December 28, 2008

MOVIES: Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

This one will be a bit longer and more spoilery than usual.

Not that there’s a lot to spoil, for while there are a lot of events in Revolutionary Road, very little actually happens; it’s a movie about stasis and people who are unwilling to change their lives.

It’s the mid-1950s, and Frank and April Wheeler (Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are Connecticut suburbanites. He works in Manhattan, for the same company where his father worked; she tends the house and cares for their two children. It is, by the standards of the time, a nice life that they have built for themselves, but it is not enough for them; Frank and April are miserably unhappy and desperate to find a way out of the suburban doldrums.

The problem is that their unhappiness never feels genuine; I always felt that Frank and April were, as today’s academic jargon would have it, “performing” unhappiness because they believe that it will mark them as more sophisticated than their dull little neighbors who are content with their dull little lives. Of course, when we’re allowed brief glimpses into the lives of those neighbors, we realize that they, too, are vaguely dissatisfied with their lives, as most people are.

What Frank and April never understand is this: Thinking that your life has been a disappointment, that it should have amounted to more, that you should have amounted to more – this doesn’t mark you as sophisticated or superior, it only marks you as human.

But since the Wheelers don’t actually want to be happy, there’s no sense of hope that they might ever be. And there’s certainly no reason for us to get caught up in their apparent excitement about the one plan they make for happiness – moving the family to Paris – because we know it will never actually happen. After all, if they move to Paris, they might actually be forced to justify their misery instead of simply relying on the crutch of suburban boredom.

Indeed, both of the Wheelers begin almost immediately to sabotage April’s plans for the trip. Frank starts actually making an effort at the office, putting himself in line for a promotion and a pay raise that would be hard to turn down. When April finds herself pregnant, she buys a black-market home abortion kit, and we know that can’t end well. (When she tells Frank, “It’s perfectly safe during the first twelve weeks,” we know three things: 1) it’s never perfectly safe; 2) she’s going to wait until after the first twelve weeks to use it; 3) it’s going to kill her.)

Revolutionary Road is an unrelentingly bleak movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Frozen River, from this summer, wasn’t exactly sunshine and lollipops, and I liked it very much, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf certainly showed that an unhappy, bickering couple can be the basis for a rewarding movie experience.

What makes Virginia Woolf work, though, is the high stakes; we know that the games George and Martha play matter immensely to them, even if we don’t always understand how or why. But here, Frank and April don’t really want to be happy, so there are no stakes; there’s no reason for us to care that they aren’t.

How’s the movie as a movie? Well, it’s a beautiful looking production. Kate Winslet is by far the standout, managing at moments to make April seem like a real person, but the rest of the cast isn’t at her level, which throws the storytelling off balance, tipping our sympathies far more toward April than I think they should be tipped. Worst among the cast is Michael Shannon (actually being touted as an Oscar nominee by some) who plays the archetypal fool, a mental patient whose insanity gives him license to utter the cruel truths that everyone else can only think. Shannon’s grating, braying performance grinds the movie to a halt every time he appears.

Thomas Newman’s score is effective, though it’s instantly recognizable as a Thomas Newman score; his bag of tricks is beginning to wear thin. Director Sam Mendes and his makeup crew have done a fine job of populating the movie with 50s grotesques; only Winslet and DiCaprio are allowed to be attractive, with Kathy Bates and Dylan Baker being treated particularly unkindly in this regard.

Fans of the book may wish to see what’s been made of it, and Winslet’s admirers will probably want to see her work, but everyone else can certainly wait for cable or DVD.

December 14, 2008

TV: Leverage (TNT, Tuesday 10)

A promising caper drama in the mold of the Ocean's movies and the recently concluded AMC series Hustle.

Timothy Hutton stars as Nathan Ford, former insurance investigator who leads a team of con men. Nathan left his former job when his own insurance company refused to pay for the treatment that might have saved his young son's life; now his team devotes its energy to helping little guys who've been done wrong by big companies. (And if a case provides a chance to take some money away from an insurance company, so much the better.)

The team consists of Alex Hardison (Aldis Hodge), the computer guy; Parker (Beth Riesgraf), the thief; Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane), the muscle; and Sophie Deveraux (Gina Bellman), the grifter who handles much of the interaction with the marks. The actors are all fine in their roles, though the characters don't have a lot of depth as yet. Hodge gets much of the comic relief and handles it very nicely; Riesgraf does a nice job of mixing eccentricity and efficiency as Parker, who everyone else thinks just might be nuts.

The members of Nathan's team are used to working alone, and much of the entertainment comes from their struggle to trust one another and work as a team. The show hasn't quite yet hit the light, frothy tone it's going for; it's just a bit heavier than it should be. But the stories are fun, the cast has a nice, easy chemistry, and I think the writers will make the necessary adjustments as they get to know the characters better.

December 13, 2008

MOVIES: Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

There is a moment about halfway into Doubt when Meryl Streep, playing the imperious Sister Aloysius, is on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic tirade from her younger, normally more timid colleague, Sister James (Amy Adams). "In ancient Sparta," Sister Aloysius says, "disputes were settled based on who shouted the loudest. Fortunately, we do not live in ancient Sparta." I couldn't help but laugh at that moment, because Streep is in the middle of stomping and bellowing her way through the movie as if she's Sparta's only hope for salvation. Streep is astonishingly bad here, giving a performance that can only be appreciated (if at all) as camp, and she takes the movie down with her.

She's not helped much by Shanley's direction, which is filled with odd camera angles -- everyone's always shot from far below or far above -- and ominous symbols (birds appearing in places where birds shouldn't be; the cold wind that blows continuously through the neighborhood).

It's a shame, because there's an interesting story to be told here. Sister Aloysius is the principal of a Brooklyn Catholic school in 1964, and she comes to suspect that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have "developed an improper relationship" with one of the students. (That's as explicit as the movie ever gets, by the way; it's probably appropriate for the time period, but to contemporary ears, it's a bit odd to see a movie on this topic that never uses the words "molestation," "abuse," or "homosexuality.") The issue of Father Flynn's behavior is even more sensitive than usual, because the student involved is St. Nicholas' first black student.

Aloysius has absolutely no hard evidence, and Flynn denies any impropriety; Sister James, who wants to believe the best about everyone but is (like everyone at St. Nicholas') terrified to cross Aloysius, is caught in the middle.

The one really fine performance in the movie comes from Viola Davis, as the mother of the student, whose reaction to Aloysius' suspicions is not at all what the sister expects. It's a short performance -- one scene, not more than 7 or 8 minutes long -- but it is grounded in reality, honest emotion, and genuine conflict in a way that the rest of the movie never is. Had the rest of the movie risen to her level, Doubt could have been a marvelous movie; but with Streep clomping about like Godzilla preparing to attack Tokyo, I could only wish that the Mystery Science Theater gang was still around to offer commentary.

December 09, 2008

MOVIES: Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

I had been worried about this one. Sean Penn didn't strike me as an obvious choice to play Harvey Milk. I mean, great actor, sure, but when I think Penn, I think of characters who are tightly wound, who keep everything bottled tightly inside until the "give me an Oscar, please" eruption happens in the last act. And Harvey Milk was anything but tightly wound and bottled up; he was an exuberant, outgoing, effusive force.

I needn't have worried. Penn is marvelous here, in a performance unlike anything I can remember seeing him do before. Some of my friends have complained, in fact, that it's too big a performance, but I don't agree. There are, to be sure, some histrionic moments, but when they occur, it is always clear that it's Milk's histrionics and not Penn's.

By now, you surely know the story of the film -- the political rise of Harvey Milk, whose election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 made him the first openly gay public official at that level in the US, and his assassination by fellow Supervisor Dan White. For those few in the audience who don't know how the story ends, Van Sant tells us in the first few minutes, with archival footage of then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing to the press that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been murdered.

One of the marvels of Van Sant's movie, therefore, is that it manages to be entertaining and suspenseful even though we all know how it's going to end. Writer Dustin Lance Black gets a great deal of the credit on this front; his screenplay is crisp, funny, and deeply moving, especially in the final moments.

Milk is Penn's show, to be sure -- he's in almost every scene -- but the rest of the cast is first-rate, too. Emile Hirsch as the young activist Cleve Jones; James Franco as Milk's partner, Scott Smith; Denis O'Hare as John Briggs, Victor Garber as George Moscone -- all memorable performances. Best of the bunch is Josh Brolin's Dan White, a man who didn't have the interpersonal skills to be a successful politician, and couldn't handle failure. (I could have done without the movie's suggestion that White was a repressed homosexual himself. Not all anti-gay politicians are closet cases; some of them are just bigots.)

