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November 3, 2007

Book Review: Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb by Peter Bart

Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart’s latest book takes aim at blockbusters — but not just any big hits. The eclectic selection of movies, television shows and stage plays that he has focused on often have only one thing in common: an epic struggle to exist. From The Best Years of Our Lives to The Godfather to the unstoppable CSI juggernaut, Bart chronicles the difficulties that almost prevented them from making it to the stage or screen.

In the introduction, Bart chronicles the history of Variety, from its early days as a vaudeville gossip rag printed by Sime Silverman, a street hood who bought a used printing press and recruited his barely literate friends to write for him. The plainspoken, streetwise writing effectively invented the “Variety jargon” — boffo, payola, sitcom — that has made its way into the lexicon. The history of the periodical is laugh-out-loud funny and a great primer for Bart’s unusual selections.

I have a strong interest in movie history, and Bart’s book stands out from others in two ways. Reflecting each of his selections through the prism of Variety’s day-to-day reporting, he does an exceptional job of bringing us into the mindset and business climate of the times (necessary since some of his selections date back to cinema’s infancy), giving us a full understanding of the risks taken and the success (not just financial) achieved for each profiled project. Bart also dredges up a few nuggets of information that I’ve never heard before, despite my familiarity with many of these films. For projects I knew much less about — like Mamma Mia! and Baywatch — I found myself admiring the passion and sincerity of its champions despite my total lack of interest in them as entertainment.

Bart’s writing style is a bit dull, which might put off some readers initially. I’d encourage them to stick with it, because his thoroughness makes the overall reading experience rewarding. If you’re looking for exposure to some classic (and not-so-classic, but popular nonetheless) film/TV/theatre history, you can’t do much better than Boffo.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

November 4, 2007

Dropping Like Flies

…and not because of the writers’ strike, which won’t take effect until tomorrow. No, I’m speaking more of the shows listed below, many of which have made me a bit weary. Perhaps it’s having to think about them more, but I’ve begun to realize that much of what I watch…isn’t worth watching. Do I really have time to waste on mediocrity or worse? Should I devote an hour of my life to a extended episode of My Name Is Earl? I would have thought so on Thursday, but considering the poorly edited laugh-vacuum we got in lieu of an entertaining 30 minutes, I’ve reconsidered how I spend my time. Don’t be surprised if half (or more) of these shows disappear by next week.

Aliens in America (The CW) — In last week’s special edition about saving the CW, I lamented the longevity of this show (along with Reaper), but this episode allayed those fears. I’ve mischaracterized what this show wants to be as some sort of wacky, Perfect Strangers-esque comedy, which is maybe because, deep down, doesn’t everyone want Larry and Balki back on TV? Just me…?

This episode made me realize that Aliens in America has never wanted that. Sure, its premise is founded on the “ethnic mismatch comedy” formula and a few storylines have tackled Raja’s unusual “foreign” behavior — at its core, though, this is a show about best friends struggling through high school. Rather than uniting against common enemies, Justin and Raja find themselves pitted against one another when Justin wants Raja — who has gotten a job in a convenience store — to sell beer to the “cool kids” so they can be a part of the “in” crowd. This exact same scenario could occur with any two high school aged friends of any ethnicity anywhere in the country. That actually makes me think the show can overcome the potential problems (Raja assimilating too quickly, the duo going off to college, etc.).

I haven’t even mentioned the subplot involving Gary getting laid off. This show handles dark comedy (or at least, comedy with a nice underpinning of utter sadness) better than anything else on television, and this subplot is just more evidence of that. Gary’s struggle to maintain dignity in the face of the “new economy” managed to hit a lot more emotional levels than I would have thought, including the sweet ending where he finally stops hiding the truth from his wife. Well played, Aliens in America.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC) — And so the problem typical of soap operas finally hit Dirty Sexy Money. The problem? It sets up a variety of storylines and, if you find one tedious or don’t care about a particular character’s struggle, the entire episode falls apart. The twists and turns in Nick’s efforts to find out who killed his father (and/or why) fell flat, yet they took up most of the episode’s focus. Then again, another subplot I wasn’t particularly enthralled with — Brian’s illegitimate son — is starting to give Brian much more emotional depth than he’s had so far. I’m now enjoying that, but again it’s like a plate-spinning act: if they can’t make the audience care about every storyline equally, the whole thing falls apart. As if the Karen “she really loves Nick awwww” subplot hasn’t gotten creaky enough, now we have an ex-husband telling her in blunt terms that she really loves Nick (duh!), and wow do I not care.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — Chris accidentally inherits a bachelor pad when his family — sick with the flu — quarantines their apartment and forces him to stay with Roger Thomas — er, Mr. Omar. Mr. Omar won’t give up his somewhat disturbing bachelor lifestyle, so he’s not home a lot — leaving Chris all by himself. In a bachelor pad. Chris invites over his crush, but it ends as badly as you’d expect (see the title for details). One of the strengths (and joys) of this show is that it remembers the confusion and cluelessness of teenage years. Chris bumbles through this situation without understanding anything that’s happening, which makes it that much funnier when everything goes wrong.

