Sunday, October 29, 2006

DVD: Slither

• Don't let them in your mouth!

Genres: Horror, sci-fi, comedy
DVD released: Oct. 24, 2006
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Brenda James, Don Thompson
Verdict: &&&1/2

Slither is played more for laughs than frights from start to finish, and a new generation has likely found its Tremors. An alien falls to earth on a meteor, landing in a small backwater, and begins populating the planet with slithering, slug-like creatures that inhabit humans by entering the mouth. The entity begins its Earth takeover with regular guy Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), whose body changes and appetite for meat becomes overwhelming (he stockpiles fresh cuts from the grocer). Grant must evade the suspicions of his sweet wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks), and Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, bringing the same engaging wit and cockiness that served him well in Firefly and Serenity). The script borrows elements from movies such as Body Snatchers and any number from the tired zombie genre (Gunn scripted the respectable 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake) without ever feeling derivative, while also relentlessly delivering smart comic relief. Gregg Henry brings down the house as the foul-mouthed mayor, and one of the most hilarious bits involves a romantic scene and the Air Supply song, "Every Woman in the World." While never taking itself seriously, however, Slither actually uncurls a sci-fi horror plot more compelling than that of most of the straight-faced horror flicks of the last few years. // DVD notes // Slitherites are rewarded with a loaded DVD treatment including deleted and extended scenes, bloopers, making-of and effects featurettes, a feature on Fillion's character, a set tour with star Fillion, feature commentary with Gunn and Fillion, and a video diary by Tromeo & Juliet director Lloyd Kaufman.

TV: Parental Control

• MTV brings sick and twisted to dating shows.

Genres: Reality, dating
Logistics: MTV, 4:30 p.m. (Central) weekdays, with numerous repeats
Verdict: &&&

Train-wreck television at its best, Parental Control is the first MTV series I have sought out on a regular basis since the soap Undressed and reality stalwart The Real World circa the New Orleans season. This shameless and vicious dating series features a cast of six in each guilty-pleasure episode: Two parents, their son or daughter, the son or daughter's boyfriend or girlfriend whom the parents loathe, and two dates hand picked by the parents to replace him/her (hence the title). Intercut with date footage are scenes of the current boyfriend or girlfriend sitting with the parents, watching each date unfold and trading barbs. Date activities are calculated to lead to shedding of clothes and, when possible, kissing, humping and other physical contact. Back with the parents, the current squeeze dishes an insulting running commentary while the parents dish it right back at him/her, and it's hilarious more often than not. But I hate this show for the way it reduces a current girlfriend to tears as she watches her beau kissing on some skank who wants to steal him away; for the way the show glorifies hotness as the ultimate attribute; for the way it causes adults to behave as immaturely as their libidinous offspring; and for the way it unceremoniously severs a relationship at the end of the show if one of the parents' dates has been chosen, as if it's no more than trash to be swept out the door. And yet, I cannot look away.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

DVD: American Dreamz

• It's a must-see for American Idol haters.

Genres: Comedy, satire
DVD released: Oct. 17, 2006
Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Hugh Grant, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Chris Klein, Sam Golzari, Seth Meyers, Willem Dafoe, Marcia Gay Harden
Verdict: &&&1/2

