September 30, 2007

TV: Moonlight (CBS, Friday 9/8)

"What's it like being a vampire?" "It sucks."

Yup, that's actually how Moonlight begins, and it never rises above that level of obviousness and laziness.

Mick St. John (Alex O'Laughlin) is a 90-year-old vampire, working as a private eye in Los Angeles. He's got a pretty blonde Internet-tabloid reporter sidekick (Sophia Myles, decorative but not much else); a 400-year-old vampire best pal (Jason Dohring); and a vicious killer vampire ex-wife (Shannyn Sossamon, whose presence in the cast of regulars tells us that she's not nearly as dead as we're supposed to think she is at the end of the pilot).

Los Angeles at night can be beautiful, but here it's murky and ugly; it's often hard to tell what's happening. The writing is tired, the acting isn't much better, and the only thing the show really has to offer are the physical charms of its actors (in the case of O'Laughlin, those charms are ample, indeed). An utter waste of an hour.

TV: Dirty Sexy Money (ABC, Wednesday 10/9)

Now this is how you do filthy rich dysfunctional-family soap opera.

Nick George (Peter Krause) grew up around the Darling clan, one of New York's most influential families; his father was their family lawyer. That meant that Daddy wasn't home much, and Nick has vowed never to let his family feel as neglected as he felt when he was a child.

But when Daddy dies in a mysterious plane crash, and patriarch Tripp Darling (Donald Sutherland, at his malevolence-oozing best) offers Nick great big gobs of money to work for The Family -- you can hear the capital letters every time the words are uttered -- Nick can't bring himself to turn it down. "The money will be good for my wife and daughter," he tells himself; "I have to do this job on my terms," he tells Tripp, "and I won't lie for The Family." "We would never ask you to," says Tripp.

And what a messed-up batch the Darlings are. Letitia (Jill Clayburgh) drinks too much, and doesn't have the faintest idea what any of her kids are up to. Oldest son Patrick (William Baldwin) is the state Attorney General and wants to be Senator, but that's not likely to happen if the media finds about his transgendered mistress.

(Weirdly enough, this is two ABC pilots in one week that have transgendered mistress subplots; something in the water at the network cafeteria, maybe?)

Karen Darling (Natalie Zea), the closest of the Darling kids to Nick in age, has always had a thing for him, and now that he's an employee, she figures that this is her chance to finally land him; never mind that he's married, or that she's about to marry her fourth husband. Father Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) is trying to get his illegitimate son into an exclusive private school. And the twins, Juliet and Jeremy (Samaire Armstrong and Seth Gabel) are party kids, drinking and drugging their way through life. Juliet, at least, has a bit of ambition and wants to be an actress; sadly, she doesn't have an ounce of talent.

Krause is the perfect voice of sanity, trying frantically to cope as the Darlings zip through life, oblivious to the drama they're creating for each other and for everyone around them. Sutherland plays WASP privilege as well as anyone these days, and it's great fun to see him given a chance to be funny again. The rest of the cast is well-chosen; I particularly enjoyed Fitzgerald, viciously funny and flamboyantly profane, and Armstrong, who is already bringing unexpected depth to her Paris Hilton-type character.

I could have done without the imposition of a mystery arc -- are the Darlings responsible for the plane crash that killed Daddy George? -- but with any luck, that will be wrapped up quickly, and we can get on with the day-to-day lives of the Darling family; there's more than enough entertainment there to keep this show around for a long time.

September 29, 2007

TV: Big Shots (ABC, Thursday 10/9)

Four young captains of industry face the challenges of life and love.

James has just discovered that his wife and his boss were having an affair. Brody's wife is a shrew who insists that he buy Napoleons from her favorite Paris pastry shop for her birthday party. Duncan has the hots for his ex-wife, and an investigative journalist is snooping into that unfortunate incident with a cross-dressing truck-stop hooker. Karl has a super hot mistress, but lately she's getting awfully clingy; she even wants Karl to go with her for couples therapy.

The four of them are played by (in order) Michael Vartan, Christopher Titus, Dylan McDermott, and Joshua Malina, who are uniformly charming and attractive (though I admit, if I'd had my pick as to which one would get all the shirtless bedroom scenes in the pilot, I wouldn't have gone with Molina). They get the tone of the show right, a mix of light drama and comedy very reminiscent of Desperate Housewives, and the writing is relatively sharp.

The actresses in the supporting roles are just as good. Jessica Collins is very funny as the needy mistress, Marla; Peyton List finds precisely the right blend of contempt and insecurity as Duncan's teenaged daughter; and Nia Long, as James's co-worker (and inevitable romantic interest as his marital problems increase, I suspect), manages the tricky combination of being utterly professional and fabulously sexy at the same time.

But as well made as Big Shots is, it's just a little bit difficult to root for the show or its characters. "Gee, it's tough to be a handsome, rich, straight white guy" is not a message for which I have oodles of sympathy. Something as simple as making one of the four leads non-white would have made a huge difference. I may give it another week or two to see if the queasy factor diminishes at all.

TV: Private Practice (ABC, Wednesday 9/8)

Dr. Addison Forbes Montgomery (Kate Walsh) moves from Seattle to Los Angeles in this spinoff from Grey's Anatomy. She's now working for the Oceanside Wellness Group, a private clinic with relatively few wealthy clients, quite a change from the frenzy of Seattle Grace Hospital.

The show's got a fine collection of talented actors surrounding Walsh. Taye Diggs and Audra McDonald are the internist and the fertility specialist (recently divorced, and still working through their personal issues); Tim Daly is the alternative medicine specialist, and Addison's most likely eventual romantic interest; Amy Brenneman is the psychiatrist, and like all TV shrinks, she's the most neurotic of the bunch. There's a womanizing pediatrician (Paul Adelstein), a receptionist training to become a midwife (Chris Lowell), and outside Oceanside Wellness, the ice-queen chief of medicine at the local hospital (KaDee Strickland).

Private Practice can't make up its mind whether it wants to be comedy or drama. That's not too distracting when the tone is consistent within a particular story -- the drama of a woman threatened by complications of labor; the comedy of a mistress and a wife fighting over the sperm of the man they love. But when the show tries to shift tone mid-plotline, it's less successful. When Brenneman is summoned to a department store to find one of her patients (a very nice guest performance by Moon Zappa, of all people) on the floor, frantically counting tiles, the story is initially played for laughs. Turns out, though, that she's actually grieving a dead son (and how does her shrink not know about the dead child already, anyway?), and the show can't pull off the turnaround from broad comedy to tearjerker.

The other notable problem with the show is that the ostensible lead, Kate Walsh, is the least interesting actor of the bunch. It's possible that the writers are assuming that we already know her well enough from Grey's Anatomy that they can focus on introducing and developing the new characters, but I'm afraid that she may simply be outclassed by her veteran co-stars.

