Friday, September 30, 2005

TV: Night Stalker

Genre: Creepy
Logistics: ABC, 8 p.m. CDT Thursday
Premiere verdict: &&1/2

If nothing else, the new TV season has confounded my expectations, with shows I anticipated becoming fast favorites, such as Night Stalker and Invasion, falling a little flat. Night Stalker, my most anticipated show this season – in years, actually – failed to live up to the promise of its legacy in Thursday's premiere. The source material – a 1972 TV movie, The Night Stalker, and a 1974 series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker – inspired my all-time favorite series, The X-Files. I really wanted to enjoy the premiere, in which newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) begins a new job at an L.A. newspaper as he tracks mysterious killings in which something wolf-like is preying upon women. The same creature apparently killed his wife, sending him on a journey into the unexplained. Kolchak initially butts heads with senior crime reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union), but they will become – dare I say it – a new Mulder and Scully of sorts as Kolchak investigates dark mysteries each week. In the premiere, though, the action sequences delivered predictable jolts; the creature aspect of the show just wasn't very compelling; and the scenes in the cave verged on lame. The elements of a good show are there, however. With former X-files executive producer Frank Spotnitz among the key players at the helm here, those elements may eventually gel. But, saddled with a timeslot opposite CSI, will it have time? For now, a bigger mystery than what really happened to Kolchak's wife is how many weeks this show will escape cancellation.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Games: NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary

Genre: Arcade classics
Curious fact: Rather than video games, the 50th anniversary stems from NAMCO's rides for small children commonly found outside department stores.
Verdict: Games &&&1/2, Presentation & extras &&

It's a little sad, maybe, that probably 50 percent of my gaming time on a modern console like the Sony Playstation 2 is devoted to compilations of classic arcade games like Pole Position, Tapper and Galaga, but that's fine with me. With each passing year, it is abundantly clear that I will remain hopelessly nostalgic for the decade of Atari and Miami Vice. My weakness for these simple yet insanely addictive games is such that I'll snap up a compilation like NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary Arcade Collection just to gain a few titles I didn't already have, like Pole Position II, Bosconian and Galaga 88. This is really just a retread of the previous PS2 NAMCO Museum release – there's even a "greatest hits" label on it – but there are a few more games (16), and it thankfully corrects the audio problem from the Nintendo 64 NAMCO Museum version of Galaga, wherein the audio cues of the challenging stages were mixed up. On the other hand, Ms. Pac-Man seems twice as difficult here; the ghosts are ruthless, and I'm struggling even to make it to the third maze configuration where the banana appears. My strategy there: Snag a power pellet and go straight for the fruit. Similarly, differences in the controller response between the N64 and PS2 versions of Pole Position are giving me fits. Other disappointments include a curiously low audio level and a complete lack of extras. Bonus-laden compilations like Midway Arcade Treasures make this one seem particularly threadbare. Of the remaining games, the unlockable Galaga 88 is perhaps one of the best sequels ever, adding snappy new visuals, aliens and sound effects while retaining the essence of the game. The other unlockable, Pac-Mania, is a sort of 3-D Pac-Man with a fifth ghost and the ability for Pac-Man to jump, and it just goes to show that Ms. Pac-Man was as far as that one needed to evolve. Best of the games I'd never played is Mappy, which, with its levels, doors and trampolines, brings to mind Elevator Action, and I can't stop playing it. Bosconian, which feels like a cross between Galaga and Sinistar, grows old quickly, and Rally-X has the sophistication of a weak Atari 2600 title. Nevertheless, for anyone bred on the classics, this will do nicely until Taito Legends arrives on Oct. 25.

// Included games //
Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Rally-X, Pole Position, Pole Position II, Xevious, Dragon Spirit, Bosconian, Rolling Thunder, Mappy, Sky Kid, Galaga 88 (unlockable), Pac-Mania (unlockable)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Books: Make Death Love Me // Ruth Rendell

Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 1979
Verdict: &&&

If anyone can make death love her, it's Ruth Rendell. In novel after novel, she creates characters flawed in the most fascinating ways and makes the reader root for them even as they kill someone or do some other despicable deed. In Make Death Love Me, a bored small-town bank manager is in the back of his branch when a couple of thugs who think he is out to lunch come in to rob and kidnap the solitary teller. In that horrified moment when most people would hit the panic button to summon help, he instead takes from the vault 3,000 pounds and flees out the back. He had, on many occasions, taken out the money in private and handled it "with the kind of breathless excitement many people feel about sex – or so he supposed, he never had himself …" In the diverging threads that follow, our runaway banker explores the vicarious life, falling in love while building lie upon lie, and the author has fun making the captive bank teller a tormentor of her captors until all comes full circle in a classic Rendellian calamity. Even if it doesn't have the rich complexity of a later masterpiece like Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, this 19th Rendell novel – she's now up to 59 books, counting her short story collections and pseudonymous Barbara Vine novels – is a satisfying yarn with flawed people making flawed decisions in a most entertaining fashion.

