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March 3, 2014

Oscars and money for the pizza guy

Ellen asking for tip money for the pizza guy at the Oscars

Last night's Oscars didn't offer many surprises or memorable moments--I was pretty much OK with all the winners, and the night's predictability meant that I did *really* well in my office pool. My favorite moment was probably Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their cute rhyming acceptance speech for Best Song. Robert Lopez was one of the writers of The Book of Mormon and is now a proud member of the very exclusive EGOT club.

But the weirdest moment was when Ellen, having ordered some pizzas in a folksy stunt, went around with Pharrell's hat asking all the famous audience members for money for a tip. The men dug out their wallets and obediently put some cash into the hat. But then Ellen started chiding them for their cheapness. She called out Brad Pitt for only contributing a twenty, and then things heated up. People started leaning over each other to put more money into the hat, and for a few seconds we had a bunch of celebrities literally throwing their money around on TV, showing the world how amazingly generous they were in their tipping of an anonymous low-wage worker.

I can't tell if Ellen was doing it on purpose--goading the very rich and very famous into competitive coerced generosity--but it made the whole night look desperately show-offy. We all know the Oscars are about self-congratulation, but we don't usually get to see all those glamorous celebrities be such transparent camera hogs.

I hope the pizza guy got all that cash.

(Oh, he did!)

October 8, 2013

Amy's Robot: On standby

On Hiatus

As you've probably noticed, we're taking a break over here. The recent launch of a new Baby Robot model has us pretty busy, and there's isn't as much time to spend watching movies and musing/complaining about pop culture and political minutiae.

But before we resume our hiatus, a few observations about recent stuff:

The World's End: My favorite of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost trilogy, and the funniest movie I've seen all year. I really like how perfectly they nailed both of the movie's hackneyed genres: Old friends who've grown apart get together for a reunion and learn they still really love each other, despite everything; and Invasion of the alien machines. The way the old rivalries resurface, and tough truths are learned about their friends... and themselves, every detail is perfect.

But the most impressive part of the movie for me is Simon Pegg's performance. The first half-hour especially, where he's simultaneously manic, obnoxious, desperate, pathetic, and hilarious, in one hyper-energetic, repellently appealing spaz-explosion in a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt. He just burns a hole through the screen. It's a performance at about the same energy level as Jack Black's first scene in High Fidelity, but he sustains it through the entire movie. He deserves some kind of award, even though really inspired comic performances like this hardly ever get the recognition they deserve.

Enough Said: I like all Nicole Holofcener's movies, and this one has the same agonizing social awkwardness and flawed but sincere characters that I like in all her stuff. This is one of James Gandolfini's last movie appearances, and it makes me wish he got to do more romantic comedy in his career--he's a big, gruff, hairy love interest, more convincing than you'd think.

And finally Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series. It took a while to get going, and its biggest problem is the main character, who is unappealing and less interesting than the far more colorful and interesting ensemble, but I still like it. A few episodes in, I thought, wow, it's great that there's this show with so many good roles for black and Latina actresses, older, bigger actresses, butch actresses, all roles for women that deviate from the pretty young white norm, that are so often missing from other TV shows and movies. Then I realized: that's because it's set in prison. Oh well.

We'll be back!

June 5, 2013

Don Draper hallucinates, again

Don floating in a pool on Mad Men

I've mostly been liking this season of "Mad Men", and I've appreciated the many surprises and odd happenings that have popped up a show that was getting dangerously predictable. In particular, I liked the surprise merger, the disorienting break-in of Don and Megan's apartment by the kids' "grandmother", and every exchange between Joan and Peggy (especially this week's), whose relationship has always been one of the show's best and most complicated.

But one aspect that's getting irritating and sometimes comical is the overuse of hallucinations. Don Draper seems to hallucinate with such startling frequency that it's got to mean one of two things: his grasp on reality and overall psychological health are rapidly disintegrating toward total psychosis, or the show's writing is too reliant on a schlocky, soapy crutch. Do normal people hallucinate as much as as Don does? Of course not--just like amnesia is a much more common problem on daytime television than in real life--but it sure is a convenient plot device!

In the last couple of seasons, here are the times Don has hallucinated (that I can remember) and the alleged cause of his hallucination:

If we're supposed to conclude from all this that Don Draper is living on the razor's edge of sanity, and starts seeing things that aren't there whenever he runs a temperature or uses even the most pedestrian of recreational drugs, then OK, our protagonist is highly mentally unstable. If we're supposed to see hallucinations as a metaphor for the destabilizing, chaotic changes the American culture was going through in the late 60's, I can live with it, but it's clumsy and obvious. But if the writers keep using hallucinations because it's an easy way to visualize Don's emotional state and the people and things that he's haunted by, then they've really got to come up with something new.

My favorite thing in this week's episode are Don's sunglasses and Harry's rented Mustang.

Don, Roger, and Harry in the Mustang on Mad Men

April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers poster

(Warning: spoilers)

I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.

The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.

The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.

And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.

There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."

So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?

This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.

April 4, 2013

Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence

Roger Ebert

Just two days after announcing his "leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times so that he could focus on the 10,000 other movie-related things he's doing, Roger Ebert has died.

In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.

Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.

I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.

Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.

March 19, 2013

Tina Fey, Actor

Tina Fey in Admission

We all love Tina Fey and can talk at length about all the amazing things about her: she's funny, self-deprecating, fearless, an inspired and successful comedy writer, and she helped Obama win the 2008 election. "SNL", Mean Girls, Bossypants, "30 Rock"--everything she does is great.

But I don't ever hear that Tina Fey is a talented actor. The Sarah Palin act was its own special kind of genius, but for all the praise she gets for her many gifts, it's not usually for her acting chops. Sure, she delivered the news on "Weekend Update" with an appropriately no-nonsense half-smirk, and we all saw a little of ourselves in the perpetually harried, big-sandwich-loving, grown-up nerd, Liz Lemon. But I think Fey gets more credit for creating Liz Lemon than for playing her on screen.

Which brings us to her new movie, Admission. Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who is very smart, a little uptight, and stuck in a safe but boring life. She's unfulfilled, but not sure what to do about it. This role isn't a big departure from Liz Lemon and the frustrated single lady in Baby Mama, but this movie is the first time I noticed it: Hey, Tina Fey can act! Her character goes through more emotional extremes than I've ever seen her take on before, and she carries them all with total credibility. The plot is a little convoluted, and it's not the greatest movie overall, but Tina Fey shows some impressive range--big emotional scenes and more subtle moments that all work.

The other great thing about the movie is the brilliant decision to cast Lily Tomlin as Tina Fey's aging radical off-the-grid mom. It's perfect. Everything Lily Tomlin says and does is hilarious, and it's like a symbolic passing of the torch from the 70's pioneer to today's gutsy comic superstar. Hard to believe they've never done anything together before now.

I really don't want to see Tina Fey try to become Kate Winslet or take on serious Oscar-bait roles like "feisty Depression-era widow cotton farmer" or "double-amputee killer whale trainer", but I hope she gets some recognition for being a good actor as well as a great comedian.

February 25, 2013

Surprises at the Oscars

Oscars acting winners

Considering that just about all of my picks for last night's Oscars were wrong, I thought there were a lot of surprises in the winners. My favorite movie, Zero Dark Thirty, was shut out of every award (besides that tie for Sound Editing,) so though I didn't agree with many of the winners, at least the awards got spread around a bunch of different movies, with no clear overall winning movie. If a piece of conventional rom-com mediocrity like Silver Linings Playbook can win a major award (Best Actress), at least a great movie like Django Unchained can take two (Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.)

Same thing goes for Life of Pi, a visually beautiful and technically amazing movie that was pretty thin on every other aspect of moviemaking. Was Ang Lee the best director of the year? Probably not. But I take great comfort in knowing that a (generally) wonderful director like Ang Lee now has two Best Director Oscars, and Ben Affleck has zero.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Argo would have become such a popular choice for Best Picture if Affleck had been nominated for Best Director, and the Academy hadn't been driven to reconsider its lukewarm response to the movie when the nominations were decided? The directors' branch of the Academy, who shut Affleck out, wasn't nearly as impressed with the movie as the Academy as a whole was. Either way, whenever two different movies win Best Picture and Best Director (like when Crash won Best Picture,) it usually means they got at least one award wrong. In my opinion, both winners this year will look pretty questionable in the future--I just can't accept a movie that stars Ben Affleck winning Best Picture. He's gotten to be a pretty good director, but he's still so flat and unbelievable on screen.

As for Seth MacFarlane's hosting job, I liked the song and dance numbers intended to appeal to the geriatric viewer, but too many of his jokes were mean. If a joke is mean but really funny, that's one thing, but most of his jokes were mean and not nearly funny enough. (Gawker cut his jokes into one video.) The one exception was the video of him propositioning Sally Field in the green room, and I mostly liked it because of how game and funny she was. "I've got a bottle of wine and some Boniva, we'll have a great time" was his best line of the night (starts at 0:42 in the Gawker video.) I admire Sally Field for doing a skit that hinged on her admitting she had no chance of winning an Oscar this year, something I can't imagine hardly any other actor doing.

I was happy to see Quentin Tarantino get an Oscar for writing Django, but did you notice that instead of praising his cast, like most people would do, he pretty much said that he deserved an additional Best Casting Oscar for the amazing job he did casting them in his movie? Considering he didn't get his first choice cast members in many, well-publicized cases, maybe some of the credit should have gone to the actors.

My favorite comment about the night was Matt Singer's tweet: "Silver Linings Playbook is a movie made entirely of Oscar clips." Which describes why I don't like that movie better than anything I've come up with yet. The best suggestion I heard was from a friend who pointed out how much more awesome it would have been during the In Memoriam tribute (which included MCA!) if Barbra Streisand had sung "Sabotage".

February 11, 2013

Gay panic at Downton Abbey!

Thomas at Downton Abbey

Last night's "Downton Abbey" double-header was two solid hours of PBS period melodrama that really made me long for regular commercial breaks. The main storyline centers on Thomas, the scheming secretly-gay valet who this week ignores his finely-tuned gaydar and make a play for James, the handsome, straight footman. He decides that the best, least creepy way to assess James's interest is to sneak quietly into his bedroom at night and immediately start kissing him, even though James is not conscious. It all goes very wrong, and a talky, beautifully-costumed gay panic ensues.

Of course, every single resident of the house, upstairs and downstairs, finds out immediately, and everybody has their own reaction. None of the women are shocked or even particularly surprised. Most of the servant-class men (who I guess, besides Thomas, are all straight) are horrified and filled with moral outrage, and there's talk of calling the police and throwing poor Thomas in jail. (The weirdest thing about all this is how quickly Thomas shifts from an unrepentant, manipulative embodiment of evil to a misunderstood, pitiable lost soul, unable to find love in this cruel world. Or maybe it's not weird. Maybe it's just bad writing.)

But the best reaction of all is Lord Grantham's, who gets the best line of the night. After Bates relates the whole story to him, Lord G responds, "It's not as if we didn't all know. If I'd shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I'd have gone hoarse in a month."

Haha! The boyish homoeroticism of the elite British boarding school is always good for a punchline. But this is the conservative, xenophobic, anti-20th century Lord Grantham. The same man who looks like he ate a bug if he's in the same room as a Catholic, and just last week tried to bust up a genteel ladies' luncheon because the cook had once turned a few tricks. Why does he react so breezily to the news that his gay valet is sneaking around initiating make-out sessions with the sleeping footman?

I think Lord Grantham is an upper-class moral relativist. Anything that elite aristocratic Englishmen like to do is OK by him. If half of the future House of Lords tried to get busy with a teenage Lord Grantham, then who is he to criticize Thomas? The guy's probably just trying to better his position and aspire to the values of the upper classes. Lord Grantham is actually cooler with it than any other character on the show.

Next week, Lord Grantham starts Yorkshire's first chapter of PFLAG.

February 1, 2013

Goodbye, 30 Rock

30 Rock Finale

30 Rock Finale

Last night's "30 Rock" series finale was pretty much perfect. It was a satisfying close to a great show, and it was the funniest episode in a while. I couldn't ask for a better ending, except I'm sad to see it go.

You know who I'll especially miss? Jane Krakowski. We'll get plenty of Tina Fey doing funny things for years to come now that she's a big successful star, Alec Baldwin will continue to pop up in all aspects of New York cultural/political/tabloid life, and Tracy Morgan and Judah Friedlander will be back doing stand up and wacky animation voiceovers. But from now on, every time I take a low-volume shower with Ed Begley, Jr., I'll shed a silent tear for Jenna.

One upside: "Community" is showing up right on time to fill the Thursday 8pm slot and absorb some of our emotionally fragile rebound love.

August 6, 2012

Obsure Olympic events

Women's handball, 2012 Olympics

Have you seen the Olympics photo collections that the NY Times has been publishing every day? They're really amazing. It's a more interesting and varied way to see what's happening everyday without all the extra stuff on TV like backstories about athletes' moms and Ryan Seacrest.

NBC is doing an OK good job in their coverage, but they focus so heavily on American athletes that any sport without a leading American contender or team doesn't get much airtime. Plus, have you noticed how long it takes them to show the scores in women's gymnastics? Everyone on the floor starts reacting to scores that none of us can see, and they're hugging and crying or pursing their lips in stoic resignation, and I'm sitting there shouting SHOW US THE SCORE ALREADY! It's frustrating.

Also, there are all the cutesy little features that NBC produces, like last night's bit with Mary Carillo talking about props in the James Bond movies, then riding around in an Aston Martin and screaming, which they show instead of, say, women's handball. Which thanks to the NY Times I have learned is an incredibly tough and hardcore sport where players do things like this to each other:

Women's handball, London Olympics

Wow! And I thought handball was that game Latino guys play in the area of the park with half-size tennis courts, though Wikipedia says the Latino guys are playing something confusingly called "Gaelic handball". The Olympians are playing "Team handball".

And there are other sports I would have no idea about without the Times photo streams. For example, did you know men's field hockey is an Olympic sport? Maybe I missed this because American men don't typically play field hockey, so NBC's coverage is minimal.

men's field hockey, London Olympics

And how about women's trampoline gymnastics?

Women's trampoline gymnastics, London Olympics

News to me.

July 30, 2012

The Extremely Serious Dark Knight Rises

As part of my preference for avoiding death threats, I'm not going to say anything outright negative about The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that was the subject of so much anticipatory fantasy and hyperventilation before it came out that it couldn't possibly live up to everything we wanted it to be. I've got just two things to say:

1) I wish everyone involved with this movie, including me, had half as much fun with it as Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy did with their roles.

2) The big climax at the end features a red LED screen ticking down the seconds on a time bomb. Really?! That's the climax of the summer's best and most intelligent superhero action movie? From the guy who came up with storylines as complex and creative as Memento and Inception, I expected something that the whole world hadn't already experienced in ten thousand other action movies and half the episodes of "The A-Team".

I suppose that one unusual use of the red LED screen counting down the time bomb was that, the first time we see it and realize that a bomb is going to go off, it reads something like 19 minutes. Which, for an action movie, might as well be a week and a half for all the tension it creates. Look at the bomb timer now! What does it say? It's at 16 minutes! Hurry! And how about now? 12 and a half minutes! And...how about now? ... ... Oh, sorry, I must have nodded off there.

As interesting as the political attitude of this movie is (still trying to untangle the Occupy Wall Street side from the Law & Order side) and as confusing, dark, and cool as its vision of superhero-dom is, I can hardly believe all the predictable by-the-book elements came from someone like Chris Nolan. Well, at least it's over and now he can go back to making more of the movies I really like.

June 11, 2012

Mad Men finale: did my nose just start bleeding?

Mad Men Season 5 finale

Hey, has anyone figured out what the theme of this season of Mad Men was? 'Cause I'm not sure I quite got it. Maybe something about how even when you get what you wait, you're still not happy? Or maybe that ambition and desire are great motivators, but success and wish-fulfillment have a cost? Or that the things we want are always just out of reach, even when it seems like we've attained them? Or that satisfaction is fleeting and elusive? Or that you can find happiness, but it wears off?

Let's try to find a few dozen more ways to say the same thing, shall we? Because that's what this season felt like to me. My favorite descriptions of this season are in Time, last month ("The episodes sometimes feel overcrafted, the symbols and themes double-underlined.") and a great piece today about how the season feels like it's explaining its own jokes. Not only did the whole season keep coming back to the same central theme over and over again, but each individual episode was very overtly about some related theme (like competitiveness, ambition, disappointment, disillusionment, etc, get out the thesaurus.) The themes in themselves are interesting, and the story lines in which the characters played out those themes were fine, but man, just about every episode felt eye-wateringly, sucker-punchingly on the nose.

The finale had some good stuff in it, but first, the parts that bugged me: how many times did we need Lane's wife to say some version of "We stiff-upper-lipped British just get on with it, so don't give me that yank consoling business"? Three times? Because I think that's how many times she said it in one short scene. How many times did Marie have to say "Just give up on acting, it's a dream that's not panning out" to Megan? Three, four times? Maybe they didn't quite get it. One more time, Marie.

The parts I liked were Don and Peggy in the movie theater. They were so happy to see each other and so relaxed and comfortable together, it was a relief after all that Pete Campbell existential agony with Gilmore Girl who is so wrong for that role I can't believe it. Even if we had to hear how Don doesn't like it when people he loves grow up and don't need him anymore, AGAIN, it was still a nice and reasonably subtle scene. I also loved the scene of Megan getting ready to shoot the commercial when Don kisses her and walks away from that brightly-lit beautiful set into blackness (above). The season really could have ended right there. Even though he has a semi-functioning marriage and is trying to do the right thing, Don's still alone in the world. We get it.

But wait! Maybe we don't quite get it! Let's add one more scene in which a fetching young woman walks up to Don in a bar and asks, "Are you alone?" Don ponders this question grimly. Because yes, he is alone. On an existential level. Silence. He doesn't need to answer the question because Don and the audience and everybody on the planet have already answered it for him 10,000 times just in the last three episodes. End of season 5.

One more thing: I guess it would be a sign of mental instability if another character were dropping acid and getting naked alone in their apartments, but when it's Roger Sterling, it's just fantastic.

May 8, 2012

Dark Shadows and 70's horror camp

Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp

Dark Shadows, the TV show, was a daily afternoon soap that premiered in 1966 just as The Munsters and The Addams Family were ending. This period was clearly the heyday of pulpy goth television, and the lovably creepy families from all three shows have lived on through multiple reincarnations, which I sort of doubt we're going to see with, say, The Vampire Diaries 40 years from now.

I went to see Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie, which is a nostalgic tribute to a TV show that Burton and Johnny Depp obviously loved when they were growing up. But the sad reality of Tim Burton these days is that he doesn't make very good movies anymore (possible exception: Sweeney Todd), and this one is an incoherent mess.

The style is cool (it's set in 1972,) and the gothier he goes with the story, characters, and design, the better. Tim Burton is great when he's dark. But several characters and entire plotlines felt tacked on and arbitrary, like the only reason he included them in the movie was that they were in the TV show. It doesn't hang together as a cohesive movie and probably would have been better if he'd made an episodic TV show, or series of vignettes about flamboyant Victorian vampire Johnny Depp, his creepy and possibly supernatural modern-day family, and Eva Green's cleavage.

The best thing about this movie is that it prompted revisiting of the half-hour daily TV show, which ran from 1966-71 for an astounding 1,225 episodes and was one of the most popular daytime soaps during its run. The Times has a wonderful article about it (the most repeated word in the piece is "weird".) It turns out that the show's creator, Dan Curtis, didn't set out to make a supernatural soap, he just started throwing in ghosts and vampires to chase ratings, much like today's soaps keep audiences guessing with evil twins, amnesia, or resurrections from the dead. Barnabas Collins, the Johnny Depp character, didn't even show up until 200 episodes in! Here's an excerpt from the Times:

In the context of late-'60s daytime drama these choices were, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. A few years later we would learn to call such desperate moves "jumping the shark," but what Dark Shadows proved at the moment Barnabas's cold, pale hand reached out of his coffin was that soap-opera narrative is in its essence an act of desperation, like the telling of bedtime stories by weary parents to wakeful kids: the stories just seem to go on and on and on, and the longer your audience stays with you, the more sharks, inevitably, will have to be jumped.

The show eventually included "a staggering number of witches, warlocks, doppelgängers, mad scientists, werewolves, and, of course, ghosts," which Tim Burton tried to recreate by introducing a seemingly random slate of supernatural characters at odd moments in the movie. It feels like an arbitrary, disjointed mess, but even if the movie doesn't work, I can appreciate the homage to what sounds like a delightfully bizarre show.

Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows

A box set of the entire 5 season run of Dark Shadows is being released on DVD in July, packaged in an adorable coffin, for $420. A staggering 131 discs! That's a lot of vamping. You can also watch 160 episodes on Netflix streaming and catch some of the show's alleged line flubs and crew members visible on screen.

Here's a clip from the TV show from the episode when the Barnabas character is introduced. It's not as hammy as it could have been, but there's some excellent suspense in delaying the first time we see the face of Jonathan Frid.

April 27, 2012

In case you need more convincing about Community

Community Law & Order episode

For those of you who aren't already committed Community fans, I offer into evidence last night's episode, "Basic Lupine Urology". You can watch the full episode on the show's website.

The episode is a meticulously-constructed Law & Order spoof, but it's so dense with jokes and references that it took me over 12 hours to even get the title: Lupine Urology. Dick Wolf. Ha.

The plot centers on a sabotaged biology experiment in Professor Omar From The Wire's class, with the study group's yam project discovered smashed on the classroom floor. But every single thing about the episode, from the opening sequence of the bantering janitors who discover the smashed yam and the credits sequence, to the harsh courtroom-style lighting and the quick little camera pans at the start of each scene that pull up to reveal the latest suspect that Briscoe and Green (or in this case, Abed and Troy) are investigating--everything looks and feels EXACTLY like Law & Order. It's masterful.

The show has done a bunch of other successful spoofs before, but they're usually pretty weird and esoteric (the Hearts of Darkness episode, the My Dinner With Andre episode) so this one might be the most accessible of the spoofs.

A few other details: Shirley plays a perfect Lt. Van Buren, there's a great Wire dialogue reference, a Michael Ironside cameo, and I'm pretty sure the autopsy technician who examines the smashed yam (above) is the same actress who plays the lab technician in the medical examiner's office on L&O! I'm in awe. After last week's technically incredible Dreamatorium episode and now this one, it's like falling in love all over again.

(Note: if you're not a fan of Law & Order, this episode would likely make you shrug and say "what's the big whoop?" Community is beloved by some people, but it's not exactly broad in its appeal. Which is why hardly anyone watches it, but those that do watch it go totally apeshit about it every week.)

In related news, the show's viewership is still steadily declining--two years ago, it was usually around 5 million viewers per episode, now it's below 3. Its inevitable cancellation is looming out there, but I'm impressed that the creators are defiantly sticking with the formula and making episodes the tiny but ferocious fan base will love.

April 16, 2012

Real (Mad) Men and Don Draper the plumber

Mad Men, sink leak

One problem I've had with the last season or two of Mad Men is that a lot of episodes went by when nothing happened. That's not the case with Season 5 so far--I think it's been really good, lots of things happening, lots of character development, and LOTS (too many?) of Roger Sterling one-liners.

Last night's episode focused on Pete Campbell, still one of the show's most interesting characters. As much as Pete is a pompous jerk that everyone sort of hates, he's become a jerk with so many complex, glaring insecurities and personality flaws that it's fascinating to watch him fail to do the right thing or be content with his very nice life, again and again, in ever-changing ways. If the theme of this episode was "what it means to be a man", Pete gets it spectacularly wrong at pretty much every opportunity. What's impressive about the show, and especially Vincent Kartheiser's acting, is how compelling the character is when he's such a loathsome jackass.

Apart from the chronicle of Pete Campbell, failure of masculinity, I liked the new aspects of Don's development this episode. He gives in to both Megan and Trudy (wearing a hideous plaid jacket Megan bought for him to a party he doesn't want to go to) with conciliatory grace, but can still take off his shirt and get under the sink to fix the kitchen faucet, which turns on his wife enough to pull over on the Hutch and get busy on the ride home. (Despite all that, Don still seems resolutely unhappy and potentially suicidal.)

The worst part of the show was Pete's conversation with the high school girl during the driver's ed class break. Her dialogue was so clunky and stiff, it sounded like the director told the actress to just ad lib about the tumultuous 60's and she came out with something that literally sounded like, "We're living through a truly fascinating period of cultural transition here in 1966 American society, that's as anxiety-provoking as it is thrilling. The times they are a-changin'!"

What was up with that?! It was almost as bad as the scene a few episodes ago with Don talking to a teenage girl backstage at the Rolling Stones show, when she says something about how her character symbolizes the alluring vitality of youth and freedom, and pretty much uses those words. They need to get a lot better with this generation gap dialogue.

The board room fistfight and Bert Cooper's "reschedule the meeting" line were almost as shockingly hilarious as the lawnmower foot-severing. Any episode with office bloodshed is a good one. John Slattery directed this one.

Side note: if you're familiar with FX's funny animated spy sitcom Archer, check out Sterling Archer Draper Pryce. It's really good.

March 7, 2012

Sue Simmons and NBC

WNBC, New York's NBC affiliate, has announced that they won't be renewing the contract of their beloved 30 year news anchor Sue Simmons.

[Obligatory response to NBC:] The fuck are you doing?!

See one of my favorite TV clips, from a memorable news promo from 2008:

In a statement, the station said, "We have tremendous respect and admiration for Sue Simmons. For decades, Sue has been a critical part of New York's longest-tenured anchor team in the city and has more than earned her iconic status."

You know what goes a long way in earning iconic status? Swearing on the air. It's not just that she (accidentally) swore during a promo for the news, it's that she did it with such bravado and flair. No timid cursing for Sue Simmons! That incident, and her open, authentic style on the air, make her seem so funny and appealing. We'll miss her.

UPDATE: The Times has an adoring professional-obituary for Sue Simmons on today's front page!

February 23, 2012

Oscar Predictions

The Artist

I can't say I'm looking forward to this Sunday's Oscars with enthusiasm or anticipation. But like the folks over at the AV Club, I embrace the mediocrity of the Oscars. Sure, there were many really great movies that came out last year, but hardly any of them are going to win any awards. What will probably win are the movies, actors, and other artists that are pleasant enough, easy to like, or that the Academy suddenly realizes it forgot to give an award to after all these years.

Here's what we have to look forward to: Sasha Baron Cohen, who the Academy has sternly instructed not to show up in character as The Dictator, which I'm hoping he will interpret as a thrown gauntlet. The list of presenters includes people like Zach Galifianakis and Tina Fey, but don't we know better than to get excited about actors we like presenting Oscars, when they have to stand there and dutifully read limp jokes that aren't any funnier than the ones they give to Angelina Jolie?

I'm only going to make predictions for the categories that I know anything at all about, to spare myself the annual admission that I barely watch any documentaries and don't know the difference between sound mixing and sound editing.

Here are the nominees, and the ones I think will win:

BEST PICTURE
The Artist [It's become the inevitable winner, but that doesn't mean it's a bad movie]
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

BEST ACTOR
Demian Bichir in A Better Life
George Clooney in The Descendants
Jean Dujardin in The Artist [He's expressive as hell and out-charms Clooney. Still, I wish Gary Oldman would win.]
Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt in Moneyball

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis in The Help [She's gonna win, right? This isn't the strongest category, in my opinion. Where's Charlize Theron? Elizabeth Olsen? Kirsten Dunst? Tilda Swinton?]
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Nick Nolte in Warrior
Christopher Plummer in Beginners [Wait, we never gave an Oscar to Christopher Plummer?! Whoops!]
Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
Jessica Chastain in The Help
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer in The Help [The one thing that would make me love the Oscars is if Melissa McCarthy won.]

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist [It's a fluke, but at this point he can't lose.]
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
Martin Scorsese for Hugo
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Guillaume Schiffman for The Artist
Jeff Cronenweth for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Robert Richardson for Hugo
Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life [It's not going to win any other awards, but this guy really deserves it.]
Janusz Kaminski for War Horse

EDITING (living with an editor means I'm required to include this category)
Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Kevin Tent for The Descendants
Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Thelma Schoonmaker for Hugo [Hugo looked really good, so I think Thelma will get it. Remember, "Best" usually means "Most" for the technical categories.]
Christopher Tellefsen for Moneyball

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Belgium, "Bullhead"
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar"
Iran, "A Separation" [Glad it's the favorite, maybe a few more people will see it if it wins.]
Israel, "Footnote"
Poland, "In Darkness"

ORIGINAL SONG
"Man or Muppet" from The Muppets [Could have easily been an all-Muppet category.)
Music and Lyric by Bret McKenzie
"Real in Rio" from Rio
Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; Lyric by Siedah Garrett

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Descendants [Most of the other nominated scripts were actually quite bad.]
Hugo
The Ides of March
Moneyball
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris [This is my favorite category--these movies are all great and well-written. Giving it to Oscar-dissing Woody would be a very mature gesture on the part of the Academy, which might mean it's not happening.]
A Separation

Any other predictions you want to throw out? Any guesses on how long it'll take to watch the Oscars on our DVRs, once we fast-forward through all the montages and boring parts? Less time than it takes to watch an episode of "Louie"?

February 21, 2012

Lena Dunham: a voice of a generation

Here's a trailer for Lena Dunham's new series on HBO, "Girls". If it's as good as it looks, it's my new favorite show that I won't get to watch for another 18 months when HBO gets around to releasing the DVD.

A few notable cast members:

Lena Dunham's line delivery somehow achieves a balance of self-confident, self-righteous, needy, wry, and deadpan, which magically adds up to funny and likable. She's amazing.

February 15, 2012

Britney is indestructible

Britney in Chaotic

The Robot Linky feed isn't working today, so here are a few little things about politics and Factory Records and Britney Spears:

  • Over at the AV Club, Nathan Rabin continues his "My World of Flops" series with a look at the brief, unwatchable reality TV show that Britney Spears created during her ill-fated romance with Kevin Federline, "Chaotic". This "Flops" series is a continuation of Rabin's "My Year of Flops" in which he takes a fresh look at a movie (or TV show, or album) that was a commercial and critical failure, and considers why it flopped. Sometimes he finds heretofore unacknowledged value in the flops, which is not the case with his review of "Chaotic", possibly the worst TV show ever made.

    Rabin comes away hating Kevin Federline with such intensity and venomous rage it's almost worth reading just for that. But his analysis of the disaster that Britney was unwittingly getting herself into, in the form of a marriage and subsequent breakup that was so awful it made her literally insane and probably almost killed her, is the interesting part. If Britney could survive being married to someone as horrible and parasitic as Kevin Federline, he argues, she can survive anything.

    Here's an excerpt:

    [The show] captures the bizarre, counterintuitive power imbalance at the heart of Spears and Federline's relationship. Spears may be the world-famous, multi-millionaire sex symbol ogled and desired by tens of millions, but Federline is the one with all the power in the relationship. In "Chaotic", Spears looks to Federline for the approval, validation, and affection she gets constantly from the entire world, but he's able to control and manipulate her by strategically withholding them. In her mind, she's the lucky one. She's the one dating an older, wiser, more sophisticated man who's kind enough to let her experience the benefit of his wisdom.
  • In excavating the old bank that will be the site of his new restaurant in Manchester, Jamie Oliver stumbled on some Joy Division master tapes in a safety deposit box. [!?!?] Whoa! What's on them? Are there any new songs? Covers of "Louie, Louie"? Was it Factory Records founder Tony Wilson's safety deposit box? I worry we'll never get the follow-up this story deserves.
  • With the camps pretty much over, the Occupy movement is looking at one-day protests and actions, which I think is great--this has to be about something more than camping in public spaces. But a story today reports a planned event for February 29th: "Shut Down the Corporations Day". Um. I want to get behind this movement, but moronic non-strategies like this make it hard.
  • Kraftwerk is coming to MoMA! Ralf is going to do a series of 8 shows, one for each of their albums. Cool.
  • And if you didn't find Romney's insistence that he is "severely conservative" creepy enough, how about this: he mistreats dogs. Dogs Against Romney is doing two protests this week. If it takes stories about dog abuse for people to think twice about voting for Romney instead of his policy ideas, that's fine by me.

February 13, 2012

When Abraham Lincoln Comes Around

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

A new trailer came out for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that isn't that remarkable, except in two ways: it's strangely humorless and po-faced, like the movie itself is completely unaware that it's titled "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". And it uses Johnny Cash's menacingly biblical spoken word section of "When The Man Comes Around" as the soundtrack.

Johnny Cash released "The Man Comes Around" in 2002, and it was one of the last songs he ever wrote. I don't know if you've noticed this too, but this song gets used in movies and TV shows A LOT. I understand why it's become the go-to soundtrack choice for horror movies or any apocalypse-themed entertainment form. It's like a more poetic version of the (pretend) Bible verse that Samuel L. Jackson pulls out in Pulp Fiction: in Jules' words, it just sounds like some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker.

So here's Johnny Cash quoting Revelations in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter trailer. Here he is again in the excellent opening credits sequence in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. And in the season 1 finale of the short-lived "Terminator" TV show, and in a (fan-produced) trailer for season 3 of "The Walking Dead". Any movie or TV show in the sci-fi/horror genre that involves a day of reckoning and/or the undead, this song fits so perfectly that producers probably need to stop using it for the next 10 years or so. Stick it in the penalty box along with the all-time champion of irritating soundtrack ubiquity, Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah".

I hope the Lincoln movie is goofier and more fun than the trailer makes it look--two hours of a solemn presidential hunk in a stovepipe hat screaming and swinging axes around in slow-motion sounds like undead tedium.

January 24, 2012

Eye candy and Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey, Mary and Sybil

When Downton Abbey debuted on Masterpiece Theatre last winter, a lot of people who might not usually get excited about British costume dramas watched it and decided it was actually a great show, both a window into a lost era of privileged landed gentry (or unabashed "love letter to the class system") and a briskly paced soap opera with scheming machinations, intrigue, romance, and occasional spicy scandal of the Edwardian British variety. It was a nice surprise.

It also felt more like a mini-series than a regular TV series with multiple seasons. At the end of the final episode last year, some viewers (including me) were stunned to find the show wasn't over: World War I was beginning, none of the plot lines were wrapped up, and we were now going to have to wait a year for season 2.

It seems like the show's creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, was almost as surprised as the rest of us, because he hasn't come up with much in the way of new conflicts or character developments: we're halfway through season 2, and we're still watching all the same story lines from season 1. Brief scenes in the trenches in France are cool, but they feel tacked on and unnecessary to the central story.

Whole episodes go by where hardly anything progresses. Mary and Matthew still have their largely-repressed affection for each other, O'Brien and Thomas still smoke conspiratorially and hate Mr. Bates for reasons that no longer make sense, Bates and Anna still want to be together but can't, Sybil is still exploring the exciting new frontier of working, and Mr. Carson still can't get enough screen time to deliver his magnificently dry rejoinders. The tension created when Matthew was briefly missing in action was resolved too quickly by an ickily maudlin "surprise" entrance during a soldier singalong. It's getting tedious, I'm a little disappointed.

