Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Truman Show: Prescient and Hopeful

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Truman Show PosterWhen The Truman Show came out in 1998, “reality TV” as we know it today was just barely a thing. MTV had aired the first season of The Real World in 1992, the original Dutch version of Big Brother hit the airwaves in 1997. The “king” of all reality shows, Survivor, wouldn’t air until two years later, in 2000.

In short, it was a very different time for entertainment than what we’ve known for the past decade and change… which made this movie unlike anything most people had ever seen before.

Aside from the basic premise of watching a real person live out his life on TV, the other thing people had never seen before was star Jim Carrey in a serious role. Up until this point, everything he’d done had been comedy, usually skewing to the slapstick and farcical variety.

Few people seem to have thought that any of these “never before seen” things would go over exceptionally well. Both the voyeuristic television (and especially web-streaming) genre and Carrey as a dramatic actor turned out to be things that did, indeed, work pretty darn well. (We’re still suffering from one of those today…)

The Plot

Truman Burbank lives a quiet, unassuming, and pretty idyllic life in the small coastal town of Seahaven. What Truman doesn’t know is that everything around him–his entire life, starting with his birth–is part of a massively popular, 24-hour-a-day, television show all orchestrated by a man named Christof. Just before his 30th birthday, the illusion starts to unravel and Truman is forced to question not just the path of his life, but the very nature of the world in which he lives.

A lot is played for laughs, but there are some pretty intense moments in the film. Apparently, nowhere near as intense as things were in early drafts, where the setting was nowhere near as Norman Rockwell perfect as Seahaven. Not all of that edge is gone in the final product–there are still a lot of very morally questionable things that go on (especially near the end of the film). Christof paints himself as a benevolent creator, but there is a lot of space to question that assertion on numerous levels.

This film should leave you at least a little uneasy, when all is said and done. But, generally, hopeful.

Fiction vs Reality

In the decades since this film came out, live streaming of anything and everything has become not just a reality, but commonplace. Twenty-four-hour broadcast schedules were once the provenance of major networks, but now anyone can do it with a cheap webcam, their phone, and the willingness to be watched all the time. “Reality” shows like Survivor and Big Brother and The Bachelor and numerous other iterations are all over the schedule.

There’s nothing quite on the scale of The Truman Show, but there are enough things that the basic concept doesn’t seem quite so outlandish now. And the shows that are out there most certainly have bred the same kind of obsessive following that we see in the fans of Truman.

Sometimes, the ethics of it all even comes up in real-world discussion. How the “reality” of these shows is manipulated by producers and editors to increase the drama. How the people who are the subject of the shows are “coached”–sometimes directly, sometimes very indirectly–to provide “good TV”.

This movie challenged the audience to consider things like that.

There’s a point in the film where the hypocritically reclusive and private Christof points out that Truman is completely free to leave at any time. Glossing over the small fact that, at that point, Truman really has no idea he’s actually trapped somewhere, let alone that everything from his job to how he met his wife has been orchestrated by someone else.

And then there’s Truman himself. He’s a nice guy. There’s really nothing terribly special about him. He is, however, a bit of a slave to his fears. Fears that were implanted into him via the staged drowning death of his father. Fears that keep him from seriously considering travelling outside of Seahaven.

Fears that he eventually overcomes when he really starts to question his life.

This is where the hope comes in.

We’re all a bit like Truman. When things are going well, we just carry on as normal, not necessarily thinking too much about any of the “big” questions (like “How will it all end?”). We go about our daily routine and maintain that level of comfort.

But then, when something unexpected happens, when our patterns are thrown in to a bit of disarray, when our comfort falters… what do we do? In most cases, if things aren’t too bad, we ignore them or make small adjustments until everything returns to normal (it usually does). In other cases, our fear gets the best of us and we run and hide… also until things return to normal. But, sometimes, the unexpected builds upon our memory of other unexpected, out of place, incongruous events from our lives and we’re forced to question our reality.

Truman, in the end, overcomes his fears, pushes past his comfort zone by miles, and, ultimately, faces off against his creator.

Through it all there is only one moment where Truman’s character truly falters, where, briefly, he’s no longer a nice guy. Rightfully, that moment terrifies everyone involved, including him. Again, he has to make a choice: who is he going to be?

That choice comes up again in the final sequence of the film. When Christof gives him the option of either leaving… or returning to his idyllic, but fake, life.

In one of the earlier drafts, Truman’s decision lead to him nearly beating Christof to death.

Thankfully, that didn’t make the final cut… because that would have made this a movie without much hope. Not for Truman and not for humanity.

No, in the final cut, Truman chooses to be his own man. And he chooses to do so with the same smile and cheer he had when we first met him.

We should all be so kind to ourselves and those who have exerted power over us.

The Verdict

This has always been one of my favorite movies. Along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic, it is one of my three favorite Jim Carrey movies of all time.

Everyone should give this film a watch. There are good reasons it’s regularly used in film classes. There are even better reasons a lot of the things we see in it are echoed in our modern reality shows. Everything here works. The story, the cinematography, the subtle commentary, the much more blatant commentary… I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that does so much in so simple a way.

This is not a complex story. It is a deep one.

And that makes it something special.

Hair: You Know Some of the Songs and None of the Plot

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

Hair movie posterAnyone who knows me knows that I’m a bit of a fan of the classic American Musical. That cuts off around the mid-60s, a little after West Side Story. Anything after that I likely haven’t had a lot of exposure to (which is one of the oversights I’m trying to fix lately).

