Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sorting out my Fall 2010 TV Schedule

As I do every summer, recently I sat down and thought exceptionally hard about what I'll be watching this fall. Listen, I know it's only the end of July, but this is one of those things that just won't wait, important questions have to be answered. Do I need a third TiVo (one that would provide the ability to record a fourth and fifth channel at a single time)? Should I be removing old shows from my schedule? What is it that my wife is going to want to watch that I either have to find a way to accept, convince her that she's wrong about, or shunt her off to a smaller screen for (no, really)?

Last year, as dedicated readers may recall, I had a significant problem with Mondays – for whatever reason Monday is apparently the night where networks feel as though they need to program directly for me. Well, except for that two-hour Dancing with the Stars block for which I thank ABC as I can safely cross them off my list from 8:00 to 10:00 with no regrets. Even without ABC in the early mix though, Mondays are problematic. There is no way I'm not watching HIMYM at 8:00, but Chuck and House are also on at that time – all three are definite must watch items. In the past, Chuck has been recorded on the non-HD TiVo with HIMYM and House on the HD one and I feel as though that's what we'll be doing again this time out (that would be one of those "in deference to the wife" things).

At 9:00 things loosen up; the only thing I'm potentially looking at is The Event, but I do run into another problem there, namely, do I feel like going another fall watching an NBC show on Monday nights that I find intriguing but which is isn't going to attract a sizable audience and is going to get canceled by Christmas. To be fair, I have absolutely no evidence that will take place (and the network does hold a special place in my heart which causes me to root for them); I just don't particularly like the network's recent Monday night track record, although their problems tend to be more significant at 10:00.

Speaking of 10:00, there's Castle which is currently on my list and Hawaii 5-O which I'm very much on the fence about. You see, I have a completely inexplicable issue with Alex O'Loughlin. I think that it relates to the fact that this is his third year in a row in a new CBS show and I very much feel as though CBS is shoving him down our collective throats, forcing us to accept him. It's something I bridle at, almost enough to make me not want to tune in. Fighting against that is my liking for the rest of the cast and nonsensical desire to live in Hawaii (I think that has to do with me wanting to go where the weather suits my clothes).

Tuesday evenings are far more easy to discuss, with only three hours of TV (in comparison to Monday's five and a half) on the schedule. Obviously Glee is back on my list as is Parenthood. I feel as though NCIS is going to come off my schedule, but that's only because ABC is putting the Michael Chiklis series No Ordinary Family on at 8 as well and I don't want to run into the same problem at 8:00 on Mondays and Tuesdays. Having quite enjoyed the pilot for No Ordinary Family and being a fan of Chiklis' since he was on The Commish, it's a show I can't pass up this fall (and highly recommend that you don't either… although, to be clear, that's not a review of the series as all I've seen is the pilot and things can change).

Sadly, Wednesdays become slightly difficult again. ABC's 8:00 to 10:00 comedy block is back on the schedule and I'm almost certain to give Law & Order: Los Angeles a try, but what about Undercovers? It comes from J.J. Abrams so that instantly makes it enticing, even if I don't find the promos for the show terribly exciting, and I think that's where my issue comes in. Should I assume that the promos misrepresent the series (it has been known to happen)? Should I figure that the promos perfectly represent the pilot but that the series that follows will be different? Should I just trust that J.J. Abrams will come through again? While what I said above about The Event remains true here as well, I can't see that as a reason for not giving Abrams a chance. Odds are that Abrams should get the benefit of the doubt.

And then there are Thursdays. Ah, Thursdays, what am I going to do with you? 30 Rock? I'm there. The Office? All day long. The Apprentice? At least until it proves completely ludicrous. Outsourced? Ugh. I'd be lying if I said that I'm not completely dying to know how they don't instantly offend every single race, religion, ethnicity, and culture involved. I'm completely intrigued by it. I have no idea if it'll be funny, but it's easy enough to tell my TiVo to start recording NBC at 8:30 and not stop until Trump fires someone which puts Outsourced in the mix. There are other things going on Thursday as well though. I definitely want to see how the new Nikita unfolds, at least for three or four episodes, and that's fine as a secondary 9:00 program. There is also %$#! My Dad Says (it's pronounced "beep"). I like William Shatner being funny and I'm perfectly willing to give him several episodes here to be funny. I'm not sure it'll work, but I don't know that it can't work either and Shatner has absolutely proven that he can be funny. Plus, heck, it's only 30 minutes of my life every week.