But if season 2 hasn't been as good, viewers don't seem to care: the world has erupted in adoration for Downton Abbey. Pop culture websites are expressing their love for the show, often with attitudes like, "It's so weird that we're wild about these stuffy rich British people!", an attitude that seems to be shared by every other pop culture site.

As far as I can tell, the only major development in the main characters' lives (apart from the war) is that Edith, the ugly bitchy middle sister, had a thrilling near-fling with a crusty old farmer she aids with her new driving skills. This prompted my favorite post on Downton Abbeyoncé, a name so ingenious I feel like the show was created just to inspire it:

One thing about this season has been really outstanding: the clothes. Every scene that involves the Crawley sisters getting dressed for dinner is total fashion eye candy: gorgeous draping silk and gauzy beaded necklines--the costume budget must be formidable. The designers that dress Mary have really outdone themselves for the past couple of episodes, she looks absolutely incredible in every scene. My straight male viewing partner let out an audible sigh of amazement at a shot of Mary and Sybil talking before dinner and their awesome clothes (see photo above).

You can watch episodes online at the PBS site. Maybe one of these days something will happen plot-wise, other than the Dowager Countess shooting withering glares and grousing hilariously about people with titles less impressive than "Dowager Countess".

January 19, 2012

Is this a Mad Men ad?

On a phone booth on West 44th St:

Men Men ad 2012

Cool. March 25.

January 13, 2012

Totally Unacceptable Ricky Gervais, back again

Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Even if you couldn't care less about movie awards shows, there are two good reasons to watch the Golden Globes on Sunday night: to listen to celebrities try to pronounce "Hazanavicius", and to see Ricky Gervais find new and interesting ways to insult the very people who came to be celebrated. Last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association said his offensive references were "totally unacceptable", but hey, the ratings were pretty good, so get ready for jokes about Glenn Close in drag and anal rape.

Here are the nominations. There's some pretty good material for Gervais to work with in this list. Two movies with nominations in Comedy categories make jokes about cancer (50/50) and racism (The Guard), so we're off to a promising start.

The Times has a good feature on Gervais in this weekend's magazine, which suggests that Hollywood's relationship with him has reached a comfortable equilibrium. "He has become the entertainment industry's favorite irreverent person, because he manages to be irreverent in such a deeply reverent way." I hope he'll take this accusation of "reverence" as a challenge to come up with some really unsettling, perverse stuff Sunday night.

Gervais has a new show called "Life's Too Short" (coming to HBO next month) about the career of a little person actor. The Times piece references a wonderful scene with Liam Neeson, who appears in one episode as himself, interested in starting a career in sketch comedy. I love this clip:

[thanks, sbk!]

October 4, 2011

"Prohibiton" and the Carrie Nations

The Carrie Nations

Are you watching the new Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition"? So far I've seen the first episode, and it's really great. As with all his stuff, the images and film clips he's collected are truly amazing: he's gathered loads of video of ecstatic partiers in the 1920's cavorting in jazz clubs and guzzling bottles of gin and looking like they're having more fun than you've ever experienced in your life, which he intercuts with shots of stern crusaders hacking apart barrels of liquor with axes and gloating as all that devil's brew gushes into the streets. You can watch the full episodes online.

Even though it's titled "Prohibition", he looks at a broad history of alcohol in early America, when we were a nation of immigrants unified by our love of drinking. The Temperance movement was pretty much synonymous with feminism in the 19th century, and there are some great photos of hordes of women kneeling in prayer in their voluminous skirts outside of saloons and marching through city streets to protest the sale of liquor at a time when marching wasn't something women generally did.

But the best story of all was about the violent firebrand anti-alcohol hellraiser, Carrie Nation. She was such a compelling figure at the center of a bizarre episode in our country's history that Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer were inspired to name their busty, gutsy, all-girl rock band in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Carrie Nations, after her. You can see some truly wonderful stills from the movie and revel in a moment in American cinema when a lurid piece of surrealist sexploitation trash would reference early feminist crusaders. Ah, the 70's.

Ken Burns, sadly, makes no mention of the Russ Meyer film in his documentary. The real-life Ms. Nation had a rough life plagued by alcoholic men, and lived in Kansas, where liquor sales were illegal but bars still flourished. In her 50's, she decided to take justice into her own hands, and with God's alleged support, started going from town to town, attacking saloons with rocks.

From her Wikipedia entry:

Announcing "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate," she began to destroy the saloon's stock with her cache of rocks. After she similarly destroyed two other saloons in Kiowa, a tornado hit eastern Kansas, which she took as divine approval of her actions.

After she led a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you." Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women she would march into a bar, and sing and pray while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.

My favorite Carrie Nation quote from the doc: "I tell you ladies, you don't know how good it feels till you begin to smash, smash, smash!"

Sure, she was probably mentally ill, and claiming you're doing God's work by throwing rocks at bartenders is never OK, but I can't help but love her and her take-no-prisoners style.

Maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters could take some inspiration from Ms. Nation and start carrying hatchets and Bibles and using her slogan, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls," to greet bankers heading to work.

September 23, 2011

Community and the autism spectrum

Community

I haven't seen last night's season premiere of Community yet (you can watch the episode online.) But based on what I saw last season, and a fantastic profile in Wired on the show's creator, Dan Harmon, I'm prepared to say that, even if not every episode quite delivers, it's the funniest show on network TV. (Sorry, 30 Rock! That joke about the gas leak wasn't even funny the first time.)

It's definitely the strangest. As evidenced by the My Dinner With Andre-themed episode from last season, which is just the kind of abstruse extended joke that I can't believe made it onto a mainstream show, but turns up on this show all the time.

Until I read the Dan Harmon profile, I had no idea what kind of mad genius was behind this show (Wired says: "even its 'normal' episodes have a deeply weird velocity") but key passages shed a lot of light on where this stuff comes from. Such as this anecdote, about Harmon in the writers' room working on a scene featuring new cast member John Goodman:

Harmon begins pacing the room, slowly launching into a discourse that’s part Socratic inquiry, part one-man improv show. He lists examples of anything in the culture that might show how powerful men treat the weak: Goodfellas, Neil LaBute films, Freudian theory, even the actorly essence of John Goodman himself. The whole spiel is immensely entertaining—like hearing a version of Billy Joel’s "We Didn't Start the Fire" that’s been rewritten by a semiotics-obsessed video-store clerk—and it concludes with Harmon reenacting Ned Beatty’s famous monologue in Network.

No wonder I love this show.

Over his lifetime, Harmon developed a highly structured algorithm that he uses for every scene, episode, and season of Community, and says he searches every TV show and movie he watches for his algorithm underlying its structure. How some of the show's plot devices, like a magical secret trampoline, fit in is a mystery, possibly explained by his practice of drinking vodka at work.

Another thing that explains some of the psychologically unusual characters: Harmon innocently started taking online tests for Asperger's syndrome to see if his character Abed (above) really did fit the profile as fans have suggested. And guess what? Dan Harmon has Asperger's! Doctors say he's on the part of the autism spectrum where people have both empathy and inappropriate emotional reactions. And also think about life in terms of episodes of Taxi.

Not really a surprise, but the ratings are pretty awful. If NBC keeps putting up with its roster of weird shows that nobody watches, hopefully it'll survive the season.

September 20, 2011

Who's Older?™ Birthday boys

Hugh Grant and James Gandolfini: Who's Older?

Two celebrities had birthdays recently, and the two men chose to celebrity their special days in ways that show what matters most to them.

Hugh Grant has been loudly protesting the British police and Conservative government's failure to stop News Corp's media outlets from hacking people's phones, which now looks like wasn't simple failure but some kind of evil right-wing parliamentary corporate collusion. Speaking to the press shortly after his birthday, he said he was glad British politicians had finally "grown balls" over this issue, which he hopes they'll keep. He's heading to Scotland soon, where he'll shoot Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis. I bet he'll be playing Adam Ewing out on that South Pacific island.

James Gandolfini spent his birthday partying at a restaurant in Soho with friends, which he reportedly departed by hoisting himself onto the seat of Mario Batali's Vespa, which was also supporting Mario Batali, and lumbering off into the night like a half a ton of beef cheeks balanced on a gravy boat. "We thought they were going to die," said one partygoer, who I'm pretty sure was not joking.

Now let's think about how many candles were on each man's formidable birthday cake. It's time to play Who's Older?™!

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Hugh Grant or James Gandolfini?



One note about Hugh Grant: I'll admit that I loved his sensitive romantic-lead style when I was in high school and he played a wispy Chopin in Impromptu, but since Woody Allen cast him as a scheming double-crosser in Small Time Crooks, he's had a string of great movies where he's gotten to do some excellent work playing selfish jerks. He's gotten crinklier since the early 90's, but he's finally found the delicious kind of role he's best in, which has nothing to do with floppy haircuts and stammering.

August 18, 2011

"The Hour" on BBC America

The Hour on BBC America

Broadcast News

The first episode of a new BBC series "The Hour" was on last night. It's pretty great! Watching something good on TV again was so gratifying that I didn't realize until now how long it's been since I got excited about a new show.

Every single review I've seen for this show has gone out of its way to stress how "The Hour" is nothing like "Mad Men", though both are set in the workplace in an era when people dressed sharply while behaving terribly, and drank whiskey and smoked, both have ambitious, compelling female characters who want more than their chosen industries are comfortable with giving them, and both are located in a mid-century period when the world is about to change forever.

But "The Hour" is about TV news. As far as I'm concerned, News > Ads, so there's pretty much no way I wouldn't be into this show.

But, OK. It's not really like "Mad Men". The mid-50's London setting is a lot darker and dingier than the bright, shiny offices of early-60's Sterling Cooper. The news rooms are small and cramped, and oppressive class distinctions are positioned front and center. Life in post-war London probably didn't feel sleek, modern, and hopeful, it probably felt stifling and hard. Rationing was in place until 1954, and the empire was disappearing.

I love this stuff, so I'm all over this show. The actors in "The Hour" are fantastic--Ben Wishaw as the scrappy, talented journalist with an investigative instinct, Romola Garai as the hot, brassy, but insecure producer (have you see this woman in other stuff? She's phenomenal) and Dominic West as the slick, charming news presenter who seems to get his way a little too easily, and is even better looking than Don Draper.

This triangle is literally exactly the same as the one in Broadcast News, the movie with Albert Brooks as the talented journalist who lacks social graces, Holly Hunter as the fiesty producer, and William Hurt as the style-over-substance ladies' man news presenter. Broadcast News is just about a perfect movie, so I have no problem with lifting the characters straight out of it and plopping them in the early days of BBC TV news.

Let's watch one of the great scenes from Broadcast News that will probably be more or less recreated in some dark, ugly bar or basement news room sometime in the next few weeks:

Even with the food rationing and all those cigarettes, everyone in "The Hour" is a whole lot handsomer than anyone was in Broadcast News. Really, how did we ever see William Hurt as a sex symbol?

The scrappy Albert Brooks-like investigative journalist basically serves as the Don Draper of the show, and watching him speak passionately about news in one great scene where he predicts the next day's headlines (accurately, we later see) is as good as Don Draper's best sentimental pitch.

In later episodes, we'll learn more about the ghoulish Peter Lorre-like figure who keeps murdering prominent people for some shadowy political reason, and watch Dominic West dashingly seduce everything in a skirt.

July 12, 2011

Horrible Bosses and Donkey Kong

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong

I haven't watched Horrible Bosses (but I kind of want to after reading A.O. Scott's half-embarrassed positive review, in which he compares the crude, idiotic, absurd style of humor to snorting cocaine) but there are a couple of interesting things about it that I thought I'd point out:

  • It's directed by Seth Gordon, whose first movie was one of the more entertaining documentaries I've ever seen, The King of Kong, about the world's most dedicated classic video game players and champions of Donkey Kong. The most memorable figure in King of Kong is Billy Mitchell, reigning Kong champ, extravagant megalomaniac, and collector of dazzling patriotic ties (see above).
  • Colin Farrell allegedly based his horrible boss character on Billy Mitchell, after Seth Gordon gave him a copy of Kong to watch. Gordon says, "It was wonderful that Colin was open to the role and really breathed life into it. At the first meeting, we talked about giving him a belly and a clubbing enthusiasm -- and Colin wanted a comb-over. As soon as we saw the first attempt at that I knew it was right."
  • Seth Gordon now says that he wants to remake King of Kong, a straight-up documentary, as a mockumentary. The original has such grandiose and over-the-top characters that it sometimes edges into mocking territory, but Gordon was inspired by his recent experience directing episodes of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" and wants to try that style with the Kong remake.

    In my opinion, the reason the original is so wonderful is that the characters are all real people who are completely sincere in their dedication to video games. They say things like, "I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame. I wanted the pretty girls to come up and say, 'Hi, I see that you're good at Centipede' " or "No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It's sort of like the abortion issue." And THEY MEAN IT. A mockumentary about these people could easily slide into mean-spiritedness and winking at the camera.

  • One more thing about Horrible Bosses: do you know who wrote that cinematic cocaine that made A.O. Scott so giddy? Sam Weir! John Francis Daley, who played little Sam in Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks" now writes offensively vulgar comedies! I'm so proud.

June 13, 2011

Neil Patrick Harris can do anything

Neil Patrick Harris hosting the 2011 Tonys

I only caught the last 45 minutes or so of the Tonys last night, but did you see this rap that host Neil Patrick Harris did during the closing credits that recapped the entire show? It's good.

Doing the recap was NPH's idea, but it was written by two of the creators of "In the Heights", who wrote it really fast in the basement of the theater while the show was happening, throwing in references to the big winners and the funny, spontaneous stuff that had been happening throughout night. Then NPH learned it, while also keeping the show moving, then performed it like he'd been doing this kind of thing his whole life.

Can we get NPH to host every awards show from now on? He made the Tonys more fun than any Oscars I can remember.

June 9, 2011

The Trip is funny

The Trip

A new movie from prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is coming out tomorrow: The Trip, which was originally produced for BBC TV last year. It's a largely improvised, loosely structured comedy about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing unflattering alternate versions of themselves, on a fluff-piece assignment for a newspaper to drive around northern England and eat at fancy restaurants.

All 6 episodes of the BBC version used to be on YouTube (some seem to have been taken down) and it's hilarious, though the following description isn't going to make it sound like it is: The two guys ride around, eat dinner, bust each others' chops in a way that usually sounds like friendly competition between actors, but sometimes crosses into open hostility and jealousy, and do lots and lots of impressions that are, surprisingly, funny. It's better than it sounds.

Here's a clip of some impressions, all taken from a single episode:

If you've seen Tristram Shandy, also by Michael Winterbottom and starring the same two guys, you've seen how good they are at funny endless improvised bullshitting: both are unattractively desperate to build themselves up and brag about their careers, and would occasionally seem like they genuinely loathe each other if they didn't work together so often and play off each other so wonderfully.

I'm doing a terrible job at making this movie seem like it's worth watching, but I'm psyched for it. For what it's worth, Time Out gave it 5 stars. Cutting 6 episodes of the TV show down to 107 minutes is going to make it tighter and better, while hopefully still leaving in things like the great circuitous riffs on medieval period piece speeches:

and singing Kate Bush in the car:

April 15, 2011

The end of soaps

Tootsie, Southwest General

ABC's recent decision to cancel two of its long-running daytime soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live", is another nail in the soap opera coffin. Besides putting hundreds of people out of work in both LA and New York, it means fewer opportunities for young actors and writers to get their first decent-paying jobs. Say what you want about the quality and relevance of soap operas, but here are a few actors who got their start on the soaps:

(Those last four are Oscar winners.)

On the Soap Central website, there will only be four daytime soap operas left after the two ABC cancellations: "Days of Our Lives", "General Hospital", "The Young and the Restless", and "The Bold and the Beautiful", and since that last one didn't start until 1987 and only runs for 30 minutes, it barely counts.

But here's the real question: what does this mean for Tootsie? Tootsie is one of my very favorite movies, and while it will probably stand up just fine in a post-soap world, I wonder if younger generations will get all the jokes if they've never spent long afternoons watching "Guiding Light" while their grandmother smokes cigarettes and has her pre-dinner Schmidt's. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman lands a role in a fictitious soap, "Southwest General", after transforming himself into Dorothy Michaels.

Jessica Lange introducing herself as the "hospital slut". Patients going in and out of comas with every commercial break. Nurses having simultaneous affairs with doctors and patients. Leading men, pushing 70, who have weekly affairs with 22 year-olds. The live episode. The big "I'm Edward Kimberly!" reveal, which is a reference to a similar storyline from "General Hospital" in 1980, when Sally Armitage, played by a male cross-dressing actor, was revealed to be Max Hedges. Here's the entire fantastic Edward Kimberly speech.

That is one nutty hospital.

April 2, 2011

Clair Huxtable vs. Billy Crudup

Clair HuxtableBilly Crudup

I'm still disappointed at how un-transcendent the new Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is, and I've been thinking of things that might have made it better and more fun to watch.

Here's one. There's a scene when Billy Crudup, playing a sort of manic literature professor and Byron scholar, recites the opening lines of "She Walks in Beauty", in order to emphasize Lord Byron's genius and the immortality of his words. But the way he says them is weirdly halting and raggedy, which totally overwhelms the language and the subtle rhythm of the lines.

Compare that to the first time a lot of my generation probably heard those words: as spoken by Clair Huxtable in a funny episode of The Cosby Show, "The Card Game". You can watch her smoothly and, I'm just going to say it, sexily recite the first stanza in the first two minutes of this episode here, starting at 1:45.

Did you realize Phylicia Rashad was that hot?

March 25, 2011

My Dinner With "Community"

My Dinner With Andre

Have you been watching "Community"? The show about a bunch of oddball friends going to a community college, that has Joel McHale and Trudy from "Mad Men" and Chevy Chase in it?

This is now the funniest show that nobody seems to be watching. It's the only show I watch that regularly makes me think, "I can't believe someone's doing this on TV."

Last night's episode, "Critical Film Studies" [video], is a perfect example. It's set up like an extended reference to Tarantino movies, mostly Pulp Fiction and a little bit of Reservoir Dogs, and then suddenly about 2/3 of the way through, it turns out that the whole episode is a long-form My Dinner With André joke.

WHAT? Yes! The 1981 movie where Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory have dinner and talk about life and their various experiences in the world. It set the bar for later movies about people talking where nothing actually happens: there might not be Richard Linklater or some of the weirder Gus Van Sant movies without this movie.

But it's hardly the kind of thing you tend to see on a network sitcom at 8:00. Maybe this is why fewer than 5 million people watch it and NY Mag named it the best show last year. It's the weirdest thing on network TV.

March 14, 2011

Bobcat Goldthwait's next insane movie

Bobcat Goldthwait

I don't know how much you've heard about Bobcat Goldthwait and his career as a movie director. A year or two ago, I saw his latest movie, World's Greatest Dad, after hearing that it was some kind of super-dark hyper-cynical comedy that was sort of like if Heathers didn't pull any punches.

It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, certainly unlike any other Robin Williams comedy, and was simultaneously really funny and really sick. Roger Ebert thought it actually wasn't dark enough (it does sort of sell out at the end.) It made all of $200,000 at the box office.

His previous movie is called Sleeping Dogs Lie, a sweet romantic comedy about what happens when Anna Draper from "Mad Men" reveals an embarrassing early sexual encounter to her fiance, and he freaks out. Because it involves, of course, a dog. That one made $600,000, almost entirely in foreign markets.

Clearly this guy is doing something much more interesting than you'd expect if you only know him from standup and the Police Academy movies. First, he directed some "Chappelle's Show" episodes. Then he directed a bunch of Jimmy Kimmel's show. Then he made disturbing comedies about bestiality, masturbation, and suicide. It seems like he's waging total assault on all arbitrary standards of morality and mannered phoniness, and most pop culture, too.

The other day, Goldthwait was on Adam Carolla's podcast show talking about his next movie, encouragingly titled God Bless America. This one is about a middle-aged guy who happens to see a show like "My Super Sweet 16" featuring a standard-issue spoiled ditz, goes into a rage, and "drives 400 miles and kills that girl." Then the guy and a classmate of the dead girl steal a car and "drive around and kill people."

Obviously this one's going to be worth seeing.

It'll be produced by Richard Kelly, another admirably mental filmmaker, whose last movie, The Box, may not have made much/any money, but it sure was a radically weird intergalactic freak-out! Kelly's next movie is going to be called Corpus Christi, about a mentally unstable Iraq vet. I think it's safe to say he'll take that premise to its most bizarre conclusion.

These two guys are like an imaginary collaboration of Werner Herzog and John Waters, if they both continued making really great movies despite not making any money.

March 9, 2011

NPR and our screwed up news industry

Vivian Schiller from NPR, on Fox News

If I don't think about it too hard, I can almost understand today's ouster of Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR. Even if she wasn't the one who got suckered by a team of fake donors and made negative comments about the Tea Party, Republicans, and, awkwardly, the Jewish-controlled media, (though there's "not too much Jewish influence at NPR",) and even if the person who did make those comments made it clear that he was voicing his own opinions and not those of NPR, she's still the boss, so she's ultimately responsible for how NPR is perceived.

But at the same time, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This is in part because I personally agree with some of what Ron Schiller said while he was secretly recorded by con artists--the Republican party really has been hijacked by some extremists, and a lot of those extremists really do seem to be xenophobic.

It's also because members of the right-wing media loudly announce their irrational negative beliefs about Democrats and the left all the time. Roger Ailes can say that NPR is run by Nazis, and hosts of Fox News programs can call the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrators "union thugs" spewing "vitriol and violent rhetoric".

What makes Vivian Schiller's ouster sort of understandable is that NPR gets public funding, and Fox doesn't. OK. But that funding is only 1% of NPR's budget, and 9% of member stations' budgets. And the guy who made the questionable statements isn't a journalist or involved in news in any way; he's a fundraiser who's on his way out to his next job, and, frankly, he's probably already sort of mentally checked out.

In my opinion, NPR does real, thoughtful, high-quality reporting, without any identifiable political agenda. In my opinion, Fox News often falls far short of that. But Fox also seems to understand that there really isn't any such thing as pure, unbiased reporting. There never has been. The wealthy classes have always controlled major media in this country, and business interests are always central to news agency operations. I sometimes admire that outlets like Fox can so wholeheartedly embrace this, and not even try to pretend they're impartial.

But NPR and other public news services seem to strive for a noble, if ultimately illusory, concept of neutrality in reporting. I guess that's why Schiller had to resign: any evidence of bias in reporting lessens your credibility, if you believe that reporting can ever be free from bias.

What I really wish had happened is this: if all that separates Fox News and NPR and the standards we apply in the personal opinions their staff are allowed to voice is the little bit of public funding that NPR gets, I wish Vivian Schiller had stepped up and said that NPR was returning all the public funding it's received this year, and would no longer accept public funds. Let the public funds go only to local nonprofit stations, not to NPR itself. Yeah, it would be financially difficult, member stations would suffer, and her board would hate it. But if that financial freedom allows NPR to do its good work without getting harassed by a Congress that doesn't see the value of real reporting, it's worth it.

February 17, 2011

American "Prime Suspect"

Helen Mirren and Maria Bello, once and future Jane Tennison

I didn't even know that NBC was remaking "Prime Suspect", the British cop-drama show that ran sporadically over 7 seasons from 1991 to 2006. This was the show that starred Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, one of my favorite TV characters of all time, and was the first time I saw Helen Mirren in anything.

In the first season, Tennison faces hostility from her all-male department when she's brought in to lead a tricky murder investigation. She's also got a lot of personal problems that develop over the seasons as she rises through the ranks, like alcoholism. Plus it's Helen Mirren. She absolutely owns this role, and even though now she's a big movie star who probably won't be doing television anymore, it's still some of the best stuff she's ever done.

So now NBC has cast Maria Bello to play Tennison in the remake. I like her, and she's one hard working actress: she'll regularly do 3 or 4 movies a year, including both indie movies like The Cooler and A History of Violence (which both feature somewhat controversial sex scenes,) and mainstream aging manchild romps like Grown Ups. She's good at playing smart and tough and damaged, and she's beautiful. And she's the right age--mid-40's, though she really doesn't look it. But imagining her as Jane Tennison means comparing her to Helen Mirren, and that's always going to be an unfair fight.

Not that I can think of anyone better. If I had to cast an American Jane Tennison, all I could come up with is Jodie Foster, or maybe if it were being made 10 years from now, Hilary Swank. Neither of whom seem to be doing a lot of TV these days.

A lot has changed since the early '90's in the world of female TV cops: now we have "CSI", "The Closer", "Criminal Minds", and a few of the "Law & Order"s which all have women investigators. As the AV Club says, the new version of "Prime Suspect" will be set in "a New York precinct dominated by men, which exists in an alternate universe not currently flooded with television shows about tough female detectives who tend to routinely make fools of the men who believe they dominate their precincts."

Maria Bello's got an uphill battle, but if she brings some of that boozy, funny, cynical, hard-driving attitude that she had in Thank You For Smoking, when she played the alcohol industry lobbyist and spokesperson for the Moderation Council, she'll be great.

January 11, 2011

Judy Clarke: defending our crackpot assassins

Judy Clarke

The latest star to emerge from the Tucson shootings is Judy Clarke, who will be Jared Loughner's public defender. Clarke is our nation's biggest superstar in defending world-famous psychopaths who commit mass murder. She's already defended the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the woman who drowned her two young sons Susan Smith, Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, and she also helped with the defense of the US citizen charged in the 9/11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui.

Here's what I want to know: with such an incredibly dramatic legal career involving some of the most infamous murderers of our time, why haven't we gotten a movie based on the life and career of Judy Clarke? Or at least a TV miniseries? I'm thinking either Judy Davis or Cherry Jones to play Clarke. How about a title. "Counselor of Evil"? "The Mercy of the Court"? "Defender of the Damned"?

This is a woman who has made a life out of representing some the most hated people on the planet. Obviously, she's not going for acquittal in these cases. Clarke opposes the death penalty, and has been pretty successful at getting life sentences for her clients.

Let's look at her track record:

Not too bad--I'd say Loughner has a decent shot at avoiding the death penalty. Which probably means that a whole lot of people out there will continue to despise Judy Clarke.

Clarke is characterized by everyone who knows her as unassuming and low-key, avoiding all publicity and media, but she's also "tough as nails", "invisible to the press", and motivated by a strong personal objection to capital punishment. A death-penalty lawyer and friend of Clarke's says, "Judy would probably say if the public saw everything she sees, it would look at the client or the case differently."

Apparently she's really good at getting the public to see cases from her point of view: she's humanized the most monstrous killers just enough to persuade a jury to give a life sentence. I would guess this also depends on gaining the trust and cooperation of her clients. In Loughner's case, that will probably be especially hard: he sounds like a non-communicative, possibly schizophrenic nutcase. But she's done it before with other obviously mentally ill clients. Only two people other than McVeigh have been executed in the federal court system since the federal death penalty came back in 1988.

Also: her husband's name is Speedy Rice.

A tough, driven lawyer in a floppy-bow tie breaking down the defenses of child killers and terrorists, convincing the most psychopathic ideologues to plead guilty: I want to watch that movie.

December 6, 2010

Four Lions: suicide bomber slapstick

Four Lions

Four Lions

You know this new movie, Four Lions, the terrorism satire? Just by being a terrorism satire, it's shocking. It's always going to be too soon for some people to handle this movie, and there are a couple of moments that made even a hardened cynic like me gasp. It's the blackest movie I've seen in years, but it's also a light and occasionally sweet comedy about some very humanized jihadists in the UK.

Watching this movie in the theater is an especially strange experience because of all the weird times that the audience laughs. Sure, everybody laughed at the funny costumes and the scene of the terrorist rapping on one of his video messages (above) but what about during the suicide bombing sequences, which got more than one weirdly shrill giggle from the audience? Are suicide bombs funny? Not usually, but apparently sometimes, yes, they are.

Let's remember that the UK suffered a more recent lethal terrorist attack than we did, so it's arguably too soon for them to be laughing about this stuff, too. The director, Chris Morris, is probably best known in the US as the guy who plays the over-confident boss man on the show "The IT Crowd", which has been on IFC lately (video). He also anchored an early TV news spoof called "The Day Today", which was on in the UK in 1994 and also featured Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, who went on to do In the Loop.

Four Lions and In the Loop would be good to watch together: they're both about the War on Terror and the useless morons on either side who are fighting it. The same two guys, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, wrote both movies. In the Loop has a purely cynical view of the incompetent and selfish idiots who started the war in Iraq, but Four Lions is a little more complicated. Its characters are nicer and goofier than the In the Loop guys, so they're less odious on the surface. But their goals are much worse. As lovably inept as they are, they still want to kill people. As Chris Morris says, "Terrorism is about ideology, but it's also about doofuses."

A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert both liked the movie a lot, which isn't surprising, but conservative talk radio star Michael Medved LOVES it. Medved interviewed Morris on his show a few weeks ago. Maybe we'd be better off if we all start thinking of terrorists, in Morris's words, as scary but also ridiculous.

Here's the trailer.

November 1, 2010

Hey, look, it's Sars!

Tough Love in Time Out

I was reading the current issue of Time Out, which has a new weekly feature called "Tough Love" which offers smart, non-sugar-coated dating advice. And hey! It's by our old almost-friend Sars, aka Sarah D. Bunting!

If you've been reading the internet for a while, you may remember a time before Gawker, before Jezebel, and before every single style and culture magazine started doing clever commentary of TV episodes. Today, if you want some analysis of the latest episode of "Mad Men" or "Glee", you can read the Times' TV blog, NY Mag, Entertainment Weekly, even the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and many other sites that do TV recaps.

But there was a time when Television Without Pity was pretty much the only game in town, and it was hugely influential. I was a big fan back when it was called Mighty Big TV, and Sars' weekly "Dawson's Creek" recaps regularly forced me to clap my hands over my mouth and shake silently at my desk so that no one in the office would know I was reading something deeply hilarious and not remotely work-related.

Though they couldn't have known the havoc they would wreak on a generation of internet commenters, TWoP brought the word "snark" into common usage and taught us all how to be ironic and sophisticated when writing about pop culture. Though, judging from all those other recap writers, not necessarily how to be funny.

Anyway, TWoP was sold to Bravo in 2007, and Sars and co-founder Wing Chun left the year after. Since the sale to Bravo I have read the current site's recaps exactly zero times. Their related pop culture site Fametracker has been frozen in time since 2007, and, sadly, doesn't look like it will ever return. Which is too bad--Fametracker was one of my favorite media/culture/celebrity sites ever.

Sarah D. Bunting's personal site Tomato Nation looks better than ever, with a lot of stuff about candy, baseball, and, of course, what she's watching on TV. She's also done an advice column for many years, so it's pretty cool that a magazine finally noticed and offered her a regular gig.

So far, Tough Love is good: funny, sharp, and sympathetic, while not letting anyone off the hook. In her very first answer, she advises a young woman fed up with waiting for her boyfriend to propose to "grab a Ring Pop and propose to him. It’s 2010." Thank you, Sars! This should be the default advice given to anyone who has ever made this complaint. Hope she's as influential with this kind of stuff.

October 25, 2010

Original zombie programming

The Dead Set on IFC

Now that every cable channel feels like it has to do original programming, a couple of channels are introducing new shows this week. Two of them are zombie shows, which is a little odd: didn't the Great Zombie Revivification peak 3 or 4 or 8 years ago? I think of the publication of World War Z, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, and the Halloween Parade of 2008 when about 10,000 people all seemed to be dressed as zombies as the high point of the new zombie revolution.

But it's only now that TV is catching up. AMC is going to premiere its new series, "The Walking Dead", on Halloween night (next Sunday). It sounds like a close relative of Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later, in which the main character wakes up in a hospital to find the world has been overrun by zombies. It's based on a comic series that launched in 2003, a good year for zombies. It looks like it should be pretty good, but might take itself too seriously (producer-director Frank Darabont wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption and, even better, Nightmare on Elm Street III.)

IFC has its own zombie show, too, "Dead Set". This one starts tonight at midnight and runs for just five episodes. It's a British series that first aired in 2008 (again, a better year for TV zombies) and features a bunch of young telegenic people shooting a season of "Big Brother" while the world outside the studio is transformed by the zombie apocalypse.

This one sounds pretty funny: the fans of the show screaming outside the Big Brother house slowly turn into zombies that try to eat their idols' brains. From the Times article about the series: "One of the 'Big Brother' hosts, Davina McCall, plays herself. She does so quite convincingly, as both a sharp-tongued television presenter and a blood-caked angry zombie trying to take a bite out of her producer."

First Shaun of the Dead and now this: Why is it that only the British have succeeded in the zombie spoof genre?

In the non-zombie original programming category is a new series on TCM, "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood", a 7-part show starting next Monday night about the explosive growth of the American movie industry. It starts in 1903 with nickelodeons and The Great Train Robbery, and ends in 1969 with Easy Rider.

I think this is TCM's first original documentary, and it looks great, even if no one's guts get ripped out of their bellies and devoured by a horde of fast-moving undead.

September 13, 2010

Grow a pair, Joanie

Joan and Peggy in the elevator, Mad Men

Has "Mad Men" felt a little bit like a Joan take-down lately? Things haven't always gone so great for Joan, but this season she's been back on top of her game, running the office and holding a position of authority that she clearly loves.

But then a few episodes ago, Lane busted her for trying to manipulate him into getting some vacation time: "I understand that all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you, but consider me the incorruptible exception!"

Then this week, Joey the snotty-nosed creative guy really let her have it, with a whole posse of young upstarts openly ridiculing her. The things Joey said about her lording over the office and telling everyone what to do, wearing tight dresses that make her look like, what was it? A madam at a Shanghai brothel? It was all rude and mean and totally disrespectful, but it wasn't too far off base. The part about "looking like you're trying to get raped" was awful, but it's true that Joan basically invites men to take advantage of her or use her in lots of non-rapey ways, and sometimes depends on it to get what she wants.

The real story here is that Joan doesn't know how to use her power in any way other than to manipulate. She wheedles and cajoles and backstabs and manipulates. To confront the assholes in the office who treat her disrespectfully, she tells them all she hopes they go to Vietnam and get killed. What they did to her was inappropriate and awful, but then she stoops to their level.

Peggy, burgeoning feminist prototype, has legitimate power, and uses it legitimately. As Don advises her, "You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself." So she fires Joey, which is exactly what the audience would expect to happen in such a blatant case of sexual harassment.

