Monday, August 27, 2007

DVD: Vacancy

Genre: Horror
DVD released: Aug. 14, 2007
Director: Nimrod Antal
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson
Verdict: &&&

Vacancy succeeds in raising expectations right out of the gate with its nifty Hitchcockian title sequence, which is accompanied by equally Hitchcockian strings-laced music that seems to promise each viewer will soon be at the edge of his seat (I love the movie's poster, shown at right, as well — stylistically, Vacancy is ace from top to bottom). It also acknowledges up front that everything that follows is derivative, and I admire the honesty. As David and Amy Fox, Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are a young couple who peck at each other like an old married couple, especially after their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, with the Pinewood Motel offering their only respite. Soon after checking into a room at the isolated highway hotel, which appears frozen in 1973 and offers roaches as the welcome committee, furious knocking occurs at the front door and from the adjoining room's locked door. After complaining to the manager, a bored David pokes through a stack of VHS tapes stacked atop the TV. He pops one into the VCR, and what looks like a cheap slasher film begins to unfold. Upon closer examination, he notices familiar surroundings: The footage was shot in the el-cheapo hotel room he now occupies. One scene soon afterward shows the hotel manager handing over a box of tapes to a truck driver who's passing through, leaving no doubt that David and Amy have just landed a brief film career. From there, it's a fairly predictable but intelligently executed thriller, with the snuff film aspect adding an intriguing angle that is at least a bit different from the lowbrow concepts of the average slasher flick of the week. The climactic cat-and-mouse game, involving underground crawl spaces and a voyeuristic bank of monitors in the manager's office, generates a tension that may indeed scoot you closer to the edge of the sofa. // DVD notes // Extras include an alternate opening that was rightly scrapped and a montage of faux snuff film footage shot in the retro-trashy rooms. It's quietly chilling if not particularly shocking.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A 'Price' worth playing

• The premiere date for season 36 is set.

With the eternal host search, The Price Is Right appeared to be in danger of careening off a cliff like Toonces the Driving Cat after the departure of Bob Barker, but things are looking up for the old reliable workhorse, which CBS today announced will make its season 36 premiere on Oct. 15, a few weeks later than normal.

From the beginning, I felt Barker's successor should be a known name, a Regis Philbin or a Rosie O'Donnell or a Chuck Woolery (he was the best Wheel host, and I'd love to see him get a crack at Price). It was looking grim when names like weatherman Dave Price and emcee Todd Newton (of the obscure game shows Whammy! and Hollywood Showdown) were bandied about as frontrunners. Combine the underwhelming newer pricing games introduced in the last couple years with a C-level personality, and my interest dries up completely. Although I couldn't sit through 30 seconds of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Carey's smooth handling of the rather mediocre and derivative Power of 10 is a reminder that he has the appropriate ease of delivery and wit to pull this off. Kudos to the producers on pulling that one out of left field.

I also feared the show would, at least to some degree, forsake its retro, frozen-in-time appearance in the inevitable set overhaul for this new era in the history of daytime's last network game show. I don't want my Plinko or Punch a Bunch taking place on another dark, Millionairesque stage — I want it to be a time capsule like it was when I came home from swimming lessons at the age of 10 and drowned my miseries in pricing games. Good news: Recent photos from the revamped set reveal a fabulously retro new design for the big doors.

It gives me hope that The Price can still be Right.

Pictured: Drew Carey at the Big Wheel (CBS)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Movies: The Invasion

• Show no emotion and don't go to sleep.

Genres: Horror, sci-fi, remake
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Run time: 1:36
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jeffrey Wright, Jackson Bond
Verdict: &&&1/2

