Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Books: In the Dark • Richard Laymon

• A librarian takes dares for cash in this chiller.

Genres: Horror, suspense/thriller
Released: 1994
Verdict: &&1/2

It's as if Who Wants to Be a Millionaire producer Michael Davies whipped out a horror novel: Mild-mannered (and somewhat unlikable) librarian Jane Kerry finds a note that leads her to a book containing $50 and another note. The second note contains instructions that lead her to $100. From there, the money and the perils multiply with each successive note signed by Mog, the "Master of Games." Her only lifelines are her moxie and a handsome new friend named Brace. The author was onto an intriguing concept that seems in some ways to foreshadow the reality TV games to come. Just how far will a person go for a stack of 16 fresh $100 bills? The best of these mischievous missions finds Jane donning a negligee and crawling inside a coffin in an abandoned, decrepit house. It's both believable that she would do it and genuinely unnerving. From there, however, Laymon goes completely over the top, and the fragile thread of believability snaps. The compelling concept presented an opportunity to delve into the character's psyche as she wrestled with the impulse to keep pushing her limits and raking in the cash, but Laymon never gets beneath the surface of that angle; he instead takes the lightweight path, throwing in gore and sex at the point where the missions should have become psychologically challenging. I'm willing to give Laymon another shot, however — he churned out more than 30 novels and apparently achieved greater success overseas. Still, despite, a posthumous Bram Stoker Novel of the Year Award in 2001 for The Traveling Vampire Show, In the Dark suggests he's more Koontz (who, appropriately enough, penned an intro for the book) than King.

// Is it also a movie? // The cover art, according to the credits page, is from the movie Richard Laymon's In the Dark, but a quick search at All Movie and Imdb reveals that there's no such release, nor any credits for director Clifton Holmes. A Google search turns up a now defunct page for a production company called Gemineye; the Internet archive, fortunately, has it cataloged here. The movie was completed but apparently never released beyond a few screenings that garnered some positive press and comparisons to The Blair Witch Project for its black-and-white, gritty style. Laymon also gushed about the movie, the first screen adaptation from his prolific body of work. It seems the movie might have been more enjoyable than the book. Perhaps this will show up on DVD someday, although, six years later, that seems unlikely.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Random tracks

• Assorted musings from the entertainment world.

Jericho season split • CBS' nuclear serial is one of the few new dramas that got a full season order early on, but the network has decided the show will have an extended break after this week's episode, which will include a cliffhanger finale involving a murder. The show is set to return Feb. 14 with a recap of the first 11 episodes; the subsequent episode will flesh out back story with a look at life in Jericho a day before the bombs exploded. In the interim, the network is beefing up its Jericho content on innertube, including some original content and streams of all episodes to date. I thought the first episode of the series was outstanding, but my interest has since waned somewhat.

Sony Playstation 3 •
What a brilliant marketing scheme: Ship so few units of the follow-up to the most successful console ever that many stores only get a handful of them on the first day of sale, resulting in a media frenzy. That aside, I don't think I'd fork over $600 for it unless it cleans the house and cooks dinner while I'm at work. As for Nintendo's much cheaper Wii with its motion sensitive controller, I don't think a session of video game playing should feel like doing calisthenics (although some might argue it's a good thing for sedentary youth). However, a decent lineup of games might pique my interest in the underdog console. Lots of retro stuff offered for download via the Wi-Fi connection might seriously pique my interest.

The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank • GSN occasionally coughs up a solid documentary, and this is interesting, if not as good as the one about the Press Your Luck scandal. Now repeating at various times, this doc features interviews with key players such as panelists Brett Somers and Marcia Wallace, host Gene Rayburn (old interview footage) and key production staff. Ample clips remind the viewer of the knee-slapping, inebriated mood of the envelope-pushing '70s game, and a catty Somers candidly reveals that the other panelists secretly delighted in the moments when contestant fave Richard Dawson would flub a Super Match. Overall, a sadness pervades as Rayburn's daughter talks about how he never got over the show's cancellation.

Burning Love (Remix) • There's a commercial — probably for a car, but I wouldn't know because I don't watch them — that's using an excellent remix of Elvis Presley's "Burning Love," one of my favorites from "the King." It's more or less in the style of the remixes of "A Little Less Conversation" and "Rubberneckin'." I want this mix (it's by something called Mowo), but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere. However, I've seen references to a remix album forthcoming.

