Saturday, May 26, 2007

Movies: Bug

• The director of a horror classic serves up sharp performances laced with aphids, paranoia and conspiracies.

Genre: Thriller
Director: William Friedkin
Run time: 1:41
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne
Verdict: &&&1/2

From The Exorcist director William Friedkin, this wordy paranoia thriller plays like a bizarre X-Files more than it does the creature-based horror that the trailers suggest. That's likely to frustrate much of the teenage audience who will go to see it, as it doesn't follow the rules of typical popcorn thrillers, but those who appreciate something more cerebral are rewarded. At least the first third of the movie is rural drama rather than thriller as we meet Agnes (Ashley Judd), a down-and-out bartender living in a trashy room at the "Rustic Motel" in small-town Oklahoma, and Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter and former soldier who wanders in with Agnes' gal pal. The two share a heightened vulnerability — Agnes is haunted by the loss of her missing son and emotionally tortured by an abusive ex (a buffed-up Harry Connick Jr.), while Peter is secretly on the run and tortured in a bizarre fashion that becomes apparent as the movie unfolds. Desperation brings these lonely souls together in scenes that sing with realism and sharp dialogue; one can get lost in the connection being made in this room of the Rustic Motel, where almost the entire movie takes place. (The wordiness is due in no small part to the movie's roots in the off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts; Shannon also played Peter for the stage.) Sheepish yet intelligent, Peter eventually reveals to Agnes his obsession with bugs that he believes are inside him as the result of military experimentation, and Agnes soon finds herself living amongst cans of Raid and an obstacle course of fly paper as Peter mutilates himself to rid his body of aphids (one painfully graphic scene is nothing short of unwatchable). Agnes becomes swept up in Peter's grand conspiracy theory, and this is the story's one stumble; it's never really believable that the vulnerable but scrappy female lead would make such a leap against logic, and particularly with the ferocity displayed here. The final act is unabashedly and appropriately over-the-top for an incredibly ballsy piece of cinema that is punctuated by beautifully emotional performances by Judd and, especially, Shannon. As a study of paranoia, it gets under the skin, but it's the human element of Bug that really thrills.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Things to know about Temptation

New versions of old stuff often stink. With that in mind, Jeblog presents Some Things To Know About Temptation:

• It is one of two new syndicated daily game shows for the 2007-08 season that will premiere on Sept. 10. The other new show is Merv Griffin's Let's Do Crosswords — a name that suggests Griffin lost his mojo for titles after Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!.

• It is based on Sale of the Century, one of the unsung workhorse formats of the game show genre — an internationally proven game that predates Wheel of Fortune. Notable runs appeared on NBC from 1983-1989 with host Jim Perry, the UK's ITV from 1971 to 1985 and Australia's 9 Network from 1980 to 2001 (that's 21 years!). The show was revamped in Australia, returning as Temptation in 2005, and continues as a hit today.

• The Sale/Temptation format is a brilliant fusion of a three-player general knowledge quizzer with frenzied consumerism. At various points in the game, the player in the lead is tempted to buy snazzy merchandise such as a brand new television for, say, $6 off his score (questions are worth five each). "Going once! Going twice! …" For each game win, a progressively larger prize is offered to the champion, who can take it and leave or risk it to come back and play for more, as well as a mounting cash jackpot at the end. The ever-rising stakes can create delicious drama.

• The first of several dubious signs for U.S. Temptation is host Rossi Morreale, a correspondent for Extra and former host of cable nuggets such as Sweat on G4 and Junkyard Mega-Wars on TLC. His demo reel just doesn't say "game show host," and some might suggest it says "himbo." I hope to be pleasantly surprised come September.

• Second dubious sign: This description of the show, which is a pitch to programmers, describes Temptation's quiz element as "funny pop culture questions." This is like saying Deal or no Deal consists of a cerebral general knowledge quiz.

• Third dubious sign: The production involves FremantleMedia, an entity that has proved it can needlessly meddle with and ruin a solid format (see Whammy).

• Australia's Temptation, hosted by the classy Ed Phillips with cohost Lavinia Nixon, is the best game show currently on television anywhere (OK, I haven't watched Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, but still). Click here to watch a couple of episodes.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

DVD: The Hitcher (2007)

• Young hotties try not to become road kill.

