Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Some Words of Gonch: Movie Review : "A Night at the Museum"

First off let me say it's great to be back here in blog world with Mr. AE (Adam Entertainment, not Arts & Entertainment thank you). With that said, I'd like to move on to my first new movie review for a film that claimed the holidays this year: Night At The Museum.

The film centers around a fantasy concept in which the Museum of Natural History in New York City has artifacts, sculptures, statues, and other museum staples that magically come to life at night, hence the title. It's based on a book that immediately draws its parallels to the most obvious counterpart film: Jumanji. In fact it comes so close that they both star Robin Williams in one capacity or another. But the star of this film isn't "Jack", but actually Ben Stiller, the man who's been claiming a comedy crown for many years now, especially since There's Something About Mary and Meet The Parents. Stiller has that likeable charm that doesn't grate on you like Owen Wilson might over a very long movie, who also stars in this film, and Stiller isn't quite as big of a fool character like Will Ferrell as much as he is made to be a fool of by others. What Stiller possesses the best when compared to some of his ilk is that he is clearly the straight man playing off everyone else who manages to both derail a scene into a little bit of nonsensical dialogue while still driving the plot forward.

The fault of this film however, does not lie with Stiller himself, nor especially does it lie with Robin Williams who pulls off an excellent impersonation of Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States of America, as he will kindly remind you. It's no surprise that Williams would do well in this role; he manages to look the part with ease, clearly can impersonate almost anything/anyone, and as he has in the past, serves as a fun-loving but quick-witted guide to our protagonist. This is essentially because he both represents a good-willed leader as is but is also one of the few normal, English-speaking humans that come to life as opposed to trying to get explanations out of stone statues or cavemen.

Night At The Museum is basically all about what would happen if that museum came to life. This of course leads to plenty of mishaps and shenanigans, but also lends itself to a lot of history and being such a well rounded museum (that I've been to myself) allows a lot of leeway for what you can do and show variety-wise. Clearly animal humor wins out a lot, as soon as we see that monkey we know he'll try to steal a lot of scenes. Yet since monkey humor is often funny but so overdone, the idea of trying to play fetch with the skeletal bones of a Tyrannasaurus Rex is much funnier, especially if you own a dog and notice the very well mimicked movements. Owen Wilson plays a typical role of an Old West cowboy in that he's just basically his same wacky self as he is in every movie (Life Aquatic and films of that nature notwithstanding) trying to fight against his roman counterpart, only in a very miniature form. While this is to add more humor it often feels very forced and doesn't add enough to matter for these cameos.

In fact that's part of the greatest flaw of this film: it often feels forced, overly jubiliant, and often lacks creative comedy. Some plots are throw away altogether. As with a standard family film, Stiller is a father of a child, a young boy in this case, who has gotten divorced and his wife has already re-hooked up (see: The Santa Clause). Stiller can't hold down a job and gets this museum night guard one (from his real-life mother no less) and proceeds to not just hold down a job and have mischief, but also win back his son's love. At the same time, the wife is basically never heard from again after the first quarter of the film. Ricky Gervais is completely wasted here, as nothing more than a museum director who has trouble expressing idioms, almost nothing to work with for someone who has The Office (UK) and Extras under his belt is insulting. Dick Van Dyke, however, is fun to see again and looks as fun to play a role off of as ever. While in comparison, his compadre in arms Mickey Rooney looks terrible for his age and has some of the most unbearable PG-ified lines in the entire film. I was amazed that Rooney didn't call Stiller a whippersnapper at any point, it was that bad.

Suffice to say that there is something that keeps the museum coming to life, a MacGuffin if you will, that someone is trying to steal for their own gain (who I won't say, though it's quite obvious by mid-film). Stiller and his son have to go to the rescue, while trying to preserve the insanity of the museum and his own job, considering that things keep going wrong on his first nights there and the director is none too happy with him. The ending is of course overly cheery in that classic family film way, with dancing by everyone and quick clips during the end credits that show a slightly pointless epilogue (basically that no one was harmed or that the bad guy is even remotely all that evil). In one way, it's hard to complain that a family film would follow a lot of cliches in the Disney sense that it may be (this is 20th Century Fox by the way) but in this day and age of filmmaking, it's really not an excuse. If you do make a comparison to a film like ! Jumanji, it had far greater interest of plot, excitement, jokes, and characters that were really cared about.

While Night At The Museum is not a totally dumbed down and silly film, by the last half of the movie, it fails to even come close to escaping its genre's cliches, lack of interesting action or simple yet still smart humor, and working too hard to try and establish an ending plot for the film to grasp onto. Though there are certainly worse films out there this season, it is not recommended for teenagers and up as the film will drag to its inevitable conclusion, but kids will surely be entertained. Only problem was, by the end credits, I wasn't.

Night At The Museum receives Gonch's Bronze Medal Of Family Film Cliches.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fantastic Four 2: The Rise of the Silver Surfer Trailer

Here is the teaser trailer for the sequel to one of the most derided superhero movies of recent times: Fantastic Four.

People didn't like the first FF movie because they felt it was too dumb or changed too much of the origin story. The said the acting was subpar with outrageous actions. In particular, they didn't like Jessica Alba's acting or the portrayal of Doom in terms of storyline and acting by Julian McMahon.

I felt that although the movie wasn't up to the standards of the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises, it still had a lot of potential. If one looks back at the first X-Men, they would see a so-so movie. X-2 was the film that made everyone sit upright. Spider-Man 1 was a great movie, but comparing it with the second movie makes it pale in comparison. So Fantastic Four 2 has that potential.

The fact the teaser trailer is really a two-minute plus scene from the movie makes me feel confident about the film. We see that Sue Storm and Reed Richards are going to get married, only to be interrupted not by a scorned ex-lover, but by the herald of Galactus, the Silver Surfer. The Surfer plays a big role in the FF mythology, and is arrival could mean the imminent presence of Galactus himself, the devourer of worlds. Imagine a being of immeasurable size coming to Earth. That's Galactus. It is unknown though if he will make any appearance in the film, save for maybe a teaser at the end. But the story has the potential for fun and action. The movie could be so good that it pulls up the first one.

We are going to have to wait till this summer though to find out if that is possible. But with Spider-Man 3 also on the way this year, it is once again good to have super powers.

Monday, December 25, 2006

New Movie Review: "Rocky Balboa"

Rocky, Rocky, Rocky! Chances are, if you start that chant in a public place, people are going to start chanting right along with you. The Rocky series of movies have become iconoclastic and a part of Americana. So why is there a new installment in the series after a 16 year gap in between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa? Surely, Sylvester Stallone isn't cashing in on the films' popularity after a string of flops?

Well, he probably is, but it doesn't matter. Rocky has always been a personal project from Stallone, as he wrote each film and directed each one after the first Rocky. The first movie even won an Oscar for Best Picture against some tough competition, so he has some critical weight to throw around. So you can excuse him for going back to the well one more time. If he had merely been a name on the marquee then this movie would reek of desperation, but instead the movie reeks of sentimentality.

The plot, as is with most Rocky movies, is wafer-thin. Rocky is getting in on years, having retired to run an Italian eatery and losing his beloved Adrian to "woman cancer". His anger over his loss boils underneth his surface and although he puts on a happy face, Sly portrays Rocky as really having nothing to live for and just going about his day-to-day life. He drags Paulie, Adrian's brother, around to places seen in the first Rocky movie to remember all thae happy times he and Adrian had. Rocky can't let go of the past, or let go of it in any meaningful way.

The movie too can't let go of the past either, with numerous references to Rocky I. There are flashbacks to filmed scenes and Rocky tells a story about a boxing match where his opponent is revealed to be Apollo Creed. Heck, even the city of Philadelphia can't let go of the past, with Rocky being recognized wherever he goes and being treated like a hero. Again, while it comes off as corny, it is not a great departure from how Rocky and Philadelphia were seen in the previous movies.

Philadelphia and America craves an underdog, and that is what Rocky Balboa is all about. Rocky is truly an "innocent", who views the world in black and white and always follows his moral compass. So while the plot is nonexistant, the movie is still enjoyable for that theme. Although it does get ridiculous at times, with Rocky being almost a Christ-like figure, where everyone he meets becomes a better person for meeting him, it is still sweet to see.

I would be remiss not to mention Milo Ventimiglia. Milo plays Rocky Jr. and is currentoly on the hit TV show Heroes. He doesn't get too many great lines in the movie and has to play Stallone's emotional adversary for most of the movie, he still was good. Stallone's physical enemy, Mason "The Line" Dixon, palyed by Antonio Tarver, is always good in the typical Rocky role: slightly meglomaniac who only wants to spar Rocky for the publicity. We've seen it before, and in fact it unfurls as Apollo Creed vs. Rocky for the 21st century. But again, sometimes it is nice to be familar with the situation.

To put it in boxing terms, this movie was hardly a TKO, or totally knockout. It does however deliver some nice punches and there is no doubt that the movie accomplishes what it set out to do. If you are a fan of Rocky or just a sucker for a feel good piece of fluff, this is the movie for you.

3 1/2 Yo! out of 5.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Cult Movie Review: "Fight Club"

As stated in my Pop Culture Pusher article, I am a big fan of the movie Fight Club. Based on the novel of the same name written by Chuck Palahniuk and directed by David Fincher (The Game, Panic Room), when it was released in 1999, it got some poor reviews and bombed at the box office. But since then, it has achieved cult status and critical raves. It even has entered the lexicon, with everybody knowing the first rule of Fight Club and how hard Brad Pitt wants to be hit. I recently rewatched the movie for the 10+ time (no joke), so it is fresh in my mind.

A small digression here as I will talk about Chuck Palahniuk and his books. Fight Club the movie and my experiences with it lead me to pick up the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, reading it twice in the span of year. I then picked up Palahniuk’s second book, then his third, and so on. Here is the case where a movie based on a book didn’t ruin the book; indeed, it helped open up a whole new author to me. But be warned if you are thinking of picking up Chuck P’s novels: they aren’t for the faint of heart. But they do make for some sharp social satire.

And that’s what makes Fight Club’s story so compelling. Take away the twists and turns and what you have is a plot concerning an anarchist. But why is Tyler Durden an anarchist? It’s not because of the government or the economic divide. It’s us. It’s society that has turned this man. His actions are basically pranks pulled on the collective group to make us aware of the malaise that surrounds us. The movie can’t spell it out any clearer then in the opening few minutes where Edward Norton’s character bemoans the fact that planets will soon be sponsored by corporations. Yet he is trapped by these corporations as he orders furniture from IKEA and sips Starbucks coffee.

But let’s step away from the social commentary and concentrate on the performances. Edward Norton is the main character, the sad sack. His life is perfect until it literally blows up in his face. As he sinks deeper, things become clearer. Norton has to play a range of emotions in the movie, surprisingly, from shell shock to anger to rage to jealousy. But luckily he gets to play off of Brad Pitt, as Tyler Durden. Durden is the popular kid if viewed through Alice’s looking glass. He has confidence, doesn’t have a care in the world, is driven, and just radiates cool. Or as Tyler puts it, in one of the more critical scenes in the movie: he is everything Edward Norton’s character is not. Helena Bonham Carter rounds out the triangle as Marla Singer, the bane of Norton’s life and girlfriend of Tyler. Although first introduced as the least sane of the group, she slowly becomes the foundation of the movie. Ms. Carter brilliantly plays Marla as a cross between a suicidal goth girl to a woman who just wants to be happy.

It says a lot that I became a fan of all three actors after I first saw the movie. Before Fight Club, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were on my “indifferent-to, don’t-really-care-about” list. I actively saw movies such as The Score and Death to Smoochy based on Norton’s appearance in them. Fight Club was right in the midst of Brad Pitt’s rise to the top, and I happily boarded that train. I had never even heard of Helena Bonham Carter before Fight Club and became a fan of hers.

I also became a fan of David Fincher, the director. He has a unique style to his directing. If you watch Panic Room and Fight Club you can easily see this. He likes “zoom” shots, where he takes you through an inanimate object to illustrate something important. He colors are usually muted, unless there is something jarring he wants to show the audience. This is used to great effect in Fight Club, such as in the scene where Edward Norton is writing around in pain from a chemical burn, trying to calm himself down, trying to picture a green forest. The bright colors come out of nowhere and achieve the effect of making the viewer blink a few times to readjust. Of course, by that time, we are back to the muted colors.

Anything that is used very well in the movie is the breaking down of the fourth wall. The fourth wall refers the imaginary wall the audience peaks through when watching a scene in a room. The audience sees the three other walls as background set pieces, with the fourth wall being the audience’s perspective. When it is said that the fourth wall is being broken, this means the TV show, play, movie, etc. is talking directly to the audience and not acting around it.

Edward Norton’s character serves as the narrator of the movie, but that in itself isn’t directly breaking the wall. However, there are parts in the movie where Mr. Norton appears directly looking into the camera, narrating what is going on in the background. Pitt, as Tyler Durden, gives out his manifesto directly to the audience. At one point, while Durden is working as a movie projectionist, he talks about how certain marks denote when a reel has to be changed. Those marks then appear in the movie and Tyler points them out. The events and others blend the reality of the movie from realism to absurdist and satire. That is good, because the second half of the movie deals with Durden and his terrorist-like ways. If the movie was serious all the time, this plot development would be hard to swallow, but you never get the feeling that Tyler is an evil man, just hugely insane.

Everyone probably knows the twist at the end by now, but just in case, I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say, if you watch it a second time after the reveal, and I mean really watch it, you get a lot of clues. From pieces of dialogue to obvious visual clues to subliminal visual clues, it’s all there. Like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club is better the second time around.

As you can probably tell, I can go on and on about this movie. I haven’t even touched upon the supporting acting from Meat Loaf (yes, Meat Loaf!) and Jared Leto. I could have talked about Tyler’s outlandish outfits in the movie that has inspired a whole line of clothing. But I won’t. I will leave on this paraphrased quote from the movie: how much do you know about yourself if you’ve never seen Fight Club?

5 Stitches out 5

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Queen of Nice/Mean versus The Combover

Recently, Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump have been engaged in a war of words. Why? Rosie called out Trump on her show The View, highlighting some of his lesser qualities. Donald has been in the news lately due to the problems Miss USA are facing (Trump owns and operates the pagent). Trump fired back called Rosie fat and a slob. Trump also said he is going to sue Rosie for libel. Rosie fired back and now it is on like Donkey Kong, as the kids would put it.

It is hard to get behind either side in this argument. Rosie, the once Daytime Princess (The Queen is Oprah) for her talkshow, earned the title "Queen of Nice" for her personality. However, once her show ended, she made almost a 180 and became the Queen of Mean. Even before joining the view, Rosie thrust herself into the spotlight by commentating on such things Star Jones and loudly and publically gay rights issues (Rosie herself is a lesbian and once tried to organize a gay cruise liner). Subtlety is not her strong suit.

Recently, she got into two separate incidents on The View. One, she took exception to something Kelly Ripa of Regis and Kelly said to Clay Aiken. Kelly said she didn't want Clay's hand anywhere near her mouth and Rosie took it as a gay slur and called Kelly on it. Problem is, Clay has not confirmed that he is indeed gay. So Rosie made a faux pas and didn't even admit to it. Two, she recently used a very bad Asain accent to describe the Danny DeVito incident on The View. At first, she played the comedy card, saying it was in good humor. Then she apologized because her Asian hairdresser told her it was offensive. I am rolling my eyes here.

Point is Rosie has a big an ego as the women she replaced on The View, Star Jones. But Rosie gets to play the comedy card any time she offends. She gets self righteous when talking about topics she deems important and believes her opinion to be the only one that matters. I am surprised that she hasn't blown the goodwill she received from her talkshow yet.

In the other corner is Donald Trump. If Rosie is Ms. Ego, then Donald is Mr. Ego. Remember how many times The Donald said The Apprentice was the number one show on TV, though it clearly wasn't close? Due to the success of The Apprentice, he has become an "entertainment" star. He slammed Martha Stuart when her version of The Apprentice failed, going as far as to pin the declining ratings of his version on her. He's gone through young wives like a hot knife through butter. While his casinos aren't doing well in Atlantic City, he blames other people. He is filthy rich, or at least lives like he is (I believe he recently filed for bankruptcy), and that is hard to throw support to.

And his response to Rosie's comments are low class. He might not have liked what she said, but he shouldn't have called her a fat slob. Tell the press you are slapping her with a libel suit if you really are and be done with it. But it wasn't enough to defend himself, he had to steal the spotlight back. Now we all are subject to this mess.

You know what the scary part is though? In a couple of months, Donald is probably going to appear on The View and play nice with Rosie. Why? Not because cooler heads will prevail, but because America loves a reconciliaton. Donald and Rosie are both getting publicity out of this war/stunt. That is what any fading star, desperate to be relevant once again, craves to have.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Book Review: "The Book of Fate"

The Book of Fate, written by Brad Meltzer, is a strange mix of Da Vinci Code story with Washington intrigue and conspiracies and backstabbing abound. Does that make it a good book? Not by a long shot.

Brad Meltzer, who wrote such books as The Tenth Justice and has dabbled in comic book stories with his work in the DC Universe, uses every cliche in his book. There is a mysterious group behind the events unfolding. Someone turns out to be not who they seem. Our hero brings his friends into peril along side him. Stop me if you heard this before.

The plot is so thin, it is better left up to the inside flap of the hardcover edition to explain it to you. It has something to do with a presidential assassination, but it's not that exciting. Suffice to say, it is pretty standard fare.

Meltzer employs a weird first-person, third-person dynamic to his storytelling. One chapter is told from the main character's, Wes's, point of view. Then the next chapter is about his two friends who are off trying to find something. This switch is off-putting at times and really detracts from the story. Meltzer should have probably stayed on third-person format throughout the whole story. We would still get the inner thoughts of the characters but without the constant immersion/withdrawl from Wes's POV.

Also, Meltzer writes his chapters really short. There are about 100+ chapters in a book only about 350 pages long. Again, with the shifting viewpoints it is really jarring to be reading one situation for 3 pages, then switch to another for 4. Some might say it builds suspense, but it doesn't leave enough storytelling space to build anything.

There also seem to be a lot of dangling plot points. The story seems to start off as a tale about a Masonic conspiracy, but that yields to governmental workings. The title, the symbols on the cover of the hardcover edition all make it seem like this is a Masonic tale. It is not.

For all the negative points, I have to admit I couldn't put the book down. Maybe I just wanted to be over and done with it, or maybe I enjoyed the book a lot more than I imagined. Still, I wouldn't recommend buying the novel and only begrudgingly say you should take it out from the library. I was disappointed by Mr. Meltzer's work.

2 1/2 Yawns out of 5.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Simpsons: "Kill Gil, Vols. 1 & 2" Review

Last week I mentioned that in the later seasons of The Simpsons episodes have increasingly focused on peripheral characters. Last week it was Nelson, this week it was a character that is relatively new: Ol' Gil. The Gil character is somewhat based on Jack Lemmon's character in Glengary Glenross. Gil is the resident sad sack of Springfield and is always getting into trouble.

"Kill Gil" is the annual Christmas episode too. The plot is as follows: Gil helps Lisa get a rare present, gets fired for his efforts, and ends up mooching off the Simpsons for a year. Marge can't say no to Gil and gets put through the ringer. When she finally gets the nerve to stand up to Gil, it is too late, as Gil has moved and is successful. Of course, Marge ruins that and it's back to square one for Ol' Gil.

There were many funny lines in the episode. Homer whispers hoarsely to Marge to lower the boom on Gil and when she doesn't he D'ohs in the same tone. Homer has many run-ins with a Grinch-like character, where at one point he knocks out and it bleeds green. Homer says "What is this thing?" in an inquisitive tone. Marge flashback to why she can't no to anyone and when we return to the present Homer has no idea what is going on, as he couldn't see the flashback. Bart and Lisa get their lunches wiped by Gil, only to have them replaced with used nicotine patches. Nelson then swipes those patches, thinking they are food. He promptly passes out. There was a good mix of visual and verbal jokes peppered in the half hour.

Simpson Christmas episodes are always funny (who can forget Gary Coleman and his "Galaxy of Prawn"? Three is hardly a galaxy!). "Kill Gil" lives up to holiday expectations and had some good jokes. Even the opening credits of the episode got into the act, with the iconic opening replaced with a Springfield covered in snow. I will always welcome Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie into my living room for the holidays. They always bring good cheer.

4 Scottsdale Offices out of 5.

New Movie Review: "Deja Vu"

Denzel Washington is one of those actors that I run hot and cold with. Sometimes he seems too cocksure about himself, and other instances, he seems humble. He is "America's Actor" but I don't seem to remember a lot of classic movies to his credit. The fact that he and another actor/actress I sometimes despise, Julia Roberts, is in one of my guilty pleasure movies, The Pelican Brief, just goes to show you how flip floppy I can be. So it was with some trepidation that I viewed Deja Vu.

The thing that drew me to Deja Vu was that it was a sci-fi action movie. Its sci-fi premise is similiar to the Ben Affleck movie Paycheck in that it is really a plot device and not so much a theme. But it is there and used in a way to remind you that the movie really isn't realistic. It is every day science fiction, in other words.

To help solve a terrorist crime, Denzel and some other government types have to view the past "as it happens". Adam Goldberg plays the lead scientist and the movie actually gives a somewhat scientific reason behind the fiction. As the movie progresses, Denzel falls in love with a person in the past, a woman he had found murdered earlier.

Though the romance angle seems forced, the movie is a fun joyride. Like I said it is a blend of sci-fi and action, so it has the big explosions and the bad guy caricature (played by Jesus himself, Jim Cavaziel) Val Kilmer also has a supporting role and a bunch of other "Hey! It's That Guy!"s pop up. But the movie is all about Denzel.

Denzel is in his tough guy role that he has played before in such movies as Out of Time (which, unfortunately had nothing to due with the space-time continuum). His acting makes you want to root for him against all odds. He is the perfect actor to play the hero in this movie. There is no real attempt to make the hero tragic, he is just a man of action.

The movie itself is directed by Tony Scott, who also directed Denzel in Man on Fire. Tony Scott has a typical style of directing and it is present here. The movie's colors seem almost flat, dull, not vibrant. But it does detract from the scenes, in fact, it adds a gritty "Realism". This is especially true when we see what happened in the past. The muted colors definitely play up the past versus present vibe.

In hindsight, there are a lot of plotholes. Somethings in the past seem to be able to change, but others aren't. At one point, the movie makes it seem that the villain knows he is being spied on from the "Future" but there is little follow up to this. However, I didn't realize any of these points until after the movie and I don't think you will either. For a sci-fi fan, there is plenty of gizmos and techie jargon to please you. For an action fan, there are crashes and chases abound. For romance fans, there is a forced plot, but it is there. It is really an enjoyable piece of cinematic fluff. Unfortunately, this movie will probably leave theaters very soon, so when it comes out on DVD, be sure to catch it.

3 1/2 Time Paradoxes out of 5.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas with the Scrubs Gang

If you love Scrubs and/or love A Charlie Brown Christmas, you will love/hate this 10 minute clip combining them both:

The Cast of Scrubs Dubs Over a Christmas Classic

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Studio 60's Ratings Make it Studio 6.0

Recently, I took an in-depth look at why Lost’s ratings were down this season. I had such a fun time critically thinking about such things that I have decided to examine what can only be described as the biggest disappointment, ratings-wise, this season: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Created and written by Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing), it was supposed to be the show that would anchor Monday nights on NBC and catapult the struggling network to the top. Unfortunately, the show has acted like an achor, but in the more common way they are used: it is weighing down and dragging the network to the bottom. NBC has picked up the show for the entire season, but I cannot see how it could granted a second season with its current ratings. Why did this show not live up to the hype? Or come anywhere close to a ratings success? A couple of theories:

Too Preachy: The first couple of episodes save for the pilot, talked about big world issues such as the role of religion in and on TV and the War on Terror. While such topics would be fine if presented on Sorkin’s old show, The West Wing, there are wildly out of place on a drama about comedy. Not to say that if Mr. Sorkin wanted to tackled these concerns later on in the show’s life, after he had established the show’s pace and place in the landscape, that’s one thing. But Sorkin hadn’t earned that privilege yet. True, The West Wing brought him credibility, but he didn’t seem to know that he was working on a brand new show, with brand new limitations and situations that he couldn’t thrust his views into right away.

Aaron Sorkin didn’t realize that he was back playing with his own money, not the house’s, when he gambled on debating topical issues in the first few episodes. Viewers and critics immediately turned off. Luckily, recent episodes have been light on hard issues and it seems to me that Sorkin has slowly realized that he can’t push as hard as he could on The West Wing.

Too Personal: Aaron Sorkin is personally writing each episode. He has admitted to putting some of real life experiences into the show. For example, star director Danny Tripp (played by Bradley Whitford) is a recovering cocaine addict, like Sorkin is. However, Sorkin has so thinly veiled his truth from his fiction. Harriet Hayes (played by Sarah Paulson) is a Christian, church-going comedian and actress. So was Aaron Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth. That connection makes it hard to watch as Sorkin, through the characters he writes, makes Harriet seem dumb or not too bright. Or when another character rips into her. A recent example had the characters palyed by Nate Corddry and D.L. Hughley repeatedly admonish Harriet for wanting to appear in a men’s magazine. Which, coincidentally (or not), Kristin did as well. With the characters whining about how it would demean Harriet to do appear in lingerie, it is clear that Aaron is sending a personal message through his show.

There is also a Vanity Fair reporter who shares similar traits to another Sorkin ex. Matthew Albie (played by Matthew Perry) has to write every episode of Studio 60 because he is the prodigal son and his fellow writers are idiots. A big complaint on the set of The West Wing was that the other writers rarely got to contribute anything because Sorkin repeatedly took control. The Amanda Peet character is strongly against reality TV amplifying what Aaron Sorkin was fervent about when he was promoting the new show. There are other instances where lines out of a character’s mouth or their actions seem out of place and more indicative of Aaron Sorkin wanting to say something personal through his creations. While it is true that if you didn’t know anything about who was creating the show, this issue wouldn’t be that bad. But remember, NBC was touting Mr. Sorkin as the third “star” of the show, so things such cannot be ignored.

Too Unfunny: A frequent lament about the show to be sure. It is a drama, but it is a drama about a comedy show. Rarely, though, is anything on the show, whether it be behind the scenes or on stage is actually funny. And you need funny to counter any drama. Again, The West Wing did it well, with moments of comedy balanced by the larger issue.

Once again, in recent episodes, the comedy seems to be improving. I laughed at loud at parts of the show, which was rare early on. I believe this aspect of the show is getting better and I hope it continues.

Too Familiar: Matthew Perry. Bradley Whitford. Quick cadences to dialogue. Maybe the public is just tired at this point. Sure everyone loved Perry on Friends. Whitford was gold on The West Wing. But how can we enjoy them if they never go away? And people seem to forget that The West Wing was falling pretty quickly in its final few years. Sure, Sorkin was gone at that point, but it was his monster. It still had his fingerprints on it. So why is it a surprise when The East Wing (Studio 60) doesn’t light up the boards?

The rest of the cast is stupendous. Corddry, Hughley, Paulson all have shining moments. But they are usually playing off of the Whitford or Perry characters. Paulson is particularly trapped in a romantic entanglement with Perry. Corddry and Hughley are starting to grow, but Sarah Paulson is stuck. Studio 60 needs to pull back slightly from Matthew and Bradley and focus on the other characters.

Too Bad of a Time Slot: As mentioned before, Studio 60 was supposed to rule Monday nights. It was the sure bet, while its lead-in, Heroes, was going to be the show that struggled. Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Heroes is a big hit, and deservedly so. However, that leaves Studio 60 with a strange lead-in. Heroes is a sci-fi fantasy serial drama in the mold of Lost. Studio 60 is a straight up drama about real people. They aren’t really compatible with each other. Geeks aren’t going to stick around for every day stuff; furthermore, Studio 60 was and is billed as a “smart” drama, but often serial dramas are taxing to the brain as people try to figure out clues and plot points, which is good for Heroes, but bad for Studio 60.

NBC is going to stick with Studio 60 on Mondays for now, but I would suggest a change. Stick it on Thursdays nights after the two-hour comedy block and move ER to Monday nights. Studio 60 would be great “flipside” to the previously seen comedy shows. And it would be a good programming gimmick to put the comedy about backstage at a sketch show (30 Rock) with its dramatic counterpoint (Studio 60). If NBC doesn’t want to move ER then they should stick Studio 60 with Friday Night Lights. Both shows are struggling but perhaps could find an audience together. FNL is supposed to be a family show and while I have yet to hear the description applied to Studio 60, The West Wing was once considered a family show so Sorkin can write one.

There is no single reason why Studio 60 is not performing as well as predicted. Perhaps it got buried under its own hype. Sorkin’s previous endeavors in the TV world were surprise hits with little expectations. Studio 60 had huge expectations and has failed to live up to them. Maybe Sorkin can right the ship and then pray for a second season to further his rebuilding. Otherwise, he might be left out in the Sunset Strip.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Welcoming a Special Correspondent

This blog has proven so popular that I have been asked to provide a forum for one my readers/friends to talk about some of his own entertainment related ideas. So please have a warm round of applause for a new section in Entertainment: Critical - Some Words of Gonch. Mr. Gonch has his own blog, a hockey-centric one, that you may read yourself by clicking on the appropriate link to the right. But stay here for a second and hear what he has to say.

Some Words of Gonch: DVD Review: Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Chosen Collection

Greetings all, from the land of theme parks and tourists, special contributer gonch_in_goal here. Being that Adam Entertainment is a friend of mine, I thought I'd take the liberty of making my own review on his blog. It's piqued my interest enough and I'd like to see if I can't take a crack at it. So here goes nothing.

Back in 1997, I was starting high school while a certain Buffy Summers began her first (ok technically 2nd) year. She did the typical things a teenager would do: go to the mall, skip classes, slay vampires, etc. See back in 1997, I didn't know about Buffy The Vampire Slayer, not that many did. By the time I knew of it, I thought that it just had to be stupid, a bad sci-fi/fantasy show in the guise of a low budget Sci-Fi channel movie. I never once really watched the series or gave it a chance. Then the DVDs came out, and I still didn't care. Then, a few friends of mine shared their love of Buffy with me...and the rest is history.

The show revolved around a seemingly innocent yet not quite what she seems valley girl named Buffy, in Sunnydale, California, attending high school while making some new friends (and enemies). That's the idea behind, oh the first 10-15 minutes. After that, and maybe a little before, it becomes quite obvious that Buffy is actually the one girl in all the world chosen to slay vampires, demons, and other fun baddies. With her Watcher Giles, and friends Willow and Xander, they act as a "Scooby Gang" on a mission to save Sunnydale and quite often the world, even if no one else notices.

To say that the show evolves through these 7 seasons is putting it mildly. They attend high school, graduate it (in true Buffy fashion via evil means), go to college, people die, get married (or not), etc. Again all seems typical of any teenage show, but nothing on this show is ever what it seems. In fact, the most gentle of all characters is likely to be the deadliest by another season and the worst villains can become their greatest allies.

The show lives and breathes on its character interplay, and they play so well off each other. Joss Whedon created these characters and this show, often giving it some its best written and directed episodes, as well as its best lines. The dialogue is snarky, self-referential, terse, and often creative in its vocabulary. It plays well off of some of the more tense and dire situations in the show. Whedon put it best when calling it a "Genre" show, because it really has it all. Sci-fi, fantasy (with great special effects for its time), drama (because you really will care about these characters), comedy, and plenty of stuff in between. There are few shows on television that managed to create such impressive and original ideas for episodes, like musicals, sound-free, and suddenly real life issues.

The shows flaws are few and far between. It can be said that later seasons like 6 and 7 began to take a bit of a dive in quality. Season 6 in particular showcased the darkest point of the show and turned off some of its viewers...even though it ironically had what is considered the best episode of the run. As for 7, it wasn't quite as dark, but it did seem to drag on at times, often searching for a better plot. Part of the issue is that so many of the seasons raise the bar so high, it's often hard to climb back up above. But in general, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a quality show that made characters and relations come first and battling evil come second.

I don't own the individual Buffy DVDs, this is about the super deluxe box set: Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Chosen Collection. It's all 7 seasons, that's 39 discs, plus a bonus 40th disc. The packaging alone is neat, a blood coated box that opens up to display the seven individual season keepbooks that combine to make the image of the entire regular cast. This is an incredibly more compact version of the original DVDs and includes a letter from Joss Whedon, a booklet on all the episodes and the aforementioned 40th disc. Each keepbook contains a different season, the first season being a shortened 12 episodes due to being a midseason replacement, but otherwise 22 episodes per season. As for special features, there's almost too many to name. Interviews, commentaries, outtakes, season overviews, behind the scenes, voiceover work, fan fanaticism, it's pretty endless for so many DVDs, as one would expect. Most of these are informative, ! interesting and add to the mythology of the show. The only warning I can give, is to avoid most of these special features the first time through (or at least until a season's viewing is done) because spoilers abound for upcoming episodes.

That about wraps up this first outing of A Gonch-ed Review. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of the better shows in television history, it brought a network to light in the WB (now CW with UPN), promoted a great writer/director in Whedon who went on to make Angel, Firefly, the movie Serenity and other upcoming projects, and gave teenagers a female hero who could actually fight back. The girl in distress was the last one you'd want to mess with on Buffy.

gonch_in_goal awards Buffy The Vampire Slayer - The Chosen Collection the Gonch Gold Medal. (For anyone wondering, my rating system is Gold - Best, Silver - Okay, and Bronze - Worst). Thanks for playing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dreamweaver: Time to Laugh

Welcome to the much-delayed third edition of Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver is where I present some ideas for movies, TV, whatever that I think Hollywood should make. We are going to be dipping our collective toes into the sitcom pool with my idea for a new show: Time to Laugh: The Making of a Sitcom.

The title seems wieldy, no? That’s intentional. It is supposed to be a riff on the title of the “Behind the Scenes” portions of DVDs that seem to either have some incredibly cheesy or totally unrelated title. And that reasoning behind the title should clue you in on what the series would be about: a documentary about the making of a sitcom. Each episode would be about making the corresponding episode for some unseen sitcom. So the first episode/pilot would be about making the first episode/pilot of the fictional series.

The show would focus on the four regular actors on the show, the executive producer and some revolving director/writer. In the mold of Seinfeld, the male lead on the show-within-a-show would also be the creator and head writer. He is a comedian and the show is loosely based on his material. His best friend (and initially only friend) on the show is the executive producer. There is another male lead who is probably the most famous of the foursome, with a career that flamed out early. The two female leads are relative newbies, with one a former a comedic performer (like in The Groundlings or other improv like group) and the other is someone who has worked on Broadway. Of course, one of the leads could not be seen until the second episode to reflect the changes that are usually made between the pilot and the second episode of a show.

The show would be shot in documentary form like The Office and Arrested Development is/were. There are subtitles showing location details and actors names when they are first introduced. You can clearly see the sets of the show-within-a-show, but you would never see what the finished product looks like. The comedy would come from the interaction of the people working on the show, who play friends in front of the camera, but really couldn’t care less for each other away from the lens. Also, the pressure of trying to be funny would in itself be funny. Imagine the main character constantly being asked if what he just said was meant to be funny and him being exasperated.

The show wouldn’t be too “Inside Hollywood”, with anything show bizzy being treated more like a typical work place problem. Network moving your show from the plum timeslot to Friday nights? Just going to have to grin and bear it (and complain to no end). Got passed over for that movie role? Rub it in your coworkers’ faces that you actually had a chance. The cast and crew wouldn’t care about the Emmys until actually nominated. It sounds a little clichéd sure, but the show should serve as a smart parody and satire of all sitcoms and their mundane premises.

With Studio 60 and 30 Rock both offering an inside look at a sketch comedy show, there might be a saturation point already reached in the TV landscape for backstage antics. It should be noted that both shows are struggling with ratings. But Studio 60 is a drama and 30 Rock is looking more and more like a fun farce than an actual sitcom. Time to Laugh would be more like My Name is Earl and The Office, where it is real life with a slight twist. There would be no laugh track (except in scenes where they are rehearsing a scene with the studio audience). It is just a behind-the-scenes vignette viewed through a distorted lens and lasting 22 minutes.

Boy, I referenced a lot of NBC shows in this piece.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Simpsons: "The Haw-Hawed Couple" Review

As The Simpsons has gotten on in years, certain episodes have relied more and more on secondary characters outside of the family. Everyone from the Comic Book Guy to Moe have gotten their own episodes. Nelson Muntz, the school bully who has had his fair share of spotlight, is the focus of this week's episode.

As per the usual Nelson-centric plot, Nelson befriends a member of the Simpson clan. The first time this happened, it was Lisa. Then it was Bart. Then it was Marge. Now it is Bart again. Bart is the only person to show up to Nelson's birthday party, and Nelson immediately declares him his new best friend.

What is with the desperation of the friends of Bart and Lisa? Ralph has attached himself to both children and Milhouse is definitely Bart's lackey. It would seem that Bart and Lisa are the de facto "popular" kids at school, since all the children flock to them. Of course, this isn't always true, but seems to be conviently be true when the plot dictates it.

The secondary plot has Homer reading a Harry Potter parody to Lisa. He panics when the ending is a downer, so he makes up his own to keep Lisa happy. These sequences were pretty funny, with the pretty farfetched names and the nonsensical plot of the book within a show.

As far as nonsequitors go, the episode had its fair share. The beginning five minutes, which as usual was much ado about nothing, had Marge and Homer faking a fight so the kids would leave them alone to do some snuggling. They thanked god for their alone time and almost got away with it until their fight tape switched over to America's "Horse With No Name". Spider-Man and Doc Ock showed up to Nelson's party, with Spider-Man only having ten minutes of material. Also, Spider-Man looked a bit out of shape.

This episode could have been a disappointment, with it's recycled plot involving Nelson. But it was actually very strong in parts and had a good B-plot.

3 1/2 Vests Ripped By Wild Dogs out of 5.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pop Culture Pusher

Recently, I got asked what television shows I currently watch that I would like for other people to watch. This got me to asking myself what other properties I have tried to "push" other people into. Below is a list of things I try to get other people to enjoy and a reason for each item.


"Lost": Big surprise here, right? The show is a drama and a mystery. The first season really hooks you in, and although the second season is a change of pace, it is available on DVD so you don't have to wait a week between episodes. Once you watch the first two seasons, I don't see how you can't start watching the 3rd season. Really, this is the best show on TV.

"Heroes": The second best drama/hour long show on TV. It has all the lightness of a comic book with the serialized hook of Lost. With the show off till January 22nd and all the episodes available on the NBC website, now is the time to catch up.

"The Office": The second best show on TV and the best comedy. It is deliciously awkward and cringeworthy. Not only does Steve Carrell shine, but with the inclusion of Ed Helms, the show is really reaching the upper atmosphere. It definitely deserved the Best Comedy Emmy last year.

"Arrested Development": Ok, there are no original episodes anymore, but do yourself a favor and pick up the DVDs. The episodes are funny and become hilarious when viewed together in a string. There are many repeated jokes that are more clear with marathon viewing. Will Arnett is the breakout star of the show, but every cast member has great comedic talents. I do believe this show is a great satire of sitcoms and outlandish behavoir.


"Donnie Darko": A weird little movie that makes no sense. But it has Jake and Maggie Gylenhaal, Patrick Swayze and a host of other "Hey, I Know That Guy!"s. You might not get the story, but you'd appreciate what the movie is trying to do. Look for the subtle 80s movie parodies that run throughout.

"Mallrats": A personal fav of mine. Really, if you aren't under 35, this movie isn't for you. But if you are, and you enjoy somewhat crude humor and comic books, you can't miss this.

"Fight Club": Great ending, great beginning, and a great middle. This movie is visally stunning and actually improves upon the source material it is based on. You get two fine performances from Edward Nrton and Brad Pitt. If you watch closely you can catch the clues to the big reveal throughout the movie.


Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere": Yes, "Crazy" did get overplayed during the summer, but it isn't even the best song on the CD. That would be "Gone Daddy Gone". Or "Smiley Face". Or "Transformer". You get my point.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Greatest Hits": This one actually got pushed on me. I heard it while on a trip with a friend of mine and it entered my subconscience. I didn't even remember that I had actually heard the CD before I added it to my wishlist. Sure enough, for my birthday, I got it. I love the hits I recognize and now I am totally digging the later half of the CD, which is made up of lesser known hits.

There you have it. If you come across me and we get into a conversation about what we are currently enjoying, chances are I will tell you that you need to indulge yourself in one of those choices. Those are my current pop culture vices, and I hope I can sell them to you too.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Online Reality

Recently, I did a few things one would have though impossible a decade ago. I watched a new episode of Studio 60 on the NBC website. I also previewed Gwen Stefani's new single on iTunes, then jumped over to YouTube to watch her video. Yes sir, we are definitely in a digital age.

Some have cried doom at the new avenues of awareness. They believe album sales are down because of the ease of availability of songs on iTunes. They say that certain shows ratings are down because people jsut wait until they are on the internet the next day to watch it (this criticism is also applied to TiVo and DVR). But is delayed consumption or single consumption a bad thing?

There is a reason why a new song release is called a "single". The record companies want the public to consume the song in hopes of them devouring the entire album. iTunes allows the same sort of exposure conventional radio does, but one actually has to pay for it. The record company still gets some profit off of it. Not so with illegal music sites such as what Napster once was. But even in Napster's heyday, I rarely saw anyone download entire albums. It was usually a single or a couple of popular songs. From personal experience, sites such as iTunes and Napster actually expanded my musical tastes and lead to some purchases of CDs.

Having first run TV shows available online is also a good thing. I may not feel like watching Studio 60 on Monday night, but when I am bored later on in the week, I will go to the NBC website and watch the episode. I am still loyal to the show and will probably start watching it as it airs soon once again. It is not dissuading me from watching the commercial filled first airing, but rather, letting me not feel rushed and pressure to watch it. I have also watched episodes of Lost online (although it was more because I wanted to rewatch a previously seen ep) and the experience is totally different. Online viewing will never replace real time viewing, just because as much as we hate them, commercials allow for pause. There is very little dramatic or comedic tension in a commercial-less online viewing.

The reason for the decline in certain aspects of the entertainment fields is not due to internet piracy or the ease of consumption of the net. It is because the quality and the cost of the things that demand immediate entertainment attention doesn't really deserve that attention. If the quality of the product is good, then no one will wait on it. Even with TiVo, people most often watch things live if they feel they can't miss it. If the object is average or subpar, then people can wait for the next day or not even catch it. The internet has just added another floor to smash through before the bottom drops out of a bomb of a project.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Classic Movie Review: "American Graffiti"

Although best known for his Star Wars movies, George Lucas actually had made a few films before Luke, Leia, and Han ever graced the screen. In fact, if not for his Star Wars films, American Graffiti, released in 1973, would probably be considered much more of a classic, career defining movie. Does the nostalgia of 1960s, looked at in the 1970s, hold up in the 2000s? Sorta.

Due to such movies as Grease and American Graffiti, I fear that there is a distortion of the past. When viewed through filmmakers' eyes, the younger days of the Boomer Babies always seems to be filled with greased back hair, cigs rolled up in white t's, and beautiful looking cars. Every teen is innocent, yet on the cusp of something bigger. Every girl is demure and naive or dangerous. And boy, back then everyone was friendly and no one minded the occasional drag race.

If there is an indicator of a gap between the Boomer Generation and Gen Xers/Yers, it is probably the nostalgia movie. I do not think a young upcoming movie maker now will make a movie out of the early 90's with grunge rock as the background. The newer generations are more cynical and saracastic. Outside of movies like Reality Bites and Suburbia, which themselves were made in the 90's, I don't recall many movies addressing the "Good old days" of the last decade before the millinieum.

But enough about the nature of American Graffiti, what about the actual movie? Believe it or not, George Lucas was once an above average writer. American Graffiti, while not having a strong plot, had characters that were not one-dimensional. Sure it helped that Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard were the stars, but the writing wasn't the typical flat Lucas dialogue I have come to expect from the man. The 60's speak didn't seem forced and I could see people talking like that in everyday conversation. Like I said, there was little to no plot, as the movie followed Howard and Dreyfuss on their final night before going off to college, but at least things happened.

Harrison Ford also has a small role in the movie. Of course he would go on to be Han Solo and work with Lucas's friend Steven Spielberg for the Indiana Jones movies (which Lucas also was a part of). It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard doesn't leave the nostalgia-type project, as he also did Happy Days, a 70s TV show about the 1950s. Dreyfuss and Spielberg would meet up for the perhaps the greatest two movie colloborations of all time: Jaws and Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.

If nothing else, American Graffiti serves as a roadmarker as one of the first movies in the Renaissance that the silver screen would soon undergo. Francis Ford Coppola, who produced this film, Lucas and Spielberg would soon invent such things as a "summer blockbuster" (Jaws), the Force (Star Wars), and the concept that a sequel could be better than the original (Godfather II). So pick up American Graffiti if you want to spend an enjoyable two hours and see the beginning of the rebirth of American Cinema.

3 Hot Rods out of 5.

Crazy Train to Hollywood

By now, we have all heard about Michael Richards and his racist rant. Then, just this past week, Danny DeVito was on The View and was acting drunk and confused. Couple this all with Mel Gibson’s incident a few months ago and the Tom Cruise saga, and there appears to be a disturbing trend rising: the old guard of Hollywood is breaking down.

Let’s ignore the social connotations of Gibson’s and Richard’s outburst and concentrate on what is says about Hollywood. Since 2000, a new generation of Hollywood players arrived. From Lindsay Lohan to Jake Gyllenhaal to Reese Witherspoon and Tobey MacGuire, the young guns seemed to be outdueling the previous generation. I am surprised it took this long for the avatars of the 90’s to start to act out of control.

I am sure you are saying that this rise as nothing to do with those falls. After all, there are other huge older stars that seem to be doing pretty well. But remember, Michael Richards was huge with Seinfeld and Mel Gibson owned the previous decade between his acting and directing. Mel had staged a comeback with The Passion of the Christ, but that movie generated a boat load of controversy and didn’t exactly make Gibson popular again.

There is a need to adapt quickly in Hollywood. Look at Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard. Both were former actors who turned to directing when they felt their acting careers were on the decline. But their directorial success did not happen over night. They also work inside the Hollywood system and very rarely have “pet projects”. George Clooney could have been a casualty of the 90’s, but he knew his niche (playboy type roles) and worked in that niche until he could make a film like Good Night and Good Luck. One can say that om Cruise is adapting, and is stuck in his action or romantic roles. And with each carbon copy Tom Cruise role, the box office receipts go down.

However, how many other former stars will make this transition? How many are feeling some pressure and will negatively react to that pressure? I think we will see more of the older stars acting embarrassing. It won’t be anyone that’s been relevant recently, but probably someone who we all once admired. It’s sad to see Hollywood chew up and spit out people, but it is part of being a star.

Friday, December 01, 2006

So This is What People Think Are The Greatest TV Quotes of All Time?

TV Land is revealing what they chose as the 100 Greatest TV Quotes of All Time. The interest caveat here is that they chose anything that aired on TV as fodder. So we have newscaster catchphrases, political speeches, and commercial(!) stuff. Which not to say is bad, just unusual. Here is the link to Rolling Stone covering it.

Of course, I have to argue with some the inclusions and omissions. "Denny Crane" has already made it to the list, but "Don't tell me what I can't do" from Lost is out? No "Time for a Threat Down!" from The Colbert Report? Nothing from Arrested Development (C'MON! as Gob would say). Really, they could have done without the commercials, and even some of the newsworthy stuff (I am surprised they didn't put down Cronkite's speech after JFK was shot). But commercials, while memorable, should have their own separate category.

I am also deeply amused by the comments people left on this particular posting. From misunderstanding that this is a TV article, from sniping at each other for their quotes, it reminds me that not everyone with a computer should post on the internet.

...Wait, what am I saying? For the few of you that do read this blog, let me know what you think about the list and we can have a mini-debate.