// Next books //
The Ignored • Bentley Little (1997)
13 Steps Down • Ruth Rendell (2005)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

TV: Lost, Head Cases, Supernatural

// Premiere episodes round-up //

Lost (ABC, 8 p.m. CDT Wednesday) • I'll concede this is the most interesting, stylish and smart drama currently on network television. The character back-stories have proved to be one of the most captivating aspects of the show, which is filled with burning questions: What is that creature? Who are these mysterious other people on the island? What's at the bottom of that hatch? The possibilities for the latter seemed more interesting until the season premiere took us there. My problem with this show is commitment. While I was willing to let The X-Files tease me for nine seasons, I'm simply unwilling to watch the creators of this show make it up as they go year after year, while never offering real resolution. Premiere verdict: &&&

Head Cases (FOX, 8 p.m. Wednesday) I stumbled upon this legal comedy-drama and found myself enjoying every last stitch of it. Jason Payne (Chris O'Donnell), young lawyer at a powerhouse firm, has a nervous breakdown, losing his job and marriage in the process. Through his psychiatrist, he is assigned a support partner who has explosive disorder; Adam Goldberg, as Shultz, takes on this role with manic gusto. The premiere deftly balanced the drama of Payne's breakdown with Shultz's over-the-top antics. Maybe I just identify with loons, but this is the most pleasant surprise of the new shows I've seen. Premiere verdict: &&&

Supernatural (The WB, 8 p.m. Tuesday) • If this is Buffy with boys, as I've seen it described, I'm glad I never watched Buffy. Two brothers (Jensen Ackles, Jared Padelecki) whose mother was killed in a supernatural event become monster-of-the-week hunters when their father, who devoted his life thereafter to finding whatever killed his wife, goes missing while on the trail. The premiere relied on two fright sequences: The opening, with the demise of the boys' mother, was almost creepy until she ended up engulfed in flames on the ceiling, and then it was just silly. Next, the bulk of the episode is devoted to the boys investigating a ripped-from-the-urban-legends spook, an alluring young woman who stands at the roadside preying on young men as she tries to "go home again." The use of jerky video distortion in her image is so The Ring that the producers should be sued. The frights are bland at best, and the brothers are no Mulder and Scully. Premiere verdict: &&

Friday, September 23, 2005

TV: The aliens are coming

Shows: Threshold (CBS, 8 p.m. CDT Friday), Invasion (ABC, 9 p.m. Wednesday)
Genre: Alien invasion. Or is it?
Premiere episodes verdict: Threshold &&&, Invasion &&1/2

Neither of these alien shows delivered the rip-snorting thrill ride I'd hoped for, but I'll be checking out at least a few more episodes of each. Threshold titillated with its talk of chaos theory and that fractal pattern that looks like a crop circle. You know it's time to freak when you bleed crop circle patterns. The premise: Something crashes in the ocean with dire consequences for the occupants of a nearby ship, and a team of prodigies in various fields is brought in to size up the threat to mankind. The best bits revolve around the what-the-hell-is-it awe of the multi-dimensional thingy, captured on video, "folding in on itself." The sharp cast includes Star Trek's Data, Brent Spiner, as an eccentric doctor. With its isolated ship setting and shadowy government entity controlling national events, it's hard not to see a debt to The X-Files here. But this is a welcome effort from a network that, apart from CSI, seems to have an aversion to darker fare. Based on the premieres, Threshold gets a slight edge over Invasion, which finds a hurricane (!) with a little something extra blowing into Homestead, Fla. Like its hit lead-in, Lost, Invasion has a sweeping and stylish look that says quality, but, apart from the sequence in which the mysterious lights appear overhead, there wasn't much going on to build suspense. It did score chills with that image of a skeleton within a skeleton and the creepy moment when seven-year-old Rose Varon (charming Ariel Gade, who was the reason to see Dark Water) tells her mother, who washed up onshore during the storm, that she smells different. By half way through, I caught a strong whiff of boredom, but I'll hold my nose and give this one another look.