The show as a whole is pleasant enough entertainment. It's not something I'm likely to ever watch again, but it's made with skill and craft, and will surely please its intended audience.

September 26, 2007

TV: Reaper (CW, Tuesday 9/8)

For a few weeks after the networks announced their fall schedules, Chuck and Reaper were scheduled for the same timeslot. It would have been an interesting battle, because they are almost exactly the same show: An aimless college dropout works unenthusiastically at a big-box retailer (instantly recognizable, though renamed for legal reasons) when a series of bizarre circumstances force him to go on a series of dangerous missions for an organization of immense power; through surviving these missions, he finds a sense of purpose and grows up. In Chuck, our hero's employers are Not Best Buy and the CIA; in Reaper, it's Not Home Depot and Satan.

Why does Sam (Bret Harrison) have to go to work for the Devil (Ray Wise) on his 21st birthday? Well, it turns out that his folks sold his soul to the Devil before Sam was even born. (This is the part of the show, just as it is on Chuck, where you have to take a deep breath, swallow hard, and just go along with it.) Now Sam is forced to work as a bounty hunter, returning escaped souls to Hell. He's got the assistance of sidekicks Sock (Tyler Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez); it seems inevitable that Sam's not-quite-girlfriend Andi (Missy Peregrym) will eventually be let in on things, completing the show's Scooby Gang.

Kevin Smith directed the pilot, and it's as good an hour of television as I've seen in years, getting the tone absolutely right, and moving smoothly from smirky slacker comedy to exciting battle sequences. Harrison is a charming lead, Labine and Gonzalez are both very funny (though Labine could cut back on the Jack Black mannerisms a bit), and Peregrym is sweet and lovely, pretty enough that we understand why Sam is a little bit intimidated by her, but not so inhumanly beautiful that she seems completely out of his league.

But if the Devil is a character in your show, then that's your most important bit of casting, and in Ray Wise, Reaper absolutely nails it. Wise is fabulous here, turning on a dime from wicked charm to genuine menace. He's the best thing about the show -- the best thing about the new TV season, so far -- and the reason why Reaper gets the nod over Chuck if you don't have the time or the inclination to watch both.

TV: Cane (CBS, Tuesday 10/9)

Another of this year's throwbacks, this one a multigenerational family/business soap in the mold of Dallas.

Instead of oil, it's sugar and rum, and instead of the Ewings, it's the Duque family, headed by patriarch Pancho (Hector Elizondo). Pancho and Amalia (Rita Moreno) have three children, but Pancho's heart belongs to foster son Alex Vega (Jimmy Smits); when Pancho gives control of the family business to Alex, oldest son Frank (Nestor Carbonell) is furious. Younger son Henry (Eddie Matos) isn't all that interested in the rum business to begin with; he's a club promoter with dreams of founding Duque Music. As for daughter Isabel (Paola Turbay), well, she's married to Alex, and together, they control the largest block of shares.

There is, of course, a rival family -- the Samuels clan. Joe Samuels (Ken Howard, making a stronger impression in his few moments on screen than anyone else in the cast) has also recently handed control of his business to his children, and Ellis Samuels (British actress Polly Walker, doing an ill-advised attempt at a Southern drawl) thinks she's found the way to defeat the Duques: She's having an affair with Frank.

Cane has a strikingly attractive cast; in particular,Turbay is a real beauty, and if she can act -- the pilot doesn't give her much opportunity to prove herself -- she should become a huge star. And it is certainly a good thing to see another show that provides opportunities for Hollywood's Hispanic actors; I'm especially happy to see Moreno again, and hope that she'll be given more to do than host family parties and mutter "Ay, Dios mio!" under her breath.

The problem, though, is that the show takes itself far too seriously. The most successful shows of this type -- Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest -- have had at least a hint of humor and self-mockery; there's none of that in Cane, particularly from Jimmy Smits, who plays Alex with such ponderous gravitas and self-importance that he weighs down the entire enterprise.

Because of that, when Alex commits a particularly horrible act late in the pilot episode, it's impossible for him to keep our sympathy; J.R. Ewing could get away with the most outlandish villainy, because there was always a sly wink to the audience to remind us that it was all in the name of fun and entertainment. There's no wink here, just a stern glare from a show that refuses to have any fun at all.

TV: Bionic Woman (NBC, Wednesday 9/8)

From the folks who brought you the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, here's another attempt to update cheesy TV sci-fi of the past. This one's not quite so successful.

Our heroine is Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan), who is nearly killed in an auto accident (depicted in a manner that's fairly graphic and violent for network TV). Fortunately, Jaime's boyfriend Will (Chris Bowers) just happens to be the head surgeon for the Berkut Group, who've been experimenting with using super-powered prosthetics to create high-tech soldiers, and he whisks her off to the Berkut lab to install an arm, an eye, an ear, and two legs.

Jaime is not happy to have been the subject of such experimentation -- never mind that it was either that or death -- and is reluctant to cooperate with the Berkut Group. So she's on the run from them, and is also being pursued (for reasons unknown) by Sarah Corvus, the first bionic woman, who was believed to be dead after her implants drove her psycho a few years back. (Galactica's Katee Sackhoff demonstrates her limited range as an actress, playing Sarah as Starbuck without the cigars.)

I wasn't impressed by the pilot episode. Ryan is pretty to look at, but has the personality of oatmeal. The show's characters are neatly divided into good and evil, and it's not hard to figure out who Jaime's allies and enemies will be. (The ex-military guy who runs the Berkut Group? Bad guy, obviously; he's played by Miguel Ferrer, for pete's sake, and casting doesn't get any lazier than that. The pretty blonde Berkut shrink named, god help us, Ruth Truewell? Good guy.)

There were lots of little things that annoyed me. The show uses Sia's "Breathe Me" as the musical backdrop for one sequence; why on earth would you choose a piece of music that's so closely associated with the Six Feet Under finale, one of the most iconic TV sequences of the last five years? And it's a big mistake to show us Jamie's high-speed running in real time; there's not yet been a special effect invented that does that without looking silly. Who would have guessed that the "wah-wah-wah" slow-motion of the original was the least cheesy way to do that?

The track record of the creators is strong enough that I'm not quite ready to abandon this one yet, but at this point, I'm not optimistic.

September 25, 2007

TV: Life (NBC, Wednesday 10/9)

Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) spent twelve years in a maximum-security Federal prison before being exonerated of the murders for which he'd been found guilty. As part of the settlement of his case, he's not only been given an enormous amount of money, but he's also gotten his job back -- as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department.

He's been teamed with Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi), who understands that getting Crews as a partner is a form of punishment; she's been the low woman on the LAPD totem pole since returning from drug rehab almost two years ago. That she managed to keep her job at all was only due to the intervention of her mentor and commanding officer, Lt. Karen Davis (Robin Weigert), who still isn't entirely sure she can rely on Reese to get the job done.

