief—the caricature created is foolish in the extreme. It is a case of ripped-from-the-headlines gone horribly awry.

Timothy Hutton photo by Erik HeinilaThat being said, the stars of the show – Gina Bellman, Christian Kane, Aldis Hodge, Beth Riesgraf, and the aforementioned Timothy Hutton - still seem in top form for the second season and even when the plot is a weak one, the characters help make up the difference. It is Hodge as Alec Hardison who may be the standout, but he may just get the best lines. In truth, Leverage is a fun show, and even though it has serious moments and tries to have a positive message, isn't a show that takes itself all too seriously. Everyone in front of the camera appears to be having fun, and that certainly helps the audience enjoy themselves.

Dark Blue, on the other hand, is a show that takes itself incredibly seriously. Starring Dylan McDermott, the show is about a group of undercover cops in Los Angeles. While there will assuredly be reviews that call Dark Blue "riveting," full of "edge of your seat excitement," "intense," and "powerful," this will not be one of them. Dylan McDermott photo by Danny FeldI would actually use the terms "clichéd" and "foolish." The first two episodes of the series focus on two different members of Carter Shaw's (McDermott's) team – in the premiere we're led to worry about whether or not Dean (Logan Marshall-Green) has been undercover so long he's flipped sides, and in the next episode Ty (Omari Hardwick) opts to ignore protocol and go back to see his wife while undercover.

The problem isn't so much that every undercover cop/federal agent movie/television show/miniseries/radio drama has used one of these two storylines before, it's much more that the audience has absolutely no investment in the characters at the point at which we begin to question their actions. The stakes are not properly established and one has to question why Shaw would ever have either of these guys as part of his team, and why he would bring in newcomer and liar extraordinaire Jaimie Allen (Nicki Aycox). The audience is left with the impression that Shaw's methods may be unorthodox, but that he gets results (and is therefore given a long leash). I think we've all heard that one before, right?

In its first two episodes, Dark Blue very much feels like it is simply cashing in on the memory we have of a multitude of other shows that have done the undercover-possibly-dirty-cop-thing better than it does. The episodes fail to break any new ground whatsoever, both simply use standard genre tropes as their main plot points. Dylan McDermott may be a talented, intense, actor, but the material as presented is terribly worn.

The undercover cop genre assuredly has a lot of material to focus on, it's a shame that Dark Blue has initially simply opted to cover old ground.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

SciFi? Syfy? Either way, it's Sci-Fi (for now)

Yesterday, the network once known as SciFi (pronounced like sci-fi) became the network currently known as Syfy (still pronounced like sci-fi).  Is it no longer a sci-fi based network?  Well, no, it probably is.  They, technically speaking now don't necessarily have to be, but they launched the new name the same day they launched a new series, Warehouse 13, which is most definitely a new sci-fi show for Syfy.

The easiest way to explain Warehouse 13 – to those who used to watch SciFi anyway – is to cross Sanctuary with Eureka.  Imagine, if you will, that all those cool toys the folks on Eureka make in Eureka ended up in the sanctuary on Sanctuary.  Said new sanctuary could be Warehouse 13's Warehouse 13.

No?  Too goofy?  Okay then, how about this – Warehouse 13 features some Secret Service agents who have been assigned to watch over the vast quantities of miraculous, magical, and altogether dangerous doodads that have been collected for over a century in Warehouse 13.  You know, fun stuff like Pandora's Box (now empty), and Aladdin's Lamp (wish for something impossible and you get a ferret… seriously).  The Secret Service agents get all sorts of fun toys to play with, stuff discovered by the greatest scientific minds ever – things like Philo T. Farnsworth's two-way video walkie-talkie, and a stun gun made by Nikola Tesla (who, of course, is a reappearing character on Sanctuary).

