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August 31, 2008

Book Review: The Timewaster Letters

For years, BAFTA-winning writer/producer Robert Popper (Peep Show, Look Around You) has wasted both his time and others writing absurd letters to equally absurd corporations, organizations and government institutions. The Timewaster Letters compiles some of these letters for our amusement. It’s a slim book — less than 200 pages — that most people could enjoy over the course of an afternoon. It also contains the type of strange, breathless humor that’s hilarious but easy forgotten, which is not necessarily a criticism. It merely adds reread value to it — you can pick it up at any time and laugh all over again.

When I first started reading, the book made me laugh consistently. Each letter is a miniature comic gem, and in many cases the oblivious responses enhance the humor. However, like every piece of humor that gets its laughs at the expense of others, the more I read, the more I considered the dark side. While a few of the recipients seemed to, at the very least, find amusement in these odd letters, the overwhelming majority are just innocent folks who just happen to enjoy halibut or have a job affiliated with insulation. These letters, then, become a slightly more highbrow version of a prank phone call. I felt bad for the recipients, who mostly replied in good faith, and I felt guilty for finding “Cooper”‘s letters so funny.

One shining example of what this book could have — and should have — been occurs early on, when “Cooper” exchanges letters with the employee of a children’s-book publisher. She seems to catch on to the joke after the second or third letter, and after awhile it seems like she’s prolonging the correspondence for her own amusement. Another example — perhaps the apex of guilt-free hilarity in this book — occurs when “Cooper” writes a letter to the head of a Ball-Bearing enthusiasts’ club, complaining that his fictitious son has a collection so enormous, his frustrated parents don’t know how to deal with it. Rather than responding to “Cooper,” the enthusiast responds directly to the son, urging him to continue his collection and giving him tips to prevent his parents from keeping him down. A few other respondents send similarly ridiculous or sarcastic letters, but I still felt sorry for the chipper, serious replies.

Despite my misgivings with the humiliation-based humor, Robert Popper has a great comic mindd, a penchant for the absurd and a gift for inventing a certain continuity within the nonexistent Cooper brood. For instance, early on he makes an offhanded remark about his wife getting an ankle X-Ray. His wife’s broken ankle quickly turns into a running gag, referred to in letters to a variety of sources. Popper’s attention to these details gives “Cooper” a very life-like quality, which perhaps makes his letters more believable.

I’d recommend this book to fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy (Borat, Da Ali G Show) or perhaps fans of the Meet the Parents movies. If you like that style of humor, this book is a big winner. If you’re prone to feeling guilt over elaborate practical jokes you have no part of or control over, you might want to stay away.

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

August 17, 2008

Attention, Readers: Watch The Middleman

I’m not kidding. It’s hilarious. ABC Family, Mondays, 10PM Eastern.

Burn Notice (USA) — They’re just toying with me now. My long-desired body-slam of the crime-of-the-week and overarching “who burned me?” storylines might be right around the corner, but now they’re teasing me. They brought in Stargate SG-1’s Michael Shanks (because apparently Tricia Helfer was busy and they sent out a casting call for another cult sci-fi star?) to give Michael another one of these nefarious submissions, but because Michael Westen decided to make his crime-of-the-week priority, Shanks wandered in and almost blew the whole deal. We haven’t come closer to a full-blown intermingling of stories, but it’s not there yet. I still wait for the day Michael’s brain explodes when he discovers his weekly “client” is actually working for the Helfer/Shanks deathsquad, and he has inadvertently helped their cause. It’ll happen, I’m sure.

I don’t know what I’m bitching about, though, because this was a solid, fun episode in which Method Man (most recently seen as Cheese on The Wire) guest stars a hip-hop mogul who suspects one of his entourage is embezzling — but he suspects the wrong person. Aside from the moderately Scooby-Doo ending, in which the real culprit is kept talking while Method Man listens from another room, the story functioned pretty well.

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — I like Alan Ruck, but seeing him as a slightly eccentric goofball of a seismologist made me wonder what the hell happened to Matt Frewer. Ruck played basically the same character, albeit with a slightly different scientific specialty, and if Frewer decided to bail, I don’t mind the replacement. Just seems odd to introduce him without any acknowledgment of what happened to Jim Taggart.

Here’s where I get hostile, though: I do not like the Carter-Allison-Stark triangle. Never bought it, probably never will. This episode, with its wedding-dress shenanigans and Carter’s sad-sack facial expressions, has solidified my intense dislike of both the triangle and of the writers’ insistence on ramming it down the audience’s throats. This feeling does not stem from the fact that the whole “will-they-or-won’t-they-keep-them-apart-before-bringing-them-together” storyline is played out on TV and just needs a rest. The problem lies in chemistry.

I don’t want this to sound like a criticism of Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who is a fine actress, but she has no visible chemistry with either Colin Ferguson or Ed Quinn. Ironically, the men have really great “we can’t stand each other” chemistry — I just wish they gave us a better reason for this than “we’re both in love with this woman.” I just don’t buy it, and no amount of robot dogs, diamond microprocessors or any other awesome plot stuff can distract me from the colossal failure of this TV triangle.

Flashpoint (CBS) — I want to know something: do gangs of angry, gun-toting, Avril Lavigne-looking girls really stalk the streets of Toronto? Does that happen in the States? Anyway, this week’s episode continues the sad trend of getting to know our wacky criminals, though they took a different tack with this scenario. Rather than continue with the hostage-taker-of-the-week format, they’ve utilized the SRU in a different capacity. I like that — it keeps the formula from getting stale.

I have one “if they could do it over” wish: develop the gangster girls a little more. The notion that the leader of this pack refused to believe Tasha’s rape story piqued my interest, but they didn’t do much to explore that. She’s out for revenge, but I wanted them to fill in a few more details about her refusal to believe the truth. More to the point, I’d like to believe one reason for her homicidal tendency is that she did believe the truth, and it enraged her — making this less an overreactive avenging than a very personal jealousy. They hinted at this but didn’t explore it with the level of depth Flashpoint often gives to its “villains.”

Lastly, I know I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I didn’t realize until this episode that each show so far has concentrated on a different member of the SRU. This week, it’s Amy Jo Johnson’s Jules lending an understanding ear to suicidal Tasha Redford. All’s well that ends well, but another mild wish was that they show the “girl“‘s strength in a non-girly situation. I guess you can’t have everything, though. At the very least, she showed a combination of femininity and brass balls that isn’t often portrayed well on television. Writers usually either take it in a “total shrew” direction or instill the character with bizarre, male-fantasy notions of a strong woman.

Mad Men (AMC) — Patrick Fischler pops up on yet another show, playing a truly unpleasant Jerry Lewis surrogate. All hell breaks loose at Sterling Cooper when he insults the owner of a company during a commercial shoot for their product. As much as you can be a fan of a guy who only pops up in bit parts and guest appearances, I’ve admired Fischler ever since his insane Winky’s monologue in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive — a scene that almost single-handedly makes the movie worth watching. He can add another terrific role to his long, weird resume, and I hope we see more of him in this role.

Harry’s subplot involving The Defenders — a story that actually happened — had a poignant conclusion, in that Harry gets exactly what he wants in the most demeaning possible way. One of my mild complaints about the first season was that it didn’t emphasize these “smaller” roles enough. Since Harry will now spearhead a totally new branch of Sterling Cooper, I assume this will give him some more interesting work. Now, I just hope we see more from Ken, Paul and Salvatore.