Crews has it even worse, though; nobody trusts him, and they certainly can't understand why he'd want to come back to the force when he has all that money. Davis is particularly determined to bring him down, and she makes it clear that Reese is to keep her eyes open for Crews's slightest infraction of LAPD policy.

On hand for comic relief is Ted Earley (Adam Arkin), Charlie's best friend and financial manager, who is himself an ex-con (insider trading) and now lives above the garage at Charlie's vast estate.

Not a bad setup, and the pilot episode does an efficient job of laying in all of this backstory while still telling a reasonably interesting crime-of-the-week story involving the murder of a young boy. There are a few too many jokes about how much the world has changed while Charlie was in prison -- he doesn't know what an IM is, or that telephones now have cameras built in -- but those will no doubt be emphasized as the series continues.

The supporting actors all do fine work here, but this is Damian Lewis's show, and he's superb. Lewis plays every scene with intense concentration on whatever he's doing -- Charlie discovered Zen in prison, and is always focused on being "in the moment" -- and a strange mix of calm affect and jittery tics; his head is often tilted to one side, like a bird. He's like a younger, less dissolute version of James Spader, with a similar offbeat rhythm to his line readings.

It's a crowded time slot (Wednesday, for whatever reason, is crammed full of high-profile new shows this year); Life is up against CSI: New York and Dirty Sexy Money (which I'm very much looking forward to seeing). I suspect that we'll wind up with a close race in the timeslot -- none of the shows breaking out as a monster hit, but all doing well enough to survive. I'm certainly interested to see where Life goes; Damian Lewis's performance is enough to elevate it above most of the cop shows on TV.

September 24, 2007

TV: CW Now; Online Nation (CW, Sunday 7/6; 7:30/6:30)

Let's deal with these in a single post, shall we? This is the laziest, cheapest, most cynical, most depressing hour of programming I've ever seen.

CW Now is a 30-minute festival of product placement in the guise of trend reporting. The show is so heavy on product placement that it only had one block of traditional commercials, at the very end of the show. The principal sponsors for the first episode were the Halo 3 video game -- it comes out Tuesday! Everyone's talking about it! Celebrities and everything! -- and Wal-Mart, which we were told was the best place to buy said game. There were also features on expensive spas, expensive clothes, expensive technology, and expensive vacations. Periodically, a caption would come on screen below one of the hosts: "Doesn't J. Boogie look great in that outfit? To find out where you can buy it, go to!"

Online Nation is 30 minutes of Internet videos, all of them chopped up into no more than 30- or 40-second bits, and all of them long since past their freshness date. C'mon, I mean, Mentos fountains? Really? That's the hottest thing you could come up with?

Each show has four incredibly annoying hosts, two boys and two girls, all of whom are Hip! Stylish! and Trendy! Four hosts each seems like overkill, but I suppose when hosts are the only actual expense you have, you can afford four of them.

September 23, 2007

TV: Journeyman (NBC, Monday 10/9)

A San Francisco newspaper reporter begins leaping through time in a series that borrows equally from Quantum Leap, Early Edition, and Day Break.

Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) finds himself having episodes of relocation in time, jumping (in the pilot) as far back as 1987. At first, he thinks they're just vivid dreams, but eventually he realizes that something really is happening to him. Each week, it seems, will find him leaping about within the life of some specific person who he's meant to help; it won't always be clear whom he's meant to save, or how.

His unexplained absences from the present are beginning to cause stress in his marriage -- there is the strong implication that Dan has not always been the best husband, though it's never quite spelled out what exactly he did -- and he struggles desperately to convince his wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf), that he's not drinking or on drugs. Brother Jack (Reed Diamond), a cop, is equally skeptical.

Dan's trips to the past are complicated by the fact that he keeps stumbling into people from his own past, notably his one-time fiancee, Livia (Moon Bloodgood, who seems to have a thing for this sort of time-travel fantasy, having played a similar role in Day Break); running into her often means running into Katie and Jack, who were dating when Dan and Livia were engaged.

As is often the case with time-travel shows, there are a few unfortunate anachronisms; we see the F-line of streetcars in a scene set several years before they were actually introduced, and a character refers to "Y2K" in late 1997, long before the phrase entered popular usage. I do like, though, that the show doesn't shy away from the potential complications of Dan's jumping into a period when he was already present. There's a cleverly handled moment in the pilot when Dan realizes that at least one person understands what's happening to him, and that explanation seems likely to be the ongoing mystery of the show.

McKidd is a nice change from the leading men we usually get these days, with more rugged, craggy features; he gives Dan a bluntness that's refreshing. Egolf is terrific, funny and romantic as she and Dan celebrate their anniversary, convincingly nervous and unsure as she wonders what's happening to her marriage.

Journeyman is a pleasant bit of entertainment, certainly more interesting than its competition (CSI: Miami; The Bachelor), and should fit very nicely with NBC's light-fantasy Monday lineup.

TV: The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Monday 8:30/7:30)

Sheldon and Leonard (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki) are not merely nerds, they are ├╝ber-nerds. They have reached the state of perfect nerdhood to which other nerds can only aspire. They are, therefore, utterly at a loss when pretty young Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment across the hall.

That's pretty much the entire plot. The show will succeed or fall entirely on the strength of its writing and on the chemistry among the three principal actors. Based on the pilot episode, I like its chances.

Parsons and Galecki are terrific in roles that provide unusual challenges; Sheldon and Leonard (I can't help wondering if those names are an homage to the TV producer of the 1960s) have larger vocabularies and more complex sentence structures than the average guy, and both actors deliver the tricky dialogue with great panache. They're a fine comic duo with a sharp rhythm, and they're instantly credible as long time friends. Parsons, in particular, has a distinctive, oddball way with a line, and I suspect he's going to be given most of the physical comedy on the show.

Their nerdiness and awkwardness could be offputting, and I think one of the principal goals of the pilot was to win us over to those characters. For that reason, Cuoco's Penny doesn't get to make so strong an impression in the first episode, but she comes across as very likable and does a good enough job with what she is asked to do.

The show is produced by Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men; like that show, there's nothing edgy going on here. It's another fairly conventional sitcom. But it also shares the strengths of Two and a Half Men -- it's well-written, and has a solid cast playing interesting characters. I'm optimistic.

TV: Chuck (NBC, Monday 8/7)

Chuck is a comic spy thriller in which an ordinary guy suddenly finds himself at the center of international intrigue. There's a lot of setup to be done in the first episode, there are implausibilities galore to be ignored, and the premise is on the loopy side, but this could be a lot of fun.

Chuck Barkowski (Zachary Levi) manages the tech repair team -- the "Nerd Herd" -- at a big-box electronics store. He receives an unexpected e-mail on his birthday from an old college roommate, which consists of thousands of pictures; as they start to flash on his computer screen, Chuck goes into a daze. Turns out that the old roomie is now a rogue CIA agent, and that all of those pictures are encrypted data from a CIA/NSA database. In short, Chuck's brain now carries all of the government's most important secrets, making him our most important national security asset.