This black comedy from American Pie director Paul Weitz seems brutally dark until you consider that Chuck & Buck is also among his credits. The targets are worthy: Firstly, America's obsession with televised karaoke contests (American Idol) and, secondly, politicians of questionable repute. Hugh Grant is outstanding as Martin Tweed, host of "America's most popular show," American Dreamz. Tweed is a self-loathing jackass who's bored with the show and looking for some contestants to mix things up. He's drawn to Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore in Kelly Clarkson mode) because he sees she's as twisted as he is and likely has more desire to win than she has talent: Though she no longer loves him, she uses her boyfriend's (Chris Klein) sob injured-in-Iraq story to give her an edge on the competition. "Sometimes I look at you and I see my own reflection," Tweed tells her. "It's revolting. And attractive." Kendoo, who tells Tweed she's "not physically attracted to other people," dismisses Tweed as "no-talent" and "famous for being famous." Tweed's other find is Omer (Sam Golzari), an Arab terrorist who loves show tunes and has been sent to America to carry out an attack. Meanwhile, a Dubya-like president's V.P. arranges for the prez to be a guest judge on the American Dreamz finals. Surprisingly, the president (Dennis Quaid, nailing it perfectly) is portrayed as awakening to reality and a victim of his handlers, particularly the vice president. The threads intersect in rather surprising — and quite dark — fashion onstage during the final show of the season. There aren't a ton of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, but it's a razor-sharp skewering of some of the more disappointing elements of our culture today. If this is in any measure atonement for American Pie, all is forgiven. // DVD notes // Deleted scenes include a number of cut performance sequences. "Center Stage: Sally Kendoo" plays like a behind-the-scenes look at American Dreamz as it might appear in a TV Guide Channel segment. "Dance Dreamz" describes the numerous inspirations for the dance steps (everything from Beyonce to Backstreet Boys), and the feature commentary includes Weitz and Golzari.

Site stuff: More on Blogger Beta

• About labels and blog search.

Blogger launched one of its best Beta features yet this past week — a handy label (category) manager on the edit posts page. Using a drop-down menu of your labels and check boxes next to each post title, it's now simple to add and remove labels from posts. This is great, because the only way to add labels to older posts before was to bring up a post for editing, add the labels and save it again. I had done that to maybe 20 of my older posts, but I didn't like the way it was bringing them back to the top of my FeedBurner feed. The only quirk I noticed with the label manager is the "new label" feature doesn't work unless a post is selected. I've added the basic labels to all the blog's posts today, and the Jeblog's categories should be completely up to date by later today.

While my transition to Blogger Beta has been exciting, I've run into one significant problem: Google Blog Search seems to have lost my feed altogether. No posts since the switch have shown up there. That's a real bummer, because it's a major source of my traffic. I feel confident the problem isn't on my end, because posts are still popping up as normal at Technorati and in my FeedBurner feed. Blog Search support told me that, ultimately, nothing is guaranteed (gee, thanks). Anyone who can help me solve this one will earn my eternal gratitude and admiration.

// Update (11/15) // A few of the first Beta posts showed up in Google Blog Search, but no more have since then. Very strange. All other indexing is occuring as normal; I've been keeping a close eye on Technorati, Icerocket, Google and others, and pinging far more aggressively than I used to. For another take on Google Blog Search problems, see this post.

// Update (11/19) // It seems every time I post about this, something changes. Within the last few days, all the missing posts showed up in Google Blog Search, and the newest post was indexed within an hour. It may have been much sooner; I didn't look until about an hour later. So, it appears this problem may finally be resolved some six weeks after converting to Blogger Beta. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

TV: 1 vs. 100

• NBC asks: Are 100 heads better than one?

Genre: Game show
Logistics: NBC, 7 p.m. Friday for the remainder of its five-episode run
Host: Bob Saget
Verdict: &&&1/2

Quick: Which of the following shows doesn't revolve around FBI agents Monk, Criminal Minds or Without a Trace? That's the kind of pop culture trivia that repeatedly appears in NBC's new primetime quizzer, 1 vs. 100, another offering from Endomol (Deal or no Deal) and yet another import of an internationally successful game show format. Yes, this is another show in which a contestant faces a series of increasingly difficult questions while progressing up a money tree with the aid of a couple of "lifelines," but the hook here is the "mob": a group of 100 people that the primary contestant must eliminate. For each question the one answers correctly, she earns a progressively increasing dollar amount multiplied by the number of mob members who answer incorrectly. With questions centered on pop culture rather than general knowledge, it isn't so much about being the smartest person in the room as it is about having a sponge-like memory of pop culture tidbits. Although school teachers and Jeopardy! king Ken Jennings were among the mob on the premiere episode, it's no stretch that the brainiacs might get tripped up on an inane question about, to use another example from the premiere, where American Idol judge Paula Abdul normally sits. It can also produce wildly inconsistent results: On Friday's premiere, none of the first contestant's mob missed the first question, but 11 of the second contestant's mob missed the opener, yielding her a measly $1,100 for knocking them out. With better questions, however, the format has the potential to be more interesting than the rather one-note Deal or no Deal, which has gotten amazing mileage out of a game of probability and picking numbers. The 1 vs. 100 premiere never really yielded a tense moment when a player might win or lose a ton of money, but I can imagine some exciting scenarios when a player has knocked out most of the mob. As with Deal, the presentation is part of the appeal 1 vs. 100 seats the mob in a huge stadium-like wall with cool lighting. Also as in Deal, fun stats are thrown up on the screen from time to time (e.g., 84 percent of the remaining mob are college graduates). As for "comedian" Bob Saget (formerly of America's Funniest Home Videos) as host, he performed reasonably well in the premiere. Though he's no Howie Mandel, his game may end up being the better deal.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