Kidnapped on-line • NBC, which has developed an overly itchy trigger finger during its time in last place, quickly axed the best new show of the season, Kidnapped. The remaining episodes are being burned off on-line, but you can't watch past episodes. I missed one or two because I didn't realize they were already airing them on-line, and I don't want to watch the rest without seeing what I've missed. Will this get a DVD release? Hello, NBC? Put them all on-line. It's a crime not to.

Photo: Citizens of Jericho stand their ground. / CBS

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Music: Concrete • Pet Shop Boys

• PSB turn down the electronics with the BBC Orchestra.

Genres: Pop, synthpop, live
Released: October 2006 (import; U.S. release appears to be coming in December)
Verdict: &&&1/2

The Boys do this lush, 17-song concert performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra no favors by calling it Concrete, but such is the sometimes-pretentious world of PSB. Despite numerous concerts in their past, it took them 20 years to go the live album route, and it's more engaging than one might expect, although most fans are going to quibble with some of the song choices. I never cared for the Angelo Badalamenti arrangement of "Rent," which brings out the worst in Neil Tennant's vocal delivery — why mess with pop perfection? I could also do without "Nothing Has Been Proved," written for Dusty Springfield back in the day, and "Friendly Fire," which is one of their best songs but thoroughly butchered here by Frances Barber. Other guest appearances, however, provide some of the liveliest moments: "Casanova in Hell," with its too-cute lyrics, seems tailor-made for the vocal flair of Rufus Wainwright, and the PSB-loving Robbie Williams turns in a fine performance of the gloomy, over-the-top ballad "Jealousy." The inclusion of the hypnotic "Dreaming of the Queen" is a pleasant surprise, while the obscure "After All" from Battleship Potemkin is unlikely to pleasantly surprise anyone. Benefiting the most from the live players are tracks like "Left to My Own Devices" (obviously) and "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk," while "Integral" and "West End Girls" come off surprisingly well with acoustic drums. And solid as this live effort may be, I still don't want to call it Concrete.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TV: Show Me the Money

• Oh, my.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: ABC, 7 p.m. (Central) Wednesdays, if it hasn't been cancelled yet.
Host: Captain William T. Kirk, aka William Shatner
Verdict: &1/2

It would be tempting to call this a shameless rip-off of Deal or no Deal if it weren't a product of the same production company, Endemol. Still, it feels like a rip-off in which the hot models break into impromptu salsa sessions rather than toting metallic suitcases. In this ill-conceived quiz-dance hybrid (which conveniently followed Dancing with the Stars for Tuesday's awfully long 90-minute preview), the models hold scrolls instead of suitcases. Contestants must amass six correct questions to win the loot; after each question, the contestant chooses a model, and the amount on her scroll determines the amount added to or deducted from the player's total, which can (but probably never will) exceed $1 million. Aside from the general cheesiness of the whole affair, a major criticism lobbed at Show Me the Money is the easiness of the questions. I'll agree that six right answers seems slight for a big wad of loot, but the questions aren't all easy: The debut expected a contestant to name the group that performed the fairly obscure 1994 song "Fade Into You," which reached number 44 on the Hot 100 for Mazzy Star, a group that never charted in the top 40. That's a $1 million level question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, folks. As for Shatner, he does his level best and only breaks out the dramatic delivery (Khan! What … is … the meaning … of this!) on the occasional reading of a question. The overly calculated contestant selections — military hero, stereotypical gay man — only reinforce the general aura of phoniness. It's a safe bet this will quickly exit, and it's a shame a copycat effort like this makes it to air rather than a smart, proven format such as Temptation ($ale of the Century), which begs for a new U.S. version. Between this and FOX's The Rich List, the damage may already be done to the current game show resurgence and the prospect for more new primetime shows.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

TV preview: 3 LBS

• CBS hopes brain doctors add weight to medical drama.

