Sunday, September 30, 2007

The weekly menu

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

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.

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.

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."

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 clich├ęd 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.

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

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.

Obligatory Villagers • Nellie McKay

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: &&&

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: &&&

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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

TV preview: Swimming with Shark

When: Season 2 premiere airs at 9 p.m. Central Sunday (Sept. 23), the show's new timeslot, on CBS.
Premiere episode verdict: &&&

James Woods' snarky performance as a jaded defense attorney seeking redemption on the other side in the district attorney's office helped make Shark a somewhat surprise hit last season. The second season brings a few cast tweaks, with Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan, Star Trek: Voyager's Seven of Nine) out of the DA's office, having just been ousted by the voters. Judging by the season premiere, however, viewers will still see plenty of sassy borg goodness bouncing off Sebastian Stark. Taking her seat as DA is slimy Leo Cutler (Kevin Pollak), another calculated foil for Stark, and joining Stark's team is Danny Reyes (Kevin Alejandro), an overly aggressive punk who wandered over from the Organized Crime Unit. The season two premiere, centering on a double homicide case in which the witness is killed by a car bomb, is far from the smoothest Shark installment to date, but Arnold Vosloo is effective as a perfectly chilled Russian mobster, and Stark's relationship with his daughter continues to provide a welcome warm counterpoint to Stark's shyster antics.

Pictured: James Woods as Sebastian Stark

Friday, September 14, 2007

A remake's sequel remade

DVD: The Hills Have Eyes 2 Unrated

Genre: Horror, remake, mutants, bad horror movies
DVD released: July 17, 2007
Director: Martin Weisz
Cast: Michael McMillian, Jessica Stroup, Daniella Alonso, Jacob Vargas, Flex Alexander, Lee Thompson Young, Eric Edelstein
Verdict: &1/2

Is it a sequel, a remake or both? Turns out the original The Hills Have Eyes also had a sequel, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2, released in 1984 and directed by Wes Craven. Its storyline, however, involving bikers, bears no resemblance to this pointless addition to the Hills filmography, on which Wes Craven and Jonathan Craven share producer and screen-writing credits. Here we have a cast of unlikable National Guard members probing the same rocky desert of Sector 16 as the doomed family of the far more watchable 2006 movie, reviewed here. Early on, there are a few decent moments of anticipation as this green bunch gets split apart, loses its bearings and becomes vulnerable to the inevitable (one in particular while seated in a portable potty). The first kill is the best, with a cocky member of the crew getting pulled through a tiny cave opening in a scene that might make you squirm. From there, it's terribly predictable and never engaging, and the viewer wonders why anyone with nothing fresh to add wants to rehash this same kill-'em-off scenario again and again. // DVD NOTES // Extras include a handful of deleted scenes, an alternate ending, several featurettes, a Fox Movie Channel special and a slight gag reel, which was the only one of the extras for which I could muster any interest. The unrated cut is, of course, more graphic than the theatrical cut.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Single no more

Did anyone actually call these things "cassingles"? I came across my collection of them between stacks of books and magazines while going through the closet and couldn't resist dragging them out. Most were immediately familiar, but I was surprised to see one I didn't remember at all by an R&B group called Riff. As artifacts of a bygone era in music, they make me feel old; my first few singles purchases came at the very tail end of the vinyl era, and I've since lived through cassingles, CD singles and the complete death and Phoenix-like rebirth of the singles market. And these cassingles remind me of what's lost with the digital single — tangible qualities such as sleeve design that help to make these little time capsules (in the case of this batch of singles, circa 1988 to 1991) and objets d'art. I also realized this is a goldmine of blog posts waiting to be written: I plan to post on each of these individually in the coming weeks and months as I put on the headphones, revisit the songs of my youth and get to know those B-sides again.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Crash and prizes

• Two new games began syndication runs this week.

Verdicts: Merv Griffin's Crosswords: &&

If crossword puzzles tempt you, you might be drawn to Merv Griffin's Crosswords, in which contestants answer brain-teasing word clues for a shot at walking away with a whopping $3,000 to $4,0000, on average, and possibly a trip on top of that if they're lucky. While I admire Crosswords for not dumbing down the material — even the most erudite will be stumped by some of the clues — Crosswords is, at heart, a broken format. Two primary players up front are gunning to buzz in for the correct answer, but behind them in later rounds are three "spoilers" who can buzz in and steal a front spot if neither of the two front players buzz in with a correct answer. That means a spoiler can do nothing for the entire game and buzz in with a single correct answer just before time runs out, move up to the podium with the higher score, and win the game. Bzzzt! That's unfair and unacceptable, and this show isn't worthy of being Griffin's parting gift to television. Better is Twentieth Television's Temptation, a remake of the internationally successful Sale of the Century format (notable runs included NBC, 1969-74 and 1983-89, and Australia's 9 Network, 1980-2001 and 2005-present [the latter under the title Temptation], among numerous others), although this one, too, is problematic. I've already said quite a bit in this post about what's right and wrong with Temptation, a three-person quizzer in which contestants build up a bankroll over multiple days with which they can buy marvelously discounted merchandise (a $35,000 Jaguar for $936 is one top prize), but the overriding problem is that Sale was always a classy and serious high-stakes format, and Twentieth has transformed it into a handbag-waving, "let's go girl!" affair that will likely scare off some male viewers and disappoint those who remember the tense games in which the champion played for "the lot" — all the prizes and the big cash jackpot — something which isn't offered here. Further souring the bargain, straightforward questions have been tossed out the window in favor of a series of mini-games that is over and done with by 16 minutes into the show; it simply screams for more game (such as … duh … some straightforward questions). The quiz element focuses on pop culture, and I'm generally OK with that; I like the new Knock-Off game, which rips off an old '80s syndie game called Wipeout, in which the contestants choose the multiple right answers to a question from a list that includes wrong answers. On the other hand, I hate the new Fame Game, which uses hangman in favor of Sale's classic "Who am I" question and suspenseful pick of the board for a boost to a player's score or a prize. That said, the essence of the format remains, and I've still enjoyed what I've seen thus far; the producers just need to learn how to work with the drama that's right under their fingertips and stop selling it out in a clueless grab for handbag-waving ratings. Somewhere, Jim Perry, NBC's Sale host from '83-'89, is rolling in his recliner.