TV: 30 Rock, Twenty Good Years

• Must-see comedy Wednesday? Maybe.

NBC created a viewing dilemma for me this week, scheduling two appealing sitcom concepts against the intriguing nuclear drama Jericho. First impressions:

30 Rock (7 p.m. Wednesday) • With the brilliant Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on board, this behind-the-scenes take on an SNL-like skit show has the potential to become the first truly must-see comedy in years. In typical fashion, Baldwin devours the scenery whole and kills from the moment he introduces himself as vice president of East Coast television and microwave oven programming. In the premiere, he arrives on the scene to tinker with Fey's baby, "The Girlie Show," and troubled comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) joins her cast. Morgan's scenes in the premiere aren't as funny as they ought to be, and I'm looking forward to seeing lots more of Baldwin hamming it up as the network exec who spouts viewer research data and focus group inanities every other sentence. A favorite moment in the premiere: drunk Liz (Fey) throwing down to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It." 30 Rock has a similar in-your-face reality quality to that of The Office; in fact, the two seem obvious partners for a one-hour comedy block. While that vibe can lead to some dull moments, 30 Rock promises to inject some needed laughter into the current sitcom landscape. Verdict: &&&1/2

Twenty Good Years (7:30 p.m. Wednesday) • Odd couple old guys cut loose. The endlessly hilarious John Lithgow does the same egomaniac shtick he did on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Jeffrey Tambor (so great as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show) does his insecurity routine. Depending on your perspective, it's either: A) an opportunity to watch two of the best at work, even if the material is mediocre, or B) it's a shame to see two great talents muddling through mediocre sitcom material that makes The Class not look so dull. Verdict: &&1/2

All times Central. Photo: NBC

Sunday, October 08, 2006

TV: Drowning in drama

• Quick takes on some of the new season's many dramas.

Kidnapped (NBC, 8 p.m. Saturday) • It figures that my favorite new drama has already been given a death-sentence and shipped off to Saturday's rerun wasteland to burn off the remainder of its 13 episodes (last season, I was into Invasion and Surface). The show has a cinematic quality that doesn't feel like an NBC drama, and the characters and plotting are rich. Fifteen-year-old Leopold Cain (Will Denton), son of a wealthy family, is abducted, and Jeremy Sisto excels as a former FBI agent who works outside the system to recover kidnap victims by whatever ruthless means necessary. Interesting things going on include father Conrad Cain (expertly captured by Timothy Hutton) confronting old enemies and the kidnap mastermind having his minions murdered by a cold assassin. I'm completely hooked, and this show deserves a better fate. Verdict: &&&&1/2

Ugly Betty (ABC, 7 p.m. Thursday) • Despite having one of those killer no-holds-barred timeslots, Ugly Betty, based on a Univision telenovela, has "breakout hit" written all over it. The title sparks curiosity, and that soapy-cheesy telenovela sensibility is appealing (I loved the scene last week in which Betty's father was seen watching a telenovela). You can't help but root for Betty (America Ferrera), who's just landed an editorial assistant gig at Mode, a fashion magazine full of cutthroats. When she gets in a bind, her hilariously spunky, "no you di-in!" sister, Hilda (Ana Ortiz), comes to the rescue. Verdict: &&&

