Thursday, August 31, 2006

DVD: The Squid and the Whale

• Divorce and dysfunction. Gather 'round for the laughs!

Genres: Drama, divorce
DVD released: March 21, 2006
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin
Verdict: &&&

The Squid and the Whale never for a second convincingly evokes its time setting of 1986, but it does capture the turbulent emotions of a family breakdown. While his marriage disintegrates, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a pompous novelist, can't bear to see his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), successfully launch her first novel while his own career bottoms out. Meanwhile, their two boys, 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) and 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), ride the bumpy seesaw of joint custody. Not that the boys don't already have some issues: Frank, portrayed with bitter intensity by Kline, is a blossoming alcoholic and accomplished pervert, and Walt attempts to pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own in a talent contest. Each character has a talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, tweaking the open wounds. The ache is offset by humorous counterpoints, such as William Baldwin as an oafish tennis instructor. This is one of those character pieces that offers no resolution, but the journey is worthy. // DVD notes // Extras are a featurette and interview with the director. Heed the R rating.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Random tracks

• Assorted musings from the entertainment world.

CSI casting • CBS informs us that something called K-Fed will guest star in a future episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. It will portray an arrogant teenager who harasses the CSI team as they investigate a series of brutal tourist beatings taking place throughout the Las Vegas area. Nick and Warrick are confronted by Cole Tritt, (K-Fed), an arrogant teen who hassles them while they work a crime scene. View at your own risk.

Survivor stunt • It has pained me to see Survivor look increasingly (and needlessly) desperate with each passing season, resorting to endless game tweaks such as Exile Island and midpoint "twists." Now that the ratings have actually shown some erosion (although it's still comfortably a top 10 show), we get an obvious publicity stunt: four teams split along racial lines. As someone (I've forgotten who or I'd give credit) said: What are they going to do, hurl racial insults at each other during challenges?

Cheap DVD rentals • With tax, I paid $1.59 last weekend to watch Brick. What is this, 1988? We've come this far from $4 a pop — might as well roll it on back to the 99¢ days and rent The Breakfast Club on VHS for nostalgia's sake.

Xtina's album cover • I can take or leave the music and over-vocalizing of Christina Aguilera, but the Back to Basics album cover, presented in the style of an old-school RCA release, is quite clever. The photo reminds me of Madonna's Bedtime Stories.

Teresa Calentano • Calentano is currently making her television debut in ABC Family's Three Moons over Milford as Lydia Davis, and she has apparently made an impression, because she has been the top search term leading folks here for a couple of weeks. There's surprisingly scant information about her on the web, and this item is obviously a shameless attempt to work her name into another post. Check out her character's blog here.

Word game • GSN (formerly Game Show Network) wants you to play the new online version of its game show Chain Reaction. Good news: Most folks will probably find the web game more enjoyable than the show. Check it out here.

Speaking of games • The Page O' Clips has become an essential destination for old-school game show fans, serving a generous helping of everything from rare Chuck Woolery-hosted Wheel of Fortune episodes to $ale of the Century — in other words, all that good stuff GSN isn't showing.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Books: Dispatch • Bentley Little

• Bentley Little redefines the poison-pen letter.

Genre: Horror
Published: 2005
Verdict: &&&

Jason Hanford is a persuasive letter writer. His interest in correspondence awakens with a school penpal project in which he portrays himself as everything he's not — popular, athletic and from a prominent family. Later, he begins to pen complaint letters to fast food joints and theme parks, yielding free food and leisure. Realizing that his letters have the power to affect change, Hanford becomes bolder, tackling city problems and stirring debate in the newspaper editorial pages for his own amusement. Naturally, in the hands of Bram Stoker Award-winner Bentley Little, the application of Hanford's talent becomes deadly serious, particularly as Hanford struggles with an abusive family life. Little has a talent for Twilight Zone-esque ideas, but with a darker bent. Reading Dispatch, I was reminded of Stephen King's short story "Word Processor of the Gods" and, to a greater degree, Little's own novel The Ignored, in which a man whom people simply don't notice anymore discovers that there are others like him, and they become joined in a common cause. Essentially the same happens in Dispatch: Hanford is recruited into a letter-writing business and discovers that the other employees share his unique talent for correspondence that gets things done. Dispatch also shares The Ignored's pervasive tone of modern ennui. Little excels with the maudlin, such as in this nugget from Hanford's first-person narrative: "There is a point, I think, where life starts to seem sad, when a person adopts one of those live-in-the-moment philosophies because looking back on all of the missed opportunities is too painful, and looking forward, there does not seem to be the time to create a new future with a different outcome." Hanford is, at times, a tough character to like, and a recurring thread involving a witch feels unresolved, but Little's ode to the written word keeps the pages turning. Some readers may prefer the body of this dispatch to the closing, which delves a tad too far into conventional horror as Hanford finally meets the ultimate letter writing nemesis.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

DVD: Brick

• It's a detective story as hardboiled as a … brick.