Each agency sends an agent after Chuck, with different goals. The CIA's Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strzechowski) wants to protect Chuck, believing that they can find a way to access and use the data he carries; the NSA's John Casey (Adam Baldwin) believes that Chuck is a security risk and must be killed, even if it means losing the data. Obviously, Sarah wins that battle -- hard to have a series called Chuck if Chuck doesn't survive the pilot -- and it appears that she and John will be forced to work together to use Chuck as best as they can.

Zachary Levi is a terrific leading man here, and despite his natural charm and good looks, he manages to be convincing as the insecure nerd. He and Strzechowski have an easy rapport, and it seems clear that there will be a certain amount of sexual tension between them that won't ever go anywhere (well, not until the first sweeps week of the second season, anyway). Baldwin gets less screen time in the pilot, and doesn't get to do much more than glower menacingly and threaten to shoot someone.

The action sequences in the pilot are nicely done. There's a car chase that is, unlike many, shot so that we always know who's where, who's chasing who, and how they get away. And if the solution to the defusing-the-bomb sequence is telegraphed a bit too heavily, at least it's a novel solution (one that I haven't seen before, at any rate).

Biggest weakness in the cast is Joshua Gomez as Chuck's sidekick, Morgan. He's grating and unfunny, and unlike Levi, he gives no hint of a more complicated person lurking beneath the nerd cliches. With any luck, Chuck's spy adventures will take him away from the store more often. If the emphasis is on Chuck and Sarah, this could be a terrific comic drama; if the emphasis is on Chuck and Morgan, I'll lose interest very quickly.

September 22, 2007

TV: Gossip Girl (CW, Wednesday 9/8)

High school soap opera in the mold of Beverly Hills 90210 or The OC, but even trashier.

As we open, everyone is all a-buzz over the return of Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively), who's been away at boarding school for a year. No, really, that's where she's been, even if everyone says she was really in rehab. She is immediately plunged back into the tangled web of prep school life.

Serena's one-time best friend, Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) --

OK, I just gotta interrupt myself here. These names are magnificent creations. Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf -- it's like someone was asked to come up with the most trashy, tacky, nouveau riche, slutty names imaginable, and lord, did they succeed! But I digress...

Anyway, Blair, who is obviously the Bad Girl because she's a brunette and Serena is blonde, has spent the year of Serena's absence fuming at her, because just before she left, Serena slept with Blair's boyfriend, Nate (Chace Crawford), who would really like to break up with Blair and try to hook up with Serena, but his dad won't let him because he is trying to set up a business deal with Blair's mom.

Nate's best pal is Chuck (Ed Westwick), who is not merely the Bad Boy, but a full-on creep who attempts rape not once, but twice in the first episode of the show (where the hell does a character go from a beginning like that?). One of Chuck's victims is Jenny Humphrey (Taylor Momsen); she and her brother Dan (Penn Badgely) are the middle-class kids whose dad, a struggling rock musician, barely manages to pay their prep-school tuition, and who are looked down on by all the rich kids.

What else? Let's see, there are hints of a Mysterious Past between the Humphreys' rockin' Dad (Matthew Settle) and Serena's Rich Bitch mom (Kelly Rutherford). There are exactly two non-white kids seen in the first episode, Blair's black and Asian sidekicks, who are allowed an occasional "ohmigod," but are otherwise mute. We mustn't forget Serena's younger brother, hospitalized after a suicide attempts (though mummy has told everyone that he's visiting an aunt in Miami). And the whole thing is narrated by "Gossip Girl" (voice of Kristen Bell), a blogger who shares all the NYC prep-school gossip with her readers, and refers to everyone by their initials ("Spotted sharing drinks at the Palace: B & S, having a heart-to-heart...").

Admittedly, I am not the target audience for this show, what with my age and my IQ both being higher than 40, but even by the low standards that exist for this sort of thing, this is ghastly stuff. The "teenaged" characters are all played by actors who are at least 25; their parents aren't much more than fifteen years older than they are. The acting makes daytime soap opera look subtle and understated; the dialogue is overwrought and melodramatic; everyone is either vile and loathsome, or perfect and saintly. Gossip Girl is an early candidate for the worst new show of the season.

TV: Kitchen Nightmares (Fox, Wednesday 9/8)

For three years now, Gordon Ramsay has been humiliating would-be chefs on Hell's Kitchen, which is like Top Chef for masochists. He screams, he berates, he belittles -- and now he takes his shtick out into the real world to yell at restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares.

Each week, Ramsay visits a restaurant in crisis and helps them solve their problems. In the opener, it's Peter's, a family-owned Italian restaurant in Babylon, New York. Peter's has lots of problems -- the kitchen is in disrepair, so the food isn't very good; the menu is outdated; the Pellegrino family and their staff spend more time arguing than working -- but the biggest problem is obvious in the first five minutes. It's Peter, co-owner (with his sister) and manager; he's an abusive thug with no people skills who sees the restaurant as his personal cash box. He drives a flashy car, dresses far better than the rest of his family, and interrupts the staff with constant demands to fetch him an appetizer or an espresso.

Ramsay does what it takes to solve the restaurant's problems. He installs a new kitchen, with new appliances and bright shiny countertops; he helps revise the menu with an eye towards family dining, a niche not being served by any of Babylon's other Italian restaurants.

And at the end of the show, he finally confronts Peter, demanding that he make a real commitment to the business. I'd been looking forward to that moment, thinking that when these two assholes finally went head to head, there was a chance that one might kill the other, leaving the world with one less asshole, which wouldn't be a bad thing, right? But much to my surprise, Peter listens and seems to get his act together. What's missing from the story is long-range followup: Is Peter still cooperating and working productively six months after Ramsay's visit? (That's probably a May sweeps episode in the making, as we drop in on all of the restaurants from earlier episodes.)

Ramsay is a bit less obnoxious here than he is on Hell's Kitchen; small business owners, it seems, aren't quite so willing to be abused as reality-show contestants are. But he's still an overbearing jerk, with not enough charm or wit to make the insults and abuse entertaining. I suppose the audience that's kept Hell's Kitchen around for three years will love this, but are there enough of them to let the show survive in a very crowded time slot (Bionic Woman; Private Practice, Gossip Girl; Criminal Minds)?

September 20, 2007

TV: Kid Nation (CBS, Wednesday 8/7)

First, let's dismiss all of this summer's brouhaha about those poor children and their hellish summer of abuse and neglect. It's clearly nonsense; there were adults on hand at all times, and whatever minor accidents there may have been (and you don't put 40 energetic kids into any setting for six weeks without at least a few accidents) were handled with appropriate first aid. It is, in fact, so obvious from the first episode that the complaints were overblown that I'm forced to wonder if CBS didn't plant them as a clever bit of publicity and marketing.