Genre: Medical drama
Logistics: CBS, 9 p.m. Tuesdays; debuts Nov. 14
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Michael Feuerstein, Indira Varma, Armando Riesco
Pilot verdict: &&&

TV needs another doctor or lawyer show like a hole in the head, but CBS offers the neurosurgery drama 3 LBS (it's the weight of the brain and, perhaps, the lead character's ego) to fill a slot vacated early on by Smith, which arguably was the better show. That's not to say this isn't worth watching, though: Stanley Tucci and Mark Feuerstein (Once and Again, The West Wing) are strong leads who have a sort of running good doc-bad doc routine. Tucci portrays a somewhat cold neurosurgeon, while Feuerstein is the new understudy who brings compassion to the ward. The pilot has some nice flashback-like sequences that are atypical of the genre: A young lady who has a brain tumor that affects her speech sees a ceiling covered with words. She climbs onto a chair, reaching for them, but they stay just beyond her grasp. Tucci, meanwhile, is haunted by images of a young girl in what is likely to be a major thread of the series. If 3 LBS can avoid the obvious brain tumor of the week drama, this show might get in some viewers' heads.

Pictured: Stanley Tucci

Movies: House of Dark Shadows

• TV vampire Barnabas Collins goes Hollywood.

Genres: Horror, vampire
Released: 1970
Director: Dan Curtis
Cast: Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Roger Davis, Nancy Barrett, Joan Bennett
Verdict: &&

It's no wonder that writers like Anne Rice and movies like Near Dark attempted to turn the vampire genre inside out: How many times can audiences watch people poking around dark, coffin-filled cellars and dispensing silver bullets? This movie spinoff of the popular 1966-1971 TV vampire soap finds Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid, looking like a middle-aged Lukas Haas) creeping about Collinswood mansion, doing exactly the things you'd expect. To its credit, the movie avoids a few of the standard vampire movie clich├ęs; there are no garlic necklaces, scenes of painful transformation or a demented Renfield type. House of Dark Shadows brings one original idea to the table: A doctor who sniffs out Barnabas isolates a cell in the victims that she believes can cure him. Dignified monster that he is, Barnabas lets her treat him with the injections, which allow him to appear in the daytime. In the capable hands of director Dan Curtis, this drawing room horror is skillfully executed but ultimately too cut from the same cape as all the other vampire cinema of its time.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Music: Rudebox • Robbie Williams

• Williams parties hard on the bittersweet Rudebox.

Genres: Pop, British, dance
Released: October 2006 (import, iTunes)
Verdict: &&&1/2

Brit superstar Robbie Williams' cheeky pop never gained traction on rock-loving American radio; after a couple of minor 1999 hits, "Millennium" and "Angels," the latter of which just missed the top 40, he was all but forgotten. His latest, Rudebox, a hefty 17-track album dominated by Euro pop-dance cuts, doesn't appear to even be getting a U.S. release outside of iTunes. That's unfortunate, because it's actually a fun, more listenable effort than The Ego Has Landed, which was supposed to make him a star in the U.S. The sort-of companion pieces "She's Madonna" and "We're the Pet Shop Boys," both produced by synth gods Pet Shop Boys, each serve as tributes to pop heroes. The former is a hooky glitter ball that might make the queen of pop blush and the latter a cover of My Robot Friend's ode to PSB ("what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?"). Offsetting the high-energy cuts are "Louise," a William Orbit-produced cover of the classic Human League downer, and "The 80's," arguably the most inspired track of the set, with boldly frank couplets such as, "They didn't have A.D.D. / Thick was the term they used for me." Its companion piece, "The 90's," is about his Take That years and doesn't match "The 80's" musically or lyrically. While Williams exorcises his demons in those decades songs, he could eject three or four of the weaker tracks (I'll suggest "Good Doctor," "Never Touch That Switch" and the caustic hidden track for starters) for a near-great pop album.

// Download picks // The 80's, She's Madonna, We're the Pet Shop Boys, Louise

Sunday, November 05, 2006

TV: Dexter

• Showtime's new drama has a killer hook.