That said, this might be the first episode in which Don wasn’t the most interesting character. He still had a central role in terms of screen time, but he didn’t carry the heavy load this time around. Could this indicate that, in a sea of Sterling Cooper power struggles and uncomfortable Betty teasing, the tide has shifted?

The Middleman (ABC Family) — Sorbo! Need I say more?

All right, I suppose I ought to say a little more. This episode came about as close to perfect as any show can expect in its first season. A great guest star, interesting personal conflicts tied into the central plot, a poignant ending — and more jokes per frame than a glory-years episode of The Simpsons. I’ve gone from enjoying this show’s humor to raving about it as a well-rounded, high-quality hour to pretty much everyone who makes the mistake of asking me about television. I hope that, despite its flagging ratings, ABC Family continues to support it.

Monk (USA) — I had an expectation that this episode, which takes place almost entirely on a Navy sub, would turn Monk into the butt of the macho-man naval officers’ jokes. To the credit of the writers — or maybe the actors or director Paris Barclay — they eschewed such cheap stereotypes in favor of…well, general annoyance from most people, but surprising sensitivity from prominent guest star Casper Van Dien. Much like Natalie, he treated Monk’s foibles and phobias with some respect and helped him to make the best of a bad situation. It was also a great idea to have Monk “solve” this crisis by hallucinating the presence of Dr. Bell, made even better by adding an amusing running joke where Monk lets Bell do the talking for him.

And, of course, I have to mention the presence of William Atherton as the murderous commander. Atherton has had a bit of an under-the-radar career since his Ghostbusters/Die Hard heyday, playing mostly bit parts or sleazy variations on his most prominent characters. He often brings an interesting quality to these characters, so it was nice to see him here even if it made the mystery a tad more predictable than usual. The law of economy of characters dictates that it was either him or Van Dien, and Van Dien just seemed too nice. Of course, that would have made it a big surprise, but the “too-nice killer” isn’t the type of guy to kill somebody, wait for the Navy to rule it a clear-cut suicide, then bring in the world’s best detective (according to the universe of the show) to “solve” the case.

I hope that didn’t sound like a complaint — I think both Van Dien and Atherton should be regulars. The former’s chemistry with Natalie, and the latter’s pure awesomeness, would make both valued additions.

Psych (USA) — Has Psych decided to dedicated an entire season to movie/genre/era spoofs? First we have haunted houses, then John Hughes movies, then Evel Knievel, then treasure-hunting adventures and now ’70s cop-shows. I’m not sure if I should complain or applaud the sheer hilarity of the convoluted ways the writers get us to the spoof (turning an old boat of a Pontiac into a major clue, having Shawn, Gus and Henry buy “disguises” from a thrift store, etc.). Also, I can’t complain about any show that includes Ted “Isaac the Bartender” Lange as a washed-up informant. Aside from the parodies, I continue to enjoy the way they’re developing the Shawn-Henry dynamic and integrating him into the stories more.

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

August 31, 2008

Labor Day Special

Just kidding. There’s nothing special about this column except that there was barely anything on TV this week.

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — I won’t lie and say I suddenly don’t mind the love triangle, because even a mild declaration like that wouldn’t come close to the truth, but this episode didn’t bother me as much as last week’s. Perhaps part of this stems from the fact that no major characters died as a result of poorly written storylines. Even with its reliance on the awkward post-death non-triangle between Carter and Allison, what worked in the episode overshadowed what didn’t.

I will say I’m a little concerned about Lexi, Carter’s sister. Introduced in last week’s shitfest, they tried to flesh her out a tiny bit this week. Unfortunately, the writers have opted for over-the-top stereotypes and have not given her the delicate nuance of some of this show’s better characters. And do we really need another character whose sole function is to point out how uptight and law-abiding Carter is? They don’t think Zoey is annoying enough? It’s disappointing, because Ever Carradine starred in a hilarious movie called Dead & Breakfast, and here they’re trying to allow her to bring some comic relief, but what they’ve written for her…isn’t funny. She does the best she can, but I find myself looking forward to her deadly serious turn on the next season of 24.

Lexi brings me to the episode’s other major flaw: the ridiculous, coincidence-induced deus ex machina involving her horrible, sitar-dominated music. See, because crazy, free-spirited hippies only listen to and compose music using sitars. Because they go to India and smoke dope like the Beatles. Get it?! Anyway, the idea of the musical frequencies drawing the attention of the ancient insects wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but they handled it rather clumsily. I’m not usually the best at predicting what’ll happen on a show (I’ve called Bones unpredictable — that has to lower my credibility somewhat, right?), so when I can call in the first scene that something will be important later, the writers have done something very, very wrong.

However, they get bonus points because (a) the “bad guy” didn’t turn out to be an angry (ex-)employee introduced earlier in the episode, and (b) the shady documentarian did kinda make me laugh. He certainly had better material than Ms. Carradine.

Mad Men (AMC) — I wanted to be annoyed at Mad Men for skipping ahead 15 months, then employing flashbacks in this episode to bridge the gap. I didn’t mind them skipping ahead — it’s just, either move forward with the occasional glimpse back, or do a better job of planning. And then we got that possibly hallucinated scene in which Don visits Peggy at the hospital (for the record, I don’t believe she hallucinated it, but the writers left it ambiguous just to be irritating). In fact, Peggy’s entire arc in this episode — starting with her obedience and submission with Don’s drunk-driving fiasco, and ending with her growing a pair (literally?) and calling him “Don” instead of Mr. Draper — and the trajectory it has set for her character made me love this show even more.

Speaking of loving this show more: every time Pete acts like an asshole (which is often), I just sit, slackjawed, wondering how a person like that could exist, in 1962 or any other time, and go through life without having a sledgehammer pounded into his skull. He makes Jimmy Barrett seem like a nice guy.

I admire this show for allowing quiet moments to breathe. It’s not that they won’t use any non-diegetic music (like, say, The Wire) — it just seems that they understand the intensity and suspense that pin-dropping quiet can bring. Everything about the car accident, which fed into Peggy’s story, had a slow pace to it — but it was exactly the right speed. I’ve complained about shows rushing their endings or frontloading their teaser and first acts, but one thing Mad Men always gets right — even in an off episode, not that this was one — is the pacing. They hang around and let the drama unfold, instead of cutting right to the peak of drama, then moving on to the next big dramatic moment.

The Middleman (ABC Family) — Should I be amazed merely by the fact that they’ve introduced a spoof of a Steve Jobs-like eco-friendly CEO, or that they’ve cast Mark A. Sheppard (Badger from Firefly) in the role, all but guaranteeing he will turn out to be some sort of arch-villain/Big Bad?

This episode really brought the show’s A game, which makes me fear even more its imminent cancellation. The main plot, which found Wendy and the Middleman stuck inside HQ as a result of an evil, intergalactic nanobots infestation, was The Middleman doing what it does best: the Die Hard and Fantastic Voyage references, the trip into Ida’s brain, the aching sincerity of both the Middleman and Wendy’s “we’re going to die” recordings — everything was top-notch.