So, Warehouse 13 is essentially the exact sort of show that the SciFi Network used to make, and which one can only assume the Syfy Network will continue to make.  One doesn't have to have watched Warehouse 13 to figure that out though, one only needs to have seen some of the truly swell and fun promos that Syfy used to help launch the change (and their new "Imagine Greater" tag).  The various promos featured characters from SciFi shows which will now be on Syfy and upcoming shows like Caprica (which takes place in the Battlestar Galactica universe before the events on that show) and Stargate Universe (the next series in the Stargate franchise, the last two series of which of course aired – at least partially – on SciFi).

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but would the bloom come off if we called it a roze? 

In the case of Syfy, I can't imagine that it will.  Warehouse 13 wasn't by any means perfect –  in addition to other issues, the level of seriousness vs. goofiness seemed uneasy at times last night – but it was definitely an enjoyable two-hour experience.  And, who doesn't like Saul Rubinek (as long as he's not Sol Roobinek, I guess, but maybe even then he'd be enjoyable). 

In recent years SciFi was a strong cable network, and the new Syfy seems to be playing to SciFi's sci-fi strengths, so there's no reason to think that Syfy won't be everything SciFi was (and possibly more) in the near future.  The rebranding though may just allow them to expand beyond the niche they've been so successful in.  Is that a good idea?  Maybe.  All I know is that I don't want them to stop making those incredibly bad original movies.

Want to know more about the new Syfy?  Here, check out their "House of Imagination."

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Diving into The Deep

In 1975, the film Jaws opened.  It was, as you may already know, a huge hit.  In fact, some argue that Jaws helped bring about the current "blockbuster" era of filmmaking, but that's neither here nor there.  Whether or not Jaws reshaped the film industry (personally, I'd argue that it did), it certainly gave way to a lot of imitators.  It is a truism of any form of media that upon witnessing the success of something, someone else will try and duplicate that success with a similar item.  Thus, 1977 brought filmgoers the Peter Yates (Bullitt) helmed film, The Deep.

As with Jaws, The Deep is based on a novel by Peter Benchley (this time out Benchley got to write the screenplay alongside Tracy Keenan Wynn), stars Robert Shaw,  and much of the film revolves around the water.  However, it is there that the similarities end.  Where Jaws was an edge-of-your-seat, at times scary, thriller that takes in a sleepy New England town, The Deep is a much more lackadaisical film which uses Bermuda as its setting.  Rather than thrills, The Deep attempts to get audiences on the edge of their seat with shots of Jacqueline Bisset scuba diving in a white shirt. 

In brief, the deep finds a couple, David Sanders (Nick Nolte) and Gail Berke (Bisset), getting accidentally involved in the drug trade and sunken ships after scuba diving where they shouldn't have been on a Bermudan vacation.  Local trafficker Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett Jr.) is desperate to get his hands on a stash of morphine the couple found, and treasure hunter Romer Treece (Shaw), already having glory, helps the couple in order to get his hands on a possible fortune in sunken treasure.

Watching The Deep, one can't help but get the sense that there are two very different films at work – one a superbly shot film focusing on underwater exploration and sunken treasure, and the other a terribly dull drug-based thriller.  Simply put, though Gossett tries, Cloche is an uninteresting villain and the drug story fails to take off.  Cloche relies on Sanders and company to do his scuba diving for him, putting him at their mercy, when he could just as easily hire a couple of divers and not have to worry about being double-crossed.  Why Cloche thinks he's better off with scare tactics is never made clear and is not believable.

The other film, the underwater film about naval history and sunken ships, is wonderfully exciting and interesting.  The footage shot underwater is brilliant.  It's mostly silent and it uses that silence and isolation to draw the viewer in.  We're told in a behind-the-scenes featurette that not only did the cast do the scuba sequences, but also that none of the cast had ever dove before.  An incredible amount of effort had to have taken place to make those underwater scenes work, and it really comes across in the finished piece.  It's just a shame that the treasure-hunting story have to be tied to the drug one, if it hadn't been, The Deep could have been an excellent film.