The only disappointing performance in the movie is that of Diego Luna, who plays Milk's second partner, Jack Lira, and it's not entirely his fault. The movie is oddly unsympathetic to Jack, presenting him as a pathetic, clingy, desperately needy man with no redeeming qualities at all; it's impossible to understand what Harvey ever sees in him.

It's startling how strongly the movie resonates with today's politics. When Harvey argues that the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative (a proposition that would have allowed California schools to fire not only gay teachers, but anyone who even supported gay rights) needed to actually include images and voices of gay people, it's impossible not to look back at the cowardly ad campaign that was run against Proposition 8 this fall, a campaign that also avoided the G-word as much as possible.

Milk is a very fine movie, and shouldn't be missed.

November 16, 2008

MOVIES: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

As the movie opens, 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning the 20 million rupee grand prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? How did a kid from the slums of Mumbai get to this improable point? That's the story of Slumdog Millionaire, a collection of hopelessly hackneyed plot pieces (many of them lifted out of Dickens) tied together with ludicrous coincidences.

The host of Millionaire (Anil Kapoor) can't believe that Jamal has gotten this far without cheating, and he arranges for the cops to interrogate Jamal. The police inspector (Irfan Khan) plays back the tape of Jamal's run on the show, with each question triggering a flashback to a key moment in Jamal's life (Isn't that convenient? And in chronological order, no less!).

That life is a mess of sentimental cliche -- the dead mother, the lifelong search for a childhood sweetheart, the Fagin-esque ganglord, the treacherous older brother -- and Boyle does nothing to bring new life or energy to any of them. Oh sure, there's a lot of frantic editing and a lively score by Bollywood veteran A.R. Rahman (which would be even more effective were it turned down by about two notches throughout), and some of the acting is effective, but there's not enough here to overcome the stale story.

Worst of all is the way the movie tidily packages Third World poverty in the most aesthetically pleasing and entertaining fashion imaginable for the entertainment of First World audiences; it's poverty porn, and the kindest thing to be said about it is that it's tasteless.

Many of the Oscar pundits are talking about this as a possible Best Picture nominee, which has me worried about the upcoming glut of prestige pictures; if a movie this tired and overwrought is a contender, how awful must the rest of the field be?

MOVIES: Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)

Pure character study, which is fine as long as we're given a character worthy of study, which unfortunately, we aren't.

Our protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is a happy young woman. Relentlessly, obsessively, oppressively happy. And that's all she is. I kept expecting that something would happen to test Poppy's cheerful disposition, and Leigh keeps teasing us with the possibility that something might, but it never does. Poppy goes to the doctor? Just minor back pain. One of her students is bullying? Just easily fixed home problems. Poppy wanders down a dark alley in the middle of the night to chat with the lunatic homeless guy who she hears muttering? Even that doesn't amount to anything.

There is a dark turn at the very end, but it's too little, too late. By then, I'd lost interest in Poppy's blithe, willful ignorance. (And the dark turn isn't really satisfying, as it forces one character into an extreme personality shift that is neither prepared nor believable.)

The movie's not entirely without merit; Gary Yershon's score is charming, in the best tradition of British light music. Eddie Marsan is funny as Poppy's polar opposite, a dyspeptic driving instructor who is particularly frustrated by her sunny outlook. And there's a fine small performance by Karina Fernandez as a flamenco teacher. The role's a bit of a cliche -- the angry Latina spitfire -- but Fernandez brings more personality and more life to the character in five minutes of screen time than Hawkins gives to Poppy in two hours. When the flamenco teacher left the room, I wanted to follow her; at least there was the possibility that something interesting might happen in her life.

October 25, 2008

TV: Stylista (CW, Wednesday 9)

Yet another fighting-for-a job reality competition.

This time, the job is that of junior editor at Elle magazine, and eleven young wannabees show up to compete for the position. The chief judge is Anne Slowey, Elle Fashion News Director, who has clearly prepared for her judgeship by watching Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada some 8,000 times or so. The tossing of the coat onto the assistant's desk, the bitchy comments delivered in hushed tones, the overwhelming sense of fashion as religion -- it's all there, but Slowey doesn't have quite the charisma to make it as entertaining as Streep did.

Also on hand is Joe Zee, the creative director, who takes the contestants in hand in the first episode to teach them how to dress Elle-style. Danielle's smart blue jacket? Good! William's Clockwork Orange goes punk ensemble? Bad!

Each week, the would-bes will be given two tasks -- one personal assistant task, and one editorial task. Week one sent them to a nearby deli to shop for Anne's breakfast, with no guidance as to what she actually likes to eat. And she is a fussy woman (no coffee unless it's an iced latte; no almonds unless they've been soaked overnight).

After their fashion critique from Joe, they're sent off on a shopping spree, where they must prove that they can now shop for work-appropriate clothes, then put on a fashion show for the editorial staff. The final piece of the challenge is to put their fashion show photos into a "contributors' page" for the magazine.

The contestants are young, pretty, and not that bright; Slowey is stiff and awkward on screen; the tasks bear little if any resemblance to what a junior editor would actually be required to do. But god help me, I am a sucker for these shows, and at least the contestants are being asked to develop actual skills and not just each cockroaches. Stylista is trash, and mid-level trash at that, but I'll probably keep watching.

October 21, 2008

BOOKS: The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley (2008)

English is changing faster than ever before, says Abley, as he presents an overview of where the biggest changes are coming from and what they're likely to be. This is specifically not a book about those darned kids and how they're ruining the language; Abley says he has "no ideological ax to grind," and simply wants to report what's happening.

Several of his sources of change are the result of living in an increasingly multi-cultural world -- the way that Spanish is infiltrating the language in Los Angeles, the mix of English, Chinese, and other local languages that you'll hear in Singapore, called Singlish; the influence of Black English and hip-hop.

One of the greatest sources of change, though, is cyberspace. Text speak, that highly condensed form of English used by most students, is a particularly strong source of change. Many of its most common shortenings are already making their way into the mainstream -- the use of "u" for "you;" "LOL" for "laugh out loud." New Zealand has gone so far as to say that high school students may use text speak on their final exams without being marked down as long as their ideas are correct; a British company offers classic literature re-written in text speak as a study aid (Hamlet's soliloquy begins "2b?Ntb?=?").

I think Abley overstates the pace at which these changes are going to affect mainstream English, but his look at the trends is certainly interesting, and I enjoyed the book very much.

October 20, 2008

MOVIES: W (Oliver Stone, 2008)

Stone's look at the current president is surprisingly even-handed, almost frustratingly so; there are moments when I found myself desperately longing for a stronger point of view.

The focus is on the runup to the war in Iraq, with frequent flashbacks to Bush's life before the Presidency. Josh Brolin stars, and his impersonation of Bush is remarkable; it was easy to forget that I wasn't actually watching the real president. The voice, the gestures, the look -- all completely convincing. But the performance goes beyond mere impersonation; Brolin gives us an insightful portrayal, and suggests a more complex man than Bush has ever seemed to be in real life.

(Some of the credit for Brolin's look must go to the movie's makeup artists and casting directors, who have transformed their cast into remarkable lookalikes of the people they're playing -- Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer.)

Stone's central premise is that Bush is motivated by the desire to live up to the high expectations of his father, the first President Bush (played by James Cromwell, in one of the least physically convincing transformations of the movie). Poppy's key line, which we hear at least twice, is "I'm disappointed in you, George, deeply disappointed," and Bush spends his entire life trying to overcome that disappointment.

The supporting cast, with one notable exception, is fine; Cromwell, Dreyfuss, and Wright are particularly good, as is Stacy Keach, almost unrecognizable as the minister who leads Bush to become born again. The disappointment is Newton, who is struggling so hard with Rice's distinctive voice that her performance sinks to the level of a Saturday Night Live caricature.

I don't think that W is a great movie; its "must please Daddy" psychology is a bit facile, and Stone pounds it home rather heavily, especially in an unnecessary dream sequence late in the movie. And if you pay much attention to politics, you aren't going to learn anything new about the history of the last few years. But the performances, Brolin's in particular, are strong enough that the movie's worth seeing.

October 19, 2008

BOOKS: Con Ed, Matthew Klein (2007)

Kip Largo is sitting in a bar when a beautiful blonde approaches him and asks for his help. She knows about his past as a con man, and wants to steal the fortune of her husband, a Vegas hotel tycoon. Kip is an ex-con, just out of prison and trying to go straight, so he's reluctant to get involved. But when his son, Toby, shows up begging for money to pay off gambling debts to the Russian mob, that Vegas fortune starts looking pretty good.