However, it was Tyler’s Parallax View-esque (and don’t think I’m not bitter that the episode did not contain any direct references to that 1974 classic) interview at Manservant (pronounced “Mahn-SUR-vahnt”) Neville’s Fatboy Industries that made me realize The Middleman intends to become more than a joke-a-second spy spoof. It’s edged toward sincerity and tragedy in the past few episodes, but right now they’re setting up Tyler — who, remember, was another favorite to be the Middleman-in-training — for a hard fall. As Manservant’s assistant, he’s headed down a bad road. I am sensing something on par with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s rise of Angelus on the horizon…

…that is, assuming The Middleman ever makes it to a second season. ABC Family, come on. What do you have? Kyle XY and GRΣΣK? You can’t make room for more Middleman? Come on, I’ve seen its special effects — it can’t cost that much to keep the Middleman in Eisenhower jackets.

Next week is the season finale. If it turns out to be a series finale, I hope they make it good and relatively complete.

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

August 3, 2008

Mad Men and Eureka Return

Burn Notice (USA) — This episode gave us an interesting look at something that Burn Notice hasn’t explored much — Cold War-style spy games. Andrew Divoff (who appeared on Lost as Mikhail, the eyepatch-wearing immortal psychopath) lent support as the ring-leader of a sex-slave operation importing girls from Soviet countries. Michael, Sam and Fiona manufacture an elaborate ruse that convinces Divoff to trust Michael (who he thinks is a Ukrainian prisoner working for the same men he is).

One of Burn Notice’s most admirable qualities is its ability to make spy tradecraft feel fresh, and it shines through here. In both the A story involving Divoff and the B story (in which Sam tries to schmooze an obnoxious businessman played by the inimitable Larry Miller), the writers give us those little moments showing that what Michael does is a specialized job, but a job just the same. The ability to create a seemingly elaborate CIA prison on a budget (and with only three people), having to endure crass chunkheads who are obviously spending your money and wasting your time — the writers approach this all from a very human level that separates it from more…let’s just say over-the-top spy series like Alias (I loved it, but even a die-hard fan can’t deny its ridiculousness), where we’re asked to ignore the finer details.

They’ve also continued to integrate the “who burned me?” subplots more fully into the stories. The subplots have not yet intersected with the main story, even in a House-like “what’s happening in the A story made me figure out how to solve my problem in the B story” way, but the writers have gotten closer to making the subplots more organic. Keep up the good work!

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — I’ll choose my words carefully because, despite what I’ll say in a minute, I love this show. It’s a season premiere and the first time I’ve properly written about this show in this column, so I hate starting off on a bad note, but… Remember how last season’s finale tossed about a thousand different balls in the air? Revelations about Kevin (Allison’s son), Beverly, Stark, the artifact, Henry, Henry’s love thang — they packed more information into that hour than into most of the episodes combined, and now…what? We get a vague reference to Henry being in prison and nothing else? I know Eureka tends to be a “slow-build” kind of show, but come on. Acknowledge the fallout before moving on.

Instead, we thrill as Zoe starts a job at Café Diem, Frances Fisher comes to town to act smug and threatening, Stark proposes to Allison (again) and characters we’ve never seen before play with Galaga-like defense ships. It wasn’t a terrible episode, but it did a much better job of setting up next season than it did resolving last season. Maybe this is by design, but I found it a little frustrating.

Also, haven’t we seen the “your organization is comically inefficient,” all-business characters threaten to shut down just about every TV ensemble in history? I find this subplot disappointing in part because of the cliché, but mainly because it’s another excuse to dump on Carter. How did Sheriff Guy-from-WarGames handle the town before him? Without knowing what makes him so bad, I’m more inclined to think the residents have gotten significantly worse — more competitive and petty than they were in the past. But hey, what do I know?

Flashpoint (CBS) — This is a general comment, directed at one of this week’s guest stars, Trevor Hayes: you made such a great impression as Tony on IFC’s The Business, I find it impossible to take you seriously in any dramatic role. This isn’t because you’re a bad actor — in fact, quite the opposite. I have a hard time separating you from this role, and every time I see you, I wait for that annoying ringtone, followed by a suave “You’re with Tony.”

With that out of the way, this episode surprised me in a lot of ways: the backstory of this week’s hostage scenario, the fact that the hostage was a cop, the fact that on a certain level he deserved to be held hostage. On one level, I sort of thought the episode’s setup would be a great idea for a raucous comedy: a group of SWAT officers, sent out on beat-cop patrol, end up escalating minor domestic disturbances as a result of their aggressive tactical training. They managed to keep it intense and surprising enough that I didn’t distract myself with too many “here’s how this scene would play as a comedy” thoughts. It was, at least, interesting to see what the SRU does when they aren’t quelling hostage situations. Toronto can’t have that many of these scenarios.

Mad Men (AMC) — Here we are, 15 months after last season’s finale, and I’ve had a hard time absorbing all the changes. The easiest to digest are also the most obvious: after Betty’s blossoming last season, she now takes charge of the Draper household with a combination of assertiveness and passive-aggressiveness that have forced Don into a much different, more sheepish role. I won’t use the word “cuckold” because that’s a little extreme, but considering Don’s, ahem…”performance” on Valentine’s night, maybe it’s appropriate. The real question is, how will this new dynamic inform Betty’s increasing independence? Are they headed toward a divorce, or will she simply start giving Don a taste of his own medicine by cheating?

Speaking of big, mysterious changes — remember how Peggy dropped a baby in last season’s finale? I know the writers haven’t forgotten it — Pete asking her if she wants kids was quite a moment — but they won’t divulge all the answers right away. And lastly, Duck Phillips (the guy they hired toward the end of last season) has decided Sterling Cooper needs young blood. He’s not wrong, but as the sniping copywriters observe, their youngest is 20. I don’t know what the writers have planned for Duck and his rivalry with Don, but if they give him enough depth, he could become a perfect foil for Don’s outmoded 1950s thinking.

The Middleman (ABC Family) — I’ve waited for this since the start: now that they’ve established the bizarre tone and acquired-taste sense of humor, the writers are moving on to pathos. The long-percolating flirtation between the Middleman and Lacey try to go on a first date, which ultimately leads to a depressing ending at the yacht party. More than the basic “Middleman can’t date Wendy’s best friend” dilemma, the Middleman’s inability to see Ride Lonesome all the way through (after seeing the beginning 16 times) speaks volumes about his life — and volumes about what Wendy’s future. And yes, the trust breakdown with Wendy and Lacey is a little dispiriting. I hope she reveals her secret identity sooner rather than later.

Monk (USA) — Despite welcome guest appearances from Greg Pitts and Malcolm Barrett, this week’s murder mystery was kind of bland and obvious, a surprise considering the quality of the mysteries has improved in the past couple of years. On the plus side, they kept it in the background (which likely explains its relative lameness) and made this a showcase for the Natalie-Monk relationship, which has gotten more complex and verges on romantic (as much as Monk ever makes room for romance).

The writers did a good job of making Monk’s real conflict subtler than usual. On the surface, his usual self-absorbed nature and utter fear of change causes him to downplay and belittle Natalie’s job as the Lotto girl. In reality, he fears losing yet another strong relationship. He made a couple of offhanded references — including a surprise shout-out to Sharona — that allowed us to see how important she really is to him, but they didn’t overplay their hand.