On the heels of the last few years' needless glut of zombie flicks, The Invasion struggles to differentiate itself, even if the afflicted in this movie aren't flesh-eating zombies, and it is based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a major influence on the horror and sci-fi genres. A sentient, alien virus brought to Earth by the space shuttle is infecting the populace, and the victims become calm, unemotional and robotic as they carry out the mission to infect everyone. The sales pitch? Just let go and submit to a life without war, without conflict. Psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) begins to notice things are amiss around the time a patient comes to her complaining that, "My husband is not my husband." Bennell notices strangely vacant faces lining the city streets, and the thriller begins to accelerate when she learns that her husband, whom her young son is visiting, is infected, and Bennell herself becomes infected at his hands (or rather, by the stuff he sprays out of his mouth at her). The two big rules for the survivors are show no emotion — that's what tips the bad guys off to the unconverted — and, once infected, don't go to sleep — that's when the transformation to automaton takes place. Bennell fights both urges through the rest of the movie as she attempts to rescue her son and avoid her demise in an increasingly bleak existence in which no one, on the surface, can be trusted. Some late action scenes, including one in which Bennell careens through the city in a car covered with the infected, effectively turn up the tension in a movie that offers an above-average dark entertainment for those willing to check their expectations at the door (and judging from the reviews, most people aren't). // Rent this // The 1993 remake, Body Snatchers, has always flown under the radar, but it's absolutely worth watching. It centers on a teen girl whose family has moved to a military base where her father is to investigate an environmental issue. Directed by Abel Ferrara, the movie boasted fine performances from Forest Whitaker and Meg Tilly, and the elaborate transformation scenes are excellent — far better than those in The Invasion, which almost dodges that aspect of the tale altogether.

Monday, August 20, 2007

First look: Survivor China

CBS unveiled the cast and some details today about Survivor: China, which I'm looking forward to after skipping Survivor 14. Some scoop on the upcoming panda edition:

• Kudos to the producers for rounding up a diverse and potentially volatile mix of occupations: We have a grave digger, chicken farmer, surfing instructor, former model, Christian radio talk show host, school lunch lady, professional poker player and professional wrestler (the WWE's Ashley Massaro) among the job titles.

• Contestant ages range from 20 (Frosti Zernow, a Chicago athlete/student) to 47 (Chicken Morris, the chicken farmer from Marion, Va.).

• Despite seeking out a location that is interesting for the first time in years, contestants will still be stuck to two separate islands on Zhelin Lake in the Jiangxi Province.

• The Hidden Immunity Idol just won't go away. This time there are two located in plain sight, and kidnapping an opposing tribe member is involved. Please, make it stop.

• The "talk-to-the-hand" drama begins on Thursday, Sept. 20.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The weekly menu

• Notable entertainment product in stores Aug. 21 and movies in theaters Aug. 24.

Dexter: Season One // This one is a must for anyone who shares this blog's sensibilities. Jeff Lindsay's brilliant character, a killer who channels his urges into killing other cold-hearted killers, has busy times ahead in September, with season two firing up on Showtime and the third novel in the series, Dexter in the Dark, seeing publication.

Robocop: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition Steelbook // One of many reasons to love the entertainment of 1987.

Ugly Betty: Season One: The Bettyfriend Edition // A couple episodes of this show was really enough, wasn't it?

Serenity: Collector's Edition

Loreena McKennitt • Nights from the Alhambra (2 CD+DVD) // As good as "The Mummer's Dance" was, she must have another good tune or two up her sleeve.

Darren Hayes • This Delicate Thing We've Made // Because Savage Garden crashed and burned.

Brunswick Pro Bowling (PS2, wii) // Includes "10 authentic Brunswick bowling centers" and the ability to earn new balls and shoes and beer along the way.

In theaters
Barring an interest in Mr. Bean or Scarlett Johansson serving as nanny for the family from hell, this is a good weekend to take in The Invasion or spring for a rental.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Books: Lisey's Story

• King treads some familiar ground in a book that still manages to be vital.

