Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Movies: Lady in the Water

• Try not to drown in the dialogue as you watch M. Night's latest.

Genre: Fantasy, thriller
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Verdict: &&1/2

If The Village disappointed you — it did me somewhat, although I still enjoyed it and watched it twice — you might want to steer clear of Lady in the Water, which, it should be noted, is completely twist-free. That's fine; I understand that all of the M. Night movies can't depend on a secret of the bone-rattling Sixth Sense variety, but it has felt like the modern Hitchcock is trying too hard with The Village and, now, Lady in the Water. I truly admire what he set out to do in Lady, and the narrated and illustrated introduction sets up an intriguing premise. In a nutshell, Story (an ashen Bryce Dallas Howard, currently M. Night's leading lady of choice) is a sort of nymph who emerges from the swimming pool of an apartment complex and into the life of stuttering caretaker Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, who, for my money, brings nothing special to this role). She must make contact with a special person living in this complex; then, she needs the guardian, healer and guild to help her make it back to her watery world. Sound crazy? Wait till you hear the endless dialogue about scrunts, narfs and other fantasy babble. Too conveniently, an Asian resident heard tale of such things as a child and feeds Heep the essential details. The movie makes good used of its quirky characters as Heep tries to determine who fits those roles — healer, guardian and guild. Wolf-like creatures with grassy backs provide some jump scares, but there's nothing more than that in the way of chills. Even if you buy into the premise, it's hard not to find much of this slow, ponderous and awkward. With The Sixth Sense and Signs, M. Night earned a lifetime pass in my book, even if it seems he's slipping below the water line at the moment.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

TV: 50 Greatest Game Shows

• Thanks to Deal or no Deal, game shows are in again.

Logistics: GSN, 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays
Verdict: &&&

GSN has shown no reluctance to jump on bandwagons, and the latest hot trend to catch the network's attention is, ironically, game shows. While NBC and other networks are developing new games, GSN, on Aug. 1, launches two new quizzers — Chain Reaction (a welcome remake) and Starface, and the network is currently running a weeks-long series, 50 Greatest Game Shows, which, at best, trots out some titles from the vault that the network doesn't show these days. I'll give them credit for showing some full episodes and enlisting the amiable and funny Bill Dwyer as host, but the list immediately lost its credibility by not only including the dating show Studs but also by ranking it higher than Blockbusters. Since GSN will obviously get this all wrong, I'm presenting my own top five:

5 The Price Is Right (CBS, 1972-) I don't watch it regularly today, but Price is like a great friend who's always just been there. It's still a fun hour, even if the axing of the popular models was a mistake, and the late Rod Roddy is sorely missed as announcer. But it still has Plinko, Punch Board, the Big Wheel and one of the great hosts in Bob Barker.

4 Jeopardy (Syndicated, 1984-) I never truly appreciated this show until the Ken Jennings run — the elimination of the five-day limit was a brilliant move. I love the show for the wagering strategy, Alex Trebek's wackiness, and because it shows that our boneheaded culture can still sometimes celebrate knowledge.

3 Press Your Luck (CBS, 1983-1986) The best of those spin battles, to me, are among the most exciting moments in game show history. And Press had everything else going for it — the perfect host for the show in Peter Tomarken; a huge, dazzling game board; enough flashing lights to short circuit a nuclear plant; and some of the best music ever to come from the genre. It is so 1980s.

2 Blockbusters (NBC, 1980-1982) What "B" describes big-budget, cash-cow movies and is the name of an '80s game show with a hexagon-filled game board? Yep, Blockbusters, which had the two-players-against-one gimmick, a cleverly crafted word game, and arguably the last great turn as host by the lovable Bill Cullen.

1 $ale of the Century (NBC, 1983-1989) Nothing against Wheel of Fortune, but this is the show that should have become the juggernaut that Wheel is today. The brilliance of this show was the interwoven elements — rapid-fire questions, instant bargains, fame games and the tense speed round, all in the context of glamorous consumerism. At its best, $ale built tremendous suspense as the champion worked his way up to playing for all the prizes "plus the cash jackpot of $91,000!" It was a classy production with the consummate host, Jim Perry.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

TV: Nightmares & Dreamscapes

• The King anthology premiere was so good yet so bad.