Psych (USA) — Another USA show, another Lost alum. Jeff Fahey, who had a recurring role as helicopter pilot Frank Lapidus during Lost’s stellar fourth season, guest stars as an Evel Knievel-esque daredevil. When Shawn notices Fahey’s stunts look sabotaged, he enlists himself and Gus as stunt-testers to get into Fahey’s inner circle. (This led to what might be my favorite joke of the series so far: “I’m Die Hard. This is Die Hard 2. There are two more of us, but they aren’t nearly as good.”

Psych often makes their mysteries as ridiculous as possible, but this week’s worked pretty well on its own merits. It wasn’t complicated, and maybe it was hiring somebody like Fahey to play the daredevil role, but the more we understand about why his stunts are getting sabotaged, the more interesting the store becomes. The writers did a really nice job of structuring it, and veteran direct John Badham brought some interesting flourishes and intensity you don’t usually see in a comedy — and I mean that as a compliment.

Robin Hood (BBC America) — Wow, this week’s finale surprised me in a lot of ways. I was so convinced that Robin Hood’s writers wouldn’t have the balls to kill off Marian, I still suspect she’ll come back next season. But, you know, I kinda don’t want her to. I’ve complained a whole lot about Gisborne’s brain turning to mush whenever she says a word to him, but I don’t think I’ve delved much into the fact that her romance with Robin always felt a bit forced, which is sad because as long as the story has been around, so has Maid Marian.

Perhaps the writers have recognized the need for new blood, allowing them to surprise us by killing off a major character and — as far as we know — leaving two others in the Holy Land. I didn’t quite buy the love between Djaq and Will Scarlet. I’m not saying I could never believe it; they just rushed it too much, without much build-up. I don’t know if BBC America cuts these episodes to insert more commercials, but if we’re getting the entire, unedited episodes that aired in the UK, then no, they didn’t do a successful job of building this romance in the background.

Lastly, the Sheriff has blown his wad, going all the way to the Holy Land to kill the king himself (okay, via minions), which takes me back to “the writers are cleaning house.” They recognized they’ve played out these storylines and some of the characters (or, at least, the conflicts) and have to move on to something else. So now they go into uncharted territory. Maybe Robin Hood lore is extensive and varied, but as long as I’ve heard the story, it’s always followed a pattern of Robin robbing from the rich and giving to the poor to undercut the wealth of a corrupt sheriff who exploits the situation when King Richard is off fighting the Crusades. Is there more to the legend? I’ve heard a rumor that conspicuously absent Friar Tuck will join the cast in the third season, which has piqued my interest.

Perhaps with the writers finding new stories to tell and new characters to take part in them, they’ll find a more consistent tone. This season had a lot of fine moments, but it also had more than a few duds.

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

August 10, 2008

Minor Nitpicks

Burn Notice (USA) — Last season, I had a minor quibble with this otherwise excellent show: their reliance on have pat, unbelievable resolutions to the problems-of-the-week. They stick Michael with these bad-ass, take-no-prisoners criminals, and then by the end it’s all, “Oh, they’ll be hiding out of state until the heat dies down.” The show hasn’t been on the air long enough to answer the question of what happens when one of these criminals comes back with a vengeance, but that question ignores the tiny problem of mass-communication. These big-shot criminals have no contacts or minions in Miami, and/or no way to contact them? I know Michael assumes fake identities in nearly every episode, but it’s still hard to believe nobody can track him…

…which is why, this season, they’ve solved these problems by, for the most part, killing everyone off. Last week, Andrew Divoff’s human trafficker met a grisly demise at the hands of his former-Soviet comrades — none of whom had seen Michael (the only ones who did see him didn’t live to tell the tale). This week’s arch-criminal — a master thief (Oded Fehr) trying to pull of a big heist — met a similar end at the hands of a surprisingly terrifying Robin Givens, as a gun-nut munitions expert. All of this came as a result of Michael convincing them that Fehr screwed them all over, meaning nobody in the crew has any reason to come after Michael.

The writers are still keeping with the trend of giving the overarching “who burned me?” story more screen time. The closest they came to intertwining it with the heist story is when Michael is pulled away from infiltrating the office of “Carla” — the mystery woman played by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer — to go back to his safe-cracker cover. I’m still looking forward to the day an entire operation is compromised because of Michael’s obsession with “Carla,” but at least they’re no longer relegating these subplots to the opening and closing scenes of each episode.

Once again, one of the most entertaining aspects of the show is Michael’s voiceover on spy tradecraft — the utter boredom of a stakeout, the complexities of “cramming” to fudge your way as an expert safe-cracker — and they gave a fairly routine heist plot a fresh coat of paint.

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — Even though it did very little to continue storylines from last season, I consider this a massive improvement over last week in almost every way. Okay, maybe the “sleazy dude turns into a snake” metaphor was a little on the nose, but they resolved Henry’s prison problems, so that gets a thumbs-up from me. Also, I found the mystery a tad less predictable than the premiere’s lackluster effort. They gave us a more interesting mystery to ponder, then offered more characters to suspect. The “never-referenced-before biosphere-as-reality-show” subplot kinda reeked of “we have nothing for these characters to do this week, so let’s stick them in a room and make them the Greek chorus,” but otherwise, the episode worked pretty well.

Flashpoint (CBS) — I refuse to go on and on about the nitpicky differences between Americans and Canadians as individuals, but I love Canadian storytelling for including amazing nuance and subtlety (a rarity in American shows, especially non-The Wire cop shows). How many times have we seen the “shrill feminist life-destroying corporate succubus” character portrayed as a ghastly villain? It amazed me, in the best possible way, that Flashpoint’s succubus actually broke down and, with great sincerity, felt a mixture of horror and sadness when she realized she had caused all of this. More than that, the episode’s biggest shock was that the bank-robbing ex-guard and the succubus found some common ground; he realized what a mistake he had made, and she made the rather logical argument that she worked her ass off to save all the jobs, “but it wasn’t enough,” and at least six fired workers was better than 40.

Honestly, we hardly even needed the SRU in this episode. These two guest stars drove so much of the action, and were written with so much depth, that the cops almost feel like a distraction. (I felt the same way about the episode a few weeks ago that guest-starred Jericho’s Erik Knudsen as a recovering addict who ends up getting mistakenly pegged as a narc.) I don’t know if that’s a criticism or not, because I do like the actors portraying the negotiators, and I admire the writers for trying to develop them in organic, interesting ways — they just always take second-fiddle to the “criminals.” That’s not a criticism, either.

To sum up: watch this show if you aren’t already.

Mad Men (AMC) — Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I don’t believe we’ve seen Pete’s family before — and jeez, does it ever explain a lot. Granted, they’re grieving the loss of Pete’s father, but wow… What an unpleasant bunch. I’d say I respect him a bit more, but he hasn’t exactly overcome their legacy of dickishness.

In other news: Peggy is both a tease and a horrible mother. We now know what happened to the baby — her mother and/or sister is/are stuck raising him. I almost wish she’d given him up for adoption; at least whoever got him would want him. Theoretically.

Actually, this episode did a solid job of reminding me how awful everyone is — okay, Paul seems like a nice enough guy, but his African-American girlfriend brought out the absolute worst in Joan. Betty revealed herself to be a mildly terrifying mother. The only one who came out of this episode almost unscathed was Don, but lucky for us, we already know he’s incredibly unpleasant — he just possesses a few noble qualities, like not wanting to sell Mohawk Airline up a river because they can catch a bigger fish. I guess this really is the new central conflict: the way Don does things versus the way Duck does things. I feel like an idiot for just noticing “Donald” and “Duck.”

