Sunday, December 31, 2006

8 Things I Loved in 2006

8 30 Rock • 30 Rock sealed its status as NBC's best sitcom in years with the episode in which network exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin at his smarmy, alpha male best) sets head comedy skit show writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) up on a date with "Tom," who turns out to be a chick. Meanwhile, in a series of poker games, Donaghy tries to crack over-eager page Kevin (Jack McBrayer), whose constant perkiness equals a perfect poker face and, according to Donaghy, the threat of world domination.

7 Fundamental • The ninth Pet Shop Boys album didn't seem on any level to match the buzz that preceded its release, but it's a grower, one of those albums whose many layers of beauty only become apparent with repeated listenings. Essential for fans of sophisticated pop/electronica.

6 Vodka • Even better than popcorn as an entertainment supplement.

5 Kidnapped • Poor NBC: The network delivers a bevy of high-quality programs in its new season and still can't crawl out of the cellar. This kidnapping drama shouldn't have been one-third as compelling as it was, but a superb cast, labyrinthine plot and cinematic production made this a must-see that was unjustly canceled early.

4 Battleground from Nightmares & Dreamscapes • TNT showed a quality adaptation of a Stephen King story is still possible, an achievement that continually eludes ABC's efforts to translate his work. This take on one of King's best short stories, in which an assassin finds himself attacked by toy soldiers, was one of the most skillfully crafted hours of television in 2006. Tragically, all of the other installments were grade-A crap.

3 I've Got a Secret • GSN, formerly the Game Show Network, proved it can deliver a high-quality game show with this revival, which had a pitch-perfect retro vibe, an engaging and capable panel and host (Bil Dwyer), and interesting guests. Though I can take or leave most panel shows, this had me tuning in nightly. Although the show is still on the schedule, GSN then reconfirmed its lack of taste by renewing the awful, brain-dead Chain Reaction instead of the smart Secret.

2 Dexter • Edging past Kidnapped as my favorite drama to debut this year, Dexter deviated from Jeff Lindsay's excellent novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter just enough to keep readers well in the dark. A blood spatter expert who rubs out other killers, Dexter is the new Hannibal Lecter, an intriguing villain-hero who, in his way, is making the world a better place. The last few episodes were second only to Battlestar Galactica in masterful suspense in 2006. Good news for devotees: Showtime renewed the show for a second dozen episodes, and Lindsay's third novel in the series is due in August.

1 Battlestar Galactica • I'm a slave to this show as Baltar is a slave to the whims of sultry, seductive, silver-hearted Number Six. With peaks such as Pegasus and Epiphanies, the second season of the best show on television put together an incomparable string of episodes juggling major threads such as the demotion of Adama, Roslyn's cancer and the fate of Sharon's half-toaster baby. Give this show some Emmys, please.

// Previously //
8 Things I Loved in 2005

Sunday, December 24, 2006

TV: Indentity

• Identity is a game of snap judgments. Here's one: It stinks.

Genre: Game show
Host: Penn Jillette
Verdict: &&

Hobbled by its host, format and that tired old money tree, Identity is out in three quick strikes. NBC gave it the kind of full-week December launch that worked so well for Deal or no Deal, and the show may be back if the ratings are deemed acceptable. Based on the first batch of shows, the network's resources would be better spent elsewhere. In Identity, a contestant faces a dozen individuals who must be linked to various identities — alligator wrestler, crime scene investigator, jockey, streetwalker, etc. — to win the top prize of $500,000. I expected this game to have some questioning element in the vein of What's My Line? or any number of the old panel shows, but it's merely a matter of selecting based on the available visual cues, which isn't much beyond the way a person is dressed or carries herself. I imagine the producers thought the mental game of deduction would be entertaining, but it's about as exciting as watching a couple of kids playing the board game Guess Who, of which Identity reminds me. Not bored yet? Consider that the game relies on the passé money tree and lifelines (a free miss, consult the experts, and narrow it down to three) progression that has been over since the first couple of post-Millionaire wannabes. As for Penn Jillette, his voice makes me think of a professional wrestler, and his emceeing could use a touch of magic.