Genres: Horror, suspense, anthology
Logistics: TNT, 8 p.m. (Central) Wednesdays
Premiere verdict: Battleground: &&&&1/2, Crouch End: &

As I've been making my way through the 1980s Twilight Zone DVDs, it has occurred to me that there's absolutely nothing like that on television today, and hasn't been for quite some time, really — self-contained little postcards from the other side. Stephen King recently told Entertainment Weekly that he doesn't want to become this generation's anthologist, a Rod Serling for the 2000s, but I wish he would. The good material is there, even if the first night of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, TNT's eight-episode anthology of King short stories, demonstrates the two extremes of translating King to the small screen. I think the series would have been better served by focusing more on the stronger short stories of Night Shift and Skeleton Crew rather than later material; for my money, a considerable decline in quality is evident in Nightmares & Dreamscapes. On a scheduling note, why TNT is burning these off two a night instead of spreading new episodes over eight weeks is beyond me.

Battleground, drawn from King's first short story collection, Night Shift, is one of my absolute favorite King stories, full of imagination and vitality in a way that King's output has rarely been since the mid-90s. This adaptation, scripted by no less than Richard Matheson and starring no less than William Hurt, ranks with Storm of the Century as one of the most brilliant adaptations of a King story. In this ultimate revenge tale, a cold hit man (Hurt) offs a toy-making giant but finds things didn't end there when a mysterious package of toy soldiers shows up in a package outside his door. It's not giving away too much to say that these soldiers have a deadly and highly entertaining mission. In an hour that contains not a single word of dialog, this installment achieves thriller perfection as a cold killer finds himself doing battle with toys. It's a rare case of one of King's great fantasies coming to life with ease on the small screen.

Crouch End, on the other hand, is as empty and insulting as King adaptations come, although, in its defense, it draws from fairly weak source material. It centers on a couple (Eion Bailey, Claire Forlani) honeymooning in London who find themselves in a mysterious, mostly abandoned area known as Crouch End, where they have accepted a dinner invitation. It's a place where rifts in the time-space continuum, or whatever, cause other dimensions to spill over into Crouch End, and it translates to the screen with all the grace of an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos. Here's hoping that the rest of the anthology, with stars such as William H. Macy, Kim Delaney and Steven Weber, will be more a dream than a nightmare of this caliber.

// The stories // Battleground (from Night Shift), The Road Virus Heads North (from Everything's Eventual), Crouch End, Umney's Last Case, The End of the Whole Mess, The Fifth Quarter, Autopsy Room Four, You Know They Got a Hell of a Band

Monday, July 10, 2006

One year

When this blog began a year ago today, I didn't know if it would last more than a week or two. I was feeling a bit like the guy in that commercial whose computer suddenly tells him that he has just reached the end of the Internet — it didn't feel exciting anymore. Something led me to Blogger on an idle Sunday morning and, within a few minutes, I had a blog and a first post — appropriately a review of a horror film, Dark Water. Now, the blogosphere is an integral part of my Internet life. I know that I'll probably never be among Blogger's "blogs of note" or Technorati's top 10 (or even 1,000), but this is a medium I can't resist. One goal for year two is more frequent posts, an important objective that often conflicts with my job. My emphasis has always been on content (anyone want to design a fancy new header for me?), and that will continue. Thanks to everyone who has made it a point to return and to those who have posted comments. It's much appreciated. And the suggestion box is open — feel free to drop me a line if you have some feedback. The address is available through my profile.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

DVD: The Pink Panther (2006)

Genre: Comedy
Director: Shawn Levy
DVD released: June 13, 2006
Verdict: &&

As director Shawn Levy talks in one of the DVD extras about an alternate title sequence that he all but calls better than the one that was actually used (and he would be right to make that call), he comments on how the sequence is more sophisticated but was discarded when the film moved in a more family-friendly direction. That's a head-scratcher of a statement, as the movie relies heavily on sexual innuendo; one of the funnier sight gags has Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) walk into the room as our goofball hero, Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin), has a woman's, um, torso on his face (he's trying to help her down from a table she was standing on). Perhaps this total misfire shouldn't be surprising coming from the director of Cheaper by the Dozen and Big Fat Liar, but it is disheartening that such an unsophisticated and, at times, painfully unfunny movie was scripted by Martin, who seemed the obvious choice for this role but never quite nails the deadpan slapstick that Peter Sellers achieved. There are a few laughs, but, if you haven't already seen Martin's hilarious Bowfinger, watch that instead. // DVD notes // The deleted scenes are worth a look, and there's a music video for costar Beyoncé's "Check on It," which sounds like a lost Destiny's Child hit.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