Not only that, but Fridays are incredibly light for me. The only thing I'm even thinking about marking down as a Friday regular show is Blue Bloods and that's because I like me some Tom Selleck. How can anyone not want to watch Selleck on a weekly series? It's like not being head over heels completely in love with Salma Hayek. Yes, Human Target is off the list for this season and that's because I watched the entire first season and while it had some moments I really enjoyed, all too often I didn't care about the one-off single episode story.

Lastly we come to Sundays. Maybe you would have that be a firstly, but the grid I'm looking at puts it last. I'm doing nothing different there than in years past – Desperate Housewives, The Amazing Race, and The Simpsons. My theory here – if it ain't broke don't fix it. Okay, Housewives may be broke, but that's another instance where I will acquiesce to the other main viewer of television in my house. Plus, maybe this year's mystery will be interesting.

It is, I like to think, a solid fall network viewing schedule. My quick – and perhaps completely inaccurate – count is that I'm looking at 19 hours over the course of a single week. That includes commercials so it will work out to be significantly less than that, but it's still a decently sized schedule.

Article first published as Looking at the Fall 2010 Television Schedule on Blogcritics.

Monday, July 26, 2010

2010's Clash of the Titans and the Quest for Good Movies

While the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans has developed a cult following and its share of admirers, it is not the greatest of movies.  It has a lot going for it, including a good cast and Ray Harryhausen's unique and unforgettable creatures, but to suggest that it is even the genre equivalent of Citizen Kane may be going a bit far.  I like the movie. I think it works perhaps because of the slightly silly special effects and because of the cast and because the quest Perseus sets out on feels understandable (despite its mythical nature). 

One can't help the fact that Louis Leterrier's 2010 version of Clash of the Titans has a different cast, but the fact that the script doesn't work and the effects are high-gloss, obviously expensive, and really only seem to try and hide the fact that the story is completely lacking.  Ignoring any comparison with the original, the new film simply has actions occur – there is a distinct lack of motivation for almost every major character, and characters do seem to change their minds on a regular basis for no particular reason other than to service the needs of the story.

Starting at the beginning, the film tells the tale of Perseus (Sam Worthington), a demigod who grows up not knowing that his father is Zeus.  Perseus is found by a fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite) as an infant and is taken in by him.  He grows up as a fisherman, living with his adopted family and, as with the rest of the population, grows ever more uncomfortable about praying to the Gods as the Gods don't seem to care about humans.

It is actually at that point in the film that Leterrier - had he help from the screenplay by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi – could enter into some sort of poignant discussion about the relationship between man and god.  Allusions could be drawn to Job or maybe the film could explore what the relationship between the Greeks and their Gods had been prior to the present crisis.  Clash of the Titans isn't interested in exploring or explaining anything however, except, that is, for death and destruction (and even that in mundane fashion).  Instead, Perseus arrives in Argos, loses his family, and quickly finds himself tasked with saving the city from the Kraken, an evil monster created by Hades (Ralph Fiennes).  Hades has gotten permission from Zeus (Liam Neeson) to unleash the beast because Argos has been so darn mean to the Gods.

As the film hasn't bothered to explain in any detail the relationship between Gods and humans – save the fact that we are told repeatedly that Zeus created humans because he wanted to be loved and derives his power from said love – Zeus' allowing Hades to destroy the city seems all too manufactured an occurrence, one that happens solely so that we can get a huge climax to the film.  In fact, one would think that Zeus' feeding off humans' love and Hades feeding off their hate might be enough to convince Zeus that destroying a whole city and making people angry and terrified isn't the best way to approach his problems.  But, as we are oft reminded in the film, the Kraken is coming to the city and is going to destroy things real good.

As with any action film though, we need not wait until the climax to get to the adrenaline rush scenes.  Throughout Perseus' journey, he and his band of not-so-merry men get to battle creatures that range from giant scorpions to Medusa.  He even gets to battle his birth mother's one-time husband, Acrisius (Jason Flemying), who has been imbued by Hades with extra-special killing powers.  As he ventures on his quest Perseus falls in love with the woman who, creepily and without explanation, has been watching him since he was a baby, the ageless Io (Gemma Arterton).  One presumes she's present because the film needed a female character on the journey as well as a love interest for Perseus and they couldn't figure out how to send Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) out of Argos.  Andromeda must remain there as the Kraken would happily take her instead of destroy the city, at least that's what we're told right up until the city offers up Andromeda and the Kraken still tries to destroy the place.  And, although they barely ever speak, a romantic relationship is certainly implied between Andromeda and Perseus at the end of the film. 