Genres: Mystery, whodunit, noir, high school
Director: Rian Johnson
DVD released: Aug. 8, 2006
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Noah Segan, Nora Zehetner
Verdict: &&&

Brick successfully fuses disparate elements that seemingly don't belong in the same movie, such as disaffected urban high schoolers and hardboiled, noirish detective movie dialogue. Hardly any adult characters appear in the movie; one declares the mysterious Pin (Lukas Haas, portraying a frail, unlikely crime boss headquartered in his mother's wood-paneled basement) to be "old" at age 26. Central character Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a scrappy loner trying to find out who killed the ex-girlfriend he still loved, and he intersects with a dangerous assortment of druggies, thugs and liars en route to the truth. He gets used and, at times, abused (literally, in violent fistfights), but his smarts and determination continually bring him closer to an answer he may not really want to know. Brick is gritty, real and engaging, but the mystery is ultimately a bit too labyrinthine for its own good. // DVD notes // Lots of deleted and extended scenes and the customary commentary.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Music: Under the Iron Sea • Keane

• Keane adopts an "edgier" sound on album two.

Genres: Pop, Britpop, rock
Released: June 20, 2006
Verdict: &&&1/2

Much of the press surrounding Keane's new album has focused on the band's creation of guitar sounds this time without actually using guitars. I'm not sure exactly what Keane hoped to gain from this, because if it sounds like guitar rock, that's how people are going to react to it. The tone is set from the opening guitar peals of track two, the maybe radio-friendly "Is It Any Wonder," which would not sound out of place on a U2 album. What does this mean for fans like me, who were attracted by the piano-driven melodies of great songs such as "Everybody's Changing" and "Somewhere Only We Know" on their debut? The good news is the guitar sounds aren't likely to spoil Under the Iron Sea for those fans, but it comes with a tinge of disappointment if your ears crave a worthy sequel to Hopes and Fears. More or less absent altogether this time is the gentle, soothing, nearly hypnotic quality of some of that album's highlights, such as "Untitled 1" and "Sunshine," although "Broken Toy" is a noble attempt. Their knack for a hummable melody still permeates, and a hint of the electronic occasionally accents tracks like "A Bad Dream." By the time the shuffling "Broken Toy" gives way to the closing pop rocker, "The Frog Prince," reservations about Keane's new "edgy" sound are likely to drift out to sea.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Movies: Pulse

• Tip: Don't click on the link that says it will show you ghosts.

Genres: Horror, J-horror, techno-horror, remake
Director: Jim Sonzero
Cast: Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Samm Levine, Rick Gonzalez
Verdict: &&1/2

The latest remake of a Japanese horror film (2001's Pulse, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa) suggests that modern technology — the Internet, cell phones, computers — is literally draining the life from people. In Pulse's urban landscape, a computer virus makes the rounds, putting this query onscreen: "Do you want to see a ghost?" After clicking on the text, the user sees dark, forbidding images of people peering at the screen as if trapped in a bad webcam feed. Soon, a moldy-looking growth not unlike that nasty, haunted ceiling stain in Dark Water begins to spread across the virus recipient until the victim becomes a hollow shell and disintegrates (kind of like the characters in the opening to Star Trek: Nemesis, but not as dramatic). Spreading through any kind of Internet or radio transmission, the ghost virus becomes a pandemic, leaving UPN's Veronica Mars to save the world from these lost souls bent on sucking the life force from humanity. Amidst the creepy imagery and mildly scary ghosts, Pulse has the seeds of a clever thinking person's horror film, but they never quite take root.

// Incidentally // 1) Cast member Christina Milian is a middling pop star. Quick: Can you name one of her songs? Neither can I. 2) In the movie Pulse, technology, including cell phones, becomes bad. In the novel Cell by Stephen King, an event called the pulse is spread by cell phones and turns people into zombies. Hmmm …

Sunday, August 13, 2006

TV: Three Moons over Milford

• ABC Family debuts another oddball original.

Genre: I honestly don't know.
Logistics: ABC Family, 7 p.m. (Central) Sunday
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Rob Boltin, Sam Murphy, Nora Dunn
Verdict: &&1/2

The moon has split into three pieces and anything could happen. What would you do? In Milford, people are inclined to act on impulses and turn downright wacky — that's the sketchy premise of Three Moons over Milford, which has a capable cast and a quite aimless storyline. The antics include some amateur adolescent witchcraft that burns down a school, a duel between feuding neighbors, and a flirtation between a 16-year-old and a woman twice his age. Three Moons chiefly centers the madness around Laura Davis (Elizabeth McGovern), whose husband suddenly skips town, and her two teens, Alex (Sam Murphy) and Lydia (Teresa Calentano), as they contend with losing their home and switching schools. It would be great to see more of the real estate agent Michelle Graybar (the hilarious Nora Dunn in a supporting role) and less of attorney and potential Laura love interest Mack McIntyre (Rob Boltin) — this show doesn't need goofy courtroom scenes. Three Moons is a marginally better effort than the newly aggressive net's much-hyped original Kyle XY, about a teen with extraordinary abilities, even if there's never really any explanation of the moons thing; the viewer is left to pick that up from dialogue and some news headlines shown during the opening credits. Dwell on that too much and you may find yourself wondering why you're watching ABC Fam in the first place.