DVD: Serenity

Genre: Sci-fi
Director: Joss Whedon
DVD released: Dec. 20, 2005
Verdict: &&&1/2

There's a hint of Han Solo in Nathan Fillion's smug and cheeky Captain "Mal" Reynolds, leader of a small-time band of smugglers who, like Solo, are good guys who prefer to avoid entanglements with a not-so-virtuous government (referred to here as "the alliance") as they tool about the galaxy in a firefly class craft. When they find themselves with a hot piece of cargo — a young, telepathic subject of government experimentation, River (Summer Glau), who vacillates from calculating but docile mind-reading young adult to cold killing machine — they are thrust perilously square in the sights of the government and a brutal assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who creates some of the movie's greatest drama. A tense space battle sequence and a no-they-didn't government secret make this effectively buttery popcorn sci-fi, whether or not you have seen a single episode of the source material, Fox's 2002 "sci-fi western" series Firefly. // DVD notes // Lots of gratuitous noise in this movie: Apartment dwellers like me will find this one a nightmare for volume control, as the dialogue is often quite muted. I had to turn the subwoofer down. There are deleted scenes and bloopers plus an assortment of featurettes for the Firefly cultists.

Monday, July 03, 2006

TV: Kyle XY

Genre: Drama, unintentional comedy
Logistics: ABC Family, 7 p.m. (Central) Monday
Verdict: &&

If the American Broadcasting Company wants to use one of the networks it owns to show 24-hour footage of grass growing or janitors cleaning up the Desperate Housewives set, that's their business. More power to them. But let's don't completely misrepresent what a network is all about. I'm no prude, but when I recently came across the film Igby Goes Down showing on ABCFam, I did more than a double take. It's a fine movie, but its sexed up antics have no business on a network with "fam" in its name. Then, thumbing through my copy of Entertainment Weekly, I see several consecutive pages of ads for a new series called Kyle XY. The ads focus exclusively on young actor Matt Dallas … his blue eyes and, most provocatively, a close-up of his midsection as he pulls up his T-shirt. Granted, he has no bellybutton, but isn't that a convenient excuse? Just what are we up to here? Sex sells, of course, and apparently that's openly applied to family programming in the 2000s. But what of the show, you ask. "Kyle," a mysterious blank slate, is found wandering aimlessly and is taken in by the Trager family, which conveniently includes a predictably snide teenage daughter and son. Somewhat interestingly, Kyle has the ability to soak up knowledge such as languages very quickly, but, less interestingly, the show focuses on obvious gags such as Kyle standing at the refrigerator, discovering food. The son's running commentary on why Kyle is an alien is sometimes funny, but you can see the very special episode with the discovery of hormones coming six miles away. A guilty summer pleasure? Perhaps. Family programming? Maybe, but something is warped in the ABCFam psyche.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

DVD preview: The Garden

Genre: Horror
Director: Don Michael Paul
Release date: July 11, 2006

It's scenery-chewing time with Lance Henriksen, a quietly menacing presence whose prolific body of work has taken him from Near Dark to Millennium … and from The Mangler 2 to Mimic 3. Here, he brings his weighty presence to the diabolical role of Ben Zachary, who has ensnared a troubled young boy, Sam (Adam Taylor Gordon), and his father on his ranch after their truck crashes while on the way home from Sam's mental hospital. The boy has a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome that causes him to cut himself in times of distress. The conflict here is apocalyptic: The old man – grandfatherly in one turn and demonic in the next — has a garden, you see, and it contains … are you ready for this … a Tree Of Life (think The Ring tree imagery), and he needs the father to eat from it. The reason is … well, I'm not really sure what the reason is, but I admire any horror movie that has the balls to trot out the four horsemen of the apocalypse with a straight face. The action centers on Sam, who dislikes Zachary from the beginning and hears voices and feels a presence in the old man's house. He feels he's being watched and glimpses a male figure in mirrors, but the apparition is gone when Sam turns his way. His father is distracted by divorce guilt and is too busy going out with a couple of young ladies he met at the bar when Sam begs the obvious – to leave. Co-produced in 2005 by TV wizard Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, Profit, 21 Jump Street), The Garden offers some provocative imagery at climactic moments, such as Zachary banging about with a chess piece as a horse bursts out of its stable, as if driven by his will. Sean Young appears in the role of Sam's schoolteacher who is rather taken with biblical prophecy, and this film may appeal to movie fans who share her interest … in a very dark sort of way. It's the second directing credit for Paul, following 2002's Half Past Dead. // DVD notes // Paul weighs in with an audio commentary, and you'll get a behind-the-scenes featurette and theatrical trailer. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0, and the aspect ratio is 1.77:1.