In a film almost wholly without understandable motivations for any characters, that moment is the least of its offenses.  Far more difficult to understand and accept is Perseus' relationship to Zeus.  Zeus loves his son and tries to help Perseus on his journey providing him with a Pegasus and a sword.  They are two gifts Perseus shuns as he's still angry at Pops, or, they're two gifts he shuns at first.  Once he needs them he uses them, but he doesn't arrive at the decision to utilize the Zeus' help because he likes his father, because he loves his father, or because he even accepts his fate.  No, as with so much in the film, he uses them because it's Clash of the Titans and an action movie – he has to use the gifts from the Gods' eventually.  The sword is used in a heated moment of battle and because Perseus know it is the only thing that will save his life – when he grabs it he hasn't reached a point at which he accepts his father or the Gods, he never seems to get there, it'll just help him at that the time and that feels very unsatisfying to the audience.  Perhaps some of the blame here can be laid squarely at the feet of Worthington who seems imperturbable no matter the situation.  One can't see that he ever has any sort of internal struggle – he just sort of looks vaguely quizzical and then moves on to fight some bit of CGI.

Clash of the Titans is a film almost wholly built on special effects in place of plot, story, character, and other elements which usually comprise a film.  The producers did go out and get some big names to be in the movie, but to the detriment of the film the actors are eclipsed by what takes place around them.  The best (or worst) example of this is Ralph Fiennes as Hades.  Fiennes doesn't get the chance to perform as his most important scenes cover and surround him by CGI.  Fiennes can do a great villain, has done a great villain with Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, and could have been given the opportunity to build a better character here, but is entirely stripped of that ability due to Clash's need to be over the top.

Even if the CGI and action sequences aren't very satisfying – it helps the action sequences if one cares about the characters – they do look spectacular on Blu-ray release.  The film, as stated above, is high-gloss and the Blu-ray release loses absolutely none of that sheen.  There is a great deal of detail even in the darkest of moments, and the varying colors look rich and vibrant.  Particularly good is the gold sheen of the Gods and the red of Hades – they really do serve to draw the audience in where the action and script fail to do so.  The sound is, as one would expect, just as over the top as the film itself.  What is on the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is excellent and makes great use of the surrounds and subwoofer, but the action sequences are far too loud for the home in comparison with the dialogue.

The Blu-ray release doesn't deliver though in terms of extras.  It does come with both a DVD and digital copy, but the special features themselves are lacking.  There are the usual bits of behind-the-scenes featurettes, an alternate ending, and deleted scenes.  There is also something the Warner Bros. refers to "Maximum Movie Mode" which is best thought of as a picture-in-picture commentary track on God-like steroids.  Rather than a simple corner of the screen featuring different members of the cast and crew showing and telling you how the film was made, the main film and picture-in-picture discussion slide around the screen and change sizes, and generally distract from both the film and the behind-the-scenes talks.  It actually works perfectly with the sound and fury signifying nothing of the film itself as they are both equally silly.

In the final summation, 2010's Clash of the Titans is a loud, special effect-laden update of a film that was notable for using stop-motion animation when computer effects were possible.  It takes what was a silly but fun film and turns into simply a silly one.  The only motivation of the characters is to get to the next scene and the fact that it looks beautiful does little to disguise its empty interior.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Clash of the Titans (2010) on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Doctor Who Learns all About "The Time Monster"

The Gallifreyan Time Lord known as The Doctor, as the currently on television Doctor Who season finale will attest, has many an enemy. There are the Cybermen and the Daleks and the Sontarans, to name a few. Perhaps though there is no enemy so equal to The Doctor as The Master.

A Time Lord himself, The Master is the yin to The Doctor's yang (or yang to his yin if you prefer). Through the years of both the original and new Doctor Who series, The Doctor has run into this nemesis repeatedly – on different planets, in different incarnations, and in different time periods. The Master first puts in an appearance during the time of the Third Doctor's exile on Earth (The Doctor ran afoul of his fellow Time Lords for interfering in the affairs of others), and it is as The Doctor's exile is nearing an end that this particular battle with The Master takes place.

With Jon Pertwee's portrayal of the Third Doctor and Roger Delgado as The Master (Delgado was the first to play the character) already well established, what one gets in "The Time Monster" is a tale that assumes that the audience has a decent amount of background. The plot for this particular confrontation between the two Time Lords involves The Master masquerading as a professor conducting a laboratory experiment with time in order to unleash a monster known as Kronos which was prayed to by the inhabitants of Atlantis.