The Middleman (ABC Family) — After last week’s surprising, poignant ending, we’re back to comic-book insanity — not that I’m complaining. In fact, The Middleman may have hit a stride of sorts. We understand our characters, their connections to one another, and everything that’s at stake. Now it’s time to dilly-dally with relationships (the return of Tyler) and dig deeper into who these people are.

The writers chose an ironic method to reaffirm The Middleman and Wendy’s characters — this week was effectively “opposite day,” as Wendy is forced to impersonate a sorority girl and The Middleman is possessed by an evil mad-scientist-in-training (played in normal form by Growing Pains alum Ashley Johnson, most recently seen in the awesome-sounding horror-comedy Otis). Watching them behaving in such uncharacteristic ways, it hit me how well-developed (and well-acted) these characters are.

Unfortunately, this ton-of-bricks reminder made it even harder to believe the conflict between Wendy and Lacey. Would they really need to fight over Tyler? I don’t think Lacey would go for him in the first place, but to think that she’d take Wendy at her word that it was okay to pursue him? That’s less plausible than thinking Lacey would be rebounding a week after The Middleman ripped her heart out. This was still a fine episode, and they did the best with this conflict that they could, but the whole subplot rang false.

Monk (USA) — The writers did a terrific job of tying A story to B story this week. In fact, it occurred to me that they’ve done a fairly good job of that in each episode this season, but it was especially apparent this week, since the entire climax relied on Monk’s central problem at the start (his fear that he won’t pass the police department physical). Add to that some game guest stars (Robert Loggia as Burgess Meredith in Rocky, and James Lesure from Rocky as a refreshingly pleasant, dignified boxer — a rarity in a post-Tyson world) and an engaging mystery, and it makes for a solid episode. Also, Tony Shalhoub doesn’t get enough credit for his broad physical gags. Every moment of his exercise attempts was laugh-out-loud funny, but not in the usual “nervous-Monk” way, and he never took it over the top (as he has in the past). Well done.

Psych (USA) — I am an unabashed fan of Steven Weber, especially in crazy long-haired Brian Hackett mode. As Henry’s black-sheep brother, he blended right into the Psych ensemble. On a deeper level, the writers did an admirable job of exploring Shawn’s fascination with “cool” Uncle Jack, to the point of pretending Jack was his own father. After meeting his mother, we didn’t have a proper explanation for Shawn’s wild-child attitudes until now. This just continues a trend of quality father-son relationship exploration that the writers have played with this season more than they have in the past.

The treasure-hunting story had plenty of funny and surprising moments, but I’m not sure about the flashback structuring of the episode. I don’t know if I should be impressed that they didn’t do it Rashômon-style or disappointed at the missed opportunity. Oh, and if I’m going to nitpick, what the hell was with the shameless Red Robin product placement? This ranked up with the Dead Zone episode where they did an extreme close-up on a Tylenol bottle while Johnny Smith described how much he loved it as a cure for vision-induced headaches. I don’t mind product placement (it often lends a verisimilitude that can’t be found with fake product names), but don’t draw attention to it.

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August 24, 2008

Stargate Atlantis and Other Disasters

On Thursday, news broke that Stargate Atlantis would conclude its run at the end of this season, its fifth. I stopped covering the show in November when my consistent disappointment led me to repeat the same thing week after week. As I said then, I still watch the show, but it hasn’t done a thing to make it worth writing about. Let me repeat it, though, for the last time ever: this show had endless potential, and we saw glimmers of this in its first and second seasons; after that, much like another sci-fi spinoff (Enterprise), it took a nosedive off a mountain and has been rolling down it ever since, up to and including last week’s disastrous nonsensical wrap-up of the Weir storyline (using an actor who played McKay’s self-built replicator last season). I had really hoped the show would claw its way back to must-see status, but I guess the writers never had much interest in that. It might be too much to hope that they’ll give it a halfway-decent sendoff; more likely, they’ll end on a half-assed cliffhanger, then abandon plans for the follow-up movies. Kind of like Deadwood, only without the outraged fans.

In its stead, producers Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright have greenlit a third spinoff, Stargate Universe, which fans hope will redeem the flaws of Stargate Atlantis. The producers say, “We plan to keep those elements that have made the franchise a success, such as adventure and humor, while breaking new ground in the relationships between mostly young and desperate explorers, thrust together and far from home. Above all, we believe the Stargate itself remains an enduring icon with infinite potential as a jumping off point for telling stories.” Young? Desperate? Relationships? I have my doubts that The O.C. meets Star Trek: Voyager will redeem the failures of Atlantis.

Burn Notice (USA) — Am I crazy, or did something about this episode feel a little off? It had a lot of great things happening — bona fide high-seas pirates, Michael assuming the identity of a nerd, great guest turns from Prison Break’s Silas Weir Mitchell and The Unit’s Max Martini. It even addressed one thing I complained about last week, which I didn’t figure they’d get to so quickly: the return of a previous character Michael helped, who has returned to generate the plot and involve himself in a romantic subplot with Madeline. It also featured one of the biggest bad-ass moments in the history of Burn Notice: Michael tossing a handful of gun powder in the air to prevent getting shot (it’s explosive).

Somehow, the sum of these parts didn’t add up to a satisfying whole. I wish I could put my finger on the exact problem. Maybe they went a few steps back in terms of marrying the “who burned me” plot with the “client of the week” plot. Maybe, despite a change of window dressing every week, the client stories are a little repetitive. Or maybe Michael just didn’t offer enough hilarious spycraft voiceovers.

I haven’t felt the level of angst others have regarding this season, but this episode definitely had an off feel. It won’t be back for a few weeks, so we’ll see what happens when it returns.

Eureka (Sci-Fi) — I call so, so, so much bullshit on this episode. I can’t even express in words my disappointment with their sendoff of Nathan Stark. I have read several sources that claim it was Ed Quinn’s decision to leave the show, and gosh, I can’t imagine why. It couldn’t have anything to do with the writers doing nothing interesting with his character after the initial artifact-obsession storyline — choosing, instead, to shove him into a love triangle that never worked.

As with Stargate Atlantis, I don’t mourn the death of Nathan Stark so much as the colossal waste of potential. They let a fine actor slip through their fingers and assassinated (literally) an interesting, well-played character — for what? The episode had some good moments, but even in Stark’s sendoff, everything is about The Tedious Triangle, so much so that his death lacked the poignance it could have had. True, it was a sad moment — but the ending felt so rushed, we had no time to fully understand the willing sacrifice Stark made in order to save everyone else. It wanted to have the same power as “The Gift,” the instant-classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer finale that found our heroine diving into a gooey vat of special effects to save her sister and the world. Instead, it had the emotional resonance of the Small Wonder where Vicki’s evil robot twin tricks the family into moving to Hollywood, then leaves them stranded while she runs off to become a star.

Let me try to guess the Carter-Allison relationship trajectory from this point forward: Allison will pull away even further, because of the grief. Perhaps she’ll blame Carter for Stark’s death, even. At some point — a season-ending break seems like a good time, but it may come sooner — she’ll go off on a long trip, leaving Carter alone and lonely. When she returns, one of them — maybe both — will be in a relationship with a person who exists solely to keep the two of them apart.

Man, do I ever wish that dry-cleaning girl hadn’t been evil.