Kip's no fool, and he knows that when an opportunity this good falls into your lap, there's a good chance that you're being played. And so we're off on a rollicking con man caper, with Kip never quite sure whether he's pulling the best con of his life or about to have the rug pulled out from under his feet.

I am a sucker for con man stories, and Klein moves his story briskly along, with a few nice high-tech twists on a classic scheme. The characters are likable, and the suspense builds nicely to the climax, which has its fair share of unexpected twists. Not great literature, but a delightful diversion.

TV: Crusoe (NBC, Friday 9)

A very loose adaptation of the classic novel, grabbing bits and pieces from popular TV shows to create an odd Frankenstein of a show.

Robinson Crusoe (Philip Winchester) is marooned on a tropical island, with only two companions -- a dog, and Friday (Tongayi Chirisa), who was rescued from a tribe of cannibals by Crusoe. Together, they've managed to put together a pretty comfy life -- the most spectacular tree house you've ever seen (built mostly from the remnants of Crusoe's ship, but more elaborate than a dozen 17th-century engineers could have concocted), oodles of clever gadgets designed to make life easier (very proto-MacGyver), and nothing much to do bit lounge about in the sun and pine for home.

Of course, there's not much drama in that, so there are going to be a lot of unexpected visitors to the island; it's English pirates in the 2-hour premiere, looking for a golden cannon that's supposed to be buried on the island somewhere. By the midpoint, the pirates are joined by the Spanish jailers from whom they've escaped. Crusoe and Friday have to battle off both groups, eventually chasing them away without being able to get rescued themselves. It seems that's likely to be the pattern of the episodes; visitors arrive each week and don't rescue Crusoe (shades of Gilligan's Island).

We get frequent cryptic flashbacks to Crusoe's past in London, where his wife and children wait for him, and there are suggestions that Crusoe's marooning was not entirely accidental, that there is a larger conspiracy at work, in a 17th-century Lost kind of way.

The gadgets are clever if you can suspend your disbelief, and this might be an entertaining show for boys -- tree house! gadgets! pirates! swordfights! -- if it didn't take such pleasure in its violence; there are a few too many lingering, loving shots of dead guys for most pre-teens. Winchester and Chirisa are very appealing (and both are ridiculously handsome), and they have remarkably good chemistry together; it's almost difficult to believe Crusoe's "oh, how I miss my Susanna" moaning when you see how fondly he and his "brother" Friday look at one another.

As a friend once said about a different show, Crusoe is easy to watch, but it's just as easy not to watch. It's innocuous escapism, but in the long run, the steady stream of non-rescuing visitors is going to become more and more implausible, and I don't have much faith that the conspiracy story is going to play out in an interesting fashion.

October 18, 2008

TV: My Own Worst Enemy (NBC, Monday 10)

Henry Spivey is your typical suburban dad -- corporate job, pretty wife, scruffy dog, two kids, and a vague sense of dissatisfaction with his boring life.

Edward Albright is a highly skilled international operative -- runs a 4-minute mile, speaks 13 languages, trained to kill in countless ways.

What Henry doesn't know (but Edward does) is that they share a single body (Christian Slater, having great fun with the dual role). Henry is an artificially created personality, carved out of a spare corner of Edward's brain. When Edward isn't on a mission, he's "put to sleep" and Henry takes over; when the Janus organization needs to send Edward off to recover the microfilm or save the scientist or stop the nukes from going off, he's "awakened" for the mission. After the mission, phony memories of a business trip to someplace like Akron are created for Henry.

But alas for Janus, the Henry/Edward boundary is beginning to break down; Edward's waking up when he hasn't been summoned. Even worse, Henry's consciousness is taking charge in the middle of Edward's mission. This is very worrying to Edward's boss, Mavis (Alfre Woodard), and to his best friend, fellow Janus operative Raymond (Mike O'Malley, surprisingly effective in a dramatic role). Raymond's alter-ego, Tom, is Henry's best friend, and works in the same anonymous office, which seems to exist only to give Janus alters someplace to believe that they work.

Slater's quite good in the double role, vaguely pathetic as Henry and highly efficient as Edward; it's always clear which personality is awake, and Slater's especially good at capturing Henry's panicked confusion when he awakes mid-mission for the first time.

The biggest problem with the show is the glaring question which goes not only unanswered, but unasked, in the first episode. Why? If you're a highly skilled International Man of Mystery type, why do you need to partition off a piece of your brain to create an ordinary-guy alter ego?

That's not the only logic problem. The show opens in Paris, where Edward is facing off against a femme fatale agent, who we're lead to believe is every bit his equal in skill and smarts, but who is dumb enough to fall for the body-made-of-bedpillows trick.

It feels as if the writers came up with the two guys/one body concept and didn't take the time to think through the logical consequences of the idea. The show doesn't have much respect for the intelligence of its audience. Slater and Woodard are entertaining enough to keep me watching for another week or two in the hopes that some of these questions will be addressed, but if they aren't, I won't stick around for long.

October 17, 2008

BOOKS: World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler (2008)

In his nonfiction book The Long Emergency (which I haven't read), Kunstler argues that we are heading for a societal crash of epic proportions. The end of the fossil fuel era is coming faster than we believe, and we're not ready; we should be prepared for wars and a return to an agricultural society when the gas runs out.

World Made by Hand gives us a fictional depiction of American society after that crash has happened. Kunstler doesn't go into great detail about the specifics; we know that Los Angeles and Washington, DC have both been destroyed by bombs, and there are rumors that an American government still exists somewhere -- Minneapolis, maybe? -- but it's too far away and too powerless to have any real impact on anyone. A flu epidemic has killed a large part of the population, and those remaining have scavenged the abandoned homes for whatever useful supplies they might have contained.

The novel's set in Union Grove, New York, a fairly typical small town, where most financial dealings are now done on a barter system. The electricity works only sporadically, and not predictably enough to be of any real use. Former staples like wheat flour and sugar are now luxuries, only rarely available. Transportation is (at best) horse-drawn carriages, and the roads have deteriorated so badly that they aren't always practical.

Our narrator is Robert Earle, once a software executive, now earning a living as a carpenter, and he narrates the events of one summer in Union Grove. There's not a lot of plot, as such; just a series of events, not terribly well connected. A small religious sect has moved into what was once the high school outside town, and is met with a mix of excitement (new faces!) and suspicion (are they going to try and convert everyone?). A gang of would-be warlords runs a scavenging operation/general store out of the town dump and bullies anyone who crosses their path.

There are odd little hints of things that might develop into an actual story, but they never really do. Oddly, many of them are placed in the last third of the novel. There's a visit to the matriarch of the New Faith sect, a morbidly obese woman who seems to have psychic powers; she knows, for instance, that Robert is Jewish and has changed his last name from Ehrlich. There are two dead men who appear to have been killed in identical fashion. But these things are just left hanging. I suppose that's what very well might happen in real life, but real life has the advantage over ficiton of not having to be dramatically compelling; in a novel, you expect there to be a payoff from such teases.

Still, if World Made by Hand isn't quite satisfying as a novel, it's interesting as a portrait of a radically altered America. It's been long enough since the crash that the younger generation -- anyone under 15, say -- has no memory of the old ways, and even older folks have, for the most part, adjusted to the changes. I can't bring myself to believe that things will change as dramatically or as badly as Kunstler thinks they will, but there is an odd optimism to his post-apocalyptic story. Even this, he tells us, we could survive.

October 13, 2008

TV: Eleventh Hour (CBS, Thursday 10)

Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is an advisor to the FBI, called in to investigate scientific crimes and crises. He's received death threats for reasons unspecified, so he travels with Rachel Young (Marley Shelton), an FBI bodyguard.

Essentially, this is yet another CBS crime procedural with a science twist: CSI meets The X-Files (though the science, it appears from the first episode, isn't going to get quite as far fetched as The X-Files sometimes did). Week 1 finds Dr. Hood in Seattle, where someone is attempting to clone a human being.

Given the pervasive influence of House on series protagonists in the last few years, it comes as a pleasant surprise that Hood is not an abrasive, anti-social jerk; he actually gets along reasonably well with people and has a normal level of empathy for them. That's not to say that he can't be manipulative when it's called for; he uses a sob story about his late wife (a story which may or may not be true) to get the bad guy to do the right thing.

He does seem to be a difficult charge for the FBI, though. Rachel makes reference to previous bodyguards having burned out on his unpredictability and refusal to take reasonable safety precautions, and she is determined not to let him treat her the same way. Another refreshing surprise is that there doesn't seem to be a shred of romantic chemistry between the two leads.