Genres: Serial killer, detective, drama, crime scenes
Logistics: Showtime, 9 p.m. (Central) Sundays
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Velez, Julie Benz, Erik King, David Zayaz, James Remar
Verdict: &&&&

You can't beat the concept: Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter expert for the Miami Police Department, moonlights as a serial killer who slices and dices other killers — people who deserve to die. That's how his late father (James Remar), a good policeman himself, taught young Dexter to control his dark urges and channel them for good. Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) brings just the right combination of handsome, smart politeness and ambiguity to the role, making Dexter something of a kindred spirit to that other great dignified villain, Hannibal Lecter. When Dexter's dark mind yields hunches about crime scenes, he feeds tips to his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose), a green Miami cop who's anxious to blaze the trail in homicide. Through the first three episodes, it is apparent that the ice truck killer story arc, which comprises the main plot of the very good source material, Jeff Lindsey's novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, will serve as the season's backdrop while various subplots (a cop killing, Dexter's feigned love life) provide padding. Dexter senses a connection with the ice truck killer and struggles to hide his playful interest from his sister and coworkers as it becomes clear that the killer is teasing him. That's on top of his daily struggle to mimic human emotions. Episode two meandered a bit with the cop killing and a double date with Dexter's sister, but episode three was the best yet as Dexter revisits his first father-approved kills, including an evil nurse, and tracks a potential new victim. Showtime has just given the nod to a second series of episodes, and it will be interesting to see if season two follows the arc of the second novel, Dearly Devoted Dexter. Either way, I can't wait to see who'll be next to get the knives and Saran Wrap treatment.

// Related // Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

TV: The Rich List

• Survey says: FOX jumps on the game show bandwagon.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: FOX, 8 p.m. (Central) Wednesday
Host: Eamonn Holmes
Verdict: &&1/2

The Rich List is one of several new games hitting the schedule in the next few months as the networks attempt to cash in on the current post-Deal or no Deal game show resurgence. Hosted by popular British TV host Eamonn Holmes, the game pits teams of two against each other in a contest of naming the most items from a list to earn stacks of cash. The lists aren't based on a survey, but the execution brings to mind Family Feud and the more obscure Hot Potato, as well as the infamous 21The Rich List has isolation pods to keep each team in the dark as the other bids the number of correct answers it can give. Lists in the premiere episode included topics like the top circulation daily newspapers, best picture Oscar winners, Tom Cruise movies and Stephen King novels and short stories (King fans likely noticed a near-error here: A contestant guessed Rose Red, which was a screenplay, and Holmes said, "Oh, you're close, but it's Rose Madder.") There's a decent play-along factor here and the "I can't believe they didn't get Cocktail" factor. It takes two list wins to achieve victory and a trip to the bonus round, which is a list played with a money tree (a device that is now officially overexposed) maxing out at $250,000. Kudos to FOX for employing returning champions, an unfortunate rarity in modern games, but the show is haunted by that Greed aura of jumping on a bandwagon. Still, for trivia and game show fans, there are worse ways to spend an hour. It's not like there's any danger of you switching over to NBC for the tears and tantrums weight scale drama of The Biggest Loser, is there?

// Update 11.02 // zap2it reports that The Rich List is off the schedule after poor ratings for the premiere. An episode of The O.C. (is that still on?) fills the Wednesday slot next week.

DVD: An American Haunting

• The Bell Witch Project gets lost in the woods.

Genre: Horror, period piece
DVD released: Oct. 24, 2006
Director: Courtney Solomon
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Sissy Spacek, James D'Arcy, Matthew Marsh
Verdict: &&1/2

There's a decent horror movie lurking within The Bell Witch Project, a loosely fact-based tale that can't quite cast its spell. Trouble begins for the Bell family after patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is accused of usury and threatened by the victim, a woman commonly believed to be a witch in early 1800s Tennessee. Soon, a menacing wolf appears, the family hears noises, and daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is tormented by an unseen entity who slaps her around and drags her up the stairs. As the disturbances escalate, John Bell becomes ill and tormented, and Betsy's schoolteacher takes a skeptical and slightly romantic interest in the happenings. Along the way are a number of clues to a dark family secret that is bubbling just beneath the surface and apparently instigating the horror. When it is revealed in a rather abrupt conclusion, it also turns out to be a fairly uninteresting and muddled (and historically inaccurate, some say) end to a movie that gets by surprisingly well in its first 90 percent on fairly standard horror conventions. // DVD notes // Puzzled by the ending? Four (!) alternate endings are equally muddled, but watching them helped me understand part of the ending that I didn't get on first viewing. The disc also includes deleted scenes, an interview with horror maven Spacek and a pretty good Dolby Digital EX soundtrack.