Flashpoint (CBS) — This episode had such a hilarious, over-the-top start that I thought CBS started it midway through by mistake. Maybe that’s why this episode never managed to grab me.

Last week, we saw something bizarre and unusual. Maybe I’m alone, but I’ve never seen anything like the teen-girl shootout at the mall in any serious entertainment, much less on a network-TV drama (even if it is one that airs in the summer). It introduced me to a subculture that may not exist, may not be prevalent, but if it’s either, it’s certainly not represented in popular entertainment.

This week, however, we got a pretty basic, predictable story that didn’t do much for me: two rich kids abused by a violent father. One has turned into the de facto black sheep — lashing out and causing so much trouble he is not only sent to military school, he’s kicked out — and the other has become a quiet whipping-boy willing to do everything his father wishes in order to keep the peace. Among other problems, they didn’t do much to address the way the mother felt about this. They also didn’t dig deep into why the father beat them. Yes, they give us the routine explanations that (a) he’s wealthy and thinks he’s above the law and (b) they need to be “worthy” of the family name, but anyone who’s seen the 1988 classic Above the Law knows there must be a deeper explanation. Like maybe the father was using his government connections to traffic drugs from Southeast Asia.

Joking aside, Flashpoint’s primary strength is its ability to give us a balanced view of these hostage situations. Yes, the show says, these people are criminals and what they do isn’t right (even if it’s for the right reasons), but they’re not the one-dimensional monsters who prowl the streets of Jerry Bruckheimer’s Las Vegas, Miami and New York. Aside from twisting the plot so the “big reveal” doesn’t occur until late in the episode, this episode didn’t do much to dimensionalize our victims. We have a rich-brute father, a troubled older son, a meek younger son and a mother who barely exists. Where is the subtlety I admired in previous episodes?

Notice I didn’t even mention Sam’s big conflict — the suicide of a fellow soldier. It made for a poignant ending and for some interesting relationship drama within the unit, but trying to bridge this subplot with the story of Rolland and Simon Stachan (no, seriously, those are the characters’ names — I looked it up) didn’t work well at all.
I liked the idea of forging this connection with Simon because his friend reminded him of Rolland, but it just didn’t fit as well as it could have. Then again, who am I to complain? At least it’s not the neat-package solution we’d expect from such a routine cop-show plot.

Mad Men (AMC) — Okay, they’ve turned Duck into an out-and-out villain. I know he exists as an opposite of Don, but we hardly know him and they’ve already assassinated his character by turning him into a boob whose incompetence is only recognized by Don, while Sterling and Cooper eat out of the palm of Duck’s hand. This show is usually distinguished by its subtlety and depth, so I’m not sure where they went wrong. I just know this entire American Airlines “Duck looks like a hero/Don looks like a villain” subplot has been a little too ham-fisted for my tastes.

However, Peggy’s story made up for any other flaws. I can think of only two or three moments of the show that had more power and insight than the scene where Father Gill shows up at the Olson residence and turns down Anita’s food but insists they pass along to Peggy a written copy of his sermon. The unspoken — but obvious — sibling rivalry that has permeated the Peggy-Anita relationship so far finally boiled over in Anita’s fantastic “confession” to Father Gill. A petty, spiteful act…that any jealous sibling would have taken.

The Middleman (ABC Family) — Finally, some character development for Noser! Amusing as he is, I have to admit I couldn’t figure out why he warranted “series regular” status until this episode. It’s clear now that he’ll play an important role later on…somehow.

I can’t help feeling like the whole “puppet villain” thing might be played out. It’s hard not to compare it to the respective “puppet” episodes of Buffy and Angel, especially when this week’s villain is the vampire to end them all — Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula. But two big things helped this episode come into its own: first, the love of the Middleman for Lacey, and second, the fact that Lacey isn’t the only one he loves. They’ve created such a refreshing spin on the age-old “unrequited love” story (Eureka could learn a thing or five) that, even without having a third woman, they’ve made a potential triangle compelling. Mainly because it’s not the usual “two men love the same woman” — it’s one man loving two women… I assume.

Speaking of refreshing and bland romantic subplots, The Middleman has also made me happy by not forcing a romance between The Middleman and Wendy. Ignoring the defiance of the characters’ internal logic (because they could just do what Buffy did and frustrate the shit out of me by rewriting characters so they’d do absurd things in order to get romantically involved), it’s just such an obvious trope. I prefer the borderline-sibling relationship between The Middleman and Wendy. Never change this, writers!

Monk (USA) — Speaking of uncomfortable romances and sibling relationships… I could understand why some might have a hard time with Monk’s behavior in this episode, but I found it very interesting. In a way, it gave us a deeper insight into the oft-referenced Trudy relationship. I could never quite figure out how they got together, but it makes a strange kind of sense. Not to downplay the love between Monk and Trudy, but the way they portrayed him with this week’s love interest, it almost seems like the woman becomes a new obsession, trumping all the others and making him — well, he verges on tolerable, able to put aside some of his phobias and compulsions unless somebody does something crazy like tosses semi-cooked food into a hat.

The ending, too, could appear a little hard to swallow, but I bought it. In fact, it added even more depth to Monk: a good woman trumps most of his problems, but nothing will beat finding “the guy.” Her mother was “the guy,” and it didn’t matter to Monk that she was willing to confess and do the time herself — just as it didn’t matter to her that her mother committed the crime. It’s a fundamental difference in who they are, and although it left Monk a little lonely and a little pathetic, that’s who he is. He’ll never be the type of person who can just say, “I see what you’re doing here, covering for your elderly mother, and I’m going to let it slide because she’s old and her crime was just in my eyes, even if it isn’t in the eyes of the law.” Some might see this as giving Monk a bland, black-and-white view of criminal justice — but that’s exactly the way Monk is.

Psych (USA) — Has anyone else noticed that USA seems to have upped their guest-star budget. Burn Notice, Monk and Psych have all lined up tremendous guest stars for roles big and small. This week, Jane Lynch (Best in Show) and Barry Corbin (reuniting with WarGames director John Badham, who directed this episode) enlivened Psych. Perfectly cast as Chief Vick’s Coast Guard sister, Lynch and Kirsten Nelson manufactured a sibling rivalry that’s a comic inverse for Mad Men’s ultra-depressing, ultra-serious rivalry. On the other side, Corbin brought more oomph than one might expect to his role as a rich Texas oilman whose sinister daughter is framing him for her crimes.

The mysteries were a bit more predictable than usual, but the usual high-quality interplay between the characters and these guest stars elevated it quite a bit. I doubt we’ll see Corbin again, but I have hope that Lynch will return. Lassiter’s instant crush on her supplied some of the episode’s biggest laughs. Of course — and maybe this is a negative statement — the biggest laugh for me was the title of this oil-themed episode: “There Might Be Blood.”

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August 29, 2008

It’s a Young Girls Thing #7

Two weeks ago, I rode director Greg Lansky hard for his inept sequel, Fresh Outta High School 9. Unlike other filmmakers of limited means, Lansky opted to coast on past successes by attempting to insert an inferior product. Well, I wasn’t swallowing it, and It’s a Young Girls Thing #7 might do a good job of explaining why.