As with the plot itself, the Blu-ray release of The Deep is kind of a tale of two films.  The print is, for the most part, a clean one, and much of the definition and detail is good.  However, and this is a major problem (though it may be one related to the film's shooting and not the Blu-ray), dark scenes lose all detail, becoming murky, muddy, at times almost indecipherable messes.  The audio presentation is somewhat better, mainly due to its representation of scuba diving.  There are definitely moments in the TrueHD 5.1 track where the audience actually gets the sense of being underwater via the muffled sounds that accompany such a trip.

The special features on the release of The Deep are rather weak.  There is the aforementioned behind-the-scenes making of piece which seems to have simply been lifted from a television special and is narrated by Robert Shaw, and select scenes from a three hour special edition of the movie.  The former is somewhat informative and interesting in bits and pieces, and the latter rather flabbergasting.  With a runtime of just over two hours, one gets the sense that the film is about 15 or 20 minutes too long already, a three hour edition would have to significantly deepen some plots to make it worthwhile, but even that may be a tough sell.  These select scenes are also odd in that while they are in high definition, one can't actually watch the entirety of the three hour special edition on this Blu-ray.  Thus, if one loved the movie enough to spend the time with the special features, they will be instantly disappointed upon realizing that a special edition release seems to be just around the corner and the money spent on this Blu-ray was wasted.

Though it certainly has some very good moments, in the end, The Deep never quite shakes the feeling that it only exists to try and capitalize on the success of Jaws.  Maybe that sense will be corrected if the three hour special edition gets released, we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Catching up with some Grumpy Old Men

There are some comedy duos that just plain work, pairs that are natural together and inherently funny.  Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were one of those teams.  Even when the film they were wasn't the best, when the two men were on screen opposite one other, there was magic at work.  When the script they were working with was good, the two were an unbeatable duo.  The recently released to Blu-ray Grumpy Old Men certainly isn't the height of their comic genius, but it does represent a truly funny movie and Lemmon and Matthau are at the top of their game in it.

The story follows two older men, John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) as they engage in a next-door neighbor rivalry that has been going on fJack Lemmonor nearly 50 years.  Things reach a head in the film as a new, attractive woman, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret), moves in across the street.  Gustafson and Goldman didn't really need anything new to fight about, but both will use any excuse they can possibly latch onto to attack the other.

It is in these attacks that the film finds most of its humor.  The two crotchety men battle it out doing everything from changing television channels in the middle of a show (Goldman in his house using a remote to affect the TV in Gustafson's), to placing a dead fish in the other's backseat, to numerous other, equally memorable, things.

Donald Petrie's direction of Mark Steven Johnson's script doesn't just let Matthau and Lemmon get away with cheap practical jokes however.  No, instead, the two actors are also forced to look at some of the harsh realities of getting old.  Both men are widowers, and both men's kids (played by Darryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak) have lives of their own.  Gustafson and Goldman don't really live in a world which has passed them by – they are very much involved in their community – but there is a certainly loneliness the men both feel.

Without that sense of loneliness, the practical jokes that they playWalter Matthau one another may come across as harsh or cruel, but, with that loneliness, they don't.  No matter how much the two men complain about one another and claim to hate each other, they quite obviously revel in joking with each other – they're infuriated by the other, but there's clearly a great respect and love (even if they won't admit it) underneath it all.

Grumpy Old Men works as a film because of that love and respect.  These aren't two cutthroat heartless souls, they are two men who care very much about the world and each other.  There's nothing overtly said for much of the film about that respect, it's just a sense that Lemmon and Matthau are able to infuse into the characters.

Another reason the film feels like more than just a series of cruel practical jokes is the well-rounded cast.  In addition to the main stars and supporting players listed above, the film is full of other great supporting members.  Burgess Meredith appears as John's father, Ossie Davis as the owner of the local bait-and-tackle shop, and Buck Henry as an IRS agent. 