Joan has legitimate power, for sure, but when it comes down to it, she can't use it to stand up for herself. She lets herself get passed over for the job she wants, she marries the jerk that raped her, she backstabs the guys who harass her at the office instead of sending them packing, then she calls Peggy a "humorless bitch" because she used her authority and did the right thing. In the Times recap of the episode, Ginia Bellafante says, "Joan is unmoored now in a world where a woman's currency in corporate life is no longer exclusively sexual."

It seems like the show is encouraging us to be a little more like Lane in how we feel about Joanie. I still love her, but I don't think we're going to see the feminist awakening in her that I've been hoping for.

Watching Gaga on the VMAs

Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the VMAs

Gaga's total domination of all media continued last night with a record number of VMA wins, a predictably bonkers line-up of ever-changing outfits for her acceptance speeches, and then an unpredictably crazy/gross/brilliant final appearance in a meat dress. And for anyone who might have doubted her formidable vocal chops, a spontaneous performance of the chorus of her next record [video].

I sat there watching her, wishing I could be 15 years old. So that while watching Gaga in her meat dress, belting out a few bars with tears streaming down her face, my mind could just be happily blown, instead of trying to figure out how I fit into the Nostalgic High School Misfit demographic that a record company marketing team has surely mapped out.

In one example of today's onslaught of gossip site reactions to the dress, Hollywood Gossip did a little piece with a "Tasty or Tasteless?" poll for readers. But since this is a celebrity outfit at an awards ceremony, they also did their standard "Get This Look!" feature, where you can hover over the photo and see where you can buy affordable versions of the clothes and accessories the star is wearing.

I really, really wish the link to the dress went to a wholesale butcher, but in a spectacular missing of the point, it actually goes to a conventional burgundy-colored little floral dress that's made of silk, not slabs of beef.

September 9, 2010

Terriers, the return of Donal Logue

Donal Logue on Terriers

Donal Logue has a new TV show called "Terriers" on FX. I'm a big Donal Logue fan. He continues to do loads of TV and movies, but somehow his career has never really taken off the way it should have. I know he was the star of "Grounded For Life" a few years ago, a show I watched zero times, but in a lot of the press I've seen for "Terriers", he's still referred to as "Donal Logue, from The Tao of Steve", a movie that came out 10 years ago.

Anyway, everything that's good about this new show is basically because of Donal Logue. The show follows Logue and his friend, a guy from "True Blood", who work as unlicensed private eyes in San Diego. They're both well-meaning schlubby guys trying, without much success, to get their lives together: Logue is an ex-drunk who got kicked off the police force and dumped by his wife, whom he still loves, and his friend is an ex-burglar. They investigate crimes and domestic disputes while the whole world calls them deadbeats. But, of course, they're actually really good in a back-door kind of way, and use their connections to the seamy underbelly to expose the bad guys.

Donal Logue is as haggardly charming as ever, even if he does have more grey in his bead and deep crinkles on his face. The writing is pretty flat: Logue has lines like "You killed my friend. And I'm going to destroy you" that not even he can save. But there's funny stuff, too, like when the two guys are watching at a pretty graphic sex tape recorded on someone's iPhone. "iPorn!," the friend says. "You what?," says Donal Logue.

The pilot episode was directed by Craig Brewer, who also did Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan and is good at capturing the grim reality of being poor, desperate, driving a cruddy car, hanging out with criminals and drug addicts, and getting chained to radiators. There's a big streak of class consciousness running through this show (NY Times says it "hangs rich people out to dry") with the wealthy pillars of society raping the underclass until our heroes take them down.

I'm guessing this show won't be around for more than a few months, but for now it's a good scruffy diversion until Logue's next movie Vengeance. Which stars Danny Trejo, Jason Mewes, and 50 Cent and looks pulpy and great.

One little reminder about the past career of Donal Logue: he starred in and produced another short-lived comedy series called "The Knights of Prosperity" about a bunch of losers and weirdos who decide to rob Mick Jagger. No one watched it, but it was hilarious, and featured the character with the greatest TV name of all time: Rockefeller Butts. You can watch all the episodes on Hulu.

June 30, 2010

"Freaks and Geeks" is on!

Freaks and Geeks

One of the most talked-about TV shows of all time that nobody watched while it was on the air is "Freaks and Geeks". It's one of my favorite shows ever, and today's big news is that IFC is going to air the entire series, starting this Friday!

The show gets so much attention now because it represents the earliest stage of what has become the Judd Apatow Juggernaut: that group of writers, directors, and actors who have dominated the R-rated comedy scene since 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin. The show was the brainchild of Apatow, Paul Feig (who went on to do "Arrested Development" and "The Office") and Mike White (Orange County, School of Rock).

The stars have almost all gone on to bigger things: James Franco, Seth Rogen (at a tender 17!), Jason Segel, Linda Cardelleni, and Busy Philipps all got their start on the show. My very favorite actor on the show is Martin Starr, who's now an awesome character actor and has become handsome and sort of beefy--surprising, considering how good he was as super-nerd Bill Haverchuck on the show.

(In other news, Martin Starr's latest show "Party Down" just got canceled by Starz.)

Anyway, "Freaks and Geeks" was an hour-long comedy-drama about being in high school in Michigan in the mid-80's. It's hilarious and nostalgic in a non-manipulative way and heartbreaking and great. If you missed it when it ran for all of 18 episodes in 1999-2000, now's your chance.

It airs on IFC on Friday, Monday, and Sunday nights. In a few months, IFC is also going to run the entire series of "Undeclared", which was the next show produced by most of the same people. That one's about freshman year of college. It was pretty uneven and never reached the greatness of "Freaks and Geeks", but it does feature a great performance by Jason Segel as the obsessive hometown boyfriend of the main girl who during one episode comes to visit her on campus--he's completely unnerving and manic, and it's the best thing he's ever done.

When IFC was airing "Arrested Development" a few months ago, if I ever happened to come across it while flipping around the channels I would always sit and watch the episode, even though I've got the DVDs sitting right there under the TV. I'm sure it will be exactly the same with "Freaks and Geeks"--it's just more exciting to be lucky enough to catch a favorite episode on TV, plus no commercials.

IFC has gotten really good at picking my favorite shows. What's next? "Spaced"?

May 26, 2010

Series finale of a show I don't watch anymore: Law & Order

Van Buren on the final episode of Law & Order

"Law & Order" is one of my favorite shows of all time, but I stopped watching it during Dennis Farina's first season. Maybe it's that there wasn't much point watching the show without Jerry Orbach, maybe it's that you can watch reruns of the older, better ones pretty much whenever you want.

But I did see the series finale, or, actually, the last episode they happened to produce which was never intended to be the last one ever, but that's the way it goes.

It was an uncharacteristically action-packed episode, featuring a shootout with a rampaging public school teacher in a school library, with kids getting shot and everything. You can watch that scene here, though the episode's very last sequence was even better.

Lt. Van Buren (above) is in the midst of a cancer scare, and at a party at a bar the other cops throw to raise money for her, she gets a call from her doctor with test results. We only see the back of her head while she listens and reacts emotionally to what she hears over the phone, and it's an incredibly tense, moving moment. It's not until she sighs and says "thank you thank you!" that we know she got good news.

S. Epatha Merkerson had already given her notice, so even if the show had another season, this was it for her. "Law & Order" hardly ever goes into the private lives of its characters, but the rare personal moments like this are amazingly understated and subtle. This scene was one of the best quietly emotional moments I've ever seen on the show, and I'm kind of happy that, of all the big, dramatic TV finales lately, it was this one that got me a little teary.

There's a rumor that NBC will go for at least another few episodes or a 2-hour movie to close the series out properly. Considering that they're making the boneheaded move of canceling this 20-season show in order to create a new L&O in LA (for crying out loud!) they clearly have some money they could use for the original instead. If this really was it for "Law & Order", I like that it ended its long run by slipping quietly out the back door.

May 25, 2010

24 series finale: Shut it down

Chloe shoots Kiefer on 24

So this damn show that's been running on fumes for the past 3 or 4 (or 7) years is finally over. 24 is the only TV show that I've seen every single episode of, and while it feels a little weird now that it's finally out of my life forever, at least I won't have to keep quietly wondering if I'm still watching it out of some misguided sense of one-sided loyalty.

The thing is, as implausible and absurd as the storyline was this year, again, the show still has some outstanding moments. Last week's episode when Kiefer put on body armor, complete with some sort of Kevlar Darth Vader robot helmet, and single-handedly mowed down an entire secret service detail before kidnapping a former President--it's scenes like that that 24 knows how to do.

I also liked Kiefer forcing Chloe to shoot him in last night's episode (above). It was a tense but sweet scene. Only a show like this could have one character show another how much she loves him by blasting him through-and-through, so the bullet didn't hit any bone or major organs.

The plot about President Taylor sliding into corruption to get her peace treaty signed stopped being interesting about 3 months ago, no matter how many times she pounded her fists and demanded that this peace treaty was the single most important political event! ever! to happen! in history! But I liked last night's shot of her watching Kiefer's video and slowly crumbling under the relentless velvetiness of the Sutherland Bedroom Whisper, which brought her back to righteousness and made her resign.

But plot was never what made the show good. Kiefer himself said, when the series was coming to a close, "It's a very, very difficult show to write." Which is probably why it was at its best when no one was talking.

As usual, the action went right up to the last minutes of the season. The final scene of Kiefer telling Chloe, the only person who's stood by him through everything and not gotten killed, how much she means to him was a genuine and tender moment, even if he was speaking into a drone's video feed. Right up until the end, he was by far the best thing about the show.

I can't say I'm looking forward to the movie.

If you really want to watch this show, you can see all the episodes here.

May 24, 2010

Lost finale: over-promise, under-deliver

Shannon and Sayid make out on Lost

Something I've learned from years of bar trivia is that when trying to answer a tricky question, you should follow your first instinct. After crossing out the first answer that came to mind and writing in some last-minute reconsideration, only to find out that you were right the first time, you eventually figure out that you should always go with your first answer.

So during Season 1 when the whole world theorized that the characters on "Lost" were all dead, only to come up with many wilder ideas later on, well, I guess we all should have just stuck with our first guess.

OK, I know, "they're all dead" isn't really what was happening for the narrative arc of the show. The producers decided to go with an emotional resolution to the series, pretty much abandoning the mythology of the island in favor of a mystical sci-fi soap opera where everybody hugs in slow-motion. I think the whole reason they created this season's flash-sideways storyline, which turned out to be an extended vision of the afterlife, was to distract viewers who might otherwise have been dissatisfied by the narrative ending of the show, which left a ton of plot points unresolved and all the characters scattered all over the place. They're all together and happy when they're dead, so quit complaining, you ingrate fans!

The series finale wasn't terrible, but the show's producers and cast spent the last six months wildly overselling it. They claimed the ending would be satisfying and bring real resolution and closure for the fans. Not like "The Sopranos"! They over-promised. All that did was set them up for failure if fans were less than totally satisfied, which any fan that thought the show was more than just a character study probably is.

I can think of lots of important things that weren't resolved. Like, can anyone tell me why there was time travel on this show? I really liked last season when some of the cast skipped through time like a needle on a scratched record, but now it just seems like a contrived plot device that had nothing to do with the idea that the island is some kind of energy source for life in the universe.

On "Jimmy Kimmel Live" after the show was over, Jimmy chatted with the cast members on what it was like to be part of the show and what they thought of the ending. When he got to Alan Dale, who played Charles Widmore, and asked him what it was like to play such a scary character, there was this awkward pause, and Alan Dale admitted that he actually never figured out if his character was supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. Yeah, you and me both, Alan Dale. I don't think Widmore was anything like a good guy, but his motivations in the last season were a total mystery, and his death felt more like a box getting checked than part of a good/evil showdown. Very unsatisfying.

Still, I liked how the island narrative of the show ended without full resolution. It was just like how a lot of seasons ended: some characters get off the island, some are still stuck there, some are dead. I didn't really need the afterlife storyline to make me feel like it all comes out OK in the end. Those flash-sideways love reunions got a little tedious after the fourth or fifth identical sequence, but at least we got to see the show's hottest couple, Sayid and Shannon (above), start making out 4 seconds after finding each other again.

May 21, 2010

"What if the bachelorette party theme is sluts?"

Jenna Maroney having a rage stroke

I wasn't always so wild about this season of 30 Rock, which ended last night. But Jenna's line about Liz's hypothetical bachelorette party, during her brief engagement to Wesley Snipes, killed me. (Here's the episode.) Actually, let's think about some other highlights of the season:

From the Christmas episode ("Secret Santa"):
Danny: [Sings "Danny Boy"] I'm sorry, is your nose bleeding?
Jenna: Yes. Because I'm so happy for you. It's definitely not a rage stroke.

From the Liz Lemon party episode ("Khonani"):
Liz: You think when I was a kid I dreamed of someday spending $1,200 on a karaoke machine to impress a bunch of pasty losers?
Jenna: And a professional singer, who's beautiful ... but doesn't know it!

From the environmentalism episode
("Sun Tea"):
Kenneth: I've been put in charge of reducing TGS's carbon footprint. And everyone has to chip in.
Jenna: Kenneth, I once took a low-volume shower with Ed Begley, Jr. What more can I do?

Jenna really got some of the best lines this season.

Get ready for next week's TV apocalypse, when Law and Order, 24, and Lost all end forever. Maybe Sam Waterston, Kiefer, and Michael Emerson can all create a new reality show about going to auditions.

May 3, 2010

Music videos are back

Lady Gage Poison TV

Back in the early days of shows like "Friday Night Videos", music videos were a fun, goofy diversion. They usually looked like they cost about $25 to make and served as a novel way to experience the songs you heard on the radio, and as a new resource for looking at girls and guys in sexy outfits. Examples: Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra".

Then videos became both big business and sometimes actual art. You've got every video from "Thriller", a-ha's "Take On Me", and Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More". People often cared more about the video than the song, and videos became the perfect marketing device: ads that people wanted to watch. Pretty soon David Fincher is directing Paula Abdul's best videos and Madonna's "Express Yourself", Michael Jackson makes "Scream" for $7 million, and Aerosmith does an Alicia Silverstone video trilogy ("Cryin'", "Crazy", and the one I always forget, "Amazing".)

I'd love to see a graph comparing the declining number of videos aired per day on MTV and shrinking record sales. Maybe downloading had already taken hold, so MTV decided to stop running video-ads for singles and albums that no one was buying anymore. Or maybe MTV's lack of interest in videos and growing devotion to reality shows actually contributed in some small way to the crash of the music industry. Either way, record companies don't have the marketing budgets that they used to, and the last five years or so have been terrible for the music video.

In New York magazine, there's a great article called "Internet Killed the MTV Star", which says that even if they're not on TV anymore, videos are back. There's nothing in this piece that comes as much of a surprise, but it nicely articulates a few things that you've probably been noticing over the past few years:

  • Videos are popular again because of YouTube
  • YouTube has slowly shifted focus from accidentally popular amateur videos to intentionally popular music videos
  • Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to music videos since MTV, Madonna, and Tawny Kitaen.

Gaga's videos have over 1 billion views, and she's one of few current artists to have truly massive album sales ("The Fame" hit 10 million in February), so it seems that people do still actually want to buy a record when they like the videos.

Gaga's videos are also money makers in themselves, through a little bit of revenue from internet ads, and from far more lucrative product placement, which glaringly saturates the "Telephone" video. The CEO of video service Vevo (which is owned by Sony and Universal) says, "There was a time when music videos were purely promotional, and that was fine when people were buying music. Now they're no longer promotional. We sell advertising in and around them at a premium. Instead of being a marketing expense, videos can be a profit center."

One of the best things about the resurgence of music videos as something record companies will actually invest in again is that the most exciting directors that really know how to make great videos can get back into it. The director of Gaga's current trilogy, Jonas Akerlund, did a lot of Roxette videos and that notorious Prodigy one for "Smack My Bitch Up". Spike Jonze has just done a new one for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls". Michel Gondry, who did tons of great videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, but hasn't been doing much lately, says, "now I feel like it's coming back to early MTV, before the big-budget cranes, when it was creative and fun."

Videos might be creative and fun again because we're going to see a whole lot of Virgin Mobile ads in them, but on the whole, it's probably a better experience than watching MTV circa 1999 when you pretty much just saw the same Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit videos every day.

[Thanks, That Fuzzy Bastarrd!]

April 22, 2010

Bob Saget frat party

Bob Saget at a college party

A few months ago, I saw an article about a new reality show coming up on A&E that will feature Bob Saget going around America, spending time with various sub-cultures and documenting all the weird things they do. Some of the show's sub-cultures would probably be biker gangs, mail-order brides, a survivalist cult, a fraternity, and the Amish.

Obviously this sounds like an excellent show, but I was especially excited because it sounded sort of like a TV version of some of David Foster Wallace's best essays about sub-cultures and regional cultural events around America that are full of people who are part of a very specific sub-culture, though often are not at all aware that their culture is different or notable in any way.

If you think about DFW's essays where he interacts with people who go on cruises ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"), people at rural state ag fairs ("Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All"), or people at local food festivals ("Consider the Lobster"), they could have a lot in common with watching Bob Saget at a barn raising or at a frat formal. Saget will probably be a less brilliant and analytical (and, OK, neurotic) guide through American sub-cultures than DFW, but I bet he'll be just as eager to blend in and become an accepted temporary member of the group.

Anyway, production of the show is happening right now at Cornell, where Saget is spending time at Seal & Serpent, an independent society that was apparently more open than the mainstream Greek frats to letting TV crews in to record their secret rituals and underage drinking. Producers apparently went to initiation (a friend who was a member of S&S back in the day says Bob Saget would have made his own initiation "a lot cooler") and will also record a weekend party and that most bizarre of college events, where teens put on dressy clothes and behave like feral libertines at an orgy, the fraternity formal.

Cornell students are excitedly following Saget all over Ithaca, and I would bet Seal & Serpent's party this weekend will be really well attended.

April 9, 2010

Ride pimper, possible wife killer

Monica Beresford-Redman

This is a photo of the cute and sassy Monica Beresford-Redman. I'm assuming it was taken in the mid-90's, judging from the cigar. She's the owner of an LA nightspot that every news story refers to as "the Zabumba bikini bar", and the wife of Bruce Beresford-Redman who created MTV's "Pimp My Ride" and produced some "Survivor" episodes. Bruce was detained by Mexican police yesterday when Monica was found dead in the sewer system of a hotel near Cancun where they had been staying.

He was released today, but has been asked not to leave the country. It's not looking so good for Bruce: guests and staff at the hotel heard them fighting (probably because she had just learned he was cheating) and saw him try to hit her on Monday night, when she was murdered. It looks like she was scratched and choked, and Bruce has scratches on his face and neck, which if you're even a casual viewer of "Law & Order", you know is highly suspicious.

(Note: I realize that you can't really use crime-solving strategies from TV and movies to investigate real crimes. But, OK. In addition to the usual, face-scratches = guilt calculus of many "Law & Order" episodes, there are instances in pop culture when scratches on a suspect's face do not ultimately point to guilt.

One example is Sam Raimi's fantastic and probably underrated movie The Gift, in which an abusive and monstrous Keanu Reeves is initially suspected of killing Katie Holmes, in part because they were having a secret and probably really hot affair, and also because he got scratches on his neck the night she was killed. It turns out that his explanation for the scratches--"Stray cat. She didn't like it when I killed her."--though absurdly over the top in trying to make his character seem menacing and evil, was actually legitimate.)

But in the case of Bruce and Monica Beresford-Redman, I'd say those scratches were likely not from a stray cat. The night of their fight and Monica's death, their hotel door was also opened and closed "at least 11 times". Remember how in Rear Window, Raymond Burr's series of comings and goings late at night from the apartment complex was part of what led Jimmy Stewart to conclude that he had killed his wife.

Bruce B-R probably didn't set out to kill his wife that night (assuming he actually did it) but started hurting her in a moment of anger and poor judgment and, oh, whoops, she's dead. But if he'd spent more time watching crime dramas, he might have know how to cover his tracks better.

March 29, 2010

When famous people are gay

Ricky Martin's Hall of Fame star

It's getting increasingly difficult to remember which gay celebrities have officially come out and which ones are just biding their time until they have a new album/movie/show to promote.

Today's news that Ricky Martin is a fortunate homosexual man wasn't surprising in itself, though for a minute I thought, didn't this just happen the other day? When we found out someone was gay who we already knew was gay?

Oh, no, that was Sean Hayes (just in time for his new Broadway show!)

It's no one's duty to be a positive role model for their alleged community, but every time we get another Ricky Martin to admit it already, hopefully it gets a little easier for the rest of the closeted people we see on TV and in movies to come out, too.

So, how about it, Anderson?

Tom?

Hell, Peter O'Toole?

Wait a minute. Ladies first!

Latifah?

Jodie?

How much of the entertainment industry is gay? A lot more than we know about. Ultimately it's no one's business, and you can't get very far by guessing, but I know attitudes and assumptions would change mighty fast if every single gay celebrity (and elected Republican, apparently) came out tomorrow.

March 25, 2010

Roger Ebert's new TV show

Ebert and Siskel on Sneak Previews

This is my favorite picture of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, from back in the old days. It might even be from their first show together, "Sneak Previews", which aired on PBS stations in the 70's before "At the Movies" started.

Shortly after the announcement that the current A.O. Scott/Michael Phillips-hosted "At the Movies" show was getting canceled, Roger Ebert shed some light on the new TV show and "full-tilt new media" enterprise he's got in the works, which will be called "Roger Ebert presents At the Movies".

The most exciting thing about this new show is that it sounds like the show Ebert has always wanted to do. The experience of watching movies has completely changed in the last 10 years. Everyone now has access to the kinds of little, foreign, or independent movies that only people in big cities used to see, through Netflix, Amazon's streaming rentals, on-demand, Red Box kiosks and things like that. Every so often, Siskel and Ebert would devote a significant chunk of their weekly show to a small movie that most of us would never be able to see in the theater, and would be lucky if our local video store got a copy of it.

Back in the early 90's they championed movies like Hoop Dreams and Crumb and Kieslowski's Three Colors series on nationally syndicated TV, which is pretty incredible. They probably did more to raise the profile of independent and foreign film in the US than anybody else.

So now that we all have far greater access all kinds of weird, small movies, Ebert's new show can be as far-reaching as he wants, because his audience will be so much more knowledgeable about what's out there. Here's how he describes it: "Not just the One Weekend Wonders, although you gotta have 'em, but indie films, foreign films, documentaries, restored classics, the new Herzog, the new Bahrani, the new Almodovar. What's new on Instant Streaming. What great movies should everyone see? Hey, Paramount just announced $1 million for ten $100,000 movies. Those kinds of films ... Our show will try to reach people who think before they watch a movie, and value their time, and their minds."

So, obviously, it's gonna be on cable. Maybe IFC? Ebert and his wife, Chaz, are producing it, and he says they've chosen their host. I don't think it will be any of the previous "At the Movies" hosts (though there's a decent chance Ben Mankiewicz could be in the running--he did a pretty good job.)

My top choice: Alec Baldwin. Why not? He's already hosting the New York Philharmonic's weekly radio show, hosting "The Essentials" on Saturday nights on TCM, writing for the Huffington Post, guest hosting Studio 360, and hosted the Oscars, and that's on top of "30 Rock". He can handle it. I'm only half kidding.

Ebert himself will be on the show every so often for a Great Movies segment or to report from the film festivals. It should be a fun and thoughtful show, because that's how he seems to approach everything these days. Ebert's reviews have gotten pretty generous lately, but he's still an assiduous reviewer.

Check out his review for Hot Tub Time Machine: three stars, which surprises even him, but he explains why it's better than you would think. And here's what he says about Rob Corddry (probably the biggest reason to see it): "Corddry here achieves a level of comic confidence that seems almost uncanny; Cusack, as co-producer, and Steve Pink, the director (who wrote Cusack's High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank), must have intuited this gift and been willing to give him free rein."

I'm glad Ebert's got the money and the clout to do the kind of show he wants. It should be great.

March 24, 2010

"Lost" and eternity

Richard Alpert on Lost

Last night's "Lost" ("Ab Aeterno") about Richard Alpert was one of my favorite episodes ever. Nestor Carbonell, the actor who plays Alpert, was so awesome in this episode that he inadvertently made some of the show's less talented actors look weak by comparison. I've been getting a little weary of Kate and Jack lately, largely because those two actors just don't have the chops for the heavy moments. But some of Nestor Carbonell's scenes, where he's shackled in the wrecked ship, or holding his dead wife's face in the lamplight, or begging Jacob for his life, were so good I felt like I was watching a movie instead of TV. When he's on the screen, we're in good hands.

[Note: he can do comedy too. He was fantastic as Batmanuel in the live-action version of "The Tick" in 2001.]

As for the show's thousands of questions that are still mostly unresolved, I'm starting to wonder if the show is heading for more of an emotional resolution than a functional resolution. Especially in terms of the old and new adversarial relationships that have emerged. I could see the series leading toward a big showdown between Jacob and the Man in Black, Ben Linus and Charles Widmore, and Jack and Locke, which I'd be OK with. But even though recent episodes have revealed a lot of mythology and symbols, we're not getting much information about the actual facts of the island and the power struggles of the people on it.

I don't read every "Lost" blog there is, and I'm sure there are all kinds of nuances and clues that I miss every week. But we're only a handful of episodes from the end of the series, and I still don't understand a whole lot of stuff. Like what Widmore wants and if he's on the side of Jacob or the Man in Black, what the real purpose of the DHARMA Initiative was, who built the giant four-toed statue, whether the island is in the Atlantic (as suggested in last night's episode) or the Pacific (as suggested in every other episode) or if it moves around more radically than we thought, what happened to Sayid in the temple pool, why Ben was able to stab Jacob and kill him, or where Desmond is. Or what the deal is with Christian. Plus about one thousand other questions.

It seems like the show is heading toward more of a metaphoric explanation for all of this than a literal explanation. A couple of seasons ago, we found out where the polar bears literally came from (pretty much). But these days, we're more likely to get symbolic references and a lot of mirroring, like the Black Rock and the white rock, and the repetition of the order to kill someone before he says a word. And Jacob's lengthy musings about human nature's propensity for good and evil.

I have a mental list of all the questions I still have about this show, and I bet a lot of those questions are never going to get answered directly. But if we keep getting great episodes like this one, I can live with that.

Plus, I just want to go on the record with this idea: if both Jin and Sun have to be on the island because their mutual last name, Kwon, is written in Jacob's lighthouse and on the cave wall, then how do we know that Jack is the correct Shephard? I know Christian is dead and everything, but Jack has gotten so irritating lately that I'm hoping Daddy Shephard is the one that matters.

March 10, 2010

Lost surprises

Mario Van Peebles directing Lost

I don't know which was the bigger surprise on last night's "Lost": finding out who Ben is talking to on his doorstep, or seeing the "Directed by Mario Van Peebles" credit that flashed up on the screen at the same time (full episode here).

The last I'd heard of Mario, he was directing and starring in a homage to his father Melvin's seminal 1971 blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, called, naturally Baadasssss! It was, and I mean this with all sincerity, badass.

Since then, he's directed a few episodes of "Law & Order" and now has a small role on "Damages". I don't think he's really made a movie since Baadasssss! (that's 5 s's) in 2003, but he has somehow gotten to direct three feature-length movies that are in production right now, including:

Plus a BET documentary about black male role models called "Bring Your A Game" with Spike Lee and Ice Cube. And an episode of "Lost".

Mario Van Peebles, I don't know how you do it. Either he's got the world's best agent, he works really cheap, or the entertainment industry thinks back on New Jack City with overpowering fondness.

February 24, 2010

Women in subs

There's a brief little news item today announcing that the Pentagon has decided to allow women to work on Navy submarines, which I hadn't realized was something they couldn't do already. With all the attention Don't Ask Don't Tell has gotten lately, I sometimes forget about the tons of military jobs that women still aren't allowed to do (though as the Times reported last summer, they're increasingly doing those jobs anyway.)

So now that men and women can serve together on submarines (party sub!) and considering that Don't Ask Don't Tell's days are numbered, I can imagine one glorious day when there are gay and straight men and women all crammed in together on a submarine.

I'm pitching the sitcom! It will be like "How I Met Your Mother" meets "Glee". On a sub.

How I Met Your Mother and Glee on a Submarine

February 22, 2010

Stuff My Shatner Says

William Shatner

A few months ago we heard that the popular Twitter account "Shit My Dad Says" was being turned into both a book and a CBS sitcom. This site makes me laugh 100% of the times I read it, so as happy as I was that it was doing so well, I was a little worried that the swears and the casually cantankerous, humanity-hating stuff that make it so funny wouldn't make it to TV, where the title would probably be softened to "Stuff My Dad Says".

But now, none of that matters. Because the star of the show is going to be WILLIAM SHATNER.

William Shatner on a horse

This is some deeply inspired casting. If anyone can make a TV-ready version of Samuel Halpern as funny as the original, it's the Shat.

The site's author, Justin Halpern says that his dad's first choice for a star to play him on the show was James Earl Jones. Justin says, "I was like, 'But you're white.' He was like, 'Well, we don't have to be! Who gives a [censored]? You asked me who I thought, and that's who I think.' "

James Earl Jones would add a certain gravity to lines like, "A mule kicked Uncle Bob once. Broke his ribs. He punched it in the face.. My point? You have an ingrown fucking toenail. Stop bitching." But in this case the producers know what they're talking about.

As a side note, I guess one of these days Justin Halpern will probably be able to move out of his parents' house in San Diego, but hopefully the time he'll have to commit to his book and TV show won't detract from time spent listening to his dad's blunt, vulgar wisdom. Also: his dad went to medical school and used to lecture at Harvard, so Halperin says the show's tone can't be quite as "All in the Family" as it sounds like it could be.

Here's Shatner singing "Bust a Move" in a Priceline commercial from a few years ago, around the time that his strange version of cool started moving into uncharted, mythical territory.

February 8, 2010

Band reunion

Here's a great SNL sketch from this weekend's show, for everyone who's realized with dawning horror that the guys from the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks are all well into their 50s now.

Band Reunion, with Crisis of Conformity:

You hear that, Alexander Haig?

Also, did you know Fred Armisen was the drummer for freaky 90s punk/hardcore/funk band Trenchmouth? I guess as SNL's oldest member and only legitimate aging rocker he's mentally preparing himself for his inevitable fist fight in the parking lot future.

January 25, 2010

SAG awards

Eli Roth and the cast of Inglourious Basterds

The Screen Actors Guild gave out its awards over the weekend, and the only real surprise was Inglourious Basterds, which won the night's big award for best cast. Some of the movie's cast members were really great and deserve an award like this, like Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, and Diane Kruger. But it's nuts to see Eli Roth, with his blunderingly terrible overacted performance, standing there on stage holding up his statuette for outstanding acting. Congratulations, Eli! How about you quit while you're ahead.

Here's a shot from the red carpet, with Tina Fey captivated/overwhelmed by Christina Hendricks' red cantilevered feat of engineering:

Tina Fey and Chrstina Hendricks at SAG red carpet

January 19, 2010

24: Kiefer pretends to be in NYC

Kiefer pretends to be in NYC

Another season of 24 began over the weekend with 4 big hours of action, implausible plot twists, and Kiefer burying fire axes in people's chests. This season is set in New York, but apart from a few establishing shots, it was apparently shot in Canada with some hot dog street vendors and orange and white steam chimneys Photoshopped in. You can watch all the episodes on Fox, Hulu, or IMDb.

A couple of observations:

  • CTU has been relaunched after it was disbanded a season or two ago, with a new office conveniently located in what appears to be Long Island City. As usual, the office is run by a clueless, authoritarian bureaucrat who plays by the rules, is easily manipulated by transparent terrorist machinations, and flagrantly ignores Kiefer's advice. This year, the bureaucrat is played by Mykelti Williamson, who played famed shrimper Bubba in Forrest Gump, and Tommy Lee Jones in the TV version of "The Fugitive".

    It's a thankless role that's only gotten more tiresome with each new season. We get it, guys, the government can't be trusted, America needs a maverick willing to go rogue to protect us, were you an ass scientist, because blah blah blah.

  • We've also got a secret romance between a world leader and an inappropriate young lady-- this time it's between the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire host from Slumdog Millionaire and Kissing Jessica Stein, aka Mrs. Jon Hamm. Anil Kapoor is a real star, and is the best part of the season so far.
  • Starbuck from BSG plays this year's hot CTU agent who has a secret Southern-accented identity and a sordid past she's running from in the form of a guy who seems to be an abusive ex, whose threatening phone calls she inexplicably continues to take while at work. This plot looks like it will be the boring personal drama storyline that provides several excellent opportunities each week for 24 viewers to go get another beer out of the fridge.
  • The actor playing Farhad, the evil assassin brother of Anil Kapoor's President of a Pretend Middle Eastern Country, looks exactly like a Muslim Jason Schwartzman:

Akbar Kurtha, aka Jason Schwartzman

I think he's actually Indian, like most of the "Middle Eastern" cast this year.

December 14, 2009

Where the hell has Julianne Moore been?

Julianne Moore in 30 Rock

Over the weekend I watched last week's episode of 30 Rock, and there was guest star Julianne Moore, playing the cutest girl in East Sandchester High School's Class of '76, Nancy Donovan. She was so funny and gorgeous, and even if her Boston accent was a little uneven (her "I wanna sit on it and play a boh-uhd game!" was totally weird and great) I was delighted to see her again.

Because, really, when was the last time you saw Julianne Moore in anything? Here's her IMDb page. For me, it was when she played the Joan Baez-esque person in I'm Not There, and that was two years ago. Before that, she had a couple of scenes in Children of Men in 2006.

The heyday of Julianne Moore seems to be over. Between Boogie Nights in 1997 and The Hours in 2002, she was in tons of stuff: Magnolia, The End of the Affair, Hannibal, Far From Heaven--some great movies, some not so great, but all were important in their own way and did pretty well.

Since then, things haven't looked so hot for Julianne. She's gotten into some pretty terrible desperate mom movies with The Forgotten (spoiler!: aliens took her kid) and Freedomland (spoiler!: she accidentally killed her kid) and other questionable stuff like The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio and Nicolas Cage's schlocky psychic Next. Then there was Blindness, which I don't think anyone saw, and now she's in Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, which looks OK, I guess.

It's high time for Julianne Moore to have a starring role in a big, great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson could use her again, but he doesn't seem to be working on anything. She's got something coming up with Lisa Cholodenko (who did Laurel Canyon) called The Kids Are All Right that could be OK, and some Barry Levinson adaptation of a Larry McMurtry novel about a gutsy pioneer woman called Boone's Lick, which despite the title is probably not a porny comedy.

At least one of these had better be at least as good as her re-enactment of "Hey, Beantown!" with Alec Baldwin.

December 3, 2009

David Cross, Will Arnett, and Spike Jonze do a TV show together

Bad Decisions of Todd Margaret

David Cross's new TV show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, just started airing last week.

Unfortunately, it's on Channel 4. In the UK. I guess this is payback for Ricky Gervais coming to Hollywood and The Daily Show's poaching of John Oliver. Or some kind of karmic retribution for American TV canceling Arrested Development.