Yes, it's something of a foolish tale, and over the course of the six episodes "The Time Monster" runs, the story does do a fair amount of shifting in focus. It appears at first as though the entire story will take place in the present day before everyone takes a trip back to Atlantis in order to… well, by that point it is all about political intrigue in Atlantis and a very different story than the one the audience was initially served. That might be okay except that the original time travel theory stuff and the bringing of Kronos from the void into the world is far more interesting than the unnecessary Atlantis overlay.

The tale also, at least when looked at today, has an uneasy relationship with the women's liberation movement. Early in the tale one character is positioned as being very vocal in her support for equality. As the story progresses there are repeated moments, particularly those that deal with the political machinations in Atlantis, where the notion of equality feels to be severely undercut. Intentional or not, it makes "The Time Monster" feel very dated (something that the effects are usually responsible for on Doctor Who).

Pertwee's version of The Doctor, however, continues to be an excellent one. He manages to be weird, charming, and just slightly devilish every so often in a way that makes you stop and wonder if he really just said or did what you think he said or did. Delgado's Master, far from the version recently seen by John Simm on the new Who, is cool, calm, and collected (mostly). He is an elegant, suave sort of villain, giving off the same sort of self-assured, evil, vibe one got from the bad guys in the early Bond films.

Back with The Doctor as companion this time out is Jo Grant (Katy Manning). She, in typical companion fashion, has moments of brilliance and moments that make one scratch one's head. Her best use here, as is often the case with companions, is when she either deciphers what The Doctor is saying so we can all understand it or forces The Doctor to explain himself more clearly. Jo isn't particularly my favorite companion, but the more episodes I see with her, the more she has grown on me.

The extras included with this release are not quite as good as what we've seen in other recent releases of the series. There is an audio commentary track with some of the actors and behind the scenes team, a featurette on the science that went into making the episode, a photo gallery, PDF material with original listings for the episodes, and a brief restoration comparison. With this last item other Who releases have done more full-fledged, and completely engrossing, featurettes on exactly how the restoration was completed. Perhaps they didn't want to rehash old material here, so what is given instead are just a few short clips with some subtitles giving a very basic explanation of the restoration. It is, especially when compared to what has come before, disappointing even if the results of the restoration are excellent.

There is certainly nothing wrong with Doctor Who: The Time Monster. Pertwee is good, Delgado is good, and the storyline does feature some interesting ideas about the concept of time. The turns the plot takes though are not always satisfying – one could think that the producers simply didn’t fully know where they were going when they began and then didn't change the opening once they figured it out. I wouldn't put it on a list of the best episodes of Doctor Who, but it wouldn't end up near the bottom either.

Article first published as DVD Review: Doctor Who - The Time Monster on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

James May's Toy Stories - Because Who Doesn't Want to Build a Real Bridge out of Toys

James May has always seemed something like the odd man out on Top Gear. It's not that he doesn't belong on the series — in fact I think that the three men they have as hosts complement each other perfectly — but he comes at cars from a completely different direction from the other two. Whereas Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson will ogle an engine for how large it is and how much horsepower it can deliver, May is the guy entranced with exactly how it manages to deliver so much power. He doesn't love cars based on what they can do, how they look, and how exciting the finished project is, but rather how it was all achieved, the nuts and bolts as it were. He is a man entranced by the notion of the differential and how it makes a car corner more than the actual cornering.

It is for that reason that I was a little trepidatious sitting down to watch James May's Toy Stories last night on BBC America. The concept behind the series seems a simple one – May examines an old-school toy that he quite enjoys and then builds something of a monument to the toy. It all sounds well enough, but my question heading into the show was whether May's love for minutiae would draw in an audience or whether his tendency to delve a little too deeply would alienate all and end up making the show feel more like a lecture.

Last night he was playing with a one-time British but now French toy, Meccano. It's a construction toy, similar to an Erector Set (in fact, though this wasn't always the case, Meccano currently makes Erector products). And that, perhaps, is why I shouldn't have been worried at all.

Let me take a step back and explain. For several years my daughter was in a playgroup in which three fathers would get together with their children (one apiece). There were the usual sorts of kids' toys present, but on a semi-regular basis it would be the fathers who would sit there playing with the Legos or Mega Bloks or marble run sets, building various structures (it's not easy doing nicely curved structures with Mega Bloks). A great time was had by all (the kids had tons of other toys to play with even if the Legos were off limits one week).