Heroes (NBC) — Like Dirty Sexy Money, Heroes has to contend with the soap opera problem. Despite a few rough patches last season, I never had any real problems with the way the story progressed on Heroes (except for the Niki/Jessica thing, which was always interminable, though I did admire the way that whole family situation contributed to the demise of Linderman). I didn’t even have much trouble this season, until the repetitive nature of each storyline finally got under my skin. Much as I like Hiro and Ando (and Sark!), dude needs to get back to the present ASAP. Running around in feudal Japan, finding out the horrible truth behind the legendary figure who made Hiro who he is — fun for a few episodes, in small doses. Not so fun when it seems like he’ll be spending the whole season in the past, using the following formula: an incident reminds him of a future legend involving “Kensei,” Hiro explains the significance to Kensei, Kensei wants to drink and steal, Hiro explains heroism can lead to even greater wealth, Kensei’s in, they beat people up, both of them make moon eyes at the swordsmith’s daughter. Rinse. Repeat. Give us some variety or give up this storyline.

The same could be said of the storyline involving the Central American twins of indeterminate origin and Sylar, and Peter’s wacky misadventures in Ireland. They’ve gotten dull solely because it feels like a rehash of the same story every week. Even the more intriguing subplots (Parkman-Mohinder-Molly and the Bennets) feel like they’re spinning wheels a bit. The Claire-West “romance” tried to come into its own, but it failed because (among other things) it’s really stupid. The idea of a juvenile delinquent “hero” is mildly amusing, but West is hilariously miscast. When Claire has more romantic chemistry with her gay best friend, you know you’re in trouble. Either quit the romance or have West die tragically in some sort of 747-related accident. Or maybe it doesn’t matter since he’ll probably turn eeeevil.

Journeyman (NBC) — Two weeks ago, we had a D.B. Cooper-esque storyline (which I’m always a sucker for) that left Dan with $50,000 in 1970s cash — bonus! Except all the bills are marked, so if he spends them at all, he’ll be implicated in one of the great unsolved crimes. It also sort of ruined his career, considering he buried the story after their faux-Cooper turned out to be a sympathetic Army Ranger trying to smuggle a Vietnamese family out of Cambodia. It looked to me like this “windfall” would head us toward a grander story, and this week has possibly proven me right (sort of!). It deals with two brothers, sons of a Ukrainian immigrant who essentially ruined their lives with strictness and abuse. One of them becomes a Unabomber-esque brilliant physicist who begins bombing scientific organizations he feels has wronged him. With Dan helping the unfortunate guy’s brother, they manage to stop the bomber —

— and it turns out it wasn’t Daddy’s abuse that did him in (a television first): he recognized Dan as a time traveler and it apparently blew his mind. When Dan meets up with a slightly older non-bomber in the altered present, he confesses that time travel is completely impossible, but he sure sounds shady about it. Also implied in the episode: the scientist who gave Dan some advice about tachyons (theoretical particles that can travel faster than light, and therefore through time) knows more than he let on with Dan. I’m not prepared to say he’s the man behind the curtain, but I like that they’re heading in a direction with this. I don’t know that we should ever find out who/what/why Dan is traveling through time, and I’m also not convinced I like the attempt at a “hard-science” approach to it, but his investigation (whether it proves fruitless or not) has me hooked. That means it’ll be canceled before Sweeps ends.

My Name Is Earl (NBC) — The first season had a tedious episode in which Earl and Randy, for reasons I can’t full recall, get trapped in a water tower, suspended in mid-air over the water. It was boring, unfunny, awkwardly paced, and hands-down the worst episode the show had done…until now! “Our Other COPS Is On” has managed, far and away, to crown itself the show’s worst episode. The first COPS episode was pretty funny, giving us a nice, extended glimpse into the lives of the characters pre-List. This one, which takes place on the first Fourth of July after 9/11, was a total disaster. Some of the paranoia humor worked, but the hour-long episode had very little in the way of story. It relied mainly on gags involving its supporting cast, many of which were far too derivative of the previous COPS episode. On top of which — well, let’s just say I take back any complaints I have about the occasional padding or narrative shakiness with the recent Office hour-long episodes. This took things to a horrible new level, showing that the hour-long sitcom format really can be used for evil. Most of this season has fallen flat thanks to the oft-bitched-about “Earl in prison” story constraints, but nothing could have prepared me for this trainwreck of poor pacing (some of those scenes just went on for so long), awkward editing that reeked of a rough cut, relying far too much on a supporting cast that works better in small doses. Even the one redeeming quality of the episode — a little bit of satire mocking post-9/11 attitudes — turned into a disaster the more the throwaway gags developed into the flabby plot about Earl and Randy stealing fireworks.