Anyway, here's a clip that features a ton of really spectacular swearing by Will Arnett, who hires the nebbishy David Cross away from his straight-man boss Spike Jonze (first thing Jonze has been in since Three Kings!) to go to London to market an energy drink called Thunder Muscle:

The show is co-written by David Cross and Shaun Pye, a British actor who writes for Never Mind the Buzzcocks and was on Extras.

Because the whole world sucks, you can't watch the full episodes that are up on the Channel 4 website if you're in the US. But it'll be over here eventually. Hey, it only took three years for IFC to start airing episodes of Arrested Development.

November 20, 2009

It had to happen eventually

Malibu, American Gladiators

The first item in weird movie news is the announcement of American Gladiators: The Movie. Of course! Ever since last year's revival of the original 80s show on NBC, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to come up with a one-word plot concept like "superheroes" and make a movie adaptation.

I'm going to guess that the superhero Gladiators will fight an evil foreign government that's making death robots, and the Gladiators will have to use their 100% all-natural brawn to defeat the robots in a trapeze jousting battle while scrambling over an exploding foam rubber pyramid.

(By the way, Wikipedia has an unbelievably extensive entry on all the events that were ever on the show, with sub-entries on each individual event, like Gauntlet. It's overwhelmingly thorough.)

The screenwriter for the Gladiators movie is Peter Iliff, which inspires a little bit of hope because he also wrote Point Break. Point Break is one of the most re-watchable movies ever made, so, naturally, a sequel is in the works, also to be written by Peter Iliff.

But now that I think about it, my love for Point Break might have more to do with Patrick Swayze and the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and neither of them are involved in the sequel (of course: RIP Swayze.) The sequel is called Point Break Indo, which presumably means it will be marketed to stoner pretend-surfers. It comes out next year, probably right around the time Kathryn Bigelow is getting nominated for The Hurt Locker.

Peter Iliff's other new screenplay with a drug-themed title, Chasing the Dragon, will star Wesley Snipes as an FBI agent going after an Asian drug lord to avenge his fellow agents' deaths.

To recap: Point Break Indo is probably going to be straight to video, Chasing the Dragon will come and go while Wesley Snipes keeps appealing his three-year jail sentence, and American Gladiators will make $300 million.

In other weird sequel news, did you know a Donnie Darko sequel came out this year? Richard Kelly has nothing to do with it. It's about Donnie's little sister, Samantha, and it's called S. Darko. The cast includes: the little dead girl in the well from the American remake of The Ring as Samantha Darko (she played her in the original Donnie Darko, too,) Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl, and Elizabeth Berkley. I think it went straight to video.

Considering how terrible S. Darko looks, I'm even more impressed that Donnie Darko was as good as it was. The IMDb plot summary for DD--"A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a large bunny rabbit that manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after narrowly escaping a bizarre accident"--sounds like a disaster, but even though I've only seen it once 7 years ago, I remember lots of great stuff about it.

Other sequels/remakes/not remakes coming out today: part 2 of the Twilight "saga" ("saga"?!), (Manohla calls it "bloodless") and Herzog's Bad Lieutenant (A.O. Scott says Nicolas Cage's performance "requires adjectives as yet uncoined, typed with both the caps-lock key and the italics button engaged". Haha.)

November 16, 2009

An excuse to watch The Equalizer intro

Edward Woodward in The Equalizer

Edward Woodward died today, and while his career included many highlights like playing the main detective guy in the disturbing and insane The Wicker Man and the Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, I'll always remember him for playing McCall in The Equalizer, the mid-80s show about a rogue secret agent protecting people in danger in a gritty, crime-infested New York.

No disrespect to Edward Woodward, but the best part of the show was really that awesome driving synthy theme song by Stewart Copeland, accompanied by a great montage of helpless New Yorkers getting menaced by thugs and rapists in elevators and a beautifully graffiti-covered 59th Street station:

November 9, 2009

An obligatory thing on the Mad Men season finale

Mad Men season 3 finale

Lots of exciting stuff on last night's Mad Men season finale, for example: all the main characters banding together to gleefully steal filing cabinets full of proprietary material to start their own upstart rip-off agency. But by the end, it felt like we were right back where we started before this season began. After a lot of muddling around, the main storylines -- Don and Betty pretending to be happily married, Peggy maybe leaving the agency, Joan working at a department store, and the British being in charge -- are all over and done with. Just about everyone we like at Sterling Cooper is together again, back to being a big happy work family.

If there's a feel-good message about this episode, it's that the people you work with are more like family than your real family, which isn't much to feel good about if it's your actual life, but it's a great direction for the show. There were so many agonizingly slow episodes this season about private life (Don and Betty going to Italy, Henry and Betty almost having an affair, Betty sulking around the house, anything involving Betty) while the best episodes have always been the ones about work. So now Betty's been more or less jettisoned (I hope!), Joan's back on the job, and all seems right with the world.

Actually, Betty was the biggest disappointment of the season. Last season, she stood up for herself and told Don off, got busy with a stranger in a bar bathroom, and didn't let Don come home until he admitted he was wrong. This season, she's back to whining and needling and becoming smitten with every guy who pays any attention to her. She's been reduced to a cold, bratty 13 year-old, like last season never happened. Betty needs to either discover radical feminism or become criminally insane.

The biggest surprise of the season: Pete Campbell not being a jerk. One of my favorite shots was of him sitting on the couch watching assassination coverage with his arm around Trudy, when she pulls her feet up and they decide not to go to Roger's daughter's dumb wedding.

Hopefully next season they'll unload some extraneous characters that were making the show too cumbersome and top-heavy. Conrad Hilton has basically turned into a caricature of a plot device, trundled out after a mysterious absence to reveal the British firm's impending sale then disappear again. Miss Farrell--gone, for now. Duck--gone, again. Joan's husband Greg--already probably pretty much ditched and gone. Will Joan actually divorce him or will he just ship out with the military and be forgotten about or maybe killed? Who cares.

Next season: the new agency hires back Sal, then brings in my new favorite character Mona to lead a brassy, no-nonsense gay intervention for the closeted Lucky Strikes guy.

October 18, 2009

Putin: Everybody Dance Now

Putin rocks it

Ever eager to show the world that Russia is an equal to the West, Putin has suggested that Russia host a new international song competition. It will be just like the long-running televised Eurovision song contest, except it will be called "Intervision", and the only participating countries will be Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These are all the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which according to member countries is "not a NATO clone". OK.

Kazakh Eurovision sounds almost too good to be true. [Cue video of Borat singing "Everybody Dance Now".]

I'd love to see what kind of elaborately staged pop songs are put forward by quasi-authoritarian states as part of their effort to show the world that Central Asians can do flamboyantly choreographed dance numbers in glittery makeup and spandex dirndls while sing synth-pop, too, just like the Swedes and Germans.

In response to Putin's idea, Eurovision says "it would be delighted to license Mr Putin the Eurovision Song Contest format," but they can't do Intervision without paying up.

Russia actually won Eurovision last year, so they were this year's host country. This year Norway won. Since Putin seems to be a man who doesn't enjoy losing, the upside of Intervision would be that Russia would probably get to win every year, with maybe an occasional courtesy victory for China.

As a side note, Sacha Baron Cohen is reportedly on board to play a new, non-Borat character who enters the Eurovision contest in a movie with the self-explanatory title Eurovision: The Movie. It's being written by Dan Mazer, one of the writers for the Ali G/Borat/Bruno empire, so I think it's going to be great. A Eurovision parody is such a logical next step for these guys, though the biggest challenge might be creating parody acts that are funnier and weirder than the real ones.

Here are a few Eurovision videos to give you an idea of how bizarre a spectacle it can be, both intentionally and unintentionally funny. Norway's winning song from this year, an emo violin folkpop tune; Apocalyptica, a Finnish hard rock cello band from 2007, with stage dancers wearing some sort of pelt tutus; and Ukrainian comedian/insane disco robot Verka Serduchka from 2007.

October 15, 2009

Crazy celebrity books

Richard Belzer and Tracy Morgan

Yesterday's Daily News reported on two new celebrity memoirs that are probably better-than-average reads: I Am Not a Psychic! by Richard Belzer, and I Am the New Black by Tracy Morgan.

Belzer's character Detective John Munch has appeared on Homicide: Life On the Streets, The X-Files, Law & Order, SVU, The Wire, and Sesame Street. Before he played Munch, Belzer was a stand-up comedian and a talk show host. The book is fiction, but stars Richard Belzer as Richard Belzer. He says, "For years I've been playing a cop, and when you are on television a lot, you get mixed up. Reality and celebrity kind of convert sometimes. I was going to write a novel, but then I decided to use my own name because my life is so interesting. So I figured I could just fold a fictional crime into my real life and take off from there." Pretty meta, Belzer--and sort of like Chuck Barris's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Belzer has a colorful collection of books, including one called UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Believe. He tells the Daily News that his latest conspiracy theory is that banks run our country and are responsible for every bad thing that's happened in the last 100 years, which sounds pretty reasonable, actually.

Tracy Morgan's I Am the New Black comes out next week, and sounds like a series of wacky anecdotes from the old unmediated Tracy, with some bragging/ranting about his notoriety: "I had my finger on the pulse of urban comedy, but when I brought my act to SNL, those motherfuckers just felt bad for me. None of the cast I came up with saw this future for me. No, sir. All I have to say about that is, where's Chris Kattan now? Where's Cheri Oteri now? That bitch can't even get arrested."

Shouldn't this book have come out a year or so ago when Tracy coined "Black is the new President, bitch" on SNL, and before he stopped drinking and started doing serious interviews?

Anyway, 30 Rock starts tonight.

October 7, 2009

All-girl Voltron. You know you want to see it.

Voltron

Since the launch of the Transformers juggernaut, with hugely successful movies, merchandise, toys, Optimus Prime lounge chairs, and a 7-Eleven marketing campaign (though the Transformer's Bumblebee Blast Slurpee wasn't anywhere near as cool as the Apocalyptic Ice Terminator tie-in Slurpee) more 80's anime-warrior TV show adaptations are inevitable.

We're going to be getting a lot of Voltron before long, including an animated series for TV, video game, toys, and a movie. The show ran in the US from 1984-85, and the main story structure of five people who pilot robot lions that join together to form one giant robot warrior, is probably easier to adapt into a narrative screenplay about humans than something like Transformers.

I only really watched Voltron when my friends' little brothers were watching it after school, but I agree that it could be a good live-action movie. How about this: it could be the first all-girl machine-warrior movie, with a group of five tough girls fighting the forces of evil in their lion flying robots. Sort of like Charlie's Angels meets Angelina Jolie's posse of spy-assassins from Mr. and Mrs. Smith in a future world of tech-fighter robots.

Then get some combination of the best cast members of The Runaways and Sucker Punch, and a soundtrack including The Plastiscines, The Gossip and The Donnas.

I would see this movie!

Another Japanese anime adaption is in the works: Tobey Maguire is producing a Robotech movie, but it's been in the works for two years already with lots of writers departing the project, so we'll see what happens.

August 25, 2009

Surprise returns

Skins

  • MTV has bought the rights to remake British teen TV show "Skins". The original series was pretty great--you can watch it on BBC America and on YouTube.

    Fans are worried the MTV version will be watered down, meaning there won't be as much drugs, drinking, smoking, swearing, nudity, sex, binging, purging, and suicide attempts, all of which were well-represented on the original. They'll probably pull off casting unknown actors, since they're used to doing that already. It sounds like the original producer and one of the co-creators are coming over for the new series -- the producer says his goal is to make sure the new show is "the absolute opposite of 'Gossip Girl'."

  • I would never in a million years have guessed who has the #1 album this week. It's Third Eye Blind. Huh?
  • Spout is putting out a book based on their blog, probably my favorite of the movie blogs out there.
  • A long piece on Wired about Craigslist is titled "Why Craigslist is Such a Mess", but is really more about the mystery of why Craigslist is so incredibly successful when it doesn't follow any usual business or organizational rules at all:

    Craigslist gets more traffic than either eBay or Amazon.com. eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30. Craigslist may have little to teach us about how to make decisions, but that's not the aspect of democracy that concerns [Craig] Newmark most. He cares about the details, about executing all the little obvious things we'd like government to do. "I'm not interested in politics, I'm interested in governance," he says. "Customer service is public service."

August 17, 2009

London Fog, then and now

London Fog ads

  • Last night's season premiere of "Mad Men" featured a storyline about a campaign for London Fog. Above are two real London Fog ads--the first appeared in an copy of Playboy from the early 60s, and features a tearful woman using her man's raincoat as a Kleenex. You can read the text of the ad in a blog post about using deep zoom with Playboy's online archives (for the articles, of course) which touts the coat's imperviousness to "emotional outbursts or sudden cloudbursts". The second ad is a not-so-pregnant-looking Gisele from a few weeks ago.

    Don Draper's new campaign, which he briefly described last night, involves a woman wearing a London Fog raincoat flashing a man on the subway--which sounds a lot more like the 2009 ad than the actual ad from back then.

    And of course, the whole storyline was a big product placement (so was the Stoli reference.) London Fog probably got to request that their ad on the show feature a naked lady to keep their branding consistent.

    (Also, pretty good episode, but Sal and Joan were both great. I bet this season will be good because of the supporting cast, and not so much the stars.)

  • "Reno 911!" got canceled. It ran for SIX SEASONS. If "30 Rock" gets canceled this year, I'm gonna riot.
  • Brad Pitt is allegedly going to be in the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie as Professor Moriarty. He wouldn't be my first choice for Holmes's menacing nemesis, but maybe Eddie Izzard isn't available (wouldn't he be good?)
  • Mike Nichols is going to direct an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel Deep Water. The book is about an unhappy couple who agree that the wife can see other people. She does. Then her other people start dying off. Mike Nichols is better at quiet personal dramas than thrillers, but it still sounds cool.
  • And here's a great Times article about Al Bell, former owner of the late, great Stax Records in Memphis. He's trying to bring Memphis back as a musical capital, through the Memphis Music Foundation and one of the greatest museums I've ever been to, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

August 5, 2009

Movie reviews on TV = Saved!

A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips

Disney-ABC has finally decided to make their classic movie review show "At the Movies" into something respectable and good again by booting off the Two Bens (Mankiewicz, who is OK, and Lyons, an embarrassment who has provoked rage and contempt since the day he started) less than one year after they came on as hosts.

They just hired the Times' A.O. Scott and the Tribune's Michael Phillips to take their places.

Well! Hooray!

For those of us who grew up watching Siskel and Ebert (here's an archive of the old shows), this is really exciting news. After Gene Siskel got sick and left the show, there were a few great episodes where Roger Ebert brought on guest critics, but after Richard Roeper was hired in 2000 as a permanent co-host, it got pretty tough to watch. After giving one or two shots to the Two Bens over the last year, I gave up completely.

Scott is one of my personal favorite critics (he's not leaving the Times,) and though I don't read Phillips' reviews in the Tribune, I love when he joins Adam and Matty over at the Filmspotting podcast--he's smart and funny and likes good stuff. Both critics seem like pleasant, affable people, but hopefully they'll stick to their guns and not shy away from on-screen verbal brawls over things like whether Brian DePalma is capable of making good movies anymore.

The new pair will start on September 7. Can't wait.

July 28, 2009

Linky links

Funny People

  • Spout's review of Funny People is up. Did you realize that movie is TWO AND A HALF HOURS long?! Karina liked it, mostly, though she says it's less funny than Apatow's other movies and gets "crazy indulgent with the montages."
  • Darren Aronofsky's next movie is about two rival ballet dancers, one of whom (Mila Kunis) might be a figment of the other's (Natalie Portman) imagination. One thing Aronofsky does not seem to like: blondes.
  • Ben Affleck is directing another movie. This one is a bank robber/FBI drama called The Town, with Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, and, maybe unfortunately, him.
  • Network attempts to get people to watch more TV: a new half-hour TV show that just plays viral internet videos called "Smash Cuts".

  • Record companies attempt to get people to buy more albums: iTunes will start selling albums packaged with artwork, videos, and ringtones in a new product code-named "Cocktail". At higher prices, right? Great.

    Later in this article, AP lists some other things labels have tried to get people to buy more music, like iTunes' tiered pricing structure and exclusive videos and stuff like that, then says, "So far the impact of such efforts on sales volumes has been minimal." Exactly.


July 16, 2009

Elaine Stritch and the Emmys

Elaine Stritch on 30 Rock

The Emmy nominations came out today, and 30 Rock broke its own record for the number of nominations a comedy show got (they're up to 22 from last year's 17.) The show got nominated for everything, including acting nominations for Tracy, Kenneth, and Jenna in addition to Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, and 3 out of the 6 nominations for Best Director for a comedy. The Directing nominations were for especially great episodes: "Reunion", "Apollo, Apollo", and "Generalissimo".

[here's the full list of nominations]

One great category is for Guest Actress on a comedy: there's Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on the SNL Presidential Bash special (a little weird--that was pretty much a clip show,) Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock, and Betty White for My Name is Earl playing something called "Crazy Witch Lady", which I have not seen but now sort of want to.

Anyway, in one of those articles with actors' breathless responses to the news that they got a nomination, most of the responses are not especially interesting. Even Tracy Morgan, who I thought we could depend on for something good-- his response was sweet about his manager calling him with the news, but not funny or anything: "He was crying, congratulating me, and then I started crying. It's been a long time, a long journey just to be recognized."

But Elaine Stritch came through. Her quote: "I was overjoyed with my nomination for, what was it, 30 Rock? Because if I get lucky, it will give me yet again another opportunity to express my deepest feelings about 'show business.' Feelings that have been bottled up for 365 days."

She's already won 3 Emmys (one for 30 Rock two years ago) and probably a million Tonys.

In the Guest Actor category, 30 Rock got 3 nominations, too: Alan Alda, Jon Hamm, and Steve Martin.

I don't love overuse of guest stars on TV anymore than I like it on the forthcoming Rihanna album, but last year 30 Rock did a pretty good job with it.

June 18, 2009

TV theme songs

Mary Tyler Moore opening sequence hat throw

Today's Daily News has a long analysis of the evolution of TV show theme songs. It doesn't seem to be related to anything, but it's pretty good anyway. It starts out with the idea that you can identify someone's generation by which theme songs they know all the words to: "Gilligan's Island" represents one generation, "Brady Bunch" is another, and "Greatest American Hero" is another. Of course, anyone who's in my generation knows all three because of the Golden Age of Afternoon Reruns in the early to mid-80's.

Anyway, the point of the article is that with so many shows on all the network and cable channels, audiences don't have the time or the brain capacity to get to know and love theme songs they way they used to, and many shows have almost completely gotten rid of theme music all together. Think of those 3 seconds of abstract whooshing that seems to be the theme music for "Lost".

There's a long tradition of theme songs that set up the premise of a show and characterized the storyline that extends into recent years. The theme song for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" [video] about how Mary's gonna make it after all sets the stage for the show in much the same way that They Might Be Giants' "Boss of Me" did for "Malcolm in the Middle" [audio], and that ran until 2006.

Today's producers seem to be less secure about holding viewers, so they cut the long theme song to get straight to the action: "Now that most of us have dozens or hundreds of channels to surf through, and a remote to do it with, the networks are terrified that the minute one show ends, we will start looking around ... The idea is that we shouldn't have time to even think about picking up the remote before we're seeing action from the next show."

Maybe that's why cable networks are comfortable with longer opening sequences with theme songs than networks are, so we get "The Sopranos" [video] and "Weeds" [video] with one and a half minute intros, and on the networks we have a few quick bleeps to introduce "24".

So I'll share a few of my favorite theme songs and TV theme music. Please add any other stellar examples or personal favorites in the comments. (Click on the show names to hear the theme music.)

Miami Vice: My entire family used to be whipped into a frenzy of excitement every Friday night when that Jan Hammer music came on.
Mad Men: That moody, jazzy theme song with the hesitant descending strings somehow captures everything you need to know about the show.
The Jeffersons: I know. It's obvious, it's predictable, it's fantastic. It's by Ja'net Dubois.
Fame: Maybe I'm being influenced by the trailer for the new movie, but the original was really great.
Law & Order: Both the succinct "Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound" and the funky shuffle of the original show's theme music.
The X-Files: Abstract and spooky, maybe most popular ambient TV theme song ever?

The site Television Tunes seems to have every theme song ever--over 11,000.

June 11, 2009

What went wrong with Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad bear season 2 finale

It's been a week or two since the season 2 finale of Breaking Bad on AMC. We don't usually spend a lot of time talking about TV and movies we don't like, but there was a little commentary on the season yesterday on Variety (by Liz Smith, who loves the show) so I thought I'd say something about it.

Season 1 was great. I love the premise of Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry teacher who starts producing high-quality meth when he gets diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. The show had all kinds of complicated moral issues about how far you can reasonably go to provide for your family, and it was interesting to see a TV show that explored how successful drug dealers can be if they run their operation like a business and aren't moronic fuck-ups. Watching Bryan Cranston blunder through an unfamiliar, chaotic world was a real pleasure, especially when he started realizing he was actually good at dealing drugs.

Season 2 slammed on the brakes from the first few episodes. Whole weeks went by when nothing happened apart from Bryan Cranston bickering with his lovable numbskull partner in crime, Jesse, and his wife, Skyler, vacillating between suspicion of her husband's behavior and outright hostility. Week after week. Skyler also turned into the most irritating character on television this season, and didn't get much to do besides yell at Bryan Cranston and spend hours in the bathroom rubbing grooming products on her face.

The only good episode in the first part of the season was when Bryan Cranston and his partner got kidnapped by the pathological big-time dealer Tuco, and taken to his cabin the middle of the Mexican desert. The shoot-out was awesome.

But I gave up on the show for a while after noticing I could have missed a whole month of episodes and not missed a single plot development. Things picked up in the last few episodes of the season with Jesse and his new mean girlfriend and the two of them getting back on drugs together until she dies.

Then came the big finale, in which we finally find out what that charred pink teddy bear floating in Bryan Cranston's pool was all about, after seeing it over and over in the first shots of a bunch of episodes through the whole season.

It was a total letdown. A plane crash? Sure, that's dramatic if there are people on the plane that are connected to characters we know and care about. I like John de Lancie as the grieving father of Jesse's dead girlfriend, but we didn't knew his character well enough to be drawn into his flubbing up his air-traffic controller job. The end of the episode felt contrived, like manufactured drama that wasn't connected to the main action and characters of the show.

The burned teddy bear falling into Bryan Cranston's pool was like a clumsy moral judgment raining down from on high-- Vince Gilligan (the writer/creator who I usually love) actually said it was meant to symbolize "the wrath of God." The Slash Film recap calls it "fatalistically ludicrous." Liz Smith thinks the finale's events were "so dramatic, unbelievable and yet unhappily believable that they defy TV expectations," which is true if you expect that TV shows have storylines that make sense within the reality of the show.

Breaking Bad will have a third season, and I really hope more happens in each episode, instead of trying to cram all the action into an unsatisfying Biblical act of destruction at the end that hits viewers over the head with weird vengeful moralizing.

May 20, 2009

Vampire lady smackdown

Charlaine Harris in her officeStephenie Meyer

The Times has a great feature today on Charlaine Harris, the middle-aged southern lady who writes the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels that has become the basis for HBO's True Blood series, the show about dirty, sexy, campy vampires that stars Anna Paquin. This lady has got it going on.

I'm coming in really late in the game, here. I've never read any of her books, and I haven't seen True Blood. I also haven't read any of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, or seen the movie that came out a few months ago. My opinion is based solely on this one article and the press about the books and tv/movie adaptations. But next time I'm taking a really long flight or recovering from dental surgery and need a vampire soap opera potboiler, I'm picking up Sookie Stackhouse.

Both Sookie and the Twilight series have been wildly popular. The latest Sookie novel, Dead and Gone, came out last week and debuted at number one. Twilight has sold one hundred billion copies (actually 42 million) and preteens everywhere went completely mental for the movie.

But from what I can tell, Sookie has it all over Bella Swan and the Twilight crew. She's a waitress in a rural Louisiana bar, she's kind of trashy, she can read minds, and she likes to have freaky swamp sex with vampires. The TV show itself sounds like it unfortunately abandoned its pulpy roots to devolve into a misguided metaphor for identity politics. I love this quote from Slate's review: "its ideas (about race, gender, sexual orientation, what have you) simmer on the artsy-fartsy backburner while blood and lust boil away in the low-culture pot up front." The opening credits are good and nasty.

Meanwhile, Twilight's main character, Bella Swan, looks wan and ineffectual, and her relationship with her vampire boyfriend involves a lot of pained chastity. I like Kristen Stewart in Panic Room and Adventureland, so I hope she doesn't get trapped playing bad gothy damsel in distress roles in this series for too long. A few months ago Stephen King said in an interview that Stephenie Meyer "can't write worth a damn."

Here are a few good bits from the Times article on Charlaine Harris. In addition to the latest one, she's also written 25 other books, including an earlier series about a librarian-turned-sleuth, and another "more violent and sexually explicit storyline" about a cleaning lady who investigates murders.

"It was just a huge relief that I finally hit on the right character and the right publisher," said Ms. Harris. Or, as she put it more succinctly, with a cackle that evoked a paranormal creature: "I had this real neener-neener-neener moment."

She had always wanted to write about vampires. From the outset, she wanted to set the story in the prosaic trailer-park and strip-mall landscape of northern Louisiana, to distinguish it from the gothic opulence of Anne Rice’s New Orleans.

Driving last week along a tree-lined country road dotted by an occasional horse farm or a row of abandoned chicken coops, Ms. Harris said it was how she imagined the road to Sookie’s house. Ideas for characters come from all over the place. "Every trip to Wal-Mart is an inspiration," she said.

I already love her.

April 27, 2009

Timely programming

Law and Order: CI, Michael Emerson

While flipping channels in a hotel room the other day, I landed on the Washington, DC version of My9 (which is called My20, and is just as bad) and an old episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Some darkly clever programmer picked the single episode of that show that would most freak everyone out last week, amidst the growing trend of people deciding to kill their families.

The episode is called "Phantom", and was from the first season of the show, in March 2002. It's about a seemingly respectable middle-aged man who gets caught living a lie and making fraudulent investments with his family's money when his elderly father starts asking to withdraw his cash. The man starts to panic, and finally tries to kill his young children so they won't learn the truth and despise him.

Familicide--ripped from the 2009 headlines! Creepy. And who plays the fraudulent schemer but BENJAMIN LINUS!

You can watch an edited version of the episode on YouTube that gives you all the good parts in under 15 minutes. Including a particularly awesome Vince D'Onofrio, talking down a shotgun-wielding Ben Linus in an absurdly melodramatic, yet oddly affecting, speech that shows all the best and weirdest aspects of his character. That show was better than I think I realized at the time.

April 14, 2009

Scary mug shots

Phil Spector, Melissa Huckaby, and Nina Myers

These are the booking photos for Phil Spector, who was just convicted of shooting Lana Clarkson six years ago, and Melissa Huckaby, the Sunday school teacher who was charged with kidnapping, molesting, and killing an 8 year-old girl and stuffing her body in a suitcase. Both are pretty freaky. Their upturned faces and Spector's wild eyes and Huckaby's blank ones make them stand out from your typical celebrity mug shot.

They remind me of one of the greatest shots from the first season of 24, in which we see surveillance video of sexy villain Nina Myers murdering her colleague, then looking up at the camera with a delightfully evil glare.

Nina Myers on surveillance on 24

You can watch the scene from 24 here, starting at 1:00. (The video has a terrible soundtrack, best to watch with the sound off.)

April 3, 2009

Anil Kapoor pretends to be Middle Eastern on 24

Anil Kapoor and Danny Boyle at the Oscars

A lot of us saw Anil Kapoor for the first time when he played the devious game show host in Slumdog Millionaire. He was one of my favorite characters in the movie while he was being subtle and mysteriously sneaky, but when he suddenly made that ham-handed outburst toward the end, like "I call the shots around here! That slumdog will never become a millionaire on MY SHOW!" or whatever, the whole movie sort of lost me.

Anyway: Kapoor is already a mega-star in India, and has been in about 100 movies over the last 25 years. He's alerady on the next step to fame in America by signing up to be a regular character on the next season of 24.

Luckily for him, he doesn't have to play a terrorist. Sort of unluckily for him, he does have to pretend to be from the Middle East, coming to the US as part of an anti-terrorism mission.

24 is good at recruiting Indian actors to play Middle Eastern terrorists. We've already had Kal Penn, who played a terrorist Ahmed Amar last season in one of the few storylines of that season that was good, and Anil Kumar, who played a villain named Kalil Hasan, the operative who stopped at the gas station that Kiefer then absurdly pretended to hold up in Season 4.

24 also casts Latino-Americans and Italians who all convincingly played Middle Eastern terrorists, so they don't get too hung up on ethnic specificity: if you have brown skin, you're in.

Anil Kapoor is a lot of fun to watch onscreen, so I think he'll be a good, scenery-chewing addition to the show.

April 1, 2009

Peabody Awards: Now With More Internet!

Onion News Network and YouTube

I love the Peabody Awards. It's always such a strange collection of TV and radio that gets selected every spring. The awards are for "electronic media", which for the first time this year, includes media that only exists online.

They've recognized some newspaper websites, including the NY Times website this year, and in the past gave an award to the Washington Post's Being a Black Man site. But this year they also gave awards to Onion News Network and YouTube. A fake news site and an ocean of crazy videos made by preteens in their bedrooms are now Peabody winners. I love it.

Here's the full list of winners this year. Some other cool winners are SNL for the political stuff, Washington Week with Gwen Ifill (yay Gwen Ifill), Lost, "King Corn" from Independent Lens on PBS, Breaking Bad on AMC, and the entire Turner Classic Movies channel.

The Peabody board has to vote unanimously for each winner, and they must be a group of people very willing to indulge each other's favorites, since the list of winners they generate every year is all over the place.

But I almost always like their choices. In the last two years, winners have included Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, NPR's StoryCorps, Scrubs, the Planet Earth series on Discovery, an NBC-affiliate's coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, and Project Runway.

Here's a list of recent winners.

March 25, 2009

Bobb'e J. Thompson, R-rated child star

Bobb'e J. Thompson

This is Bobb'e J. Thompson, and he is the next huge American preteen superstar. He was in last summer's very funny Role Models , then he was the star of the most memorable scene of last week's episode of "30 Rock" [video--his scene is in Chapter 3]. On "30 Rock" he played Tracy Morgan's son Tracy, Jr., and delivered my favorite line, illustrating what home life is like with an unemployed Tracy: "You want to see what he packed me for lunch today? A jar of mayonnaise and a pack of cigarettes."

Bobb'e is really good at outrageous over-acting. Everything he does is huge. He gets all kinds of filthy jokes about sex and child molestation and his comic book "The Adventures of The Booby Watcher" in his movies and shows, and he's only 13. He doesn't play by the rules. Cartoon Network just announced that they're giving him his own show later this year, and it's not even going to be a cartoon.

Before he played Tracy Morgan's son on "30 Rock", Bobb'e played Tracy Morgan's son on "The Tracy Morgan Show" back in 2003. It got canceled, but Bobb'e at age 8 was already doing stuff that was probably inappropriate for kids. An article from back then about the show called attention to Bobb'e because he "gets some of the sharpest, funniest lines", which the writer thought might be "too sophisticated" for a young kid, which I am guessing is code for "dirty".

Tracy countered that accusation with "Real kids nowadays say even crazier stuff," so he was nuts back then too. Actually, yeah, nowadays the kids are saying crazy stuff, but those kids are still Bobb'e Thompson.

March 18, 2009

Outside chance the new Seth Rogen mall cop movie is funny

Observe and Report

Have you seen the trailer for the new Seth Rogen mall cop sub-genre movie, Observe and Report? It doesn't look so great, and the timing of the release will automatically make people notice its unfortunate similarites to Paul Blart. Plus, wow, Seth Rogen sure is in a lot of movies these days.

But a few things suggest that it might be OK after all. Wired reports from South by Southwest that the screening was "transgressive and violently funny," and also points out that the director of the movie, Jody Hill, also created the new show on HBO, "Eastbound & Down", which stars Danny McBride as a washed-up ex-baseball player and by all accounts is pretty funny, especially if you like Talladega Nights.

Plus, the red-band trailer for Observe and Report that's up on the official site has lots of swearing, drug use, and brief nudity, which is a good sign. Another review on Cinematical says it's "a farce that deals in weirdness, darkness, and downright SHOCK." So I guess that means there's full frontal male nudity.

I still have faith in co-star Anna Faris even though The House Bunny was a big disappointment. In Smiley Face, she's a natural.

Here are some video clips of "Eastbound & Down". Pretty good, and special guest star Craig Robinson! Who I think is in even movies a year than Seth Rogen, but I never get sick of him.

March 16, 2009

I'll admit it, 24 is good again

Kiefer amidst the White House wreckage on 24

Every year I watch 24. Every year I complain about how contrived and moronic the storylines are, and wonder why the producers don't ditch the inevitable tedious family drama thread that almost sucks the life out of every season and stick to Kiefer saving the world.

This year I've held off passing judgment, though I was pretty excited about the themes at the center of this season that were introduced right at the start of the first episode: is this show an exploration of the moral murkiness around how to get information during a national security crisis, or an apology for the Bush administration's loosey-goosey approach to torture?

I watched the last three episodes back to back last night, and they were some of the best episodes of 24, ever. Starting with Episode 11 and Agent Walker pursuing General Juma and his soldiers and fearlessly jumping their boat as it cruised off into the Potomac, then the scuba-diving break-in into the White House, and the long siege, the standoff, and the final big explosion--this is the kind of creative and suspenseful action that the show is so good at. Great stuff.

For all its clumsy handling of the family drama story that drags through every season, the emotional aspects of the action sequences are almost always really good. I loved the little arc that started with Kiefer holding Bill Buchanan at gunpoint and knocking him out via sleeper hold, and ended with Bill setting off an explosion in a room Kiefer had filled with CH4 (which is methane--that must have been one stinky White House foyer) and dying in the process. Losing Bill Buchanan was the sad, sucker-punch death of the season, especially with those cherubic white ringlets he's been wearing this year.

I also love the Janice/Chloe socially-deficient computer girl showdowns that have been building over the past few episodes. When Chloe gets out of detention, there's going to be hell to pay for Janeane Garofalo.

A few other things: I'm getting sick of Kiefer getting taken into custody and then released back into service when a new emergency rises every single episode. We get that he's a more controversial figure than ever this season, but it's getting really silly.

Is the show ever going to make good on the creepy insinuations that have been lurking around the edges about the President's chief advisor Ethan Kanin? That guy has been sneaking around suspiciously all season, and I wonder if it's going to go anywhere or if the actor is just a natural conniver.