Let's move on to the real issue: Is the show any good? And the answer is, I'm afraid, no.

What we have here is essentially Survivor Junior, but with all of the good stuff that makes Survivor so much fun -- the ruthless competition, the scheming and conniving, the backstabbing -- sucked out. Forty kids, aged 8 to 15, are plopped down in a ghost town (well, on a beautifully prepared ghost town set, anyway) for forty days to create their own society.

They're not left entirely to their own devices, of course; four of the children have been appointed as a Town Council, and they are instructed to divide the kids into four color-coded "districts," who compete against one another in challenges (they're called "showdowns" here) to determine which district will perform which chores -- laborers, cooks, merchants, and upper class.

There's a Town Hall meeting every two or three days, at which the Town Council awards a gold star -- a big chunky thing that weighs about two pounds, and comes with a $20,000 prize -- to the kid they think has earned it. There's no elimination, but the kids are asked at each meeting if anyone wants to leave.

Now, I understand that kids of this age need to learn about cooperation and teamwork, and that it is far better for them to be brought together in that spirit than it would be to throw them into a full-fledged Survivor-style competition. But sadly, cooperation and teamwork really don't make for very interesting TV, and so Kid Nation will rely largely on the American tendency to sentimentalize childhood.

Speaking as one who has never been sentimental about much of anything, I don't look at these kids and think (as I'm clearly meant to) "oh, how cute," or "aren't they sweet," or "that poor baby." (Though I admit, even I misted up a teeny bit when 8-year-old Jimmy decided to leave at the first Town Hall meeting. "I'm a third-grader," he said, "and I'm not old enough for this," showing more self-awareness than most adults I know.) And without those reactions, there's no reason for me to keep watching; it's like being forced to watch your neighbor's kids' home movies from summer camp.

TV: Back to You (Fox, Wednesday 8/7)

Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton return to television, in a sitcom that Fox hopes will help broaden its audience beyond its relatively young core.

Grammer is news anchor Chuck Darling, who had been climbing the local news ladder until an embarassing on-air meltdown in Los Angeles forced him to return in disgrace to Pittsburgh, where his career began. He's reteamed with former partner Kelly Carr (Heaton), who isn't exactly thrilled to see him back, because she'd had the spotlight mostly to herself in his absence.

Both stars are playing variations on personas established in their previous shows. Chuck is more of a womanizer than Frasier Crane, but they share a tendency to pompous windbaggery; Heaton's Kelly is the same pushy control freak she played on Everybody Loves Raymond.

There's a fine group of actors playing the rest of the newsroom team. Fred Willard does his usual oblivious buffoon as sports guy Marsh McGinley, but if you must have an oblivious buffoon, no one does it as well. Ayda Field is weather girl Montana Diaz Herrera, the obligatory bombshell Latina ditz of this sitcom season. Josh Gad has the most thankless role -- ho, ho, ho, look at the fat boy sweat -- as the young news director. Ty Burrell is put-upon field reporter Gary Crezyzewski (I had to cut-and-paste that one from the Fox site; I didn't dare try to type it myself), whose unpronounceable last name will clearly be a running joke; I'm not sure that even Gary pronounces it the same way twice.

So there's lots of talent on hand, and America has certainly shown a fondness over the years for sitcoms set in the world of broadcasting (off the top of my head: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier, Sports Night, 30 Rock...). But this one feels a bit stale somehow. Maybe it's that the setup-punchline-setup-punchline rhythm is such a throwback when the best current sitcoms have gotten beyond it; maybe it's that Grammer and Heaton's characters are so close to what they've done before. Maybe it's just that my expectations from this cast and creative team were higher

The pilot wasn't awful, by any stretch, and I'd like to hope that the show will improve as it finds its legs, but as it stands, it isn't a show that anyone's ever going to be really excited by. It feels like a show that will draw perfectly respectable ratings without ever winning awards (though Grammer and Heaton will probably be nominated for everything just on the strength of name recognition), and we'll all be a bit surprised in a few years to realize that it's been on for five years already. Back to You -- this year's version of Home Improvement or According to Jim.

September 18, 2007

TV: K-Ville (Fox, Monday 9/8)

Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) is the veteran cop, determined to do what he can to help New Orleans recover, but hovering on the edge of a nervous breakdown from his own post-Katrina stress. Trevor Cobb (Cole Hauser) is new to the force, a by-the-book, ex-military man with secrets and demons of his own. They make up the show's odd-couple team, and unfortunately, neither of them is an interesting enough actor to carry a leading role. Individually and together, they're on the dull side, with so little personality that it was all I could do to stay awake even during the noisy car chases and gunfights.

There are other cops, but the pilot episode is busy establishing these two characters; one assumes that Tawny Cypress and Blake Shields will be given a bit more to do in future episodes. Making the best impression in the pilot is John Carroll Lynch as the captain of the squad. It's a graceful, relaxed performance; Lynch provides a calm, easy authority without the bellowing that we so often get in this type of role. (I was reminded a bit of J.K. Simmons from The Closer, who brings a similar low-key charm to the same type of character.)

The show itself is a bland police procedural; there will be a crime each week, and Boulet and Cobb will tie up all the loose ends by minute 58. The only thing that might be distinctive about the show is its setting, post-Katrina New Orleans, but K-Ville offers us little more than a Dixieland band and a few mentions of gumbo to place us there. If you're going to use the national tragedy of our era as the backdrop for a TV show, I think you have an obligation to dig a bit deeper than that.

I'm skeptical that K-Ville has found the proper form in which to tell New Orleans' story. An episodic police show is, by definition, a show in which none of the main characters grow, change, learn, or have any real emotional response to anything. Oh, a cop may get misty-eyed over a tragic death or scream at a thug, but that's resolved by the end of the hour as the Magic Reset Button is hit.

The story of New Orleans needs to be told in a way that allows emotional involvement (for characters and audience alike), with characters who have room to breathe and become fully three-dimensional. New Orleans needs someone who can do for it what David Chase did for the Jersey mob in The Sopranos, what David Simon does for Baltimore in The Wire. New Orleans needs a poet, and there's not a lick of poetry in K-Ville.

September 17, 2007

MOVIES: 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) has struggled with life ever since returning from the Civil War having lost a leg. His teenaged son (Logan Lerman) doesn't respect him, his wife (Gretchen Mol) fears that he's no longer up to the challenge of running a farm, and he's in danger of losing the farm to drought and failure to make payments. So he's more than ready to leap at the $50,000 reward he's offered for joining the posse that's taking Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to meet the 3:10 prison train to Yuma.

Wade is a notorious bandit, with dozens of train and stagecoach robberies and several murders to his credit, and the railroad desperately wants to see him hang. His gang, however, led by his chief lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), is determined to rescue him before he's put on that train.