Genre: Horror
DVD released: May 1, 2007
Director: Dave Meyers
Cast: Zachary Knighton, Sophia Bush, Sean Bean, Neal McDonough
Run time: 1:24
Verdict: &&1/2

With mayhem and death occurring on the highways every day, a long stretch of asphalt makes a natural setting for today's brand of violent horror movie, and The Hitcher fuses that with fears of breakdowns and being pursued by the unknown. This remake of the 1986 C. Thomas Howell-Jennifer Jason Leigh vehicle has a few variations from the original plot, but it's more or less the same, with a couple of road-tripping young hotties (Knighton and Bush) running afoul of a sadistic freak who gives new meaning to road kill. As the body count rises, the hitcher's devious ways put the young couple under suspicion of the local law enforcement as he continues to stalk them. While the critics almost universally hated this movie, I found it to be reasonably effective for what it is — a Saturday night drinking movie that doesn't aspire to be anything more. Bonus points for use of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" during the best highway crash scene. // DVD notes // A long list of deleted scenes includes an alternate ending that really only ups the violence in the way one character exits. Featurettes include a making-of and an inside look at the car stunts.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Free Madonna

By "free Madonna," we don't mean a campaign to liberate the queen of pop from the Kabbalah, but rather an absolutely free download of a new song called "Hey You" at MSN. It's part of the promotion for Live Earth, a 24-hour, seven-continent concert series on July 7. Live Earth U.K. will include performances by Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Genesis and Beastie Boys. The song — a sort of personal-empowerment ballad with acoustic guitar and a light marching rhythm — is surprisingly sedate given that Pharrell Williams is co-producer. With a melody that takes hold by the second listen and nicely layered vocals, it's absolutely worth downloading. It's arguably a b-side sort of tune and sounds nothing like the pulsating Confessions on a Dance Floor material — it's not a stretch to imagine this being churned out during the Ray of Light era. It's also not a stretch to imagine Mo and Pharrell turned this out in a couple of hours over some tofu. Word is the song won't go to radio, and it's available as a free MP3 or WMA download for a limited time, although the end date seems to be unspecified.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Low-down on up-fronts

The television networks unveiled largely underwhelming plans for next season this week. Some dish on what's ahead:

CBS comedy Monday
Yes, the latecomer David Spade-Patrick Warburton sitcom Rules of Engagement made the cut for renewal, while The Class mercifully did not. The New Adventures of Old Christine, which sharpened nicely late this season, will disappointingly not return until mid-season, while the so-so 20-something ensemble How I Met Your Mother also made the cut. It will be paired with a new comedy, The Big Bang Theory, described by CBS as a show about "genius geeks." Isn't that redundant? Johnny Galecki from Roseanne stars as one of the two geeks, and sitcom vet James Burrows helms the pilot. Until Christine returns, the lineup will be: How I Met / Big Bang Theory / Two and a Half Men / Rules of Engagement / CSI: Miami.

The sitcom is dead
NBC will introduce not a single sitcom among its surprisingly few — five — new shows, although the network gave major love to The Office with a big 25-episode order, including five one-hour installments. Now, that's a super-sized episode. ABC canceled a number of comedies you've probably never seen, including George Lopez and Help Me Help You, while According to Jim was left in limbo.

The sitcom is not dead
Ratings-deprived but hilarious 30 Rock moves to the post-Earl slot, and it's hard not to look at FOX's Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton vehicle, Back to You, as promising.

The caveman show
Yep, ABC is doing a show based on the Geico commercials with the neurotic caveman. But will it be clever enough to use that excellent Royksopp tune, "Remind Me," as the theme song?

A vampire show
An "undead" private investigator uses his acute vampire senses to help the living and fight his adversaries among the undead. The fact that it's paired with Ghost Whisperer on CBS doesn't bode well for Moonlight, unless you like your horror with a Lifetime movie sensibility.

A game show
Drew Carey (ugh) hosts Power of 10, a Michael Davies product that sounds like it will involve Card Sharks-style survey questions ("What percentage of married Americans said they were virgins the day they got married?) propped up by another tired money tree with $10 million on the line.

The venerable original Law & Order will return for an 18th season despite its ratings slide and increasingly shark-jumping plotlines. SVU and Criminal Intent return, as well, though the CI episodes will appear first on USA.

Down the hatch
Do people still watch that punishing tease called Lost? It returns at mid-season for an uninterrupted run, and the final three seasons will each include a slim 16 episodes.

CBS photo: Johnny Galecki gets geeky in The Big Bang Theory.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

TV preview: Something Blue

• It's more shucks than yuks in the season finale.

Airs: 7 p.m. CT Monday (May 15) on CBS
Verdict: &&1/2

How does that old saying go — something borrowed, something blue, to renew or not to renew? In the season finale, How I Met Your Mother ratchets up the relationship drama as Ted and Robin (did anyone know this character is a journalist? Seriously?) wrestle with one of those falling apart moments over living in Brazil (aka, our futures go in different directions). It's quite the departure from the previous episode's silliness, although drunken newlyweds Marshall and Lily prompt a few chuckles, as does Barney as he attempts to discern what Ted and Robin don't want to say during their friends' wedding reception. It's a bittersweet end to the season, and fans won't be happy if this is the last episode. Given a choice of seeing more of this, The Class or Rules of Engagement, however, all my love goes to Rules.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

It's all about survival

• Survivor goes to China next season.

It took 14 seasons to get there, but I finally quit watching Survivor after two episodes of the current installment (Fiji). It's not that I tired of the microcosm of deceit and backstabbing — in fact, I'll happily belly up to the table again next season for Survivor 15 after the welcome summer break — but several factors had reached a breaking point, at least temporarily.

Thus, some proposed steps to recovery for the aging reality franchise:

Enough with the hidden immunity idol.
It's no fun at all to watch an arrogant alpha male find it in the second episode and then wield its power to help him control the rest of the game. It seemed like a good idea, but it quickly became a downer.

Stop airing seasons back to back.
One of Survivor's biggest problems at this late stage is a lack of breathing room. In the beginning, seasons sensibly appeared months apart; now one season essentially covers the first half of a standard TV season, and the subsequent season covers the second half. This puts them far too close together, and, combined with the endless string of ratings-desperate twists to come along in the last few years, it simply wore me out. You know going in that it takes four or five episodes to get to the really entertaining stuff, and the investment has just become too much.

Get off the friggin' beach.
The skin of flesh-baring hotties glistening in tropical sunlight may be part of Survivor's enduring appeal, but how many more faceless sandy beaches can a viewer endure? As I noted at the beginning of last season, the locale has become merely an afterthought, barely meriting a mention in the opening episode, whereas it used to be all about the drama of the location and its dangerous, man-eating butterflies. Location has too often taken a back seat to overly contrived twists in recent seasons. Now, about six seasons too late and in the face of the show's declining ratings (although still regularly landing in the top 10), Mark Burnett is doing something smart: taking the show to China for season 15. Come September, at least there will be something new to look at besides the flesh.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Movies: Fracture

• Don't look for cracks — just enjoy the surprisingly gripping ride.

Genres: Thriller, courtroom
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, Billy Burke, David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike
Run time: 1:52
Verdict: &&&1/2

Ryan Gosling is a hotshot assistant district attorney with one foot out the door to a lucrative private firm when he's roped into one last trial involving Anthony Hopkins in full Oscar-winning villain mode. Structural engineer Ted Crawford (Hopkins) has rolled the ultimate revenge and mind game into one as he shoots his philandering wife in a carefully executed plan that dispatches her while ensnaring her partner in lust — a hostage negotiator (Billy Burke) who gets called to the scene of the shooting after Crawford holes up inside and the hired help reports trouble. Taking what appears at first to be an open-and-shut case buttressed by a signed confession, Assistant D.A. Willy Beachum (Gosling) finds himself in a downward spiral as Crawford improbably represents himself well at trial and moves the pawns of his devious plan. Hopkins exudes sophisticated menace so effortlessly that the viewer can forget about fava beans and chianti, although this character has some memorable lines, as well. (I particularly liked, "Knowledge is pain. I'm used to that.") Fracture is engaging to an unlikely degree and overcomes its preposterousness thanks largely to two great actors in top form; in lesser hands, it would likely collapse under its own ridiculous weight. It may be a slick, hammy thriller, but it's an expertly cured slice of ham that only slightly disappoints at the end.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

TV preview: Something Borrowed

• Part one of the How I Met Your Mother finale airs Monday (May 7) at 7 p.m. Central on CBS.

Verdict: &&1/2

After a series arc going from engagement to break-up to "touching" reunion, part one of the How I Met Your Mother season finale is a manic build up to the wedding of Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel). Everything is going wrong as the big moment approaches, with gags including blond highlights in Marshall's hair ("I look like a Backstreet Boy!") and a pregnant harpist who can only reach half the instrument's strings. Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), not surprisingly, gets the best laughs as he plays upon the wedding party's goodwill towards the bride to score drinks and a back rub. Viewers might as well say "I do," but this too-brisk episode tries to cram in something borrowed, something blue and just about everything from the kitchen sink.