The stage version of Hair came out in 1968. That whole Vietnam War thing was a big deal then. The counter-culture movement was in full-swing and Woodstock was still about a year out on the horizon. People knew things were changing, that there was a groundswell of new(ish) ideas rolling through the youth culture. The play grabbed all of that energy and ran with it. The play was a big hit.

More than ten years later, in 1979, Hair the movie came out. The “peace, love, and music” of the 60s had become the “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” of the 70s. Idealism was a bit on the wane as the economy went through a rough patch or three. That Vietnam War thing was something people really, really didn’t like to talk about, as it hadn’t gone all that well for us, politically or domestically. The film jettisoned a bunch of what the play had and ran with the new zeitgeist a bit… pretty much using most of the same music and character names, but coming up with a mostly new plot. The difference was so great that the writers of the play still don’t feel that it’s ever actually been adapted into a movie. The movie was a big hit.

The Plot

Claude is a good boy from Oklahoma who’s on his way to NY to enlist in the Army. He gets there a couple of days early in order to see some sights in the big city before he ships off to basic training. While wandering through Central Park, he encounters Berger, Jeannie, Hud, and Woof, four hippies just doing their thing, sewing some seeds of chaos/enlightenment here and there. Shelia, a well-to-do high-class, horse-riding girl also catches the attention–of both Claude and Berger–much to the displeasure of Sheila’s mother and aunt who are riding with her through the park.

So begins a kind of wild couple of days of adventure filled with drugs, law breaking, and more new ideas than Claude can really take in. Eventually, he does make it to the recruitment office and off to basic training in Nevada, but then there’s just one more adventure that has some very unexpected consequences.

The Music

Chances are, right now, you know more about the plot of this movie than you ever have before. I know I went into it pretty much completely blind. I knew it existed. I knew it was an adaptation of a play. But, in all the years of hearing about it, never once had anyone talked about the plot.

What they talked about–and what you couldn’t avoid if you were listening to the radio in my house growing up–was the music.

The music is very distinctly “the 60s” (specifically the late, psychedelically-tinged, 60s). You’ve probably heard some of the music, even if you didn’t know it came from Hair. It gets used a lot.

There’s “Age of Aquarius” (which is the opening tune for the movie)…

There’s “Good Morning Starshine” (sung in the movie by Beverly D’Angelo, who played Sheila)…

Of course there’s “Hair” (which has a bit more meaning once you see the context in the movie)…

That last one didn’t get a lot of radio play, but it got referenced a lot in other places.

The thing is, these are far from the best songs in the show. The best songs are a bit more edgy… downright damning of the mainstream culture and the things it turns a blind eye toward. And they don’t play quite as well outside of the context of the story.

There’s “Black Boys/White Boys” which deals with the fetishization of race and the sterotypes that go along with it.

There’s “Three Five Zero Zero” which is distinctly an anti-war song…

For some reason, “Sodomy” never got any radio play…

I could go on, because pretty much every song in this film is solid and meaningful. Even the stuff that tends more toward fluff (like “Sodomy”) pushes the comfort zone of the audience just a little bit.

That idea of getting outside of your comfort zone is really a key thing in Hair. It’s what propels Claude into the adventures he has with Berger and crew, it’s what differentiates Sheila from the rest of her family, it what, in the real world, has ultimately lead to a whole lot of positive changes.

If nothing else, check out this film for the music.

The Verdict

Without having ever seen the stage version, I absolutely love this film. The antics in the plot aren’t the most coherent things in the world, but that’s kind of the style of the times in a lot that came out of the 60s. It’s uncomfortable, but you run with it, because you choose to. Because choosing to embrace the insanity is the only way you can exert any real control. Because doing otherwise robs you of your sense of self.

And if there’s one thing this film makes really clear is that, when you get right down to it, authenticity of self is what will both save and destroy you. But if it destroys you, at least you’ll be saving someone else in the process.

The bonds of friendship among Claude, Berger, Sheila and everyone else in the counter-culture group are vivid and lively. The bonds of obligation and tradition shown in pretty much everyone else they deal with are bland and, in the context of the film, a fate worse than death.

Never once, though, do the hippies tell anyone that they can’t live their lives in a walking death. They say it’s not for them, they point out the folly of it, they poke fun at it… but when all is said and done Berger and friends never actually tell anyone they have to change. The mainstream culture, on the other hand… well, every time someone opens their mouth it’s not out of love or concern, it’s a quest to remove that which makes them uncomfortable.

I like movies with messages like that.

Maybe you do, too.

If you do, definitely check this out. If you’re a fan of musicals in general, and the 60s in particular, you absolutely need to see this.

Transformers: The Movie – Accidental Impact

Saturday, September 24th, 2016

Transformers: The Movie box artTwo of the main cartoons, comic book series, and toy lines of my childhood were G.I. Joe and Transformers. I started the G.I. Joe comic with issue #6 and Transformers with “Issue 1 of a 4-issue limited series” (which then ran for 80 issues).

When Transformers: The Movie hit screens in 1986, I was excited. I saw it and I loved it. The ideas of Unicron and the Matrix of Leadership and everything were awesome. The boost from the movie reinvigorated the TV series a little bit. (The comic really didn’t need any reinvigoration, as it didn’t keep continuity with the show and generally had better, deeper, and more developed stories than the cartoon did… I liked the comic more than the cartoon.)