I’m never one to declare “jump-the-shark” moments (you can usually only trace those after the show has ended), but there’s a first time for everything. Considering the steep decline in quality culminating in last week’s shocking badness, My Name Is Earl may have jumped the shark.

Numb3rs (CBS) — Numb3rs is back to the “everyone on the planet who isn’t a regular or Lou Diamond Phillips is a dirty cop” storyline. At least they’re trying to shake things up a bit — first, they led us to believe it was U.S. Mashal Erika “Cousin Pam” Alexander. When she turned up clean, attention turned to James Morrison, who apparently hit the skids HARD in the 24 off-season. Dude needs a shave and a haircut, or at least a comb. Or maybe “disheveled hair and goatee” has become CBS shorthand for “dirty cop.”

The Office (NBC) — The Office works in both hour and half-hour formats. Each has its own unique qualities, and the writers are smart enough to give us an obvious distinction between the styles of the two forms. Still, I couldn’t help thinking maybe this week’s would have worked better as an hour-long episode. The Michael-Dwight-Jim “road trip” felt a little rushed, as did the re-introduction of Karen and all the goofiness at the Utica branch. We got just enough of the Finer Things Club for it to be gold, though, so maybe I should accept it. Ken Levine recently suggested hour-long sitcoms don’t work because the writers usually only have 45 minutes of material, so they end up tacking on filler and/or pointless subplots to pad the run time. This episode would have been perfect at 45, but probably overkill at an hour. I’m so torn. I’ll just accept the half-hour episode. It was a strong episode; I just would have liked a little more.

Pushing Daisies (ABC) — At this point, the fact that Pushing Daisies doesn’t look or act anything like a television show functions as its greatest strength. Because, really, most of the storylines it uses are pretty routine; you just have to ignore zany, out-of-left-field twists and larger-than-life, quirky characters. What happened in this week’s “Halloween” episode followed a pretty routine “ghost killer who isn’t really a ghost, duh!” story without tossing many surprises at us, but it didn’t need them. It had: romantic moonlight gravedigging, a murderous conspiracy involving jockeys, and Ned’s most tragic chunk of backstory to date.

Yes, the most affecting chunk of the episode happened during the first few minutes, as we discover Ned’s father moved away with no forwarding address — just a picture of the house on a generic WE’VE MOVED!! postcard. I love that the world of Pushing Daisies has generic, holiday-themed cards that simply say WE’VE MOVED!! Ned sneaks out of his boarding school to find the house on the picture. He dresses up like a ghost to hide himself and finds his father has a new family and doesn’t even recognize his son, not even through the sheet with eye-holes cut out. He simply gives the anonymous boy a candy bar and pats him on the head. Damn!

I still don’t care for Olive or Kristin Chenoweth, but I did almost respect her for allowing the show to mock her diminutive stature. Making her character a former jockey may not have been the show’s boldest or most surprising moment, but the story they weaved around her previous occupation made it work.

Reaper (The CW) — I’m beginning to worry about this show. It’s still very funny, it’s still slowly but surely improving the quality of its demons and the complexities of how its fantasy world operates. I like that they want to head us in the direction of long-term story arcs, but my concern right now is: how much do we know about these characters? Right now, the characters coast on the strength of the affable performances, but as far as actual depth — we don’t get much from the writing. We know more about Sam than any other character, and all we really know about him is: he’s an unassertive underachiever with a relatively stable home life aside from that whole “Sorry, son, we sold your soul to the Devil” thing.

Each of the general character traits assigned to the three main characters (I exclude Andi because we know even less about her — just that she’s in college and seems interested in Sam) are pretty relatable to people in this highly coveted demographic: Sam, who knows what he wants but doesn’t have the guts to fight for it; Sock, who pretends to be a high-and-mighty go-getter trying to show Sam the light without acknowledging that hey, there’s a reason why he also works at the Bench and lives with his parents; we know less about Ben, but he fits the mold of a guy who tries to get along with everyone at all costs. Yet, beyond these general traits, we don’t get much more insight into the characters. Sure, they’re trying to establish a demented mentor relationship with the Devil, which will hopefully give Sam some long-term development, but will it matter if we never find out more about him?

Patton Oswalt’s therapy-obsessed reformed-assassin tried to bring some new insights, at least into the Sam-Sock relationship, but again, it didn’t do much other than regurgitate what we already know in a psychobabble patois. Even though I’ll admit this is the best episode so far, I’m still looking for more dimension to these characters.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi) — I’m a slave to the characters here. I acknowledge that as science-fiction it floats a few inches above “mediocre.” Most of its storylines have been done better elsewhere, including several first- and second-season episodes that directly ripped off vastly superior Farscape episodes. Lately, they’ve admitted the hackery in the form of Buffy-esque self-awareness. While that works to some extent, if you aren’t doing much to put a new spin on an old story (as Buffy almost always did), the admission doesn’t mean very much. It’s like saying you’re a drug addict in a crack den: nobody’s going to argue with you, and chances are nothing’s going to change.