Also, FBI Agent Larry Moss is a big enough character that he should have personality traits beyond just doubting every single thing Kiefer does. The endless bickering between Agents Moss and Walker about Kiefer is especially unnecessary because the audience already knows the central tenet of the show: Kiefer is always right, making all their fights pointless because Moss is always wrong.

I guess the second half of the season will center on Kiefer getting closer to the evil businessman behind it all, Jon Voight, and eventually wasting him. Hope they can keep the momentum up that long.

You can watch the last 5 episodes on the Fox website.

February 4, 2009

Recession hits the Times Dining section

Biggest Loser kitchen

Hard times seem to have arrived all at once at today's Dining section. The main articles include a piece on the desperate measures expensive restaurants are taking to get people to come in; peanut butter as a recession-proof source of protein that everybody loves, salmonella be damned (though I was stunned to learn that smooth far outsells crunchy in American homes. I'm a superchunk girl.)

The other main feature is about NBC's "The Biggest Loser", which appears in the Dining section although the main involvement that the show's contestants have with food is that they don't eat any of it. Also odd that they chose to cover the show now, when it's been on for 7 seasons, but I guess now is a good time to report on a show that encourages viewers to alternately fast and eat nothing but asparagus (which makes you pee your weight off, apparently.)

I've never watched a whole episode of "The Biggest Loser", and the only bits I've seen consisted of overweight people suffering through byzantine and painful-looking physical challenges. The Times focuses on the diet part of the competition, and uncovers all kinds of really freaky relationships with food that contestants have, which are probably intensified by having to lose hundreds of pounds with piles of money at stake, while on national TV.

Some especially crazy highlights from the article:

  • "The first two weeks, you're throwing up so much from working out, you're so tired, the last thing you want to do is eat," said Ed Brantley, a chef in Raleigh, who in the last season lost 139 pounds (more than 40 percent of his body weight). [This is because they work out SIX TO TEN HOURS A DAY.]
  • Soon, food becomes the devil they love to control. Every contestant is required to eat a minimum number of calories each day and is supposed to keep a daily food journal to prove it. But many of them actually eat less. "It gets so you crave that feeling of going to bed with hunger pains in your stomach," said Erik Chopin, a Long Island deli owner who won the show in 2006, going to 193 pounds from 407.
  • During scheduled "temptations," contestants are bribed to eat junk food with prizes like cash and calls home, sometimes while locked in a dark room with mountains of candy. "We want to simulate the real world in there," said Dave Broome, a co-creator of the show. [Mountains of candy? That's a real world I want to live in.]

The upshot of the article is that once they're back in the actual real world, the one with food other than broccoli and kale in it, most contestants put the weight back on.

Though this is definitely the most belt-tightening Dining section I've ever read in the Times, it also features a Frank Bruni review of the Oak Room, "A Waltz of Gilt and Truffles", that contains this: "My fork sank into tender venison in a classically dark, rich, winy sauce as my eyes traveled up, up, up the sculptured oak walls toward a ceiling more than two stories high. That ceiling was framed by yard upon yard of gold molding and trim. If heaven is wood-paneled, it probably looks something like this."

The rest of us will just stick with our peanut butter and carrot sticks.

January 22, 2009

Lost: the meaning of season premiere music

Lost plays Willie Nelson record

Last night's season premiere of Lost began almost exactly like Season 2's first episode: a man whose face is obscured gets up, puts a record on the hi-fi, and goes about his morning routine. The first episode of Season 3 featured a woman playing a CD while doing domestic things around her house.

In the Season 2 episode, the man was Desmond, and it was the first time the audience got to see evidence of regular domestic life, technology, furniture, etc. on the island, so it was a big surprise. The Season 3 episode introduced us to Juliet and life on the island before the plane crashed.

This time, we're used to seeing fully-stocked kitchens and stereo equipment on the island, so the scene wasn't much of a shock. The obscured man in last night's episode turns out to be Dr. Candle, a lead scientist of the Dharma Initiative. According to a theory on Slate yesterday, the first scene of a new season is a little preview of what the rest of the season will focus on. So it looks like Season 5 will be about Dharma, and probably a lot more stuff about time travel.

Since these three season openers are so alike, let's look at the songs that Desmond, Juliet, and Dr. Candle play. Desmond played "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Mama Cass, a song about forging your own path and staying true to your own unique ideas even if it means you'll be alone. Some lyrics: "You're gonna be knowing/ the loneliest kind of lonely/ It maybe be rough goin'/ Just to do your thing's the hardest thing to do." Desmond is alone in the hatch for what, 3 years or something? And he's on a seemingly impossible but ultimately successful solo mission to find his long lost girlfriend, and also seems to be uniquely able to time travel without having a cerebral hemorrhage.

Juliet plays Petula Clark's "Downtown" while preparing for her book club meeting in her house on the island. It's a sad, wistful song about wanting to be somewhere else--Juliet listens to it and looks at herself in the mirror and cries, and later we find out she really wants to get off the island.

So what does last night's song tell us about Dr. Candle, and the Dharma Initiative? Dr. Candle puts on "Shotgun Willie", a 1973 song by Willie Nelson. After getting through the lyrics about Shotgun Willie sitting around in his underwear, the record starts skipping on the lyric "Well you can't make a record" before getting to the rest of the line, which is "Well you can't make a record if you ain't got nothing to say."

The skipping record is like the whole island that starts skipping around through time after Ben turned the Magic Wooden Wheel at the end of last season. And the lyrics might refer to Dr. Candle's unsuccessful attempt to record his introductory video on the Dharma Initiative (the one we saw a few seasons ago) because he gets interrupted when his construction crew stumbles on the time-travel mechanism that lies inside a hunk of rock on the island. Or maybe Dr. Candle really does have nothing to say and the whole premise of the Dharma Initiative is incorrect, or philosophically wrong?

Or how about this: Check out the rest of the lyrics of "Shotgun Willie": "Now John T. Flores was working for the Ku Klux Klan/ The six foot five John T. was a hell of a man/ Made a lotta money selling sheets on the family plan."

Whoa! The Dharma Initiative is either a white supremacist operation that seeks to use the island's mysterious time-travel capabilities to turn the island into a mono-racial anti-immigrant dystopia (unlikely-- Dr. Candle is Asian, though the rest of the Initiative crew seem really white) or the sort of mocking tone of the song means that whatever utopian ideals the Dharma Initiative has for an engineered society are as absurd as a bunch of ignorant hooligans running around with sheets over their heads.

It's impossible to read too much into this show.

[You can watch last night's episode for free on the ABC site.]

January 16, 2009

United States of Tara

United States of Tara

This Sunday is the premiere of the new dark comedy The United States of Tara on Showtime. You can watch the entire episode for free, courtesy of BUST magazine, right here:

[Also available on IMDb and the Showtime site.]

The show was produced and written by Diablo Cody, and as you might expect, the dialogue sometimes veers dangerously into the same self-conscious, hyper-stylized teen-speak dialect that was such a turn-off for the first 15 minutes of Juno. It's used with less intensity, but it still sounds like some bewildering white suburban tween version of Airplane's jive [video].

Anyway, I like the show so far. Toni Collette is incredible to watch as a middle-aged mom who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder.) Her alter-egos can be caricaturish sometimes, but her shifts from one to another are believable and complete. Alessandra Stanley in the Times calls her alters "one-dimensional", but for the first episode of a show with a complicated premise, I think it makes sense to clearly distinguish the identities and let the audience understand each one immediately, even if that means they get overplayed a little. I think she's great, especially as alter Buck, a redneck man. The rest of the family is good too (especially the two kids) as they incorporate Tara's multiple identities into their daily lives with sweetness and understanding.

My knowledge of the actual mental illness that Tara has is limited, but I do know that an alternate personality is often the result of a serious childhood trauma, and that multiple alters are often the result of systematic childhood abuse. An awful and debilitating sickness, not really a topic to be used as a sitcom joke. We don't learn from the first episode if Tara did suffer some kind of abuse, (though something along those lines is referenced in the Slate review) but hopefully, when the origin of her illness comes up, it won't be glossed over as a wacky quirk. The show seems good enough that they'll handle it OK.

Rosemarie DeWitt, who was so good in Rachel Getting Married, plays Toni Collette's subtly bitchy sister.

January 15, 2009

What we know about Amy Poehler's new show

Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on SNL

Some news got out about the new NBC show starring Amy Poehler. Specifically, she will play Leslie Knope, a deputy chair of the Parks & Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana. Her character sounds like an ambitious local government drone who takes her small-town position too seriously: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has seen the pilot script, and says that Amy Poehler's character has the "goal of becoming the first female President of the United States."

Hm! Sound like any other character she's played? I was never that impressed with Amy Poehler's Hillary impression--she was too smooth and smirky and didn't capture any of Hillary's deliberate, jerky, grating speech cadence that she uses when she wants to be emphatic. The one time I really liked it was in Tina Fey's first SNL appearance as Sarah Palin, when they're at the podium together and Hillary starts to really lose her shit.

That's how I envision Poehler's new character Leslie Knope--a more delusional, poorly-dressed version of her power-hungry, losing-her-shit Hillary.

The show will be a lot like The Office: pretend documentary, depressing, squirm-inducing qualities. But I'm going to predict right now: it will be funnier.

Co-stars include Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones, and now the lovely and talented Aubrey Plaza from UCB. The premiere is still unannounced--sometime this Spring. UPDATE: It starts April 9.

January 9, 2009

Exactly how many people did you mutilate, electrocute, or dismember, Mr. Sutherland?

Kiefer before the Senate on 24

The new season of 24 starts on Sunday. The producers have already been apologizing all over the place for how cruddy season 6 was and promising to do better this time. They seem to feel so bad, in fact, that the season starts with Kiefer being called before a Senate committee to answer questions about his exuberant approach to torture while he was at CTU.

I figure that with somewhere around 8-10 people being graphically tortured on-screen for each of the previous seasons, we've seen over 50 people get cattle prods in their face, fingers clipped off, thighs stabbed, electrodes to their temples, or that clinical but horrible-looking pain serum that silent beefy dudes in suits administer. It's a lot of torture. Maybe I should go play some Tetris now.

Are the producers of 24 trying to justify the entire premise of their show, and indirectly, the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror? I'm not sure how the Senate hearing scenes will play out, but it seems like a chance for this show, a few days before Bush will be gone forever, to half-heartedly admit that its tactics were maybe at times questionable, but ultimately, in cases of national security, claim that the ends justify the means.

The Times has put out two stories in two days about 24. The first one covers Kiefer going before the Senate, and the stern talking-to that actual US military leaders gave to the show's producers in 2006 about how showing people getting tortured all over the place on the show was screwing up their actual war operations in Iraq. They quote a Senate hearing scene in which Kiefer says, "We've done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds — ours and the people we promise to protect. They deserve to know the truth. Then they can decide how far they want to let us go."

When the show started in the fall of 2001, the public probably had less of a problem with law enforcement using violent interrogation for the purpose of protecting our safety. Plus it makes for really good television. Now that we've all read first-hand accounts of waterboarding, we're maybe not so psyched about torture anymore.

But when watching a show like 24, we still want Kiefer to do whatever it takes, which is pretty much the only reason it's still a good show. As Alessandra Stanley writes in today's 24 article, "At the start of the two-hour premiere on Fox this Sunday, pantywaist politicians who don't understand what it takes to protect the nation from its enemies are persecuting the very man who saved the country from disaster."

She's kidding, sort of, but if you're a fan of the show (or a former fan, anyway--last season was really bad) this is exactly how we all feel when bureaucrats start questioning Kiefer's methods. The main reason that this kind of hand-wringing is so tedious is that 24's strengths do not lie in dialogue and moral harangues. It's pretty much only good during the action sequences and the tense, bedroom-whisper exchanges between Kiefer and his enemies. This is the sneaky way that 24 has gotten big lefties to like the show and its otherwise questionable premise: action is better than talking; don't question Kiefer, because Kiefer is always right.

There was a good interview with Kiefer on NPR this morning (yeah, they're going for the public radio crowd this year.) He talks about his character's doubts about his own actions and the "blind ideology" that drove him in earlier seasons, but says he still likes the ambiguity of the show and Jack Bauer's struggle to do the right thing in ethically muddy situations. Then he quotes Chekhov. It's great.

December 12, 2008

Eric Fensler, the G.I. Joe PSA guy (sorry, Eric)

G.I. Joe PSAs

You probably remember those funny G.I. Joe PSA parodies from around 2003--they were an early internet video phenomenon that probably helped inspire the creation of YouTube. Here's a collection of a bunch of them so you can reminisce.

Anyway, the guys over at Spout's FilmCouch podcast decided to track down the creator of the videos, Eric Fensler, and interview him over the phone. Fensler is a video artist who's gone on to do lots of music videos and other parodies using found footage, including some stuff that looks just like 80's cable access video and some writing for Adult Swim's Tim and Eric Awesome Show. He's had his stuff in galleries and film festivals and everything. But, as you would probably guess, he's still usually referred to as the G.I. Joe PSA guy, which it seems he isn't crazy about.

Anyway, the Spout interview starts about 10:00 into the podcast, and it's one of the stranger interviews with a filmmaker I've ever heard. It starts with Fensler apologizing for being so out of it because he had recently eaten a roast beef sandwich that wasn't sitting well, and he says some things in the interview that make the interviewer start to wonder if in Fensler is pulling one over on him.

Throughout the interview, the guys at Spout stop the tape and provide some commentary about how they couldn't figure out what was going on, if Fensler was for real or if he was turning the interview into one of his parody projects. In the interview, he claims the following: he made videos of the girls' softball team in high school that were really popular when played at assemblies, and he thinks they're some of his best work; he doesn't own a video camera; he didn't own a computer until 2004; in high school he weighed 300 pounds and had bad acne. The interviewer actually knew Fensler in high school and says he was skinny and fairly good looking, which is when he starts really getting confused about what's going on.

Then Fensler calls people who like the G.I. Joe videos "losers", then calls himself a loser and quotes Micky's death scene from Rocky 3. He also notes that his best work is the stuff that throws people off and confuses them. He says, "Isn't that the best kind of stuff? It's like you're asking questions, people are left to guess what the hell's going on. I don't like to be told everything. I like to be, like, what was that?"

And then the bad roast beef sandwich gets the better of him, and it's all right there on the interview tape.

So the FilmCouch guys were either made to be part of a performance art parody of an interview, or they recorded a filmmaker having some terrible digestive problems and broadcast it over the internet. Hard to say which.

Anyway, here's Fensler's website, with links to his music videos, Flickr, YouTube (including 23 videos of the kickoff of the 2007 Super Bowl), Vimeo, and live streaming video and slideshows of his dogs.

December 2, 2008

William Shatner: One Man Hyperbole

William Shatner and Jenna Jameson

William Shatner has a new talk show.

It's kind of unbelievable that he's gone all this time without having his own show to share his own intense, self-aware, detachedly-cool and possibly insane personality with the world, unfiltered through any fictional character. Maybe he had to go through all the 20 or 30 careers he's already had before getting to this level.

The show, Shatner's Raw Nerve, is on the Biography Channel at 10:00 tonight, and is automatically the most interesting thing that channel has ever done. His guests will include Jimmy Kimmel, Judge Judy, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jenna Jameson. I don't understand it either, but I think it's going to be great.

When people try to describe Shatner and the kind of celebrity he's made for himself, they often talk in expansive, hyperbolic terms, and end up some place that's almost mystical. In the Times review of the new talk show, Ginia Bellafante writes:

The range of Mr. Shatner’s cultural contributions sometimes seems incalculable, and his tenure on Star Trek, is, of course, really just a fraction of his national gift. If YouTube offered nothing but his spoken-word renditions of classic rock songs ("Rocket Man", "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"), it would still get thousands of hits, no millions and zillions of them. Google might have bought YouTube with no other content.

And later she really nails that ability Shatner has to operate on many different, progressively complex levels of comedy at once: he's serious; he's absurd; he knows he's absurd; he's in on the joke; he's become the joke and also somehow surpasses it.

His genius is a simulation of sincerity that makes it seem as though he is finding profundity wherever he looks. And yet he leaves enough wiggle room for his audience to wonder whether he really is faking it, or whether, in actuality, he isn’t: maybe he is just nuts.

And of course the Fametracker Fame Audit of William Shatner from back in 2005. An excerpt:

When the world zigs, he zags. When the world zags, he zigs. When the world zigs back, he records an album with Ben Folds. When the world chuckles, he pantses the world.

Some celebrities think they've got this whole image thing figured out, they can have fun with it, and they can make it their bitch. Sure, we like John Malkovich, and, sure, we thought it was cool and funny when he starred in Being John Malkovich. But for William Shatner, every day is Being William Shatner. Some celebrities get it, but Shatner so thoroughly gets it that "it" no longer exists. He's consumed "it." He's crawled up inside celebrity and made it explode, the way that Neo finally crawls into Agent Smith and makes him explode.


November 21, 2008

New shows on AMC

Alex Winter, black cop white cop

AMC has had a good run with Mad Men and Breaking Bad (season 2 starts early next year!) and they're looking at some new original shows to keep the momentum going.

One of the new shows is by old favorite Alex Winter of Idiot Box/Bill & Ted/Freaked fame: Sugar Hill will be about a black cop and a white cop working Harlem in the late 60's. Expect excellent costumes and music, possible Tracy Morgan cameo.

Red Mars will be a sci-fi series about people colonizing Mars, but it's a character-driven drama. The writer/producer is the guy who wrote Armageddon and The Saint, but it's still probably worth checking out.

Rectify is a drama about a man returning home from prison after DNA evidence exonerates him. It's by the producer of Breaking Bad, and stars the guy from The Shield who isn't Michael Chiklis.

And if that isn't enough, they're also making a mini-series remake of The Prisoner, an awesome and influential 60's British TV show, starring Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel. Hopefully it will capture the spy/sci-fi/ mystery/psychological freakout elements of the original. I haven't heard anything about the rumored Christopher Nolan movie version for two years or so, maybe that one's not happening.

TV is more exciting than movies these days, isn't it?

November 5, 2008

Tracy called it

CNN may have called the election at 11:00 PM last night, but Tracy said it back on March 15: Black is the new President, bitch!

October 31, 2008

Upcoming sci-fi

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet from 1956 is one of the most entertaining sci-fi classics out there, even for a not very committed sci-fi fan like me. In the story based on The Tempest, a young Leslie Nielsen leads a mission to a distant planet inhabited only by the sweet-faced Anne Francis and her father, and lovable sidekick Robby the Robot. The movie also had the first all-electronic movie soundtrack, and this was years before the first Moog synthesizer came out.

So now there's going to be a remake, which hopefully will hang onto some of the endearing qualities of the original, or at least include a Leslie Nielsen cameo. The remake is being written by J. Michael Straczynski, a man who I think formed my childhood concept of what sci-fi/fiction is: he wrote for He-Man, She-Ra, and the 80's version of the Twilight Zone. (He also created Babylon 5, which I wasn't into.) And he did the screenplay for the Wachowski Brothers-produced Ninja Assassin, which comes out next year and looks OK.

But: more important. J. Michael Straczynski also wrote the screenplay for the movie version of Max Brooks' World War Z! The book is a really fun read, a surprisingly well thought-out and thorough collection of oral accounts of the great zombie war that engulfs the globe in the near future.

Here's a review of the leaked World War Z screenplay, with some excerpts. Looks like the movie will stick with the current fast-zombie trend, and attach all sorts of criticism of government corruption and consumer culture to the zombie metaphor--the reviewer calls it "a George Romero wet dream."

October 30, 2008

Times tries for piece on ugly people, ends up with piece on "ugly" people

Charlize Theron in Monster

Ugly people--ew!

The Times has an article in today's Style section that makes a half-hearted attempt to document a trend in average-looking or ugly people getting more attention in movies and TV. Here's the thesis statement:

Ugliness has recently emerged as a serious subject of study and academic interest unto itself, in some small part because of the success of television’s Ugly Betty, which ABC promoted with a "Be Ugly" campaign stressing self-esteem for girls and young women. Sociologists, writers, lawyers and economists have begun to examine ugliness, suggesting that the subject has been marginalized in history and that discrimination against the unattractive, while difficult to document or prevent, is a quiet but widespread injustice.

So maybe social scientists momentarily care that ugly people don't get the attention, admiration, or money that beautiful people get, but, as it turns out, no one else does. Cosmetic surgery is a $13 billion industry, beauty and makeover shows are all over the TV, and the gajillions of magazines, ads, and movies out there confirm that we're only interested in looking at beautiful people.

The article even notes that America Ferrera, who plays Ugly Betty, is actually really gorgeous.

Which brings us to an aspect of this ugliness non-phenomenon that's more interesting: the article only addresses beauty vs. ugliness in women. The only reference to a male creature in the whole article is Shrek who, as an ogre, is by definition ugly.

The highest paid actors are good-looking guys like Johnny Depp, Will Smith, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but we've also got Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and James Gandolfini to play the regular shlubby dudes whose characters are supposed to be average-looking.

On the other hand, when a female character is supposed to be regular-looking or kind of ugly, we tend to get beautiful women disfigured by ugly makeup and clothes: Nicole Kidman in a fake nose, Renee Zellweger plus 30 pounds, or Charlize up there in ugly-person makeup and fake crooked teeth. Or America Ferrera in her Ugly Betty red glasses and braces.

So here's the legitimate trend: prosthetic makeup is likely to be a solid career field forever.

October 27, 2008

Mad Men gets feminist

Betty at the hairdresser on Mad Men

The last two episodes of Mad Men were great. The second to last one was some of the best TV I've ever seen-- there are some scenes I never want to watch again, but it was still good television. Even though the season finale last night wasn't quite as ambitious or as creatively structured, it was still pretty amazing.

The show's creator Matthew Weiner, has been clear about his feminist aspirations for the show, but in these last two episodes he shows us what he means: the show seems to have become a kind of morality play where the female characters who stand up for themselves are rewarded, and the ones who don't get raped on the floor of their boss's office.

Let's look at the main characters:

Peggy. The show is as much about her as it is about Don Draper, and it's been structured around her experience from the very first episode. She's now the new superstar of the ad agency, and when she asks for her own office, she gets it (and graciously accepts Roger Sterling's comment about how aggressive women are "cute".) In the finale, she tells Pete Campbell the painful truth about giving away his baby, and in doing so appears to get some kind of spiritual absolution, while Pete is left bewildered and destroyed.

Joan. The scene in the second to last episode where Peggy and Joan talk about Peggy's new office and Joan's upcoming marriage was just awesome. For a moment, the all-powerful Joan looks small and weak as she realizes that she has to rely on the accomplishments of her doctor fiance/rapist to give her status, while Peggy has her own accomplishments to be proud of. For once, Joan is respectful of Peggy and not snotty and dismissive.

But the overall feel of the scene was sad. It was as heartbreaking as watching Joan get passed over for the script reading job without putting up a fight. The show seems to have established an especially unforgiving moral structure for women, just like in teen slasher movies, except in Mad Men it's not the slutty girl who gets punished. It's women like Joan who miss opportunities to stand up for themselves.

Betty. Last night's episode belonged to her. It's been frustrating watching her spiral into the depressive funk she's been in for the last few weeks, but finally last night, her refusal to let her philandering husband come home paid off. Don initially goes off to California to screw around, but instead he ends up spiritually cleansed, and remembers how to be respectful to women through his old friend Anna. He comes home to apologize for being such a dick and does some groveling. Betty lets him back in.

Betty's end of the deal with Don isn't exactly a feminist utopia, but she does get to have a night of freedom, be assured by everybody that she can get an abortion if she needs one, fuck a hot stranger in a men's room, and still get her repentant and now fabulously rich husband back. A lot better than moping around and crying on the shoulder of the 8 year-old boy next door.

The Men. Meanwhile, life is not so great for the menfolk. The last few episodes show them grasping desperately, sometimes pathetically, at their slowly dwindling power over the women in their lives. Don is the only one who seems able to readjust himself and come out, maybe, a sort of decent person. The owners of the agency, meanwhile, had to literally sell themselves out in order to accommodate women's demands--Mona, Jane, and Cooper's hilariously bitchy sister.

Next season: Peggy gets a personal assistant/boy toy, and the secretary pool starts a series of consciousness-raising brown-bag lunches about overly restrictive undergarments.

October 8, 2008

Gretchen "No Nuts" Mol is back on TV

Gretchen Mol in Life On Mars

Tomorrow night is the premiere episode of "Life On Mars", a British show adapted by ABC. This is the one about a cop who gets knocked on the head and travels back in time to 1973, when the streets were tough and cops didn't have cellphones. The clips I've seen make it look like it will do for cops what "Mad Men" does for the advertising industry: show us how bad the bad old days were with racism, sexism, smoking, drinking (and in this case, police brutality) while reminding us that all that stuff still goes on now, we've just gotten better at hiding it.

The show has been through a tumultuous history already--it's gotten a new executive producer (David E. Kelley was the first one, but I've liked exactly zero of his shows, so this is a good thing,) an almost totally new cast, and has been relocated from LA to NY. But about that cast: it features Harvey Keitel as a tough-guy lieutenant who has no truck with Miranda rights, though does hilariously like to cool his brow with a delicate little Chinese paper fan in a clip posted on the show's website.

Gretchen Mol was cast just recently as the precinct's lady cop, nicknamed "No Nuts" (heh). Hopefully this show will last longer than her last one, Girls Club, or excuse me, "girls club", which didn't have enough capital letters to keep it from getting axed after two episodes.

Lisa Bonet is in it too, as the main cop guy's present-day girlfriend, and in the commercials for the show she somehow looks exactly the same as she did in 1987. Haven't seen her since she was in High Fidelity.

And we're all excited to see Michael Imperioli back on TV--in the clips it looks like he's wearing a raccoon pelt on his upper lip and his character is described as "Part misogynist. Part bigot. All cop." Awesome.

The Reuters review notes that the American version of the show doesn't speculate on the sci-fi nature of the cop's time traveling, and once he's back in the 70's, he stays there. But the original series only ran for a total of 16 episodes over 2 years, so we'll have to see if the adaptation can come up with enough new material for an entire season, if it makes it that far.

The San Francisco Chronicle review says the music in the pilot is especially good: The David Bowie title track, plus Who and Rolling Stones. Sounds like some expensive rights to clear for TV, but hopefully the soundtrack will be one of the best parts of the show.

The Daily News has an elaborate 1973-era homepage today as part of the show's marketing--sort of a nonsensical concept (the dubious tagline is "Ever wonder what our homepage was like in 1973?") But it's cool as a media artifact, since it looks like the content is actual 1973-era DN articles, including a review of Serpico, a great feature on the year's best album covers (War, Carly Simon) and a piece announcing the Roe v. Wade decision.

The premiere of "Life On Mars" airs tomorrow at 10.

August 27, 2008

DNC: I already miss the Olympics

Obama watches Hillary at the DNC

Every four years, I'm psyched about watching the summer Olympics again. But the conventions? I remember watching the 2004 DNC and getting excited about all the speakers, crushing on Barack Obama with the rest of the world, and feeling hopeful about the upcoming election. I don't know how professional news people go to these things every four years, because that old political enthusiasm isn't exactly bubbling up in my heart this time.

This year, even just the nightly one-hour network broadcasts are, in the words of Jack Shafer, "unfolding with all the drama of the formation of a stalactite." He advocates adding some actual decision-making to the conventions, or at least shortening the conventions from four days to three or two.

How about one day? A one day convention, with speeches by Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, one party leader (like Ted Kennedy or Kathleen Sebelius) and one random inspirational person who works at a hospital or something. Then Obama. Then that's it.

At least one of these people would ideally point out how exciting and historic it is that the nominee is black--a point that no speaker has mentioned yet, as Alessandra Stanley writes in today's Times. So far, we've heard an awful lot about how much the Obamas are like everyone else in America, when some of the things that make Obama such an inspiring candidate are that he's relatively young, has spent time working directly with poor people, and that he's from a mixed-race family.

Also, is anyone else a little nervous about Bill Clinton's speech tonight? Especially after his remark about candidate X and candidate Y yesterday?

"Suppose you're a voter, and you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that candidate can deliver on anything at all. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you going to vote for?"

"This has nothing to do with what's going on now," he added after a momentary pause.

As long as he sticks to a charming yet blistering and occasionally funny assault on John McCain and George Bush, he'll be OK.

But right after Clinton tonight [full schedule], we get to hear from your old favorite mealy-mouthed political disappointment, John Kerry, reporting for duty. Ugh. After 2004, you thought at least you'd never have to listen to him again, right?

So far, the photos of Obama watching the convention on TV are the best thing to come out of it. Here's my favorite:

Obama watching Bill Clinton at DNC

UPDATE: I don't know if he sincerely meant any of it, but Bill Clinton certainly said the right things in his speech last night. Though I would have liked a stronger attack on McCain and a better reasoned argument about why Obama is ready to be President than just a statement assuring us that he is. Here's the video.

August 18, 2008

"Skins": Salacious teen drama, UK version

Skins

I've been wanting to see British teen soap "Skins" since I heard about it last year--and it's finally airing on BBC America. The series was a big hit in the UK since it premiered in early 2007 and had pretty much the same reception as "Gossip Girl" did over here last year: total media saturation, obsessive devotion among the kids and adults interested in pop culture phenomena, early reviews showing mild confusion and disdain among critics who think it's too dependent on easy stereotypes. Then dawning realization that it's great.

The show deals with a group of teens in Bristol and features lots of sex, drugs, drinking, eating disorders, and absent parents, just like our teen dramas. But since it's British, it will be funnier, some of the actors will be merely average-looking, they'll smoke (does "Gossip Girl" still mysteriously ban cigarettes but allow every other conceivable vice?), some characters will be middle class or even (maybe) almost poor, and there will be main characters who aren't white. Plus more nudity (probably) and harder drugs (definitely). Yep, it's better.

For some background, here's the Guardian review from the show's debut, a video preview, character profiles on the E4 site, and the BBC America site. Also an Urban Dictionary definition of "skins party".

I don't recognize any of the cast apart from the kid who played Marcus in About a Boy, who's all grown up and plays the hunky popular guy. Highlights from the soundtrack include the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Gossip, DJ Shadow, and The Fall.

The show started last night on BBC America and will air two episodes in a row on Sunday nights at 9 and 10. Here's the show's full schedule.

UPDATE
: I finally watched it. Decent characters, nonstop funny swearing, hookers, drugs, and naked people. And dick jokes! Everything you'd want in a TV show. If you miss it on BBC America, it looks like you can watch the entire series on YouTube.

August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes, soul icon

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

Isaac Hayes was unexpectedly killed by a treadmill yesterday, after having some recent health problems. The NY Times obituary says his music "defined the glories and excesses of soul" through his early years as a songwriter and musician at Stax Records in Memphis.

Cushie and I happened to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis a few months ago, and it was one of the best music history experiences of my life. Before he did "Theme from Shaft" and became a celebrity in his own right, Isaac Hayes wrote around 200 songs from the Stax catalog with his partner David Porter, including Sam and Dave's "Hold on, I'm Comin'" and "Soul Man", and played keyboards with Otis Redding , Booker T and the MG's, and pretty much everybody else on Stax as a session musician.

Also in the Stax Museum is Isaac Hayes' car, a blue 1972 Cadillac Eldorado, which was lined with fur, had a bar that popped out of the dashboard, and because he was a man undaunted by the technological limitations of his time, he had a small black and white TV sort of wedged awkwardly into the area below the radio between the two front seats. The car was taken by the IRS in 1977 when Hayes had some financial problems.

In a good VH1 interview from a few years ago he talked about his fearless and distinctive sense of style, which sounds more like a celebrity from this decade with an army of personal stylists on staff than a southern black man starting out in the early 60's:

"I used to go to a place called Lansky Brothers on the corner of Beale and Second and have them make all my clothes. I wore everything, man. I wore orange suits, pink suits, purple suits, chartreuse suits, green suits - it didn't matter. After I saw The Pink Panther with those Nehru collars and stuff, I was the only one wearing those in Memphis.

"A guy sold me a chain necklace and a chain belt to match. I started wearing that onstage, then I switched to wearing tights. I thought if a belly dancer can wear them, then I can wear them too. Eventually a guy named Charles Rubin said, "I'm going to make you a chain vest." I realized, Wait a minute, I'm wearing chains! Chains once represented slavery to a black man in this country. I said, I'm going to turn it around -- these chains are a symbol of strength and power. So I kept wearing them."

Here's a video clip of Isaac Hayes making his dramatic entrance at the Wattstax concert in LA in 1972. Pink tights, black and white fur boots, and gold chains. He is so awesome:

Isaac Hayes at Wattstax

Hayes seemed to move effortlessly from one important moment in pop culture to another for his entire life. After helping to create soul music in the 60's and defining himself as a symbol of black pride during the 70's, he moved onto TV and movies in the 80's. He was in Escape From New York, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and showed up on "The A-Team" and "Miami Vice". In the 90's came "South Park" and, of course, Scientology. It would have been only a matter of time before he did a song with Kanye.

Incredibly, Hayes had just finished making a movie called Soul Men with Samuel L. Jackson and good old Bernie Mac, who also died this weekend. Hang in there, Samuel L.

LA Times
also has a very lengthy and in-depth obituary. Reports of the number of kids he has varies from "several" in the LA Times to 6 on IMDb to 12 in the NY Times. There's a good, if not very well organized bio on his website.

July 24, 2008

Rocky Horror recast

Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show

MTV has joined with Fox Television to do a remake of every high school Drama Club geek's favorite midnight movie, Rocky Horror Picture Show. I guess it will be for TV?

OK, it's not very cool to admit that I have been to a few of these screenings, complete with a shadow cast in front of the screen, props, and a theater full of assistant stage managers singing along to "Time Warp". A long time ago. But I agree with some of the very indignant Wired commenters that this will be a tough remake to pull off without enraging a lot of devoted fans.

So let's think about recasting. The cast for a Rocky Horror remake needs to be energetic and funny and able to camp it up and dance in heels and fishnets. And ideally also sing.

Here's what I've got:

Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Tim Curry was in the original. I want to see Alan Cumming, who could generate the appropriate level of drag flamboyance (as he demonstrated in the Lincoln Center production of The Bacchae recently.) Or maybe, and I know I'm going out on a limb here, Robert Downey, Jr. He's gotten himself together now, but I think he's still just unhinged enough to make it work.

Brad, the Eagle Scout do-gooder waiting to be corrupted. Barry Bostwick in the original, who later went onto "Spin City" and the forthcoming Hannah Montana movie. I think this would be perfect for Chris Klein, who needs a good comeback. Or how about this one: Justin Timberlake! He was great in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan and has no problem with campy choreography. I'd love to see him in drag.

Janet. A very young Susan Sarandon in the original, which is still hard to believe. I'd like to see Amy Adams in the remake. She's really funny, so she'll be good at the blushing, nice-girl part at the start of the movie, and I bet she can vamp it up for the slutty transformation.