Released: Oct. 24, 2006; current in paperback
Verdict: &&&1/2

Lisey's Story is a novel foremost about the depths of love, but it's also about madness and (again) the writing life. Upon its release last year, it had the uninspiring air of one of those latter-day King reads that you expect to be a chore, like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon or the forgettable parts of Hearts in Atlantis, but the critical buzz convinced me not to skip it (an option that would never have entered my mind years ago before books like Rose Madder and the aforementioned Tom Gordon). King himself has said this is probably his best book, and I say without hesitation that he couldn't be more wrong. It is a good one, however, with an energy in his prose surpassing that of last year's other King novel, Cell. Lisey Landon is the widow of famous novelist Scott Landon, now two years departed. She is threatened by an intellectual and a thug who are out to get her husband's unpublished work, and this sets the stage for flashbacks to Scott's tormented childhood living with a mad father and brother and to pivotal events such as an attempt on Scott's life and his eventual death years later. Early on, the reader gets the promise of something more as Lisey recalls Scott's fear of a certain something glimpsed in the reflection of a drinking glass and the thing he tells her about with an "endless piebald side." King is at the top of his game telling and retelling the murder attempt in excruciating detail, down to Lisey watching a blood bubble burst from his lips as he lies possibly dying of a gunshot at a library dedication. That's only the beginning of the layering that continues throughout the hefty novel; Scott's torture at the hands of his father and his brother's madness or possession is woven into Lisey's present-day tribulations. An element of fantasy surfaces as the story visits "Boo'ya Moon," a mystical place of healing and inspiration and other strong emotions. (I found this bit vaguely reminiscent of the painting in that awful early '90s novel Rose Madder. There's a glimpse of Boo'ya Moon underneath the hardcover's dust jacket, and it makes this one of the most attractive books in the King library.) As with many King tomes, it would benefit from some trimming; the tedious subplot involving Lisey's mentally disturbed sister Amanda never engaged me. With so much of Lisey's Story exploring the nature of love in a deep relationship, I'd wager that women tend to like this novel more than men do, and people interested in mental disorders may find it particularly entertaining. Even if it isn't interesting on the level of a Misery or The Shining, King is writing full throttle here, and readers would do well to partake.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

TV: Masters of Science Fiction

• ABC quietly burns off a sci-fi anthology in the summer wasteland.

A sci-fi fan could get excited about ABC's four-episode anthology series Masters of Science Fiction if the network hadn't given it a vote of no confidence by dumping it on the Saturday night trash heap during the summer and, more importantly, if it were any good. Judging by last night's episode, "The Awakening," it isn't, despite an abundance of solid talent (John Hurt, Anne Heche, Terry O'Quinn, Malcolm McDowell) and drawing from acclaimed source material, such as stories by Harlan Ellison and John Kessel. The second installment, "The Awakening," starred Lost's O'Quinn as a retired military expert on UFOs and aliens who is called back into duty after a mysterious creature is recovered from a crash site in Iraq. Even with Smoking Man William B. Davis as the U.S. president, the episode can't shake its dialog-heavy, coma-inducing pace as it crawls to a disappointing Oprah-moment conclusion.

Here's what's left of the anthology:

"Jerry Was a Man" (Aug. 18, 10/9c): Stars Anne Heche and Malcolm McDowell as a wealthy couple whose lives are changed when they acquire an anthropoid named Jerry. It's directed by Michael Tolkin and based on the Robert Heinlein story.

"The Discarded" (Aug. 25, 10/9c): Scripted by Ellison and Josh Olson (A History of Violence) and directed by Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek), this tale of minorities sentenced to drift in space stars Brian Dennehy, John Hurt and James Denton.

Pictured: Terry O'Quinn in "The Awakening"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Six thoughts on Power of 10

CBS catches mo' money syndrome on its new game show (Wednesdays at 7 p.m. following this week's two-fer debut). Some opinions on the first two episodes:

• Basic premise: Contestants guess the answer to questions such as, "What percentage of Americans color coordinate their underwear?" After a best-of-five elimination between two contestants, one faces a stack of five questions (let's not work too hard to be set for life, eh?) with a progressively decreasing window of error to earn the top prize of $10 million.

• I read an entertainment magazine review of this show that accused it of ripping off Family Feud, but people who know game shows know that Card Sharks, with its often provocative "we asked 100 people" questions, is the number one answer to the question of what show the creators have cribbed from — that is, apart from Millionaire (no coincidence that Michael Davies is involved). Drew Carey to contestant: "You're three steps away now from $10 million." Me: Rushing to bathroom to projectile vomit.

• Like Card Sharks, Power of 10 relies on the intrigue of its questions to ensnare viewers (and with next to nothing of substance going on — contestants need only five to eight correct educated or wild guesses to earn a stake in CBS — it certainly needs something to stir intrigue). Typical questions: What percentage of American women have changed a flat tire? What percentage of Americans said school children should be required to learn Spanish? What percentage of Americans don't wear underwear? (It appears underwear is a recurring motif.)