The Blu-ray release of Grumpy Old Men, is, sadly, a very bare-bones affair – it doesn't even start on a menu screen, it launches right into the movie, which seems to be because the menu is practically non-existent.  Soundtrack selection (DLemmon and Matthauolby TrueHD 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0) as well as subtitles (English, French, and Spanish) can't be selected from the main menu, only from the in-film pop-up menu.  And, the only extra on the disc is a trailer.  The 2.0 sound is perfectly adequate for a comedy, but certainly not all-encompassing.  The visuals are only slightly better than a DVD (the detail in the creases of Matthau's face are impressive), and while the print is a relatively clean one, there are still imperfections to be found in it.  The opening particularly looks poor, with the static shot of the Warner Bros. shield flickering noticeably. 

Whatever imperfections the release itself may have, the film is still an hysterically funny one.  Lemmon and Matthau are stellar actors who play brilliantly off one another, and the script not only gives the two the chance to be funny, but to show their serious sides as well.  Additionally, the supporting cast (especially Meredith) are excellent.  Like its stars, Grumpy Old Men isn't the flashiest film ever created, but it is well-crafted and well worth one's time.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Taking the Battle to Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

Movies based on videogames do not have a terribly good reputation.  While it is possible to make a successful and popular film based on a game, more often than not, the audience is left with a terribly disappointing movie, one which only diehard fans (and sometimes not even them) seem to enjoy.  Exactly why so few good films are made based on videogames is difficult to say, and Street Fighter:  The Legend of Chun-Li is certainly not one of the better adaptations.

This film, the second big-screen live-action adaptation of the Street Fighter game franchise, tells the story of Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk), and how she went from being an innocent pianist to a superb fighter.  While full of a well-known, well-recognized cast including Kreuk, Chris Klein, Neal McDonough, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Moon Bloodgood, the film is full of wooden performance; disappearing, reappearing accents (McDonough's accent magically comes and goes); and a ridiculous thread-bare plot. 

At a young age, Chun-li's father is murdered by the evil Bison (McDonough), and years later Chun-li makes it her mission to avenge the killing… only her father isn't really dead, he's been helping Bison for years.  Dear old dad has been helping out the villain for years because every time he does Bison gives him a picture or video of Chun-li – apparently his love his so strong that he doesn't mind helping out hurting thousands and thousands of people just to see a picture of his girl.  But, Chun-li doesn't know that, so she heads off to learn about a cult because someone left a scroll she can't read in her dressing room following a performance and the leader of said cult trains her to fight Bison.

But, Bison is, as stated above, a pretty bad dude, so there are others after him as well, mainly INTERPOL agent Charlie Nash (Klein), who teams up with local police in Bangkok, mainly Maya Sunee (Bloodgood), to track Bison.  How exactly Nash seems to know more about Sunee's city than she does, and what exactly her attraction to him might be based on is wholly unclear – it's just another one of the movie's dropped threads. 

As the film progresses, we learn some of Bison's improbable history, and Chun-li learns to create and wield spheres of energy which she can use to pummel opponents in fights (not that she does that until the final battle, but everyone knows it's coming from the first time her teacher, Gen, shows her such a sphere).  It is actually here, in the fight sequences, that the film is at its best, but even that isn't terribly good.  Some of the movies we get to see are pretty impressive, but director Andrzej Baartkowiak keeps the cuts quick and angles ever-changing so that never does the audience actually believe the battle to be a choreographed whole as opposed to just bits and pieces strung together.

At best, the film is an uneven one, and the same is true of the video presentation on the Blu-ray.  The vast majority of the film looks stunning, with spectacularly beautiful location shots and well-designed interiors.  The picture tends to be sharp and bold, with good detail.  However, there is the occasional night sequence where digital noise is overly present, making one wonder why that portion of the transfer is so pure.  The audio is far better, with pounding bass, good use of surrounds, and a nice, if a little too loud sometimes in action sequences, mix. 