Pictured: Crosswords host Ty Treadway holds the big board at bay.

Monday, September 10, 2007

DVD: Fracture

• Hopkins chews the scenery with savory results.

Genres: Thriller, courtroom
Director: Gregory Hoblit
DVD released: Aug. 14, 2007
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, Billy Burke, David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike
Verdict: &&&&

A good number of Net surfers have landed on this blog in the past few months after searching for something along the lines of "Ryan Gosling wristwatch fracture." I can't tell you what kind of stylish watch that is he's wearing in the movie, but I can tell you that Fracture is a smart, stylish thriller of a caliber that doesn't come around too often. Upon a second viewing just as enjoyable as the first, I've bumped it up to four medals. Hopkins may be riffing on Hannibal Lecter, but you'll want a ringside seat for this legal chess match in which the viewer knows from the beginning exactly whodunit. See the Jeblog theatrical review here. // DVD NOTES // Deleted scenes focus heavily on an excised love scene between the Ryan Gosling and Rosamund Pike characters. The disc also offers two mildly interesting alternate endings, both of which show Gosling's assistant district attorney confronting Hopkins' villain at his home, as he does in the theatrical cut, but in both alternate endings we see cracks in the Hopkins character that simply don't ring true.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Going once … Going twice … No sale?

First look: Temptation

Someone in a forum I frequent said Temptation (The New Sale of the Century) should be the Battlestar Galactica of game shows, and that really sums it up perfectly. The Australian version is, in fact, worthy of such praise. The U.S. Temptation that was previewed Wednesday night on MyNetworkTV is decidedly not, although the seeds of a solid remake of Sale are certainly there.

Here's a look at some ups and downs based on these two "celebrity" episodes (the alleged celebrities were former American Idol Karaoke contestants):

GOOD: The set, largely in the style of the Australian show, is modern without mimicking Millionaire for the billionth time. A dominant color other than black on a new game show? Wow!

GOOD: It's actually using the original shopping format, in which a contestant's score goes into the bank toward the purchase of fabulous prizes (we know a Jaguar (!) is available for $941). It always created such drama on '80s Sale when Jim Perry would declare, "Alice needs to win today, and she needs to win with $82 to take all the prizes we've got plus that cash jackpot of $86,000!"

BAD: There doesn't seem to be a cash jackpot or a chance to play for all the prizes. Drama killer!

BAD: The theme music is an absolute abomination and an insult to a classic format.

BAD: The classic buzzer sound from NBC and Aussie Sale, still used on Aussie Temptation, is gone.

BAD: The co-hostess has always added charm to Sale as she introduces the contestants and instant bargains, and here we have none.

BAD: The show has done away with straightforward questions, forcing everything into a "round." The result is a series of mini-games: Speed round, instant bargain, knock-off, speed round, instant bargain, etc. It feels completely awkward and against the grain of Sale.

GOOD: Host Rossi Morreale showed salesmanship potential on the instant bargains, when the player in the lead has a chance to purchase, for example, a $1,400 television for $13 off her score.

BAD: Giving the player a five-second countdown to decide on the purchase of Instant Bargains is just wrong. Jim Perry's salesmanship made the show on the instant bargains. "Going once, going twice, no … What if I add another $500?" Having a shot clock shut outs out the fun and drama of the haggling.

BAD: The Fame Game has been turned into hangman with a series of clues and a flat addition to the score for a correct answer. Wrong! Getting rid of the pick of the board, where a player could hit $10, $15, $25 or an assortment of kitchen utensils, is a misstep on par with the theme music.

BAD: The game-ending speed round has been slashed to a slight 30 seconds; it has been 60 on all previous versions of this format. Sixty seconds allows a lot of questions and possible comebacks; 30 seconds is barely time to get going.

Temptation debuts Monday in daily syndication (check local listings). It's too early to declare this a disaster, but it's rather hard to stomach when compared to Aussie Temptation's excellence.

// More here on Temptation and Sale of the Century //