Riff Raff. Richard O'Brien in the original. We need someone who can play a sort of weirdly sexy creepy ghoul from outer space. I'm going for Rhys Ifans, or, even better, Seth Green.

Magenta. Patricia Quinn in the original, who I definitely haven't seen in anything else she's done since RHPS. We need a scary/sexy alien for this one. How about either Asia Argento, who is terrifying and hot, or maybe Pink, who is mostly just terrifying.

Eddie. It was good old Meat Loaf in the original. Kid Rock could do a good job as a crazy undead rockabilly lobotomy victim, but I think an aging, puffy, crinkly Sebastian Bach might be good too.

Columbia. Nell Campbell in the original, whose career has not taken off since. Best choice is Scarlett Johansson. I've really lost faith in her movie choices lately, but I bet she's still good in comedies, and would look great in a gold-sequined tap dancing outfit.

Then Brian Cox can play old Dr. Scott in the wheelchair.

What about Rocky? The blonde sexbot hunk of chiseled beef? Either some nameless gay porn star could do it (the original Rocky didn't have much of a legitimate career, either) or a prettyboy heartthrob, like Chace Crawford from Gossip Girl. Is he hunky enough?

June 24, 2008

You know you're a '00's kid if...

2000's

VH1 started its newest installment of the "I Love The..." series last night with "I Love the New Millennium", a show that looks back fondly on the decade that we're still in.

Message boards on VH1 and IMDb are full of "Are you kidding me?" and "What's next? 'I Love 45 minutes Ago'?" comments, but personally, I have no problem with a nostalgia show about just a few years ago. I don't feel especially nostalgic for when I was 9 or when I was 16. I feel nostalgic for when I was 27.

The 2000 and 2001 shows were on last night; 2002 and 2003 play back to back tonight. There were a few obvious segments in last night's episodes that didn't exactly capture the zeitgeist of years past because nothing has changed since then (remember the iPod? and when people downloaded music off the internet?) But there were a few bits that really did feel like a return to a not-so-distant long-lost era:

  • Failed football experiments: XFL, Dennis Miller hosting Monday Night Football
  • Dude, Where's My Car?
  • Kelly Ripa's debut
  • Sisqo

Many of the hosts of the old shows are back, with the deadpan Michael Ian Black delivering a solid half of the commentary. Dee Snyder is back, squeezing this new show in between episodes of "Rock the Cradle" and "100 Most Metal Moments", as is the most inexplicable of the regular VH1 commentators, Luis Guzman. The guy does 4-6 movies a year and still has time for this crap? He does a good job though. Also back are two members of The Donnas.

New commentators include Toofer and Josh from "30 Rock". Maybe they did this show during the writers' strike?

A few things from our current decade that I already feel nostalgic about:

  • Canceled TV: "The Job" and "The Lone Gunmen"
  • Low Culture (a highlight or two)
  • Fametracker
  • Common and Kanye on "Chappelle's Show" doing "The Food" live [video] (to be honest, the first time I saw this clip from the show was just a few days ago, but the pre-Jamie Foxx Kanye wearing a Kanye West t-shirt and blazer, with Dave Chappelle raising his fist in the studio/kitchen was instant wistfulness.)

June 17, 2008

FUMTV

The promo above shows that MTV is trying to reintroduce music videos. And it is promoting them by poking fun at itself and its all-reality-all-the-time programming. In this ad, Pete Wentz is talking with some MTV reality girl and tells her: "Music videos still exist, and we're playing them on MTV for you."

The show is called FNMTV which I thought was a pun on "Friday Night MTV" when the show premieres, and "Fuckin' MTV" which would be kind of awesome. And maybe it is, but they also claim "F is for Feedback, N is for new."

The feedback is the most annoying, absurd aspect. And this is why MTV is not as good as it used to be, when it really showed videos. On repeat airings of the show, random viewers submit their comments, as recorded at home, and they are broadcast with the videos. So you can't even watch the damn video.

You can watch the fan videos here. Here's a fan response to Flo Rida's "In the Ayer." The fan in question says "I really really liked it." I'm glad I know that. There's lots more, all on about that level.

Watching the show with the feedback on top of the video, felt like watching pop-up videos, only worse, and without really being able to hear the song.

I feel bad, because I am completely in favor of MTV showing more videos (and not just for the summer, thanks) but this execution is ridiculous.

May 15, 2008

Our awesome justice system

jury duty

Jury duty is an aspect of public life that many people think about only in terms of what strategy will get them out of it. You can try claiming you don't believe in the justice system, saying you're racist, saying your brother-in-law is a cop--everybody has theories about what to say during voir dire so that you don't get picked for a case.

This is totally the wrong approach. The chances are low that you'll get to put away Uma Thurman's stalker, but there are still lots of good things about serving on a jury. Once you get past the boring part of sitting around waiting to get selected, it's sort of cool:

  • For today's TV-loving juror, court rooms have been turned into entertainment venues. Everything that happens in there really is just like what you see on "Law & Order" and "Judge Judy". You'll almost definitely get to hear "all rise" every time you enter or leave the room, lots of objections (often vehement), deal with crotchety old world-weary judges, and maybe even get a few tears from emotional witnesses.
  • If you're dealing with a civil case, you get the opportunity to feel like you're leveling the playing field of our unfair world just a little bit by making corporate America/greedy doctors/unscrupulous landlords/corrupt nail salon owners/your oppressor of choice pay up, big time. This is incredibly gratifying.
  • During deliberation, you get to re-enact your favorite scenes from 12 Angry Men and either coolly persuade dissenters to come over to your rational way of thinking, or play the insane crabby jackass who holds out and almost ruins the whole trial. Not that you would actually change the outcome of the verdict through manufactured drama, but for anyone who enjoys playing devil's advocate, it's kind of fun.
  • Getting a whole jury to agree on a dollar amount for a civil case award is tricky, but everyone loves throwing around other people's money. Why stop at 50 grand? Let's give 100! No, 200! It's like you're on Oprah's show where you compete to give away a million dollars, but you don't ever get eliminated and, as far as I can tell, you can pick whatever huge number you want.
  • And let's be honest here, you get a legitimate reason not to go to work for a few days. Some days the judge will probably release you hours earlier than you would ever be able to leave work, and you should feel no obligation to go into work or use this time productively at all. As long as you're not self-employed, it's not a bad deal.

So go ahead, send in that juror questionnaire! It's not as bad as you think.

April 28, 2008

World discovers Arrested Development two years too late

Arrested Development, online

Rumors about the future of Fox's canceled "Arrested Development" swirl around from time to time. Today's Times reports that since the launch of NBC and Fox's online TV service Hulu, the show has consistently been one of the top three most-watched shows up there. I guess all the people who couldn't be bothered to watch while it was on the air are just getting around to it now.

Creator Mitchell Hurwitz, who effectively ended renewal negotiations in 2006 when he decided he wasn't interested in going on, is surprised. "Isn’t that crazy?" he said in an interview last week. "This was a largely unwatched show when it was on network television," and said its too-little too-late popularity was "enormously rewarding in every way except for financially."

Money was probably one reason why he didn't want to keep the low-rated show on the air, and a few people streaming the show online for free probably isn't generating a lot of income for old Mitch. But the Times is obviously eager to fuel the recently resurrected ongoing low-level rumors about a movie in the works. From the article: "He also suggested that the show’s streaming success could enhance prospects for a film based on the series."

What that probably means is the interviewer said, "Is it true that "Arrested Development"'s success online would in theory make it easier to get a film made?", to which Mitch Hurwitz did not say no. Let's get "Untitled Bluth Project" up on IMDb!

Oo, how tantalizing: it already is. Someone 's trying to will a vague speculation into reality, but I want to believe.

April 24, 2008

Are you aware that Tina Fey's husband looks like this?

Tina Fey and husband

This photo is from last night's premiere of Baby Mama--Tina Fey and her husband Jeff Richmond.

They met while they were both working at Second City and have been married since 2001. I would bet cash money that he is a wonderful and funny guy. Incredibly, Fey says that before she met him she "could not get a date."

But I have to hand it to Tina Fey for staying with this guy instead of doing what other celebrities who suddenly find their public value rocketing to super-fame levels would do, such as divorcing him to trade up for someone more famous like Naveen Andrews or John Stamos (or even her agent.) She's a real movie star now; in terms of media measurement of her fame, she's progressed from being on the cover of Bust to being on the covers of magazines at the checkout at Rite Aid.

How many TV/movie stars under 40 at a Tina Fey-level of fame can you think of who are married to a someone who a) you've never heard of, and b) also isn't conventionally attractive (i.e. not a former model)? Anyone?

April 18, 2008

Keshia, you're a big girl now

Little Rudy Huxtable = all grown up.

Keshia Knight Pulliam

That cute elementary-schooler in pigtails that was America's kid sister in the '80's, Keshia Knight Pulliam, recently turned 29 years old. For people my age, Keshia is like a one-woman version of the Olsen twins that we watched grow up on tv. The difference is that Keshia's a lot better looking, and successfully graduated from college.

Her post-"Cosby Show" career hasn't really taken off (though she was in Beauty Shop with Queen Latifah), but now she's about to enter an important rite of passage for anyone transitioning from child star to adult actress: starring in Tyler Perry's latest family movie as a hooker named Candy.

Who's America's pigtailed cutiepie now? That'll show 'em!

I just learned she also appeared in a 2003 Chingy video with a brief shot of her in a bra [video]. OK girl, we get it, you can put your shirt back on.

March 25, 2008

More fake news on CNN

CNN Headline News

Eager to join the already crowded joke-news arena, along with "The Daily Show", "Colbert", VH1's "Best Week Ever", Weekend Update on "SNL", and Fox News' "1/2 Hour News Hour", CNN Headline News is launching its own comedy show, "Not Just Another Cable News Show", a title that defines failed irony.

It's also a reference to HBO's "Not Necessarily the News", which was itself a remake of the UK sketch comedy show "Not the Nine O'Clock News", a show that featured a young Rowan Atkinson and Clive Anderson. But maybe CNN is assuming that the trend-setting 16 year-old market that watches Headline News for hours on end won't know those old shows.

"Not Just Another Cable News Show" will feature commentary by Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar, Ana Marie Cox (who recently defined her current not-as-funny journalistic role with Time.com as "the more feature-y, bloggy, scene-driven stuff"--ugh) and self-effacing, sometimes funny LA Times columnist Joel Stein.

March 21, 2008

Get Harold Perrineau some therapy

Michael does quite pull the trigger on Lost

My feelings about Harold Perrineau, who plays the desperate and easily manipulated father Michael on "Lost", have changed a lot over the years. I loved him as Mercutio in drag in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. But then his horrible narration-for-the-blind dialogue in the Matrix movies drove me up the wall.

After last night's episode of "Lost", and the four (four!) suicide attempts he had to go through in character, I just want to send him to get some trauma counseling and maybe a foot massage.

In other "Lost" news, the teaser for the next episode revealed whether or not baby Aaron counts as one of the Oceanic 6 (he does), so in one sense we know the complete list of who makes it off the island. Except we still don't know whose funeral Jack went to earlier this season, and we saw good old not-dead-yet, gay-on-vacation Tom magically back on the mainland in a flashback last night. So anything is possible.

March 3, 2008

Female President idea returns to world of hour-long dramas and sci-fi movies

Condi Rice and Nancy Pelosi

There's a pretty good chance that Hillary Clinton is going to stay stuck as America's First Serious Female Presidential Contender, never quite making it to First Female President. I think she's made it easier for whoever decides to run in future elections, even if she ultimately loses. There are other great women in politics who don't have all the baggage that comes with Hillary, and today the Times looks at who might be the first woman president, for real this time.

They like Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas and recent feature of O Magazine, and also Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona. Both of these are good choices--they're popular second term Democratic governors in red states, and have strong fiscal backgrounds, and both have endorsed Obama.

I guess it's a good bet that speculation about Condi won't go away, though if she ever ran, she would be facing a country still pissed off from when we suddenly realized sometime in 2005 that we all totally hate our president. She'll always have to answer for Iraq.

What's surprising is that the Times didn't mention Nancy Pelosi, who is the highest-ranking woman in US history. I think Pelosi is smart, aggressive, and knows what she's doing, even though the Democratic Congress has been so disappointing. She's fought for a lot of good policies like raising minimum wage, and lots of other ones that got defeated, and she voted against the Iraq war. She'd be a pretty good candidate if she can get Congress to stand up to Bush more often. She also raised 5 kids while working her way up in California politics.

For now, maybe all we're going to get is another 4 years with Presidents Leslie McCloud, Mackenzie Allen, and Laura Roslin.

Watch Tina Fey's great "Bitch Is the New Black" political speech on SNL's Weekend Update from a week ago.

February 26, 2008

Mariah Carey's new market: 30 Rock fans

I don't know what kind of genius is on Mariah Carey's marketing team at her label, or if Tina Fey has started producing music videos, but a snippet of Carey's forthcoming video for "Touch My Body" features extended sequences of her frolicking around an apartment, in bed, and in a backyard game of frisbee with Kenneth Ellen Parcell from 30 Rock (aka Jack McBrayer.)

Watch the video clip, which includes a "Love Rocks" undershirt, tube socks, and a viking helmet:

Kenneth Parcell in Mariah Carey video

Mariah may not be aware of this, but the snippet is very reminiscent of a fantasy sequence from an episode of 30 Rock from this fall when we see Kenneth seducing Tracy Morgan's wife, Angie, while wearing only his NBC page jacket and an eyepatch, shaking martinis, and sensuously feeding her a turkey leg. You can watch the episode (#202) for free on the NBC site.

The video is directed by Brett Ratner. A new episode of 30 Rock airs April 10.

February 25, 2008

The Academy hates America

European Oscar winners

All the big awards were won by Europeans at this years Oscars. The UK was represented by Daniel Day-Lewis and the magnificent and extra-terrestrial Tilda Swinton, France by Marion Cotillard, Spain by Javier Bardem, and the Grand Duchy of Minneapolis by the Coen Brothers and Diablo Cody. Those last two won writing awards, demonstrating that the fine European sensibility is best for interpreting the multi-faceted nuances of American culture.

Even the best song and best score awards went to Europeans. Ireland's Glen Hansard and Czech Republic's Marketa Irglova won for their acoustic-y "Falling Slowly" from Once. Hansard's gleeful acceptance speech ate up 100% of their alloted time on the stage, and Irglova didn't get to say a single word before the orchestra started playing and stopped her.

So then Jon Stewart came back on and said, "That guy is so arrogant"--my favorite line of the night. After the commercial, Stewart went off-script to bring Irglova back on to deliver her very sincere acceptance speech.

Here's a video of Hansard's acceptance speech, Jon Stewart's one-liner, and Irglova's return to the stage [link fixed].

A complete list of winners.

February 15, 2008

I take back everything I said about Lost not being good anymore

Sayid on Lost

If you're like me, and you used to love Lost but started losing interest somewhere in the middle of last season, around the time Hurley starting driving that van around, you better start watching again, because so far this season has been fantastic.

Last night's episode was the first one to focus on Sayid in what feels like forever, probably at least two years. He's one of three characters who rotates around as my favorite, and I couldn't have asked for a better episode for him.

In his flash-forwards, we got to see that life back in the regular world is as difficult and sad as it is for the others--though it was looking pretty good for a while, there. Playing golf, romancing the ladies, looking sexy, and lounging around naked in rumpled beds, while still getting to kill people here and there looked like an ideal Bond-like lifestyle for Sayid. And while that zinger in the last scene about who his boss is was the kind of shocker we should see coming a mile off by now, I thought the real surprise was seeing Sayid cry. He reminded me of a hotter, smarter, sadder version of Eric Bana from the best scenes in Munich.

It was the perfect episode for old fans who have been waiting for some more screen time for Sayid and for some more inexplicable but vaguely scientific theories about what the deal is with th island. I can't wait to see what they do with the space-time continuum disruption stuff suggested by the clock launched from the ship out there in the ocean, a few miles away and a half an hour behind (I think).

If you want to catch up, you can watch the other episodes of the season.

February 11, 2008

When do we get our TV back?

dead tv

After 3+ months of nonstop "Millionaire Matchmaker", "Deal or No Deal", and "American Gladiators", the writers' strike looks like it's finally coming to an end.

Actually, all the "American Gladiators" has been pretty awesome. And it's been a relief to know I'm not missing any important television. But this is America: we're sick of talking to each other at night, books are for putting you to sleep, and we need our scripted half-hour comedies.

Here's the latest Times status report of when and if all the network shows plan to return with new episodes. Some notable ones:

  • "30 Rock" and "The Office": a few new episodes in April or May.
  • "Ugly Betty": probably shooting a few new episodes soon.
  • "Lost": season will only be 13 episodes. [Good news, since that's about all the good material they usually come up with for a season.]
  • "24": abandoning this season all together.
  • "Heroes": probably not coming back this season.
  • "Bionic Woman": gone.
  • "Terminator": once they run out of episodes, gone until the fall. Or forever.
  • "Simpsons" and "Family Guy": have just been obliviously chugging along all this time.

Only major networks are included on the list, which prompted a lot of panicky comments from "Battlestar Galactica" fans. It comes back in March.

February 4, 2008

Sons of Italy vs. scratch tickets

Bada Bling ad

When The Sopranos was on the air, the Sons of Italy protested its unflattering negative stereotypes of the Italian-American community--specifically, they claimed Italian characters on the show were mostly mobsters, criminals, murderers and, in their words, "low-class, dim-witted hoodlums." David Chase said the show was "about America" and wasn't meant to generalize about Italian-Americans, but the Sons of Italy stayed mad.

Now that the show's over, the Sons of Italy are protesting a cheap, unfunny rip-off of The Sopranos produced by the NY State Lottery for one of their scratch games, Ba-Da Bling. Here's the TV ad for Ba-Da Bling that caused the problem:

Bada Bling Video

You'll note that some of the four ganster-type guys in the ad look almost exactly like Sopranos characters, and that they have really schlocky fake Brooklyn accents. And that the name of the scratch game is obviously taken from the strip club where the guys all hung out on the show.

Stella Grillo from the local Sons of Italy chapter says about the protest, "I know a lot of people are saying you are overly sensitive. But Americans have become more sensitive to most racial groups, and it should apply to Italian-Americans."

I don't know where she's seeing all this sensitivity--if you look at this one cruddy state-sponsored lottery ad, you'll also notice young black men with lots of jewelry, big cars, and puffy jackets rapping about money. And a group of girls in tiny hideous outfits enthusiastically shaking their asses all over everything.

If anything, I'm impressed that the lottery could reference gangsters, rappers, strippers, one of the best TV series of our time, and loud obnoxious jewelry all in one 30-second ad for a program that mostly exists to fund public education.

Almost half of the $2.3 billion that the state generates for education through the lottery every year goes to NYC schools. So you can feel good about perpetuating a whole rainbow of stereotypes for a good cause.

December 11, 2007

Networks are screwed

30 Rock Judah Friedlander

The WGA strike has been going on for over a month now, and nothing's going on with negotiations to suggest we'll get our TV back any time soon. The Daily News gave a rundown today of how many episodes are left for a bunch of shows.

It's mostly looking pretty bad. For shows that you might actually watch, we've got "30 Rock" with 2 remaining shows, ""Ugly Betty" has 3, "My Name Is Earl" has 1, and "The Office" and "Heroes" are already out. "Scrubs" has 5. Shows that I can hardly believe are still on the air, like "Smallville" (7 episodes) and "Las Vegas" (8!) seem to be doing OK. And two new shows that I don't believe anybody in America has ever watched, "Cavemen" and "Carpoolers", are both good through February with 8 episodes left each, but I think we can assume that once those run out they'll be gone forever.

"Lost" has 8 episodes done, so when the next season finally starts we'll all have plenty of time to start watching, get into it for a week or two, become disillusioned when it inevitably starts sucking again, vow to stop watching, and then maybe grudgingly catch the last episode before it goes off the air again. Just like last year. The website doesn't list a season premiere date, but suggests it might be sometime in February.

Meanwhile, advertising is tanking. Maybe the viewing public has already given up on the networks and is devoting all its time to watching the Superbad DVD and trying to sit through that terrible "Tin Man" miniseries on SciFi. Poor beleaguered NBC has had to pay its advertisers back $500,000 for each show that failed to make ratings, which I think is pretty much all the shows it has. The only show they have that makes the Top 20 is "Law & Order: SVU", and they only have 4 episodes left of that one.

Reality shows are still going full speed ahead, since those writers aren't in the union. But surprisingly enough, a TV marketing exec tells Reuters "too much reality just doesn't play well with advertisers," so NBC can make all the "Celebrity Apprentice" episodes it wants and still not bring in much money.

Some good TV news: "The Wire" will be back on HBO in January, and CBS is going to air a new miniseries in January called "Comanche Moon". It's based on a Larry McMurtry novel, the prequel to "Lonesome Dove", and stars Steve Zahn and Karl Urban as the two rapscallion Texas Rangers Gus and Woodrow. It's by the same director as the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries from 1989, and should be pretty great.

November 19, 2007

This motherfucking, motherfucking, motherfucking strike

Alec and Jerry

As ever, Alec Baldwin is a mad genius. On his latest Huffington Post entry , about Ryan Gosling's brilliance, how much he hates George Bush, and various other disconnected topics, he says:
I miss my make-up artist, Stacey Panepinto. I miss my hairstylist, Richard Esposito. I miss all of the 30 ROCK cast and crew, who I don't see anymore because of this motherfucking, motherfucking, motherfucking strike.

November 16, 2007

The coolest WGA benefit event yet +

Michael Cera

Guess who's hosting SNL tomorrow night? It's our favorite celebrity ever Michael Cera! With musical guest Yo La Tengo.

Oh, hang on. The writers are all on strike. But that doesn't matter if SNL is going to be happening live at Upright Citizens Brigade! Where $20 tickets will benefit a strike fund for the WGA!

Yeah, well, show's already very sold out.

Also sold out is what will probably be the greatest non-televised television moment of the year: an episode of "30 Rock", also live at UCB on Monday night. The UCB site says limited tickets will be available at the door, so start camping out on 26th St as soon as the SNL show is over!

Here's about as much good news as there is: people are selling their tickets to SNL at UCB for $750 on Craig's List. Fuck.

Cast members Tina Fey and Seth Meyers have been out on the picket lines.

UPDATE: Of course, SNL was awesome.

November 5, 2007

WGA Strikes!

WGA writers on strike at Rockefeller Center

The first picket lines for the Writers Guild of America strike went up this morning at Rockefeller Center, where about 30 writers peacefully gathered near the skating rink with signs and the giant inflatable rat. Many of the writers out there probably work for some popular shows, but of course, I have no idea who they are or what they look like.

With the exception of Tina Fey.

Tina Fey on the picket lines

The strike is the result of unsuccessful negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. So how does that work when one person is a writer but also an executive producer? Wouldn't that make someone like Tina Fey both union and management? Maybe. But she's a producer who's out there on the lines with the proletariat, because she's awesome.

The Times has a good piece on the vast disparities in income among the 12,000 WGA members. Almost half of the West coast members are unemployed, while writers for shows like "Grey's Anatomy" take home $5 million a year. The WGA site has a schedule of all the picket locations in the LA area.

November 1, 2007

Give Frank a chance!

judah.jpg

The Hollywood Writers aren't on strike yet, but that could change after their membership meeting tonight. With the growth of streaming and download services, writers are trying to make sure they get paid if their work is used. So if you watch 30 Rock online, or plan to download it through the new NBC/Fox service, Frank and his union brothers may be getting nothing.

You can see WGA updates here. There's a factsheet [PDF] with a quick summary of the issues or a more detailed analysis. The biggest issues are pensions and healthcare, and payment for downloads. Right now if you stream an ad-supported show online, the writers get nothing.

Our beloved Alec Baldwin has already stated that he's on the writers' side: "CITIZEN KANE, ALL ABOUT EVE and SUNSET BOULEVARD...members of the WGA wrote those scripts."

If there is a strike, as now seems likely, you can expect less 30 Rock and more reality (unscripted) shows. The WGA anticipated this last year, and attempted to unionize these shows.

If you're shocked to find out that reality shows have writers, here's an idea of what these writers do from an interview with an ANTM writer:

What we do is take all of the hundreds of hours of basic raw footage of the show -- of girls getting ready in the morning, of them eating cereal, of them talking on the phone to their boyfriends, and going to challenges, and all of the things that they do -- and turn it into 42 minutes of compelling television...So we are the ones who submit treatments, which are story outlines, where we pick usually four girls per episode and give an A, B, C, and D story of what we're going to be concentrating on that week...We submit an actual script, which is a line-by-line beat of what each girl is going to be doing.

The union failed, and the writers were fired. If the reality writers had successfully unionized, the TV networks would have really been screwed by a strike, and they knew this. In a beautiful lack of solidarity, Tyra Banks, union member, would not support the strike. An injury to one is not so much an injury to all, I guess.

So no reality shows are unionized, and you can expect to see a lot more of them.

October 18, 2007

"Mad Men" season finale

Mad Men

One of the coolest new TV shows this year is AMC's "Mad Men". It's gorgeous to look at, dark and funny, and offers good if not very subtle commentary on the style-over-substance of the advertising industry and, by extension, American society. It's more than just the surface of the show that's good, but the incredible attention to detail in the design--the suits, hair, makeup, furniture, ashtrays, scotch bottles--really makes it worth watching. A couple months ago, the Times wrote about the style of the show, and points out that each episode cost $2.5 million to make. I guess that's a lot for cable? Anyway, it looks good.

Anyway, tonight is the season finale. AMC says they're running the last episode commercial-free, demonstrating that as much as audiences like watching the image-brokers of the advertising world smoke filterless cigarettes and drink and stab each other in the back, we don't much care for the fruits of their labor. Thanks, AMC (and special non-advertising sponsor of Episode 13, DirecTV™!)

The show has been renewed for another year--2nd season starts next summer. AMC also provides info on where to find old episodes on demand.

[tx esskay]

October 4, 2007

"30 Rock" season premiere

Kenneth Ellen Parcell

Tonight, Kenneth Ellen Parcell welcomes you to a new season of the funniest show on network TV, 30 Rock.

Alessandra Stanley thought the premiere episode of this season was a little weak, but that seems to mostly be Jerry Seinfeld's fault. Why ruin a perfectly good ensemble-cast show with some drip like Jerry Seinfeld? To show how far he's fallen, Stanley actually says, "Mr. Seinfeld is strangely ill at ease playing himself, making his self-impersonation unpersuasive," even though that's pretty much exactly what he did for 9 seasons of "Seinfeld".

But she assures us that soon enough we should get back to the good stuff. Like this bit from comic genius Alec Baldwin, commenting on star of "The Girly Show" Jenna Maroney's weight gain over the summer: "She has to lose 30 pounds or gain 60. Anything in between has no place in television."

October 3, 2007

The best and worst person to steal from in NYC

Bloomberg is rich!

If you're thinking about who to rob in this town, you'd look for the person who has the most stuff for you to take, right? The gang on ABC's canceled Knights of Prosperity chose Mick Jagger because of his yogurt baths and climate-controlled hat closet.

And earlier this year, two guys from Jersey chose Michael Bloomberg because of his billions and billions of dollars. Much of it in convenient cash form!

However, just like Mick Jagger is difficult to steal from because of all his armed security guards and fingerprint-scanning access pads, Michael Bloomberg makes it tricky due to the many investment advisors, bankers, and police chiefs working for him. A prosecutor in charge of the case said that the thieves probably reasoned, bank-robber style, that they'd "go where the money is"; in this case, they also pretty much went where the entire city's prosecutorial power is.

23 year-old single parent Odalis Bostic forged two checks from Bloomberg's Bank of America account for a total of $420,000, and tried to deposit them into his own accounts at PNC and Sovereign under the name of his bogus company Landerman Development. Both of his banks were suspicious and reported him.

Bostic's bust is probably the only reason that another guy, Charles Nelson, got caught for an earlier theft. He took $10,000 from the Mayor's same account, put it in his own E*Trade account, and spent it mostly on cellphone bills, according to the Times. And this was back in May! He probably assumed he was in the clear until that greedy Bostic blew it for him.

So I guess the lesson here is: if you steal $10,000 or less from some rich person's bank account, they probably won't even notice.

September 27, 2007

Dirty Sexy Money and Gossip Girl, a comparison

Dan Rather on Dirty Sexy Money

Gossip Girl

Last night was the premiere of ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money", a title that I cannot say or write or even think about without rolling my eyes. But the show itself was fun--an a much better premiere than the similarly hyped "Gossip Girl", which aired its second episode last night. Both shows are about the scandalous antics of New York's super-rich and were created by guys with promising backgrounds--"Money" is by Craig Wright, a successful playwright who wrote a few episodes of "Six Feet Under" and "Lost", and "Gossip" is of course by Josh "OC" Schwartz.

But "Money" is already about a hundred times better. Sure, the premiere had some throwaway references to run-of-the-mill rich-person illicit behavior (the youngest brother casually mentioning his coke dealer and looking generally rumpled and fucked up all the time) but the show has some standout qualities, too:

  • Name-dropping. The Darling family at the center of the show is like a wackier, WASP-ier version of the Kennedys, they know Bill Clinton, and got Dan Rather and Peter Bogdanovich to do cameos
  • A cast that would be pretty great even if Donald Sutherland wasn't in it
  • Donald Sutherland
  • A potentially murderous priest with illegitimate children
  • Trannies!
  • Possible incest!

Maybe it's because "Money" is about adults--the producers seem to feel totally fine about throwing in a lot more salacious material than the prudes over at "Gossip Girl". I gave that show a second chance last night, and that's it, we're through. Did ANYTHING happen in last night's episode that added anything to what we already knew from the premiere? The central scandal of the show is one single consensual sexual encounter that occurred a year before the show even started. Oooo! Other than that, there's some snoozy cattiness and some unsubtle attempts at commentary about class.

Actually, that's one thing the shows have in common: both are structured around one supposedly middle-class family, who the audience is meant to identify with, that's struggling to live in the high net worth world. Except this is television, so these families live in giant, fancy apartments and take cabs everywhere while talking about how they don't have any money.

Both shows also prominently featured Peter Bjorn and Johns' "Young Folks" in their premieres, the overplayed hit from summer 2006 with a catchy whistling hook that strikes me as a little too twee for either show. This song was used in "Grey's Anatomy" last season, and apparently was also in the premiere of ABC's "Big Shots" a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the single was re-released last week, in case you haven't heard it enough yet.

September 19, 2007

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl

Ready for this season's new show about bitchy drunks and spoiled date rapists? The glaringly over-exposed "Gossip Girl" premieres tonight on the CW. I'm just going to assume that everyone is going to watch this crap.

Our nation's 11 year-olds now have a whole new level of slutiness to aspire to, while everyone over 30 can reminisce about how good and debased Buffy was in Cruel Intentions.

Some media coverage:

NYT doesn't like it, but for what sound like good reasons: moralistic storylines and too much boring stuff about the parents. Because if you're going for teenage depravity, go all the way.

  • On the other hand, the more easily scandalized ABC likes the bloated trashy overindulgence, and thought there were hardly any boring parents scenes, so who knows.
  • The LA Times quotes the writers saying the show was inspired by The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence, and also one of the actresses stressing that her character is really not like Paris Hilton. Mm-hmm.
  • Slate calls it predictable libertinism, though is a little disappointed that all the bulimia in the books got cut for TV.

  • September 11, 2007

    Which news makes the news?

    Margaret Warner in Pakistan

    You may have heard that CBS News anchor/albatross Katie Couric recently went to Iraq. Some things people have been talking about related to her mission:

    • It was a publicity stunt for ratings.
    • It was not a publicity stunt for ratings.
    • Katie carefully considered her decision to go to Iraq, since she has 2 young children.
    • Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has already been to Iraq three times, and Bob Woodruff of ABC World News went to Iraq last year, where he was badly injured.
    • Nobody did soul-searching interviews with them before they left about their young children.
    • CBS News producers are "proud" of the show and Katie's journalistic chops despite all the viewers they've lost since she came on.

    It's a good thing CBS didn't send Katie Couric to Iraq and Syria for ratings, since all that media coverage didn't get anyone to actually watch her show. Last week while she was there, the Evening News tied its own all-time low record.

    In other news news, I bet you haven't been seeing any news coverage about Margaret Warner of PBS's News Hour, who was in Pakistan, home to al-Qaida and recent suicide bombings, at just about the exact same time that Katie Couric was in Iraq. Her pieces were awesome, and she did interviews with politicians (former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif), people on the street, local journalists, and business people. She seemed to really like being there, calling Islamabad "a political junkie's paradise," and it was a great series.

    Incredibly, Margaret Warner's News Hour bio doesn't say if she has any small children who she, as a mother, might have taken into consideration when planning her trip.

    August 14, 2007

    Miss America moves up the crumbling ladder of cable respectability

    Miss America billboard

    Two years ago, ABC dumped the rights to air the Miss America pageant. The ratings sucked, maybe because we live in a changing world where viewers no longer care about outdated feminine ideals, or maybe because now we see parades of blandly homogeneous beautiful people on every channel every single day, so who cares about 52 more? In one-piece bathing suits?

    In 2005, CMT bought the Miss America rights for two years, which seemed perfect. The big hair, big makeup, and devotion to God and working with children fit right in with CMT's audience--representatives of both groups talked a lot about the "traditions" and "values" and "heartland sensibilities" that they share, and it seemed that the gaudy dresses, taped breasts, and hokey sentimentality of Miss America had found its new spiritual home. The giant billboard that CMT put up in Times Square of decades of Miss Americas screeching and crying and pulling at their hair showed that they totally got the enduring appeal of their new show.

    But ratings fell from 3.1 million last year to 2.4 earlier this year, so CMT decided to go back to Coyote Ugly recruiting reality shows and Dukes of Hazzard reruns. Yesterday the winners of the bidding war/fire sale for broadcast rights was announced: The Learning Channel.

    I can see how TLC offers its viewers learning opportunities in its How To shows about the real estate market, home repair and improvement, and creating a flattering wardrobe. "Big Medicine" and "Diagnosis X" are pretty good real-life medical shows that are fun to watch and arguably educational. But "Miami Ink", and the new hyper-advertised "LA Ink", about tattoo artists and their tattoos and the tattoos they give their customers? Not exactly the cable version of PBS.

    It's nice for Miss America, sort of, to be adopted by a channel with a more respectable, sort of, image. But TLC isn't good at the glitz and pneumatic cleavage of Miss America. They're trying to make it more of a human interest documentary with a reality show about the contestants before the pageant. Boring! "This collaboration is a tremendous opportunity for us to present this scholarship pageant and great American tradition to our viewers with a contemporary production style unique to our channel," said the TLC president.

    That's right, scholarship pageant! Yee-ha, Learning Channel. The president also calls Miss America contestants "52 of the country's smartest and most beautiful women", which I don't think was a selling point that CMT ever used in its marketing. We'll see if America goes for the "smart" angle in January.

    August 9, 2007

    The latest in pretend lesbian entertainment

    tATu

    I don't know how I missed earlier reports of this casting news, but Mischa Barton, canned actress from canceled teen drama The O.C., is starring in a new movie called Finding tATu. The movie just finished filming in Moscow, and tells the story of two young women who find love at a tATu concert.

    Russian pop group tATu was a perfectly engineered specimen of pop marketing. Their cliche of a Svengali-like producer and former child psychologist, Ivan Shapovalov, said of his soft-porn entertainment product, "I saw that most people look up pornography on the Internet and of those, most are looking for underage sex. I saw their needs weren't fulfilled. Later, it turned out, I was right. This is the same as my own desires."

    As an erstwhile tATu fan friend once said, what's better than two underage girls? How about two underage girls soaking wet? In school uniforms? Making out with each other? Here you go: the "All the Things She Said" video, which is like the KFC Famous Bowl of mainstream commercial fetishism.

    By 2004 their popularity started to wane, Yulia got pregnant by her hockey player boyfriend, and the illusion crumbled. A year later during primetime sweeps, Mischa Barton locked lips with Olivia Wilde in a brief teenage lesbian relationship on The O.C. [screenshot], which generated a little ratings boost (the show was already starting its downward spiral) but didn't really raise any eyebrows. Now, in a complex layering of simulations, Barton plays a young lesbian inspired by performers that everybody knows are just pretending to be lesbians.

    Since this is such a tireless niche market, somebody figured it was a good idea to write a screenplay based on a Russian novel called tATu Come Back (looks like the novel was never released here.) Actually, writing this story in anything other than screenplay form sounds like a big waste of time. The director is the same guy who did the recent schlocky Captivity. Today's Daily News calls the movie a "sexy romp" (2nd item)--demonstrating the robust appeal of manufactured pretend-gay pop culture. But who cares, everybody knows it's manufactured; two girls getting it on = built-in audience.

    August 1, 2007

    All of Siskel & Ebert online

    Siskel & Ebert

    Growing up, I got just about all my information about new movies from watching Siskel & Ebert At The Movies on Sunday mornings. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are still the best TV movie critics of all time, as far as I'm concerned, probably because at heart they were both journalists. They were incredibly knowledgeable and really cared about movies, and the focus of the show was always the movies, not the reviewers. I wonder if those two guys with their bad hair and anti-telegenic looks would ever make it on TV today.

    Siskel & Ebert were famous for their fearless and passionate debates/fights, but that was part of what made the show so much fun to watch--rarely do we see any TV personalities (with the exception of Anderson Cooper) get so worked up over their subject matter today, unless they're talking about politics. After Siskel died, it was never the same: Ebert needs a thorny, more analytical partner to keep him from getting too soft, and I think we can all agree that Richard Roeper is no Gene Siskel.

    Starting tomorrow, over 5,000 clips from the show are going to be available at AtTheMoviesTV.com! (Currently it directs you to the Ebert & Roeper site.) The site will feature over 20 years of reviews, the largest collection of online video-based movie reviews anywhere.

    This is awesome news. It's been hard to find any clips of the old show online--YouTube has this one of Siskel and Ebert reviewing Blue Velvet (also available on the movie DVD) which Roger Ebert notoriously didn't like because he thought it was disrespectful to Isabella Rossellini, an argument that doesn't really make sense (since she agreed to do it.) He has since said he wishes he had done a more balanced review of the movie as a whole.

    But tomorrow, you'll be able to search for thousands of clips by movie title, director, or actor, and watch the two reviewers almost come to blows over movies like Full Metal Jacket [video]. It seems that hardly any of the shows pre-1985 were saved, so only shows from 1986 onwards, after they moved over to Buena Vista Entertainment, will be in the archive.

    On his own site, Ebert wrote about the archive: "Gene and I knew those old shows would be worth saving, but for a long time nobody agreed with us. In the years before home video, it seemed like a waste of expensive video tape to preserve hundreds of episodes of our earlier incarnations on “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” “Sneak Previews” or “At the Movies.” After all, the movies we were reviewing weren’t going to be opening again, and who’d want to watch a show of old movie reviews? Right?"

    Ha. Clearly those television people were living before we entered the days of Always Archive Everything.

    July 23, 2007

    McDonald's introduces the Hugo

    Hurley, aka Hugo, aka McDonald's drink size

    After some well-publicized flirtation with healthy food options, McDonald's has returned to doing what it does best, which the New York Times describes as "making people fat." After phasing out its Supersize menu in 2004, they have now started offering basically the exact same insulin-busting drink size of 42 oz., and they're calling it "Hugo".

    A brilliant marketing strategy. Hugo, aka Hurley, is one of Lost's most lovable characters, maybe the most appealing morbidly obese person on television. OK, drinking a lot of Hugo-sized sodas (410 calories each! Before you even eat a single fry!) will definitely make you fat, but you'll be an adorable, funny, cuddly, Hugo kind of fat.

    Now McDonald's can rebrand their ranch dressing--no more of that lame 170 calorie Newman's Own crap! And since we're all just giving up on salads and apple dippers, they might as well start selling candy bars, too.

    July 20, 2007

    Friday reading

    Tom Cruise in Valkyrie

    Lots of great stuff on Page Six today. Some highlights:

    • David Frost recounts the grossest conversation-starter of all time: As they were sitting down to their famous TV interview, Richard Nixon turned to him and asked, "Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?" YUCK YUCK YUCK. What's even more disturbing than being asked a question like that by Richard Nixon is that Richard Nixon obviously thought of himself some kind of slick, winking, ladies' man. Puke.
    • Tom Cruise in his fetishiest/campiest movie outfit yet (above), on the set of Valkyrie in Germany.
    • During her first show in 2 weeks not to be canceled due to exhaustion, a troubled Amy Winehouse spit on the crowd. Crying onstage and hitting herself in the head with her microphone also reported.
    • A bizarre story from Moby about getting a funny letter from Karl Rove, after Moby joked that maybe they were half-brothers. The letter suggested that maybe James Carville was a more likely secret relative. Moby might actually not be joking about this.
    • And A.M. Homes, a writer we still love even though her latest books are maybe not as good, is reportedly doing an HBO series about the Hamptons, which hopefully will be as perverse and sick as her very best stories.

    July 11, 2007

    Patton Oswalt is everywhere

    Patton Oswalt on Ratatouille set

    You've probably seen him a couple of times on Conan and maybe a stand-up set on Comedy Central at one in the morning. Hopefully you were lucky enough not to see him in bit parts in unfunny comedies that nobody saw like Taxi and Failure to Launch. But all of a sudden, it seems like Patton Oswalt is everywhere.

    His breakthrough from late-night comedy to the big time is his starring role as the voice of Remy the rat in Ratatouille, one of the best animated children's movies that grown-ups also think is funny that I've ever seen. He's hilarious and great.

    (I realize he was also on The King of Queens for 9 seasons, but I cannot figure out who watched that show. Families, I guess, judging from his blog post about the end of the show this spring.)

    He also had a live CD/DVD come out yesterday called Werewolves and Lollipops. And he's going to be at Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records venue tomorrow night doing a free performance to promote it. If you can't make it to Brooklyn, he's going to be back on Conan tomorrow night, too.

    Go Patton Oswalt!

    A few notable TV appearances from the last year or so:

    • On Conan talking about old people having babies [video] (very funny, not really safe for work)
    • On Conan talking about the "Physics for Poets" class he took at William & Mary [video]
    • On Jimmy Kimmel talking about getting engaged and comics [video]
    • and there are about a thousand recent promotional appearances for Ratatouille on YouTube.

    Next, he's going to be appear in goofy sports-comedy Balls of Fury (looks like Dodgeball) later this summer, and then takes a surprising detour into pre-teen drama in something called All Roads Lead Home which according to IMDb is about a young girl who befriends a puppy after her mom dies in a car accident. Hmm.

    It looks like Patton Oswalt might be developing a split career, sort of like Bob Saget did, where he does a lot of mainstream family-friendly stuff that wins the hearts of America's 10 year-olds, and simultaneously keeps going with adult-themed stand-up comedy where he got his start. The thing is, he's really good at both, and Ratatouille is a great movie. As long as the comedy for grown-ups keeps coming and he can pay the bills with the kids' stuff, he should be unstoppable.

    July 9, 2007

    Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning

    Bronx is Burning

    Tonight at 10 is the premiere of ESPN's original miniseries The Bronx is Burning, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Mahler. It runs for 8 weeks, and will air on Tuesdays at 10 after this week.

    It's going to be awesome. The book, whose subtitle is "1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" is an incredibly thorough portrait of the nadir of New York City's troubled history. 1977 represented the culmination of poverty, poor governance, racial tensions, and general urban dysfunction; there were the Son of Sam murders, a nasty mayoral election, the blackout, and ongoing, slow recovery from the 1975 fiscal crisis. Outside the city, New York was seen as a national embarrassment: as the book says of the looting and mayhem that went on during the blackout, "America had expected the worst, and New York had not let it down."

    But the real narrative of the book, and the focus of the miniseries, is the rise of the Yankees and Reggie Jackson, culminating in his famous 3 consecutive home runs in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers. Not surprising that ESPN chose to devote the most time to the sports story, and as Mahler says in an interview in this week's Time Out, "Reggie's three home runs is as much a symbol of New York's resilience as its rebirth," though he says identifying it as the point at which the city's fortunes started to change would be an oversimplification.

    But this is ESPN: the reviews suggest that the TV show has no problem with oversimplification. It emphasizes the Yankees story and maybe doesn't deal as much with all the other stuff going on in the city (Daily News review says they've "taken on several major, meaty stories at once, reducing them to their essences and intertwining them.") But it looks like we'll at least get to see Jimmy Breslin covering the Son of Sam murders. He's played by Michael Rispoli, who played Jackie Aprile on The Sopranos, and was also in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, which covers the same historical territory as this miniseries. No mention of hat-loving agitator and mayoral candidate Bella Abzug in the cast list, though, which is too bad, since she is at least as larger-than-life a character as Billy Martin.

    Which brings us to the fantastic Yankees cast: John Turturro as Billy Martin, the Yankees' legendarily hot-tempered manager (Daily News reported he maybe got a little too Method during the shoot,) Oliver Platt as George Steinbrenner, and Daniel Sunjata as Reggie Jackson. Sunjata is also on Rescue Me, where he plays firefighter Franco Rivera. On Rescue Me, his character typically has a lot of lady troubles, and he plays his dramatic scenes with intensity as well as restraint, which is especially impressive considering how outrageously tragic the storylines of the show often are.

    Now's his chance to lose the restraint and cut loose as the preening, egomaniacal Jackson, who always seemed at least as concerned about his image off the field as he was about his baseball games. I hope they recreate the interview he did for Sport magazine where he dropped the "I'm the straw that stirs the drink" bomb. In the Bronx is Burning book, Mahler writes that Jackson later said that interview was "the worst screwing he ever got from the press."

    Anyway, Sunjata looks like he's heading into casting territory currently occupied by John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub, where he can convincingly play any number of ethnicities. Also interesting is that in 2002 John Turturro played Howard Cosell, whose quote inspired the title, in TNT's Monday Night Mayhem.

    The Daily News has a good special section on the summer of 1977, and the Post has a great article on the chaos of the blackout, part of a five-day series of articles leading up to the 30th anniversary this Friday.

    June 29, 2007

    Joan Jett kicks ass

    Joan Jett at River Rocks

    [photo by classicgrrrl79]

    Last night Joan Jett & the Blackhearts played River Rocks at Pier 54. Joan was as wiry and fiesty as ever, wearing a black vinyl top that probably would have fit her in 1980 when her first solo album came out.

    And of course, they rocked. In addition to a handful of songs from her new album, Sinner, the band played literally every single Joan Jett & the Blackhearts song I have ever heard. Hearing all their hits together like that, I realized how many of their biggest songs were actually covers: "I Love Rock 'n Roll" (The Arrows), "Do You Wanna Touch Me" (Gary Glitter), "Light of Day" (Bruce Springsteen), "Crimson and Clover" (Tommy James).

    But one of her best songs, "Bad Reputation", is one that she wrote. Though it was actually never released as a single, I suspect that "Bad Reputation" has had somewhat of a resurgence in popular culture recently because it's the track used in the opening credits of "Freaks and Geeks", the beloved but short-lived TV show from the '90's that I also bet has enjoyed newfound popularity because of the wild success of The 40 Year Old Virgin and more recently Knocked Up, which were created by the almost all the same people that did the TV show. I couldn't help thinking that the biggest reason that Joan Jett played "Bad Reputation" as the very first song of her set last night was, weirdly enough, Judd Apatow.

    "Bad Reputation" was also used in a promo for TLC's "American Chopper" earlier this year.

    June 18, 2007

    This ad is too sexy

    Trojan pig ad

    Trojan, which already has a whopping 75% of the condom market, has developed a new ad campaign featuring a bunch of pigs trying unsuccessfully to hit on women in a bar, and one handsome man with a condom in his pocket who looks like he might get lucky. This is a picture of the print ad (the version that will run in women's magazines), and you can watch the TV ad at the Trojan site.

    It's a cute ad, maybe a little hard on unprepared guys while not expecting that women should carry condoms of their own, but it's hardly salacious. CBS and Fox, however, both thought it was unsuitable for their viewing audiences. CBS said it was inappropriate even for late-night audiences, and Fox's prim little policy for condom ads is this: "Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy."

    This is so funny, and so insane. If only there were some way to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases without violating the precious culture of life so sacred to Fox viewers! The VP of Marketing for LifeStyles says, in a NY Times article about the ad, "We always find it funny that you can use sex to sell jewelry and cars, but you can’t use sex to sell condoms." Fox had no problem with Paris Hilton selling burgers by washing/fucking a car in heels in the goofy-sexy ad that they aired during "The O.C." [video].

    For the benefit of CBS and Fox's delicate audiences, let's keep promotion of condom usage on the same public health PSA level as having your cholesterol checked or getting a flu shot. Sex is for making babies, right? Just look at shows such as CBS' "Two and a Half Men" (Parents Television Council's Worst Show of the Week for a genuinely offensive episode last year.)

    June 12, 2007

    The other life of Joanna Kerns

    Joanna Kerns in Knocked Up

    While watching Knocked Up the other day, I knew I sort of recognized the actress who played Alison's mom--she was hazily familiar, but I couldn't identify her. It turned out to be Joanna Kerns, the mom from "Growing Pains", a show I never watched regularly, but the show was so popular for so long that of course everybody knew who she was.

    Joanna Kerns' second career as a TV director has been a lot like that: she's directed an episode or two of popular shows that I've rarely or never actually watched, but could still probably name a lot of the actors on them and all the main plot developments. She directed her first TV episode on her own show during the last season of "Growing Pains", then went on to lots of soapy drama of the '90s: "ER", "Ally McBeal", "Boston Public", and more recently "The Ghost Whisperer". Teen dramas like "Dawson's Creek", "Felicity", "Joan of Arcadia" and "One Tree Hill". Two episodes of "Scrubs". An episode of "Medium" from last month. She's never been a regular series director, but she's clearly made a name for herself and is getting regular work--pretty cool for a sitcom mom.

    The Times points out that Joanna Kerns' scene with Katherine Heigl in which she tries unsuccessfully to convince her daughter to "take care of" her pregnancy (the closest anyone gets to saying the word "abortion" is Seth Rogan's pals saying "shmashmortion" a few times) is part of a larger Hollywood trend in which abortions are essentially a non-option. It was a little freaky to watch Maggie Seaver play the pragmatic devil on the main character's shoulder, but I probably should have known she had some range as an actress: in 1983 she was on "V" (sci-fi allegory for the Third Reich), "Laverne & Shirley" (screwball comedy), and "The A-Team" (screwball action).

    Another interesting thing I just learned about Knocked Up: the two little girls that play Leslie Mann's and Paul Rudd's kids in the movie are Leslie Mann's and Judd Apatow's daughters in real life. The older girl delivers probably the most adorable reading of the word "penis" in the history of film.

    June 6, 2007

    Tyler Perry's media juggernaut keeps on rolling

    House of Payne

    Tonight is the TBS premiere of Tyler Perry's first TV show "House of Payne", which like his other productions is about a southern black family and their various troubles and successes. There aren't many other people working in entertainment today like Tyler Perry, who has become enormously popular and rich working outside mainstream media channels.

    "House of Payne" aired for 10 episodes last spring in New York, Philly, Chicago, Houston, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore and Raleigh, and was popular enough to incite a bidding war among networks. TBS bought an unprecedented 100 episodes of the show, which start airing tonight, and Fox also got in on the deal to air episodes starting next fall.

    Not bad for a show totally created by one man (Tyler Perry is director, producer, executive producer and writer) who paid for the production of the first 10 episodes himself at his own studio, then sold those into syndication, then got a network to buy 100 episodes at once. As the New York Times points out in an article about the phenomenal success of every single thing Tyler Perry does, this is backwards from the usual process of getting a network show made, and has allowed him to continue making the kinds of productions that studios may not be quick to recognize as promising: "I went to LA and pitched to a room full of studio execs," Mr. Perry said. "They told me I couldn’t say 'Jesus' on television and nobody would watch it."

    Just like his 2005 movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman generated a lot of terrible reviews from critics, some angry statements from black cultural theorists and writers, and gigantic ticket sales (and even led to an exchange between us and Roger Ebert,) how you react to "House of Payne" seems to depend a lot on who you are and what you expect from a sitcom. If you're Jill Nelson, African-American cultural critic who wrote about Perry in Essence, you think it's insulting to women and not funny. If you're the kind of person who writes on the IMDb discussion boards, you either think it's a shameless exploitation of offensive black stereotypes, or you think it depicts important truths about black American families. Or you're just mad that it replaced "Girlfriends" in its time slot.

    Either way, enough people who watch TV and buy movie and theater tickets love Tyler Perry, and helped him move off the "chitlin' circuit" to reach a national audience. A lot of people (maybe especially a lot of white people) may not like or understand his style, but he's already shooting a second comedy series called "Meet the Browns", shooting a talk show, two new movies, and is making plans for his own TV network.

    Personally, I think the mainstream critical responses to Tyler Perry's productions really demonstrate how far removed those critics are from his core audience. The Times article refers to Niyi Coker Jr., a professor of theater and media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:

    Perry’s work was filling a void in many mediums. "It’s not sophisticated or theatrical in the Western context," he said, but it strikes a deep chord with Mr. Perry’s audience, which does not see their stories in many places.

    It's also interesting to see the creative ways a TV network like TBS markets to an audience that they know is out there and that they want a piece of: they're running a contest on the "House of Payne" website where you can win $25,000 for your church and a trip on a Sheridan Gospel Network cruise. Mm-hmm. How often do you see mainstream secular TV networks offering a donation to a church as an incentive to viewers?

    May 22, 2007

    24: this goddamn season is finally over

    24, Tom Lennox

    Nobody liked this season of 24 much. The show's been picked up for at least two more seasons, and the producers say they're "recreating the series" for next year, which seems to mean that it might take place somewhere other than LA (I know, really going out on a limb, there.)

    I'll tell you one change that I wasn't too fond of this season: Kiefer's transition from single-minded action hero to tortured Peter Parker during the season finale. Instead of a big final action sequence in which Kiefer does whatever it takes to save the day, this time all we got was an unresolved showdown with his evil father on an offshire oil rig which ends with Kiefer running away and getting lifted off by helicopter while the military comes in to blow shit up and kill the bad guy (recap of finale).

    And how about that final scene where he kisses the forehead of the sleeping/catatonic Audrey and gives her the speech from the end of Spider-Man about how in order to protect her, he can't be with her? Which took a half an hour? Please! It was the least suspenseful season ender yet, because nothing bad or surprising happened at all, except that Kiefer can't hang out with his brainwashed girlfriend. Considering he started the day by getting released from a life sentence in a secret Chinese prison, I'd say he's still coming out ahead.

    After the first few episodes, we didn't get enough Kiefer renegade action this season for my taste. But there were some great heroics going on elsewhere, in the form of Tom Lennox, aka Peter MacNichol, aka the guy from Ally McBeal. Tom Lennox started the season as a hawkish, weasly little fearmonger who was advocating surveillance and detention of "suspicious" Muslim-Americans in the wake of national security threats.

    But before long he was cold cocked by Chad Lowe and tied up in a boiler room, an experience which helped him see the error of his ways. Pretty soon he was deviously subverting the power of this year's Evil Vice President (we get a new one of those every year,) disobeying orders and blackmailing his boss for the good of our nation and our democracy. He set up the lying traitor-tramp White House staffer Lisa Miller to plant false information with her Russian spy boyfriend, then had the best line of the entire season while out in the surveillance van uncomfortably watching them have joyless spy-sex and fiddling with his cellphone waiting for it to be over ("...Aaand finally we're done!") (watch the video)

    The political "intrigue" subplots on 24 are typically the most tedious part of the show (though this year's CTU office romance dramas were much, much worse) but Tom Lennox made them bearable this year. He was like the White House policy advisor version of Kiefer, playing both sides, breaking the rules, and getting tied up by Chad Lowe for what he knew was right.

    Thank God it's over.

    May 16, 2007

    In Memoriam: Fametracker

    Fametracker

    We couldn't be happier for the success that has come to the Television Without Pity crew--the site got bought by Bravo/NBC in March, and no doubt it's nothing but avalanches of corporate money, booze and sex on tap, and unlimited Tivo hard drive space over there these days.

    One downside to the buy, though: Fametracker, the Farmer's Almanac of Celebrity Worth that shares some writers with TWoP, has been "on hiatus" ever since. Site creators Wing Chun and Man From FUNKLE clearly have big things going on, and New York magazine's Intelligencer probably needs a lot of attention. But Fametracker was my very favorite pop culture website for the past several years, and if it really is gone, it deserves some recognition. Or at least a clip show of its own.

    So here are a few of our Fametracker favorites from the vault:

    The Fame Audit. Assessments of celebrities' current status, and where they're headed.

    • Owen Wilson
    • William Shatner ("Shatner has conquered. He was cool, then he was nerd-cool, then he was kitsch, then he was kitsch-cool, then he was knowing-wink cool, then just plain cool again, and now he's something better than cool. He made himself a punchline with such debonair cunning that -- guess what? -- the man is not a punchline anymore.")
    • Scarlett Johansson, who they recognized was in the process of flushing her career down the toilet two years ago ("The only problem is that, while you might place your lips to the money teat while thinking, "I can always do indies on the side," you can't, in fact, always do indies on the side. Scarlett, don't you think Ben Affleck, while being hoisted in a harness into a model of a fighter plane against a green screen on the set of Pearl Harbor, was thinking to himself, "I can always do indies on the side"?")

    2 Stars 1 Slot. Pitting two actors who occupy the same cultural space against each other. Terrence Howard vs. Jeffrey Wright in "Battle of the Next Great Black Actors"; and William Shatner (yes, again) vs. Alec Baldwin in "Battle of the Brilliant, Bloated Meta-Masters".

    And some of the best stuff they ever put out in Blue Moons:

    Sure, we'll be able to keep on trudging through life without Fametracker, but without some funny rejected taglines for Ocean's 13, our skies will be just a little grayer.

    May 14, 2007

    More Britcoms on NBC

    The IT Crowd

    Today's fall line-up announcement from NBC reveals that there is only one new comedy planned for next year, amidst all the time-travel serial dramas and the "Bionic Woman" remake. The lone sitcom (scheduled to be a mid-season replacement) is another UK import, "The IT Crowd", about the tech department of a big company and their geeky hijinks.

    The original version of the show has only been on for one 6-episode season, and features a lot of pratfalls and other slapstick-y shtick. Some of what I've seen is pretty funny, such as a recurring joke about how Roy, the main IT guy, always answers the help line (video). Another bit from the first episode, in which a young, attractive woman starts her first day as the company's new IT Director is kind of sloppy, but there is some potential (video).

    The Wikipedia entry for the UK version includes some of the show's better cultural references:

    • Roy's t-shirts include "RTFM", an alien from Space Invaders, the Flash's lightning bolt, the 256th level of Pac-Man, Guided by Voices, and the number 42
    • Stickers decorating the office include 'MP3 is not a Crime'; 'Fair Use has a posse'; the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and an O rly? Owl

    Even if the ratings still aren't so great, NBC has been successful with importing the UK's "The Office" and developing it into its own entity. The material of the original "The IT Crowd" isn't as good to begin with, so hopefully NBC will get creative. I almost wish Judah Friedlander from "30 Rock" was available so he could play the main IT guy... BUT thank you NBC for standing your ground and not canceling "30 Rock".

    April 25, 2007

    CBS News: Admit it. You blew it.

    Katie Couric on CBS Evening News

    It's been almost eight months since Katie Couric started anchoring CBS Evening News, and I think now we can confidently say that hiring her for this job was a huge misjudgment.

    She was probably the most successful and beloved daytime TV host ever when she was on Today, but it appears that people do not want to watch Katie Couric host the news. The ratings are bad. CBS averages 2 million fewer viewers than NBC and ABC every night, and the week of March 26, when the ratings hit bottom, CBS had lost 900,000 viewers since Couric took over for Bob Schieffer.*

    But there could be a silver lining: today we found out that a certain popular morning TV show has an opening coming up, which might be a position better suited to Katie Couric's celebrity interviewing and homewares pitching skills.

    And best of all, the ideal candidate can finally come forward and take her rightful place in the CBS News anchor seat: self-promotion machine and erstwhile "The View"-er (and one-time actual journalist!) Star Jones. Haven't the American people waited long enough for our 21st century Walter Cronkite?

    [*tx ADM]

    April 23, 2007

    What happens to couples who propose via Jumbotron?

    Real Wedding Crashers on NBC

    They decide to get a free honeymoon by sabotaging their own wedding and broadcasting it all on national television.

    NBC's new unfunny show "The Real Wedding Crashers" starts tonight, and follows the wedding preparations and ceremony of Jonnie and Derek, who got engaged on the scoreboard at a University of Las Vegas basketball game. These people apparently have such hatred for their families and friends that they not only make them go through all the hassle and expense of a conventional mass-produced wedding, but also sign on with a television production company and a group of actors who cause unsuspecting members of the wedding party to ruin dresses, drop cakes, and generally be mortified.

    Professional television loather Tom Shales at the Washington Post really goes to town on this one: "Right off, one wonders how the producers found enough couples willing to spoil their weddings for the sake of a cheap television show's even cheaper gags. The idea is that for years they'll sit back and laugh at all the carefully engineered mayhem and shocked looks on the faces of guests and members of the wedding party. More likely, if the marriage lasts longer than a few months, both parties will come to regret the fact that they turned what is supposed to be a romantic and momentous event into a vulgar farce."

    Alessandra Stanley points out that couples' attempts to liven up a cookie-cutter wedding by playing pranks on their friends only emphasizes how bland and impersonal most weddings actually are. She says, "For many guests a wedding is less a joy than an ordeal, something to get through, like PBS pledge drives or Lyme disease." Most of the people I know, when talking about the upcoming wedding season, talk about it as something to be suffered through, and in terms of how much vacation time and money all those weddings will eat up. The last thing you want to deal with is some damn actor-cop threatening to arrest you for smoking an illegal Cuban cigar at the bachelor party.

    By the way, shouldn't this show be on Fox or the CW or something? Tom Shales notes that NBC recently got its worst week of primetime ratings ever. Shows like this are not going to improve anything. If everybody would start watching "30 Rock", we'd all be better off.

    April 2, 2007

    New Yorkers Vote for the Worst

    A few weeks ago, Howard Stern interviewed the founder of Vote for the Worst, a self-explanatory internet campaign intended to bring American Idol to new lows of mediocrity. Since then, site visits have skyrocketed. Vote for the Worst fever is spreading across the nation as frustrated television viewers call American Idol's hotlines in support of Sanjaya Malakar, a 17-year old performer who would resemble a young, Indian Michael Jackson if only he could carry a tune.

    In fact, the Vote for the Worst campaign is so pervasive that even respected news outlets are are using it as a touchstone for actual political events. Take, for instance, this recent NY1 Snap Poll in response to Rudy Giuliani's announcement that if elected President, he'd have his wife Judi sit in on Cabinet meetings:

    Judi Giuliani or Sanjaya

    The winner?

    New Yorkers Prefer Sanjaya to Judi Giuliani

    Clearly, Sanjaya Malakar.

    February 26, 2007

    Oscars in slow-motion

    Scorsese wins

    The first half of last night's Oscars was so draggy that we should have been grateful that they only ran an hour over time. Maybe the producers were trying to make up for last year's rigid military-exercise of an awards show, but this year it got way too loosey-goosey with the cutesy filler, like Ellen's photo with Clint Eastwood for MySpace, those Pilobolus human pyramid-penguins, and all the montages.

    Actually, every year's show has at least three montages, right? One weird one with only the filmiest of unifying themes (what was it this year? Immigration? America?) and one for everyone who died this year, and one other arbitrary one, which this year was a "foreign film" montage. And they sort of plowed through the usually glacial lifetime achievement award and humanitarian award. Ellen's opening bit wasn't funny, but it wasn't especially long either. So I have no idea why the show ran so long, and felt so uneventful until Jennifer Hudson won. Maybe it was the hordes of winners heaping praise on Guillermo del Toro, who sat there basking in adulation while not actually picking up any awards himself?

    Anyway, the big acceptance speeches were personal and sincere-sounding this year, and nobody thanked their lawyer, which I'm grateful for. Vindicated good sport of the century Martin Scorsese managed to keep his speech focused on The Departed, while also acknowledging in a gracious way that he knows he got the award this year largely because of decades of Academy screw-ups.

    Salon's toxic Oscars queen Cintra Wilson even refrained from her usual incineration of the whole night and everything it stands for, admitting that this year, the show was "a kinder, homier Oscar celebration. It was a little boring and flabby, but well intentioned."

    One of the only moments that made me drop my sandwich was while Cate Blanchett was announcing the nominees for Best Supporting Actor and describing the difficult characters many of them had developed. She said that Mark Wahlberg played a cop, while in his own life he had been arrested twenty-five times! I have no idea if that's literally true, but I want to believe.

    February 8, 2007

    The perils of not following your own advice

    Lost returns

    Back in November, I was ready to commit to never watching Lost again after the tedious first six episodes. But, time heals all wounds, and once-resolute ex-Lost fans sometimes stray from the path, because last night I found myself sitting through all the same plodding, who-cares stuff about The Others... AGAIN... that has effectively ruined a perfectly good show.

    Here's what we got:

    • No Sayid
    • No Hurley
    • No Locke
    • Loads of "I can't do it, Jack!" "Yes you can, Kate!"
    • Non-shocking suggestion that the Dharma folks are maybe doing asexual reproduction experiments
    • Juliet is psychic/telekinetic
    • Most of the show's best characters are all still dead.

    Best part of the show was Alex, the crazy-sexy-feral daughter of the French woman, wiping out one of The Others with her slingshot. Second best was the mind-melting, proto-Buddhist, drum 'n' bass movie-torture room where Alex's boyfriend was being brainwashed. Worst part of the show was everything else.

    Alessandra Stanley had a mysterious article in the Times yesterday in which she claims that "Lost seems less like a sprawling, serialized 19th-century novel than like American Idol: the show’s writers and producers are so responsive to public reaction that viewers may as well be voting characters on and off the island by phone and text message."

    Huh? We wanted Michelle Rodriguez to die?! Yeah, Lost viewers demand more Ben and Juliet and Jack, please! I had hoped the show's producers had heard about their fans losing interest and their ratings going down, prompting them to bring back some of what made the show good in the first place.

    Nope.

    February 6, 2007

    24 gets creepy

    24 torture prep scene

    Over the years, 24 has gotten pretty good at some basic set pieces that they can use over and over again to keep viewers involved: torture scenes, arbitrarily killing off key characters, some big shoot-out action scenes, a few super-sexy villains vamping around. But these scenes aren't usually what you would call creepy, or fucked in the head, which is what set apart a scene in last night's episode.

    Here's the scene I'm talking about. Kiefer has his evil brother tied up, and is interrogating him using injections of that pain serum they're so fond of at CTU that makes people writhe and scream in agony. The torture technician guy says things like "8 cc's could send him into cardiac arrest!", and Kiefer says things like "give it to him now!"

    But since the torture victim who was sweating and howling in pain was Kiefer's brother, he was torn. Duty to nation and hatred of his dickwad of a brother vs. the unbreakable bond of fraternal loyalty. So during the torture scene, Kiefer actually put his arms around his screaming brother, holding him tenderly and stroking his head, and saying "breathe, breathe" like he was starring in the scariest Lamaze video ever made.

    Yeesh. It was actually reassuring, in a brutal kind of way, when James Cromwell came in and gave his own son a lethal pain serum injection and just clamped his hand over his mouth until he was dead.

    February 4, 2007

    G.M.'s Very Bizarre Superbowl Ad

    This year's Super Bowl commercials had the usual winners and losers, but the strangest had to be G.M.'s spot highlighting the company's 100,000 mile warranty.

    You can watch the spot above, but in brief: a robot on the G.M. assembly line drops a bolt, to the horror of everyone, and is escorted out of the factory. With no direction, no prospects, and presumably no union representation, he engages in self-destructive behavior, works various minimum wage jobs, and finally throws himself off a bridge. But suddenly - he wakes up! It was all a dream, brought on by the fear of not meeting G.M.'s high quality standards. The commercial ends with a voiceover: "The G.M. 100,000 mile warranty - it's got everyone at G.M. obsessed with quality."

    No shit. Even putting aside the crappy quality of G.M.'s products, the company is in a lot of trouble. Like the rest of the domestic auto industry, G.M. has been hemorrhaging money and jobs for the past ten years. The company lost more than $10 billion in 2005 alone. In January, the trade publication Automotive News officially stopped using "The Big Three" as shorthand for G.M., Ford and Chrysler and is instead referring to them as "The Detroit Three." (Since Toyota is now the third largest company in domestic auto sales, the editors didn't want to cause confusion.) And last week, the company announced that it will be reducing production over the next two years on the heels of reports that January 2007 sales were down 17%.

    G.M. is the largest private purchaser of health care coverage in the country, and its benefits have always been considered the "Cadillac" of employer-sponsored plans. But in addition to lay-offs, last spring G.M. started offering buyouts to more than 100,000 of its workers - as long as they agreed to give up their right to the continued health benefits that they had earned. According to the New York Times, the response was similar in many ways to our robot friend's: "The prospect of losing General Motors health coverage can be terrifying for workers who went straight from high school into factory jobs and have few good prospects for employment beyond the assembly line."

    I'd say it's not just the robots at G.M. who are pretty worried right now.

    Update: Apparently, I'm not the only one who had this reaction. According to Reuters, a UCLA study of viewers' brain scans while watching Super Bowl ads showed:

    "Among the top anxiety-producing ads...was one for General Motors aimed at drawing attention to the automaker's 100,000 mile warranty. The ad features a robot working on the line at an assembly plant until he drops a screw forcing the line to shut down. Angry workers kick the robot off the line, rendering the robot jobless...'That one got people's attention. But they did not feel good about the message. It produced big spikes of anxiety and perhaps ... feelings of economic insecurity,' [researcher Dr. Josh] Freedman said."

    [tx ADM]

    January 31, 2007

    Celebrity rehab: one-stop redemption shopping

    Mark Foley, alcoholic

    The Guardian has an essay today chronicling our favorite trend of 2006: celebrities checking into rehab to try to redeem themselves when they get busted for doing something idiotic or illegal that doesn't actually have anything to do with addiction.

    So far we've got:

    Mel Gibson
    Screw-up: Anti-semitic tirade, resisting arrest, "sugar tits"
    Went to rehab for: Alcoholism

    Mark Foley
    Screw-up: Dirty IMing with teenage Congressional pages, probably illicit sex with same
    Went to rehab for: Alcoholism

    Isaiah Washington
    Screw-up: Fighting with co-stars, using homophobic slur
    Went to rehab for: some unidentified problem, possibly anger management?

    And let's not forget old favorite Jim McGreevey
    Screw-up: putting his secret boyfriend on the state payroll in a made-up job that he wasn't qualified for
    Went to a "treatment center" for: an "addiction to being adored by strangers", whatever that is.

    And this Guardian piece alerted me to two others.

    Jade Goody, from the UK's recently ended Big Brother season
    Screw-up: racist comments about another contestant, Shilpa Shetty--called her "Shilpa Poppadom" and "Shilpa Fuckawallah" and was generally an odious tv-famous moron
    Went to rehab for: "stress and depression", hopefully at the same made-up rehab clinic that Isaiah Washington is at

    The essay also claims an arguable trendsetting example, from way back in 2002:

    Winona Ryder
    Screw-up: shoplifting, denial of shoplifting despite being recorded shoplifting on store camera
    Went to rehab for: actually was sentenced to get counseling instead of getting jail time

    If only Robert Downey, Jr. had been so lucky.

    But, as the essayist says, "the question remains: how much of an atonement is it when you admit yourself and you're not even really addicted to anything?" Checking yourself into rehab as a self-created punishment for unrelated sins doesn't do anything to solve your real problem (racism, pedophilia, sticky fingers, etc.) and comes off as a pathetic attempt to make the public feel sorry for you. No one had any hard feelings toward Winona, whose crime probably only made more people feel like they could relate to her (especially teenage girls, who love to shoplift), but Mel and the rest of these guys don't seem to have anyone fooled.

    January 18, 2007

    What you say about his company! Is what you say about society!

    knights of prosperity!

    Most TV shows that want to be successful try to pick soundtrack music that suggests a certain fashionable coolness that will appeal to today's young generation of trend-setters. You've got Neko Case getting played on Veronica Mars and some po-faced acoustic guy named Josh Kelley showing up on Smallville.

    Most shows decide not to include, for example, Rush on their soundtrack, because doing so would label your show as being hopelessly lame and out of touch with key marketing demographics.

    But for ABC's wonderful new Knights of Prosperity? No problem.

    You can see Eugene Gerkin, Rockefeller Butts, and Gary Subramaniam jamming to "Tom Sawyer" in the first minute and a half of last night's episode (the 1/17/07 one) on the ABC website. [You probably have to sit through an ad, but it's worth it.]

    January 16, 2007

    Is Fat The New Black?

    Jennifer Hudson

    There is a time-honored tradition at televised awards ceremonies of cutting to appropriate racial and gendered reaction shots during winner's speeches. For instance, when a lady of a certain age wins an award, we see a quick shot of Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep applauding. When a black person wins, we cut to Lou Gossett, Jr.

    As Hollywood gathered to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last night - I'm sorry, the Golden Globes - the tradition continued. When Jennifer Hudson won her Best Supporting Actress Award, it was only natural that the cameras would immediately cut to - Ugly Betty's America Ferrera.

    hot America Ferrera

    Congratulations, Jennifer Hudson! You've moved beyond the world of racial typecasting! Just like in Dreamgirls, fat and plain cut across all barriers, even if you've got pipes.

    Sidenote: Since we have a deep love for America Ferrera - especially after her charming acceptance speech - I should mention that for "ugly fat girls", both she and Jennifer Hudson were smokin' last night.

    Whereas Beyonce -

    Vegas beyonce

    Well, she mostly looked like a Solid Gold dancer.

    24: season 6 premiere

    Kiefer with cellphone, saving the world

    You know, sitting down to watch the premiere of the sixth (!) season of 24 made me think for a brief moment about the psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness: when victims of systematic abuse begin to believe that they are truly powerless to fight against whatever's being done to them. Like my life was about to start sliding away into a void of half-assed characters and sloppy writing all over again.

    Then Kiefer killed a man by ripping out his neck with his teeth, and the world seemed like a brighter place again.

    But it turned out that good old Kiefer is experiencing some learned helplessness himself after spending the last two years getting beaten to within an inch of his life by the Chinese. The most interesting parts of the first four hours of this season have been about Kiefer questioning his own abilities. The best scene was the one where he tries to extract information out of one of Assad's traitorous men, then gives up after looking in his eyes and "seeing" that the guy wasn't going to break. Certainly, having empathy for your torture victims isn't a very strategic tactic.

    So then when Assad casually picks up a kitchen knife and slides it in right below the guy's kneecap, and immediately gets the info they need, Kiefer looks at Assad with something like adoration and nausea. Assad still has the ability to do whatever it takes, which is the very quality that's made Jack Bauer one of the best characters on TV these past few years.

    Even though Kiefer delivers a couple of speeches about how he doesn't think he can do this anymore, when it comes right down to it, he pulls through every time after this one botched torture scene. Sure, he staggered off and puked his guts out after shooting Curtis, but at the moment, he did the right thing. It started to get tedious last season when Kiefer was so completely accurate in always knowing the correct course of action--and it got really frustrating when other characters resisted just doing whatever he tells them to do. Haven't they figured it out by now? Kiefer is ALWAYS RIGHT, people! So watching Kiefer screw up a little bit at least creates some interesting room for doubt this season.

    Though after the smoking gun did in fact take the form of a mushroom cloud (damn you Fox!) I think we can assume that Kiefer's going to shed that self-doubt like he did his mountain man beard and get back to full-time world-saving.

    Couple of other interesting things: I really loved Zach Braff Kumar Kal Penn as Ahmed, hamming it up as the teenage suburban terrorist throwing back a whole bottle of pain pills. Assad looks like an older, more haggard Nick Stahl, and though he was only around for a few brief moments before detonation, nuclear engineer and enemy combatant Hassan Numair had the same doe eyes and chipmunk cheeks as little Sam on Freaks and Geeks. And my favorite part of the show, apart from Kiefer, is still when regular people suddenly become murderers when they're thrown into extreme situations, such as Mr. Ray Wallace, who killed the suitcase bomb parts dealer with a lamp, a cement floor, and his bare hands.

    I can't believe this stuff gets shown on network TV.

    Anyway, pretty good start for the season. Looks like the show's producers have figured out that torture scenes + civilian deaths + bombs = good ratings. But in every single season, the Palmer family seems to be cursed with boring plotlines. Every time a Palmer family member is on screen, you know it's the best time to go to the kitchen or switch to the Golden Globes. Those people just cannot get a break. And how about that electronic shredding program that the Palmer sister used to destroy the Islamic-American Alliance's personnel records? Wouldn't any organization also keep paper W-4's and stuff like that on file? Please.

    January 3, 2007

    The Knights of Prosperity, tonight

    Knights of Prosperity

    Some more new television starts tonight, with The Knights of Prosperity on ABC. This show is produced by Donal Logue (a big favorite of ours) and follows the exploits of some guys in NYC who decide to break into Mick Jagger's apartment and steal stuff.

    Working titles included Let's Rob Mick Jagger (Mick didn't want his name in the title, though he does appear in the pilot) and I Want to Rob Jeff Goldblum (who was considered for the role of heist target, presumably until the producers realized that Jeff Goldblum isn't funny.)

    This show did a lot of filming in Hell's Kitchen and all around Times Square, so I've been excited for it. Tom Shales at the Washington Post falls all over himself to praise it: "knee-slappingly and side-splittingly funny stuff, or as close to that as TV gets these days." He loves characters like frustrated janitor Eugene Gurkin (played by Donal Logue), fatman Rockefeller Butts, and Louis Plonk, the lovable virgin.

    And as an added bonus, which gorgeously no-nonsense bitch-queen from 24 makes an appearance? Reiko Aylesworth! Our eyes were glazing at the prospect of having to go watch Alien vs. Predator 2 just to see her again, so we're very grateful to ABC for resurrecting our old favorite.

    Alessandra Stanley at the Times likes it too, even if she uses the show to try to make some indecipherable point about women in TV comedies. She notes that The Knights of Prosperity and In Case of Emergency (also premiering tonight on ABC) both feature groups of losery men and one beautiful woman who hangs out with them. My favorite show that fits that formula was The Lone Gunmen, an X Files spinoff that was hastily cancelled after 13 episodes. This show probably won't last much longer (unless they choose Alex Trebek or Willem Dafoe to be the next targets, as one character suggests) but it's already a pioneer in the promising new celebrity heist genre.

    December 5, 2006

    Wait a second. Heroes is actually good!

    Since its premiere, Heroes has been an amusing diversion from more serious fare like Lost, Warplane, and Meerkat Manor. Due to its intrinsic corniness, frequent crappy dialog, and its (let's face it) 14-year-old target demographic, it has failed to impress as anything besides a bit of fluff on Monday nights. Sure, the final moments of most episodes involved entertaining twists, and it was fun to groan loudly at all the ridiculous moments, but I never felt comfortable calling it "a good show." I began thinking of it as the kind of show that doesn't exist anymore: the hour-long "popcorn" adventure show. Charlie's Angels, The A-Team, and MacGuyver all fit into that category. They were fun but they were meaningless. If you go back and watch them as an adult, they are almost unbearable in their campiness. But they are all appealing in their way. Heroes was like that (although I think it strived to be a little more than that, Lost-style). The show has has always had the ingredients of a good show -- some decent actors (including Adrian Pasdar, one of the best TV actors around), some characters that could practically write their own storylines, and a lots of opportunities for exciting plot developments. But then, in last night's episode ("Fallout"), all these ingredients came together and it became an actual "good show," but without turning its back on the tradition of its genre.

    Let's start with the acting. In other shows with ambiguously moral characters, the writers don't reveal future plot developments to the actors, and so the actors have no idea how to play the character. (24 is notorious for this.) The resulting performances are unsatisfying because the actors tend to change the way they portray their character from scene to scene. When the scene has them taking some action that appears to be evil, they act all supervillains. When the scene has them do something that appears to be good, they act as if their character is noble. (Think of President Logan and his Chief of Staff in last year's season of 24.) The audience can never get a handle on who the character is and what makes him tick. This isn't suspenseful. It's annoying. Heroes has its share of ambiguous characters, too, most notably Adrian Pasdar's Nathan Petrelli and the cheerleader's father. But, Pasdar in particular, excels at consistently portraying his character right down the middle. What emerges is a character who is conflicted about his actions. Whether he is "purely good" or "purely evil," we don't really know, and it doesn't matter: it's not a professional wrestling match. Pasdar's performance gives us a character that is real -- even in the show's unreal world. This is an accomplishment that 24 has failed to match in all these years, despite taking place in a more realistic world.

    The plot developments help out those actors who are not quite at Pasdar's level. Ali Larter has taken her lumps on various discussion boards for not being up to the task of portraying the split-personality of her character, but last night's episode made up for that by putting in her in an innately interesting position as she struggles for the first time to truly gain control of her more violent side. She could have played the moment of transformation better, certainly, but the scene with her confronting her alter ego in the woods worked because the show didn't try to make it into a heavy moment: In a scene straight out of an evil-twin episode of any early-80s B-drama, Ali's Nicki argued with an off-camera version of herself. The show did not even bother to use a stand-in for over-the-shoulder shots, let alone digital effects. Here's Ali with a mean face. Cut. Here's Ali with a nice face. Cut. Brilliantly simple.

    Good writing makes up for mediocre casting. For me, last night's plot developments did something I thought was impossible: they got me interested in Peter Petrelli. Petrelli is the show's Luke Skywalker. Pivotal, but annoying. But, as with Star Wars, the writers have finally given him a compelling plot/character arc that is engaging despite his whininess. I want to know what happens next; I want to see him find bad love with the cheerleader; I want to see him get everybody out of a crisis by absorbing somebody else powers -- Can he absorb the already absorbed powers of Sylar? That would be interesting -- and then, yeah, I want to see him blow up The Day After-style.

    The show is also bringing lots of disparate plot elements together in an entertaining, compelling way. By hinting at the future (rather than keeping us completely in the dark, like 24), Heroes creates a meaningful suspense that you know is going to get paid off (unlike Lost). Importantly, showing snippets of the future gives the audience the sense that the writers actually know where all of this is going, a feeling entirely lacking from 24 and Lost. (The writers of 24 have admitted that they make it up as they go along.)

    Heroes still has its annoyances, but last night's episode showed that it can be entertaining and good at the same time.

    ps. You can watch last night's episode for free over at NBC.com.

    November 14, 2006

    Who'Dat?™: You look so pretty when you smile

    Today's edition of Who'Dat?™ involves a recent celebrity who you may not know much about, but we're willing to bet you've seen a lot of in the past few months. Though this might be the first time you've seen him looking like a person that you would not want to punch in the face.

    To play the game, try to figure out who this person is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.

    who'dat?

    More on this celebrity after the break.

    Continue reading "Who'Dat?™: You look so pretty when you smile" »

    November 9, 2006

    Can Lost be saved?

    This

    No.

    All in all, we've been pretty quiet about the fall tv season because it's been so -- boring. New shows, old shows -- there's nothing we can get really excited about.

    If you watched any of this cruddy 6-episode mini-season* of Lost, you know that the show that used to be so great is pretty much beyond saving at this point. But even if we have officially Stopped Watching Lost (and some of us haven't made it through a whole episode awake this season) there are still some characters that we would miss if the show's producers decided to, say, wipe out the entire island with a really awesome scene of total obliteration by volcano/meteor/tsunami/French woman (is she still even on the island?) blowing everyone away before turning the gun on herself.

    Unfortunately, with 357 characters and only 1 hour a week -- plus that 4 month hiatus -- the writers can only do so much. So we've taken it upon ourselves to suggest new opportunities to give our favorite Lost characters the quality and quantity of screen time they deserve while adding much needed spice to the rest of the lackluster fall lineup. How? By deporting all the characters to some other shows!

    Jack: He's got daddy issues. Big time. So why not move him to House, where he could adopt Dr. House as his new brilliant but emotionally-distant, dysfunctional father figure? That show needs more fistfights anyway.

    Sawyer: Shame on you, writers. Although we appreciate the gesture, making Sawyer shirtless for 6 episodes does not equal character development. We need more of the Sawyer sass -- and where better to see it in effect than sunny California? Sawyer and The OC's Julie Cooper would be an unstoppable team. Sawyer can get it on in a bed for a change, while the two plot to swindle the Newport elite out of their cash.

    Sayid: Our favorite ex-Republican Guard interrogator would bring many new scenes of reckless torture with total impunity to 24. "I'm going to shoot him in the knee, Sayid." "No, Jack, I think you will find shooting him in the stomach will be much more effective."

    Hurley: Oh Hurley -- Hurley! Does anyone on the island even talk to you anymore? And is there any gang of misfits in which you would not be beloved? Hurley would be right at home with the warehouse guys on The Office, or growing a fabulous moustache to match Jason Lee's on My Name Is Earl. Hell, he'd even be value added on Heroes. What superpower would Hurley have? Flying, or making any woman he wants be uncontrollably attracted to him? "Dude, save the cheerleader, save the....Hey, is that ranch dressing you got over there?"

    Sun and Jin: Where the hell have they been for the past few weeks? There are so many opportunities on network television for our favorite couple. With Sun's sailing skills and Jin's, um, negotiating skills, they'd kick ass on The Amazing Race. And with their communication issues and emotional problems, they'd seem like a natural addition to Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane. But our true dream is to see them on Wife Swap -- we can only imagine the entertainment value if they appeared opposite the competively eating Badlands Booker family on the season premiere.

    Locke: This is a tough one. We used to love Locke -- but even he's growing unwatchable. (No more endless games of Charades. Please.) Locke, we're willing to give you one more chance -- how would you like to anchor the CBS Evening News?

    Of course, making room for this many folks means some other characters will have to be displaced. We suggest sending the whiny, useless Peter Petrelli on Heroes, The O.C.'s Seth Cohen, Rachael Ray, and the entire cast of Studio 60 to the island. And then, producers -- do what you will with these new castaways. We won't be watching anyway.

    *Sopranos, I blame you for this.

    October 26, 2006

    The State of Network TV

    30 Rock

    OK, it's time to say something definitive about television this fall. Here it is:

    There is exactly one (1) funny show on network tv this fall.* And that show is 30 Rock.

    I wasn't wild about the premiere, but the last two episodes have been great. Did you watch it last night? If you missed it, you can watch it on the NBC site for free. It's good. The blind date set-up, the poker games, and Alec Baldwin's fantastic Hannibal Lecter-derived speech to the page, about him growing up in his mama's tract house in Stone Mountain, GA, "you dreamed of making it all the way to En-Bee-Cee."

    Awesome. I can't believe how many good jokes they get into 22 minutes.

    The Office doesn't seem as funny this year, even with the addition of Ed Helms. So it's 30 Rock or nothing, people.

    *ADM interjects: Ugly Betty is pretty funny too, but it's hard for me to watch (personal reasons).

    October 17, 2006

    Studio 60, the Most Important Television Show Ever in the History of Television

    How important is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? How important? It is so important that this exchange actually happened last night between Matthew Perry's troubled genius sketch comedy writer and a Very Important Journalist, played by Christine Lahti, who is writing a fictional Vanity Fair piece about his barely-fictional show.

    Perry: You've covered presidential campaigns. You've covered wars. What are you writing about a tv show for?

    Lahti: I'm writing about it because what's happened here is important. I think what's happening here is important. I think popular culture in general and this show in particular are important.

    Oh my GOD, Aaron Sorkin, how much more important could this show get?! Tell me! Is it IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO GET STING TO COME OUT AND PLAY HIS LUTE?

    Fuck you, Sorkin. Only 4 episodes in and I'm already sick of you insulting my tv viewing habits and trying to make me feel bad for disliking your pompous show. It's JUST TELEVISION. I'm done with Studio 60, and if you want to talk about it, you can find me over at Wife Swap on Wednesday nights.

    October 12, 2006

    Two shows with characters that are so annoying I don't think I can stand it anymore.

    Lost and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip are two shows with a lot of potential, but both of them are filling too much screen time with irritating characters who make you want to change the channel rather than stick around to see what happens next. I've already given up on Studio 60, but I'm hoping Lost will figure out what it's doing wrong and get back to the stuff we care about.

    Lost

    In the first few months of Lost, we got to know and care about those castaways in the same way we cared about the characters on all of our favorite ensemble shows. You know the feeling from E.R., or The West Wing, or Melrose Place. Everyone has their quirks, but most also have their charms. You want to see what happens next because you care about them and you like watching them interrelate. For its first two seasons, Lost did a great job of developing these characters and their relationships with each other, and it had that added twist of various mysterious threats lurking within the jungle. When the show's creators wanted to mix things up, they brought in some new characters -- the tailies -- who also had some good character development and were able to become audience favorites, too. (Mr. Eko, for example.)

    Everything was going along great, but then the show's creators apparently decided that what the show needed was more plot. I already liked the plots we were getting, but I guess J.J. and company soon learned what the X-Files people eventually did: your audience will only put up with being teased for so long. They had set up this giant "mythology" and, due to the nature of audience reaction, had to start paying some of that off. So in the later part of last season, the faceless others got a face, and the story became more about Castaways vs. Others than just about the Castaways. That was great and exciting at first, and it was nice to finally get some answers, but now, it feels like we are spending so much time with the Others, we're losing touch with all our favorite characters.

    The Others will not be like the Tailies. They won't endear themselves to us because that is not their function. Their function is purely antagonistic, and the show's writers seem to revel in just making them as mean as possible. Last season, the writers were able to show us how mean and ruthless and scary they were in just a few short scenes. This year, they are filling up entire episodes with taser guns, shackles, cages, apparent druggings, and silly supervillain dialogue like "The next two weeks will be very unpleasant." I liked it better when they were shot from the knees down, moving silently through the jungle. Less was more.

    Now that we've gotten to know the Others, they are much less engaging. They seem to be just a bunch of sadistic, slave-driving pseudo-behavioral-scientist know-it-alls who like abusing people for no reason. Does that make them interesting? Does it add to the suspense? Does it clear up some mysteries while giving us new ones that we actually care about? After watching the other night's episode, did you really care at the end when Henry [spoiler alert] mentioned he had lived on the island his whole life? I didn't, because I don't care about Henry any more. By the end of the episode, I was practically longing for a scene featuring Charlie sidling up to Claire and offering her some more of that stupid imaginary peanut butter. I don't care about Henry, or his ambiguously evil ex-wife, or any of these people. They are not "real" people in the way that the Castaways were in the first two seasons: they are caricatures, and that makes them unappealing and very difficult to respond to, let alone care about. And don't even get me started on the World Series scene with Henry and Jack. I am trying to purge it from my memory so I can still care about the show.

    So here's hoping that J.J. abandons this plot line posthaste and terminates it with a Sayid-and-Sawyer-led massacre of these cartoon villains. I never thought I'd say it, but I really want to get back to Charlie, Claire, and the polar bear smoke monster.

    Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

    It certainly seemed like Studio 60 had a shot at being good. Lots of quality-TV pedigree, an interesting chance to take us behind the scenes of something we've always wondered about, just like The West Wing. But somehow, it's just not coming together. The main problems: it's not funny and, damn, the characters on this show are annoying.

    On West Wing, everybody could be curt with each other, or even mean, because important things were happening. "No time to be polite, John...I gotta go order that bombing strike (again)!" The intelligence of these characters was written into the show, but we could already assume they were intelligent, competent people: that's how they got where they were, and since they were so competent we could forgive their being rude to each other because we knew they had a reason and they were just trying to do the right thing.

    On Studio 60, we get characters who are even nastier to each other, but why? What is so fricking important that they have to be insulting each other and yelling all the time? What...your sketch about George-Bush-is-stupid didn't get in this week? Who cares! What about these whining, self-important, know-it-all characters is at all appealing? Nothing. The issues they are confronting are ultimately not worth getting emotionally invested in, either for them as characters or for us as an audience.

    The characters' unlikeability might be forgivable if the show were actually able to lighten up once in a while and be funny. But, it isn't. So far, about the only thing that was remotely funny was the Tom-Cruise-on-a-game-show sketch, which was not very funny at all except for the impersonation. The actual writing was abyssmal -- they should have just stuck with the script from the 1998 SNL sketch they ripped it off from.

    I finally gave up tonight after a scene in which the characters were so simultaneously annoying and not funny, I couldn't take it anymore. Here it is:

    So this is what passes for great comedy among the supposedly brilliant writers of the show and the show-within-the-show? "Dyslexia is just another word for stupid." Brilliant. "Americans are fat and we drop food and bombs on people." Good lord. The jokes on The A-Team were funnier than that. Somebody needs to tell the writers of this show that being offensive and tasteless is not the same thing as being funny. No wonder these guys are writing for the late-night weekend sketch comedy show that isn't SNL.

    Now, of course you could say, But the show is really a drama, it's not supposed to be funny. Bullshit. The show should carry the weight of its own drama (which it doesn't) and be funny enough to be charming (which it isn't). Thankfully, this season NBC has such a surplus of material about its own programming, they've given us another show about SNL in which at least some of the characters are both funny and likeable, and stars ALEC "5 inches but it's thick" BALDWIN.

    October 8, 2006

    God Bless Amy Poehler

    Did you see SNL the other night? Amy Poehler has always been funny, but she has REALLY stepped up this year, what with the new lean cast (only 3 women!). Saturday's episode was like watching "The Best of Amy Poehler," except it was just a regular episode. Here are the people she impersonated:

    • Minnie Pearl
    • Nancy Grace
    • Rosie Perez
    • Yoko Ono
    • Patti Smith

    Here she is as Rosie Perez with Fred Armisen as Martin Scorsese:

    Or, download.

    ps. You can see a bunch of other videos over on the official SNL website, including the Nancy Grace bit and Armisen's dead-on "Ugly Betty" parody.

    August 15, 2006

    More bad press for Slough

    The Office's Slough Trading Estate

    Slough Trading Estate is the home of "The Office"'s fictitious Wernham Hogg paper company. Like its analog on the US version of the show, Scranton, PA, Slough is accurately depicted as a soul-crushingly dull and ugly place.

    It's also where British police just raided two internet cafes in connection with last week's foiled plan to blow up a lot of planes.

    Terrorist cells might even be a step up for Slough's public image, based on David Brent and John Betjeman's 1937 poem ("Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough".)

    August 9, 2006

    Redevelopment for the Masses

    world leaders on governors island

    Ever since Governors Island re-opened, I keep meaning to go out there some weekend and look around. But since only a small portion of the island is even open to the public, and it's conveniently open um, almost never, I just haven't gotten around to it.

    But it's one thing to go look at historic military buildings - and quite another to visit the Nickelodeon Family Suites themed resort complex!

    When New York state bought the island from the federal government for $1 in 2003, they agreed that 40 acres would remain parkland, 20 acres would be used for education and 30 acres would be used for public benefit. Now the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp. is determining how those areas will be redeveloped. Nickelodeon is one of 10 finalists whose proposals to redevelop the education/public part of the island are under consideration - but please. You really think the GIPEC is going to go with CUNY's lame "CUNY University Village" and "Leadership Park" or a camp for teenage substance abusers?

    That's what I thought. And since the feds expressly forbid building casinos on the island - I'll see you on the Historic Jimmy Neutron NickToons Blast!

    July 9, 2006

    Go Wacky at Pee-wee's Playhouse!

    Pee-wee and his underpants

    If you're in that summer television funk - you know, irritable that Meerkat Manor* is only on once a week - this is just a friendly reminder that Cartoon Network starts showing all 45 episodes of Pee-wee's Playhouse tonight on Adult Swim.

    If you haven't already bought the dvds, now is the perfect time to watch Paul Reubens in his greatest role - and it might even help you understand why Natasha Lyonne grew up to be such a weirdo.

    Or, just watch it for the highly addictive theme song, which has been running through the back of my head continuously since around the late 1980s.


    * And seriously, if you're not watching Meerkat Manor, which is essentially Dynasty with meerkats, you really, really should be.

    June 1, 2006

    Spell your hearts out, kids!

    National Spelling Bee

    Tune in to ABC tonight to watch the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the first time the competition has been broadcast on network primetime. But it's hardly the first time we've gotten to watch children look like they want to claw at their faces in spelling-bee agony.

    Spellbound was a hit back in 2003. Nobody saw that Bee Season crap, or Akeelah, which was a total bust for the bastards over at Starbucks who were convinced that what the world really needed was just one more spelling bee movie.

    Now that there have been all these fictional spelling bee stories around, watching the real-life event might just feel like a reality show. But I guess it's still not too late to get some mileage out of a cultural fad that takes pleasure in watching the future of America have anxiety attacks in front of an audience of millions.

    Update:
    Actually, most of these kids are very poised under pressure, and really seem to have their shit together. If we're lucky, maybe we'll be voting for former spelling bee champs to run the country in another 30 years or so.

    May 23, 2006

    24 season finale: slow boat to China

    Kiefer gets busted

    Some of my very favorite scenes on 24 are the ones where Kiefer has to help someone unskilled in murder to violently kill someone, which he often does over the phone. "Now fire the gun again, Kim," he said to his screechy daughter in season 2, when she had to shoot her child-abusing old lecherous bastard of an employer. But his failure to say, "... and now turn that gun on yourself, Kim," sort of ruined the moment for me.

    Last night's season finale included an excellent iteration of this scene, this time on the phone with Petty Officer Rooney, a naval engineer who said he wasn't trailed in combat. Kiefer talked him through slitting the throat of a Russian terrorist, telling him just how to pull his head back and how to move the knife: "Do it fast; do it deep." Rawrr! Petty Officer Rooney slit that Russian's throat like he'd been doing it his whole life, adding a few Adam's apple stabs for good measure. Way to go!

    And even though it came a season late, I was delighted to maybe finally get my wish to see Kiefer break out of a Chinese prison camp--something I'd wished for at the end of last season. When a guy like Kiefer begs the Chinese guys who are holding him "Kill me. Just kill me," you know it's serious.

    All that stuff about "we Chinese have very long memories" was pretty awkward though. What, they hadn't forgotten about this guy who got their consul killed a whole 18 months later? Wowee. At least they didn't add any more lines like "Our people have been producing the finest porcelain vases for thousands of years! And who do you think originated all those delicious noodle recipes? You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on us Chinese, the people with very long memories!"

    Next season: maybe Audrey will finally die.

    May 19, 2006

    Do Not Anger the Gods of The O.C.

    marissa cooper rip

    We haven't written here about The O.C. in some time, due to its increasing irrelevance to cultural life, but last night's season finale, "The Graduates," does require some comment.

    Luckily, we were able to sneak into a secret production meeting toward the end of this season to bring you this secret transcript:

    Mischa Barton: This show is so stupid. I'm a real actress. I want out of this contract.
    O.C. Producers: Oh, awesome. Can you have your trailer packed up in ten minutes?
    MB: Oh - well, I mean, maybe Marissa could just go work on a boat or something, and then I'd totally guest a couple of episodes if things don't work out.
    O.C. Producers: Yeah, whatever. Say hi to Neve Campbell and Jessica Biel.

    (exit MB)

    Producer 1: Car crash?
    Producer 2: Yeah. And let's give her a big fucking head wound too.

    (end)

    Interestingly, the AP piece on this was written by a Sandy Cohen.

    May 17, 2006

    Are you Lost? Maybe it's because of the giant magnet.

    lost magnet

    [Don't read this if you haven't seen tonight's episode yet.]

    Does anyone else have any theories about the giant magnet on Lost? We don't read enough forums to know if other people have come up with this theory, but we think there were three big clues in tonight's episode:

    • Eko's cross getting pulled up by the magnet.
    • The Hanso Foundation ad that said, "Let your compass guide you [dot com!]."
    • The sailboat showing up at the end.

    If you put this together with the other available facts about who has accidentally turned up on the island -- the Oceanic flight, the Nigerian drug smuggler's plane, Rousseau's research vessel, and the real Henry Gale's balloon, it sure seems like the Dharma Project guys are using the gigantic magnet to tamper with the perception of magnetic north in the area, so that the compasses and guidance systems on these various crafts go haywire and lead everyone to the island.

    It would seem that the Dharma team is doing this sort of thing whenever they need new test subjects for their project. As Amy puts it, they are using the magnet to "fish" for whatever happens to be out there. Another way of looking at it is that they've created their own man-made Bermuda Triangle.

    One interesting exchange from last night's episode, though, suggests they may have been doing more than just randomly fishing: When Michael asks who "James Ford" is, Ms. Klugh responds, "You know him as Sawyer." To me, this suggests they may have known who was on the airplane before it crashed, and perhaps they brought it down to get specific people (most probably Walt). (Can't you just see the scene where Jack confronts ole Beardy: "But dozens of people died!" "It'll all be worth it, Jack, if we can prove mankind can blah blah blah....") Maybe they get them out there on the island so everyone can be free from psychic interference or some such. Who knows.

    The show's creators have been making a big deal of saying that next week's episode will answer all kinds of questions, and I suspect the purpose of the magnet will be one of the things explained.

    April 6, 2006

    The state of the news in America

    Katie Couric announces move to CBS

    It's been a big week for American TV journalism. The biggest story is Katie Couric's move from NBC News (because "Today" technically counts as a news show. I know, don't get me started) to CBS where she will anchor the Evening News.

    Now today, the Center for Media and Democracy issued a report called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed" (NY Times coverage). They report that 77 news departments in TV stations across the country have used corporate video news releases as part of their news segments, without telling viewers that they were watching commercially produced advertisements. Sometimes they just air the entire unedited corporate video. They've shown publicists on-air and credited them as being reporters. Their anchors have read scripts provided by corporate publicists as though they were doing their own objective reporting.

    The FCC will probably take notice of this report, because they started investigating this kind of use of promotional video in news reports last year, specifically chastising stations for airing government-produced videos without saying where the material came from.

    Slate ran an article at the beginning of the week about the death of objectivity in news. Since many news outlets don't even pretend to be objective anymore, should viewers still expect it, or just select news sources according to their overt agendas? Old media like newspapers and network nightly news shows used to at least try to be objective, but they're declining in popularity. Should they just abandon their old values and deal in the opinion journalism of blogs and cable news? Intercut with segments filed by "reporters" from Capital One and Intel?

    It looks like the answers to many of these questions are up to the latest leader of American journalism, Katie Couric. Katie did an unmatchable job for 15 years of steering the content of "Today"'s stories back to herself and her own life, and also providing a forum for corporations to advertise their products live on an NBC News show. But if network news gets even less objective and even more commercial with the arrival of the newest cast member this September, we can't just blame Katie. These shows are already letting publicists stand in for journalists and showing us ads and telling us it's news.

    April 4, 2006

    Who's Older?™: Over-exposure edition

    Today's edition of Who's Older?™ examines a recent trend of mature actors demonstrating their sexual vigor and enduring relevance by starring in productions that require them to nakedly engage in all kinds of freaky sex. I'm talking here about Sharon Stone, star of the overhyped, underanticipated Basic Instinct 2, and Bill Paxton, star of HBO's new series about polygamy and its discontents, "Big Love".

    Not many critics had kind words for Basic Instinct 2. However, I would like to point out that Roger Ebert is pretty enthusiastic about the movie's over-the-top camp, and says he can't tear his eyes away from Sharon Stone. And MTV's Kurt Loder flat out adores her and the movie both: "It's Sharon Stone, an even lustier sex shark than she was 14 years ago, who dominates the film with flamboyant abandon. Actually, she's completely shameless in what appears to be a headlong yen for a late-in-the-day career boost. Nevertheless, there's no denying how good she still is at being really, really bad."

    Of course Sharon Stone gets naked in the movie too, much like the cast of "Big Love". Or, as Emily has called it, "The Bill Paxton Ass Show", a more accurate description of its visual content. Yes, Bill Paxton's character has three wives, which means tons of shots of a naked flabby old dude thrashing around with three of the most valiant young actresses working in television today.

    So regardless of which actor's unclothed body you are personally the least averse to seeing, you must now test your knowledge of their respective ages. Or at least judge how successfully they have preserved themselves.


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