DVD: The Wicker Man (2006)

• Nicolas Cage tries to crack a secretive clan of pagan chicks.

Genres: Thriller, mystery, horror (but not really), remake
DVD released: Dec. 19, 2006
Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kate Beahan, Ellen Burstyn
Verdict: &&&

See the review of the theatrical release here. Despite the critical mauling, I still maintain that this remake is a fun little mind-freak and better than the average horror movie of the week (although this is far more a mystery-thriller than it is horror). On second viewing, I still feel the opening scene of this pagan island mystery doesn't tie in convincingly, and the climax, though strong, might be even more effective with less explanatory dialogue — why tell us what has become painfully apparent? // DVD notes // The disc contains two versions of the movie — the theatrical cut and an alternate version. The DVD box trumpets a "shocking alternate ending," but it is neither shocking nor alternate — it's really an extended version that shows a bit that you only hear in the theatrical version during the particularly violent part of the scene. With the other extras being the trailer and commentaries, this adds up to quite a disappointment. On a side note, I was hoping the re-release of the original would show up at my local DVD emporium, but no such luck. Guess I'll have to buy it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

DVD: An Inconvenient Truth

• The former V.P. delivers a sobering wake-up call.

Genre: Documentary
DVD released: Nov. 20, 2006
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Al Gore, the planet
Verdict: &&&&

It's hard to believe that the man who tells the absorbing planet-in-peril story of An Inconvenient Truth was the presidential candidate who droned through speeches about lock boxes. In the six years since, he has found his voice, a compelling gravitas that eluded the man who used to be the next president. An Inconvenient Truth is perhaps the most important thing he will accomplish, and it might never have happened had the Supreme Court elected him rather than the White House's current occupant, whose name is never uttered in this film. That's important because, as Gore notes, global warming is a moral issue, not a political one: The choices are to do the right thing or suffer the dire consequences. The movie consists of the multimedia presentation that he muses he's probably given a thousand times. In theory, it ought to be as flat as his lock box campaign speeches, but there's an urgency to the facts that grabs the viewer by the throat and does not relent. It encompasses those topics you expect — Hurricane Katrina, record high temperatures, emissions from automobiles — and many I didn't know about, such as softening of the permafrost in Alaska, melting in Greenland and Antarctica, shrinking of the coral reef waters, and the drying up of the Amazon. It carries its own weight, but director Davis Guggenheim brings heart to the movie through interwoven personal, confessional asides by Gore. Think he doesn't understand why some business interests work to plant doubts in the public by consistently referring to global warming as "theory"? Listen to him speak about his family's involvement in tobacco farming and his sister's death of lung cancer. These interludes effectively reinforce the notion that this is not a matter of Republican against Democrat, tree-huggers versus rich executives, or theory versus science, but of family, virtue and, ultimately, our very existence. // DVD notes // Extras include a 30-minute update on developments since the movie was made, plus commentaries, a making-of, and the music video for Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up."

DVD: The Devil Wears Prada

• Handbag humor. Can guys watch it?

Genres: Comedy, fashion, adaptation
DVD released: Dec. 12, 2006
Director: David Frankel
Cast: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker
Verdict: &&&

Which came first, The Devil Wears Prada, based on a novel by Lauren Wiesberger, or the Ugly Betty, ABC's hit based on a popular telenovela? Or is the bigger question really this: Can a guy watch this movie? The answer to the latter question is yes, though it is far more likely to please the girlfriend than the guy. On a certain level, it's a fairly straightforward fish out of water, she's in over her head kind of tale as aspiring journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the job of assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the power broker in the fashion industry as editor of Runway magazine. Sachs finds she has to set aside her pride and personal life to hang onto her job in the cutthroat world of fashion. While Hathaway is sweet as the innocent thrown to the wolves, it's Streep who makes the movie in an icy turn as a bitch on top of her empire. She is cold, condescending and utterly believable. My favorite moment comes in a scene in which Sachs lets out a disapproving giggle as Priestly is choosing between two belts of seemingly indistinguishable color. Priestly seizes the moment to cut her naïve assistant down to size in a monologue tracing how the cerulean blue of Sach's frumpy sweater evolved from the high fashion of the Paris runway. Prada finds the right fit in those moments that weave cleverness and humor and as Sachs struggles to fight off the ruthlessness that threatens to harden her sweet nature. // DVD notes // It's accessorized with a bevy of featurettes, but you know you're not going to watch them.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Horrific holidays

The holidays are looking a tad frightening, and I don't mean the visits with the in-laws. Horror fans have a nice stretch of films hitting DVD in the next few weeks, plus a Christmas horror flick in theaters. Some lowdown:

The Wicker Man • On DVD Dec. 19 // Joining the critically maligned Nicolas Cage remake on DVD the same week will be a two-disc treatment of the 1973 original from Anchor Bay. It appears to be an update of a previous two-disc set with some new interviews and two versions of the movie — the 88-minute theatrical cut and an expanded 99-minute version. Read the reviews at Amazon for lots of bitchy opinions about how much greater the movie is with the extra footage.

Black Christmas • In theaters Dec. 25 // From out of nowhere comes this remake of a 1974 sorority-girls-in-peril flick (also known as Stranger in the House and Silent Night, Evil Night) that has gained some esteem as influential in the genre.

The Descent • On DVD Dec. 26 // Girls in a Cave drew critical raves and comparisons to movies like Alien but descended from the local theater before I was able to catch it.

Snakes on a Plane • On DVD Jan. 2 // It's refreshing to see a title that makes no pretensions, and this surprise box office dud is likely to be a DVD smash.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Recent iTunes downloads

• Quick takes on recent impulse purchases.

Barely Listening • Pilot Speed // This "alternative" track burrows into the subconscious quite like "Munich" by the Editors, although it's not as good as that.

Hourglass • Squeeze // "Takeittothebridge, throwitoverboard, seeifitcanswim …" I became acquainted with Squeeze songs somewhat in reverse, first hearing the top 40 hits "Hourglass" and "853-5937" (no one but me seems to remember this "other" phone number song) in 1987-88 and later the lovely 1981 story-song "Tempted," their only other U.S. chart hit, when it had a mild radio resurgence somewhere around 1993-1995.

In the Morning • Junior Boys // A deliciously layered electronica track spiked with a bit of guitar and the insanely catchy refrain of "Do ya" throughout [Misheard lyric alert: It's "too young," not "do ya," but I'll leave my gaffe here for everyone's amusement]. It bubbles on for about five minutes with no verses, per se, but it doesn't need them. Synthpop fans should investigate.

Apocalypso • Mew // I wouldn't normally download this kind of music, but I like the big sound and brooding melody of this dense rocker. At times, the drama and vocal delivery make me think of Europe's "The Final Countdown," which either delights you or sends you running and screaming from the room.

The Maker Makes • Rufus Wainwright // My interest in Wainwright was piqued by his excellent performance of PSB's "Casanova in Hell," and this gospel-tinged balled is another winner. It's wrought with sorrow, and there's something about that key/melody change on the "Get along little doggies" part that slays me.

Under Pressure (Rah Mix) • Queen and David Bowie // Found on Queen's Greatest Hits Volume III, this nicely juiced dance mix of the classic "Under Pressure" sounds like something that should have been a hit circa 1997 (it was actually released in 1999).

The Bad Touch • Bloodhound Gang // Is it clever or merely juvenile? "Let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel" may not be poetry, but it makes this a fun — if somewhat generic — dance track.

Winter Wonderland • Eurythmics // Dave and Annie's synthpop could sound ever so chilly, but that voice, warm as rays of sunlight (although she can turn on the chill), is the perfect counterpoint. There's no skating on thin ice here — just perfectly chilled blips and bleeps and a glistening vocal delivery of the Christmas standard.