Yet, the writers did one thing right: consistent characterizations fully realized by better actors than the show deserves. These people aren’t master thespians by any means, but the “let’s take a familiar idea and toss our characters into it” method of storytelling rests more on their shoulders than the writers, and the cast is more than capable of rising above the material. The problem is, as the show staggers forward without much in the way of improvement, cracks in the fa├žade have begun to form. It started last season with the Replicators: now that they’re allowed to talk, the Wraith come across more as melodramatic drag queens than scary villains. Solution? Cast David Ogden Stiers as a menacing-in-his-politeness Ancient clone who wants to lead an army to re-take Atlantis. Not bad, but what about the Wraith?

Last week, they did a little Firefly homage with a painfully bad actress running a rag-tag crew in a delapidated ship. They kidnap Sheppard and force him to use his Ancient gene to help them repair an Ancient warship they’ve discovered, which they can use to fight — you guessed it! — the Wraith. Unfortunately, in his effort to send a distress call back to Atlantis, Sheppard unwittingly alerts the Wraith. Fair enough: the Wraith still exist, after they seemed to drop them completely for the season.

This week, we returned to goofy, low-concept rehashes. Remember that TNG where everyone lost their memories? Or that X-Files? Or the Buffy and the Angel that were basically the same episode? Here we have a disease — a new strain of a common, chicken-pox-like disease in the Pegasus galaxy — that causes everyone to get amnesia and sweat a lot. The entire city would have descended into a group of shrieking adults constantly wetting themselves if not for Teyla and Ronon, who are immune.

The episode features one of the worse deus ex machinas of all time. I know it’s trying to be hip, ironic, and surprising, but the “big solution” of memory-free McKay just needing to hit the ENTER key to solve all their problems struck me as incredibly lazy. They wrote themselves into a corner, and that was the best solution? It further reenforces another disappointment in the show: Rodney McKay is Wesley Crusher. For all his bluster and ego, he really does save the day, week in and week out. How neat would it have been to explore some new dimensions when Teyla and Ronon — the muscle — are forced to use science and technology they barely understand to save the day? Instead, Teyla just whines, “I don’t know how to use this,” and makes McKay do it. Lame!

Supernatural (The CW) — Is Sam going to the Dark Side, or does he just have low patience and an itchy trigger finger? This is the question posed by Supernatural this week. Last week, Bobby helped Sam fix the Magic Colt, and this week Sam decided to use it on the Crossroads Demon — you know, the one Dean made a deal with, exchanging his life for Sam’s. Sam wants Dean out of the deal, but when he confronts the Crossroads Demon, he’s shocked to learn that hell is essentially a bureaucracy with an endless array of middle-managers creating a smokescreen around the Big Executive (man, Hell would be some kind of giant, soul-sucking corporate environment, wouldn’t it?). Yes, the Crossroads Demon has a boss. No, she can’t personally override the deal. Please hold while she transfers Sam to a supervis — oh shit, he shot her in the face!

It would appear we have our season-long story arc. After all, Dean only has a year to live, so they pretty much have to resolve this story soon. Will Sam’s journey into the corporate underworld take him on the prophesied path to evil, or will he rise above it when he realizes what a load of crap it is. Find out, on next week’s Angel — er, Supernatural.

Next week: in-depth coverage of how the writers’ strike will affect you, the television viewer.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

November 11, 2007

Un-ION! Un-ION!

I had planned a long column detailing the whats and wherefores of the strike, but it came off duller than usual, with no new information or insight. Instead, I offer the following links:

Variety’s Strike Coverage

United Hollywood

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

November 18, 2007

Striking Gold

This week, I played a little game, which I will continue to play in the coming weeks. It goes like this: watch a television show, try to consider when it was filmed (how near to the strike it was), and based on the episode’s quality, try to determine whether or not the writers are going for quality or quantity.

Aliens in America (The CW) — I can’t track down any reliable information about how many episodes of this series have been shot. Do people really care so little about the season’s best new comedy? Considering it’s on the CW, it’s not a leap to guess “yes.” It’s quite a shame, too, because Aliens in America took a slight gamble this week. For the first time in its brief history, the episode concentrated not on the potential conflict between Justin and Raja, but between Justine and his sister, Claire.