You see, the uncredited director hired by Legal Pink Productions did a fucking phenomenal (in more ways than one) job of using his limitations to his advantage. With the exception of some sloppy production design (scenes two and four shared the same room, swapping out chairs without making an effort to mask the distinctive and unattractive bamboo glued to the wall), It’s a Young Girls Thing #7 gives audiences exactly what they want, but this doesn’t satisfy the director. He pushes everything a little harder (in more ways than one), and I thank him for it.

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August 15, 2008

Fresh Outta High School 9

I can’t deny the high expectations built up from the first eight in the Fresh Outta High School series, but I still tried to maintain objectivity when I popped the DVD in my player. I don’t intend to sugarcoat my opinions, so if you consider yourself a fan of this series, you might want to sit down. Fresh Outta High School 9 might be the biggest disaster of 2008.

What an absolute embarrassment for all involved, from the cast to the production crew. Everything that made the previous films special, different, innovative — up in smoke. What remains is a horrific amalgam of poor direction, fresh-off-the-street (or -boat) acting and shoddy production design. I’d like to try to find an explanation for what went wrong.

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August 1, 2008

King Cobra

“Hi, my name is Creampuff. At least, that’s what they call me, anyways. And this is the story of how I ran away, lost my virginity, lost my virginity again, ran away again, got kidnapped by bikers and turned into a rowdy biker bitch. Hope you like it.”

When I heard Creampuff’s (Page Morgan) opening narration, I came very close to leaping to my feet and applauding. Why? Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is a brilliant premise. Imagine an exploration of a sheltered, naïve girl thrust (in more ways than one) into a world of debauchery and depravity rarely witnessed on film. Imagine it. Imagine the level of character depth and thematic insight required to do justice to such an ambitious concept.

Imagine it, because if you watch King Cobra, you won’t see any of it.

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August 8, 2008

Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom!

After having extensive practice with their Cuckold series, the blood-brother team of Grip and Cram Johnson have perfected the awkward three-person adult film with Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom! Equal parts character study, race-relations exploration and full-blown (pun intended) comedy, the film’s assured direction and improvised dialogue make it quite an achievement, both artistically and commercially.

A study in contrasts, the Johnsons have decided Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Mom into an anthology of four parallel stories. In each, a shocked young-adult child discovers his mother in a compromising position with an African-American “gentleman caller” (as Vanessa Videl euphemistically refers to partner Byron Long). The shocked offspring watch with a mixture of horror and fascination as the Nubian princes ravage their mothers with aplomb.

Having one of the three members of the scene remain fully clothed and able to shine as an actor or actress, the Johnsons step up the inherent drama of forbidden sexual liaisons. The dialogue, improvised by each actor (who were clearly given little more than character “types” that they flesh out on the spot with unparalleled brilliance and wit), ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-wrenching. The reactions of the sons and daughters, and the interaction between them and the mothers and “Negroes,” make the film worth watching.

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August 22, 2008

Screwing Asia

“Oh, big American cock. Can’t get enough.” This line, uttered by Keeani Lei, opens Screwing Asia, and it does the job of summarizing Frank Marks’ grim depiction of race relations in the U.S. The film cannot, by any measure, be considered a high-quality endeavor, but it does have some fascinating moments that manage to simultaneously undermine and support Marks’ filmic treatise.

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August 31, 2008

Stan McKagan Proposes a Ban on Breast Implants

CANOGA PARK, CA — I’m very surprised that, with the recent admission of several websites that video and subscription-service sales have gone down, no one has yet stated what appears to be obvious to me. The cause of all these problems are fake breast implants.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prowled the Internet for a new erotic adventure to enjoy, only to be taken in by misguided reviews declaring, “This bitch has perfect tits!” Perfect tits, I always think, stroking my soul-patch in deep contemplation. I have to see this. As soon as I click on the link, the cover photo or screenshot captures throw me into a fit of rage and disappointment. Of course they have perfect tits — they’re 100% fake.

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August 30, 2008

Harry Brown

Author: Gary Young
Genre: Drama/Action
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 6
Writer’s Potential: 8

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Logline:

An elderly ex-marine takes matters into his own hands when a gang of crack-smoking thugs murder his best friend.

Synopsis:

Grainy, blurry camera-phone footage shows a youth gang, led by NOEL, smoking crack and acting foolish. Noel encourages two of his minions to kill somebody, for fun and to “earn their stripes.” The two thugs take off on a minibike and, in their successful attempt to shoot a young mother in cold blood, end up in a bike accident that results in the death of one and the hospitalization of the other.

At the murder site the following morning, DETECTIVE INSPECTOR FRAMPTON (attractive, female, mid-40s) is briefed on the scene by SERGEANT HICKOCK (cocky, male, mid-30s). His callous description of the crime and the injured minibike passenger in custody offends Frampton, but she keeps it to herself for the moment.

HARRY BROWN, an elderly retiree, awakens to a lonely routine, making breakfast for one, obsessively cleaning, puttering around the house before getting dressed up and leaving. As he walks through his neighborhood, the same crime-ridden cesspool where the opening murder took place, Harry makes no sign of fear until he reaches a fork in the road. He has two options: head into the drugged-out gigglefest emanating from a darkened subway tunnel, or keep walking along the less direct overland route. Harry chooses the safer road.

At the hospital, Harry visits her cancer-stricken wife. He has an obvious love for her, but she’s not lucid. At the rundown Drift Pub, Harry has a drink with his best friend, LEONARD, another elderly retiree. They start to play a game of chess and, after witnessing a public drug-dealing inside the pub, Harry and Leonard discuss the declining state of the neighborhood. Leonard mentions that the dealer, a tattooed thug called KENNY, is known for selling drugs, guns, and underage prostitutes. He also suggests that SID, the Drift’s owner, lets Kenny slide within the pub because Sid, too, is a criminal.

Harry visits his local convenience store and discovers, to his surprise, a towering man guarding the door. The shopkeeper, MRS. SINGH, explains that she had to hire her brother-in-law to keep out undesirables. Harry goes home with a pint of scotch and falls asleep, drinking and watching television. He’s awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call — his wife has passed away.

A month later, Leonard accompanies Harry on a visit to his wife’s headstone. It turns out he also once had a daughter — she died 25 years ago, at age 13, and her headstone sits next to his wife’s. Harry places a fresh bouquet and quietly grieves. To ligthen the mood, Leonard offers another drink. Harry agrees.

At the pub, Harry describes the first time he met his wife, back when he was in the Marines. Leonard indelicately tries to coax some information about Harry’s experience in the Marines. Harry won’t say any more than that he spent 15 years in the service and he left when he met his wife. In the privacy of the restroom, Leonard shows Harry an ancient, huge bayonet for protection. He’s tired of living in fear of these youth gangs, who have recently shoved dog feces through his mail slot. Harry suggests that he go to the police. Leonard says he already has.

That night, the punks shove burning trash through Leonard’s mail slot. Once they’re gone, Leonard takes his bayonet and seeks them out in the subway tunnel.

The next morning, Harry is awakened by Frampton and Hickock. They’ve found Leonard’s body and are there to ask routine questions about what may have happened. Afterward, Hickock brushes off the experience with cynicism. Frampton finally lashes out at him. The two seek out Noel, their prime suspect in Leonard’s murder, and arrest him.

In his sadness, Harry gets plowed at the Drift Pub. In his state, he ends up flashing more cash than he should, considering the neighborhood. Sid warns him, but Harry doesn’t seem concerned. Outside, he’s assaulted. Instinctively, Harry breaks the man’s wrist and, when he won’t give up the attempted mugging, Harry kills him with his bare hands. Frightened, Harry rushes home, disposes of his bloody clothes, cleans up, and goes to sleep.