What Toy Stories is, more or less, is that playgroup writ large. May and the producers behind the scenes – he made it clear in the case of last night's episode that it was the producers behind the scenes – come up with an idea for what to do with the toy. For Meccano, they built a bridge in Liverpool, which was the original home of the company. No, they didn't build a toy bridge, they built a real bridge out of a toy. At the end of the episode, May had to actually traverse the bridge; it's a feat that would have been far more impressive had he not had a harness attached to him to prevent him from falling should the bridge have failed to support his weight.

Having recently moved, my daughter and I no longer attend her old playgroup, but watching James May's Toy Stories I couldn't help but think about what a great time that group could have had trying to build a structure that could actually support one's weight out of Mega Bloks. The series is really intended for the kid in all adults, and as such works quite well. I have to say that I would have appreciated it more had it been an hour longer. My initial fear of it being too dry turned into slight disappointment that it simply didn't focus enough on the nuts and bolts; I don't feel as though they went into quite enough depth with the construction and an accident that took place which almost derailed the endeavor. However, May and company have put together a show which certainly made this reviewer want to go out and buy a million Lego blocks to build something truly incredible.

Article first published as James May's Toy Stories: Playgroup for Big Kids on Blogcritics.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rizzoli & Isles

A cross-country drive has delayed this review, but here you have it (and before episode two!)

Looking at the promotional artwork for TNT's newest original drama, Rizzoli & Isles, one gets the impression that the series, while focusing on murders being solved by the police, will be somewhat lighthearted and funny. Much of the artwork (see the image at right for an example) features the two leadPhoto Credit: Darren Michaelss, Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, both attractive women, smiling at the camera and seeming to make light of their job and/or location. As they are with a dead body in many of these images, their lighthearted appearance certainly gives the impression that the show doesn't take itself very seriously.

One might then be surprised to turn on the series and have the very first scene, in an exceedingly grim fashion, depict a man gagged and tied and forced to watch as his wife is sexually assaulted. The couple represent Rizzoli & Isles' case of the week, a case that is personal for Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli (Harmon) as the events with the husband and wife unfolded in a way eerily similar to the MO of a serial killer who is currently in jail but at one point abducted Rizzoli. Scenes within the episode depict Harmon's being held by the killer and just how close she came to losing her life. It is a dark, dark television show.

Mostly. The show does add some moments of levity; most of them in the pilot belong to Lorraine Bracco who plays Angela, Jane's mom. Angela is just exceedingly concerned about her daughter's job and the dangers that arise from it, but shows that concern by henpecking her daughter. Her character works just as well as Sharon Gless's in Burn Notice, which may not be all that surprising as, from the pilot, it is terribly similar.

Whether or not the artwork for the series makes the show appear as dark as it is, those who can get over the potential initial shock will find a well put together detective show, one that seems to have the ability to spin an interesting tale and deliver compelling characters and relationships. As for the two main characters and their relationship, Rizzoli is the tough-as-nails tomboy cop from the wrong side of the tracks and Isles is the genius know-it-all-but-not-in-an-obnoxious-way medical examiner. The two are the best of friends but don't mind trying to let the occasional guy come between them.

Harmon, who has a lot of experience in crime-based series, delivers a better than average performance here. It would, in fact, be excellent were it not for her never very good and not always there Boston accent. She would be far better off dropping the attempt entirely, particularly as most of the people on the show don't bother attempting one.

Also in the supporting cast are Lee Thomas Young as Jane's new partner, Bruce McGill as her ex-partner, and Jordan Bridges as Jane's younger brother. Things are certainly skewed towards the Rizzoli side of the relationship, but Alexander's Isles has some of the best moments in the pilot, particularly with her love of tortoises and incredible depth of knowledge on a breadth of subjects.

TNT has been very successful in recent years launching women-centered programs, notably The Closer and Saving Grace, and almost everything in Rizzoli & Isles makes it feel as though it can continue that burgeoning tradition. Certainly the homicide case chosen for the first episode is a very strong one, and while they all can't be quite as personal as this one, it certainly does draw the viewer in and gives the audience an excellent idea of Rizzoli's character.

Out of this summer's crop of new scripted – or unscripted for that matter – series, Rizzoli & Isles definitely finds itself somewhere near the top of the heap. If you're looking for a crime show with cases that will draw you in and make you wonder you need look no further. On the other hand, if you're looking for lighthearted comedy with two attractive women who also happen to solve crimes, you're going to be out of luck. You could probably get away with just skipping through to Lorraine Bracco's scenes, but you'd be cheating yourself out of a pretty good hour of television.

Rizzoli & Isles airs on Mondays at 10pm/9c on TNT.