// Linkage // Official site

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Books: Cell • Stephen King

• King is on the right frequency in Cell.

Genres: Horror, zombie, apocalypse
Published: Jan. 24, 2006
Verdict: &&&1/2

Cell finds Stephen King in familiar territory — as in The Stand, it’s apocalyptic, and, like a bunch of movies of recent years, it involves zombies, but in the context of a cautionary, almost anti-technology tale. If originality has never been King’s forte, good storytelling has, and he writes with a rare late-King period verve in this tale of a world gone mad because of a “pulse” sent out via cell phones, transforming the populace into frothing animals. The story follows a small group of survivors who band together and try to elude the dangerous “phoners.” King offers a likable core cast of characters, and the most compelling thread centers on Clay Riddell and his quest to find his young son. Cell builds to an ambiguous ending that is emotionally effective yet unsatisfying, and it is one of two missed opportunities here. Throughout the novel, King seems to lay the groundwork for a grand revelation of a sinister plot behind the pulse, but it simply never emerges, leaving the reader wondering what it was all for. Nevertheless, Cell is probably the best King novel I’ve read since Insomnia (granted, I’ve skipped many of them after The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon) — not up to his best work, but certainly not phoning it in.

// Factoid // What is this, 1987? In a throwback to his glory days, King publishes a second novel this year, Lisey's Story, on Oct. 24.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

TV: Chain Reaction and Starface

• With dodgeball out of its system, GSN finally offers some new quizzers.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: Tuesday through Saturday, 8 and 8:30 p.m. (Central)
Verdict: Chain Reaction && Starface &&

GSN takes a welcome step back to game shows with its two new originals, particularly Chain Reaction, which was developed by Michael Davies of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire fame. Despite good production values, however, the results are fairly disappointing. In the case of Chain Reaction, a word game remake in which contestants in teams of three (men vs. women) must complete a chain of related words with first letters shown as clues, there is the same affliction that hamstrings Lingo: the current obsession with forcing game shows to have completely self-contained episodes in which nothing carries over from today to tomorrow. By playing a predetermined amount of game rather than to a score or objective, the producers create situations in which the losing team can't catch up, resulting in anti-climactic game play that says, "Change the channel." Furthermore, seven years after the premiere of Millionaire, why does every set still have to look like a clone of that show? Enough already. Chain Reaction is a solid format that doesn't get the treatment it deserves here. It would be an obvious partner to GSN's successful word game Lingo, but it's instead paired with Starface, a celebrity/pop culture trivia quiz that has generated some ink because Danny Bonaduce hosts it. Starface tries admirably, but it's ultimately as one-dimensional as the celeb photos that continually pop up on the screen to establish categories.

// Factoid // The current incarnation of Chain Reaction is the third, following runs on NBC (1980) with host Bill Cullen and USA (1986-1991) with host Geoff Edwards. Though short-lived, the 1980 version, which teamed celebrities with civilians, was quite good.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

DVD: The Hills Have Eyes (Unrated Edition) [2006]

• Can't get enough of inbred mutants? Here's a movie for you.

Horror, mutants, remake
DVD released: June 20, 2006
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd
Verdict: &&1/2

This is one of those violent flicks in which you can anticipate the gory deaths long before they occur, but that's really part of the fun, isn't it? You know the bloodletting is about to begin when, acting on the advice of a freak gas station attendant, the family traveling through the desert stupidly takes a shortcut in the middle of nowhere on an unmarked road. They crash the truck pulling their camper and end up stranded, left to be picked off one-by-one in a bleak yet beautiful landscape where the hills are alive and cell phones are dead. Some doggies and a baby are thrown into the mix of potential victims to goose the emotions. If you're in the mood for a "we're all going to die at the hands of monsters in a remote location where no one can hear us scream" horror flick, you can do worse than this retread of Wes Craven's 1977 irradiated mutant-fest (think 2003's Wrong Turn, which is more than a little indebted to Hills). The original Hills and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were major influences on many of today's abysmal horror movies. Ironically, to those unaware of its pedigree, this movie probably plays like a mildly interesting derivative of bad 2000s horror films like Wrong Turn.