Though this gamble left Raja and Justin’s parents stranded in a funny but kind of pointless subplot (all three get re-addicted to smoking and have trouble quitting), it allowed for great development in the sibling relationship here. Ignoring all the episode’s incest jokes, the writers did a really nice job of showing us something that felt emotionally really in the midst of the show’s over-the-top hyper-reality.

In its effort to create a universe of cartoonish absurdity, on the level of Arrested Development or Malcolm in the Middle, this show could have gotten everything wrong and turned into a disaster by week two. Instead, the writers are clever enough to take real situations to their logical (or illogical) extremes, and it pays off. Have you ever seen a high school where Veteran’s Day has turned into a poor-man’s Valentine’s Day because the students have forgotten what a Purple Heart is? The comedy is less the truth of this concept than the truth that many high schools do have similarly bizarre traditions that have come about as a result of misguided students eroding the original intentions. As long as these characters keep their emotional depth, the writers can make their surroundings as outlandish and insane as they want to.

Bones (Fox) — At the end, their faces hung a little too close with a little too much intensity in their eyes. They could have leaned a few inches further and kissed, right then and there, and completely ruined the show — but they didn’t. What allows Bones to continue to work is its writers know exactly where that line is, and they take us right up to the edge of it, but they never cross it. At least, they haven’t yet. And they had better not, because honestly, the friendship — yes, friendship — Booth and Brennan share make this show worth watching. Do I care about their romantic chemistry and their almost-kissing? Yes, I do, but only because I don’t want them to.

It’s like any other friends you care about — you know there’s probably something there, but it’d ruin the friendship if they went any further. So here we are, the audience, the third wheel, knowing things will be awkward if they get together, but also knowing you can’t say anything because — well, aside from them being fictional characters and us watching them on television — you can’t let them know that you see the chemistry, because all they’ll do is deny it. And then start thinking about it. And then, maybe, act. The problem here is, their friends keep bringing it up to them. As does their therapist, played by Freaks & Geeks’ John Francis Daley. It’s harder to ignore the elephant when it keeps shitting on your coffee table, that’s all I’m saying.

Dirty Sexy Money (ABC) — Remember how last week I said I didn’t care at all about the romantic triangle (let’s face it: Freddy wasn’t even a part of it even when he was) between Nick, his wife, and Karen? Let’s ignore that these shows are shot weeks in advance so I can bitch that the last thing I wanted or expected was an entire hour devoted to this misguided triangle, and the threat that the storyline’s next phase will have Karen fighting even harder for Nick. I enjoy every other character on this show, including the vapid and bratty twins, but no joke: somebody in this triangle needs to get flattened by a bus so it can end. Please?

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW) — The subplot with Julius accidentally driving a mad robber across the country didn’t do much for me, but I really enjoyed the A story. Greg is usually underused, so it was nice to give him a little more focus and character development. Even with the prominence of Greg, it didn’t shake out to much more than a solid episode — not truly outstanding. Because the quality of a “solid but not outstanding” episode of this series is still so high, I can’t tell whether or not the writers are coasting.

Heroes (NBC) — Is it just me, or should “Four Months Ago” have aired…four months ago? I have enjoyed significant portions of the season so far, but the revelations and ass-kickiness of this episode should have come much, much sooner. It felt more like a season premiere than the “already in progress” premiere we got. Although “Four Months Ago” didn’t answer all our burning questions — it answered enough of them to satisfy me, but not quite enough to justify the lumbering pace of previous episodes.

It’s been officially confirmed that the December 3rd episode will wrap up the strike-truncated season, but considering the pace they’ve set this season, I can’t see how they can do it satisfactorily with only three episodes left (and only one episode significantly altered as a result of the strike).

House (NBC) — Speaking of not truly outstanding: despite being the best episode of the season, I’m still getting tired of the format. When will the writers learn that more characters won’t improve this show? If they renamed it The House-Wilson Comedy Hour and fired everyone whose character name isn’t in the title, this show would be the best on television. I will never, ever tire of their banter, and don’t try to tell me it’s just because they use it sparingly. Even in episodes that have featured Wilson prominently, the banter doesn’t get old.

Here’s why: Wilson calls House on his bullshit, and he’s one of the few who can out-sarcasm the Maestro. On House’s team, you have a bunch of whiners and mopers wondering why House can’t be nicer to them, even though the three of them rarely have the balls to stand up to him. Now, we have an entire new crop of applicants — some more interesting than others — who are even more terrified because they haven’t actually gotten the job yet. Nobody but Wilson takes House to task, not even Cuddy, whose fluttering eyes and “gee I don’t approve, but I secretly have a crush on you so you can do whatever” demeanor suggest she’ll never truly stand up to him.

Did I mention House and Wilson both hilarious? Too bad the rest of the show — even the good episodes — have gotten so dull and repetitive. I can’t tell if this is a “quantity over quality” problem or if the writers are just content with the show that they’re making.