The relationship between the two is appealing, though; there's a playful banter and a constant tension as Hood keeps testing the limits and Young tries to maintain control. Sewell and Shelton do solid work in the roles. With only those two series regulars, though, the show's long-term survival will rely more than usual on the quality of each week's guest actors.

With that caveat, Eleventh Hour has a lot of promise, and I look forward to seeing how the show develops.

TV: Life on Mars (ABC, Thursday 10)

Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) is a New York cop; his current case involves a serial killer who abducts and murders young women, a case that takes on added urgency when his partner/girlfriend (Lisa Bonet) is kidnapped. On his way to the apartment of the prime suspect, Tyler is hit by a car. When he wakes up, he finds himself in 1973.

Police work in 1973 was a very different thing, and Sam has trouble adjusting to work with no computers or high-tech DNA information. Even worse are the attitudes; Sam's new partner, Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli, wearing a hideous period mustache), thinks nothing of beating up a suspect, and the station commander, Gene Hunt (Harvey Keitel, who hasn't learned yet how to scale his performance down to TV size), is even worse.

The show's most interesting character is policewoman Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol). In 1973, policewomen were limited to rescuing kittens and running pointless errands for their male colleagues. Annie's clearly capable of more; she's got a psychology degree from Fordham, and has the skills and smarts to do what we now call profiling. When called on by Sam to do just that, though, she's furious at him for bringing attention to abilities that her male colleagues aren't ready to recognize in a woman.

Sam can't figure out how he got to 1973, and of course, every one thinks he's nuts when he tries to explain what's happened to him. There are hints that he's still alive in 2008 -- he occasionally hears voices from his real voice talking to him from the TV or radio -- but we're given no definite answer to the mystery.

That, it seems to me, will be the show's ultimate downfall. How long can it go on without giving us some sort of resolution to that central mystery? I was already getting bored with the puzzle by the end of the first episode, and I can't imagine watching Sam bumble along in 1973 for too many more weeks without an answer.

October 12, 2008

MOVIES: Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

Easily one of the year's best movies, with Anne Hathaway leading a superb cast.

Hathaway plays Kym, who's been in and out of various rehab facilities for many months, and is being released from her current facility to go home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym is slowly gaining control of her demons -- she says at one point that she's been sober for nine months -- but it's clearly difficult for her not to be the center of attention.

That's not surprising, of course; she's used to being the focus of things, whether because of how her addiction affects her family or because she's got a team of therapists working on helping her get well. But on what should be Rachel's weekend, Kym's emotional neediness puts further strain on the family, which has not yet recovered from the worst results of Kym's addiction. (I'm trying to avoid giving away an important bit of the backstory here; suffice it to say that Kym's behavior was often tragically irresponsible.)

Kym and Rachel's father Paul (Bill Irwin, note-perfect in his ineffectual frustration) does his best to keep a lid on the simmering confrontation, but neither sister trusts him to be an impartial observer; they've been playing "Dad always liked you best" for years. Stepmom Carol (Anna Deavere Smith, looking strangely orange and bloated) hovers in the background, trying to be supportive to everyone, but we get the sense that Kym's been away for most of the time that Carol's been on the scene, and Carol doesn't have sufficient understanding of the family's dynamics to really be helpful.

You have to feel for Rachel's husband-to-be, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and his family, who've arrived at Paul's Connecticut home for the rehearsal dinner and find it dominated by Rachel's family melodrama. The dinner sequence is a long one, and I can imagine that some people will find it too long and repetitious, with too many wedding toasts. But I think it's one of the best scenes in Jenny Lumet's script; the tension builds to an almost unbearable level as we wait for the inevitable moment when Kym gets the microphone and makes her toast, which is one of the great awkward, uncomfortable wedding toasts in movie history.

(Also of note in this scene is the precision of Lumet's writing for each character. The toast is the biggest speech some of these characters get, and Lumet paints each of them so crisply that we don't need much more to feel that we know them. Sidney's mother comes across in particularly vivid fashion.)

The performances here are amazing. Hathaway's done very good work in light comedy and period pieces, but she's never had a meaty dramatic role like this one, and she sinks her teeth into it. Her wedding toast is an unforgettable moment, as is her speech at a 12-step meeting, in which she confesses the worst sin of her time as a user. DeWitt's role isn't as flashy, but her performance is just as good; poor Rachel is being whiplashed from one emotional extreme to another -- the joy of a wedding, the anger of every encounter with Kym -- and DeWitt doesn't make a false step.

Debra Winger only has a few short scenes as Kym and Rachel's mother, Abby, but she makes it very clear how hard Abby is working to enjoy the wedding without being sucked into the family's toxic side. Adebimpe isn't given much to do as Sidney, but he's an immensely gracious presence; he's a calming influence on Rachel, and we have no problem understanding their connection.

The ads and trailers for the movie have, I think, made it look more like a wacky comedy than it really is; it's most definitely a drama, and a dark one at that. But it's refreshing to see a movie populated by real people that doesn't insist on wrapping everything up with a tidy bow at the end. This is a must-see.

October 11, 2008

TV: Easy Money (CW, Sunday 9)

Laurie Metcalf stars as Bobette Buffkin, who runs Prestige Payday Loans with the help of her three kids. Cooper (Jay Ferguson) and Brandy (Katie Lowes) love their jobs -- they certainly seem happier at work than they do in their unfulfilling marriages -- but Morgan (Jeff Hephner) has begun to have reservations about the morality of charging 25% weekly interest on loans to those who can least afford them.

The lot of the usurer, we learn from Easy Money, is not an easy one. Your clients don't make their payments (even the cops), and when you try to collect, they sometimes get violent. A pair of enormous, menacing Samoan brothers has just opened their own payday loan place just a few blocks away.

And poor Morgan! Not only does he struggle with the ethics of the family business, but he's trying to start a romance with a pretty young college student, and by the end of the first episode, he's learned that he might actually be adopted.

"Am I adopted?" in the first episode is not a good sign; sinking to soap-opera cliche so quickly suggests that the writers don't have much up their sleeves, a suggestion borne out by the rest of the episode. None of it is very interesting, and even the usually reliable Metcalf can't bring any life to her character; her enormous red wig is the most interesting thing in the show.

A dull, pointless waste of time.

October 10, 2008

TV: Valentine (CW, Sunday 8)

Grace Valentine (Jaime Murray) lives in the Mt. Olympus neighborhood of Los Angeles with her three adult children, Danny (Kristoffer Polaha), Leo (Robert Baker), and Phoebe (Autumn Reeser). Their family business, Valentine Inc., seems to be widely diversified -- we see business cards for plumbing, construction, electricians, and so on. But the real business of the Valentine family is love, because the Valentine family are Greek gods. Grace, Danny, and Leo are actually Aphrodite, Eros, and Hercules; Phoebe reads the Oracle of Delphi in the family's backyard pool.

When two soulmates find themselves on the verge of separation, the Fates may bring the Valentines into their lives, and the family works to bring the couple back together. It seems, though, that the fates are bringing them fewer and fewer clients; in a world where romantic love grows less relevant every day, the Valentines are at risk of becoming obsolete, and thus becoming mortal.

Grace's idea to help the family stay in business is to bring in a mortal to assist them, someone who understands love in the modern era better than they do. She turns to romance novelist Kate Providence (Christine Lakin); the scene in which Grace convinces Kate that she really is a god is one of the funniest in the first episode.

Valentine surprised me; I didn't have particularly high expectations, and the show turned out to be a light, breezy charmer. Polaha stands out as Danny/Eros, whose vanity tends to get in the way of his good intentions, and Baker is effective as Leo/Hercules, who is often forced to act as Danny's conscience, a giant lummox of a Jiminy Cricket. Murray has the rare combination of elegant grace and crisp comic timing, and Reeser is appealing as the ditz of the family.

The show's lighter than air, and maintaining that tone can be difficult. It's easy to imagine that the formula of saving a romance every week could get dull, and the show's entertainment value will depend greatly on its guest actors (the female half of the couple in the first episode, for instance, didn't quite pull off the big reconciliation scene at the end). But the cast is immensely appealing, and at least in the first episode, the writing is lively and funny. In what has been a remarkably weak season of new shows, this is one of the few bright spots.

TV: Kath & Kim (NBC, Thursday 8:30)

Based on an Australian sitcom which must surely have been better than this uninspired mess.

Molly Shannon is Kath Day, a divorcee who's finally settling into single suburban life when her daughter Kim (Selma Blair) moves back in, having left her new husband Craig (Mikey Day). Kath isn't at all happy to see Kim, mostly because her arrival will put a crimp in Kath's relationship with Phil (John Michael Higgins).

There's so much wrong here that it's hard to know where to begin. Shannon and Blair aren't nearly far enough apart in age to be believable as mother and daughter,and neither is a talented enough comedienne to carry a sitcom. (I realize that this is borderline blasphemy where Shannon is concerned, but even in her Saturday Night Live days, I thought she was wildly overpraised.) Even if the show had better leads, the writing isn't very good; there's not a single memorable joke or punchline in the first episode.

The characters aren't very likable, either, uniformly shallow, self-centered, and unkind. It's possible for a show to get away with an assortment of selfish dimwits; My Name Is Earl does so, for instance. But what that show has that Kath & Kim lacks is the sense that the characters genuinely care about one another; even their stupidest behavior is motivated in an attempt to do the right thing. These characters are just selfish and unkind, to the extent that you barely believe that Kath and Kim are related at all.

The show's not aggressively unfunny, as Do Not Disturb was a few weeks back. It's just dull, flat, and entirely lacking in creativity or energy.

October 04, 2008

TV: The Ex List (CBS, Friday 9)

As part of her sister's bachelorette party, Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser) -- yes, she's a florist, and isn't that just too cute for words -- gets a reading from a psychic, who tells her that if she isn't married within a year, she never will be. Further, Bella's soulmate, the man she's meant to be with, is a man with whom she's already had a romantic relationship. Right off the bat, this doesn't strike me as an appealing premise for a show. We're going to be spending our Friday nights watching a romantically desperate woman revisiting one failed relationship after another? But The Ex List is based on a successful Israeli TV series, so apparently the premise can work. In this incarnation, though, it doesn't.

The main reason it doesn't is Reaser. If we're going to have any sympathy for a woman who spends her time throwing herself back into the lives of men who've already broken up with her once, then that woman had better be extraordinarily likable, and Reaser's Bella isn't. She's a bit on the whiny side; she gets pouty and petulant when things don't go her way; and she's utterly clueless to the most obvious things. Her most recent ex, Elliott (Mark Deklin), for instance, is so obviously the man she's meant to wind up with that he might as well be wearing a big neon sign reading "Bella's Soulmate," but she continues to chase him away. (They still see one another because they have "shared custody" of their dog. Yes, this is the kind of show that thinks it's adorable to talk about pets as if they were just as important as actual children.)

The other cast members are pleasant enough. Adam Rothenberg is Bella's best friend, Augie, and Alexandra Breckenridge is his girlfriend, Vivian; they have an appealing bantering chemistry, even when saddled with the most embarrassing subplot in recent memory. (Note to the producers: No one wants to hear a couple arguing about the details of her vaginal waxing.) And Amir Talai, as the fourth housemate, Cyrus, has a nice way with a bitchy punchline.

Even Eric Balfour, that insufferably annoying show-killer, is more appealing in the pilot than Reaser is. Balfour pops up as Ex #1, doing a splendidly vicious version of the overly sensitive rock musician boyfriend who turns every conversation into an ode to his own feelings, and every moment into a bathetic ballad.

But I keep coming back to that awful premise. All the men on Bella's list either dumped her, in which case they probably don't want to see her again, or were dumped by her, in which case they probably went through a painful period of getting over her. In either case, her reappearance in their lives isn't likely to be met with much happiness (and even if it is, the nature of the show demands that every episode end with another breakup between Bella and the Guy of the Week). Whether the fault lies with Reaser or with the writers, Bella simply isn't a likable or charming enough person that I want to watch her making another guy miserable every week.

October 02, 2008

BOOKS: The Likeness, Tana French (2008)

Follow-up to In the Woods, which I liked very much.

Cassie Maddox, a supporting player in that book, takes center stage this time. The events of In the Woods have led her to leave the Murder Squad of the Dublin police; she now works on the Domestic Violence unit. Her boyfriend, Sam, still works Murder, though, and he calls her early one morning, asking her to come to a murder scene.

When she arrives, she is shocked to see that the dead woman is her double. The woman's ID identifies her as Alexandra Madison. That's another surprise, because Lexie Madison doesn't really exist; she's one of the fake IDs that Cassie created for herself during her years working as an undercover officer.

Lexie is the type of murder victim who might not normally get special attention from the police, but given her ID and her resemblance to Cassie, the police can't entirely dismiss the possibility that Cassie was the intended victim, so solving the murder takes on added importance. Cassie's old boss, Frank, still heads up the undercover unit, and he makes the suggestion -- initially dismissed by Cassie and Sam as ludicrous -- that Lexie's friends should be told that she survived the assault, and that Cassie should go undercover as Lexie in order to gather information. Frank talks them into it, and Cassie moves into the large house that Lexie had been sharing with four other college students.

All of the skills that French displayed in In the Woods are on hand here -- intricate plotting, gorgeous prose, vivid characterization. I'm particularly impressed by the way characters change depending on whose point of view we see them from. For instance, the Cassie of The Likeness is recognizable as Cassie of In the Woods, but they aren't precisely the same; she's been changed by the events of the first book, and we're now seeing her as she sees herself instead of as Rob saw her.

The Likeness is, as police procedurals go, relatively low on action and violence; the climactic chapter, in which secrets are revealed and motives discovered, is a 30-page scene of four people in a room talking. But because French has so carefully and so skillfully defined those four characters for us, that long dialogue scene has more tension and energy than the action set pieces that conclude many lesser thrillers.

There's certainly plenty of room for French to continue writing novels set in the Dublin police department, and I like the idea of having a new protagonist for each story. Certainly Sam and Frank are interesting enough characters to carry books of their own.

A lot of authors have one good book in them, and I try not to get my hopes up too high after a first novel. But when you get a pair of books as fine as In the Woods and The Likeness, you've got real talent on your hands. It's going to be very exciting to see what Tana French does next and how her career develops; she promises to be one of the finest crime novelists of the new century.

September 30, 2008

BOOKS: Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley (2008)

I was disappointed by Buckley's last couple of novels -- Boomsday was a bit flat, and I couldn't even get through Florence of Arabia -- so I'm happy to report that the new one is a significant improvement.

As Supreme Courtship opens, President Donald Vanderdamp is struggling with sub-Bush approval ratings. He's so unpopular that the Senate, led by Majority Leader Dexter Mitchell, is rejecting his perfectly reasonable Supreme Court nominees just because they can; one is booted for the sin of saying, in a book report written at age 12, that there were "boring parts" in To Kill a Mockingbird. In a fit of pique, Vanderdamp decides to send the Senate a nominee it can't reject, the most popular judge in America -- Pepper Cartwright, of TV's most popular legal show, Courtroom Six.

Buckley alternates Judge Pepper's struggles to fit in on the Court with Vanderdamp's re-election campaign against Mitchell, a campaign which triggers a Constitutional crisis that winds up -- where else? -- in the Supreme Court.

Buckley's comedy is broad as can be, and his characters are often obvious caricatures of real-life figures. Justices Silvio Santamaria and Crispus Galavanter, for instance, are clearly inspired by Scalia and Thomas, and Dexter Mitchell's inability to stop speaking if there's a news camera nearby is reminiscent of Joe Biden at his worst.

But I found enough good laugh lines and colorful characters (I particularly liked Graydon Clenndennynn, "wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences....the man, it was rumored, with more n's in his name than anyone else in Washington.") to keep me reading and smiling. Great literature this may not be, but it's a heckuva lot of fun.

September 27, 2008

TV: Gary Unmarried (CBS, Wednesday 8:30)

Jay Mohr is Gary, a recently divorced father of two who's taking his first steps back into the dating scene. His ex-wife, Allison (Paula Marshall, in a spectacular rendition of the Ex From Hell), has just announced that she's marrying their marriage counselor (Ed Begley, Jr. at his smarmiest); 14-year-old son Tom (Ryan Malgarini) is terrified of girls; and preteen daughter Louise (Kathryn Newton) is obsessed with Al Gore and Gandhi. On the plus side, Gary's just met Vanessa (Jaime King), who looks to be his first serious relationship since the divorce.

This is a perfectly servicable sitcom, and its strong suit is its cast. Mohr and King are a likable pair; Marshall plays a terrific love-to-hate-her character; and Begley is just right for his role. And the time slot makes sense; Gary Unmarried follows The New Adventures of Old Christine, and is in some ways a gender-reversed version of that show.

But in the absence of interesting writing, the cast flounders a bit, working terribly hard to elevate routine material. There's nothing special or distinctive about the show, nothing to make it stand out from the pack and make me feel that I really want to watch it. At best, it's likely to become a new Home Improvement or According to Jim, the kind of show that survives for five years and that you always think "oh, that's still on?" when you stumble across it.

September 24, 2008

TV: The Mentalist (CBS, Tuesday 9)

Yet another installment in the ongoing CBS attempt to make a TV star out of Simon Baker (The Guardian, Smith). This one is an odd hybrid of House and Psych.

Baker plays Patrick Jane, a former stage psychic who now uses his highly honed powers of observation as a consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation. There is a Great Wound in his past, which causes him great pain while simultaneously making him even more devoted to his job. Jane has a House-style team of associates: exasperated female boss (Robin Tunney) and white guy/white chick/non-white guy team of junior investigators (Owain Yeoman, Amanda Righetti, and Tim Kang, respectively).

The plot mechanics are essential those of Psych without the sense of humor; Jane's partners chase all of the red herrings and wrong suspects while Jane keys in on the one misplaced prop or strange sentence of dialogue that allows him to find the real killer.

As police procedurals go, it's perfectly competent, but there's nothing distinctive about it that would make it stand out from the already crowded CBS procedural lineup. It'll probably get perfectly adqueate ratings, and maybe even last for two or three years, but it's not going to be a show that any remembers with particular fondness when it's gone.

TV: Opportunity Knocks (ABC, Tuesday 8)

Heartwarming family game show that will surely please fans of such things.

For each episode, the Opportunity Knocks crew rolls into a new town and builds its portable set outside the home of that week's contestant family; the audience for each show is made up of the family's friends and neighbors.

Four family members compete, each being asked a series of four questions about their family members. Which of Sister's friends does Brother have a secret crush on? Which of Dad's 300+ toy cars is his favorite? Which cookie recipe won Mom the family bakeoff championship? There's $25,000 to be won over each series of four questions, and each family member can win a bonus prize customized to his interests -- backstage Jonas Brothers passes for Sis, a '69 Camaro for Dad -- if he gets all four questions right. At the end of the show, the family is given the opportunity to double the money they've won, or to go for broke for a possible grand prize of $250,000.

The show is very good natured, with none of the potentially embarrassing questions that I remember from NBC's similarly-themed Identity, which had a brief run in late 2006; the only potentially embarrassing moment in the first episode was the secret crush question, and even that was handled with surprising grace and delicacy. (Kudos to Ashton Kutcher, who is one of the show's producers; between this show and Beauty and the Geek, he's demonstrated a real knack for presenting potentially awkward premises in charming fashion.)

I don't have a particularly large appetite for heartwarming family entertainment, so I won't be watching Opportunity Knocks on a regular basis. People who enjoy such things, though, should enjoy this very much; I'd imagine, for instance, that fans of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will feel right at home here.

TV: Worst Week (CBS, Monday 9:30)

Oh, what a mess this is -- an entire sitcom built around the embarrassment and humiliation of one man. It is marginally less depressing than, say, The Office, because at least here the embarrassment comes at the hand of chance and bad luck, rather than being doled out to all of the show's characters, by all of the show's characters.

Our victim is Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), who is engaged to Melanie (Erinn Hayes). Sam and Mel are planning to tell her parents (Nancy Lenehan and Kurtwood Smith) about their engagement (and about Mel's pregnancy) at dinner, but everything that can possibly go wrong for Sam does. Sam's list of embarrassments includes -- and this is all in just the first episode -- being vomited on in a cab by a drunken co-worker, being accused by that co-worker of sexual assault, showing up at the in-laws' wearing nothing but an impromptu garbage bag diaper, urinating on the long-brining goose that's sitting in the kitchen, watching Dad slip on said urine and get a concussion from the fall, incorrectly telling Mel and Mom that Dad is dead, crashing his car into Dad's and knocking him unconscious yet again, and destroying the painting of Dad that Mom had commissioned as his birthday gift.

The casting isn't bad; Bornheimer and Hayes are likable enough, and Bornheimer has to be likable, if we're to have any sympathy at all for a guy who screws up this frequently. Lenehan and Smith, masters of frustration and the slow burn, are perfectly cast in their roles; watching these two veterans flounder about trying desperately to get laughs where none are to be found is the saddest aspect of the show.

But despite the strength of the actors, the show's a disaster. Let's hope it dies quickly, and that CBS moves The New Adventures of Old Christine back to Monday night, giving it a full 2-hour block of decent comedy.

September 23, 2008

BOOKS: Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt (2008)

Fascinating look at the how and why of traffic and driving.

Vanderbilt studies such questions as why traffic jams form (and why they seem to suddenly disappear for no reason), how people behave in parking lots, and the usefulness of traffic signs.

Many of his conclusions are counterintuitive. Many of the things that we think contribute to safety on the road, for instance -- increased signage, wider lanes -- may actually make things more dangerous, because the safer drivers feel on the road, the more complacent they become, leading them to pay less attention and get involved in more accidents. By contrast, when one village tried the radical experiment of eliminating traffic signs entirely, accidents and death rates dropped dramatically; with no formal guidance, drivers were forced to pay attention and to cooperate with one another.

I was also surprised to learn that the most dangerous roads in the US aren't the freeways, but two-lane rural roads. They tend to be driven by the same people every day, and familiarity breeds complacency; they are generally more poorly lighted; and when accidents do occur, medical help is likely to be farther away.

There's a terrific chapter on the little-known group of city employees who are responsible for regulating traffic flow in Los Angeles; they make on-the-spot decisions about the timing of traffic lights in an attempt to keep traffic moving smoothly.

This is a marvelously entertaining book, and it's bound to change the way you think about your daily commute. (Oh, and don't be too intimidated by the size of the book; yes, it's just over 400 pages, but more than 100 of that is endnotes and index.)

September 21, 2008

TV: Knight Rider (NBC, Wednesday 8 pm)

The first episode will air on Wednesday night, but NBC has made it available for advance viewing at and at

Our hero is Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening), the long-estranged son of the original version's Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff, who makes a cameo here). There's another talking car -- this time, KITT stands for Knight Industries Three Thousand -- in which Mike will gallivant around the world on various assignments that the FBI can't be too closely associated with themselves.

I wasn't a huge fan of the original Knight Rider, but the one thing it did have going for it was a complete understanding of just how cornball it was. Hasselhoff camped it up in a spectacular self-parody of machismo, and William Daniels was exquisitely bitchy and self-centered as the voice of KITT. By comparison, Bruening is a callow little boy -- it's impossible to believe that he was ever an Army Ranger -- and KITT's voice, provided this time by Val Kilmer, is insufferably ponderous and somber.

The supporting cast is also taking things far too seriously. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, as FBI agent Carrie Ruvai, lives in mortal terror that a smile might cross her face; Deanna Russo, as love interest Sarah Graiman, delivers all of her lines in a drab monotone. Only Bruce Davison, who plays Sarah's father, Charles, seems to be having any fun at all. (It is a bit stunning, I must say, how quickly Davison has aged over the years. It doesn't seem that long ago that he was playing romantic sidekicks, and now here he is as the crackpot old mad scientist.)

The concept of Knight Rider could still hold up and provide a pleasant enough hour of cheesy fun, but with all of the humor sucked out of it, this version is too dull to be worth watching.

NOTE: After making this post, I realized that what I'd watched was actually the 90-minute movie/pilot that aired last spring; the first episode that will air on Wednesday is also available for viewing at and I suppose it's possible that over the intervening months, the show's producers have fixed the lack of humor problem, but I don't care enough to watch and find out.

September 14, 2008

TV: Fringe (Fox, Tuesday 9 pm)

J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, brings us one of the fall's most eagerly awaited shows, a sort of updated version of The X-Files.

When a plane lands at Boston's Logan Airport with everyone on board dead (and their bodies altered in inexplicable, disturbing ways), a multi-agency task force is quickly assembled to investigate. Representing the FBI is Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who instantly butts heads with task force head Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), of Homeland Security. When Dunham's partner John Scott (Mark Valley) is nearly killed during the investigation, and affected by whatever killed the passengers, Dunham is even more desperate to find a solution, because Scott is also her lover.

Her best hope may be the eccentric Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), who was studying this sort of thing before being institutionalized in the 90s; the only way to get Walter out, or even to see him, is to involve his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), who is reluctant to get involved and wants nothing to do with his father.

Bishop's old lab partner is now the head of Massive Dynamic, the world's largest and most powerful scientific research firm; that piece of the investigation leads to MD exec Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), an ice-cold control freak who seems to know more about what's happening than anyone.

The first episode is a mixed bag. Noble is a delight as the mad scientist, and though Brown doesn't have much screen time, she makes a strong impact. But Jackson doesn't bring much subtlety to his brooding and pouting, and Reddick overplays the whispery menace.

(Yes, I know, with his quiet, breathy voice and Nosferatu features, Reddick is condemned to a career of playing shadowy figures whose allegiances and morals are always under question. God love him for carving out a steady career as a working actor despite those handicaps, but even by his standards, he's overdoing things here.)

Perhaps because the first episode is padded to 1:45, it moves awfully slowly; I hope that regular 60-minute episodes will be paced a bit more briskly. I'm not entirely convinced yet, but there's enough potential here to keep me watching for another week or two.

TV: Privileged (CW, Tuesday 9 pm)

At last, a happy surprise from the new TV season.

Megan (JoAnna Garcia) isn't having a good day; her apartment's been burned out and she's been fired from her magazine job. Her editor, though, has given her a promising job lead that could give Megan the entree she's always wanted into the world of the filthy rich. Off to Palm Beach she goes to meet Laurel Limoges (Anne Archer), a business tycoon ("My husband left me a small cosmetics company; I turned it into a large cosmetics company.") who needs a tutor for her twin granddaughters, Sage and Rose Baker (Ashley Newbrough and Lucy Kate Hale). If Megan can get the girls' grades up enough that they are admitted to Duke University, Laurel promises to pay off her remaining college loans.

Megan is not entirely unfamiliar with this part of Florida; her father and sister, from whom she has been estranged for several years, live nearby, as does an old boyfriend, Charlie (Michael Cassidy). Charlie immediately sets his sights on winning Megan back, but he's going to have competition from Will (Brian Hallisay), who lives next door to the Limoges estate.

As for the tutoring job, it's going to be a challenge. Sage and Rose are used to goofing off as they choose -- Laurel's fired three tutors already -- and don't have much enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby.

The cast is uniformly attractive and charming; Garcia in particular has an offbeat way with a line, and Archer delivers all of her diva-bitch lines with great panache. The first episode is remarkably efficient in introducing its many characters (by the end, it's even managed to give the twins into distinguishable personalities) and plotlines. It's a bit overstuffed, perhaps, but I hope that without so much exposition to take care of, future episodes will be able to breathe a bit more.

If you want comparisons to other shows, think of this as Gilmore Girls meets Gossip Girls. It should be a very good fit with 90210, and it gives the CW the strongest one-night lineup it's yet had.

TV: Do Not Disturb, Fox Wednesday 9:30

There have been some awful sitcoms in the last few years -- The War at Home, Twins, Help Me Help You, Cavemen -- but in Do Not Disturb, I believe we have a contender for the worst sitcom of the decade.

I'm not going to name any of the actors, because they aren't to blame; the show is so poorly written, sloppily directed, and badly conceived that the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn't make it work.

We have here a workplace comedy set at The Inn, a trendy boutique hotel in Manhattan. The principal antagonists are the (male) general manager and the (female) head of personnel, who shriek at one another in the desperate hope that volume will somehow make the dialogue funnier. The show is smutty, even by Fox standards, and the characters made of cardboard.

To be avoided at all costs.

TV: True Blood (HBO, Sunday 9 pm)

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) works as a waitress in a cheap bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana. It's a crappy job to begin with, and it's not made any easier by the fact that Sookie can hear what all the drunks and other customers are thinking, which gets to be a pain after a while. And then in walks Bill (Stephen Moyer), whose thoughts Sookie can not hear, which is part of how she figures out that he's a vampire.

Vampires live openly in the world of True Blood; ever since a Japanese company developed a synthetic blood (called True Blood) that provides them with all the nutrition they need, they don't need to prey on humans, and now want to be accepted as full, equal members of society. Alan Ball's series (based on novels by Charlaine Harris) doesn't bother with subtlety in comparing the vampire rights movement to the gay rights movement; vamps are described as "coming out of the coffin," and a churchyard sign announces that "God hates fangs."

Based on the first episode, the show is something of a mess. The characters are cartoons, rarely rising to the level of two-dimensionality, much less three, and each can be reduced to an obvious cliche -- Sassy Black Diva, Lovestruck Boss, Irresponsible Horndog, Wise Old Granny, and so on. The vampire/gay equivalency is poorly handled and borders on the offensive, surprising from Ball, who has proven himself capable of telling gay stories with great sensitivity on Six Feet Under; it's sad to see him retreating to this sort of cowardly "don't scare the straight folks" allegory.

And the show can't even make up its mind about its own internal logic. For the first several minutes, it seems that Sookie's overhearing of thoughts is completely involuntary, but there are people whose thoughts aren't heard (or at least, we don't hear them when they're near enough to Sookie that we should), such as her brother and grandmother. And by the end of the show, the dialogue has strongly suggested that Sookie can, in fact, control her ability; her best friend screams at her, "You promised to stay out of my head!"

This is a major disappointment.

September 10, 2008

TV: Hole in the Wall (Fox, Thursday 8 pm)

If you enjoyed Wipeout this summer, then Hole in the Wall is made for you.

It's another adaptation of a Japanese game show built around watching people fail at elaborate physical stunts and fall into pools of water. Two teams of three compete in each match (an hour long episode features two matches). They stand in front of a pool and a styrofoam wall approaches. There's a hole cut into the wall through which it is (at least theoretically) possible for the contestants to pass their body; twisting oneself into pretzel shapes is required, as is the occasional bit of leaping. If a contestant successfully passes through the hole, his team scores points; if the non-hole part of the wall knocks him into the pool, no points. Couldn't be much simpler, and you needn't fear being even remotely challenged on an intellectual level.

Host Mark Thompson oversees the events from a balcony, bellowing instructions like a bad wrestling announcer; his unfortunate catch phrase, as each round begins, is "It's time to face the hole!," which sounds vaguely pornographic (an aura that's only furthered by the skin-tight silver bodysuits the contestants wear). Chatting with the contestants on the sidelines is Brooke Burns, who has experience with this sort of thing from her years as host of Dog Eat Dog. The crowd noise is so loud that she's forced to scream in order to be heard, and it makes her voice sound very harsh and painful to listen to.

It's hard to imagine that this is going to do particularly well against Ugly Betty and Survivor; neither of those shows is as strong as it once was, but they still have sizable loyal audiences. Then again, it's probably dirt-cheap to produce, so Fox doesn't need it to draw an enormous audience. It's harmless stupid entertainment, and if I was bored some night with nothing to do, it would be a tolerable way to pass the time, but it's not much more than that.

September 08, 2008

BOOKS: Rapture Ready, Daniel Radosh (2008)

An outsider's look at the world of Christian pop culture.

The title is perhaps a bit misleading; the Rapture only pops up briefly, during Radosh's chapter on apocalyptic Christian fiction. For the most part, the culture Radosh explores falls closer to mainstream Christianity.

There's a Christian equivalent to almost every aspect of mainstream pop culture -- rock music, stand up comedy, music festivals, theme parks, even pro wrestling. There are exceptions, of course. Mainstream country music, for instance, has enough religious content that a specificially Christian version is unnecessary.

And there's very little Christian hip-hop or rap. Most pop musicians can write what Radosh calls "Jesus is my girlfriend" songs, in which the object of one's devotion is ambiguous -- might be Jesus, might be a girl. But hip-hop generally treats women with less respect, and "Jesus is my ho" songs aren't going to be quite as effective.

Radosh is respectful to his subjects, for the most part, though there are a few whose views are just so extreme that it's nearly impossible not to ridicule them -- the staff of a Creation Museum where kids can ride on a dinosaur, for instance -- or so potentially dangerous that they must be precisely and carefully ripped to shreds, such as the movement to install abstinence-only sex education in schools.

The writing is breezy and accessible; this is not a heavy, scholarly study of the topic. Radosh concludes that those of us on the outside of this world need to embrace, or at least be more welcoming to, those forms of Christian pop culture that aren't completely loony. By condemning them, he argues, we set ourselves in opposition to moderate Christians, who if forced to choose between the secular world and the more unpleasant extremes of Christianity will choose the latter.

A worthwhile and very readable overview of a world most of us don't see very much of.

September 07, 2008

BOOKS: Eight of Swords, David Skibbins (2005)

First volume (of four, so far) in Skibbins' series about Berkeley Tarot reader Warren Ritter.

Warren reads the Tarot mostly for the money, and is something of an agnostic as to whether there's any validity to his readings. But when teenaged Heather Wellington asks for a reading, the cards are so unsettling, both singly and in combination, that even Warren is disturbed. He breaks off the reading and fibs his way to a somewhat less ominous reading.

Much to his horror, Heather is kidnapped later that day, and Warren finds himself one of the chief suspects. Warren can't afford to have the law snooping around, so he starts investigating the crime himself, hoping to solve it before the cops figure out who he really is.

Because Warren Ritter isn't his real name; he is, in fact, a fugitive from justice. In the 60s, he was a member of the Weather Underground, and "Warren Ritter" is only one of a handful of fake identities that he has developed in various cities. Skibbins never spells out precisely what crimes Warren is wanted for (or whether he's actually guilty), but we do get the sense that he was a relatively minor player. It's even possible that he was so minor a figure that no one is actually looking for him, especially since he faked his own death 30 years ago, but Warren's paranoia won't allow him to take that chance.

The mystery is a good one, with an entertaining assortment of suspects and sidekick characters; the standout of the latter is Sally, a disabled computer expert who is the closest thing Warren has to a girlfriend. The storytelling moves along rapidly, and the suspenseful moments work well. Warren himself is a terrific character, and his combination of paranoia and bipolar disorder makes him even more unreliable than most first-person narrators.

I'm sure that some will be completely appalled at the thought of a series hero who's been living underground as a fugitive for 30 years; they should probably avoid this series. As for me, I'm planning to move on to the second volume.

September 03, 2008

TV: 90210 (CW, Tuesday 8 pm)

I never watched the original version of Beverly Hills 90210, and I am some 20 years north of the show's target demographic. So my reaction may not mean much, but y'know, as dumb teen soap operas go, this two-hour premiere wasn't half bad.

Our heroes this time around are Annie and Dixon Wilson (Shenae Grimes and Tristan Wilds), teens who are unhappy about being hauled from their home in Kansas to Beverly Hills, where dad Harry (Rob Estes) has accepted a job as principal at West Beverly Hills High (his own alma mater). Harry's brought the family to California to be with his mother, Tabitha, who apparently can no longer live on her own, though it's never quite spelled out why (Jessica Walter plays Grandma, doing yet another variation on her bitchy lush persona).

There are brief hints of a complicated backstory involving Dixon's adoption into the Wilson family (he is African-American). The Wilson family is rounded out by mom (Lori Laughlin), who makes so little impression in the first two hours that I don't remember if we even heard her name.

The show wastes no time throwing the Wilson kids, especially Annie, into the drama of WBH High social life. By the end of the premiere, Annie has managed to befriend both queen bee Naomi (AnnaLynne McCord) and moody geek girl Silver (Jessica Stroup), and to become the center of a love triangle involving Ty (Adam Gregory), who is filthy rich even by Beverly Hills standards, and the school's king jock Ethan (Dustin Milligan). How she's going to juggle these conflicting social circles is beyond me -- Naomi and Silver hate one another, and Ethan began the episode as Naomi's boyfriend -- but if anyone can do it, it's Annie, who is so sweet and wholesome it could make your teeth hurt.

Meanwhile, Dixon takes his place among the jockocracy by joining Ethan on the lacrosse team, lacrosse having inexplicably taken over from basketball and football at WBH High as the sport of choice, and becoming friends with Navid (Michael Steger), the school's star journalist. (Right, because the jock and the school news geek are always best buds. Were one in a cynical mood, one might suspect that the two ethnic minorities were being given the best-pals-goofing-around storylines in order to avoid having to pair either of them with one of the show's white female leads.)

And even poor Harry gets his own romantic fallout storyline to deal with, learning that his one-time high school sweetheart, who happens to be Naomi's mother, gave up their son for adoption without ever telling him she was pregnant.

Clearly, one theme of the show will be the struggle of the Wilson kids to maintain their wholesome Midwestern decency, innocence, and goodness in the face of the evil, corrupt, decadent California values, which this version of the show can present more explicitly than the original ever could. There is, for instance, implied oral sex almost as soon as we get to school, roughly five minutes into the hour. (So much for the "family hour.") And I haven't even mentioned the drug addict who steals other girls' purses to finance her habit, the English teacher who's hitting on the guidance counselor (Jennie Garth, reprising her character from the original BH90210), or the "borrowing" of three pigs from Navid's porn-producer dad.

Yes, all of the expected flaws of the high-school soap are present. The acting's a bit on the hammy side; the storylines are flamboyantly melodramatic; and none of the West Beverly students looks any younger than 23. But for fans of the genre, those are also its charms. The kids are pretty (Steger and Gregory are particularly handsome young men); the adults have the sense to stay in the background; and the soap is as sudsy as you could want.

BOOKS: Beginner's Greek, James Collins (2008)

Peter is the sort of hopeless romantic who has always believed that he will meet his true love in some unlikely way, and fall for her in an instant. Every time he gets onto an airplane, some small part of thinks that this is where he'll meet her; she'll sit next to him, they'll strike up a conversation, and by the end of the flight, they'll know it's meant to be.

So when Holly takes the seat next to Peter and they find themselves deep in conversation about their careers, their lives, the book she's reading (The Magic Mountain), he knows that fate has struck. He leaves the plane with her phone number and promises to call her for dinner before he goes back to New York. Alas, when he gets to his hotel, he has lost the paper with her number on it. Fate has been unkind, and it seems unlikely that Peter will ever be reunited with Holly, the perfect woman of his most romantic dreams.

That is the set up for Collins' delightful romantic comedy of second chances and magnificent coincidence, in which we follow Peter and Holly (who do, of course, eventually meet again) as they struggle to overcome the assorted obstacles that life throws in their way -- her husband and his wife chief among them.

I don't read a lot of romantic comedy, but in my limited experience, it's unusual to have this sort of story told from the male point of view (or by a male author, for that matter). That's not to suggest that Peter's is the only point of view -- all of the major characters, and several of the minor ones, get their turn at center stage -- but he is, I think, the principal player here.

Collins' writing is a joy to read, filled with long, flowing paragraphs of dry wit and sparkling insight into the way people think and behave when they're in love. His characters are distinctive and memorable, and they are, on the whole, splendidly decent people; each one seeks his or her own happiness, but none of them wish to find it at the expense of their friends or colleagues. It's a novel in which everyone is trying desperately to do the right thing.

I was reminded at times of Elinor Lipman, another intensely humane author with great insight into the way we behave, and while I am not a fan of Jane Austen, I suspect that her devotees might also enjoy this novel immensely.

I have minor quibbles, to be sure. There are a few too many spectacular coincidences and events that happen at precisely the necessary moment to drive the plot. And it seems unlikely that these 21st-century New Yorkers would have not one gay friend or relationship among them; the novel's sole mention of homosexuality is as the punchline to a bad mistaken identity joke.

But they are minor quibbles, indeed. Beginner's Greek is a delightful novel, and even if you can see the happy ending coming a mile away, it's great fun watching as Collins devises more and cleverer ways to put it off just a little longer.

August 31, 2008

Smackdown 1966: and the winner is...

Another Supporting Actress Smackdown comes to a close at StinkyLulu's this morning, as the full panel of Smackdowners reports in with their thoughts on the 1966 field.

August 27, 2008

BOOKS: Frames, Loren D. Estleman (2008)

Valentino works in the film preservation department at UCLA as a historian and researcher. He's a detective, of sorts, trying to track down rare and lost films in hopes of saving them before their old silver nitrate film stock decays.

He's just purchased -- rather impulsively -- a run-down Hollywood movie palace, where he makes what may be the find of his career: Erich von Stroheim's Greed, the legendary lost silent film. Only two hours of what was reportedly a ten-hour epic have survived, and Val has found enough reels of film to make up the full ten hours.

Unfortunately, half of those reels are stored in a secret basement compartment, where Val has also found a human skeleton. That makes the place a crime scene, and it makes those film canisters evidence, which the LAPD wants to confiscate. Val knows that they won't have a clue how to properly store it to avoid destroying it (if, in fact, it's actually still intact to begin with); his only hope is to solve this 50-year-old murder himself, and fast.

Valentino -- just the one name; friends call him Val -- is a marvelously appealing character, witty and self-deprecating, and his sidekicks are just as likable. Professional mentor Dr. Broadhead is a cranky old film historian who prides himself on having been around campus long enough that he barely has to teach classes anymore; Fanta is a perky pre-law student, something of a flake, but capable of an occasional brilliant insight. Val's long-time secretary, Ruth, is a Thelma Ritter type who serves as comic relief. The police are represented by Harriet, a pretty forensic investigator who becomes a possible romantic interest for Val, and Sgt. Clifford, the detective in charge of the case (who is a tall redhead, so of course, Val and friends immediately nickname her "The Big Red Dog").

The mystery itself isn't all that compelling, and Estleman doesn't devote too much energy to it. What sells Frames are the charming characters and the snappy dialogue, which often has a hint of screwball comedy to it. For me, those elements were more than strong enough to make up for the book's weak plot. The title page carries the subtitle "A Valentino Mystery," suggesting that this is the first of a series; I hope so, because I enjoyed spending time with Val and his friends.