Shark (CBS, 9 p.m. Thursday) • James Woods perfectly nails Sebastian Stark, a shyster defense attorney who converts to the DA's office after seeing one of the clients he saved from a murder conviction with blood on his hands. Among Stark's foils are Star Trek: Voyager's Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) as his former nemesis in the DA's office and a team of young, green prosecutors. Boston Legal may do the smarmy shtick best, but Shark acquits itself well. Verdict: &&&1/2

Smith (CBS) • Reports indicate CBS has already sent Smith to the trash heap. The premiere was a well-crafted actioner with Ray Liotta leading a team of surgical strike criminals while coming to the realization that he must drop his double life and be a family man. Verdict: &&&

Men in Trees (ABC, 8 p.m. Friday) • This music-happy Anne Heche vehicle comes across as a quirky sex/relationship drama with a dose of Northern Exposure-wannabe quirkiness. My favorite exchange from last week's episode: She: "What's that thing on your hand?" He: "That's a condom machine." Verdict: &&1/2

All times central. Photo: Kidnapped/NBC

Tackling Blogger Beta

Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind, eh? After much hemming and hawing because of the many horror stories and naysayers, this blog has finally been converted to the new Blogger Beta as of yesterday. This means we'll have the benefit of properly functioning category links (Blogger calls them "labels") in the sidebar as we go forward. I intend to gradually add labels to the older posts as time and willpower allows.

My big hesitation with switching mostly had to do with figuring out how to get my custom header (it's merely a jpeg image) in place of the generic Blogger heading. I couldn't find any clear instructions on how to do this, but I pieced together bits from here and there combined with a little tinkering on my own and got it to work.

For those who are interested, these are the tricks I used: In Beta, go to "edit html." Find b:widget id='Header1' locked='true' and change "true" to "false." This will allow a "remove element" button when the standard header is being edited on the template page elements sub-tab. To get rid of the prefabricated rectangle that contains your snappy blog title and allow the custom header to take over this space, remove the /* Blog Header section all the way down to font: $ description Font;} . You can increase the number of elements allowed in the header area by finding maxwidgets="1" in the code for the header and replacing the one with, for example, two. Once the code changes were in place, all I had to do was add an HTML/JavaScript element at the top, using the img src code with the URL of my header.

Thus far, I love the ease of use — especially the instant saving of changes. It hasn't been as tedious as I'd feared, as the sidebar was largely preserved in the migration and upgrade to layouts, as was all the formatting of individual posts. Only the "recent comments" hack was lost. Also, I had to re-add my counter code in the new template html.

// Update 12.16.06 //

A few people asked for more details on how to add the custom header, including the owner of this nice blog. I'm happy to share the "how-to" notes I made for myself when I did it. Just drop me an e-mail via my profile page.

At this point, I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't switch to Beta, as it is now feature-complete, and Blogger has dropped the hint that everyone will soon be using the new version.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Books: The Minotaur • Barbara Vine

• This novel is a bit of a beast.

Genre: Mystery
Published: March 21, 2006, by Shaye Areheart Books
Verdict: &&1/2

At least one and possibly two Vines (The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and No Night Is too Long) would rank among my top 10 favorite novels, but this 1960s-set drawing room character study tested my patience. A young Swedish nurse, Kerstin Kvist, is hired to provide care for John Cosway, a misunderstood autistic man living with his mother, stuffy old Mrs. Cosway, and his four spinster sisters. This takes place at Lydstep Old Hall, an English mansion with a library containing a maze and dark family secrets hiding in the shadows, as they do in all Vines. Kerstin quickly surmises that John is being fed pills he doesn't need to keep him tranquilized, and she's left with little to do beyond make notations in her diary about the sisters' conflicts and romantic affairs while pining for John to come out of his fog — something his mother fears. The writer (Ruth Rendell, penning her 12th pseudonymous Vine) is particularly adept at portraits of troubled souls, but this is ultimately less about John than the sisterly and motherly drama that builds to an unsurprising and not particularly interesting climax. Though the prose flows with her usual grace and literary precision, The Minotaur doesn't live up to the master's usual standards.