The next morning, Harry examines his old Marine memorabilia when Frampton shows up unannounced. They have a flirtatious discussion about chess before Frampton gets down to business: she wants to know about the bayonet. Harry reluctantly admits he knew about it, but that Leonard only used it for protection. They get into an argument about the effectiveness of the police over vigilante justice. Later, Harry goes to the Drift and bribes Sid for information on where to find Kenny.

Harry seeks out Kenny and asks to buy a gun. Reluctantly, Kenny and his friend STRETCH lead him through their hovel, which contains an indoor marijuana farm, high-grade electronics, and a drugged-out, barely conscious girl. Aghast at their treatment of the girl, Harry ends up killing both Kenny and Stretch, stealing their guns and ammo, burning their marijuana, and stealing their car and the girl. In the car, he finds ¬£10,000. He leaves 1000 for her and keeps the rest. Harry drives her to a hospital but ditches the car before he’s seen.

As a result of the gun violence, Frampton’s superintendant, CHILDS, pulls her and Hickock off the investigation into Leonard’s murder in favor of a new violence-removing task force.

At the convenience store, the brother-in-law bodyguard has disappeared into the bathroom. Harry happens to show up, inconveniently, just before a robber descends on the shop. Harry stabs his Achilles tendon, which stops his robbery in short order. The bodyguard returns and pummels the robber into unconsciousness. At the graves of his wife and daughter, Harry asks forgiveness for what he has done. Within the church, he asks forgiveness for what he’s going to do.

Harry sets up recon on Noel, observing his entire operation and assessing the best time, place, and way to strike. He follows a drug trafficker (TROY) and one of Noel’s pals (MARKY) to a vacant lot, shoots Troy in the head, and interrogates Marky about Leonard. After trying to stall him, Marky finally admits that they recorded the whole thing on his cell phone. He plays the video for Harry. Harry kidnaps Marky to use as bait. They return to the subway. Noel and another thug, CARL, corner him, so Harry unleashes a homemade explosive. He manages to kill both Marky and Carl, but Noel gets away. Harry tries to chase him, but a breathing problem that has plagued him since the beginning catches up with him. He throws his gun into the river before collapsing. A police officer takes him to the hospital.

Frampton suspectw Harry as their vigilante and drags a reluctant Hickock to investigate the bridge where he collapsed. Finding nothing, they go to a briefing about the new violence task force. Afterward, Frampton mentions to Childs her suspicion and asks to drag the river. He refuses and transfers her. Frampton won’t give up — she drags Hickock out to find Noel. Meanwhile, Harry forces himself to leave the hospital.

The task force springs into action, only they get a bit more than they bargain for — the violence that has been percolating suddenly boils over, causing riots and mayhem the cops can’t handle. As Frampton and Hickock try to get to Noel — whom they believe is staying with his uncle — thugs storm their car, forcing Hickock to lose control. Stopped, they’re pelted with stones and bricks. Then Harry appears. He pulls both of their semi-conscious bodies from the cars and drags them to the Drift Pub.

Inconveniently, it turns out that Sid is Noel’s uncle. As chaos reigns outside, Sid beats Harry into submission, then both Sid and Noel go to town on Hickock and Frampton. Sid suffocates the nearly incapacitated Hickock, but Frampton takes much more effort from Frampton. Just when he’s finally in a position to shoot her, Harry regains his senses and takes him out first. When Sid’s gun turns back on Harry, he no longer cares about living or dying, but it’s a moot point as an armed team bursts into the Drift and takes out Sid.

Several days later, Childs holds a press conference in honor of Hickock. Intercut with that is Harry, again going through his routine, but this time, he’s unafraid to go through the subway passage.

Comments:

Harry Brown is a derivative revenge thriller in the vein of the Death Wish movies. Aside from its occasionally murky storyline, predictable third act and weak antagonist, the screenplay manages an effective balance of gruesome violence and grieving-widow drama.

As in the Death Wish movies, anybody under the age of 40 is portrayed with cartoonish hostility. They all smoke crack and commit wanton acts of violence and lust for pure amusement. While this builds a world where Harry Brown needs to take action, it does no favors to distinguishing one villain from another. Because it falls primarily in the action genre, where interchangeable villains are a dime a dozen, this wouldn’t be a significant problem if Harry had a clear-cut, well-developed antagonist. The man pulling the strings, it seems, is Noel, but he’s as over-the-top and under-developed as any of the others. What pushed Noel into this life? What defines him as a leader? Questions like these don’t get answered.

Similarly, the attempt to establish DI Frampton as Harry’s foil comes about quickly and unnaturally and doesn’t add much to the drama. It happens too late in the story for there to be any of the cat-and-mouse antics alluded to in their chess-metaphor scene, and the police subplot on the whole doesn’t exist for much more than explaining the missing pieces of the plot to the audience. Strengthening her as an antagonist, along with Noel, would give Harry pressure from both sides of the law. There are hints of this in the climactic showdown at the pub, but again, it happens so late in the game that any difficult choices Harry has to make end up being made for him.

Despite these weaknesses, the script has many strong moments as it follows Harry. The writer finds nice, visual ways to reveal Harry’s loneliness and establishes enough about his character to make a believable transition from brooding elder to sneering vigilante. This continues even after the action shifts into high gear. Harry’s requests for forgiveness from his deceased family and from God is a very effective moment that keeps him sympathetic in the face of gut-wrenching violence.

Harry Brown bears enough similarities to Death Wish that, one assumes, it will follow that film’s model of success (which spawned four sequels and an entire genre of ultraviolent revenge movies). It distinguishes itself from other revenge thrillers mainly through its British setting, which will appeal to the same audiences that make British crime thrillers (e.g., Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) popular both in the U.S. and abroad. It also has the ability to draw on both younger audiences, who may find the relentless violence appealing, and older audiences, who may enjoy the idea of an older man seeking revenge on today’s twisted youth. Attaching Michael Caine as Harry Brown (as the script notes suggest) also ensures a credibility to the performance that will further enhance its appeal among older audiences in general and, in particular, viewers who might ordinarily avoid an action movie.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:35 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

August 1, 2008

Bad Education

One principle of medieval warfare I’ve taken to heart is, “Know thy enemy.” Since I am a seething cauldron of hate, I’ve gotten to know quite a few people. Since the advent of Google (I’m no search-engine Johnny Come Lately, but in the pre-Google days, Internet-stalking was little more than a recipe for failure; say what you will about their indexing algorithms, they have hit the chewy nougat center of information-gathering for future serial killers) and the increased popularity of blogs and social networking sites, I’ve gotten to know more about certain enemies than I ever thought possible. I once found Owen’s DeviantArt page and, as such, was able to digest his alarming short stories. I’ve found more about The Manager than I ever thought possible. More importantly, I’ve dug deep into the world of the stupid blogger and have come out on the other side hating her more than ever.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 9:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, The Writer

August 8, 2008

Trip to the Post Office

I had to go down to the post office to mail a small package. What should have been a 10-minute errand (including drive time) turned into a 30-minute disaster, the likes of which haven’t been witnessed on this planet since the sinking of the Lusitania.

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Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:39 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, My Life and Times and Random Observations