Wednesday, May 31, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Prairie Home Companion"

"The Prairie Home Companion"
Director: Robert Altman
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 71
In a Nutshell: It shouldn't be surprisingly that Missouri-born Robert Altman and Minnesota native son Garrison Keillor prove to be a perfect match in "Prairie Home Companion," which somehow manages to be joyful and melancholic, laconic and full of life at the same time. It's been a long time since I took any pleasure from Keillor's radio program, so it was nice to discover how many of the moments captured in the movie hearken back to things I remembered enjoying when I was a small boy growing up in Iowa and Minnesota myself. Altman's style of managed chaos has always lent itself well to backstage dramas and he's in an obvious comfort zone here, with his freely meandering camera and inevitable overlapping dialogue. As singing sisters Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are particularly splendid, treating their meshing lines in the same way as they treat the melodic harmonies in their vocals. I also enjoyed the work done by Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson and Keillor himself. Altman also deserves credit for making Lindsay Lohan seem fresh-faced and nearly innocent, much less for making the most of her singing abilities. My major reservation is that, like the radio program, the feature film of "The Prairie Home Companion" offers nothing more thematically interesting than a picture of honest and halcyon Midwestern identity and a yearning and nostalgia for that kind of wholesome (but still teasing) world. That's enough to carry a light and genial film, but not nearly enough to push it among Altman's finest.

A review may run on on Friday, June 9. But then again, it may not.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The State of Film Criticism In America: Case Study 648

I really want to get back to watching "Last Comic Standing," but I had to register this mind-boggling blurb very quickly.

This is alleged film critic Scott Mantz of "Access Hollywood" on Pixar's "Cars"...

"The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."

First off, "Cars" is disposable and mediocre and they're working a series of suspect quotes [because the only thing kids love more than Pixar is movie critics], but they're from reputable sources. First, you get Richard Corliss of Time calling it an instant classic, which is almost exactly what he said about "Chicken Little" last fall. Then you get Pete Travels of Rolling Stone, who's paid by the blurb. The tuna fish at the Time-Warner Building features a "roller-coaster of flavor," says Pete Travers. His subway ride into the office was "an adrenaline-packed thrill-ride that really delivered." Then you have Ebert & Roeper, whose "Two Thumbs Up" seal of approval means less and less when they toss it to summer dreck like "The Da Vinci Code" and "X-Men 3." They're all hyperbolic, but Mr. Mantz takes the cake.

"The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."


Thank God! And there I was getting so darned frustrated! Back in February, I was already sitting in the corner of my apartment with my head in my hands muttering, "When will the Best Movie of the Year EVER come?!?!?" For a while, I made do with the year's first great military academy boxing movie ("Anapolis," probably), the year's first great movie about an African-American man in drag (either "Madea's Family Reunion" or that thing with Martin Lawrence), the year's first great sequel ("Basic Instinct 2," I think) and the year's first great slug-fest ("Slither," clearly), but those were all niche successes. Finally, indeed.

Scott Mantz says "The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here."

I haven't been so excited by the word of a non-film critic (Does "Access Hollywood" even do movie reviews?) since the "Akeelah the Bee" ads quoted Greta Van Susteren calling it the best family movie ever made. Well, darnit, I thought it was slick, manipulative and yet surprisingly effective, but if a legal analyst from FOX NEWS says it's better than "Babe" and "The Wizard of Oz" and "Bambi," then I'm sold. But only if Larry King agrees. That man knows movies!

Now it helps if you know that it was only a couple weeks ago that Mantz declared that "V for Vendetta" was "The first truly great film of 2006." And with one truly great film already in 2006, you wouldn't think his relief at the Best Movie of the Year FINALLY arriving would be so great. I mean, yeah, my appetite was whetted, but I could hardly be starved with so much brilliance about.

I saw "Chinatown" last weekend at the New Beverly, the first time I'd seen it on the big screen. Beautiful print. Beautiful movie. Now there's a TRULY GREAT movie. Now, you don't have to be "Chinatown" to be truly great, but you probably have to be better than "V for Vendetta" (a truly good movie), and it seems that Mantz values "Cars" over "V," which means it must be "really, truly great. really."

What's sad, is that Mantz' quote doesn't even say "The Best Movie Of The Year So Far," because the "So Far" precludes the "Finally." It offers hope that something better is yet to come.

Now "The Best Movie of the Year... Is Finally Here." That means that this is it. We're not even up to June 1 and our arduous wait is over. The best movie of the year is finally here. And you know what? We can just stop going to the movies.

I believe the ellipses in the blurb is there because the quote deserved two screens worth of attention and not because Mr. Mantz intended to write "The Best Movie of the Year [is likely to be 'All The King's Men,' but while you're waiting on it and if you're already sick of 'Over the Hedge,' another computer animated comedy] Is Here."

Anyway, this just makes me sad. "Cars" isn't a movie that needs desperate quote whores to shill for it. It's a movie that sells itself. And, frankly, kids won't be all that disappointed. Grown-ups will be, but kids will be perfectly happy with the flashing colors and the silly gags. This movie doesn't need the hyperbole of people calling it a "classic" or the FINALLY the year's best movie. It's not. But attention hungry critics are worried that they won't make the papers or the TV ads if they give the consensus response, "Eh. It was A'ight."

This is why we always appreciate the fine work done by the good people at Hollywood Bitchslap in their regular CriticWatch feature.


Back to watching so-so comics.

FINALLY the best comic of the year will be on my TV. Early pick? That Chris Porter guy is funny. He's like a less-needy Joey Slotnick!

Now there's a blurb you can take to the bank.

UPDATE 05/31/06: In the interest of equal access, I'm inclined to note that Mr. Mantz has chimed in on the "Comments" page and that he has, indeed, resorted to less name-calling than I did. I'm not sure if there's necessarily an intellectual discussion in progress, but if there is, feel free to join it.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Take Me To The Pilots: CW and CBS Edition

[These capsules aren't meant as reviews. Most of these pilots will undergo at least minor -- and possibly major -- alterations, tweaks and recastings before they make it on air in the fall. These are, however, my first impressions:]

Show: "Runaway" (The CW - Drama)
The Pitch: "Everwood: Criminal Intent"
Quick Response: It's peculiar -- there's this backstory involving family patriarch Donnie Wahlberg trying to clear his name from a murder he swears he didn't commit. However, the pilot, which looks and feels very much like it belongs on the now-defunct-WB, obviously has its heart in the displaced family melodrama, a la "Everwood." Will the teenage daughter be able to suddenly become popular at her new school and date the football stud, even though he seems to be dating her only friend in town? Will the teenage son remain true to his girlfriend back home and will he be able to retain his former popularity? Will the young son say too much and get the family in trouble? With all of teen-baiting, the subplot involving Wahlberg's investigation and the ever-encroaching police presence seems like an afterthought or worse (particularly since the pilot's climax resorts to the same "Silence of the Lambs" suspense switcheroo that has now become a total cliche).
Desire To Watch Again: Moderate-to-Low -- Much will depend on the quality of "Heroes" on NBC, as I look for ways to kill the Monday 9 p.m. slot until "24" starts in January.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour? Alas, No. That's just bad writing, folks.

Show: "Class" (CBS - Comedy)
The Pitch: "Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey's Third Grade Reunion"
Quick Response: Mostly attractive white people who haven't seen each other in 20 years get back together and, thanks to a healthy laugh track, become "Friends." Or, rather, friends. The absence of a definable location for the pilot is an obvious problem, as is CBS' ongoing difficulties finding minorities to star in their comedies. Oh and Andrea Anders (31), Sean Maguire (30), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (30), Jason Ritter (26) and Lizzie Caplan (24) are all actors who look their ages. That's not an insult, but in the pilot, I didn't buy these people as peers for a single second.
Desire To Watch Again: Low-to-Moderate -- If I'm already watching the far-superior "How I Met Your Mother," I might stick around, but I'm far more likely to just watch "Prison Break."
Possible Role For Eric Balfour? Three or four parts could have been played by Mr. Balfour, by my estimation. But can Eric Balfour be funny? Who's to say!

Show: "Shark" (CBS - Drama)
The Pitch: As my colleague Rick put it, "House, J.D."
Quick Response: Crotchety misanthrope tutors fresh-faced innocents on the finer points of the profession relying mostly on insults and a near clairvoyant understanding of the human condition (insight that doesn't extend into his own personal relationships). Yup. Sounds like "House" only with James Wood practicing the law. Thankfully, James Wood is great fun to watch in the pilot. Most of the supporting characters are interchangeable ("House" only has three underlings, but "Shark" has five or six or maybe seven -- I lost track). It's also a safe bet that "Shark" will follow the "House" formula of going through a string of unsuccessful prosecutorial strategies before having his genius moment in the end. Boy, they'd better find a way to use Jeri Ryan, because she's wasted in the pilot.
Desire To Watch Again: Low -- But I may tune in once or twice if ABC's "Six Degrees" isn't very good.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour? Sam Page is playing the Justin Chambers (for you "Grey's Anatomy" fans) part, which could just as easily be the Eric Balfour part.

Show: "Jericho" (CBS - Drama)
The Pitch: "Survivor: Kansas"
Quick Response: When did Skeet Ulrich become so old and decidedly undreamy? When did Gerald McRaney become so respectable and cool? If I think Ashley Scott is hot and if I really liked interviewing her for "Into the Blue," why am I not convinced she's a TV star? When a small Kansas town becomes cut off from the rest of the world by a series of nuclear attacks, the community has to come together and... I dunno what. There are sci-fi fans out there looking for a new cult-y show to take the place of the cancelled "Invasion," "Fathom" and "Threshold" and this is intriguing them, but the pilot doesn't really give a clear picture of where the story is going. The central relationships set out in the first 44 minutes are the kind of things we've seen in dozens of shows, but the isolation and nuclear subplots may keep things fresh.
Desire To Watch Again: Moderate -- I'm curious as to what direction this one will take and as long as "America's Next Top Model" is on the TiVo in the office, I can give this one an episode or two.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour? I would like to see a show where Skeet Ulrich and Eric Balfour play brothers who sit around a coffee shop all day and talk about their facial hair. Surely such a part could be written into this pilot?

Show: "Smith" (CBS - Drama)
The Pitch: "
Quick Response: Ray Liotta, Simon Baker, Virginia Madsen, Jonny Lee Miller, Amy Smart, Shoreh Aghdashaloo, Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka of "The Wire") -- that's what I call a cast. It's cool enough to see all of those actors together that I'm willing to temporarily forgive producer John Wells' trademark leaden atmospherics and hyper-serious tone. It's not quite as morose as FX's "Thief" and not quite as bubble-headed and glib as NBC's "Heist." As much as I loved "Ocean's 11," it sortta unleashed this impression in the creative community that audiences have an unquenchable desire to watch endless permutations on the "personable and specialized crooks plan one perfect crime after another" formula. Based on the ratings for "Thief" and "Heist," that's obviously not the case. The "Smith" pilot is 61 minutes long, which makes me wonder if CBS plans to film another 20 minutes and do a two-hour premiere, if they plan to get a single advertiser to go commercial-free or if they're going to cut 15 minutes from what's here. Regardless, what I saw on screen interested me, though I was probably engaged more by the actors -- Liotta is superior and I was impressed with how well Smart held her own -- than by the characters themselves.
Desire To Watch Again: Strong -- Despite the large number of potential plotlines set out in the pilot, I'm not sure that I'm enthusiastic about catching this one week-in-week-out, but I'm very interested to see where the story goes from here.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour? Several, probably, but I'd kinda like to keep this cast the way it is.

Have any of these shows caught your attention yet?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Open Letter on Behalf of Eric Balfour

Dear Casting Directors,

I don't know if you've noticed this, but Eric Balfour doesn't currently have a television show to air in the Fall of 2006. I bring this to your attention only because it's clear you haven't noticed, or else steps would have been immediately taken to rectify the situation. Starting a television season without Eric Balfour would be like starting a meal at the Outback Steakhouse without an Awesome Blossom, or starting a Toronto Blue Jays road game without listening to some American singer butcher "Oh, Canada." I'm not saying you have to keep his show on air for very long, or even that you have to let his character survive the first episode. In fact, I'd almost prefer you give him an episode or two and then give him the boot. That way he'll still have time to book a midseason pilot.

There are certain actors who television critics can count on regularly seeing in new shows each and every season, people like Paula Marshall and Christopher Gorham and Joey Pantoliano. It's not that they can't act (necessarily). And it's not that they don't have good agents, obviously. But they're the small screen equivalents of Reggie Sanders or Kenny Lofton in baseball, role players who for one reason or another can't seem to wear the same uniform consecutive seasons (actually, Sanders and Lofton may be well linked to a Joey Pants -- they're both former all-stars, after all -- but Gorham and Marshall are probably closer to Kent Merker or Pat Borders). They'll never go hungry and, if folks like Paget Brewster and Lauren Graham and Jon Cryer have proven anything, it's that it sometimes isn't the showkiller's fault that their shows keep dying and eventually the right vehicle will come along.

Eric Balfour? He just keeps on looking. And his pilots keep making it onto network schedules, not that you'd necessarily notice. In the spring of 2003, it was "Veritas: The Quest," getting 4 episodes on ABC. He went from there to the WB pilot "Fearless," which was on the fall 2003 schedule, was pulled for retooling and finally never aired. Joining NBC's line-up for the fall of 2004, "Hawaii" was relentlessly promoted, drew an OK first week audience and was gone after 7 episodes. Fortunately, that let Balfour book "Sex, Love and Secrets," which was on UPN for four of the lowest rated episodes in the netlet's history in the fall of 2005. It was cancelled so quickly, that that let Balfour move on to Dick Wolf's "Conviction" by this spring. I think it's possible that particular legal series actually ran for 13 episodes. But now it's gone.

That's five picked-up pilots in three years, an outstanding pace! And although "Fearless" wasn't panelled for the Television Critics Association Press Tour, the others all faced reporters and showed Balfour to be entirely unbowed, ego unchecked. Just as Balfour never seemed inept when he got to guest star on good shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Six Feet Under" or "The O.C.," he's never seemed particularly good on any of his failed shows, but he sure is a confident guy. Perhaps casting directors are convinced Balfour's a television star because he's convinced he's a television star.

And the best thing for casting agents and showrunners alike is that Balfour doesn't require an actual part. Just write a character described as "a hotshot young [INSERT OCCUPATION HERE] with unconventional methods and -- despite embarrassingly scruffy facial hair and the inability to make more than a single facial expression -- a very active love life." Balfour does the rest.

Eric Balfour isn't a genuine TV star any more than Orlando Bloom or Josh Lucas are genuine movie stars. Then again, just as those two actors can luck into their "Lords of the Rings" and their "Sweet Home Alabamas," Balfour is due to land a smash hit series one of these days, just through dumb luck. I predict that the minute he stars on a show that makes it to a second season, he'll stage a holdout for a better contract and then ditch the show to try to have a movie career. That's bound to be good for a whole new echelon of hilarity.

I'm starved for entertainment, casting agents. Don't let me down.

Yours Truly,
The Staff of Check the Fien Print

Friday, May 26, 2006

In the Cut: 'Kingdom' of 'Kong'

When was the last time you found yourself thinking 'You know, that movie was EXACTLY the right length' as you were walking out of the movie theater? I guess nobody ever responds to movies in that manner, but I'm finding myself more and more frequently taking issue with the duration of the movies I'm seeing and not just because I'm often stuck in less-than-comfortable screening rooms.

The easiest complaint to make is that a movie is too long. When something like "Silent Hill" runs 127 minutes or something like "The Da Vinci Code" clocks in at 150, my brain begins to hurt. Both of those suffered from excessive devotion to source material and both could have made more money in a shorter cut and saved me a lot of mental and gluteal anguish. Not that it mattered to either movie, as they're both hits, but still.

But bad movies aren't only over-long. They're sometimes over-short. With another 15 minutes, maybe "Poseidon" could have developed a single character I didn't want to see drown. With another 15 minutes, maybe "X-Men: The Last Stand" would have actually had the gravity Brett Ratner seems to think it requires.

And I don't even know who to blame. Studios often chop films to bits and given how awful the limited dialogue in, say, "Poseidon," was, I can understand why the filmmakers would just decide to cut out all signs of humanity amidst the effects.

I got to thinking of the fact that movies are never the right length over the last week after watching non-theatrical cuts of "Kingdom of Heaven" and "King Kong" under very different conditions.

New on DVD, the "Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut" isn't a masterpiece, as some are suggesting. It is, however, somewhat closer to the intellectually complicated epic Ridley Scott thought he was making before it was trimmed from 191 minutes to 145 minutes for the theatrical cut, which disappointed both audiences and critics. Despite the addition of those 45 minutes -- the biggest change is the out-of-nowhere son for Eva Green's Sybilla character, which transforms that character from a pouty cypher into a complicated woman and transforms the future Bond Girl's performance from flat to nuanced -- the new "Kingdom of Heaven" seems to move much faster than the original cut. Perhaps what made the first version drag was the gaps in logic caused by studio-mandated trims. The movie cannot stand as a full success because star Orlando Bloom plays his character as a brooding pill from start to finish, never finding a second's shading. However, I'm 99 percent convinced that had 20th Century Fox relented and let Scott release his own cut in December instead of dropping the truncated cut in May (as visions of "Gladiator" danced through their heads), "Kingdom of Heaven" would have been a strong Oscar contender, a lock for a number of technical nominations and a very possible Best Picture nominee. See, there's an example of a film that needed to be 45 minutes longer.

On the other hand, I watched "King Kong" on the airplane the other day coming back from Charlotte (I needed something to do since Ron Jeremy wasn't around to provide distraction) largely because I'd heard that the version they were showing was roughly 130 minutes, or an hour shorter than Peter Jackson's bloated theatrical cut. I'm not going to say something stupid like, "The version of 'King Kong' I saw on the airplane was better than Peter Jackson's version," but it was sure the right length. Suddenly, it takes only 30 minutes to get to Skull Island and only 45 minutes for Kong to make his first appearance, suggesting that the first act of the movie was trimmed by nearly 25 minutes. I missed a few of Jackson's in-jokes and loving details, but suddenly the movie's length no long felt out of proportion to the subject matter. It no longer felt like a movie made by a director too powerful to be reasoned with. I don't know who actually edited the USAir cut, which felt a bit sloppy and hacked to bits, but Jackson and his actual editor could stand to look at this shorter take and see if they could do their own 130 minute cut. It would make a nice bonus feature whenever "Kong" next comes out on DVD.

Has anybody else caught the airplane "Kong"? Or watched Scott's new "Kingdom of Heaven"?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Idol" Not-Watch: Wha' Happened?

So anyway, I was out at a junket dinner tonight and had to get my esteemed colleague Rick to cover the "Idol" performances tonight. And tomorrow night, I'm gonna be flying back from Charlotte and I'm going to miss the results as well.

Anyway, here's what I need from y'all, faithful reader (or maybe "readers")... I need to know what happened tonight. Or at least I'm curious.

Who rocked?

Who stunk?

Who's gonna win?

Ballad of the Flying Hedgehog

Some people attract money. Some people attract fame. Me, I attract Ron Jeremy.

I flew out to Charlotte, NC this afternoon (well, this morning and afternoon -- it's a long flight) and who should be on my plane, but the Hedgehog himself, Mr. Ron Jeremy. On its own, that would be a little amusing, because in person, the legendary porn star is every bit as scruffy, greasy and kinda unclean as you might imagine. He's the kinda guy where if you shook his hand, you'd look for some water and disinfectant and not just because he had sex with Traci Lords when she was 16. Jeremy set to sleeping immediately, complete with snoring and whatnot, which was very pleasant for my colleague Fred, who had the honor of sitting next to him.

The odd thing, is that this is the second time I've had the honor of flying with Ron Jeremy, which still isn't as cool as two Thanksgivings ago when I flew first class from Detroit to Los Angeles and was sitting next to Chris Klein and his then-fiance Katie Holmes. Ah, more innocent times. But anyway, the first flight with Ron Jeremy was from New York to LA a couple years back and he must have been hot off "The Surreal Life" or something then, because Ron Jeremy was flying first class back then. This time, he was flying coach and he had a middle seat.

How the mighty have fallen!

This may be the first flight to combine the celebrity powers of Ron Jeremy and Bonnie Hunt. Hunt, who's also in town for the "Cars" junket, *was* in first place and, if the flight attendants are to be believed, she was happily signing dozens of autographs. Good for her.

90 minutes until Idol. Heaven help us all.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Moviewatch: "X-Men: The Last Stand"

"X-Men: The Last Stand"
Director: Brett Ratner
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 49
In a Nutshell: There's this feeling in the fan community regarding Brett Ratner that he's an evil hack capable of making only horrible movies. That's not entirely fair. Brett Ratner has really only made one truly awful movie and that's the second "Rush Hour" movie. What Brett Ratner does, and does better or worse than anybody, is make mediocre movies that fall short of their premises or source materials. It's an odd anti-gift that's on full display in "The X-Men: The Last Stand," a hardly atrocious sequel that is, none-the-less, entirely devoid of the kind of emotional shadings that Bryan Singer brought to the franchise. Of the newly added mutants, I liked Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde most, but probably only because I liked Page so much in "Hard Candy." There are a number of deaths, some by characters you hate, some by character you like. But none of them make any impact, nor do most of the decisions those characters make. And for nearly an hour, the movie looks shoddy and surprisingly cheap. The effects in those early scenes look like late-90s caliber wirework, without a single memorable image. The film's climactic assault on a chemical lab on Alcatraz is much better and features a couple good stunts and the only good one-liners in the piece (credit Vinnie Jones' Juggernaut and Kelsey Grammer's Beast with those). Still, despite a title and plot that imply closure and finality, "X-Men: The Last Stand" feels more like a quickly-made placeholder, which is almost the best one could have hoped for from Ratner.

My review of this one will be up on Zap2it sometime in the near future. I'm gonna be in Charlotte, NC tomorrow and Wednesday for a "Cars" junket, so I'm not sure when I'm gonna have time. Don't worry. I'll still be recapping American Idol tomorrow. Hopefully.

Friday, May 19, 2006

'O.C.' My God, They Killed... [HUGE Spoilers, Duh]

Look. You know who got killed off on "The O.C." last night. It's been speculated about and rumored and "accidentally" leaked by "Access Hollywood." If, however, you don't want to know any more, just don't read this posting. Skip it. Come back later. It's really all good. See? I'm even not putting a picture with the post, so you'll totally never know.

Last warning...

"Baby, I've been here before," begins the lyric from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the lyric that played as Ryan carried Marissa's body away from the flaming wreckage of his graduation gift from his mother. Just in case we didn't recognize that it was the exact same image that closed Season One's semi-classic "The Escape" episode, which ended with a Marissa drug overdose in Tijuana and forced dozens of tweens to wonder at the time if the series had somehow killed off its most marketed and recognizable actress ("Hallelujah" didn't play in that episode, but at the end of the first season finale as Ryan returned to Chino to briefly be a construction worker and a baby-daddy). That was September of 2003 and Josh Schwartz was smart enough to know that he couldn't REALLY kill off Mischa Barton because Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson had yet to prove their star power and Ben McKenzie couldn't carry the show himself. Flash forward three years and again, Schwartz was smart enough to recognize the utter disposability of Marissa, a character who had gone through too many roller coaster loops of alcoholism, depression and recovery. The only thing that could have happened if she'd stuck around was a repetition of the exact same themes.

It ended up being about the most prolonged death ever. Since Marissa decided early on to take work peeling potatoes on a passenger yacht with her unseen father and she was already set to leave that night, everybody got to have several tear-filled goodbyes with her. Given that the show probably doesn't have more than one more season in it anyway, dead or on a cruise for a year, it basically amounted to the same thing -- Mischa Barton was going off to discover the difficulties of pursuing a film career with minimal range. So be it. So everybody kept hugging her and remembering past moments with her. Just doing a clip show and calling the episode, "The One Where Marissa's Shockingly Killed Off" would have worked the same way and been a bit cheaper.

I have to say that in terms of the death itself, Marissa deserved better. The Surf Nazi was a bad character from Day One. He was badly wedged into the plot with Johnny (R.I.P.) and badly wedged into the plot with Sadie (Where are you now, Sadie?) and then he got grafted onto a plot with Marissa. But the idea that the character was this hair-trigger psychotic, rather than just a weak hoser doesn't wash with me. If Marissa died, it had to be drunk driving. It had to be another drug overdose. It had to be Crazy Oliver escaping from the loony bin with a gun. And since they went to the trouble of mentioning Oliver in the episode, it almost would have worked. But Volchak nudging Ryan's car off the road with the precarious flip and obligatory explosion? Bah! Give me something shocking! A pane of glass slicing Marissa's head clean off? Not only would it have been brilliant, but FOX could have used it as a promotional opportunity for the remake of "The Omen." Or maybe she could have suddenly started vomiting blood and Dr. House could have come in, shrugged his shoulders and said, "You've got me" and walked out. Heck, Bernie Mac, in his final act of revenge for the way FOX treated his sitcom over the years (before finally cutting the chord on Thursday) could have gone on a Mac Attack of some sort. Ended things with a bang. But the Surf Nazi? Why even give him the pleasure? Plus, I can't help but feel like Ryan's Mother is going to blame herself for the whole thing. Why did she give Ryan a cheap used car? Surely she must have known that the Cohens would have given him an expensive hybrid of some sort before he headed off for college? Sigh. And then Marissa couldn't just die of a broken neck. She had to suffer massive internal bleeding, go pale, twitch for a few minutes and force Ryan to hover over her waiting. That's not convenient. Plus, Ryan really got off light. He's gonna be tormented as heck.

The ultimate irony? Mischa was looking really good her last few episodes, not at all anorexic. The bikini chicken fight? Classic! That, like Mischa's arbitrary school girl outfit a couple weeks back, is just brilliant writing. Well, maybe "brilliant" is the wrong word.

The teaser at the end of the episode promises lots of changes for next year including, obviously, a full-time role for Willa Holland as Mini-Cooper (I liked the "since my B's became A's, I was hoping you could make my A's, B's" line). Funny how 15-year-old girls can just ditch boarding school at their own leisure and whatnot. There's also the sense that Taylor, once again largely funny, is going to truly enter the inner circle next year, which may be a mistake. Her part should be kept as it is, appealing and limited. And is Sandy going back to work as a public defender a tacit confession that absolutely everything they've done to his character since Season One has been a big mistake?

My final thought on the "O.C." finale is that Schwartz took the whole "harkening back to earlier episodes" thing a little too much on the nose. The last few episodes, in fact, have all been bathed in nostalgia, nostalgia for that brief period before FOX decided to move the show to Thursdays and left it as a sacrificial lamb, using the endlessly viable excuse "Well, it does better than anything else we'd had there for years." That's true and I've been a very good boy, keeping up and whatnot. But with the addition of "Grey's Anatomy" to the slot next season (I'll continue to assume that "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will eventually go elsewhere), I may need to buy a new TV or else Schwartz and company will have to give me a reason to stick around.

Hey Josh, you know what would be a great idea for next season? A 'Muppet Babies' version of the show!!!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Moviewatch: "The Break-Up"

"The Break-Up"
Director: Peyton Reed
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 39
In a Nutshell: There's a good dark comedy to be made about a couple that breaks up but each side refuses to leave their lovely condo, each doing their best to force the other to leave. This wishy-washy little disappointment isn't it, despite a promising beginning. For about 15 minutes, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn appealing and realistically bicker, suggesting a couple that may love each other even if they have no business being together. Then, though, once the titular act occurs, the duo just decides to gently annoy each other into submission. Because the movie doesn't want you disliking either character too much, neither can do anything truly reprehensible, so there's no tension and no danger. Nobody makes the dog into pate, which is, as always, why "The War of the Roses" lingers on the mind as an expert pitch-black comedy and this doesn't. Several worthy supporting players -- particularly Jason Bateman and, to a lesser degree, an utterly adorable Joey Lauren Adams -- play valid parts earth and vanish. The leads try hard -- Vaughn's intensity [and puffiness] suggest he's on the verge of a coronary, while Aniston just does her solid Aniston thing (including a fleeting bit of rear nudity). It's not enough. But at least it's better than "The Da Vinci Code."

Oh and in case anybody's interested, they ended up going with the original ending, which tested badly, rather than the reshot second ending, which reportedly tested even worse. That's only a spoiler if you're the kind of person who paid attention to reshoots and whatnot.

My review of "The Break-Up" will be up on Zap2it on Friday, June 2.

My review of "The Da Vinci Code" is already up here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Moviewatch: "The Da Vinci Code"

"The Da Vinci Code"
Director: Ron Howard
The Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 20
In a Nutshell: You may have heard about the negative reaction to this one at its first Cannes screening and thought "Surely that was just an example of cranky, jet-lagged journalists being annoyed at having to wait to see a 150 minute movie and it can't be that bad." Actually, it's every bit that bad. Courtesy of Akiva Goldsman comes an over-literal adaptation that treats Dan Brown's sub-par pot-boiler as if it were genuinely important literature. That means that a disgraceful amount of Brown's tin-eared dialogue remains untouched and do 10 or 15 minute momentum-killing scenes in which one character after another lectures the audience on different iffy bits of history as if they were gospel. Tom Hanks, sporting a bad, but not distractingly bad, haircut is stuck playing one of the most insufferable heroes in all of literary and cinematic history -- Robert Langdon is like a drunken know-it-all at a party who has a boring fact about absolutely everything and feels inclined to share his knowledge with you at every turn, treating you like you're five years old. Everybody takes the material painfully seriously and at the aforementioned 150 minutes, I don't say "painfully" casually. And yet, there are people out there who believe that "The Da Vinci Code" is literature, that it's a book to savor. If any of you read this blog -- for shame! Those people, though, may LOVE this movie.

My review should be up on Zap2it by Thursday, May 18.

The Curious Discussion of the Strange Demise of 'Commander In Chief'

"Commander In Chief" may live on in a telefilm at some point, but for all intents and purposes, it died on Tuesday with the announcement of ABC's fall schedule. Surely the demise of a show that had amazingly high ratings for several weeks and was gone within several months is odd and newsworthy, but I can't help but feel baffled by the way the pundits are blathering about it.

I can't believe that I'm the only one this happened to and yet it hasn't been mentioned in any article I've read on the subject: "Commander In Chief" premiered just before FOX was on the verge of its annual playoff baseball hiatus. That meant that "House," the most competitive show in that time period, particularly among the exact group of intelligent young-ish viewers ABC would have needed for "Commander," spent around a month off the air. With playoff baseball done on the West Coast by early evening, I was able to tune in for the first three or four episodes of "Commander in Chief." If "House" had been on, I'd never have considered skipping it for "Commander" and when "House" returned, I dropped "Commander" like Nixon dropped Agnew. The show was OK, but it was never smart enough or compelling enough to make me give up on "House," but for a couple weeks, I'd been willing to give it a shot instead. I believe if you look at the dramatic ratings fall for "Commander," it coincides directly with the increased and renewed competition. But even if "House" had moved to Mondays in January, as was initially planned, I still wouldn't have gone back to "Commander," because I'd have gone to "Earl" and "The Office," which were still in the Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot at that point. Viewers who wanted "smart" had too many choices at that time and "Commander" just wasn't "smart" enough.

Instead, all the buzzmeisters want to talk about is ABC canning Rod Lurie and bringing in Steven Bochco. This is a rhetorical question, because I don't imagine that many people read this blog who aren't at least vaguely media savvy, but seriously... How many casual viewers out there -- and if 17 million people watched the second episode of "Commander in Chief," some of them must have been casual -- would actually be able to sit down with you and explain the differences between the Lurie episodes and the Bochco episodes? How many of them would even be able to tell you that they knew a change had occured or noticed a shift in paradigm?

Everybody talks about how a good showrunner brings a "voice" to a series and then we become smart enough to recognize an Aaron Sorkin show or a Joss Whedon show or a Mutchnick/Kohan comedy simply by the speed of the dialogue, the funny made-up language or the cheesy punchlines. For most of us, the difference between John Wells-era "The West Wing" and Aaron Sorkin-era "The West Wing" was like the difference between "According to Jim" and "Arrested Development." But for a ton of viewers, I suspect that the difference is perceived as something closer to the gap between, say, "Original Flavor CSI" and "CSI: Miami." For people who didn't read the trades and who don't pay attention to opening credits, I'll bet there was a lot of, "'The West Wing' doesn't seem so funny anymore" style commentary. But the ratings for "The West Wing" were already in freefall when Sorkin was booted and they just continued down afterwards. Most people left because they'd tired of the show and its quality and not because they felt a change in authorship and were annoyed by the difference.

This is just my way of saying this: ABC could have been more patient with Rod Lurie and not taken "Commander in Chief" out of his hands and I don't believe for a second that the ratings would have been any different except that the extended hiatuses prompted by different creative turnovers wouldn't have existed. Viewers were turning away because they show never lived up to its potential and because they had better options.

I just wanted to get that out.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"American Idol" 05/16/06 -- Final Three Perform

It's once, twice, three times an "Idol" and the Top Three sing songs picked for them by Clive Davis, the judges and by their own desires.

Song: "Open Arms"
My Take: I'm not immediately sure if Elliott's vocal hoarseness is part of his performance here or a sign of strain, but at least I know that his suit fits. That's progress. The arrangement is too loud -- a problem that may or may not be Elliott's fault, though it keeps happening every week -- and too slow, and Elliott has to shout over it to get his point across, which may also play a part in his raw pipes. The yelling spoils the purity of tone that this particular song requires.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Simon Say: Randy, who knows a thing or two about Journey and likes to make it clear that he knows a thing or two about Journey, notes Elliott worked it out, despite some problems in the chorus. Paula says he's in great voice. However, there's a simple rule of thumb: If Paula doesn't cry, Elliott's not really doing his thing. Simon protests that while the song choice was good, the performance wasn't really there. He tells Elliott to loosen up and start believing he can make the Finals next week.

Song: "I Believe I Can Fly"
My Take: Clive Davis hates Katharine. Yes, he calls the song "great," a "classic" and "legendary," but this song is everything that Katharine does poorly. Perhaps sensing that she's approaching a major backlash, Katharine's brought out the one secret weapon that Elliott and Taylor can't compete with -- cleavage. The song has been nicely arranged to fit into her vocal range, so she doesn't miss any of those high notes that always cause her problems, but the oversinging mars more than a few moments that should have been standouts. I think there are parts where her looks and voice come together, but I'd also criticize her for being too self-conscious of the camera.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Simon Say: Randy starts off by saying she looks amazing (the camera agrees and pans up her body), but says that the song was the wrong choice. Paula agrees that the color of the dress is lovely, but she also wants to blame the song choice. "I didn't pick it," Katharine notes, correctly. Simon actually disagrees and says that she created a moment despite a couple bum notes. Katharine is relieved.

Song: "Dancing In the Dark"
My Take: Seriously, what do you say when Clive Davis so clearly sets Katharine up for a fall and then gives Taylor this obvious slam dunk? The word "fix" has to come to mind, though why Davis could possible figure he's better off working with Taylor is beyond me. The vocal range required for this song by The Boss is about a third of what Clive asked of both Elliott and Katharine. That said, Taylor's in note-perfect standard karaoke mode, doing a solid B+ copy of the original and performing with energy. There isn't anything distinctive about it, but it's the most whole and successful performance thus far.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Simon Say: Randy loves that Taylor knows how to have a good time. Paula says something inappropriate about double-stick tape. I want nothing to do with this. Simon just calls it OK and praises Paula's dancing skills for her age. Paula's cackling would strike fear into the heart of Dorothy, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion.

Song: "What You Won't Do For Love"
My Take: Say this for Paula, she's a bag of felines from resembling the scary cat lady next door, but she picked a good song for Elliott. This is exactly the kind of blue-eyed soul that Elliott will have to get people to write for him if he wins. I'll say this again, because it's bothering at least one friend as well, but Elliott has a really hard time projecting over the band. Plus, the less emoting he does, the better. That's always the rule.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Simon Say: Randy liked the song, but says Elliott was sharp through the whole song. Paula, voice cracking a bit at the end, but calls his voice piercing. She doesn't add, "Piercing like my laughter. Simon thought he sung it well and that it's the right style for him.

Song: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
My Take: Hmmm... This was Simon's choice. It's either a nice pick, because over her musical theater chops, or a mean pick because of how well Kimberley Locke did with this song a couple seasons past. Katharine, draped across the stage and staring up into the camera, seems to think she's ready for her Fantasia Barrino "Summertime" moment. I'm not sure she exactly gets there, but she deserves praise for how expressive and composed the performance is. For some viewers, though, this may be another example of Katharine refusing to just sing the song. Occasionally, I was waiting Katharine to meander back to the melody, but lots of the vocal flourishes are worth the effort. She closes fantastically strong, with an effortless power note. Here's again where I must point out: Elliott may make fewer missteps and Taylor may seem more friendly and approachable, but neither of the two men have anywhere near Katharine's upside.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Simon Say: Randy calls it the best vocal of the season. Paula stands and tells her she was in her element. Simon's very happy for her that he chose her a good song. Simon calls it the best performance of the competition to date.

As usual, the full recap can be found over a Then come back and tell me what you thought.

Upfronts Fever -- Catch It!!! -- ABC and NBC Edition

If you aren't following our Zap2it upfronts coverage, you have my pity. We have it goin' on. And I'm not just saying that because I was up at 4 this morning so that I could be in the office by 5 to listen to Stephen McPherson tell me that "Desperate Housewives" was hitting a creative peak (tee-hee) and to downplay the fact that after having a fantastic development season two years ago -- the year "Lost," "Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" resurrected the network -- he hasn't developed a single scripted program to achieve even minor success. The survivors from last season are the fluky "Dancing with the Stars" and "What About Brian," which goes down as this year's Jake In Progress Award Winner for most bizarrely renewed ABC series. "Jake," if you'll recall, aired exactly once before McPherson and company realized that the reason that nobody watched the show the spring before was because nobody wanted to watch the show regardless of the season.


If you haven't seen the fall schedules...

NBC's is here...

ABC's is here...

A series of thoughts:

What's With All The Numerals? NBC has "30 Rock," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "20 Good Years." ABC has "Six Degrees" and "The Nine." I'm already a bit confused. It doesn't help that "20 Good Years" and "30 Rock" (That's "50 Rockin' Good Years" for crossover purposes) are on consecutively for NBC, nor that "30 Rock" and "Studio 60" are the same show.

Did I Mention NBC Is Airing The Same Show On Consecutive Nights: This was a strategy that worked very well last year when NBC aired "Martha Stewart: Apprentice" and "Donald Trump: Apprentice" and nearly started a war between the show's respective stars and nearly killed that franchise. It was last summer at the TCA Press Tour that I asked Kevin Reilly point-blank why he felt there was sufficient mandate for two nights in a row of "The Apprentice." He told me some trash about how they were different shows and it was just the way things worked out that they were airing the way they were. Mr. Reilly, you can expect the exact same question this year. I, for my part, will expect the exact same answer. All I know is that the audience watching "Saturday Night Live" isn't so massive that people are clamoring for two different versions of the behind-the-scenes story. Under normal circumstances, I'd have guessed that Tina Fey's sitcom would have been in more jeopardy than Aaron Sorkin's star-studded dramedy, except that...

Stephen McPherson Is a Stinker: On Monday, NBC made it clear that "Studio 60" was the centerpiece for the network's resurgence, a new bulkhead at 9 p.m. on Thursday nights and a return to the quality and upscale visibility that audiences used to expect from NBC. The NBC execs were able to exhibit confidence because they, like everybody else, were certain that ABC was moving "Grey's Anatomy" to 9 p.m. on Mondays. I wonder what Kevin Reilly's exact words were when he discovered that apparently Thursday is the new Monday. Suddenly, NBC is left with its crown jewel in position to get utterly throttled by both "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy." Incidentally, regarding the "Grey's" move, I'd feel much better about it if ABC wasn't providing it with a dead-end lead-in of two anonymous sitcoms -- "Big Day" and "Notes From the Underbelly" -- which will probably get crushed by NBC's more established "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office."

ABC -- The Everybody's Joined Together Network: Apparently star vehicles are out of vogue at ABC, which may have learned a thing or two about recruiting film stars for disappointing TV projects from "Commander In Chief." Every single one of ABC's shows seems to be about a group of people, brought together by either chance, workplace, family or friendship, dealing with the wacky vicissitudes of life. Only "Day Break," centered around Taye Diggs, uses a single star as its selling point.

This Has Nothing To Do With Upfronts Only With Josh Schwartz Being A Little Silly: In an interview in this week's EW, Josh Schwartz, the talkative creator of "The O.C." tells an interviewer "I read that the show was going to be 'O.C.: The Next Generation and that's not true. The idea is not to do a 'Muppet Babies' version." I only bring that up because Alan and I were chatting with Josh back in January at a Press Tour party and he of new co-star Willa Holland, he declared (into a tape recorder), "I just think she plants a flag for next season for a whole new generation of 'O.C.' or as we call it, the 'Muppet Baby'-version of the show." Gee, I, um, wonder were anybody would have gotten any of those wacky ideas about "The O.C." sailing without a rudder, Josh.

And your thoughts?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Moviewatch: "Cars"

Director: John Lasseter
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 67
In a Nutshell: Neither the triumph you'd be hoping for in the aftermath of "The Incredibles," nor the massive disappointment you might be fearing based on some truly annoying trailers. "Cars" is clearly the worst Pixar film to date, an over-long exercise that asks viewers to find human sympathies in cars, while simultaneously asking viewers mostly to revel in how wonderfully the sun shines off the metallic surfaces. Artistically, "Cars" is a complete triumph, a visual treat laden with colors, textures and rousing action set pieces. Narratively, though, it's simplistic, blandly Disney-Conservative -- it's all about the yearning for a mythical version of '50s America when people respected each other and Route 66 could take you any place you want to go -- and offers fewer treats for older viewers than other recent Pixar films. That being said, despite the fact that the story didn't much interest me and the characters were mostly flat and archetypal, I felt an immense amount of warmth for the endeavor by the end. It's difficult to explain why except that the Pixar guys seem to know what they're doing even when they aren't working at their very best. Oh and the kids are going to love Guido, a little blue, Italian-spouting tire merchant. Mama Mia! Also, you've gotta stay for at least half of the closing credits to see the movie's funniest material.

This will have to do until my review runs on Zap2it on Friday, June 8.

Sunday TV Fun House- Survivor, Mars, West Wing, Sopranos and More!

Thanks to all variety of technological wonders, between 5 p.m. PST and 11:15 p.m. PST time on Sunday (May 14) night, I was able to watch an impressive seven hours of television, an achievement that would be impossible without DVRs and Slingboxes and other magic. That is, I should emphasize, entirely too much TV. But here are some thoughts, along with the schedule I kept.

"Survivor: Exile Island Finale" (5-7:05 p.m.) -- So Captain America can run, jump throw, swim and think. What he can't do, apparently, is balance. After a dominating season from start to finish, Terry was done in by the Final Three challenge, a balancing act which -- if we're being completely honest, probably could only have been won by a woman. The combination of weight plus center of gravity had to have made that challenge impossible for Terry and nearly impossible for Aras, whose rock spill later in the episode became my favorite part of the entire season. Danielle made the right choice in taking Aras to the Final Two, at least from a strategic stand-point. She didn't do enough to win this season. Neither did Aras, really. Terry was the physical champ and Cirie was the strategic champ. A thought: Has there ever been a "Survivor" contestant as attractive as Danielle who wasn't objectified by the "Survivor" directors and producers with some kind of saucy bathing montage or tribute to her physique in a bikini? Was that just because her accent made her seem a bit cockeyed? Frankly, I found her Sox hat wicked hot.

"Veronica Mars" (Season finale)(7:05-7:50 p.m.)-- I'm a bit late on this one and my editor had already spoiled the semi-big surprise before I got to watching it. This was a good way to conclude a so-so season, particularly following last week's Worst. Episode. Ever. I'm still not sure that I buy The Beav, even if Rob Thomas and crew say they always figured him for a psycho. First off, I still don't get why the bus crash seemed like the best and most efficient way to solve his particular problem. Second off, the decision to tie everything back to Veronica's date rape was narratively interesting, but a bit more tossed off that I would have liked, particularly as it related to Veronica's sexually transmitted disease, a subplot that never seemed worthwhile to me. I guess I'd remembered that Beaver had factored into several episodes last season, but he hadn't made much of an impression. Plus, doing that made it seem like they were just desperate to convince us that Beaver was a bad, bad man to cover up and sweet and innocent they'd made him look in every episode up to that point. Were we supposed to make something of the cliffhanger? Something interesting, I mean? Because I was fast-forwarding through too many commercials and shows to pick up on it.

"The West Wing" (Pilot) (7:50-8:35 p.m.) -- Oh Aaron Sorkin, how we miss you. Sigh. Oh and I hadn't really remembered that Dr. Cuddy was the hooker with Sam Seaborne in the first episode. OK. I guess I'd vaguely remembered it, but now I remember even better. I'm glad that the bratty "West Wing" cast members demanded too much money for an hour-long clip show, because this was a far better way to pay tribute to one of television's better shows.

"The West Wing" (Series Finale) (8:40-9:25) -- All that talk about how time slot shifting brought about the end of "The West Wing" was really just bunk. This was exactly the way that this series should have ended and no other. How would they have continued? The first years of the Santos Administration? I could never warm up to Santos nor to Teri Polo as his wife and the inevitability of having to watch Josh and Donna bicker and break up and get back together and all those silly things that TV couples do would have been sad. No. This was the right thing to do. The episode was touching, but -- and I know this is pointless to say -- it needed more Sorkin involvement than a fleeting cameo at the inauguration. The emotion never built exactly right, considering that the only time I got a lump in my throat was when Bartlet gave Charlie (always the series' best relationship) his copy of the Constitution, a moment that came before the half-way point. Given the show's eternal political optimism, I'd have liked for somebody to have taken a couple minutes to list the achievements of the Bartlet Administration, an insight into the policies that Wells and Sorkin might have liked to see themselves. Also, as Alan has already pointed out, the absence of Toby in the finale is nearly inexcusable. How does that happen? Richard Schiff was the grumpy soul of the series and it wasn't his fault the writers penned him into a corner with the leak subplot.

"The Sopranos" (9:30-10:25 p.m.) -- I'm a very patient man with this show, but did they seriously have an edit where they cut from Vito and Johnny Cakes getting ready to have sex to a shot of a miniature train exiting a tunnel? Oh come on!

"Grey's Anatomy" (10:30-11:15 p.m.) -- So you know that your heroine is having trouble connecting with audience members because viewers think she's unhinged and unstable. Solution? Clearly the solution is raise the instability level of several additional key characters to compensate. Izzy was so wildly over-the-top for the entire hour that I found myself appreciating Meredith's sanity. Even by the standards of a show where characters make stupid personal and professional decisions on a weekly basis, Izzy's plan to stop Denny's heart is a whopper. And George's inability to even try to stop her was out of character for a guy who's always previously been able to grow a backbone in moments of extreme pressure. McDreamy, She-Sheppard, Yang... They were all variably off their rockers as well. Suddenly, Meredith isn't such a pill and she's as likely as any other character to get redemption tonight. I just don't know if I care.

OK. That's a lot.

Complimentary thoughts, comments or concerns?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Trailer-Spotting 05/13/06

My apologies for being too busy at the end of last week to write anything up about Chris Daughtry's "American Idol" elimination. I feel deeply ashamed. On the other hand, as much as I'm going to miss Chris (a very little), I'm pleased (a very lot) that if I have to deal with a trio of performances from each singer next week, that three of them are from Katharine.

Anyway, on to a few trailers I watched this afternoon...

Trailer: "Gridiron Gang"
Generated Interest Level (Out of 10): 6
Why: Oooh... It's like "The Longest Yard" only not-so-funny! Is that a good thing? The Rock was so much fun in the cheesy action-fest "Rundown" and so generally mediocre in nearly everything else he's done that it makes you wonder what the guy's learning curve is like. Here, he seems to be playing it entirely straight. Interesting. Despite the obviousness of the "Friday Night Lights" meets "Remember the Titans" meets "Prison Break" narrative, I can see how this could be an entertaining underdog sports movie. Already I'm nervous about the endless string of training montages and tear-filled life lessons, though.

Trailer: "Miami Vice"
Generated Interest Level (Out of 10): 7
Why: After the dialogue-free teaser trailer, this isn't a bad comeback. Why? Because if you didn't know it was called "Miami Vice," you'd just think it was Michael Mann transferring his "Collateral" vibe to Miami for another twisty procedural and if somebody told you Michael Mann was making a gritty cops-n-robbers drama in Miami with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, that would probably sound cool to you, right? Exactly. Just keep ignoring the part where it calls itself "Miami Vice" and then forget everything you heard about the partying and cost overruns on the set and just remember that even if Mann is often uneven, he's thus far avoided making a single truly bad movie. I don't get Farrell's mullet, but I'm willing to go with it.

Trailer: "Lady in the Water"
Generated Interest Level (Out of 10): 3
Why: Finally proof that M. Night Shyamalan must tell his kids the most pretentious bedtime stories EVER... I'm of the opinion that if you don't want everybody comparing your movie to "Splash," it's best not to include the line "I hear splashing some nights" in the trailer. However, the rest of this trailer makes it clear that M. Night has something very different from Ron Howard's classic mermaid comedy in mind. I, for one, am actually a good deal less interested in the movie after watching this trailer. The mumbo-jumbo about an alternate world and saving humanity and the weird, barely glimpsed creatures that seem to resemble the porcupine faux-monsters in "The Village" did nothing to captivate my attention. I like Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti, but you know what this trailer needs? More Bob Balaban.

Trailer: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"
Generated Interest Level (Out of 10): 7
Why: This one has been out for a while, but I hadn't had the time to sit through it yet. The teaser trailer concentrated on Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, emphasizing quippy one-liners and mincing. That was a decent start. This is more encouraging, spinning the movie as an action-adventure, accentuating stunts and special effects. However, given that my problem with the first movie was that it was at least 30 minutes longer than it needed to be, I think that this one is already looking prone to overkill. Oh and do you like how Orlando Bloom has barely appeared in either of the two trailers? Remember when Hollywood was convinced that Orlando Bloom was a genuine box office drama? Good times! All Gore Verbinski needs to know is, "Dude, you had me with the shot of Davy Jones playing the organ with his face tentacles. That's gangsta!"

Trailer: "You, Me and Dupree"
Generated Interest Level (Out of 10): 4
Why: More like "Dupree and a Couple Other People," if this trailer is any indication. It's all Owen Wilson all the time, which for me isn't such a good strategy given that my motto involving Wilson Brothers is "A little goes a long way." You've got sex humor, potty humor and more potty humor, but what you don't get is any indication that either Matt Dillon or Kate Hudson are going to do anything amusing in this movie. I feel like this movie and "The Break-Up" are both putting a lot of pressure on Wilson and Vince Vaughn to individually deliver the audiences they drew in "The Wedding Crashers" without taking into consideration that it was the pairing of the two that kept them from getting annoying in that hit. Kate Hudson in clingy underwear, though, is still a reliable draw.

Check out the trailers and let me know if I'm missing something to get psyched about.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"American Idol" 05/09/06 -- The Final Four Perform

We've got Final Four Fever on Tuesday (May 9) night as "American Idol" has been winnowed to its final quartet, letting the singers celebrate with a trip to Graceland and a visit with Elvis Presley's ex and Mariah Carey's ex.

Song: "Jailhouse Rock"
My Take: The "Idol" producers have offered up a nice gift to Taylor and to the entire Soul Patrol with this week's theme. For two songs, Taylor just gets to be Taylor, the nation's favorite rowdy party crasher. The only way the Powers That Be could show more love to Mr. Hicks would be if next week is Joe Cocker week and then we move on to the Best of the Doobies the following frame. Then you'll truly know that the fix is in. Except for the unfortunate spastic moment where Taylor gets preoccupied by his mic chord, he delivers a spirited performance, the type of crowd-elevating romp you'd expect to see at a bar mitzvah, wedding or snazzy corporate event. No, it's not much of a stretch for him, in terms of vocals or persona or much of anything, but the Red Sox are currently beating the Yankees and I'm feeling generous.
Fat Elvis, Skinny Elvis and Simon Say: Randy claps and tells Taylor he's in his element. Paula, unaware of the meaning of the word "original," says that Taylor was as original as ever (unless she means that he wasn't original). Simon's not so impressed, announcing, "In the real world, that was a terrible impersonation of Elvis Presley. The dancing was hideous and it was just Karaoke with a Capital K." Low Earning Man of the People accuses Simon of being out of touch with the real world.

Song: "Suspicious Minds"
My Take: Chris, who apparently wears boxer-briefs, is rocking big aviator glasses and a bulky jacket. On one hand, it makes him look like he's ready to hop on his motorcycle to go have sex with Kelly McGillis. On the other hand, with his eyes covered, I can't tell if he's threatening to kill me. Based on precedent, I'm just assuming that he does, indeed, want to drink my blood. It's a nice, serviceable and unremarkable rendition of the endlessly karaoked song.
Fat Elvis, Skinny Elvis and Simon Say: Randy doesn't think it was Chris' best, but calls it nice and tender. Paula had forgotten how great the song was until she heard Chris sing it. This is also how she remembers her name and phone number every morning, I suspect. Simon says that it worked.

Song: "If I Could Dream"
My Take: This is a slightly less exhausted Elvis song, so I'm more able to hear Elliott and I really like what I'm hearing, or at least what I can hear over the brass-heavy orchestration. Every week, it seems, Elliott is drowned out by the arrangement, which may also have something to do with his vocal tone, which is smooth, but not powerful, necessarily. I just wish I was getting something more than pure earnestness out of Elliott's stage presence. They've yet to train him on using the stage or his body language and at this point in the competition, that's a bit disconcerting. He's obviously more confident than he was, but it's time to parlay that confidence into craft.
Fat Elvis, Skinny Elvis and Simon Say: Randy says it was hot and that Elliott made it his own. Paula, again on the verge of tears, calls it his best vocal of the season. "So far, that was the best performance so far," is Simon's Paula-esque critique. He must be sipping from her cup of "Coke."

Song: "Hound Dog"
My Take: Tommy Mottola seems to have his eye on Katharine and since it's been several years since he last married an aspiring pop sensation, this may be a good pairing. Katharine and her song of choice? That's a bit less natural. I can't see Katharine. Where is she? She's dressed in gray. The house lights are low. She's not exactly dancing, because she doesn't really seem to have any moves, but she's certainly flouncing, which is what she does best. Katharine botches the lyrics in the middle, but rebounds fairly well. Simply because the song has been transposed for a female range, it ends up sounding a little different, but it's another safe, but fun turn. Does she need to do more?
Fat Elvis, Skinny Elvis and Simon Say: Randy isn't sure what happened in the middle and Katharine laughs about the kidding notes. Simon calls it a desperate, manic audition performance. He hopes she's got something better coming up next.

For the second half of the recap, check Then come back and share your opinions and join me in a moment of presumed silence for Katharine. If I were a voting man, I'd have to vote tonight. Instead, I'm a complaining man. Thus, I'll complain tomorrow...

'Could Audrey Be Any More Dead?' And Other '24' Thoughts

Several things actually happened on "24" this week! In the end, none of them were important, because the show just circled back on itself, but before it did, I was pondering a few things:

1)Audrey Rains (Kim Raver) is in some trouble: I haven't seen any of the season's final episodes, so I have no way of verifying this, but Yowza. It's one thing that Raver has signed on for another pilot, because "24" would obviously be -- as the industry types put it -- "in first position," which sounds like something Kama Sutra related, but isn't. It just means that "24" gets first dibs. But things got rather ominously sentimental last night, as Jack paused his mission to save the world from terrorists to give Audrey a foot massage and to reassure her, with misty eyes, that everything was going to be alright. I was DESPERATELY praying at that moment that Evil Lesbian Mandy was going to step out from behind a curtain and shoot her right there. We've only got a few episodes to go and there's been no sign of Evil Lesbian Mandy -- the mastermind behind every season's "24" doings and my favorite schoolgirl stripper from "Exotica" -- and I remain convinced that Nina (Sarah Clarke) is still lurking undead in the background somewhere.

2)And Speaking of Undead: Well, we know that Defense Secretary William Devane wasn't dead, but surely his Jesus-like Resurrection deserved more than just a hastily delivered line of dialogue. Where was the "Carrie"-esque hand bursting out of the grave (or the lake). Where was the triumphant scene of Devane pulling himself out of the water soaking, covered in muck and ready to overact another day? Mr. Devane, you deserved better!

3)Fox News Dropped The Ball: Earlier this season, Fox News had the story of President Palmer's assassination within six minutes of the firing of the first shot -- they already had fancy graphics and clip packages ready so quickly that I remain convinced that the cable network had some sort of a hand in this death. However, in yesterday's episode, in the wee small hours of the morning, a diplomatic plane stages a daring landing in the middle of the 118 Freeway, and 30 minutes later, they're still showing clips from what must have been a hastily tossed together memorial service for Palmer earlier in the day. Do they not realize that President Palmer was almost certainly a Democrat? Geez. I wonder how long they dedicated to President Unhappily Ever After when Air Force One was shot down last season.

4)Actors Who I Never Looked Up Before: Did you know that it's "Roger R. Cross" who plays Agent Curtis Manning? And that James Morrison plays Bill Buchanan? Didn't think so. All hail the Lizard King. Everybody already knows that Glenn Morshower plays Agent Aaron Pierce. I just feel like sometimes those wooden, anonymous supporting players don't get enough dap. Oh and the character actor who played the hillbilly father on Sunday night's "Grey's Anatomy" is Graham Beckel. You may recognize him as Dick Stensland from "L.A. Confidential." Unfortunately, you're more likely to recognize him from that recent Army commercial in which the father buys his son a drink and admits that he pretty much thought the kid was gay until he went overseas and became a killing machine. It's very sweet. I'd never known his name, but Graham Beckel is sort of a poor man's Bruce McGill or Maury Chayken, I guess. It's the sign of an opulent society when merely having one Bruce McGill isn't enough. I think Marx (Richard) may have written that it was a sign that the Revolution was coming.

5)The Award for Least Secure Government Facility Goes To: In an article on MSN last week, Erik Lundegaard pondered the fact that the Impossible Mission Force has a serious and persistent problem with moles. I'm not sure that three moles in the IMF is really all that disconcerting. That's three moles in a 10 year period. Big deal. On "24," they've averaged at least one mole per season in CTU, which is supposed to be an upper level counter-terrorism force. In addition, they allowed at least three active assassination attempts on President David Palmer (the last one successful) and they allowed Air Force One to get shot down over the desert, killing another president. They also were unable to prevent one nuclear explosion in the desert, one nuclear mini-meldown, one outbreak of a killer virus and at least two minor outbreaks of a nerve toxin. Their "highly secure" operations facility has been blown up at least once and it's been infiltrated by international terrorists at a rate of two or three times per season. Plus, the casualty rate among even general CTU operatives has been alarmingly high. And yet, whenever Los Angeles (and therefore the world) is in jeopardy? We call in CTU. I think IMF can coast on its reputation for a while. On the other hand, somebody should be concerned about the efficacy of an organization that spends so much of its time tracking down Macguffins. IMF keeps falling for 'em!

Any other thoughts on this week's "24"? Care to share? Sharing is Caring, as a wise woman once instructed me.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

'Mission' Truly Impossible: The Excuse-Making Begins

This is why I love Hollywood -- It's Saturday morning and heaven-forbid I sleep in until 9:30, though I already have my computer on and online by 9:40 and already, everybody in the biz knows that "Mission: Impossible III" is a disappointment. Before the first Saturday matinee ticket has been sold, the heavily hyped season-opening blockbuster is being written up as toast.

Why? Because overnight box office figures suggest that the Tom Cruise-fronted sequel took in only $17 million on Friday, a figure that includes a handful of isolated midnight showings here or there. That puts the film on track for a $49-51 million opening weekend, though one unnamed friend and colleague says that a source at a rival studio is already predicting a $45 million first frame. That's a lot of money, but when the first movie in the series opened to $45.4 million back in 1996 and the second opened at nearly $58 million in 2000, that's not the kind of progression anybody likes to see.

Thus, it's no surprise that the first of the "Did Tom Cruise Sink M:I3?" stories are being written. Actually, there were already dozens of "Will Tom Cruise Sink M:I3?" stories written last week, but if the movie underperforms, expect dozens upon dozens more. Here's the thing to get straight: Even if it only opens at $45 million, "M:I3" isn't a bomb. That would put it on track for maybe $125-150 million domestically (probably toward the lower side), and it will make at least twice that and possibly three times as much worldwide. But that hardly matters, because by 9:08 PST this morning, Nikki Finke, scabrous columnist for LA Weekly, had her story up speculating that young males may have tired of Tom Cruise. It's a tough contention to argue with. Is there a single person out there who REALLY wanted to know more about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? Anybody who cared more about silent births, the evils of psychiatry or how the most powerful movie star in the world is really happy now, but had a different childhood? It's a self-fulfilling question, of course. If morons didn't devour ever word of US Weekly or Internet speculation, perhaps there wouldn't be the need for hundreds of reporters to be constantly on "TomKat Duty," as I've heard it called. It's all supply and demand. You keep reading the tabloid magazine stories and keep tuning in to the television segments and they're going to keep coming, even if you keep complaining about how you're sick of them -- you can't have it both ways, America. So you say you're sick of Tom Cruise, but you keep wanting to have new things to be sick of. Then again, there's a difference between watching a free TV program or reading a $2.95 magazine and paying 60 dollars for a family of four to go to the movies and get popcorn. Nobody's going to stop watching free Tom Cruise, but pay-for-play Tom Cruise may be in trouble.

But here's my position and one I'm going to stand by -- If "M:I3" isn't a smash hit and if it doesn't do the box office that Paramount is praying for, it's only partially Tom Cruise's fault. But the bigger fault is an issue that virtually nobody is talking about, an issue that ought to be basic in Hollywood, but really isn't...

Was anybody in America really really really eager for this movie to be made in the first place?

"M:I:3," a movie I happened to enjoy, was always the most obvious example of desperation franchise filmmaking since "Lethal Weapon 4" was rushed into production when Warner Bros. realized it didn't have a Summer 1998 tentpole. By the time David Fincher and then Joe Carnahan bailed on the sequel, it was already 2004, already four years after John Woo's "Mission: Impossible 2" and by that time, it may already have been too late. Woo's film made $215 million domestically and the film's reviews were acceptable (58% "Fresh" at RottenTomatoes), but almost to a person, everybody who knew I'd seen this new film asked me "Was it at least better than 'M:I:2'?" Some movies don't linger very well in the memory, it seems. Can anybody out there tell me anything about Woo's movie that doesn't involve Tom Cruise's hair, Dougray Scott taking his face off, the absurd motorcycle jousting or doves? Like what the movie was about? Didn't think so.

Did anybody want to watch another convoluted sub-James Bond spy vehicle with a disposable (and convoluted) plot based on a television series that young male viewers -- exactly the ones who were fickle enough to turn on Tom Cruise in the first place -- aren't even aware existed? Were there loose ends from "M:I2" that so desperately needed to be tied up? Hardly. Studios make franchise films until they kill them. That's just how it goes. Because Paramount knew the "Mission: Impossible" franchise wasn't dead, they made the movie, not because they had a storytelling reason to make the movie or because audience desire was there.

Paramount was placed in a position somewhat similar to what Sony faced on "Basic Instinct 2" -- so much money had been spent on pre-production on the different earlier incarnations and so much time had been spent leaking casting and production info to the trades, that failure to make the movie would cause everybody to lose face. That Abrams and his team actually turned in a decent film is a tremendous credit.

I guess we're a little bit sicker of Tom Cruise than we were last summer at this time, but "War of the Worlds" was a huge hit despite couch jumping, Matt Lauer baiting and all variety of other obnoxious behavior that was all fresh in our minds. Viewers were convinced that "War of the Worlds" offered them things they hadn't seen before, things that superceded how tired they were of Tom Cruise. If "Mission: Impossible 3" underperforms, it's because the movie wasn't enough of a reason to overcome Cruise malaise.

That being said, it's still Saturday afternoon. "M:I3" may get a big Saturday boost from teenage boys who spent yesterday in school yesterday. Maybe word-of-mouth will reflect the movie's quality and one or two people will tell their friends "Hey, it's not bad... Go see it." It may hold its audience well next weekend, when the biggest wide release is "Poseidon," which is nearly pre-ordained as a bomb. That Wolfgang Petersen disaster epic is still six days from release and Nikki Finke tells me it's dead in the water.

We like to move ahead of the curve out here in LA.

Anybody try seeing MI3 this weekend? Any hilarious stories about empty theaters?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Moviewatch: "Wah-Wah"

Director: Richard E. Grant
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 50
In a Nutshell: Ah, Wawa. Many a morning in college did you over-sugared coffee beverages help me make it to an 8 a.m. class or to my grueling work-study job. That's a little joke that will mostly have meaning to people with North Atlantic backgrounds. Not funny? Oh well. This "Wah-Wah" is actually Richard E. Grant's feature debut as a writer-director, a dark, autobiographical tale about Grant's time growing up in Swaziland at the end of British rule there. As much as it's a coming-of-age story about growing up with an alcoholic dad and a horrible mom, it's about the ridiculousness of Empire, and the superficiality of British culture in decline (the title relates vaguely to mockery of cutesy British conversational crutches like "Toodle Pip!"). And it's a movie that desperately needs more of the dry wit that Grant has brought to the better parts of his work since his screen debut in "Withnail & I" (a biting cult classic that the British love and that a disturbing percentage of Young Americans -- even those who claim to love cinema -- have no awareness of). Given that the film's trailer attempts to accentuate the few bits of wacky humor that there are, the film's true tone may perplex. Anybody who's ever seen Grant interviewed knows what a remarkable storyteller he is, so it's shocking how static and predictable this story is. As a writer, Grant has written juicy parts for Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson as the parents of his proxy (well played by Nick Hoult of "About a Boy"), though several of the old actors fall into performative over-indulgence. It also almost goes without saying that viewers who enter with little knowledge of Swaziland or British occupation in Africa will be a little in the dark as well.

Check on Friday, May 12 for my review.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Musings on Unbeatable Terry, Schoolgirl Mischa and More

Some musings while waiting for tonight's Lakers game to end...

1)Survivor: Decision Making: I get confused on "Survivor" strategies and alliances, but I didn't get Terry's logic pairing up the remaining castaways with their loved ones. Surely the best bet would have been letting Cirie and her equally goofy husband have the other secluded bedroom for some entirely unpleasant nookie. Shane and Boston could have gone back to camp and hung out together, which Boston probably would have gotten a kick out of. I guess Terry understands he couldn't beat Cirie if they're in the Final 2, so he doesn't see any value an allying with her? Aras' Oedipal mini-breakdown about how much he craved alone time with his mother was just additional proof of how pathetic this season's crop of non-Terry survivors have been. The only other person with any legitimate claim at deserving to win is Cirie because of just how illogical her continued presence has been. She should have been gone one or two weeks in and as good as Terry has been with the challenges, she's been a superstar with the personality-management.

2)The O.C. -- The Good: Gotta applaud any episode that creates such flimsy pretext to plop Mischa Barton in a schoolgirl outfit. Bonus points for Pointless Lacrosse Stud calling Marissa on her weak British accent [That amused me for a pair of reasons, the first involving Barton's actual semi-upbringing in England and the second involving the fact that Barton did play, without any irony or commentary on the accent, a snooty British private school girl in the generally forgettable Dominique Swain vehicle "Tart."] And even more points for the fact that Mini Mischa (Willa Holland) came compete with her own Baby Bilson as a roommate. Much kudos to the casting director who was able to create that pairing, not that it made Marissa's roadtrip even vaguely worth the effort. The only way it would have worked was if, on her way back, Marissa had picked up an ice cream cone, dropped it and had an unfortunate accident a la the dearly departed Mitch Leery.

3)The O.C. -- The Bad: Oh Josh Schwartz. You spin me right round, Josh, right round like a record, Josh, right round, round round. Whenever you talk about finales with a showrunner, they invariably discuss how the last episode is meant to echo back to the first episode. Everybody loves symmetry. So that means Kiki drinking again. That means Seth and Summer causing problems for each other that could have just been eliminated by talking. That means Ryan rediscovering his distaste for backseat car-jacking. That means Ryan and Theresa having their annual flirtation with their true love, as if anybody is buying that story. That means Seth choosing just about the best timing and location ever to start smoking pot again. Can't wait for the finale! Ryan potentially in trouble with the law! Seth potentially in trouble with the law! Sandy potentially in trouble with the law! There's been so much speculating on how the show will keep the characters together in college, but perhaps next season's really going to take place in the Newport Minimum Security State Pen? I have a nifty idea that involves Summer getting intentionally arrested for shoplifting so that she can break all of the characters out of the hoosegow. I'd suggest that Marissa would be better suited for the Michael Schofield part -- what with her previously established assortment of legal problems -- but since they're promising that somebody *might* kick the bucket in two weeks, everybody's just assuming its her.

4)The Prisoner Redux: If you ask me nicely, and I ever get my personal computer fixed, I may send you the grad school essay I wrote comparing "The Prisoner" to "Gilligan's Island." It's part of why I'm reviewing movies for a living now instead of teaching at a university somewhere. In any case, I have no objections to the plan to create a new "Prisoner" mini-series for Sky One. The only thing that matters is that they find a way to justify keeping the Rovers the same. Technology may have advanced, but not even Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon could match the surveillance capabilities of those funky white balloons. But you know what would be even better than a new version of "The Prisoner"? A new DVD set of the old "Prisoner," so that people could reexperience the real thing without having to pay around a hundred bucks for the huge, inefficient 10-disc current set.

5)The Lakers Are Toast: They couldn't close out the series at 3-1. That was fine. Then they couldn't close it out at 3-2 at home with the Suns without Raja Bell. Does anybody honestly think that this team, a team with so little character, is going to be able to rebound and win a Game 7 in Phoenix? Seriously?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Moviewatch: "Mission: Impossible III"

"Mission: Impossible III"
Director: J.J. Abrams
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 64
In a Nutshell: If "The Sentinel" was basically the most expensive and disappointing "24" episode ever, "Mission: Impossible III" is the most expensive and successful episode of "Alias" ever, which makes sense given the director's pedigree. Abrams obviously enjoys having extra money as his disposal. The effects are very good and he makes solid use of a variety of international locations. What he doesn't do as well is utilize the big screen and its different potential for scope and framing. Even the action scenes are shot largely in tight close-ups with only occasional establishing shots for scale. The result is an action movie that's far more intimate that what you might be expecting, but that also lacks the superior setpieces that Brian DePalma brought to the first movie. Tom Cruise is in fine form, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman, though the recent Oscar winner comes up a bit short on screen time. In an effort the beef up the role for the MI team -- including Ving Rhames, Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers -- Abrams had to reduce the adversarial relationship with Hoffman. That's a minor disappointment. I also continue to really really like Michelle Monaghan, who does a lot with minimal screentime as Cruise's love interest. As early summer popcorn flicks go, this wasn't a total home run, but it was far more satisfying than "Poseidon."

My full review will be up on Zap2it as of Thursday, I suspect.