// Linkage //
Invasion blog

Thursday, September 15, 2005

TV: Survivor: Guatemala

Genre: Mother of all reality TV
Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. CDT Thursday

Premiere episode verdict: &&&

No offense to Mexico, but Guatemala strikes me as the first Survivor setting that truly sounds like a place you don't want to be stranded without real food or shelter for a month. I have a feeling the cramping, puking contestants heartily agreed during those first hot, squeamish days. It was curious, I thought, to drop the dramatic and elaborate arrival sequence in which we typically see over-eager contestants breezing in by boat, looking fit and healthy in a way we wouldn't see again until the reunion show, and even more curious to bring back two of last year's contestants as full participants this season. And the inclusion of a quasi-celebrity, former NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom, is sure to create some sort of tropical storm, if not a hurricane, when the other castaways find him out. Survivor has remained a top 10 ratings staple while so many wannabes have come and gone, but this obsession with dramatic twists and tweaks in each new season evokes an air of jumping the shark. On the other hand, the contestants, on first impression, seem far more likable than the dips who have dragged down the last several seasons: There were no overbearing macho types or preening, condescending divas immediately exposed. That's a welcome step toward immunity for a show that needs to focus on the solid game that made it a success rather than gimmicks designed to delay getting voted off the air.

// Linkage //
CBS' Survivor 11 round-up

Thursday, September 08, 2005

TV: Reunion

Genre: Soapy mystery
Logistics: FOX, 8 p.m. (Central) Thursday
Premiere episode verdict: &&

This one already has the stench of death. I'm not talking about the funeral that opened the series or the gun glimpsed in the here's-what-happens-the-rest-
of-the-season promos. For one thing, it's scheduled against CSI, The Apprentice and Night Stalker. Then there's the problem that the premiere wasn't really all that, although the general premise is not a bad one: Take a half dozen young friends, have one of them croak, and make one of the buddies the traitor. Then, flash back 20 years to 1986 and move forward one year each episode, allegedly creating a captivating mystery, until the climax. (More stench of death here: What if the planets mysteriously align in such a way that this defies the odds to become a hit, and another season is needed? Anyone think of that?) There's supposed to be a mystery, and I know it'll take a few episodes to gel, but the premiere managed all the intrigue of an episode of Hee-Haw. With its abortion and privileged-rich-boy high school drama, it evoked an after-school special by way of The OC casting and direction. Burning questions: Will they continue to compensate for not looking like the '80s by cramming in songs by Simple Minds, Madonna and A-Ha every other scene? By the time the series gets around to revealing who was killed and how, will anyone care?

// Linkage //
Synopsis, cast info, photo

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Coming up

// Future blogfodder //

Not since back in the '90s, when shows like Seinfeld, The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager thrived, have I been this intrigued by the possibilities of a new TV season. The demise of those three shows, combined with increasing Internet time, nearly peeled me permanently away from primetime TV for a few years. This season, thanks to the success of Lost last year, creepiness and dark themes in general are hot, and reality gets a needed cool-down. I'm especially salivating over Night Stalker (ABC, premieres Sept. 29), a new version of the '70s series that Chris Carter often cites as the primary inspiration for The X-Files. Fortunately, one of The X-Files' great talents, Frank Spotnitz, is behind the wheel on this one. I also have high hopes for Invasion (ABC, Sept. 21) and the whodunit Reunion (Fox, Sept. 8). I'll also have a look at Supernatural (The WB, Sept. 13) if I can figure out where on the dial and when to watch a WB show. My nods for most likely to be forgotten by December go to Ghost Whisperer (CBS, Sept. 23) and Surface (NBC, Sept. 19).

The next book on deck is Ruth Rendell's Make Death Love Me (1979), followed by Bentley Little's The Ignored and Rednell's new release, 13 Steps Down (out Sept. 27). DVDs to be spun soon are The Ring Two (out now) and The Amityville Horror (Oct. 4). Games coming up include the classics compilations NAMCO Museum 50th Anniversary Collection (out now), Capcom Classics Collection (Sept. 27) and Taito Legends (Oct. 25).