Even if you haven't seen the 1957 original version of this movie (I haven't), it is a Western, which means there isn't much doubt about where the story is going. Evans learns from Wade how to be a stronger man and reclaim control of his life; Wade manages to find the small shred of decency that lingers in his cold, black heart; evil is punished in the end.

What makes the movie worth watching, despite its utter predictability, is the strength of its cast. Crowe and Bale give the top-notch performances we've come to expect from them. I enjoyed Bale's performance more, if only because Evans is the more interesting character; Wade is limited to the one-dimensionality of most Western villains.

Even better than the leads, though, I enjoyed the array of fine supporting performances. Peter Fonda as the aging Pinkerton's agent, Alan Tudyk as the nervous town doctor, Dallas Roberts as the railroad man, Logan Lerman as the son who rediscovers respect for his father -- all are fine performances, with more subtlety and shading than the characters really deserve.

And then there's Ben Foster, whose Charlie Prince is one of the strangest and most fascinating performances of the year. Prince is somewhat prissy and a bit of a dandy (the buttons alone on his Sgt. Pepper jacket must have cost a fortune in the old west), and it's abundantly clear to all that his devotion to Wade is based on more than just loyalty; we even hear him called "Charlie Princess" at one point. It's a goofy mix of mincing and psychopathic violence that just barely stays inside the reality of this otherwise conventional western.

I wasn't convinced by the ending; there's a last-minute character transformation that comes entirely out of the blue and isn't remotely convincing. But that's just the last five minutes, and it wasn't enough of a problem to keep me from enjoying the movie, which is a solidly entertaining, albeit rarely surprising, piece of entertainment.

September 16, 2007

MOVIES: Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007)

Moulin Rouge meets Hair in Julie Taymor's jukebox musical, featuring nothing but Beatles songs. The movie is a spectacular mess. There are moments of great beauty and startling originality, but there are just as many moments of jaw-dropping pretension and painful cliche.

At the center of the movie are Jude and Lucy (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) -- yes, all of the characters have names from Beatles songs, though not all of their songs get sung -- who fall in love, break up, and reunite against a late 60s historical panorama. None of the historical events is touched on in any depth; the approach is more scattershot than that. Look, it's race riots! Oh, there's Vietnam! LBJ, MLK, psychedelia, student protests -- all of them zipping by like three-minute rides at some demented 60s theme park.

There are two ways to successfully approach the music in this sort of project, it seems to me. You can recreate the original versions as slavishly as possible, which may bore some, but will certainly make the diehard fans happy; or you can radically reinvent the songs, which may annoy the purists, but accomplishes something a bit more creative. Taymor takes the awkward middle ground, for the most part; her arrangements and performances are close enough to the originals that they rarely feel fresh or original, but her actors are weak enough singers that we constantly find ourselves missing the original voices.

The numbers that work the best musically are those for which real singers have been brought in for cameo appearances -- Joe Cocker's "Come Together;" Bono's "I Am the Walrus" -- or those which do try to rethink the original -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand" sung by Prudence (T.V. Carpio) as a high school lesbian cheerleader torch song; "I Want You" sung by a chorus of Uncle Sam recruiting posters at a draft induction center.

As for the production numbers, they're wretched. The standard complaint about modern musicals is that they're edited too frantically, and that we never get to see dancers in full-body shots. Taymor takes frenzied editing even further, cutting from one image of dancers to another entirely unrelated image. Watch "I've Just Seen a Face," for instance; you'll see Jude and Lucy sliding down the bowling alley, Jude and Lucy leaping over the ball-return machines, anonymous dancers lying on the alleys, Jude and Lucy kissing -- all of it in rapid succession, all of it disconnected. Worst of all is Eddie Izzard's "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite;" he can't sing, and instead shouts the lyrics at us as Taymor bombards us with a collage reminiscent of (but not nearly as good as) Terry Gilliam's Monty Python work.

For all of its problems, though, there are some stunning moments. There's a shot of a high school dance, a room filled with women in white gowns and men in white tuxedos, that took my breath away; the enormous puppets of the Bread and Puppet Theater appear at a political protest; "Because" is turned into a sensual underwater ballet; Carol Woods and young Timothy T. Mitchum perform a towering gospel version of "Let It Be."

Best among the principal cast are Dana Fuchs as Sadie, a Janis Joplin type, and Martin Luther McCoy, as her guitarist JoJo, clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Since they're playing singers, their songs don't have to be shoehorned into the plot, and so Fuchs and McCoy can treat them as songs instead of trying to force them into dramatic situations that they don't quite fit; their version of "Oh Darling" is especially good. (Most egregious offender in the cram-it-in-somehow sweepstakes: Struggling artist Jude is trying his hand at still lifes, including a bowl of strawberries, which leads to "Strawberry Fields Forever.")

Ultimately, the movie's biggest problem is that it isn't much fun. Just the names of these songs are enough to bring a smile to your face, but when they're each reduced to another square in Taymor's frantic historical hopscotch game, we don't have time to breathe or to enjoy them.

September 14, 2007

TV: Nashville (Fox, Friday 9/8)

Fox's Nashville is a reality soap, in the mold of MTV's Laguna Beach, about a group of pretty young wannabes trying to make it in the country music biz. (And I do mean pretty -- these are very attractive people.)

There are five principal characters, and four of them are singers. Mika's the small-town girl from Kentucky, new in town. Rachel's been struggling for awhile, but can't get anyone to take her seriously; they think she's just trying to cash in on the family name (her father is NFL legend Terry Bradshaw). Matt had a minor hit a few years back -- big enough that he got to sing it at the Grand Ole Opry -- but couldn't follow up, and is back to working the Nashville bar circuit. Chuck is on the verge of getting a major-label record contract, if the execs like what they hear at his upcoming showcase concert.

And then there's Clint. He's not a musician, but he uses his family's money to throw ritzy parties and hang around the edges of the industry, mostly as a way to meet hot chicks, all of whom he treats like crap. As the series opens, Rachel has just broken up with her boyfriend back home to be with Clint, only to have him flirt with every girl in the room at one of his parties. Later, he meets Mika and zeroes in on her as well; clearly, a Rachel-Clint-Mika triangle is going to be part of the mix.

On the plus side, the singers are talented (though lord knows you can't throw a stick in Nashville without hitting a talented singer who never made it big) and they're pleasant to look at. (If anyone's trying to decide what to get me for Christmas, I'd be happy to find Matt under my tree.)

But so many of the scenes feel staged. It's not that anything's been scripted, I don't think, but there are definitely conversations where you can sense that a director has said to them, "why don't you two have this conversation for us?" And in those scenes, they're all trying so damn hard to pretend that they're being natural and spontaneous (but being sure to hit the dramatic points that need to be hit in this conversation) that the dialogue winds up sounding like nothing anyone would ever actually say.

I've got nothing against soap opera, but if Fox wants to give us one, I'd prefer that they go to the bother and expense of hiring actors and writers, because real people just aren't that interesting.