Journeyman (NBC) — Sources suggest that this series had a 13-episode order, all 13 of which have been completed. It makes me wonder, with no real evidence backing me up, if this was to be a midseason replacement last year (or perhaps this year), so its shooting schedule was different. If that’s the case, perhaps Journeyman will deliver a satisfactory season finale. After all, as it ladles intrigue onto an already-interesting premise, the show’s quality has only improved as the weeks have passed.

The Dylan MacLean story is now ratcheting up the intensity as an FBI man has decided to turn Dan’s life upside-down. On top of that, we’ve had another appearance by Elliott Langley, the mysterious quantum physicist who keeps looking at Dan like a proud father looks at a son — or a proud scientist looks at a successful experience. Is he the man behind the curtain, or just a nutjob? Who knows? What we do know: Langley quit his job because the USA PATRIOT Act opened up his research to any federal agent interested — and boy were they interested. In using his research into time-travel as a terrorist-fighting weapon?

Other plot-thickening revelations: Livia’s home is in 1948, not the present? Dan’s brother is accused of evidence-tampering when the FBI agent finds a present-day $20 bill (which Dan gave a cabbie in the past, just before his brother chased him down and took a report about the “counterfeit” bill) instead of whatever funny-money he was expecting. Will the agent put two and two together and decide he wants to harness Dan’s “ability” for the forces of…I assume evil, because it’s Big Government, but maybe they are trying to do the right thing here.

The direction I thought it was headed in — that Dan would start using all the “old currency” from the hijacking and would end up a fugitive across time — hasn’t happened. In fact, while they didn’t show it, we were led to believe that Katie burned all the hijacking money. Still, I like where the show is headed quite a bit more than my own idea.

King of the Hill (Fox) — The Simpsons killed off Maude Flanders for laughs (and failed-contract-negotiation bitterness), but King of the Hill doesn’t play that way. The impending death of Cotton Hill once again brings up Hank’s complicated, depressing issues with his father, and they didn’t pull any punches. TV deaths often leave me cold, but nothing was as wild as watching Hank first say hateful things while his father almost died, then Peggy say even more hateful things while he really died. You’d think after ten years it would stop amazing me at how much more interesting, nuanced and emotionally realistic this cartoon is in comparison to most live-action fare. I am really, really disappointed that it has so few episodes remaining.

Animation is kind of a weird beast, as most of the episodes need to be written (and usually recorded) 6-9 months in advance in order to have them animated in time to air. It’s hard to say if the writers of King of the Hill could make a bad or lazy episode even accidentally, but it’s an even harder call considering how long ago these episodes were written. It does make me wonder if the last-minute punch-ups they usually do before airing will affect the quality once the post-strike episodes kick in.

My Name Is Earl (NBC) — My vote: quantity. The two-parter over the last two weeks should have had the same mixture of oddness and sweetness that the original Liberty Jones episodes had, yet this episode fell flat. Maybe it was because Earl and Randy arguing the whole time was both out of character and annoying, maybe it’s because the show as a whole has fallen to pieces after they backed themselves into a corner in last season’s finale — or maybe the writers have just been trying to crank out as many episodes as possible before the strike. Maybe it’s telling that, unlike the other NBC single-camera series, My Name Is Earl supposedly has its entire 22-episode series completed already, while 30 Rock has 10, Scrubs has 12, and The Office is already on hiatus (as of next week).

Numb3rs (CBS) — I’m ready to pack it in. Granted, they haven’t done the old “it was a dirty cop” thing again — yet! — but last week’s episode about video-game players, a topic I actually know something about, was so poorly done it makes me question all the stuff I don’t understand. Friday’s episode, about a Paris Hilton-esque socialite who stages her own kidnapping in an attempt to get her father to dismantle his third-world operations. When that fails, she kidnaps her father, played by William Atherton from Ghostbusters (the highlight of the episode).

Unfortunately, you really didn’t need a masters in mathematics to figure this episode out. From the second we meet William Atherton, whose Walter Peck smarminess is in full effect, it was pretty clear the daughter kidnapped herself. Most of these procedurals are predictable in the what and how — it’s the why that’s supposed to make it interesting. Problem is, Numb3rs seemed to think the what was a real brain teaser. It just made Megan come across like a total idiot when she kept saying things like, “Look at that photo — she’s a scared little girl,” when all the “little girl” had in her eyes was fury. When your profiler looks stupid, it makes it a lot harder to accept her self-righteous raging against the Walter Peck machine. I really like Diane Farr, so this episode — the first of the season that let her do anything even mildly interesting — was a major disappointment.