// Incidentally // Patricia Cornwell has called Rendell/Vine "unequivocally, the most brilliant mystery writer of our time."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TV: That's the Question

• GSN adds another word game to its stable of originals.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: GSN, 5 p.m. (Central) weekdays
Verdict: &&&1/2

GSN's fourth (!) game show launched since April could give enduring hit Lingo a run in the addictive word game category. Despite some obvious similarities to Wheel of Fortune (the hangman concept) and Jeopardy! (contestants guess the question), this imported format never feels derivative. Here's how it works: While presented with a series of trivia questions — mostly pop culture and history — contestants are shown the scrambled answers, each of which contains an extra letter. That extra letter is then revealed in a question displayed hangman-style onscreen. For example, if the extra letter is "E," all of the E's in the question are revealed. Contestants get points as they answer the rapid-fire questions that reveal letters and bonus points for solving the onscreen question. In the first round, the answer to the question is revealed; in the second round, they have to determine both the question and its answer. While it sounds a tad confusing, That's the Question is easy to pick up and play along. I like that if forces contestants to think on multiple layers: They've got to be quick on their feet to answer the rapid-fire trivia to maintain control and reveal letters while, at the same time, trying to determine the question. Unlike on GSN's new train wreck Chain Reaction, the games this week have been highly competitive with the outcome often coming down to the wire. That's a good sign for a game that is played within a set time allotment rather than to a specific goal. The $5,000 bonus round is essentially more of the same, with the winner's score (e.g., 107) converted into seconds to answer trivia and reveal letters in a question. The contestant must also come up with the "final answer." The show misses a chance to get viewers involved by eschewing returning champions, but it has a nice set design with a lot of yellow and green on a giant "Q" — a nice change of pace from the still-pervasive dark Millionaire look that was tired six years ago. Host Bob Goen, the Entertainment Tonight vet, is smooth and affable — an excellent fit for the show, which is GSN's best effort since I've Got a Secret. Will the audience follow? That's the … well, you know.

// Incidentally // Bob Goen hosted the last couple of years of daytime Wheel of Fortune, which ended in 1991.

Music: Recent iTunes downloads

• Quick takes on recent impulse purchases at the iTunes store.

Current song count: 1,866 (5.5 days)

The Rising • Bruce Springsteen // I like my 9/11 songs to do more than just wave the flag and ask, "Have you forgotten?" Not surprisingly, Springsteen delivers with an urgent anthem that is hopeful and yearning while grounded in world-weariness. The recurring references to Mary in certain songs are a nice touch.

I Touch Myself • The Divinyls // Radio these days is lacking for this kind of clever, fun and melodic pop rockers (among many other things radio is lacking). I forever associate this one hit wonder with my high school senior year (1991) and the twilight of my favorite era of pop music. You have to believe vocalist Christina Amphlett when, just before the fade, she sneaks in, "I honestly do."

Hey Mr. Jones • Jane Child // I had the "cassingle" of her second single, "Welcome to the Real World," and this was the b-side. I thought her big hit, "Don't Wanna Fall in Love," was generic and, based on the songs I've heard, unrepresentative of Child's ouvre. She's a bit like a more demented Pink, with a big, synthy pop sound, but quite dark ("nobody knows me like the monkey on my back"). It's almost scary, really, if you look at that chain dangling from her nose.

Steal My Sunshine • Len // It's all about that sort of Pong-y popping sound, isn't it? Despite the sunny female pop vocals, there's an odd tone to the lyrics and spoken bits that makes one wonder just what's afoot in all this talk of butter tarts and "tribal lunar speak."

Yours to Keep • Teddybears (featuring Neneh Cherry) // What ever happened to the chick who gave us the great "Buffalo Stance"? Here she is guesting on a new and pleasant slice of pop that has some interesting percussive things going on.

Tunnel of Love • Bruce Springsteen // This is one of those songs I ignored at the time (1987), but it's a meticulously layered production with a nice groove and the synthy stamp of its era. I love the carnival sounds buried in the mix as Springsteen works the Americana vibe to perfection.

// Previous installment //