As for extras, 20th Century FOX appears to have gone for the standard "kitchen sink" mentality.  The Blu-ray comes with the theatrical cut, an unrated cut, commentary by two producers as well as McDonough and Klein, a pop-up trivia track, deleted scenes, behind the scenes featurettes, a look at an upcoming game, and three different still galleries.  A second disc contains a digital copy of the movie, while a third has Street Fighter Round One: Fight!, a full-length animated piece which can be viewed both with comic-esque bubbles and without.  The inclusion of this last disc seems very much an attempt to appeal to fans of the franchise, though it may actually be more fun than the live-action feature.

For all its issues, for all its problems, for all its foolishness, it must be remembered that the first live-action Street Fighter movie was also incredibly poor (and sadly starred Raul Julia as M. Bison in his last big screen role).  This film, which seems to operate in an entirely different universe than that one, tells a wholly separate, but equally foolish tale.  Hopefully, if a third live-action film is made, a new tack is taken yet again.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Few Summer TV Options

Today I awoke and found myself oddly pleased with the summer television fare available to me.  Usually, I dread summer TV, or, at the very least, I recall dreading summer TV, whether I did or not may be debatable.  In any case, I don't tend to think highly of my options for summer television, usually I find my TiVo noticeably empty and me scouring my DVD collection for something I haven't seen in ages.  I know it's only the beginning of July, but that hasn't happened yet.

Perhaps – and I'm willing to admit this – the reason I've found myself so content is that I was away for a week and a half in June and my TiVo was able to load up 10 days worth of shows for my viewing please.  That, combined with various review materials which piled up during my absence, may have been what filled my time, but I just don't think that's the case.

An example of why I think that's wrong lies with last night's televisual opportunities.  Last night I sat back, turned on my TiVo and found The Apprentice UK, Hawthorne, The Superstars, and Better off Ted all there waiting for me.  Okay, they weren't all quite waiting for me when I started, the first two were and the other two magically appeared as I watched the first two.  But, that's not the point, the point is that four hours of television was readily available to me last night, and not just any four hours, four hours which I kind of, sort of, almost enjoyed.

I know, I've seen the ratings, and based on the above list of shows I watched, you may have watched Hawthorne, but that's probably about it.  I'm not going to do anything foolish like go out and call Better off Ted or The Superstars great TV, but both are more than adequate.  I actually look forward to Better off Ted every week, it's the exact sort of funny, quirky comedy that ought to do better than it does.  It's the exact sort of funny quirky comedy which I enjoy – not love, just enjoy – and which I hope for the successive.  It's also the exact sort of quirky comedy which tends to disappoint in the ratings and soon enough leave me forever. 

Better off Ted, however, has been picked up for a second season, it'll air with Scrubs again next season, which is a perfect pairing in terms of content, theme, and ratings.  Offbeat comedy?  Check.  Character which talks to the audience all the time?  Check.  Amusing but never (anymore) laugh out loud funny?  Check.  Attractive blonde actress?  Check.  Few people other than yours truly watching?  Check.

And then, even though I missed the first week, I opted to take a look at The Superstars too last night.  Outside of the foolishness of the name (few of these people are actually "superstars," although the roster of athletes is impressive), the show appears to be just a plain old fun competition.  I found myself terribly sad not to have seen the first week of the series because Terrell Owens and Joanna Krupa seemed on fire last night and it's hard to imagine how they could possibly have been eliminated the previous week (they were brought back due to another player getting injured).  The teammates weren't perfect, mostly because T.O., as we all know, has an attitude the size of… the size of… the size of… well, honestly I don't know that they've ever measured anything quite that large before. 

What I really enjoyed about the show was not just the fact that the events only had a little bit of a spin from basic sporting events, but the fact that everyone seemed to be having fun on the show.  What's not to like?  They do a couple of hours of work every day and get a free stay at Atlantis in the Bahamas for their trouble.  I'd take that job too.

I guess what I'm saying about last night's shows is that there definitely feels to be stuff out there to watch this summer, it might be in unexpected places – like The Superstars – but there's stuff there.  Just keep digging.