TV: the season begins

Back in January, I announced that one of my goals for the year was to post more often about TV. I haven't really lived up to that goal, but it is time for the annual TV blitz to begin, as I do my third annual marathon through the new fall series. Twenty-eight new series premiere over the next five weeks, and I plan to watch at least one episode of each. Can't say I'm looking forward to them all (Cavemen? Really? Oy...), but there are bound to be a few pleasant surprises in the bunch.

September 12, 2007

A pair of interesting articles:

At The New Yorker, Mark Singer offers a comprehensive look at the Joyce Hatto hoax.

Regina Schrambling of The Los Angeles Times wonders whether it's still possible -- or even desirable -- for restaurant critics to maintain their anonymity in the age of Google.

September 11, 2007

MOVIES: The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007)

Let's say you're gonna make yet another version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and one of your central plot points is that in order to avoid detection by the pod people, your heroine is obliged to suppress her emotions, because the pod people are emotionless and if they see her laugh or cry, they'll know she's not the pod person she's pretending to be.

So, it would make sense that you would cast an actress whose screen presence tends to be emotionally open, someone who laughs and cries easily, so that there is some tension generated during the "pretending not to be emotional" section of the movie, some suspense as to whether our heroine will succeed. Julia Roberts might be good, for instance, or Drew Barrymore.

It would be a bad idea, you might think, to cast an actress who tends to be on the cold and emotionless side to begin with. It would be a very bad idea, for instance, to cast a chilly ice queen like Nicole Kidman. But by golly, here's Nicole Kidman starring in Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion, the fourth film based on Jack Finney's classic novel.

To make matters worse, we have Daniel Craig as Kidman's sidekick/love interest; he's almost as bizarre a casting choice for this story as she is. There are some nice supporting turns -- the always reliable Jeffrey Wright brings great warmth to the role of the scientist who figures out what's going on (and hey! the black guy gets to live to the end of the movie!), and Veronica Cartwright (who starred in the 1978 version of the story) is effectively jittery and panicked as one of Kidman's patients, a woman who's convinced that her husband has changed somehow.

But Kidman is so disastrously wrong for her role that even if everything else had been brilliant (it's not), the movie couldn't possibly work with her at its core. There is no distinguishing between the happy pre-invasion Kidman, the hiding-her-fear Kidman we see during the invasion, and the relieved post-invasion Kidman; they're all the same glossy emotionless zombie; she's a pod person from the first scene.

September 10, 2007

MOVIES: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)

One of my rules of thumb for documentaries is that people doing something they love are always interesting, even if what they're doing doesn't interest you in the least. Here's a fine example, a documentary about two men battling for the all-time scoring record in Donkey Kong.

As the movie opens, the reigning champ for more than 20 years has been Billy Mitchell. As champs go, the video gaming world couldn't have asked for a better representative. Mitchell is charismatic (albeit in a somewhat creepy, vaguely satanic way), brash, and cocky; he's not likable, exactly, but he's certainly not forgettable.

He stands in stark contrast to Steve Wiebe, who plays Donkey Kong in his garage in suburban Portland. Wiebe is a pasty man with bland features; you forget what he looks like even while he's still on the screen. (It's a running joke in King of Kong that no one can even remember how to pronounce his name; everyone keeps saying "weeb" instead of "wee-bee.") He's the kind of sad sack who is very good at many things, but never quite good enough at any of them; things keep going wrong for Wiebe.

So even Wiebe is a bit shocked when he breaks Mitchell's record, and the video gaming world is caught completely by surprise. Could this nerd really dethrone the man who has been the face of gaming for a quarter century? Almost immediately, everyone involved begins taking sides. Mitchell thinks Wiebe has cheated; Wiebe is suspicious of Mitchell's refusal to play him in a live, head-to-head battle.

Director Seth Gordon has gotten tremendously lucky with his two principal characters; Mitchell, in particular, is a villain straight from central casting, so hissable that you don't really mind that Gordon's clearly taking Wiebe's side. Every time you think he's gotten a little bit too slanted in his storytelling, along comes Mitchell to say or do something to make you even more sympathetic to Wiebe.

Gordon tells the story with a terrific sense of humor, juxtaposing his characters' words and actions in just the right way. He even manages to get a laugh with a music cue, which I don't think I've ever seen in a documentary before; we cut to Mitchell, looking particularly sinister, and we hear the unmistakably sinister growl of Leonard Cohen: "Everybody knows the dice are loaded..."

Like Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom, this is a sharp and lively look inside a tiny little subculture of America. It's a terrific movie; highly recommended.

September 09, 2007

MOVIES: Right at Your Door (Chris Gorak, 2006)

A typical spring morning in Los Angeles. Brad (Rory Cochrane) gets up early to make coffee; Lexi (Mary McCormack) gets ready for work. They've just moved into this house, and the boxes haven't even been unpacked.

Shortly after Lexi leaves, there's a news bulletin on the radio -- bombs have exploded across the city, including one downtown, where Lexi works. Brad makes a futile attempt to drive there to rescue her, then returns home. By now, it's been announced that the bombs were chemical dirty bombs, and that the smoke and ash they spread are toxic. Brad boards up the home, leaving the front door open as long as possible in hope that Lexi will make it back. She eventually does, but of course, it's too late, and she's so covered in ash that Brad can't risk letting her in.

Right at Your Door is at its best in the early going, when it builds a tremendous amount of tension and panic. Brad's anguish at being unable to help his wife is moving, as is Lexi's horror at being locked out. But once we reach that situation, there isn't much change possible -- she still wants to get in, he still can't let her -- and writer/director Gorak doesn't find a way to keep the static situation interesting. To make matters worse, Brad and Lexi aren't very likable people. They're selfish and nasty to one another. True, stress brings out the worst in some people, but these two are so intensely unpleasant that I found myself rooting for the toxic ash.

In the final few moments, the authorities take steps that are viciously and unnecessarily cruel; it's meant to be an ironic twist, but it's so implausible and unpleasant that it left me with a sour taste in my mouth. The movie had gotten off to such a promising start that its ultimate failure was all the more disappointing.

September 07, 2007

MOVIES: Disturbia (D.J. Caruso, 2007)

Well, I suppose if you must make a teenage version of Rear Window, this turned out about as well as you could hope.

Shia LaBeouf (in the Jimmy Stewart role) stars as Kale (Kale? Really?), a Troubled Youth (pretty much everyone in this movie is a Standard Type, as opposed to an actual character) who is spending the summer under house arrest after slugging one of his teachers; if he goes more than 100 yards away from his monitor, his ankle bracelet beeps and the cops show up. So what's a bored kid to do? Why, spy on the neighbors, of course.

Kale begins to suspect that his sinister neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse, in the Raymond Burr role) is a serial killer, so he sends Goofy Sidekick Ronnie and Hot Chick Neighbor Ashley (Aaron Yoo and Sarah Roemer, sharing the Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter roles) out to follow Turner around the neighborhood, bust into his garage, and so forth.