The Office (NBC) — Wow. What a way to go on hiatus. The Office gives us an excruciating look at the Michael-Jan relationship as they depose themselves for her wrongful termination suit against Dunder-Mifflin. Michael tries, in his misguided way, to stand up for Jan, and then he’s forced to sit through a dissection of his own character intelligence and competence. The writers have done a fantastic job portraying Michael Scott as an endearing manchild. Everything he does is completely counterintuitive to adult behavior, and yet the audience becomes protective of him as we discover he just doesn’t know any better. When the tables turn and he’s betrayed by Jan, it’s horrible even though we know she’s dead right. And Michael’s monologue at the end, about expecting to get screwed by your company, but not expecting to get screwed by your girlfriend, was so profoundly pathetic and human…wow, I’ll miss this show.

Pushing Daisies (ABC) — It’s official: Kristin Chenoweth has finally stopped annoying me. Sort of. At the very least, she’s become a tolerable part of the Pushing Daisies universe. As long as they don’t let her sing again, I’ll stop griping about how shrill and forced her performance is. It’s not that it’s stopped being shrill or forced — it’s just stopped bugging me, for some reason.

With that out of the way, I’ll compliment the way the writers are able to take pretty simplistic mysteries (they’re not horrible, just typical of TV procedurals) and use them to deliver the fantastical weirdness we’ve come to expect: polygamy, dog breeding, cloning, coffee creamer. More than anything, I’m a sucker for the Ned-Chuck non-romance. The way the polygamy story reenforced and furthered that romance tied the dueling subplots together better than any other, so far.

Reaper (The CW) — Reaper, on the other hand, has given me some romantic subplot trouble. I have a hard time with Sam and Andi, but this week I’ve finally figured out why. It’s a strange time to figure it out, since this is the second time in the entire series Andi hasn’t felt totally extraneous, and I found myself enjoying and relating to the “more-than-a-friend gift” subplot more than any other Sam-Andi interaction so far. Yet, at the moment Andi started sobbing and told Sam he’s the most important person in her life, I thought, “Aww — wait, what?!”

Then it occurred to me: we know virtually nothing about Andi, except that she’s trying to go to college and she sorta has a thing for Sam. This is, fundamentally, the problem with the entire storyline. We barely know a thing about Andi, or her friendship with Sam, and in fact — we don’t even know that much about Sam. Bret Harrison is a likable actor who helps Sam coast a lot farther than he should, but if we don’t get a little more depth (how about some more scenes at home with the forgotten parents and brother?), this entire show may start falling flat.

More than that, though, we need to understand Andi: where does she come from, what’s her life like outside the Bench, why is Sam so important to her? By virtue of the point the show chose to start — the day Sam learns he’ll be the Devil’s bounty hunter — he’s only shown himself to be an awkward, unreliable cad who probably causes more heartache than happiness in Andi’s life. So…what was going on before the series started? She’s not part of the regular outside-of-work hangout crew, I don’t believe they’ve made any reference to them going to high school together, so as far as we know, their only knowledge of each other exists in a work setting. I want to know about this deep friendship.

Otherwise, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. Who doesn’t love A.D. Skinner jumping into the fray as SuperCop? The big twist at the end actually caught me off-guard, so bravo on that. The subplot with Sock and Gladys was really entertaining, so all in all, nice job. Although, I can’t help finding myself waiting for something bigger to come along — for Satan to show us a little more evil, for Sam’s dad to finally reveal what he ripped out of the contract and why. The standalone format is working well enough for me, but those little moments of overarching story have left me wanting to know where they’re going, stat.

Stargate: Atlantis (Sci-Fi) — I’m retiring this show as of this week. I may keep watching it, and it may return if it undergoes vast improvements, but right now it’s feeling a little repetitive to keep saying “this show is inferior to Farscape and Firefly, two shows it obviously and desperately wants to be.”

Supernatural (The CW) — I don’t know how to feel about this episode. Sterling K. Brown as Gordon Walker is always a welcome presence, and the partnership between his psycho-hunter and Michael Massee’s crazed religious nut intrigued me quite a bit, but now they’re both dead, so…what was the point of all that? Overall, the episode felt a little too derivative of Angel (not that that’s a bad thing), and the vampire thing took me by surprise. I don’t claim to remember everything that’s happened in the history of the show, but I could have sworn they made at least a few references to vampires not existing — something about how they were a myth to distract from the real demons. In light of them possibly dusting off an unused Angel script, I’d give this a “quantity” rating, but considering it was a pretty decent Angel rip-off, I’m torn.

Next week: some rote Thanksgiving episodes about complicated family politics, I hope!

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Reviews, Idiot Boxing

November 29, 2007

The Eroticist

Do you like your sex comedies both stilted and over the top? If so, legendary horror directory Lucio Fulci has the movie for you! The Eroticist stars hammy Lando Buzzanca as presidential candidate (and sitting senator) Puppis with a bizarre sexual compulsion — namely, a desire to grab the ass of any and every nearby female. When a priest captures such an act on film a threatens to expose him (I think — plot isn’t one of this film’s strong points), Puppis goes on a “religious retreat” to a monastery, so he can overcome this unusual predilection.

