September 28, 2011

TV: Hart of Dixie (CW, Mon 9)

Hart of Dixie returns to one of TV's standard formulas -- the big-city person forced to live in a small town -- and executes it with a fair amount of charm. What we have here is a new version of Northern Exposure, with Rachel Bilson taking the Rob Morrow role, and Bluebell, Alabama filling in for Cicely, Alaska. The tone may also remind you a bit of Gilmore Girls, as will the set; after the pilot, the show will use the old Stars' Hollow backdrop.

Dr. Zoe Hart (Bilson) wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, but she has no people skills, and her supervisors insist that she can't tend to the hearts of others until she gets in touch with her own. (The actual dialogue is almost precisely that treacly.) So, it's off to Bluebell, where a kindly old doctor has been trying to get her to join his general practice ever since she graduated from medical school. Upon arrival, she finds that Dr. Kindly is recently dead, and that he's left half of his practice to her.

Bluebell is, of course, populated with a host of lovable small-town locals and eccentrics. There's Dr. Brick Breeland (Tim Matheson), the doctor who owns the other half of the practice, and who wants nothing to do with Zoe. Brick's daughter, Lemon (Jaime King), is the local Queen Belle, engaged to the town's golden boy, George (Scott Porter).

George is one potential romantic interest for Zoe, but there's also bad boy Wade (Wilson Bethel). And the town's mayor (Cress Williams) is a former NFL star (and so far, the only black guy in town) who owns a pet crocodile named Burt Reynolds.

The pilot of a show like that has obvious beats to hit, and you won't be surprised by a moment of it -- Zoe reluctantly goes to Alabama, hates the town and the people, alienates everyone, finally starts to win people over with her skill, and begins to understand the place enough to decide to stay. But the cast is very likable; Bilson has a knack for being just snarky enough to get laughs without making herself hatable, and she has particularly good chemistry with both Porter and Williams.

So, yeah, the pilot is absolutely predictable, but the execution and the casting are good enough that I'll give it a few more weeks to see what happens beyond the establishing of the premise.

September 27, 2011

TV: Terra Nova (Fox, Mon 8)

It's the early 22nd century, and the Earth is on the verge of total environmental collapse. You can't venture outside without wearing an oxygen mask, and an orange is a rare, exotic treat.

In that world live the Shannons, parents Jim and Elizabeth (Jason O'Mara and Shelley Conn), sullen teenage son Josh (Landon Liboiron), nerdy science whiz Maddy (Naomi Scott), and adorable moppet Zoe (Alana Mansour). Zoe is a problem for the Shannons, because she's an illegal third child, and when she's discovered, it's off to prison for Jim.

Two years later, Elizabeth has been recruited to join the Terra Nova project, an attempt to give humanity a fresh start by traveling back in time 85 million years; she's a doctor, so her skills will certainly be useful. She can't bear to leave Jim, though, so she helps him bust out of prison and crash through the time portal with the rest of the family.

(If the show's trying to create sympathetic protagonists, it's going about it very strangely at this point. Jim and Elizabeth's selfishness in having an illegal third child makes them a perfect symbol of the selfishness that has nearly destroyed their planet, and one has to wonder whether any struggling colony would really welcome a family willing to break that many rules, regulations, and laws to get there.)

The rest of the 2-hour pilot is spent getting to know the Terra Nova colony. It's run by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, reprising his Avatar shtick), who has to deal with a group of breakaway colonists called the Sixers; it's got lots of CW-reject teens for Josh and Maddy to crush on; and it's got dinosaurs. Lots and lots of dinosaurs.

The show has a huge special effects budget, and you can see every penny on the screen; Terra Nova looks spectacular. But once you get past the gorgeous landscapes and frightening dinos, there's not much drama to speak of. Jim, a cop in the 22nd century, winds up on Taylor's security team (again, I can't help but wonder if a convicted felon who busted out of jail to get here would land such a job) and stomps about as if he's on CSI: Cretaceous; Josh is a pouty little brat who deserves to be eaten by the slashers; and Zoe is so pwecious it'll make your teeth itch.

As hard as the show works to establish a variety of season-long mysteries -- Who sent the Sixers? Why is someone drawing weird hieroglyphics on the nearby rocks? What is the Terra Nova project really all about? -- it doesn't establish any reason for the audience to care about any of them. A verypretty, veryexpensive bore.

September 26, 2011

TV: Pan Am (ABC, Sun 10)

It's 1963, and the newest jet in the Pan Am fleet is making its maiden voyage from New York to London. Over the course of that flight, we meet the four stewardesses who are our main characters and peek into their backstories, as well as set up the mystery that seems likely to be the main season-long story arc.

Colette (Karine Vanasse) is the French stewardess, who is surprised to see on the flight a man she had a fling with in Rome a few months ago, and even more surprised to see him traveling with the wife and son she didn't know he had. Kate (Kelli Garner) is a veteran stewardess, recently recruited by US intelligence to do occasional bits of spying and courier work for them. Kate's younger sister, Laura (Margot Robbie), recently left her fiance at the altar before deciding to follow in Kate's stewardess shoes. And Maggie (Christina Ricci) is an intellectual, correcting her boyfriend on the distinction between Hegel and Marx, and a rebel, recently suspended from work for failing to wear her girdle.

We also meet pilots Dean and Ted (Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley), and get a quick look at Dean's romance with stewardess Bridget, who has abruptly quit her job and vanished.

This is the second of the year's Mad Men knockoffs, and it's vastly better than The Playboy Club. The show is a very different take on the 60s than that of Mad Men, less cynical and gray-tinted, more glamorous and colorful. The ensemble cast is uniformly fine, and they all do a solid job of quickly sketching out their characters in the relatively limited time each is given.

By far the best drama pilot of the year, and it should be great fun to see where it goes.

September 25, 2011

TV: The X Factor (Fox, Wed/Thu 8)

It's a little hard to judge a show like The X Factor on the basis of a first episode, since the competition will move through a variety of different phases, some of which will vary more than the audition phase does from American Idol. But at this point, it's hard to see the show as much more than Idol Redux.

In the role of Simon Cowell, we have Simon Cowell, who can be just as cutting as ever, but who's also playing up his softer, sentimental side with the better contestants. In the role of Randy Jackson, we have L.A. Reid, which is a significant step up; Reid actually offers comments with more insight than Jackson's typical "it didn't work for me, dawg". He's also capable of giving Simon a run for his money in the bluntness department, and the show is clearly interested in setting up a Simon/L.A. rivalry.

The role of Paula Abdul is now being shared, which seems appropriate, since during her Idol days, you never knew whether you were going to get the sweet, charming, relatively lucid Paula or the incoherent, babbling, "what the hell is she on" Paula. Lucid Paula is being played, somewhat surprisingly, by Paula herself, on her very best, at least in the first few days of auditions; Loopy Paula is being played by Nicole Scherzinger, who so far doesn't have much to offer.

(For the Los Angeles auditions only, the fourth judge was Cheryl Cole, who was abruptly fired and replaced by Scherzinger, to no appreciably significant difference.)

Like Idol, the audition shows give us a mix of really good singers and ghastly ones; what's new here is the age range -- lower limit of 12 and no upper limit -- and the fact that auditions are held in front of an audience of 3-4,000 people. That can make the really good auditions more exciting, but it makes the mean ones feel even more cruel.

Host Steve Jones is blandly efficient in the Ryan Seacrest mold (though he's much prettier), but we won't really know how good he is until later in the competition. And it's only in those later rounds that the show's more significant breaks from the Idol formula will become apparent. At this point, you will probably enjoy this show to just about the same degree that you enjoy Idol.

TV: Prime Suspect (NBC, Thu 10)

Very pleasant surprise here, a smart police procedural that does a good job of updating the original. Maria Bello is terrific as Detective Jane Timoney, the lone female homicide detective in her squad; most of her colleagues believe that she's only gotten there by sleeping her way up the ladder, and they're doing all the can to avoid giving her any real responsibility.

The sexism isn't quite as blatant as it was the original BBC version of the series 20 years ago (unless the men are drunk, in which case it's pretty damned explicit), but it's just as real. The boss keeps skipping over her name when it's time to assign a chief detective to a case; her theories are dismissed as foolish.

The cast is filled with fine character actors like Brian F. O'Byrne and Aidan Quinn, but it's Bello's show all the way, and she commands attention. Timoney takes no nonsense from anyone, and has no qualms about using unconventional tactics when questioning potential witnesses, or using her police connections to get what she wants in her private life.

I'm not a huge fan of police procedurals, but I like the fact that this one is less interested than most in showing us the brutal, gory details of the crime, and Bello's performance alone is enough to keep me watching for at least another week or two.

September 24, 2011

TV: A Gifted Man (CBS, Fri 8)

CBS has had very good luck with lightly supernatural dramas on Friday nights -- Joan of Arcadia, Ghost Whisperer, the last two years of Medium -- and A Gifted Man should continue the tradition very nicely.

Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is a talented neurosurgeon with no time in his life for anything but work. He unexpectedly runs into his ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle), whom he hasn't seen in ten years; she's now running a free clinic, and says she hadn't called because she didn't think he'd want to hear from her. Michael is delighted to have run into her again, and thrown for a loop the next morning when he learns that she died two weeks earlier.

Yup, it's Anna's ghost visiting Michael, determined to make Dr. Ghost Whisperer a better man. By the end of the episode, he's doing free surgery for poor Latino kids, and reluctantly accepting Anna's presence in his life.

The cast here is terrific. I've never quite understood the "Patrick Wilson is so sexy" bandwagon, but he's a fine actor, and very good at arrogant and contemptuous. Jennifer Ehle comes across as a bit too perfect for words, but that's not entirely inappropriate, since she is a spirit, and to a large extent, we're seeing her as Michael's idealized memory.

Also on hand is Margo Martindale as Michael's hyper-efficient assistant, Rita; Julie Benz as his sister, Christina, who sees Anna's visits as a "cosmic gift;" and Pablo Schreiber as Anton, a shaman whose role will be to help Michael understand and cope with Anna's presence. All are well suited to their roles; Benz provides the show with just the right touch of comic relief without letting the character's New Age-iness become just a cheap joke.

So, it's part emotional/supernatural journey of growth, part medical procedural (with both Michael's upper-crust clientele and the free clinic patients), and all of it done with great style and skill. It's a little too earnest and sincere for my taste, and I probably won't be watching regularly, but the target audience for the show should be very happy with it.

TV: Person of Interest (CBS, Thu 9)

Michael Emerson is the mysterious Mr. Finch, who recruits the equally mysterious Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel) to be his partner in crime fighting. It seems that Finch was the developer of the computer system the government uses to keep an eye on all of us in this post-9/11 world, and he left himself a small backdoor into the system, through which it spits out to him the Social Security numbers of people who are soon to be involved in various crimes. Nothing that the feds would be interested in, like terrorist attacks -- more relatively small stuff like kidnapping and murders.

But Finch doesn't know whether the people he's given are going to be victims or perpetrators, and he needs someone to do the investigate legwork for him if these crimes are going to be stopped. That's where Reese comes in; he's a Special Forces vet with dark secrets in his past that have left him extremely reluctant to kill (a lot of people get shot in the leg in this show).

The show suffers from one fairly obvious problem -- if we aren't allowed to know, for dramatic purposes, whether our persons of interest are victims or criminals, then we spend most of the show trying to care about people we aren't being told enough about to make us care.

But even worse, it suffers from a serious talent imbalance in its leading men. Michael Emerson is a fine actor, and well cast in the role of the secretive recluse. But he's at his best when he has an equally strong co-star to play off -- think of Camryn Manheim in The Practice or Terry O'Quinn in Lost -- and Jim Caviezel simply isn't up to the task. Caviezel has chosen to play the entire role in a hushed whisper that sounds like an audition to be Christian Bale's Batman understudy, and he projects very little personality. You can sort of see what he's trying to do, going for the whole "I'm so wounded that I don't let anyone in" thing, but all he's accomplishing is "I'm a sullen little prick."

Love Emerson, hate Caviezel, and the story itself isn't interesting enough to sway the difference in the show's favor.

TV: Whitney (NBC, Thu 9:30)

Standup comic Whitney Cummings stars as Whitney in yet another comedy about the friendships and romances of six friends. Whitney lives with her boyfriend Alex (Chris D'Elia), and they're about to celebrate their three-year anniversary as a couple. Lily and Neal (Zoe Lister-Jones and Maulik Pancholy) are dating; she's a pushy shrew and he's a doormat. The singles are Roxanne (Rhea Seehorn), a bitter cynic who's also a borderline alcoholic, and Mark (Dan O'Brien), who tosses off sexist one-liners as though it were 1973.

Cummings and D'Elia have some interesting chemistry, and they share the one scene in the pilot that really works -- Whitney puts on the "naughty nurse" costume to seduce Alex on their anniversary -- but the supporting characters are even more cardboard than usual. The show's filmed before a live audience, and the laughter is somehow even more obnoxious and obtrusive than a mechanical laugh track would be.

Cummings is funny enough that it might be worth looking at this one again in a month or two to see if the writers have figured out what to do with their other characters, but as it stands now, the show's unwatchable despite her.

TV: Charlie's Angels (ABC, Thu 8)

The 70s version of Charlie's Angels was trash, but it knew that it was trash, and had no loftier ambition than to provide cheap, frothy entertainment. The new Charlie's Angels, lord help us, wants to be taken seriously.

To be sure, you couldn't simply remake the original; its jiggliciousness was already right on the edge of being too sexist to be tolerated 35 years ago, and would be scolded off the air in minutes today. But you can still do light entertainment, even without the bouncing bosoms and tight bikinis. Alas, the new Angels is a show of dark, shadowy alleyways; gloomy abandoned warehouses; and pretty girls being tortured by sex traffickers.

The cast? Oh, does it really matter? None of them are being asked to do any real acting; they're just there to look pretty and recite the clunky dialogue. It is an interesting change, I suppose, that Bosley is no longer a middle-aged schlump who spends all his time in the office, but an attractive man of roughly the same age as the Angels who gets involved in the action scenes himself. And Victor Garber is a nice last-minute choice to provide the voice of Charlie.

But the whole thing is so stiff and wooden, and above all joyless. As trashy as the original was, you at least felt that everyone involved was enjoying themselves and having a good time. No one here is doing anything more than collecting a paycheck.

September 22, 2011

TV: Revenge (ABC, Wed 10)

Coming on the heels of Ringer, Revenge raises one question: Does nobody remember how to do camp anymore?

Our heroine is Emily (Emily VanCamp), whose father was a hedge fund manager falsely convicted ten years ago of funnelling money to terrorists; his friends and co-workers conspired to destroy him for some (as yet unknown) reason, and Emily has returned to the Hamptons, where she lived as a child, to bring down the people who ruined her father.

This ought to be a frothy, silly, lighter-than-air confection; instead, it's a plodding, overly serious, brick of dullness. Only Madeleine Stowe gets the right tone; she's a magnificently bitchy diva as "Queen" Victoria Grayson, the reigning socialite in town, and Emily's biggest target. In the lead role, VanCamp isn't a bad actress, but she's a bit too sweet and lightweight to be convincing as an obsessed seeker of vengeance.

The action of this one takes place between Memorial Day and Labor Day; I suspect it'll be off the air before they reach the 4th of July.

September 21, 2011

TV: Unforgettable (CBS, Tue 10)

It would be an easy cheap shot to simply say that Unforgettable isn't, but that would be a bit too harsh. It's not a particularly memorable show, but it's a perfectly adequate entry in the ever-growing series of CBS crime procedurals, and the audience who enjoys those shows will find this one just as innocuously entertaining as the rest.

Poppy Montgomery stars as Carrie Wells, who has a rare medical condition giving her perfect recall of everything she's ever experienced. (This is a real condition, which fewer than ten people in the world have; one of them is Marilu Henner, who is a consultant on this show.) She's an ex-cop who is the closest thing to an eyewitness in a murder case, and winds up working as a consultant with the Queens Police on the case. (Does Queens actually have its own police department?)

As is obligatory in these shows nowadays, Carrie has her own traumatic backstory to overcome: The one day she can't remember is the day her sister was murdered. The cop with whom she's working on the case in Queens (Dylan Walsh) just happened to be her partner when she was a cop in Syracuse, and he was the lead investigator on her sister's murder; Carrie has never forgiven him for closing the case before it was solved.

Aside from the memory gimmick (and it's hard to imagine how that can be sustained, unless Carrie's going to be an eyewitness to a major crime in every episode), this is fairly standard procedural. It's blandly professional; Montgomery is competent, but rarely more than that; the writing suffices to get the necessary exposition across. But it's a CBS crime drama, so it's not as if the bar is set all that high, and they can probably scrape three or four seasons out of it.

September 20, 2011

TV: The Playboy Club (NBC, Mon 10)

Meet the girls of The Playboy Club.

There's New Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard, not selling the innocent girl from Ft. Wayne shtick very well); "Chocolate Bunny" Brenda (Naturi Naughton, playing exactly the same role she played as Lane's Bunny girlfriend on Mad Men); Lesbibunny Alice (Leah Renee), who's secretly married to the gay bartender and trying to raise enough money to start a Chicago chapter of the Mattachine Society; and Very First Bunny Ever Caroline (Laura Benanti, who is delightfully bitchy and evil, and the only actor on the show giving an actual performance).

The principal male character is Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian). Nick Dalton is a lawyer. Nick Dalton wants to be State's Attorney. But Nick Dalton used to work for the Chicago mob. Nick Dalton is a very important man, which you can tell because everyone keeps referring to Nick Dalton by his full name. Nick Dalton Nick Dalton Nick Dalton.

The Naturi Naughton connection is not the only connection The Playboy Club is making to Mad Men. Cibrian wants so badly to be Jon Hamm that you can taste the desperation; he's even dropped his voice into Hamm's register and cadence.

The story, such as it is, is a tiresome murder mystery involving the very mobsters for whom Nick Dalton used to work, and the show even gives us the rasping, quavering voice of the ancient Hugh Hefner himself to provide the voice-over narration. This is a god-awful mess, and it'll be off the air by the end of October.

TV: 2 Broke Girls (CBS, Mon 8:30)

CBS has been crowing all summer that 2 Broke Girls was their highest-testing pilot in years. Either they're lying or their test audiences were smokin' the crack, because for most of the way, this show isn't very good. But there is a sudden uptick at the very end that just might be cause for hope.

Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are Kat and Caroline, two waitresses at a run-down diner in Brooklyn. Kat's been there for years; Caroline is the new girl, a trust-fund baby forced into honest work because her family's assets have been seized (Daddy's a Bernie Madoff-type swindler).

The supporting characters are a rainbow of ethnic cliches -- Matthew Moy as the heavily-accented Asian owner of the diner; Jonathan Kite as the cook, a crude, vulgar, vaguely Slavic type; and Garrett Morris, who sits near the door doing god knows what. Selling chewing gum, maybe?

When Kat and Caroline are in scenes on their own, the show's at its best; Dennings and Behrs are likable, and have interesting chemistry. The last five minutes of the pilot are the strongest; the women move in together, and Caroline starts planning to use her business-school background to help Kat open a cupcake shop. Those five minutes are good enough that I'll watch next week, hoping that those first twenty minutes of mediocrity are just pilot jitters.

TV: Two and a Half Men (CBS, Mon 9)

Not a new show, of course,  but the first post-Charlie Sheen episode of Two and a Half Men seemed to be worth a quick comment. Producer Chuck Lorre wastes no time getting rid of Sheen; the first shot is of Charlie's coffin, and we're told that he's been killed in violent, messy fashion that doesn't leave much room for any "he's not really dead!" visits down the road. (Though since the only person present at his death was Rose, his crazy stalker, I suppose we have to leave open the possibility that she's lying about the whole thing and has Charlie tied up in a closet somewhere.)

The show's style and tone haven't changed much -- broad, vulgar jokes that are (for what they are) reasonably well written and delivered by a top-notch cast. Ashton Kutcher fits in reasonably well, and his Walden Schmidt is a different enough character from Charlie Harper that the rest of the cast will get to play different relationships than they have in the past. It appear that Jon Cryer, in particular, can be grateful that he won't always have to be the pathetic guy, and may even get to occasionally provide the voice of wisdom and experience.

Unless you were only watching the show for Sheen, your reaction to THM2.0 should be about the same as your reaction to the original version.

BOOKS: The Supergirls, Mike Madrid (2009)

The Supergirls is a breezy history of comic book heroines and the challenges they've faced in being accepted by the reader, not to mention by the male characters who dominate the superhero world. Chapters on each decade alternate with chapters on more specific overall issues -- sex and the superheroine, for instance, or what happens when groups of female heroes bond. 

The history of superheroines over the last 70 years is in many ways a re-telling of the history of women; as roles for women have changed, characters who were too deeply rooted in their historical era have faded away. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, for instance, was a spectacularly sexy character who couldn't be tamed down enough to survive the creation of the Comics Code in the mid-1950s. The fondness of comic book writers for frequent updates of their fictional universes has allowed some characters to stick around for decades, though, with each new revision bringing their history in line with current views of what women "should" be; Madrid's chapter on the many image overhauls, reboots, and rewritten origin stories of Wonder Woman is particularly entertaining.

Madrid shows a sharp awareness of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which comics have failed to allow their female characters the same level of power as their male characters. As an example, he notes that a disproportionate number of superheroines have "pose and point" powers -- controlling the weather, telepathy or other psychic powers -- that don't require them to run, lift heavy objects, or do anything that might muss their hair; they just have to stand still and gesture dramatically, looking fabulous in the process.

This is a smart and affectionate piece of pop culture history, well worth the time if you have any interest in the subject matter.

September 18, 2011

our links are here to stay

At The Rumpus, Steve Almond on the "decade of magical thinking" since 9/11.

At Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, Anne Helen Petersen examines visual indicators of class.

At The House Next Door, Philip Maciak discusses the changing role of Nina Garcia as a character on Project Runway.

And finally, physics can be pretty:

September 17, 2011

BOOKS: The Twelfth Enchantment, David Liss (2011)

David Liss is a rather erratic author. His historic/economic thrillers, set in England against the creation of our modern financial institutions -- the first stock markets, the first commodities markets -- are delightful. His attempts to recreate the formula with a colonial American setting have been less successful. And the less said about his lone contemporary novel, The Ethical Assassin, the better.

So in this new book, we have a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that Liss has returned to an English setting; the bad news is that he's abandoned his economic backdrop for a Jane Austen knockoff. And as seems to be increasingly popular these days, it's faux-Austen with magic thrown into the mix.

The setting is Nottingham in 1812, where the Luddite rebellion against the Industrial Revolution is beginning. Liss asks us to believe that the Luddites are actually a cabal of evil zombies (he doesn't actually use that word, and his version of the undead are more able to pass for human than the standard brain-obsessed crowd, but still, a zombie's a zombie) who can only be defeated by the skilled magicians of the Rosicrucian order, in conjunction with our heroine, Lucy Derrick.

Lucy is the leading lady from the "write your own Austen novel" kit -- she's beautiful, mildly disgraced, and about to be forced into a marriage to a man she does not love. She's also, much to her surprise, naturally gifted in the occult, and winds up leading the attempt to defeat the Luddite zombies.

Lord Byron is a significant supporting character, and William Blake makes a cameo appearance. It's all very silly, and gets off to a sluggish start, but Liss eventually works up a head of steam, and the final confrontation sequence is more exciting than I'd have expected.

And you have to have at least some affection for an author who can, in the midst of that grand climax, toss off this sentence without it feeling completely absurd: "Lucy would have responded, no doubt saying something cautious and uncertain, but the words never left her lips because that was when Mr. Morrison was struck down by a tortoise."

Certainly not up to the level of Liss's best work, but if you can slog through a slow opening, it has its moments.

September 16, 2011

TV: The Secret Circle (CW, Thu 9)

I didn't expect to like The Secret Circle; it seemed like a pretty cynical ploy to replicate the success of The Vampire Diaries, which it follows on the CW schedule. Both shows are based on books by the same authors; both are about pretty teens caught up in the supernatural; The Secret Circle just replaces vampires with witches. But much to my surprise, the show is a surprisingly entertaining bit of cheesy fun.

Britt Robertson stars as Cassie, who moves to a small Washington town to live with her grandmother after her mother's death. (Grandma is played by Ashley Crow, who in two years has gone from playing the cheerleader's mother on Heroes to playing the grandmother of a girl the same age.) Strange things seem to be going on around her, and finally she is approached by a group of five local students who explain that she is a witch, as are they.

There are, it seems, six witch families in town, and when a member of each comes together, the circle has more power than any one of them could muster individually; Cassie is the sixth member of this generation's circle. They have to keep the circle a secret, because something went horribly wrong with their parents' circle 16 years ago, and several members of the group were killed, possibly at the hands of the survivors; as a result, the families have banned witchcraft. But those surviving parents aren't going along with the ban, and they have mysterious plans for the new circle, and for Cassie in particular.

It's usually the case in a show like that the bad guys are the most fun, and that's certainly true here. Phoebe Tonkin steals the show as Faye, the power-hungry bad girl in Cassie's circle; Gale Harold and Natasha Henstridge are the survivors of the parental circle, and both clearly relish getting to play over-the-top gleeful evil.

But the good guy characters are well cast, too. As Cassie, Robertson is wounded and vulnerable, and it should be great fun to watch her discovering her power. Thomas Dekker and Shelley Hennig are likable as Adam and Diana, the (so far) nicest members of the circle.

This is not a sophisticated show; it's another teen soap opera at heart -- Eastwick 90210, or Footloose with witchcraft in place of dancing. But the pilot sets just the right tone of slightly campy, slightly oversincere melodrama, and I had a lot of fun watching it.

BOOKS: The Submission, Amy Waldman (2011)

When the winner of the competition to design the 9/11 memorial turns out to be a Muslim architect, controversy explodes. Sadly, the idea is more interesting than the execution.  Waldman is too often guilty of turning her characters into mouthpieces for specific political views rather than well-rounded people, and some characters are so burdened with meaning -- the 9/11 widow, for instance, who also happens to be an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant -- that there's no way for any hint of humanity to leak out from beneath the symbolic weight. Further, Waldman cops out a bit on her own controversy by making her winning architect a non-practicing secular Muslim, which sends the unfortunate message "Islamic culture OK, Islamic faith bad." Of interest only if you haven't had enough dogmatic preaching in your life lately.

MOVIES: The Debt (John Madden, 2011)

The Debt is a reasonably entertaining thriller about the price we pay for lies, and whether or not a lie can ever take on enough weight that it is more honorable to continue telling it than to tell the truth.

The story leaps between two time periods. In 1965, three young Israeli agents (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, and Marton Csokas) go undercover in East Berlin. Their assignment is to capture a doctor known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau" and bring him back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. Things go horribly wrong, as they are wont to do in such stories, and the three convince one another that to tell the truth about their mission would disgrace not only themselves, but their young nation.

Thirty years later, that lie is still weighing on the lives on the threesome (now played by Ciaran Hinds, Helen Mirren, and Tom Wilkinson) and those around them; Mirren and Wilkinson's daughter has just published a book about the official version of events, in which her parents are heroes. How far should they go when it appears that their lie is about to be exposed?

I can't say there's anything particularly surprising about the story; you can see the love triangle among the principals coming a mile away, and the nature of the big lie is fairly obvious as soon as we hear it. But it plays out with great energy, and the action sequences are tense and suspenseful.

The performances are generally strong, with Chastain continuing to build on the marvelous year she's having. Accents are occasionally distracting; everyone is attempting a blandly generic Israeli accent, but the underlying accents of the international cast slip through from time to time, with Worthington's Australian vowels being particularly grating.

A combination of smart casting and skillful makeup allows the three young/old pairs of actors to be mostly convincing (though it is a bit hard to believe that the pretty young Worthington will grow up to look anything like Hinds), with the Csokas/Wilkinson pairing being particularly inspired.

Not essential viewing, certainly, but worth catching on cable/DVD, and not a terrible afternoon in the theater if the cast appeals or if you like this sort of story.

September 15, 2011

TV: Free Agents (NBC, Wed 8:30)

Alex and Helen (Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn) are co-workers at a corporate PR firm specializing in crisis management. After a night of too much drinking, they wind up in bed together, and the rest of the series will apparently follow them through the fallout from that night.

They're both emotional wrecks. Alex is recently divorced, and Helen's fiance died a year ago; neither has gotten over the loss. And they're both smart enough to recognize that they should not be getting involved. But the attraction is just too strong, and by the end of the pilot, they're back in bed again.

There are some nice supporting players. Natasha Leggero is sharp as Alex's assistant, and Anthony Stewart Head is cheerfully obnoxious as the firm's boss (he played the same role in the British series on which this is based).

The problem is that Alex and Helen are both such wrecks and so unlikable that it's difficult to root for either of them, much less for the two of them as a couple. I can see this "we can't sleep together / let's sleep together" dynamic maybe being interesting enough to sustain the six episodes that made up the British version, but over a 13- or 22-week season? It's going to get repetitious really fast.

TV: Up All Night (NBC, Wed 8)

Christina Applegate and Will Arnett star as new parents Reagan and Chris. He's left his law firm to be a stay-at-home dad, and she's going back to work as a producer on a daytime talk show hosted by Ava (Maya Rudolph), who is not Oprah Winfrey with no hint at all of Ellen Degeneres.

Applegate and Rudolph are very funny, and I like their workplace scenes better than the domestic scenes. In part, that's because I'm not a fan of Arnett, who I've never liked in anything before. He's the weak link here, but at least he's playing a recognizable human being this time instead of one of those weird man-children he's been so fond of in the past, and I'm finding him merely a bit dull as opposed to the usual repulsive.

Very strong first episode, good enough to keep me watching for a while.

TV: H8R (CW, Wed 9)

I'm not usually the type to let someone else do my talking for me, but every once in a great while, someone expresses what I'm thinking so perfectly, so elegantly, so beautifully, that anything I could say would be redundant. So, please read Daniel Feinberg's spectacular takedown of the abomination that is H8R.

Yeah. What he said.

MOVIES: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (Constance Marks, 2011)

When you're making a movie about a successful artist, you have to decide how much time to spend on their professional life and how much on their personal life. The subtitle of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey makes it quite clear that we'll be focusing on Kevin Clash's professional life, and therein lies the problem. Because the professional life of Kevin Clash, who is the puppeteer behind Sesame Street's Elmo, has been remarkably uninteresting and nondramatic; it's been an unbroken series of successes and steps up the professional ladder.

Clash began building his own puppets and doing neighborhood puppet shows as a teenager; before he was out of high school, he was working on local television in Baltimore. From there, he went to the last few years of Captain Kangaroo; when that show ended, he went to work for Jim Henson, first on the movie Labyrinth and then at Sesame Street. He worked there for a few years doing minor characters, then took over Elmo, a character that one of his colleagues hadn't had any success with. Elmo caught on, and Clash became a superstar puppeteer.

The movie tells that story in reasonably entertaining fashion, but it's just not a very interesting story. And what's frustrating is that when we do get glimpses into Clash's personal life, there seems to be a compelling story waiting to be told. The most sustained storyline is about Clash's fear that he's neglecting his daughter, who is still quite young when the Elmo phenomenon really explodes.

But there's a single reference to an ex-wife that suggests it wasn't only Clash's daughter who felt neglected. And the scenes of Clash's parents made me wonder what it was like growing up in a mixed-race family in a black suburb in the 60s and 70s.

Several times in the movie, we hear the not terribly surprising observation that every successful puppet character contains within it a lot of the puppeteer's own personality. And one of Clash's colleagues suggests that the key to Elmo's success isn't merely the obvious -- that Elmo loves you (though that's certainly true); the real reason kids love Elmo is that Elmo needs you. Somewhere at the meeting of those two ideas is the making of a fascinating profile. Unfortunately, Being Elmo is less interested in that story than it is in hagiography.

September 14, 2011

TV: Ringer (CW, Tue 9)

There's a lot of plot to get through in this first hour, but you already know most of it if you've seen any of the show's advertising. Here's the Evelyn Wood version. Ready? Deep breath, now:

Bridget (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an ex-stripper, six months out of rehab, who's living in Wyoming. She's the only witness to a murder committed by a local crime lord, but doesn't trust her FBI handler (Nestor Carbonell) to protect her, so she runs off to the Hamptons to seek refuge with her estranged twin sister Siobhan (Gellar again). The sisters go boating, and when Bridget wakes up from her nap, Siobhan is gone, and there's an empty pill bottle on the floor of the boat. In the wake of Siobhan's apparent suicide, Bridget recognizes that she now has the perfect hiding place from the FBI and the Wyoming mob: She will become Siobhan.

She's aided in this by the fact that because of their estrangement, Siobhan had never told her husband (Ioan Gruffudd) that she had a sister, so there's no reason for him to suspect that she's not Siobhan. Still, it's not easy slipping into someone else's life, and everyone seems to notice that "Siobhan" isn't quite herself -- best friend Gemma (Tara Summers); lover Henry (Kristoffer Polaha), who just happens to be Gemma's husband; and step-daughter Juliet (Zoey Deutch). And that FBI agent has a hunch that Siobhan isn't telling him everything she knows about Bridget's whereabouts.

There is, of course, the big last-minute reveal that Siobhan isn't dead at all, but is hiding out in Paris from the life-threatening menaces in her own life, and is none too happy to learn that "she" is still running about New York.

We have here all the makings of spectacular goofball fun. The cast is talented and pretty to look at; there's room for tons of "oh, my god" plot twisting (even the lengthy summary above leaves out a few of the pilot's surprises); and Evil Twin melodrama is a form with a long, glorious history. But based on the pilot, the show is reluctant to dive headlong into its own silliness. It's taking itself a little too seriously, which is a particular shame given Gellar's comic abilities (her strongest moments in the pilot are those when her sense of humor is allowed to shine through). The show wants to be a serious soap opera in the style of Brothers and Sisters; it needs to be a trashy soap opera in the style of Dynasty. Where's Aaron Spelling when you need him?

MOVIES: Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)

Vera Farmiga stars in Higher Ground, which is also her directing debut. It's a character study, the life of a woman in crisis when the religious faith that has always sustained her slowly slips away.

Corinne marries young, to a kind-hearted guitar player named Ethan (Joshua Leonard), and an early near-tragedy solidifies their budding religious faith, leading them to join a close-knit community somewhere in the Northeast.

Her belief is sincere, but never seems to come as easily to her as it does to her husband, or to best friend Annika (a marvelous, lively performance by Dagmara Dominczyk), and she never does quite accept the subordinate position her sect assigns to women. When she loses Annika's friendship, and finds herself and Ethan growing apart, she finds that religion doesn't provide the solace she needs.

Farmiga is to be commended for (mostly) not turning her characters into caricatures; they are not the usual cartoon cliches that Hollywood gives us on the rare occasions that it deals with religion. They are fully rounded, complicated people, and religion is just one part -- albeit an important one -- of who they are. Their faith is taken seriously and respected; characters say things that would be the occasion for cheap laughter in most movies, and they are deeply moving here. (There are a few moments when she loses that respect, notably with an elderly librarian who refuses to let the young Corinne read Lord of the Flies, and is shot like a villain from a monster movie.)

Performances are superb throughout, and Farmiga has assembled a marvelous cast of character actors. In addition to Leonard and Dominczyk, we get Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corinne's parents; Bill Irwin as her childhood pastor, whose enthusiastic preaching to his young pupils is superbly creepy; Norbert Leo Butz as the leader of her religious community; and Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa, as the teenaged Corinne.

September 13, 2011

MOVIES: The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011)

The Guard is a showcase for Brendan Gleeson, who plays Gerry Boyle, a cop in a small town near Galway. It's a place where a simple murder is an event out of the norm, so when the FBI arrives looking for help catching a group of drug smugglers, everyone is both excited and somewhat on edge. Don Cheadle plays the FBI's Wendell Everett, a by-the-books uptight sort, and the movie is about the uneasy working relationship of the two men.

It's also a movie about casual prejudice. Boyle assumes that Everett grew up in "the projects," rather than skiing in Aspen and attending Yale. The Irish hate the English, the English hate the Irish, everyone keeps assuming that one cop's Croatian wife is Romanian, and everybody hates the Welsh. The dialogue is sharply funny and often weirdly meandering; it's the kind of movie where Boyle sits in a soda shop with one of the drug dealers arguing about the mysteries of "Ode to Billie Joe."

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh happens to be the brother of Martin McDonagh, writer/director of In Bruges, and there's something running in that family that I wish I could catch.

September 12, 2011

MOVIES: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a better movie than you'd expect it to be. The action sequences at the end of the movie are well planned out, with surprisingly few cheap thrills from blowing stuff up, and the human actors are smart enough not to get in the way of the effects.

James Franco stars as a research scientist whose attempt to develop a cure for Alzheimer's leads to the birth of a super-intelligent chimpanzee named Caesar, who will ultimately lead the rebellion of the apes. Frieda Pinto is on hand in the underwritten role of the girlfriend; she's not asked to be anything more than pretty, and she is adequate to the challenge. John Lithgow gets to ham it up as Franco's father, and Brian Cox and Tom Felton are cheerfully evil as the abusive father and son who run the local primate shelter.

Caesar is played in motion capture by Andy Serkis, and it's the best motion capture performance I've seen. As often happens after one of Serkis's performances, some in Hollywood are murmuring that he ought to be an Oscar nominee for the role. I think that's nonsense; as with all motion capture performances, there's no way of knowing how much of it is Serkis and how much is created by the CGI team. The collaborative effort, though, is every effective.

(I did find myself frequently distracted by the fairly obvious attempt to cheat our sympathies toward Caesar by altering the shape of his head a few notches away from standard chimp towards standard human -- the brow is a bit less recessive, the mouth and jaw a bit less protruding.)

The movie is almost never surprising, but it moves through the expected story beats with great efficiency and the occasional sparkle of wit. Worth going to the theater for if you like this sort of thing; worth catching on cable if you're not a particular fan.

September 11, 2011

MOVIES: The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

And speaking of polarizing: Miranda July's first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was sharply divisive; some adored its quirky look at unusual emotional relationships, and some thought it was too precious and twee for its own good. I don't think The Future is going to change many minds either way.

The movie stars July and Hamish Linklater as Sophie and Jason, who've been living together for four years. They've recently rescued a sick homeless cat, and have decided to adopt it, but they have to leave Paw Paw at the shelter for a month while it recovers from its most serious illness.

Neither Sophie nor Jason has ever made a serious commitment to anything -- their relationship is so passionless that we're more than halfway into the movie before they're finally defined as something other than brother and sister -- and the realization that they're a month away from the first real responsibility of their lives is an emotional shock, and The Future follows them through what they see as their last 30 days of freedom.

It's a sign of their refusal to commit, even to one another, that their panic doesn't bring them together. Each flies off in their own direction, quitting their job and diving into new projects that they think will be more emotionally fulfilling (and neither of them doing very well at their new task).

One of the more divisive elements in the movie will surely be the occasional bits of voice-over narration from Paw Paw (voice provided by July), who provides philosophical perspective on the life of a street cat who's finally on the verge of finding a home. And while those scenes are terribly twee, there are enough lovely moments in the movie to make up for it. July's dialogue isn't naturalistic, exactly, but she's got a great gift for finding actors who can deliver it as if it were, and there are striking images throughout -- a small girl digging a deep hole in the lawn for no apparent reason, or Jason standing on the beach trying to undo something he's done without knowing how he did it in the first place.

July and Linklater are a charming couple, with their matching unruly mops of hair and their identical emotional states, which are so relaxed and casual as to border on the comatose. The Future is going to drive a lot of people up the wall, but I think it's worth seeing; certainly fans of Me and You won't want to miss it.

TV: New Girl (Fox, Tue 9)

In advance of the show's September 20 premiere, Fox is making the first episode of New Girl available for free at iTunes.

The show stars Zooey Deschanel, who is one of the more polarizing actresses of recent years, with audiences finding her quirky winsomeness either completely adorable or insufferably twee. I'm generally on the "adorable" side of that fence, but she's cranking the quirk up to about 15 in this pilot, and I begin to understand the haters' POV.

Deschanel is Jess, who needs a new apartment after breaking up with her boyfriend, and moves in with three guys. The only one of the three with any discernible personality is Coach, played by Damon Wayans, Jr., and he's being replaced after the first episode (because ABC unexpectedly renewed Happy Endings at the last minute); he's a personal trainer with a bit of an anger problem, and his relationship with Jess is fairly funny.

The other guys are Nick (Jake Johnson) and Schmidt (Max Greenfield); Nick is marginally the more sensitive of the two, but both are prone to moderate douchbaggery. They are, at least, aware of this tendency; one of the show's better running jokes is that the guys have a "douchebag jar," in which they have to place a dollar when the others catch them in particularly obnoxious behavior.

But the show is all about Deschanel, and though I do find her likable, she's pushing the limits here. Melodramatic weeping to repeat viewings of Dirty Dancing, constant singing to herself, bizarre dancing about the room -- she's going to have to turn the quirk way down for the show to work.

So I'm a bit nervous after the first episode, with the show losing its most amusing supporting character and Deschanel desperately in need of being reined in, but I have enough faith in her to keep watching for another week or two.
Goodness, I have been away for a while, haven't I?

I'm a bit behind on posting the movies I've seen, so we'll try and get caught up over the next few days. Also, the new fall TV season begins this week, so there's also the annual marathon of reactions to first episodes to look forward to.