The movie's competently made, aside from a final confrontation sequence so poorly lit that it's nearly impossible to follow. And the two principal roles are certainly well cast. LaBeouf is an immensely likable guy, and -- though this movie doesn't give him much chance to show it -- a fine actor with enormous potential; no one does ambiguous villainy as well as Morse.

But it's all so terribly redundant. Rear Window is a classic movie, and it holds up perfectly well today; there's no need for a remake, especially one that's so content to merely plod through the paces. Most shameful of all, nowhere in the credits does Disturbia even acknowledge that it is a Rear Window ripoff.

September 06, 2007

Five days a week, the folks at Very Short List send to their subscribers a link to one noteworthy thing -- a book, a CD, a movie, a piece of video, a TV show. They've got terrific taste, and in less than a month as a subscriber, I've yet to be disappointed. This TV ad from the UK was today's VSL pick, and it's one of the best public service spots I've seen.

September 05, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007

This is certainly not the most memorable or the most profound musical moment of Pavarotti's long career, but it serves as a reminder that he was not only a great singer, but a great humanitarian as well. In his series of "Pavarotti & Friends" concerts, he raised money for international charities. And given the stuffiness and insularity to which the world of classical music can be prone, it's nice to remember that he wasn't a musical snob.

September 04, 2007

BOOKS: Bad Monkeys, Matt Ruff (2007)

It's a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page. White walls. White ceiling. White floor. Not featureless, but close enough to raise suspicion that its few contents are all crucial to the upcoming drama.

A woman sits in one of two chairs drawn up to a rectangular white table. Her hands are cuffed in front of her; she is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit whose bright hue seems dull in the whiteness. A photograph of a smiling politician hangs on the wall above the table. Occasionally the woman glances up at the photo, or at the door that is the room's only exit, but mostly she stares at her hands, and waits.

That's a terrific opening, and it hooked me completely.

The woman is Jane Charlotte, and she knows why she's being held by the Las Vegas police. "I killed someone I wasn't supposed to," she says. But she has an explanation.

Jane explains that she works for a secret organization (which may or may not be associated with any particular government) devoted to eliminating evil from the world. Note: Not crime, not terrorism, not murder, but evil. Jane works for the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons -- the "Bad Monkeys," in the jargon of her organization -- and it is her job to identify and dispose of the world's Bad Monkeys.

Bad Monkeys alternates between scenes in that interview room, where Jane is being interviewed by Dr. Richard Vale, and flashbacks to the story she tells. She explains how she came to join the organization and what's happened in Las Vegas that led to her arrest. But there are hints from the beginning that Jane's story isn't entirely on the level. How likely is it, for instance, that a girl named Jane Charlotte would have a childhood best friend named Carlotta Juanita, or that their respective brothers would be Phil and Felipe? Between the odd coincidences and the obvious omissions and discrepancies, it's clear that something's wrong, but we can't quite tell whether Jane is lying, loony, or hiding another agenda entirely.

Ruff is one of my favorite novelists; I admire his three earlier novels immensely, and none of them are like any of the others. (If you've never read Ruff, I recommend Set This House In Order as the best starting point.) Bad Monkeys is cleverly plotted, and Jane is a memorable character; the writing moves crisply along, and is never less than entertaining.

So why am I just the tiniest bit disappointed? Maybe it's that the subject matter -- secret spy organizations, double-crosses, elaborate mental games -- feels relatively familiar; Ruff certainly handles it well, but none of the big twists at the end of the novel are quite as surprising as they ought to be. Bad Monkeys is a good novel, and I think people will enjoy it, but from Matt Ruff, I've come to expect something more than merely good.

September 03, 2007

MOVIES: Death at a Funeral (Frank Oz, 2007)

There's a fine line you have to walk when you're making a farce; there needs to be a certain amount of bad tase, but you can't let it sink into mere vulgarity. Director Frank Oz and writer Dean Craig struggle, but don't find the right balance until far too late in the game

The setup is promising enough, as a proper British family gathers for the funeral of the family patriarch. Older son Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen) and his wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) are hosting the funeral; younger son Robert (Rupert Graves), a successful novelist, has flown in from New York. There are assorted uncles, aunts, and nieces, and there's Peter (Peter Dinklage), a mysterious stranger whom none of the family has ever met.

The first half of the movie is overly polite and restrained, there's an occasional smile to be found, but no real laughs. When the movie does head into bad-taste territory, it becomes crudely disgusting, which isn't any funnier than the excessive restraint of the earlier scenes. (Without giving away too many details, let's just say that any scene beginning with an elderly man in a wheelchair asking to be taken to the toilet is not going to end well.)

There are some things that work. Murray Gold's score strikes just the right note of sprightly vulgarity, and Alan Tudyk does marvelous things with the stock character of Guy Who's Been Inadvertently Slipped Hallucinogenic Drugs. In the last fifteen minutes, Oz and Craig even manage to get the right balance of sentiment and tackiness, but it's too little, too late. Wait for cable or DVD if you absolutely must see this; it certainly isn't worth paying full price at the multiplex.

September 02, 2007

MOVIES: The Nines (John August, 2007)

An unexpected treat. The Nines stars Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, and Melissa McCarthy, each of whom plays multiple roles in a series of three stories, with the connections among the three being revealed only gradually.

In "The Prisoner," Reynolds is Gary, star of a crappy TV crime drama, who melts down after a bad breakup and winds up under house arrest. McCarthy plays the publicist who winds up babysitting him, and Davis is the flirty neighbor who tries to talk Gary into violating his arrest by leaving with her.

"Reality Television" finds Reynolds playing Gavin, a TV writer who's filming a pilot called Knowing, about a woman trying to solve the mystery of her husband's disappearance. Gavin has written the role specifically for his best friend, Melissa McCarthy; Davis plays the network executive who breaks the news that the network loves everything about the pilot except Melissa.

The third story, "Knowing," is (in part) that pilot film. McCarthy is the mom and Reynolds is the dad, who has to hike out for help when their car battery dies far enough into the wilderness that they can't use their cell phones. Davis plays Sierra, the stranger who may (or may not) be their salvation.

The three principal actors are terrific in their multiple roles; Reynolds proves to be a far better actor than he's been allowed to show in the dumb comedies he's been doing. The standout for me, though, is Melissa McCarthy, who I previously knew only from Gilmore Girls; she's especially good in the opening segment, where she displays crack comic timing and a great way with bitchy zingers.

The wrapup delves into philosophy and spirituality in a slightly cheesy fashion, but at least it makes sense and you don't leave scratching your head or feeling like the victim of an intellectual mugging, and the three stories that lead up to that ending are all sharply written and highly entertaining. The Nines is only getting a one-week art-house run here in Los Angeles, so if you're in a smaller town, you may have to wait for DVD or cable, but definitely keep an eye open for this one.