If I hadn’t been such an avid reader of the comics, the “big deal” scene of Optimus Prime’s death certainly would have had a much deeper impact… but we’ll talk about that in a minute. The key thing here is that I loved the movie when I was a kid. I haven’t seen it more than twice since then.

The 30th anniversary edition of the film just came out. (I actually have a friend who work on the restoration… and that work is amazing, I’ve never seen the art and animation so vibrant, crisp, and detailed.) I’ve just watched this move for the first time in more than a decade. So… here we go…

The Plot

The war between the Autobots and Decepticons has raged for many years on both Earth and their home planet of Cybertron. The Decepticons have taken control of Cybertron, the Autobots having fallen back to the planet’s moons to maintain a resistance movement, hoping to topple Megatron and his forces from power. The fight is not going well. Supplies are low and, unbeknownst to everyone, there is an even more grave danger–in the form of a planet-sized, world-eating robot called Unicron–heading toward Cybertron.

As it plays out, the plot is a bit episodic, with obvious breaks built in between chapters to make it easy to repurpose for normal broadcast TV. Overall, the story is a step above most of the animated TV series up to this point. The art and animation are definitely of higher grade (especially in the new restored version, where you can actually see the details work that was put in). Mostly, though, the transitions from point A to point B to point C are… not the smoothest.

This is, after all, still basically a kids’ show.

Which is why people were so terribly shocked at the death of Optimus Prime about a half-hour into the movie. That death is also one of the key things that elevated this film from “just another toy-selling movie” to a cultural touchstone for an entire generation (or, at least, the subset of a generation that had their eyes glued to the TV for half an hour a day and their hands wrapped around cars and things that could change into robots).

The Moment of Impact

Megatron and a bunch of Decepticons have taken over an Autobot shuttle on its way to Earth for a supply run. They outright kill the crew of recognizable characters. This is the beginning of the house cleaning that Hasbro had planned so they could introduce a new wave of toys to the shelves. The attack on Autobot City culminates in an truly epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, which leaves both on the verge of death. The Decepticons retreat (as always) and we’re “treated” to one of the most heart-rending death scenes ever put into a kids’ show (at the time).

Here, watch:

That’s right up there with Old Yeller having to be put down.

Kids were upset. Parents were angry. Everyone was surprised, including the Hasbro execs and the filmmakers. It seems no one had quite realized just how popular their show and product actually was. As adults who knew they were just making a cartoon to sell toys, it had never occurred to them that kids weren’t just buying into the neat hunks of metal and plastic that could change shape. Kids were bonding with these characters. I know I did (though, again, mostly from reading the comic).

That ignorance allowed them to take what turned out to be a bold artistic step forward with this film.

And it immediately left them reconsidering ever taking a bold step like that again. The G.I. Joe Movie, which was already mostly done by the time this film came out, had a couple of hasty edits happen in order to avoid the same “mistake” of killing off a big deal character. Notice that no one ever talks about that G.I. Joe movie, but lots of people have very strong, fond, memories of this film.

This is why the marketing department should rarely, if ever, be directly involved in the creative side of storytelling.

The Verdict

Everything else in the film–the oh-so-80s synth and arena rock laden soundtrack, the transformation of Megatron to Galvatron, Unicron eating planets, Spike saying “shit” as his ship is being swallowed by Unicron–all of that is good enough, but pales in comparison to Prime’s death. Without that completely accidental moment of real emotion, no one would really remember much about this movie.

Because, really, it’s not that great of a movie when you look at it as a grown up. Plot holes and logical (and logistical) issues are all over the damn place. Stuff just doesn’t make sense. As a kid, you don’t care about that stuff much (I usually took great pleasure in working out how those inconsistencies could be explained… I was an odd kid.)

The famous voices that were brought in–including Orson Welles in his last performance (which they almost couldn’t use because of how much trouble he was having breathing)–are cool, but only notable if you know the actors. The music rocks, but only if you remember the 80s. The story is neat, but really nothing special compared to anything else… except for the death of Prime.

If you remember loving this movie as a kid, be sure to watch it as a kid at heart. If you’ve never seen it, you should probably skip it unless you have a distinct interest in the 80s (which this film encapsulates pretty spectacularly). If you were indifferent to it when you were a kid, you’ll hate this now.

Me? I couldn’t be happier that I own this. The 30th anniversary edition has a wealth of behind the scenes stuff and the clean-up they’ve done on the film itself is impressive. Definitely a “must have” for a fan.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ridiculous in all the Right Ways

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

Wet Hot American Summer posterI missed catching Wet, Hot, American Summer when it first came out back in 2001. It wasn’t until 2015, when Netflix released the “prequel” series, that I finally got around to watching it.

That time delay may have made it even funnier than it would have been 14 years earlier.

The Plot

The film follows the (mis)adventures of the counselors of Camp Firewood on the last day of the season. Adventure, intrigue, romance… a ridiculous chase scene… the movie has it all and none of it is serious.

Taking care of the campers is really a secondary concern most of the time. Really, it’s amazing so many of these kids have survived the summer. It’s kind of amazing that most of the counselors have survived the summer. In short: if you’re looking for a plot that really makes sense or matches with “reality” in any meaningful way, you’re not going to find it here. I mean, there’s a talking can. And a military conspiracy. And Paul Rudd being the “cool” guy.

What you get here is a bunch of “bits” loosely strung together that they somehow manage to tie up by the end of the film. They even manage to tie a bunch of them together, which, given the kind of surreal nature of a lot of things going on, is impressive.

Mostly what you get is a lot of humor at various levels. The low-level slapstick of a number of the interactions. The over-playing of tropes (like Rudd’s afore-mentioned “cool guy”), usually with some little twist to drive home just how ridiculous anyone actually emulating such a trope would be. Some great plays on words and sit-com-worthy misunderstandings. And, amid all of that, some really heart-felt insight into human nature… but in a funny way.

The movie has tons of heart (and you know that’s important to me, especially when it comes to comedy). There aren’t a lot of jokes at the expense of other people… and those times when there is a character picking on another one, that ends up turning around a bit.

The Cast

To any current viewer, there are a lot of familiar faces in this movie. Not all of them were quite as familiar when the movie first hit theaters. Most of them weren’t complete newbs, but they were far from household names.

Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Rudd, Christopher Meloni. Molly Shannon, Michael Ian Black… tons of my favorite people, all together. They play wonderfully together, which shouldn’t be surprising when you realize that just about everyone in the cast has an improv comedy background.

Since I didn’t see this until 14 years after it came out, I had the extra added bonus of knowing bunches of (usually more serious) roles the cast had become known for. That made this farcical comedy even more surreal. (And doubly so with the Netflix series.)

The Verdict

Writers Michael Showalter and David Wain (who also directed) has a solid history of sketch comedy under their belts when Wet Hot American Summer came out. All of that experience was used to great effect (and has continued to be used over the years). So, if you’re an old-time fan of The State or Stella, you already know what kind of crazy you’re in for.

The comedy here isn’t for everyone, I know plenty of people who would just roll their eyes and sigh at some of the cheese levels that this movie has. I know others who would be utterly scandalized by the humor, twists, and revelations. Still others who just wouldn’t get it for any number of other reasons. But, if you like stuff that that Showalter and Wain have done or, if you haven’t seen any of their stuff, things like what Christopher Guest puts out, then definitely check this out.

It’s an 80s-style comedy made in very beginning of the 21st Century with a modern edge toward characters and humor. Paradoxical as that may sound, the film delivers.

Three down, don’t know how many to go…

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Just watched three of the new season pilots from ABC that are up on Hulu (The Trophy Wife, The Goldbergs, and Back in the Game).

The good news is, that’s an hour and a half a week of new shows I won’t have to worry about watching ever again.

Now, don’t get me wrong. None of these shows are horrible. But, at best, they’re mediocre. During the three half-hour(ish) shows, there was barely a chuckle raised. Even the likes of George Segal, Bradley Witford, and James Caan couldn’t raise the level of the standard, pandering, and gimmicky writing.

The Trophy WIfeThe Trophy Wife

Though it’s over-loaded with characters–the titular trophy wife, her new husband, his two ex-wives, and three kids–those characters are at least vaguely interesting and, even in the cacophony of the pilot, relatively distinctive.

But the tropes run hard and fast. The new wife is almost young enough to be another daughter. One ex-wife is a stern and stoic doctor. The other a flighty, well-dressed, hippy-type with what seems barely a basic grasp of reality. The husband a high powered, yet somehow still inept lawyer. It’s a hard sell to make me believe any of these people were/are married. And all the kids are trying to play one off the others.

The real joy in the show, though, could come from the kids. At least if the writers can really let them be the focus. Pull the two exes into sporadic supporting roles, focus more on the new family unit, and you have enough space to really have a comedy with some heart.

Without doing that, I’m afraid it’s just going to be more noise and glaring as the old wives try to out-do the new one in zaniness.

The GoldbergsThe Goldbergs

There is no doubt that this show desperately wants to be The Wonder Years for the 80s generation. But, again, instead of something that feels real (like The Wonder Years) we’ve got a show that feels overly crass and lacks charm most of the time.

Even if that was really how Adam Goldberg’s life really was circa 1985, I don’t think a ton of people are going to relate to it… or want to relate to it. At least I hope not.

This show takes dysfunctional families to the next level. And, while it tries to reclaim some measure of heart and familiarity in the final minutes, it lacks the clean flow of even the early seasons of other “regular family” TV families over the years (like Roseanne and even Married With Children).

Again, maybe it’ll find its stride as time goes on, but there’s nothing in the pilot that makes me want to stick around to find out. I’ll just let it stumble around and, if it does end up getting better, I’ll go back and catch it after the season is over. Maybe. (Probably not.)

Back in the GameBack in the Game

By a very narrow margin, this show has the most potential to be kind of good.  While the setup is oddly close to a number of other, much better shows–divorced daughter moves in with her father. who was never really there for her growing up–there weren’t a lot of needless “complications” thrown in to make the show “better”. Everything that flows in the show, more or less makes sense and doesn’t feel thrown together.

Perhaps the biggest thing that gives this show a chance is the that, with baseball/softball as a main focus, there’s a distinct framework in which stories can be framed. We’ll get to see the characters develop as the team of misfits they’re coaching pulls together. Should be good for at least one season.

I do hope that they add a little more variety to James Caan’s father/grandfather character, though. What they’ve got him doing in the pilot–gruff, disinterested, drunkard–is really a waste of the man’s talent.

So, yeah… maybe in a year I’ll revisit these on Netflix. But I’m not going to waste five or ten hours of my life on either of them (depending on how long they last) until they’ve run their course and their growing pains are over.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Abraham Lincoln Vampire HunterThis wasn’t one of the movies I’d really planned on seeing in theaters, let alone on it’s opening weekend. But an old friend was in town and, after dinner, we decided to hit up a movie. Of everything that was playing that neither of us had seen, we chose Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, kind of on a whim.

I was not disappointed.

Of course, I also wasn’t expecting much.

This movie is, without a doubt, completely awful. Everything is over done. Very little (nothing if you’re familiar with horror films and standard plot twists) is surprising. As if the main concept itself weren’t ridiculous enough for you, they way it all meshes with history (the cavalcade of famous historical names and situations) should put you over that hump.

And that’s why you should definitely go and see it.

This movie is awful in all the best ways. It never has any illusions about what kind of film it is going to be. The shooting style is closer to what you’d see in an installment of the Resident Evil franchise than you would on PBS. (As I understand it, the book is written in the style of a standard historical memoir… there is absolutely no illusion of seriousness in the film.)

Pure and simple, this is popcorn-chomping camp at it’s best.

So completely over the top…

Far too many films like this take themselves too seriously in some parts and then smack you across the face with a scene of sequence that doesn’t fit with that supposed gravity. Everything in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is over the top. The drama passes directly into over-wrought melodrama. The fight sequences are amazingly over-choreographed and complex. The two climactic chases/boss fights in the film are done on a scale that’s hard to find sensible (and would have been absolutely impossible without the teams from a handful of digital special effects houses).

Nothing about this film is terribly subtle or small. Because of that, it works perfectly. Everything fits perfectly together.

(And, really, the fight sequences are pretty impressive… once you get over the idea that this is the 16th President of the United States swinging that ax around.)

I give a lot of credit to the actors and director. They pull all this ridiculousness off without a single wink to the camera, something many other films seem to think is funny (but often isn’t).

Technically, very solid…

From a purely technical point of view, this film is put together very well. The massive amounts of CGI blended well on the screen. The horribly over-designed vampires were relatively consistent to be believable in the world. The pacing and plot of the story moved and held together well. Nothing came out of nowhere–every gun used in the final scene had been on the mantle in a previous act, so to speak.

The acting was very solid. Benjamin Walker as Honest Abe was great with the physicality and, with the costuming and makeup, looked a whole lot like Abe in his presidential years. Rufus Sewell is appropriately arrogant, plotting, and utterly detestable as the big bad ancient vampire manipulating things. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is utterly charming as Mary Todd. And keep an eye out for Alan Tudyk as a well known Lincoln-related historical figure (not a lot of screen time, but as is always the case with Tudyk, golden the entire time).

Fun and funny, like I haven’t seen in a while…

As my friend I was with will confirm, I laughed more during this film than I have at most comedies I’ve gone to see in the past two decades. I haven’t seen such well executed camp and excess in a very long time (so long that I’m hard pressed to even think of the last time I was so entertained by it… perhaps an old action flick like Escape from L.A. or Big Trouble in Little China).

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has definitely made it right to the top of my list of horrible films that I’m glad I’ve seen in the movies. (That list also includes Snakes on a Plane, seen on opening night with an audience that I’m pretty sure shouldn’t have been behind the wheel for hours after the film, and Zombie Strippers, which had some surprisingly highbrow moments in it.) It’s horrible in the best ways possible.

Go in expecting some fun, near-mindless, horror/vampire-flavored action and you won’t be disappointed. Go in expecting a movie that takes itself seriously and you’ll walk away hating it.

Winter Season 2011-2012: New Shows

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Television ReviewsOnce upon a time, there were only two seasons on TV: Fall and Summer.

Now, things being what they are, we should just be honest and admit that there are four. Forget this “mid-season premiere” fallacy. If we’re luck, a season these days is 12 episodes. Shows that do 20+ episodes a year are, effectively, on for two seasons for every one they count. Everything else (especially stuff on cable channels) splits around the 12 episode mark.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at what’s premiered in the new Winter season so far.

Alcatraz (Fox)

Another JJ Abrams show about strange goings on with time and conspiracies on an island. Not exactly the same formula as Lost, but close enough to raise some eyebrows. Those raised eyebrows went from skeptical to impressed after the first couple of hours, though. Same Neill does a good job of adding class and creepiness to the story. It’s different enough from other shows that it can keep you guessing at least a little. For now, it’s more of a police procedural, with the main characters hunting down bad guys as they appear, but I’m betting that before long some more internal drama will kick up some waves. Assuming, of course, that the show doesn’t get canceled.

Are you there, Chelsea? (NBC)

A semi-autobiographical sitcom from comedian/author/talk show host/bad girl Chelsea Handler, in which she plays the older sister to Laura Prepon’s portrayal of herself. Sadly, this show just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it’ll grow on me with time, but the whole caustic bad girl thing doesn’t work for me unless there’s that “heart of gold” tacked on… or some serious repercussions for that lifestyle. The cast seems solid and I’m pretty sure the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives viewers would love it.

The Finder (Fox)

Oh, another quirky crime fighting show. This one about a guy who (surprise, surprise) is really good at finding things. Perhaps due to brain damage received while serving in Iraq. If it wasn’t for Michael Clarke Duncan being in this show, I would have just passed it up. It’s cute, has some potential, but hasn’t found it’s stride yet. Maybe in another few episodes my opinion will change, but as of right now, I don’t find anything special about it.

The Firm (NBC)

The cast of this new series is pretty darn good. Two Cylons, some strong alumni from other shows, one of my favorite kinda trashy actresses (Juliette Lewis)… but so far they’re being totally wasted on more or less standard plots that have been done everywhere (recently, too). Grisham’s stuff is usually pretty suspenseful, with some sharp dialog and forceful characters. The film that this series is following up on was one of the first big hits from him that made the leap from the page to the big screen, a handful of others followed and they were all pretty good. I keep hoping this one will live up to it’s name, but it hasn’t yet.

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox)

This is another show that, if it did anything other play exactly to stereotypes, would be almost good. But, hey, if you like a show about completely incompetent parents (to the point where you wonder how their kids made it to be teenagers), this may be for you. There have been a couple of sweet “awwwww’ moments, but they were almost immediately counteracted by some bit of vitriolic barb from one or more characters. This show doesn’t have heart and, thankfully, it also seems it doesn’t have good ratings.

Rob (CBS)

I never liked Rob Schneider much when he was on SNL. Can’t say I care more for him in his own show. Especially when it’s a premise that’s been done so many times before, with more style and less stereotype. Schneider plays a character (oh-so-creatively) named Rob who’s just married a younger woman on a whim in a Vegas wedding. Now he gets to meet her parents, who just happen to be Mexican. Supposedly, culture-clash hilarity ensues. I had some hope for this show when I saw Cheech Marin was in it (the bulk of the cast is actually talented, really), but he doesn’t have enough to work with to make this worth watching. It’s one thing to use a stereotype as a jumping-off point for comedy in a “haha! It’s not really like that!” sort of way. That’s not what this show is doing. It’s relying firmly on the stereotypes themselves–of Mexicans, Americans, men, and women–for it’s  humor. That ship sailed decades ago, do something new or go away. (Sadly, the ratings indicate that this show won’t be going away.)

Work It (ABC)

Thankfully, this show didn’t last. Like many other shows this season, “stereotype” is the name of the game. If you’ve been around for a while, you may remember an old show called Bosom Buddies that introduced us to Tom Hanks and Peter Scolaria as two guys who dressed as women to get an apartment in a single sex building. That show worked for two reasons: it was vaguely plausible at the time and we didn’t know any better. Pretending you’re a woman and getting a job selling pharmaceuticals in this day and age? I don’t think so. One background check would out you right there. That small bit of reality aside, the show just wasn’t funny. It managed to be insulting to both men and women. Can’t say I’ll miss this one at all.

There are a few more shows premiering soon (and a couple that are on other networks), so expect another installment soon.

Fall Season 2011: More Reviews

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Television ReviewsOkay, we’re now a few weeks into the new season and everything I planned on watching has premiered. Some of it has been very good, some of it has been very bad, and some of it is already gone. Here’s a look at what wasn’t covered last time.

How to be a Gentleman (CBS – canceled after 2 eps)

The pilot was a little uneven, the characters not all that likeable, but the premise was an interesting one and, if given time, it may have found its legs. By far, of the three different “Man” shows that premiered this season on the regular networks, How to be a Gentleman was the one I found most palatable. Further proof that my tastes are not always the tastes of the nation.

Suburgatory (ABC – picked up for full season)

Honestly, I hated the first episode of this show. It felt both derogatory and disgusting in pretty much every way. It was full of bad, over-used stereotypes, oddly convoluted situations, and not a single feeling that rang true. I know Jeremy Sisto has talent. Cheryl Hines, too. Relative newcomer Jane Levy isn’t bad at all. And seeing Alan Tudyk on the screen just makes the Browncoat in me very happy. But the show just didn’t grab me. Then there was the second episode… and the third… and, well, I’m still watching. I’m not sure exactly why, but the show’s growing on me. They’ve settled into a nice groove, it feels more like parody than just some badly stylized depiction of a skewed reality, and they’re starting to play with some more daring social commentary. If they keep it up, it may end up a very creative and fun show.

An American Horror Story (FX)

This is the show I was anticipating the most. It has not disappointed me. By far it is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen on television in a very long time (perhaps since Twin Peaks). The mix of supernatural threat with real, raw, emotional stress just keeps you on edge. The performances by Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott as a couple who’s relationship is already stretched to near breaking when they move into the very haunted house may be a bit too much for some people to watch–the arguments they have read very much like ones I’ve seen play out. I’m not sure where they’re going with the story in the long run, but the atmosphere they’re building and the supporting cast and history they’re revealing has been nothing short of impressive.

Once Upon a Time (ABC)

This is the other show I was really looking forward to. I’m a sucker for slightly twisted fairy tales (am I the only one who remembers The Charmings fondly?), but this show has managed to deliver a compelling set of at least vaguely familiar characters in a way that has definitely grabbed the general population. Mixing flashbacks to a fairy tale land with a main plot set in the familiar world the characters have been flung into (with their memories of who they were erased), the show has at least one or two seasons of good plot development in it.

Man Up! (ABC)

This was the second of the “Man” shows to air on the regular networks this season. It’s not the worst, but that’s not saying much. Where How to be a Gentleman has some vague class and potential to get at actual issues of what being a “man” really means in today’s world, this one was just a rehash of everything that’s come before played out with a stereotypical set of male friends. I don’t think I laughed once during any episode I watched and it most certainly did not inspire any thought about the subject. At least not other than “Really? Is this what people still think?”

Last Man Standing (ABC)

Tim Allen’s apparently long-awaited return to sitcom-land couldn’t have fallen more flat for me. I loved Home Improvement, Allen’s Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was gruff, a bit dumb, but full of heart. In Last Man Standing, his Mike Baxter has two out of three of those but has also added neo-Conservative, backward, and annoying to the list. What’s missing? Heart. At best, this show is rehash of Home Improvement‘s “man” jokes. (Yes, this is the third of those “man” shows this season.) I thought, briefly, they were going to do at least one interesting thing–have Baxter do video blog bits that start out promoting products at the Bass Pro-like sporting goods store that he works for but turn into rants connected to events in the episode. With proper cultivation, consistency, and better writing, that could’ve made the show worth watching. But, based on the episodes I’ve seen, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening regularly.

Grimm (NBC)

This is the other fairy tale based show that’s premiered this season. It’s got a completely different flavor than Once Upon a Time, being more of a cop show than anything else. Airing against the CW’s Supernatural, I think it’s going to have a little bit of a hard time finding it’s audience… since it’s going after the same one (which is already at least slightly split between Supernatural and Fringe). It’s not bad, which was a slight surprise based on how so many of the promos looked. Apparently it’s one of those shows that doesn’t work well in clips, but, when you have an actual feel for the characters, it holds up pretty well. At least the characters are a wee bit confused at the idea of monsters being real. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Updates:

  • Playboy Club first show to go. This makes me sad. I think the show had potential.
  • Free Agents canned. It didn’t even last as long as the British show it was based on.
  • Revenge picked up for full season. This show never grabbed me, but apparently people like it.

For fun:

10 shows canceled in 3 episodes or less. How many of these do you actually remember?

The 2011 Fall Season: New Shows

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Television ReviewsSince I’ve been quite remiss in reviewing things anywhere outside of Twitter and in person lately (like, for the past few seasons), I thought I’d round up some quick thoughts on what I’ve seen of the new 2011 Fall Season of shows so far.

The beginning of the season is always a busy time for me. I try to give most new shows a chance, usually watching (or suffering through) at least three episodes before making a definitive decision on whether it’s worth my time or not. Far too often, the ones I like the best, don’t last much past that third episode.

I haven’t bothered to note days and times, as those inevitably change. But, each title is linked to the IMDB page for the show, so you should be able to see where it shows up on your local schedule through their tools.

So, without further delay, here’s what I think so far (often based on less than three episodes).

2 Broke Girls (CBS)

This one’s growing on me. I’m a bit of a Kat Dennings fan (or so it would seem… I remember her back in her Raising Dad days). The first episode was a little rough, but there were some genuine laughs and a good bit of heart in it. The characters may be a bit much for some–definite stereotypes abound and the “hate the rich” schtick can get a little repetitive–but I think there’s room for some good growth. The second episode showed some of that growth. I hope it gets a full season.

Charlies’ Angels (ABC)

I’ve heard that this was one of the more anticipated shows premiering this season. That’s really too bad. My eyes were rolling in the first fifteen minutes. The dialog is horrid. The plot contrived. And the overall quality of the show would even make a fan of 70s and 80s action shows (like the original Charlie’s Angels) wish for better days. There’s a chance I’ll suffer through one more episode, but unless there’s a serious improvement in quality, acting, writing, pacing, and, well, pretty much everything, it won’t get a third hour of my life.

Free Agents (NBC)

I like Kathryn Hahn. I like Hank Azaria. I want to like this show a lot. The first episode really didn’t do it for me. There were some good bits, but the supporting cast of flat, one-joke characters really didn’t do it for me. Nor did the reliance on the slew of sex jokes. But, there was still something good that shone through and, by the second episode, some things were toned down, others were polished up, and the chemistry between the leads may be just enough to save the show from being too bad to watch.

A Gifted Man (CBS)

I knew going into this one that it was being billed as the new Touched by an Angel (a show I never cared much for). What I didn’t know was just how bland and unoriginal the plot as a whole was going to be. There’s nothing that makes this show stand out from any other story that’s ever been told that involves a person who’s kind of a bastard being forced to redeem himself. Even Eli Stone (from a few seasons ago) did a better job of making the premise not just believable, but fun… and not overly sappy. This show, way overly sappy. Diabetic shock levels of sappy.

New Girl (Fox)

I absolutely adore Zooey Deschenel. But the pilot of this show really didn’t work for me at all. The filming style didn’t match the writing style and that just left a very talented cast falling flat. The premise is classic and rich with comedy potential. I know Deschenel can pull of some great stuff (and the show even manages to let her showcase her vocal talents a bit). I just hope the writers, directors, and the rest of the crew can decide what kind of show they’re making. The second episode seems to be a bit better, so that bodes well.

Pan Am (ABC)

They crammed a whole lot into this pilot. Almost too much. It was a bit tricky to keep track of who was who and what they were up to. But the groundwork they’ve set opens the door to a whole lot of plot possibilities. This is the second big 60s period show that’s debuting this season. Unfortunately, both are being compared a lot of Mad Men, even though they don’t have much in common other than the rough time period. Pan Am is something I think will be worth watching. I also think it stands a big chance of being one of the first canceled.

Person of Interest (CBS)

I wasn’t sure how this show was going to play out. I’m pretty darn happy with how it did. The plot premise is awesome–computer guy creates a program for the government that crunches through tons of data (email, video surveillance, cell phone calls) and spits out predictions of who’s a terrorist. As a side effect, it produces a whole lot of other “hits”, those are the “persons of interest” that the show is about. People who are going to be in trouble, somehow. Jim Caviezel does a great job as the heavy and Michael Emerson is almost too close to his Ben character from Lost, but the potential for interesting plots and solid action should keep the show on my “must watch” list.

The Playboy Club (NBC)

This is the season’s other 60s period drama. I liked it. It captures a lot of flavor and atmosphere. The characters have interesting backgrounds and the setting is swanky. Right off the top, there’s a mob plot, a political plot, and a bit of social commentary. If the show makes it even halfway through the season I’ll be surprised.

Prime Suspect (NBC)

Yet another cop show. I wasn’t at all excited about this one, but tuned in to see if Maria Bello could make it interesting. Once they got past showing us how sexist the precinct was and got on showing us that her character was, indeed, an awesome cop, the show actually got to the point of being above average. I don’t know if I’ll keep watching (there are only so many police procedural shows I can watch, and NCIS is already on my list), but it’s definitely on track to being a good show.

Revenge (ABC)

I keep thinking this is a CW show. I suffered through the pilot and will probably suffer through the second episode when I get around to it on the DVR. Basically, it’s The Count of Monte Cristo wrapped in Dynasty. No real surprises, standard characters, average performances. Not exciting at all. Also nothing shocking about it–Desperate Housewives has done more shocking things in mid-season episodes than this show did in it’s pilot.

The Secret Circle (CW)

This is a CW show and it shows. The teen-flavored cast fits right in with the stable of other shows on the network. It’s the twist to the normal high school hijinks that adds just enough flavor to it to make it worth watching. The mystery of why, in a town where there is a long history of magic using witches and wizards, the older generation is trying to keep the young’uns from realizing their own power is wonderfully metaphorical and very well played. The show has a nice edge to it, going a bit dark in places to add depth to what would otherwise be Charmed-lite. I’m very curious to see how it plays out.

Terra Nova (Fox)

Now this is the show I was most eagerly awaiting on the regular networks. It’s solid scifi–time travel, technology, and dinosaurs–and full of as much plot as action. It echoes back to one of my favorite canceled series, Earth 2, with it’s potential political intrigue. The first half of the two-hour pilot is a little rough and oddly constructed at times, but by the time the credits roll (after the massive dino fight), I was left feeling very happy and excited about the show as a whole. This, of course, means it will probably be canceled right quick. (It’s expensive and didn’t do exceptionally well ratings-wise, up against a slew of other popular things, including football.)

Unforgettable (CBS)

Yet. Another. Cop. Show. This one a gimmick cop show, along the lines of The Mentalist or Castle (more the former than the latter). The hook here is that the lead character can remember everything. This opens the door to an almost overused effect of her walking around herself as she goes back and searches for new clues in places she was before. There’s really nothing special about this show. The gimmick is going to get old fast, the performances aren’t compelling, the character back-stories are commonplace and uninspired. Shows like CSI eat shows like this as a snack.

Up All Night (NBC)

This is another show I desperately wanted to like (being a Christina Applegate fan and all). But, unlike Free Agents which showed some heart and space to grow, Up All Night has yet to convince me there’s a comedy goldmine in their show. In the space of two episodes, all the “new parent” jokes have been done and done again. And not even in new or exciting ways.

Whitney (NBC)

I was worried that the massive promotional campaign for this show had let us see everything that could be funny about it. Thankfully, there was more. And some of it was even good (and not a sex joke). Show creator and lead Whitney Cummings (who’s also one of people behind 2 Broke Girls) isn’t half as annoying as I thought she was going to be. The relationship between the two main characters manages to be non-sterotypical in that they don’t always fight, they don’t always make cynical jabs at one another, and they actually have a chemistry that leaves you feeling that, no matter what, they do care. That feeling hearkens back to Roseanne, possibly one of the best and most honest sitcoms ever made. I hope it keeps up the heart and humor.

So, that’s it so far. There are a few more shows premiering this week and others through October, so there’s bound to be updates.

What’s your favorite new show so far?

Update: Check out the rest of the new shows.

 

Soul Fire Rising

Monday, June 7th, 2010

The more one bounces around online, the more little interesting things one comes across.

This bit of new online series came my way via Kelly Stables Twitter account, most recently recognizable as part of the cast of Romantically Challenged, the very hastily (and unfortunately) canceled sitcom headlined by Alyssa Milano. Stables is a producer on the show and made mention of it last week.

Soul Fire Rising (official site) is a horror-flavored online series slated for eight episodes. It tells the story of soul-stealing bad-girl Lilith and the part she plays in a little contest between demons and “wingers” (not the classic band, just another term for angels, it would seem). The first three episodes are up right now at KoldCast TV.

So far, I’m liking it. Good, solid production values, not quite on par with a show like the CW’s Supernatural but oddly equitable to ABC’s V. What little story there’s been so far seems pretty solid–some nice touches to Lilith and the demons in the show and it looks like our wingers are going to be just as interesting.

In the lull between regular TV seasons (and possible during the dearth of mediocre to bad shows it looks like we’ll have all summer), check out Soul Fire Rising if you’ve got a hankering for some horror. (You may also want to bounce over and check out Hamilton Carver, Zombie PI, which KoldCast is also carrying–its some good noir with a little undead twist and a firmly tongue in cheek attitude about it all.)

I’d like to see these series do well. With regular network TV producing more shows that doing have much more than a vague spark of life in them, seeing what excited and talented independent producers are doing is very encouraging.