• The sliding percentage scale graphic is kind of cool for 15 minutes or so, and the set, another dark Millionaire/Deal or no Deal clone, is every bit as tired as that godforsaken answer-a-question-and-move-up-the-money-tree style.

• Host Drew Carey is a saving grace; without him, this show could have been completely DOA. With a competent and smooth delivery aided by his capable wit, it's easy to see why CBS came calling for Carey to host the last surviving network daytime game show, The Price Is Right.

• On the whole, Power of 10 is a passable time killer, but an hour of it is 50 percent too much. Verdict: &&

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Disco inferno

• PSB fans are having a meltdown over Disco 4.

In September, The Pet Shop Boys will add to their lengthy discography Disco 4, another in a series of what has amounted to very occasional remix EPs. Disco 2 was their single worst release ever, but Disco 3, released nine years later in 2003, reinvigorated the series by combining remixes with a strong selection of new tracks like "Time on My Hands" and "Positive Role Model." Thus, the recent buzz of another Disco had the fans all abuzz about new tracks, but the announced track list this week reveals that Disco 4 is a remix compilation primarily of their work for other artists. And why not, when that includes mixes of prime cuts from the likes of Madonna and The Killers?

The track list:

  1. The Killers: Read My Mind (PSB Stars Are Blazing mix)
  2. David Bowie with Pet Shop Boys: Hallo Spaceboy (PSB Extended mix)
  3. Pet Shop Boys: Integral (PSB Perfect Immaculate mix)
  4. Yoko Ono: Walking On Thin Ice (PSB Electro mix)
  5. Madonna: Sorry (PSB Maxi-mix)
  6. Atomizer: Hooked On Radiation (PSB Orange Alert mix)
  7. Rammstein: Mein Teil (PSB There Are No Guitars On This mix)
  8. Pet Shop Boys: I'm with Stupid (PSB Maxi-mix)

The hardcore fans, spoiled by Disco 3, are having a meltdown over a track list populated by generally already available tracks, but as a fan who doesn't own every PSB-related track ever released, I welcome it. The only one of these I already have is the fantastic mix of The Killers' "Read My Mind;" I have only the edit of Madonna's "Sorry." The release also includes a new mix of "Integral," which has now been officially nixed as a fourth single from Fundamental. No word on a U.S. release for Disco 4, which Parlophone has slated for Sept. 24.

Monday, August 06, 2007

DVD: Pet Shop Boys: Cubism in Concert

• PSB choke up more welcome product for the Petheads.

Genres: Concert, electronica
Director: David Barnard
DVD released: July 24, 2007
Verdict: &&&&

The things I enjoy most about PSB concert performances are the re-imagined and remixed arrangements — more or less the same fun kind of twist that a single mix can bring to a favorite album track. That said, Cubism, filmed on tour in Mexico City in support of their ninth studio album, Fundamental, falls short of Montage, the excellent DVD for the Nightlife tour. Montage's slice-of-synth-heaven "West End Girls" opener, the radically deconstructed "Being Boring" and the "It's a Sin/I Will Survive" medley (that ought to be a single) give it a convincing edge over the Cubism set list, but the DVD experience of the latter concert is nothing short of a love letter to fans (more on that below in the DVD notes). There's neither anything wrong nor anything to get particularly excited about in the stretch from "Psychological," the opener, to "Can You Forgive Her?," apart from the welcome inclusion of "Suburbia," which I continue to like more every time I hear it. The subsequent segue of spelling chants "Minimal" and "Shopping" isn't the tour de force they wanted — "Shopping" has always struck me as the weak link of Actually, and it pales beside a track as striking as "Minimal." But my interest perks up from "Rent" to the conclusion, and a surprisingly tender guitar-and-piano version of ballad "Home and Dry" from fan non-favorite Release proves to be a crowning moment in an evening of elegant electronic entertainment; it's also one of the few chances to catch your breath in a show filled with stompers. // DVD notes // How do they love thee? Let us count some ways: For home theater enthusiasts, the disc offers dts audio. Petheads will appreciate the booklet's lengthy behind-the-scenes article by Chris Heath, the regular PSB journalist, and the inclusion of a commentary track with Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe and director David Barnard. There's also a brief documentary on PSB in Mexico. Curiously, the North American DVD is mislabeled "Regions 2, 3, 4, 5."