What follows is basically Fellini Lite™, with Fulci cramming the thin premise full of characters an plot twists to pad the story out to feature length. Cluttered with papal and Italian political satire, much of which flew straight over my head (as I imagine it would most Americans), The Eroticist lurches along whenever Puppis isn’t onscreen. This is not a result of Buzzanca’s goofy mugging so much as the fact that his story has an endearing, relatable quality to it that the other subplots lack. Unfortunately, his struggle to overcome this sexual problem devolves into a door-slamming farce as characters from each subplot enter Puppis’ home and he has to keep each hidden from the others. All this lurches toward an end that will provide erotica fans with a lot of much-desired nudity, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as the first 45 minutes or so.

The humor is hit-or-miss at best. As mentioned, part of this stems from a culture barrier, so maybe those more familiar with the intricacies of Italian politics will enjoy the satire. However, much of the problem with the comedy is Fulci’s tendency to get way too broad. One example comes in the middle of the film, when Puppis has exiled himself to the monastery (which is filled with the sexiest nuns in the history of Catholicism). While he discusses his problems with Pietro Fornari (José Quaglio), the old monk makes the mistake of bending over in front of him. Buzzanca lets out a groan, which is funny — then Fulci takes it too far, having Buzzanca grab Fornari’s behind and leaving the old man to struggle to remove it. What started as a funny, subtle moment turns into a plodding, beat-the-joke-to-death scene.

Once in awhile, a few legitimately funny moments and one-liners escape Fulci’s ham-fisted treatment. At the beginning, Fulci shows us the televised political discourse, and then we hear shouts — thinking citizens are swept up in the election. Then he reveals the men shouting at a soccer match. At one point, an embittered police captain declares, “This is the first time in political history that someone has held a coup without alerting the generals!” I laughed at moments like these, but there aren’t many, so the product as a whole is unsatisfying and overlong.

While it will not suit fans of comedy, fans of erotica fare even worse; aside from a few dream sequences and one extended nude scene near the end, there’s little excitement to be had. The plot deals with a man whose sexual repression threatens to ruin his political career, so it probably won’t surprise anyone to find out that it’s filled mainly with discussions of sex rather than graphic portrayals.

The transfer on Severin’s DVD release is really sharp. I’ve reviewed several releases, all of which look better than older VHS releases but still suffer from heavy grain and the occasional washed-out image. The Eroticist looks great, however — it looks about as good as most mainstream film restorations from the same era.

I can’t quite recommend The Eroticist, but I think maybe even the over-the-top humor can be attributed to a cultural problem. Maybe this just isn’t a great Italian film to release in the U.S., or maybe American fans of Italian cinema will love it.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

Black Emanuelle’s Box Volume 2

On November 13th, Severin released volume two of the Black Emanuelle box set. It includes Black Emanuelle 2, Black Emanuelle/White Emanuelle and Black Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade. One of the more intriguing and worthwhile curiosities of the collection is Black Emanuelle 2, the only film of the series that does not star the gorgeous Laura Gemser. Even more curiously, star Sharon Lesley (also known as Shulamith Lasri) never appeared in another film. I found myself more intrigued by Lesley’s story than by anything offered in the films themselves. Unfortunately, none of the collection’s supplemental features gave any explanation of where she came from or where she went.

Each film suffers from simplified plots, mediocre acting (made worse by truly atrocious dubbing — both poorly translated and poorly recited) and a low-budget verité style that doesn’t quite match the content. If you enjoy mid-’70s music, the score for each movie is pretty good (although some of the songs with lyrics are sung in Italian). Each film boasts some impressive locations, although they aren’t exactly served well by the sloppy guerilla filmmaking.

But you didn’t come here for the traditional merits of cinema, did you? The sex scenes (all simulated) range from poorly blocked to surprisingly erotic, and one of the highlights is the sheer number of beautiful women. Laura Gemser, of course, might go down in history in the top 10 all-time beauties, but supporting actors — like Annie Belle, Susan Scott, Ziggy Zanger, Danielle Ellison, Dagmar Lassander and Elly Galleani — round out the cast in more ways than one. Sharon Lesley, too, is quite beautiful, but she can’t hold a candle to Gemser.

Almost as importantly, Severin did a very nice job with the DVD transfers. Anybody who saw a Black Emanuelle movie on VHS or cable (or on bootleg DVDs prior to Severin’s U.S. releases) is aware of how fuzzy and washed out these films can look. Here, they probably look as well as they did in theatrical release — not great, thanks to the rushed and amateurish production, but serviceable.

If you like the Black Emanuelle series, this set is a no-brainer. If you like beautiful women getting the softcore treatment and don’t mind the usual trappings of erotica, you might like it, too.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews