Sunday, December 23, 2007

TV: ABC's Duel

• ABC tries another game show. Emphasis on 'tries.'

Finals air tonight, 8/7c
Host: ESPN's Mike Greenberg
Verdict: &&

By the time the announcer promoted a sponsor's soda containing ginseng and twice the caffeine during the premiere of ABC's Duel as the show went to commercial, I felt as if I were watching an SNL parody of today's big-money primetime game shows. With the dark set and faux drama of ominous music and endless pregnant pauses, it embodies all the clichés of post-Millionaire game shows. And, though I've said it a dozen times before, it must be repeated: Duel is yet another European import, proving again that there's not an original idea left for game shows in the U.S. entertainment industry. To ABC's credit, there's a mildly interesting premise at the heart of the game, in which two players face off with 10 chips in their possession. To advance, a player must place a chip next to the correct answer to a multiple-choice question. The twist is the contestant can place a chip next to one answer, all four possible answers, or somewhere in between to cover the educated guesses. Don't cover the correct answer or run out of chips and you're finished. The questions aren't particularly interesting but are at least tougher than average for today's game shows; I liked, "A mosquito can detect your presence from how far away?" The show's tournament format also mixes things up a bit compared to the familiar single-person Q&A, although it doesn't help that most players are winning one faceoff (and then breaking into sobs). Like Greed, the first Millionaire imitator, Duel feels like a bombastic wannabe, although I did find myself watching the whole episode.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Survivor's China resurgence

• The reality icon restores faith in season 15.

Survivor may no longer be a top 10 ratings powerhouse, but the reality king's 15th season has been a smashing return to form, thanks partly to choosing a genuinely interesting location, something that seemed to become an afterthought in recent years. Maybe I just really needed the break that I took from the show by skipping last season's Fiji excursion, but, for the first time in six or seven seasons, I have watched each and every challenge without fast-forwarding through them, even if that near-pornographic mud wrestling early on was obviously calculated to titillate. In anticipation of tonight's finale, a few thoughts:

• Ultra-cynical waif Courtney, one of my favorite contestants ever, produced one of the greatest Survivor quotes of all time when discussing the castaways voting habits regarding the incredibly annoying and self-congratulatory poker player Jean-Robert, Courtney's nemesis: "Jean-Robert is the Susan Lucci of tribal council … his name is always up there but it never quite happens." (I'm pulling that from memory, so give or take a word.)

• From the beginning, I've felt the hidden immunity idol is a gimmick that smacks of ratings desperation, but it, too, was a source of great comic relief and irony this season as Jaime, obliviously convinced she possessed a hidden immunity idol, confidently played it at tribal council. Host Jeff Probst revealed it was nothing more than set dressing and, stoking the moment perfectly, tossed it into the flames. Priceless!

• A mostly likable cast helped, though there are a few notable exceptions. Frosti joined Jean-Robert on the "wouldn't pee on him to put out a fire" list with his graceless parting comments, in which he lamented getting beat by the flight attendant (Todd) and lunch lady (Denise). Along with Courtney, they are an unlikely triumvirate in the final four (although Denise is likely to be voted out first tonight), which is wonderfully free of self-adoring alpha males.

• It's always tough to predict the winner, but I'm giving the edge to Amanda, who has largely taken the under-the-radar approach. Todd is the kind of strategic mastermind who doesn't win the hearts of jury members, although the ladies may wise up and take him out in the fourth or third slot. Denise is too much of an outsider, in addition to being the odd woman out of the remaining alliance. Courtney's acerbic candor has ruffled some feathers, and some will find her undeserving because of her lack of physical prowess — people are funny like that. That leaves Amanda to cruise to a million bucks.

I can't wait to get wrapped up in another season of Survivor, and I don't remember the last time I felt that way. Verdict for Survivor: China, thus far: &&&&

Movies: I Am Legend

• A much-anticipated blockbuster is steeped in overly familiar themes.

Genre: Horror, sci-fi, adaptation
Run time: 1:40
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga
Verdict: &&&

It's unfortunate that a movie adapted from classic source material — Richard Matheson's 1954 novel — can end up feeling derivative of countless other zombie, virus and zombie-virus movies, but that's the fate of I Am Legend, which never musters the depth to make the viewer feel much more than the predictable tension of jump scares and chase scenes. Scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) is, or thinks he is, the last person left alive after the cure for cancer goes terribly wrong (a clever touch), transforming the populace into vampire-like creatures that feed on human blood and do not mix with sunshine. Immune to the virus, Neville, with his dog friend, an emotive crutch for the movie, hunts deer by day on the car-littered streets of New York City, where the only sounds are those of birds and bugs. He works on a cure for the virus in his basement lab, using rodents and captured mutants as test subjects. He entertains himself with a fancy TV, visiting a video store daily to pluck new selections from the shelves and to interact with the mannequins he has placed along the way to make the world feel less empty. His wristwatch alarm is set to remind him when it's time to retreat to the security of home, where windows and doors are covered with steel barriers. As Neville appears to be on the trail of a cure, his circumstances take an increasingly desperate turn as the infected become wise to his location. While his encounters with the infected do build suspense, the movie fails to make the viewer truly feel the depths of isolation and desperation that would have tormented the man's fragile emotions, leaving this a less moving story than it could have been. Still, with this movie and, particularly, I, Robot, Smith deserves kudos for bringing smarter ideas to the blockbuster movie.

// DID YOU KNOW? // I Am Legend is the third movie based on Matheson's novel, following The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Amazon and Radiohead: Shaking up CD vs. MP3

I'm already a compulsive iTunes user, but when it comes to buying digital music, I've been a "single" man thus far, plucking favored tracks here and there rather than buying complete albums. But the grip of the physical CD may be loosening — at least for artists other than the few I'm completely obsessed with — as I've downloaded two MP3 albums in the past week.

It was probably just a matter of time until Amazon truly grabbed my attention with its music downloads, and it officially happened last weekend as I was ostensibly shopping for Christmas gifts but secretly plotting to buy the new Killers CD, Sawdust. As part of a sale on certain download albums, the whole 17-track affair was on offer from Amazon for $7.99, and there was no passing that up, especially with a track list that throws in a remix of "Mr. Brightside." Amazon offers a downloader application to ease the process, and it came with a free track, to boot, by The Apples in Stereo. The downloader is a sleek and efficient app that — no surprise here — downloads the purchased songs, but it also automatically adds them to the library of your iTunes or whatever player you might be using. A couple minutes later I was enjoying The Killer's lovely cover of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" and the synthy-rock magic of songs like "Sweet Talk." With high-quality DRM-free tracks at prices that often beat iTunes (and, for me, have the added advantage of no sales tax), Amazon is poised to effectively challenge iTunes, which recently eliminated the premium pricing of the DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks. Consumers stand to benefit as the two compete and DRM is (I hope) shown the door.

Then there's Radiohead's pick-your-own-price gimmick with its download of a full album, In Rainbows. Although Radiohead doesn't appeal to me a great deal, I decided to give it a shot before the closing a few days ago of the download site, the only place where the album was available. My chosen price? One pound, or about $2. You can view that in two ways — that it's too cheap and an insult to the artist, or the point of view that I take — it's two bucks Radiohead never would have gotten from me any other way. It's clever marketing that is exposing some casual and non-fans of Radiohead to the band's music and potentially inspiring them to buy other Radiohead albums.

In Rainbows is a pleasant listen, rather moody and far from the kind of in-your-face rock that generally turns my stomach. I disliked the track "Bodysnatchers" off the bat but liked "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Reckoner" and "House of Cards" on the first listens.

And aside from the convenience and quality of these digital albums, there's another bonus: two less discs to add to my mountain of CDs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

200th post: By Friday, life has killed my blog

I missed posting on the Jeblog's second anniversary back in the summer, so I'm taking advantage of this 200th post to engage in some personal and behind-the-scenes thoughts, something rarely done on this blog:

• If this blog were going to die, it would have happened a long, long time ago, like in mid-2006. I try to not ever go longer than a week without giving new postage, but occasionally it happens.
Fortunately, my niche comes with a never-ending fount of material. If it weren't for the darned necessity of earning a living at a job that consumes most of my day and often much of my will to live, I'd be posting nigh daily.

• Speaking of the niche, I sometimes think this should have been just a horror blog, or the horror aspect should have been a separate blog. But I'm not the only person on the planet whose favorite entertainments are electronic pop music, horror movies and game shows, am I? OK, maybe I am.


• Regular visitors may have noticed the roundup of new movies and weekly product of note (CDs, DVD, books and occasionally a video game) has waffled between sidebar content and a full post. This is likely to continue, as some weeks, like these at the end of the year, don't bring much new stuff. But new releases will continue to be teased and updated one way or the other on Sundays, unless I'm really hung over, because I need to know if there's a good scary movie or a new Enya album to anticipate in the coming week.


• Overall, I think the Jeblog's tone and direction have sharpened in 2007, and I hope my blog friends would agree.


• Link love is very appreciated, and it's a great way to get into my highly exclusive sidebar.


• When I'm feeling introspective, I like to think of my life in contrasting segments: pre-blog / post-blog, for example. My post-blog life contains some notable ones: pre-Katrina / post-Katrina, pre-heart murmur / post-heart murmur.

We all have our burdens.
And life — and posting — goes on.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From the vault: Dark Shadows (1991)

• 1991 saw a brief TV remake of the classic vampire soap.

Genre: Horror, vampire, soap, remake
DVD released: Oct. 18, 2005
Cast: Ben Cross, Barbara Steele, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jim Fyfe, Roy Thinnes, Michael T. Weiss, Lysette Anthony
Verdict: &&

With the successful daytime serial Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and movies such as Burnt Offerings, the late Dan Curtis was a reliable purveyor of genteel drawing room horror. He returned to the well in 1991 with 12 primetime episodes of Dark Shadows for NBC, a series of which I was surprisingly unaware until coming across this DVD set (perhaps the Gulf War preemptions at the time kept it off my radar). With some exceptions, it follows the general story arc of the original series, which produced more than 1,200 (!) episodes, and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows. In each series and the movie, vampire Barnabas Collins is on the prowl, and Curtis introduced a clever wrinkle into the standard vampire lore with Collins' desire to untether himself from his cursed existence. In the '91 version, this happens with the aid of Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele), who learns of Collins' nature and proposes a cure — Curtis surely gave us one of the earliest examples here of the reluctant vampire, an idea that continues to repeat in stories such as CBS' current Moonlight series. Coinciding with Collins' experiment, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going) has become governess at Collinwood Manor, where Collins passes himself off as a relative from England. As in the original series, an old nemesis, Angelique, confronts Collins, and a séance in episode six transports Victoria to 1790 while a stranger from 1790 appears in her place. For modern audiences, the show may jump the shark here, as the same actors we have watched through the first five episodes now play different roles during both time periods (it should be noted, however, that the original series' actors often played numerous roles, although Steele's French accent in the 1790s role is ridiculously over the top, even if she turns in one of the stronger performances overall). The midpoint sag in storytelling and believability is somewhat redeemed in the final episodes, which find the fiery Reverend Trask (Roy Thinnes, hamming it up beautifully) on a crusade to convict Victoria of witchcraft. Some lapses in production judgment are painfully evident throughout — numerous night sequences are clearly shot during the daytime hours, making it impossible to hold on to the thread of believability (the original series did this as well, though I haven't seen enough to know if the results were better). The cast is actually pretty good; Cross is a more charismatic villain than the rather weaselly Jonathan Frid of the original series, and, somewhat amusingly, 3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes one of his earliest TV appearances as a mischievous youngster, one of Victoria Winter's pupils. The series stands as a curiosity of early '90s television and is markedly of its time in choices of obscene sweaters and big, frizzy hairstyles — ironically, the show picked up an Emmy for hairstyling but, unsurprisingly, nothing else, although it did earn some genre awards.

// DVD NOTES // The transfer is fine, but the complete lack of extras is disappointing. Can't we have a nibble, at least comments from a few participants?

// RELATED // House of Dark Shadows (1970 movie)

// MORE DARK SHADOWS? // A new feature-film Dark Shadows adaptation is in development by Johnny Depp's production company. Much of the original series is available on DVD, and a pilot for a 2004 WB series was shot but not picked up for series.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Movies: Stephen King's The Mist

• The Mist is a crown jewel compared to many King adaptations.

Genre: Horror, sci-fi, adaptation
Director: Frank Darabont
Run time: 2:05
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Frances Sternhagen, Nathan Gamble
Verdict: &&&&1/2

There's plenty of fodder to argue that Stephen King sometimes wants for originality, but Stephen King's The Mist is too well-crafted a movie to even go there. If it weren't for 30 Days of Night a few weeks ago, I'd be calling this the best horror movie since The Ring, although, like the most successful King adaptations, it succeeds by focusing as much on the human elements of the story as on the supernatural. With The Mist, Director Frank Darabont, who also helmed The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, has crafted one of the truly great King adaptations and possibly made it even more enjoyable than the original novella from the Skeleton Crew collection, which had a verve lacking in many of King's latter-day short stories. The tale takes place in a small Maine town where a severe storm is followed by a thick, creeping mist. David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his young son and his combative neighbor set out to the local grocery for supplies after the storm. While there, the fog settles in just as an old man bleeding from the nose runs in shouting about "something in the mist" taking a man. It is here that Darabont expertly seizes the potential of the story: The grocery contains a motley crowd of folk who are now isolated together, and, as they are tested, their worst traits rise to the surface — it becomes Survivor: Food Mart. The first time we glimpse what's in the mist, it verges on hokey, but the movie continually picks up steam from there, and the later encounters with what lurks in the mist are incredibly intense, action-filled, edge-of-your seat nail-biters. Those segments are brilliantly woven with the character drama. While coping with fear and the injured, the group must also contend with Mrs. Carmody (perfectly pegged by Marcia Gay Harden) — a nagging yet solicitous bible-thumper who immediately begins to spout scripture and predictions of doom. Initially met with guffaws and derision, Mrs. Carmody becomes a powerful figure as the situation increasingly descends to hopelessness (the movie's tagline, "Fear changes everything," is oh-so perfect). The story becomes as much about the way people divide themselves and cling to any hysterical shred of hope as it is about the supernatural and unknown — it is about the horrors of the human mind, which King often captures with rare insight. An engaging cast of actors such as Laurie Holden (The X-Files' mysterious Marita Covarrubias) supports Jane as a strong lead, the family man trying desperately to hold it all together and comfort his terrified son. A relentlessly dark movie all the way to the bitterly cold ending, Stephen King's The Mist is a jewel among the King adaptations and an absolute must-see for anyone with an interest in the genre.

// DID YOU NOTICE? // A couple of bonuses for loyal King fans include a prominent shot of a painting of The Dark Tower and the gunslinger in the opening scene and the presence of the great Frances Sternhagen, who played the sheriff's wife in Misery, as Irene, a retired teacher who is among those hiding in the store.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cassingle rewind: Will to Power • I'm Not in Love

Label: Epic
Hot 100 peak: #7 in December 1990
"What was I thinking" index: 0 (none), although the parent album is at least a 3 (could live without it)

// A SIDE // Still basking in the glow of their 1988 number one, "Baby I Love Your Way / Free Bird Medley (Free Baby)," Will to Power went with another sleekly produced ballad for the first single from the 1990 follow-up album, Journey Home. Covering the psychedelic 10CC tune, the duo achieved another top 10 hit on the strength of the plaintive and evocative melody and Elin Michaels' strong vocal performance, although this version doesn't approach the trippiness of the 10CC version.

// B SIDE // This almost-four-minute reprise of "Fly Bird" soars on an instantly catchy, anthemic chant of "We've got to turn it around to see what's goin' down" delivered by a high school chorus. Curiously, that bit doesn't even appear in the song "Fly Bird" on the album, making it less a reprise than another song sharing some of its melody.

// C SIDE // Will to Power was well-positioned to extend its run of pop hits, but it wasn't to be. Journey Home's second single, an awful cover of "Boogie Nights," deservedly missed the Hot 100 altogether. The other potential hit was "Fly Bird," a rather blatant attempt to recapture the glory of "Baby I Love Your Way / Free Bird Medley (Free Baby)," and I'll wager that it would have at least charted had it been tapped as the second single. The rest of the album is quite bad, failing to recapture the easily listenable dance-pop spirit of their self-titled debut, which spawned the solid mid-chart dance hits "Dreamin'," "Say It's Gonna Rain" and "Fading Away."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Halloween hangover

With nothing recent of interest on the video store shelves (Dead Silence or The Invisible just weren't going to cut it), our Halloween viewing this year consisted of three vintage 1980s titles (no, not all on the same night). At least then when they're bad, they're '80s bad. Here's a recap, and I'm also throwing in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I just caught on TNT on my lazy Sunday evening.

Witchboard (1986)
For a movie that includes a little Ouija board inside the DVD case, there's precious little Ouija action in the film, and what there is isn't scary. Tawny Kitaen ("infamous '80s vixen," the box copy says) gets pestered by a demon and ultimately possessed, but much of it feels more like a high school grudge movie than a horror film as her boyfriend (Todd Allen) and former squeeze (Stephen Nichols of General Hospital and Days of Our Lives) butt heads. Verdict: &&

The Evil Dead (1982)
The best thing about The Evil Dead is its authentic backwoods location in eastern Tennessee. The movie goes for visceral shocks as a young party of five, looking to enjoy a weekend in the woods, conjures up death and demons by reading from a "book of the dead" found in the impossibly huge basement. Early on, one of the squealing girls runs through the woods in the middle of the night and is held down by limbs and vines for what appears to be a sexual assault. Everything else here is pointless blood and gore, and the characters are as blank as the cabin's furniture, but this somehow propelled director Sam Raimi to a career. The DVD booklet includes a fairly lengthy interview with the three screaming lasses, while the dts-ES soundtrack is utterly wasted. Verdict: &

The Entity (1981)
Easily the best of our Halloween batch, The Entity boasts a strong concept backed by potent performances. Barbara Hershey is single mom Carla Moran, who one evening notices things moving around in her bedroom and then is molested (common theme!) by an unseen force. The subsequent haunting activity is low-key (it was smart not to try to outdo The Exorcist) but completely effective, and the movie smartly pits the phenomena against the world of psychiatry as a doctor (Ron Silver) tries to convince Moran, who is tormented by fear and shame, that the experiences are not really happening. Ultimately, parapsychologists attempt to lure the entity into a trap. Based on a "true" story as novelized by Frank de Felitta, who researched the case, it is thoughtful and engaging in a way that few horror films ever try to be anymore. Verdict: &&&

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Fusing a sedate legal drama with exorcism horror, this one, based on a "true" story (common theme!), is competently made and certainly more sophisticated than the flood of teen-oriented horror dominating the mid-2000s. Anticipating climbing the ladder at her firm, defense attorney Erin Brunner (Laura Linney) takes the controversial case in which a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is charged with negligent homicide after performing an exorcism on Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). The movie delivers a few chills here and there as Rose first encounters the entity in her room and later becomes a screaming, wall-clawing banshee, but the most effective moments are arguably those in which the skepticism of Brunner is shaken. It's mildly entertaining on an idle evening, but the court scenes begin to drag between the high-energy demon scenes. Verdict: &&1/2

Monday, November 19, 2007

Radio Me at Last.fm

If you're anything like me, you need to know that your number 20 most-played track in your digital library is "Forever Live and Die" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

OK, maybe you're nothing like me, and that's probably a good thing. But if having loads of statistical data about your listening habits tickles your fancy, you should run, not walk, over to Last.fm, sign up and download the Audioscrobbler. I've always had a bit of a fetish for music charts — I think they appeal to the obsessive side of my mind — and now I can endlessly pore over my weekly, rolling and overall charts, as well as those of others. Of course, looking at Last's weekly charts compiled from all users just reminds me that I'm old and far from hip, because there's nary a Radiohead song in my library (although I am vaguely tempted to download the "pick your price" album just out of curiosity), and the kids today don't have multiple (or any) Roxette albums in their top 30.

It's true that iTunes charts your music, but Last does it with more flair and in far more ways. Plus, it counts plays from CDs as well as anything you listen to on the Last.fm radio. I also like that I can tell it when to count a play of a tune — a minimum of 75 percent of the song, 90 percent of the song or 58 percent. Whatever rings your bell.

Last also has free downloads — I snagged a good one by Under the Influence of Giants — and blogs. And while its music offerings are a helluva fun playground for music nuts, Last deftly weaves that into the context of social networking. That is one aspect of the Internet that has failed to set me on fire; MySpace couldn't be clunkier and less inspired in function and design if it tried. It's a compliment to Last that the site has piqued my interest in linking to more friends.

So go add me and see what's number one or number 118 this week. I'll be grateful.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

DVD: The Reaping

The Reaping's harvest is a mixed bag.

Genre: Horror
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Hillary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb, Stephen Rea
DVD released: Oct. 16, 2007
Verdict: &&1/2

This biblical plagues tale is far from immaculate, but neither is it the complete abomination most critics deemed it upon its theatrical release. Theology professor Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), whose faith was squashed by the sacrificial murder of her daughter and husband while the family carried out missionary work in Sudan, now gleefully debunks alleged religious phenomena. Summoned to the tiny Louisiana backwater of Haven, where Something Mysterious is afoot, Winter sets out on a Skeptics R Us road trip with her assistant and plunges headfirst into a river of blood. Literally. The local river has gone blood red, and all the fish have died and washed ashore. While investigating and shacking up in a nice guy's plantation house, she witnesses a series of apparent plagues — the cattle die off; the kids get head lice; locusts descend. While Winter goes down her list of possible explanations, the local populace is all too willing to be swept up in the apocalyptic signs and channel their rage at a young girl — isn't it amazing how often it's a young girl? — who seems to be connected to the events. The Reaping at times reminds of various other works: The whole premise is rather X-Files; the scenes in Sudan and the ravings of the priest (played with expert skittishness by Stephen Rea as the character attempts to warn Winter of some bad Signs) bring to mind The Exorcist; the glimpses of the little girl evoke Don't Look Now and, if we want to get especially cynical about it, the remake of The Wicker Man; and the scenery and culture of rural Louisiana make this a suitable companion piece to that recent hoodoo movie, The Skeleton Key. The first two-thirds of The Reaping successfully engage, however. The plagues are well-choreographed, and it's always fun to watch skepticism collide with the hysterical will of the masses. But what tension the movie sows in the early going is squandered on a complete fumble of an ending that goes insanely over the top with biblical mumbo jumbo and pyrotechnics. // DVD notes // If you care to go there, a featurette explores the plagues.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

This week: Seinfeld on DVD wraps; The Gunslinger exposed

• Notable releases in stores Nov. 6 and movies in theaters Nov. 9.

Books
Stephen King, "The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" // Essentially a comic series collected in hardcover, this story delves into the past of Roland, King's Dark Tower protagonist and arguably one of his finest achievements. I fell off the train and didn't read the last few volumes … what does he expect when they come out 18 years apart? This title is out Wednesday rather than the normal Tuesday.

DVD
Seinfeld: Season Nine // Aching to relive that tedious series finale? I didn't think so.

Seinfeld: The Complete Series // For the true Seinfeld obsessives, here's a 32-disc set that includes a new roundtable discussion with the complete cast. Now, that's something.

Wings: Season Five // Must-see Thursday memories, although this show eventually wore out its welcome.

Movies
P2 // A woman (Rachel Nichols) is stalked in a parking garage on Christmas Eve. Deck the halls!

Pet Shop Boys, exclusively

Christmas has come early for PSB fans: Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are apparently feeling in a generous mood, digging into the vault to share some unreleased material that leans toward Fundamental demos and alternate versions. To stream the songs, go to the official site, select "product" from the navigation menu, and then select "exclusives." A few thoughts on the previously unheard (by legal means) material:

God Willing (rough mix) // It has a long intro that precedes the starting point of the version that appears on Fundamental and includes a section in which the reading of junk e-mails is played backwards. It was intended as the opening track of Fundamental, and I've always felt it should have been, in either form.

A Powerful Friend // From the Disco 3 sessions, it's a down-tempo track with some lovely guitar accents.

Sorry (PSB minimal mix) // Brings to mind some of the disappointing remixes of PSB songs by other mixers — this was best left unreleased in favor of their amazing maxi-mix.

Indefinite Leave to Remain (demo) // This mid-tempo shuffle sounds like what you'd expect them to do with this song as opposed to the lush masterpiece that found its way onto Fundamental. I could listen to either version of this ballad all day; it's absolutely worthy of single release.

The Sodom and Gomorrah Show (Unreleased single mix) // This sounds exactly like the version performed on The Late Late Show, right down to the lovely pizzicato strings in the bridge.

Tall Thin Men // Originally slated to open the Closer to Heaven musical, this, on the surface, is exactly the kind of camp thing I don't want my PSB doing (although I do enjoy "If Love Were All" and "Can You Forgive Her? (Swing Version)", but this gets bonus points for the sly Madonna reference and cleverly scathing lyrics.

I Made My Excuses and Left (Demo) // The demo of this meticulously crafted winner doesn't sound far removed from the Fundamental version.

Love to Love You // A solid cover of the Donna Summer tune with Sam Taylor-Wood (aka Kiki Kokova) doing some of the same obscene groaning she does on the brilliant and underappreciated "Je T'aime … Moi Non Plus."

Bright Young Things (Demo) // No major differences here from the "Numb" b-side version.

Luna Park (Rock mix) // The differences here, as well, are rather subtle, although the description says this take was deemed "too rock." I don't see it, particularly alongside songs like "Sodom."

No Time for Tears (Orchestral Mix) // Potemkin is one of those PSB sidetracks that just doesn't engage me.

Jack and Jill Party (Extended Dance Mix) // Odd lyrics, and the whole thing sounds rather menacing.

Now, if only we could get these on CD, I'd set this up as my alternate version of Fundamental:

God Willing (rough mix) / Psychological / The Sodom and Gomorrah Show (Unreleased single mix) / I Made My Excuses and Left / Minimal / Numb / Luna Park (Rock mix) / I'm with Stupid (Melnyk Heavy Petting Mix) / Casanova in Hell (Live with Rufus Wainwright) / Integral (PSB Perfect Immaculate 7-inch) / Twentieth Century / Indefinite Leave to Remain (demo)

// Also see // Review of Fundamental

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The weekly menu

• Notable releases in stores Oct. 30 and movies in theaters Nov. 2.

Games
Buzz!: The Mega Quiz (PS2) // Get your game on quiz-show style in the latest installment of this party game series utilizing a set of actual buzzers in place of the control pads. Sounds more fun than the Atari 2600's paddle controllers, at least.

Movies
Bee Movie // Is an animated flick what anybody wants from Jerry Seinfeld? Those promotional shorts airing on NBC would be cool if they were funny. A Bee Movie tie-in video game for all the major systems is on shelves Tuesday.

Martian Child // John Cusack's adopted six-year-old thinks he's from Mars, and it all seems too precious for its own good in the trailers.

DVD
Captivity (unrated) // Another poorly reviewed entry in the torture porn genre stars Elisha Cuthbert as a fashion model.

CSI Miami: Season Five // Five seasons, and David Caruso hasn't left yet! The problem I have with the CSI shows is that you can't ever really guess who did it, and those little wrap-ups in the last three minutes are too contrived and often anti-climactic.

The Outer Limits: The Original Series, Vol. 3

Scrubs: Season Six

Spider-Man 3: Special Edition // I don't do superhero movies, but, if I did, it would be one of the Spider-Mans.

Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition

Music
Backstreet Boys, "Unbreakable" // Really, isn't it just time to let it go?

Britney Spears, "Blackout" // Really, isn't it just time … and what an awful sleeve design.

Joy Division // Special editions of Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still.

Books
Peter Hoeg, "The Quiet Girl" // I read Smilla's Sense of Snow back in the day and found it … cold.

Clive Barker, "Mister B. Gone" // I read a handful of early Barker selections in the late '80s and early '90s. He had some intriguing ideas in novels like The Great and Secret Show, but I found his tales to be wholly uninviting. Here, Mr. Barker offers a demon's memoir.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The weekly menu

• New stuff in stores Oct. 23 and movies in theaters Oct. 26.

Movies
Only two new movies hit wide release this week, including Saw Part 17. If you're looking for chills, see 30 Days of Night instead.

DVD
The Shining: Special Edition (2-disc set) // The buzz on this one says expect a few new featurettes and improved sound quality.

Mr. Brooks // Kevin Costner tries sinister.

The Stanley Kubrick Collection: Director's Series (10-disc set)

Tales from the Crypt: Season Seven

Saw III: Unrated Director's Cut // I'm still meticulously avoiding the horror subgenre that Entertainment Weekly recently dubbed "torture porn."

Hostel Part II: Unrated

The L Word: Season Four

I Love Lucy: The Complete Series

Music
Dave Gahan, "Hourglass"

Books
Patricia Cornwell, "Book of the Dead"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Movies: 30 Days of Night

• A clever premise aids the outstanding vampire flick 30 Days of Night.

Genre: Horror, vampire, adaptation
Director: David Slade
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Ben Foster, Danny Huston, Mark Boone Jr., Mark Rendall
Verdict: &&&&1/2

It's such a simple yet brilliant idea, one marvels that it hasn't been done before: Set a vampire tale in the land where the sun doesn't rise. The result, 30 Days of Night, is brutal, engrossing, and one of the best horror films of the 2000s.

Based on a horror comic series by Steve Niles, it takes place in tiny Barrow, Alaska, a frozen landscape made more uninviting by the setting of the sun for a full month. As the "final" sunset approaches, young Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett, instantly likable here as the amiable town caretaker) has his hands full with odd occurrences of vandalism in his chilly burg, and his unease escalates as he visits a kennel where all the dogs have been knifed and the town diner, where a mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) requests a bowl of raw red meat and comes to blows with the sheriff. From his jail cell, Foster is exceptionally creepy as he warns that "they" are coming and wonders aloud who'll be killed first — Oleson's younger brother, Jake (Mark Rendall); his grandmother/dispatcher; or his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), who missed the last flight out of town and will be forced to reevaluate her relationship with Oleson.

The stranger proves to be right; these opening scenes build a palpable sense of dread that is realized as a band of vampires begins a full-throttle feeding frenzy. Attacking with unbridled ferocity, the vampires quickly take out much of the town, leaving little hope for anyone to survive the onslaught. Sheriff Oleson and a small group hole up in a well-hidden attic, aiming to stay out of sight. It's not giving away too much to say that various circumstances will expose certain members of the group, and the numbers gradually dwindle. As the unlucky survivors transform, the genial sheriff is forced to do unthinkable things to hold the group together.

The forbidding location, with blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures, heightens the overwhelming bleakness. The movie's portrayal of the blood-soaked vampires brings nothing radically new to the table, but it is so tautly crafted that it doesn't matter. A lesser movie wouldn't dare go where this one does in the final act; I wanted to shout "No!" at the screen. I'm glad I didn't look at the critics' reviews before going to this movie, and I'm frankly puzzled by the negative reactions — it baffles me that anyone who has watched some of the awful horror movies of the last couple of years can carve the knives over this stylish entry in the vampire genre. 30 Days of Night is simply a must for anyone who enjoys thoughtfully executed horror.

Pictured: Sheriff Oleson (Josh Hartnett) takes matters in hand.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

DVD: 1408

• 1408 fares better than par for a King adaptation.

Genre: Horror
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
DVD released: Oct. 2, 2007
Cast: John Cusak, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony
Verdict: &&&

With a haunted hotel room, a writer protagonist and the idea of an evil room or dwelling, 1408 is very much a case of Stephen King deja vu. Based on a tale from the latter-day short story collection Everything's Eventual, this better-than-average horror flick finds a jaded writer, Mike Enslin (John Cusak), compiling a travelogue of quaint haunted inns. He's seen every mom and pop bed and breakfast with a half-baked ghost story to attract attention when he receives a postcard tipping him to the Dolphin, a stylish New York hotel, and its room 1408 (the numbers add up to … 13). The movie is most effective here, building palpable anticipation as hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson, almost redeeming himself for his awful performance in The Phantom Menace) attempts to change Enslin's mind, telling him of the room occupants' horrible deaths and the many natural deaths that never made the press. But there's no stopping Enslin, who sets out to be the first person in modern times to last more than an hour in the room. As with many modern horror films, 1408 lacks subtlety; although it is psychological horror to a great extent, the effects spectacle soon takes over. The room knows and exploits Enslin's weak spot — the hotel is in New York, where he once lived with his estranged wife and daughter, who died after a difficult illness — and uses it to wear him down. There are some clever moments throughout 1408 — I loved the recurring use of the song "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters — but the anticipation built by the opening scenes gradually checks out as Enslin checks further and further into the mind game of 1408. // DVD notes // Feel free to skip the single-disc edition's pair of alternate endings and commercial-like featurettes.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The weekly menu

• New releases in stores Oct. 16 and movies in theaters Oct. 19.

Movies
30 Days of Night // In an Alaska town where the sun doesn't rise for 30 days, something vampire-like lurks. It's a clever idea based on a series of horror comics.

Rendition // With Meryl Streep among the cast, this thriller looks like a must-see.

TV
The Price Is Right (CBS, 11 a.m./10c) // Fire up the VCR: Drew Carey introduces his first item up for bids and a sexy new set design.

DVD
The Reaping // A likely bad horror movie that might at least be better than …

The Invisible // … which also received savage reviews. Not making it easy this Halloween, are they.

That '70s Show: Season Seven

Books
Joe Hill, "20th Century Ghosts" // Son of King offers a collection of creepy stories previously published in magazines. It doesn't fall far from the tree, etc., does it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The password is, "Don't screw this up"

• CBS launches another game show.

If you've been wondering what classic game show format will get butchered next, CBS today announced the answer: Password, Password Plus and Super Password. The network has ordered six one-hour episodes of Million Dollar Password from FremantleMedia North America with Regis Philbin hosting the midseason revival of the Goodson-Todman classic.

"With new twists, higher stakes, a $1 million grand prize and the one-and-only Regis Philbin at the helm, we're confident viewers will tune in to rediscover the format that helped to define the game show genre as we know it," said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, head of FremantleMedia North America, in a news release.

Here's hoping viewers won't be nauseated by what they see. Password is brilliant in its deceptive simplicity; it doesn't need to be dressed up in a big money format with unneeded new twists. The show will at least stick with the classic set-up of two teams, each with one celebrity and one civilian. CBS says the winning team "will then have to decide whether or not to keep their earnings or move on to a tension-building final round, where one word can potentially win a $1 million grand prize."

That suggests another tired variation of the money tree is in the offing.

"I'm thrilled to be part of this great show that I remember so well from a few years ago," Philbin said in the news release. "It was a very classy production and Allen Ludden was so terrific. I hope I can continue that tradition on Million Dollar Password."

Surely the great Reege wouldn't get involved with a crap version of a classic.

My favorite of the old Password shows was Super Password, a Bert Convy-hosted staple of NBC's excellent daytime game show blocks, running from 1984 to 1989. It is currently a fixture on the schedule of GSN, formerly Game Show Network.

When it comes to old favorites, the hardest password to accept is often "change." Skepticism aside, I'll be tuning in, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The weekly menu

• New releases in stores Oct. 9 and movies in theaters Oct. 12.

DVD
28 Weeks Later // A sequel to the pretty good effort 28 Days Later, this entry in the tired zombie/virus genre received reviews that were all over the map.

Poltergeist: 25th Anniversary Edition // If ever a horror film screamed for a maxed-out special edition, Poltergeist is it. By all accounts, however, this edition, which offers the movie in remastered form, is nothing special in terms of extras.

Rise: Blood Hunter // Lucy Liu does horror — and that seems perfectly natural, doesn't it?

Apartment 1303 // A 2007 Japanese horror film based on a story by the novelist who penned The Grudge.

Stargate SG-1: The Complete Series Collection // For those who have money to burn, a 54-disc set. Yes, 54.

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Three

Family Ties: Season Two

Music
Fatboy Slim, "Late Night Tales"

Movies
All of this week's interesting flicks are in limited release — Control, a biopic about the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis; Lars and the Real Girl, in which Ryan Gosling is a man who falls in love with a sex doll; and Sleuth, in which Michael Caine and Jude Law struggle over the affections of the elder's wife.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Price tag


Deliciously retro, isn't it? I'm loving what I see of the new set design for The Price Is Right, and I'm a little shocked by the degree to which the producers decided to embrace the retro goodness. The Oct. 15 premiere with new host Drew Carey is shaping up to be a must-see. Check out a slide show of set elements here.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The weekly menu

• New releases in stores Oct. 2 and movies in theaters Oct. 5.

Music
Annie Lennox, "Songs of Mass Destruction" // The diva's last album, Bare, was a massive disappointment that left me completely cold, but it only took one listen to lead single "Dark Road" to convince me to add this one to my cart.

Erasure, "Storm Chaser" // Fans should be reveling in the duo's new prolific phase. Here we have a nine-track remix treatment of songs from the very good current album Light at the End of the World, plus a new track with Cyndi Lauper. An additional two remix tracks will be available via iTunes, and another concert CD due before year's end will keep the ball rolling.

Depeche Mode, "Ultra" and "Exciter" // Two latter-day DM albums get the deluxe treatment with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes.

Siouxsie, "Mantaray" // Is Siouxsie without The Banshees better than no sushi at all?

Bruce Springsteen, "Magic"

Matchbox Twenty, "Exile on Mainstream" // Judging by awful lead single "How Far We've Come," listeners may want to set aside that disc of six new songs and focus on the disc containing the hits.

Amy Grant, Greatest Hits // If you secretly like to dance around the room to "Every Heartbeat," I won't tell anyone.

DVD
1408 // I took a pass on this in the theater, given the mixed bag of latter-day Stephen King short stories and the even more mixed bag of movies based on King stories, but it should go down nicely during the run-up to Halloween.

Misery: Collector's Edition // Apparently it's Stephen King week. With commentaries and featurettes, here's a welcome special treatment of one of the best King adaptations — possibly the best — based on one of the richest psychological suspense novels ever written.

Species: Special Edition

Species IV: The Awakening // Surely this is one or two too many.

Shark: Season One // On the strength of James Woods, it's surprisingly good.

Jericho: Season One

How I Met Your Mother: Season Two

Elton 60: Live at Madison Square Garden // Two-DVD set of the Elton John concert.

Movies
It's another quiet week, with one entry in the adventure/fantasy category, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, centering on a young man who learns that he is "the last of a group of immortals dedicated to fighting dark forces of evil."

TV
30 Rock (8:30/7:30c Thursday, NBC) // The best network comedy returns with no less than Seinfeld guesting. Must-see.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cassingle rewind: Electric Blue • Icehouse

Label: Chrysalis
Hot 100 peak: #7 in March 1988

"What was I thinking?" index: 0 (none)


// A SIDE // I just freeze every time you see through me and it's all over you … "Electric Blue" was one of the first singles I purchased, along with "What's on Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society, at a mall record store, possibly a Record Bar. I was just becoming seriously interested in music right at the tail end of the era of vinyl singles; I can remember purchasing two 45s — "Tell It to My Heart" by Taylor Dayne and "Valerie" by Steve Winwood — just before everything went to cassettes, or "cassingles." On the heels of the excellent top 20 hit "Crazy," Icehouse's "Electric Blue," a synth-laced pop-rocker, climbed to number 7 in 1988. Singer Iva Davies' warm voice, used to great effect in the chirpy background vocal, was a perfect fit for the song, which was co-written with John Oates — it's not a stretch to imagine a Hall & Oates rendition of the song. It sounds just as inviting today as it did in 1988, and I'm surprised it hasn't become more of a staple for '80s radio flashback shows. The band never again reached the U.S. top 40.

// B SIDE // The synthesizers were largely absent in extra song "Over My Head," yielding a grittier sound. It's pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable.

// C SIDE // The Australian band's music is conspicuously absent from iTunes, and the album, Man of Colours, is not one of those you can snag off eBay for 99 cents.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Books: The Resort • Bentley Little

• Don't call for room service.

Genre: Horror
Released: September 2004
Verdict: &&1/2

I was on the verge of granting Bentley Little a sidebar tag until making a reservation at The Resort, where the guests, like the roaches, do check in, but often don't check out (sorry — I always loved the marketing of the Roach Motel). It's the third title I have read by Little (his latest, The Vanishing, just hit stores in August), who cooks up some interesting ideas in better novels such as The Ignored and Dispatch and demonstrates a consistent flair for dark comedy and the absurd. The Resort contains plenty of the latter but not so much the great idea part. About two-thirds of the way in, the story meanders and the ship is never righted, failing to reach a conclusion that satisfies on any level. The resort in question is The Reata, a luxury complex where guests find themselves amongst strange doings: The activities director recruits guests into games of basketball that end in bloodshed and severed limbs. A giant, sideways-leaping spider torments a magazine writer in his room, where he often hears the sounds of an all-night party or gunshots in an adjacent room that the staff tells him is empty. A teenager spots a golf driving range where women are tied to poles and pelted by iron shots. Although they realize things are amiss, the guests find themselves under a sort of hoodoo and are powerless to leave. The uninspired denouement sadly goes the clichéd and violent route. I'll give Little at least one more shot with The Store, a 1998 novel that takes discount store culture to new levels of evil and is now in development for a feature film.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Weekly Menu

• New releases in stores Tuesday, Sept. 25, and in theaters Friday, Sept. 28.

DVD
The ramp-up to Halloween is amply evident in this week's batch:

The Hand // A 1981 horror film directed by Oliver Stone and starring Michael Caine! Seriously! Unfortunately, it's about a severed hand running around wreaking havoc.

Someone's Watching Me // A 1978 made-for-TV heroine-in-peril suspenser from John Carpenter as he basked in the glow of Halloween's success. Starring Lauren Hutton.

Deadly Friend // A 1986 Wes Craven effort.

Eyes of a Stranger // One of the earliest Jennifer Jason Leigh appearances, this is a 1981 slasher wannabe.

Twisted Terror Collection // This six-disc set includes several of the titles being released individually this week.

Cujo: 25th Anniversary Edition

Bug: Special Edition // Moving to 2007, this one is more psychological suspense than horror, and I think people tend to quite enjoy or quite loathe it. I fall in the former camp; see the review here.

Babel: Special Edition

Books
Playing for Pizza • John Grisham // The bestseller tries the sports novel. I live in the Southern region where Grisham's early novels are set, and even that didn't help me find his writing interesting.

Shoot Him If He Runs • Stuart Woods // I read a pair of Woods novels circa the early '90s, and the only thing I remember is that one of them, Under the Lake, had a sex scene that made an impression. Does that say more about me or Stuart Woods?

The Witchery • James Reese // Final volume of the Herculine trilogy of witch tales.

Music
Obligatory Villagers • Nellie McKay

Movies
This week's wide releases offer a choice between a Feast of Love and vehicles for The Rock and Jamie Foxx. What's that? You'll be heading to the rental store? I thought so.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Quick takes: Fall TV

Back to You
FOX, Wednesday 8/7c
Know what I liked most about this show? The retro-chic opening title sequence, which had an endearing, classic feel. Whether anyone would say the same about the sitcom that followed is in doubt. On the upside, it boasts the ever-reliable Kelsey Grammer (Cheers, Frasier) and the affable Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) in a broadcast newsroom environment, which is rich with comedic possibilities. On the other hand, the premiere, which was funny if somewhat crass, lacked the appealing warmth of Frasier — both the long-running character and the series. // Verdict: &&&

Moonlight
CBS, Friday, 9/8c (Premiere date: Friday, Sept. 28)
Another variation on the well-worn reluctant vampire theme may struggle to be met with open arms — Lestat and Barnabas Collins are probably chuckling at the notion in their coffins. But the charm with which Alex O'Loughlin embraces the character, who works as a private investigator, goes a long way toward melting viewer resistance, and the premiere episode displays considerably more cleverness than its Friday-night partner series, Ghost Whisperer. // Verdict: &&&

Survivor
CBS, Thursday, 8/7c
The producers go to the trouble of taking Survivor to a refreshingly interesting locale, China, but still set the action on another island? That disappointing move is matched in episode one by the players, as one of the most potentially interesting characters, Chicken, is promptly voted off. At least there's the consolation of knowing sly New York waitress Courtney and predictable Christian radio talk show host Leslie are destined to come to blows. // Verdict: &&&

Pictured: Grammer, Heaton and Fred Willard ham it up on FOX's Back to You

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cold fear

Wind Chill is a little-seen but worthy fright flick.

Genre: Horror
Director: Greg Jacobs
DVD released: Sept. 4, 2007
Cast: Emily Blunt, Ashton Holmes, Martin Donovan
Verdict: &&&

Cold isolation pervades not just in setting but also in the two principal characters for much of Wind Chill, a George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh-produced horror film that saw limited theatrical release in April. At the winter break, a college student (Emily Blunt) catches a ride toward home with a classmate she doesn't know (Ashton Holmes). They get off to an icy start that only worsens as he makes strange statements and takes a turn off the highway onto a scenic route. It's a classically stupid horror film move that ends in the two becoming stranded on the side of a haunted stretch of road where past highway horrors still stir. As darkness sets in, the two struggle to keep from freezing to death and become increasingly aware that they are not alone in the remote countryside. Further complicating their fate are his injuries and an unfriendly highway patrolman. As the situation deteriorates, relations between the two begin to thaw, and a sweet love story emerges from the overriding chill. My viewing partner, who is often harder to please than I, couldn't sit still during some of the scenes, much to my surprise. The movie genuinely chills on several occasions, making excellent use of Brenda Lee's song "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," as it effectively builds a sense of isolation and desperation. But, while this better-than-average horror movie is a worthy rental, it ultimately feels a bit slight in plot and originality that could have warmed a heartier recommendation. // DVD NOTES // The disc offers commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette.