Sunday, December 05, 2004

No, Joe! Say it ain't so!

Watching the Washington Redskins throttle the hated New York Giants Sunday, I didn’t know whether to cheer or throw up.
Clinton Portis ran alternately like a deer and a bull, Patrick Ramsey made Favre-esque throws, and the defense—as usual—came up big on their way to a 31-7 rout. Too bad it took 12 weeks to find an offense.
As the Redskins improve to a whopping 4-8, I’m left wondering if that record wouldn’t be the exact opposite if Joe Gibbs hadn’t gone to Ramsey about six weeks into the season, instead of waiting until there were only six weeks left. The old cliché says pride comes before a fall, and it was Gibbs’ stubbornness that left the dreadful Mark Brunnel under center for 10 excruciating weeks of ineptitude.
Brunnel single-handedly gave away several games this year. His turnovers against Baltimore and Cleveland alone led directly to points for the other teams, dropping the Redskins further and further out of contention. But the blame ultimately rests with Golden Joe. It was Gibbs who signed Brunnel’s dead arm in the offseason to an unwieldy $40 million contract. It was Gibbs who stuck with the former All-Pro, even when everyone else in the football world—be it fans or opposing teams—failed to see the logic.
All of this was unbelievable to the devoted—like myself—who believed all of our dreams had come true in January when Gibbs announced he was returning to his beloved Redskins. I was one of those delusional morons who thought 13-3 wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Gibbs succeeds at anything he touches, so why wouldn’t he be able to take one of the more talented teams in the league and turn them into instant winners?
Why, it seems, is because it took Gibbs until the first week of December to remember just how great a coach he is—with a little help from his players. In the days leading up to the Giants game, Gibbs had sit-downs with both Portis and Ramsey, who both begged the Hall of Fame coach to work to their strengths. Portis knew he needed Ramsey to at least try and go deep to free up some space to run, and Ramsey knew he needed an established running game to make any headway against a bitter division opponent.
Apparently, Gibbs listened—and the results were stunning.
Except for giving up a kickoff return for a touchdown, the Redskins dominated New York for the entire game—doing whatever they wanted on offense and defense, whenever they wanted. I’ve been screaming at the television all year for Gibbs to use Portis to the best of the fleet-footed runner’s abilities; for the first time this season, the coach finally put Portis in space with pitches, sweeps and screen passes, where he used his speed and shiftiness to rack up more than 150 yards and two touchdowns. With that running attack going through the Giants like a knife through butter, Ramsey was able to drop back in the pocket comfortably, using play-action to freeze the defenders in their tracks and put receivers in positions to make plays.
Though I wish Gibbs had gone to Ramsey earlier in the year, I have to believe all things will work out in the end—they always seem to for ol’ Joe. He had to work through his own challenges this year, and he’ll certainly be a better coach for it in 2005 and beyond. It’s important Washington finishes this season strong, though, so Daniel Snyder won’t be tempted to blow up the team once again before opening day next year. With one of the league’s best defenses and running backs, there’s no reason this group can’t be right in the thick of the playoff hunt next season (actually, in the ridiculously-bad NFC, the ’Skins are still alive for a berth this year).
It’s Redskins legend at this point, but let’s not forget Gibbs was almost fired in his first season as head coach in 1980, going 8-8. He went to back-to-back Super Bowls the next two years.
After the performance Gibbs and his young nucleus of players turned in Sunday, maybe history really will repeat itself.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

U2, 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'

U2 spent the 1980s becoming the biggest band in the world, then spent the 1990s tearing their signature sound apart and dreaming it all up again.
Now in their 25th year, it is evident the legendary Irish quartet has tried to bring the best of both worlds with them into the new millennium.
It’s too early to tell just where U2’s new album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” ranks among their deep catalog (I’ll reserve final judgment until hearing the songs on the 2005 world tour, and maybe not even then—some things take awhile to sink in). But taken in conjunction with their 2000 gem “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” it’s clear Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. still have a lot to offer in the 21st century.
Although it isn’t the rawk-fest originally promised, “Bomb” is a more straightforward guitar manifesto than any U2 album since 1991’s “Achtung Baby.” While “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” was akin to the band’s pop/rock classic “The Joshua Tree” from 1987, “Bomb” is more in line with 1984’s (highly underrated) “The Unforgettable Fire,” albeit injected with some of the punches and tricks the group discovered in its albums from the ’90s.
First single “Vertigo” stands up to the best of U2’s modern rave-ups, giving songs such as “Elevation,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” a run for their collective money. (Don’t give me any grief about those ubiquitous Apple commercials, either. This song will stand the test of time, long after you’ve forgotten those TV spots. Admit it: Before you saw it for the hundredth time, you thought it was cool.)
Meanwhile, the gorgeous “City of Blinding Lights” belongs in the same company as U2’s best anthems. Driven by a classic Edge reverb riff, the song’s chiming chorus induces goosebumps, as Bono tries to ward off the cynicism of middle age and reclaim the optimism of his youth.
On an album that has no glaring missteps, it’s hard to pick standouts. “All Because of You,” is an uptempo stomper that would feel right at home on 1989’s “Rattle and Hum” alongside “Desire” or “Silver and Gold”; elsewhere, the sinewy “Love and Peace or Else”—a plea for peace in the Middle East—could easily slide into a slot on 1997’s “Pop,” while “A Man and a Woman,” one of Bono’s best love songs (and there are a lot of them), features this beautiful line: “I could never take a chance/Of losing love to find romance.”
Despite its auspicious title, “Atomic Bomb” is largely an apolitical album. Its heart belongs to the third track, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” a true U2 classic if there ever was. Hearkening back to the band’s best song (“One”), Bono rips his soul wide open in an ode to his late father, who died in the middle of the band’s last tour. Grandiose and intimate at the same time, “Sometimes” exemplifies the continued brilliance of U2’s music. For two and a half decades, they have been able to make the minute details of life seem epic and the epic seem intimate.
“How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” isn’t Part II of “The Joshua Tree” or “Achtung Baby,” nor does it push past the boundaries explored in the mid-‘90s on “Zooropa” and “Pop.” Instead, this collection cements the group’s transition into a new era. With their last two albums, U2 seem to have finally settled on a sound—on a skin—after 25 years of searching.
This is us now, these songs proclaim, and we’re not going away any time soon.
Grade: A-
(Just in case you were wondering, “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” are A+)

Friday, October 01, 2004

Johnny Rotten is rolling in his ... wait, he's not dead?

—Originally published 9.31.04

Punk rock as a musical genre is alive and well, but punk rock as an ideology may be dead for this generation.

Let me explain:

Last weekend, I went to see the Irish punk band Flogging Molly in Charlotte. Excellent show, but in between the opening act and the headliners came an infomercial for Yes, amidst a dingy, smoke-filled, sweaty room comes a DVD projected on a film screen -- how very punk, indeed.

According to its mission statement, PunkVoter is a "coalition to educate, register and mobilize progressive voters." The word "progressive" is the first trip-wire because it usually means "Democrat," but I'd be willing to let that slide if not for what follows:

"Something needs to be done to unite the youth vote and bring real activism back into our society. Punk rock has always been on the edge and in the forefront of politics. It is time to energize the majority of today's disenfranchised youth movement and punk rockers to make change a reality."

The statement goes on to say PunkVoter "is about organizing the many diverse and regional movements into one voice of political change."

Excuse me, but am I being asked to goose-step somewhere? Since when has punk rock been about unifying anything? We've come a long way from The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K."

It's insulting for the bands behind to believe the "majority" of youth voters fall into the progressive category. The mission statement claims to educate youth about "what is really going on in Washington, D.C.," but its video consisted almost entirely of Will Ferrell impersonating President Bush and making him look foolish over and over again. This isn't "education," it's propaganda (hello, Michael Moore). It's not about simply getting kids to vote, period -- it's, "Hey, look, all the cool punk rockers are voting for John Kerry and you should, too, or you're not punk."

A funny thing happened in Charlotte last Friday, though. Contrary to the condescending attitude of, the crowd seemed well aware of our nation's political realm -- and they didn't appreciate the video. The loudest applause came when the real President Bush first came on the screen; there were also chants of "four more years" and the occasional audience member telling Kerry and the PunkVoter spokesman to do interesting things to themselves. When the interminable video ended, the applause were seemingly in relief the concert interruption was over -- not support for PunkVoter's "progressive" message.

By definition, punk isn't definable (go figure that one out in your spare time) -- but openly promoting one political party or another wasn't the goal when bands like the Ramones and Television were formed in the mid-'70s. Johnny Ramone, a godfather of the genre (may he rest in peace), was a Republican. I didn't know that until last week and I certainly didn't learn it from "Beat on the Brat" or "The KKK Took My Baby Away."

Three decades later, artists such as those aligned with -- and there are tons of them, not to mention the bands on the Vote for Change Tour -- are using their clout to shill for a politician and destroying punk in the meantime. In the beginning, punk wasn't about exclusion or party lines, it was about acceptance for those doing their own thing.

Chris Carrabba, lead singer/founder of Dashboard Confessional, once said he could think of nothing more punk rock than going onstage at a punk rock show with an acoustic guitar and a batch of songs about heartbreak and love -- let the crowd try and mosh to that.

After last weekend's Flogging Molly concert, I'm thinkin' the most punk rock thing I can do is vote for George W. Bush.

Friday, September 24, 2004

'Sky Captain' soars on digital wings

—Originally published 9.24.04

The innovation and craftsmanship of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" dramatically enhance what would otherwise be a tepid action flick.

Filmed entirely against a blue screen in essentially one room, the movie from first-time filmmaker Kerry Conran is unlike anything you've seen before. More than 2,000 digital effects (yes, that is not a misprint) comprise most of the shots, allowing the stellar cast to come fill in the blanks. The result is a nearly seamless mix of next-generation technology and classic melodrama and noir that works pretty well, if a little strange.

Jude Law stars as Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain, a mercenary fighter pilot called upon to save the world from a sinister scientist, Dr. Totenkopf. Set in 1930s New York, the city is under attack from skyscraper-size robots and curious mechanical flying machines of death. They serve little purpose other than to look cool and provide Sky Captain an excuse to fly stunts through the city, but those two reasons are good enough.

The good Captain is joined in his quest by ex-lover Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a plucky metro reporter for a New York newspaper. She's been tipped off about the mad scientist's plan -- information Sullivan desperately needs once his sidekick, techno-wiz Dex (Giovanni Ribishi), is kidnapped by the evil genius. So the two work together to save the world, sparring with each other as much as the baddies.

While Angelina Jolie shares equal space in the credits with the other two stars, she has more of an extended cameo than a lead part as another of Sullivan's ex-lovers. She portrays eye-patch-wearing Franky Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who helps the Captain in his quest, allowing Conran an opportunity to showcase more aerial and aquatic acrobatics with machines that in no way could have existed in the '30s.

But that's the nature of this ambitious film. Sure, some of the lines and jokes get a little old by the end (a quick 100 minutes) and the plot is rather formulaic, but everything plays second-fiddle to the look and feel of the movie, which is anything but typical. Rather than deride it as unrealistic, celebrate "Sky Captain" for its joyous surrealism and imagination -- something like "Casablanca" meets "Batman" meets "Star Wars."

Speaking of, there's been a lot of discussion lately concerning the artistic merits of the "Star Wars" trilogy, now that those classics are out on DVD. Creator/director/Hollywood emperor George Lucas said he never intended for his movies to be seen several times over and especially not on a television; they were meant to wash over the audience in a big theater, where nit-picking details the first time around is overrun by the overall experience.

We may look back on "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" the same way. Seeing it again from the couch won't be nearly as fun, but the first time around it's a sight to behold -- on the big screen, anyway.

Grade: B+

Don't let 'Lost' get away

—Originally published 9.24.04

If you didn't catch the premiere of ABC's new series "Lost" Wednesday night, may I say: Wow. Don't make the mistake of missing any more episodes of what looks to be the year's best new show. Here's a quick summary:

A jet plane crashes on a remote island somewhere (presumably) in the Pacific Ocean, leaving just 48 survivors. Among them is a doctor named Jack, played by Matthew Fox in his first major role since "Party of Five." With his medical skills and cool-under-pressure personality, Jack is the default leader of this band of castaways.

After he helps a few fellow survivors, Jack enlists the aid of Kate (newcomer Evangeline Lilly) to stitch a wicked gash in his back -- with a travel sewing kit and, obviously, no anesthesia. The two become fast friends and spend the rest of the hour-long pilot searching for the plane's cockpit in hopes of finding a radio to call for help.

The show is the brainchild of writer/director J.J. Abrams, who at age 38 is rapidly approaching household-name status. Despite dealing with completely different subject matter, "Lost" is very reminiscent of Abrams' other ABC series, the cult hit "Alias." Both feature superior action and build tension that leaves the audience wanting more and more, all the while making the unbelievable relatable by grounding the series in characters with emotional depth.

Abrams is a master of the serial; if you thought the cliffhangers in "Alias" were tough to take, just what in the world is the mysterious beast prowling around this new show, knocking down trees and eating people one at a time? Hopefully we'll find out soon.

More important, though, "Lost" proves Abrams is no fluke. He has a rather checkered screenwriting career, which includes abominable movies like "Armageddon" and "Gone Fishin'," along with the modest hit "Joy Ride." However, none of those projects gave him complete control like "Alias" and now "Lost." For a film such as "Armageddon," it's easy to imagine a scenario where a good script from Abrams could be ravaged by a hack like director/producer Michael Bay.

Thus I was extremely pleased with the announcement earlier this year that Abrams will be at the helm of the next "Mission: Impossible" installment, starring Tom Cruise. I can think of no one I'd rather have driving this project than Abrams -- after all, "Alias" is a lot like the old "M: I" TV show.

So Abrams essentially gets to transfer "Alias" to the big screen with oh-by-the-way Tom Cruise as the box-office draw; and now the writer/director will have more time, more creative freedom and -- most important -- a monster budget.

The first "Impossible" film was OK; the second was much better under the watchful eye of action aficionado John Woo. But the third, with Abrams aboard, will undoubtedly be the best in the series -- and maybe one of the best action movies we've seen in a long time.

Now all we have to do is wait until 2006 -- sounds like a typical Abrams cliffhanger.

Friday, September 17, 2004

'Star Wars' isn't king anymore

—Originally published 9.17.04

I remember how excited I was for the theatrical re-release of George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy back in 1997. My friends and I bought tickets early and sat outside the theater for more than an hour playing cards, just to make sure we got the seats we wanted.

And I remember how excited I was when the "special edition" was released later that year on VHS (boy, do those three letters seem like they came from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). I put an advance payment down a month early and picked them up the day they came out.

Now, as we near yet another release of the trilogy -- this time on the infinitely superior DVD format -- it's surprising to me that I could really care less.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure the box set will end up on my shelf at some point, if for no other reason than to watch them in widescreen with surround sound (the old VHS are pan and scan and will never look or sound as good).

It would stand to reason that movies I loved as a child shouldn't grab me the same way as an adult. And that's a good thing -- I like movies now that I never would have sat through 10 years ago.

But simple maturity isn't the reason, either, because I still like the first two "Die Hard," "Terminator" and "Alien" movies; the quality of their craftsmanship appeals to both raging-hormone teenagers and hoity-toity movie critics.

No, the real reason for my lack of enthusiasm boils down to two entities: The "Star Wars" prequels and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

First, those dreadful prequels:

Other than last year's "Matrix" sequels, I can think of no other movies in my lifetime that came with so much hype and turned out so badly. With every film he makes, Lucas is looking more and more like The Luckiest Man of All Time. The original "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" -- particularly the latter -- are excellent films; but things started to slip with the fuzzy-wuzzy "Return of the Jedi" and collapsed with the phenomenon known as Jar Jar Binks from 1999's prequel "The Phantom Menace."

Although there was mercifully little Jar Jar in 2002's "Attack of the Clones," the movie was still a clunker, bogged down by an impossibly stiff script that led to horrendously stiff performances from every actor. It's the only "Star Wars" installment I've seen only once; the scene where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is having a "nightmare" about something or other is burned into my memory as particularly painful. I was so irritated by the nonsensical plot and awful dialogue, when the climactic battle came around, all I wanted was to get the heck out of the theater -- lightsaber-wielding Yoda or not.

Lucas used to be the indisputable king of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, with his technical wizardry and indelible characters (read the "expanded universe" books from the last 10 years, and you'll see just how great his creations are). But his actual filmmaking skills get more and more suspect all the time.

Consider jolly ol' Peter Jackson, who came along and blew Lucas out of the universe.

As if the "Star Wars" prequels weren't bad enough, when compared to the work Jackson and his mates did on "The Lord of the Rings" cemented for me that Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the rest were no longer the standard-bearers for the genre. It's no mistake that "Return of the King" was honored with a best-picture Oscar while the "Star Wars" flicks were ignored -- there's really no comparing them in quality of storytelling, production or credible performances.

I can see the apologists lining up to defend Lucas: He wasn't out to make an "epic" in the first place, they'll say, just an old-school, rollickin', good-time popcorn movie. That argument would work if the filmmaker had not gone completely away from that line of thinking himself -- with the obsessive-compulsive, self-involved special editions and especially the prequels, which are neither fun nor rollickin' (Han Solo, where are you?).

This discussion probably doesn't matter in the long run, because the fans will be out en masse Tuesday and "Star Wars" sets will be flying off the shelves like so many X-wings; in the meantime, the anti-fantasy slugs will continue their decades-long defamation of the entire genre as worthless pap, citing Lucas and "Star Wars" as Exhibit A.

Me? I'll buy them at some point, sure, but I kinda wish I could see them through those 15-year-old eyes again.

Friday, September 10, 2004

ESPN's silver anniversary showing tarnish

—Originally published 9.10.04

Michael Jordan took the National Basketball Association -- and professional basketball as a whole -- to previously-unseen heights during his near two-decade reign in the sport.

But he may have ruined it at the same time. Look no further than the U.S. Olympic basketball team comprised of a bunch of MJ wannabes. Everybody wants to run and jump and, most importantly, dunk like Mike, but very few want to work on the rest of their games like Mike. Thus, the NBA product looks less and less like basketball every season.

The same could be true of ESPN, the unquestioned worldwide leader in sports, because now everybody wants to be like Stuart Scott.

As it puts the wraps on an obscenely self-congratulatory "silver anniversary" year celebrating 25 seasons on the air, the cable sports giant -- much like the NBA -- is in freefall when it comes to the quality of its product.

Thanks in large part to the success of anchors like Scott on ESPN's signature show, the omnipresent "SportsCenter," the network is now nearly unwatchable.

Scott and former "SportsCenter" anchor Craig Kilborn debuted in the mid-1990s. Predecessors such as Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick and Chris Berman were clever in their telecasts, but Scott and Kilborn took the role of ESPN TV personality to another level.

In high school at the time, my buddies and I used to recite the duo's new catch-phrases every day. They were funny, fresh and unlike anything we'd heard on the sports channel -- or any other sportscast, for that matter. Who other than Kilborn could pull off, "He's breathless in the zone!" or "He's not your 'Vydas, he's not my 'Vydas, he's Arvydas!" referring to then-Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.

Scott worked in any number of pop-culture references, even singing a little tune while running through a highlight, and always gave a nice "boo-ya!" once per episode.

Kilborn obviously has uncommon comedic talent and thus didn't stay long as a lowly sports anchor; he moved on to host "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central and just put the wraps on his successful late-night talk show for CBS.

But Scott is still at ESPN, and his act is wearing thin. How many more times can we listen to him yell, "boo-ya!" without going crazy? And worse yet, his flamboyant style has seeped out into the entire network -- and not just with painful "SportsCenter" anchors like Steve Berthiaume and Scott Van Pelt.

Loud-mouths like Steven A. Smith, Greg Anthony, Sean Salisbury, Michael Irvin, Mike Golic and John Kruk now dominate the channel's "analyst" roster for both "SportsCenter" and its ancillary shows like "NFL GameDay" and "Baseball Tonight." Most either spend their time screaming (Irvin doesn't even speak in complete sentences), trying to show how tough they are (i.e. Sean "I couldn't make it as a backup QB" Salisbury) or -- and this is often -- both.

ESPN's three best shows remain:

"Pardon the Interruption," featuring lovable loud-mouth sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, who get the fact that taking themselves too seriously is a bad idea. The debate program is preceded by the similar "Around the Horn," which is yet another example of imitators who can't hold the water at ESPN.

"Outside the Lines," which is excellent night in and night out -- for those who are still awake to watch it at midnight. Former "SportsCenter" anchor Bob Ley is the main host, with Jeremy Schapp filling in frequently. Each episode focuses on only one or two topics (everything from steroids to memorabilia) with in-depth reporting and coherent analysis from experts in the given subject.

And finally, there's "College GameDay," hosted by three guys who remember it's the players on the field -- not the anchors on the set -- that make people turn the channel on in the first place. All credit to the network for starting from nothing 25 years ago and building an empire of highlight reels, but it's too bad the rest of the station's other personalities don't follow the classy examples of "College GameDay's" Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreet, who host hands-down the best sports preview show on any channel at any time. Period.

Friday, September 03, 2004

'Garden State' a nice change of pace

—Originally published 9.3.04

At the end of a summer movie season filled with big-budget special effects and blaring soundtracks, it's refreshing to sit through a quiet, quirky film like "Garden State."

Refreshing, but not overly moving.

"State" marks the solid directing debut of 29-year-old Zach Braff, star of NBC sitcom "Scrubs," who also wrote the script and plays the lead character, Andrew Largeman. Braff succeeds in maintaining an off-beat, muted tone throughout, putting the audience as much as possible behind the clouded eyes of the main character.

As the movie opens, Andrew learns -- via a message on his answering machine -- his mother has drowned in the bathtub and he must return home to New Jersey (the Garden State) for her funeral.

Andrew was sent away to boarding school as a 16-year-old and it's been nine years since he last visited his hometown of Newark; the time away hasn't been kind. He lives in Los Angeles, waiting tables at a trendy Vietnamese restaurant while trying to make it as an actor. (His biggest claim to fame was playing a mentally challenged quarterback on TV.) His medicine cabinet is full of anti-depressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father (an under-used Ian Holm) and Andrew, in his own words, wanders through life in a numb haze.

"It's recently occurred to me that I may not even have a problem, but I wouldn't even know it because for as long as I can remember, I've been medicated," Andrew tells a doctor he is seeing for headaches.

Andrew is not alone, though. As he re-enters life in the Garden State, he bumps into all of his old friends from high school, equally numb to the world -- only instead of prescription drugs, they use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to escape their ennui.

All but one. While in the doctor's waiting room, Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a firecracker who could care less what the rest of the world thinks of her or her cooky family. Andrew spends the remainder of the film -- about three days -- hanging on to this young woman, a life preserver dragging him from the depths of his metaphorical drowning.

A mixture of Julia Roberts and Jennifer Garner (but quirkier than both combined), Portman steals "Garden State." If your only exposure to this fine young actress is through the "Star Wars" prequels, you haven't really seen her perform.

Braff's story (for mature audiences only) is enjoyable on the whole -- laugh-out-loud funny in parts and equally touching in others -- but it smacks a bit too heavily of another (better) film, 1996's "Beautiful Girls," which also featured a fine Portman performance.

There are plenty of good messages in "Garden State," though, including the dangers of over-medicating children, the empty thrills of drug abuse and the illusion that an easy life is a happy life. Yet after an hour and a half of off-kilter, charming work, Braff lets his film slip too close to romantic comedy cliché -- and the conclusion falls rather flat.

Grade: B

Friday, August 27, 2004

Sitcoms: We're not quite dead yet!

—Originally published 8.27.04

Reality television may look like it's taking over the world, but those who long for the glory days of situation comedies shouldn't give up hope just yet.

It's a dire time for the genre, though, to be sure. There are only seven new entries in the 2004-05 season and for the first time in two decades NBC will start a year without a two-hour block of comedies in its Thursday night "Must See TV" lineup.

Last spring, three all-time heavyweights -- NBC's "Friends" and "Frasier" and HBO's "Sex and the City" -- called it quits, leaving just CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Two and a Half Men" and NBC's "Will & Grace" as the only returning bonafide hits.

None of those sitcoms finished in the top 10, however; reality shows dominated the ratings, taking five of the top seven slots with two nights of FOX's "American Idol," two seasons of CBS' "Survivor" and NBC's "The Apprentice."

Is it any wonder Entertainment Weekly recently plastered this headline across its cover: "Are Sitcoms Dead?"

Tom Cherones, a longtime director and producer on "Seinfeld," believes that's going a little too far.

"I don't think (the sitcom) is done for good," Cherones told the Aiken Standard last week. "TV's cyclical. (Sitcoms) will be down for a while, then they'll be back."

If anyone should know, it's Cherones, who worked on one of the all-time great sitcoms and helped turn it into a ratings giant by the time he left the series in the summer of 1994. He then went on to direct another NBC hit, "NewsRadio," for its entire four-year run from 1995-98.

The 64-year-old TV veteran, now semi-retired, admits there's not much worth watching on broadcast TV right now, as networks pour their resources and marketing into reality shows.

"Reality TV is cutting a lot of people out of work," he said, as screenwriters are dumped in favor of another reality producer promising to provide the next big thing. (There are six new reality shows on the schedule for this season, to go with the glut of returning "programs.")

Cherones dodges the alphabet soup in his personal viewing habits, turning to cable for his entertainment; favorites include USA's "Monk" and two British comedies, "Absolutely Fabulous" and "The Office."

He'll probably be back in a few years, when he believes the relatively new reality genre will have run its course.

"I don't see any back end on stuff like that," he said, because he can't imagine anyone wanting to watch reality reruns in syndication, a major source of revenue for years to come. Stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen -- and directors like Cherones, for that matter -- are still making money every time one of their episodes runs on TBS, not to mention the networks themselves.

"When the bean-counters realize they don't have anything to sell," Cherones said, "they'll probably go back to (sitcoms)."

Friday, August 20, 2004

'Seinfeld' on DVD: Something out of nothing

—Originally published 8.20.04

I am so pumped, you have no idea. Then again, maybe you do.

Yes, it's true, it's true -- six years after its now-infamous final episode, "Seinfeld" is coming to DVD Nov. 23 -- the first three seasons, anyway, with more to follow.

What a welcome sight they will be.

Myself and millions of other fans have been patiently waiting for these babies for years. Six TV seasons are a long time to go without Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was a nice appetizer, but now the main course is ready.

Tom Cherones, who directed nearly every episode of the first five seasons, told me this week the DVD sets will be a veritable "treasure hunt" of extras; USA Today reported bonus material will run an amazing 24 hours between the two sets. We're talking gag reels (yes!), deleted scenes (Cherones said there were seven additional minutes of footage shot for each show), new cast and crew interviews ... the works.

But even if you never click over to a single special feature, the shows themselves are more than worth the money. To whet your appetite, here are the 10 best episodes from Seasons 1-3:

• "The Pony Remark," Jan. 30, 1991 -- An instant classic. Jerry and Elaine attend a dinner party for Jerry's older relative, Manya (Rozsika Halmos), where they unwittingly insult her and (possibly) cause her death by criticizing people who had ponies as children. Jerry is left with the pleading defense, "Who figures an immigrant is gonna have a pony?"

• "The Deal," May 2, 1991 -- Jerry and Elaine again, this time on the couch in his apartment. They try to set up a series of rules where they can still enjoy their friendship ("this") and have sex ("that"). Everybody shines in this episode.

• "The Chinese Restaurant," May 23, 1991 -- Often referred to as the prototype for the "show about nothing" formula, this brilliant entry finds Jerry, Elaine and George struggling to obtain a table for dinner. In one of my favorite "Seinfeld" lines, George tells Elaine, "For 50 bucks? I'd stick my face in their soup and blow."

• "The Pen," Oct. 2, 1991 -- Although it's side-splittingly funny throughout, this episode deserves a spot on this list simply for Elaine's Marlon Brando scream of "STELLLAAAAAA!!!!!" while hopped up on painkillers.

• "The Library," Oct. 16, 1991 -- A great guest appearance from Philip Baker Hall as Mr. Bookman, the librarian, who's tracking Jerry down for his long-overdue "Tropic of Cancer." The best part, though, is the discussion on wedgies and discovery of George's high-school nickname: "Can't Stand Ya'!"

• "The Cafe," Nov. 6, 1991 -- Introducing Pakistani restaurant owner Babu (Brian George), Jerry is proven to be a "very bad man" after a failed attempt to help the immigrant improve his business. Meanwhile, George enlists Elaine's help in cheating on an IQ test, which leads him later to utter this great line: "Oh, hello, Professor!"

• "The Alternate Side," Dec. 4, 1991 -- A classic for just one line: "These pretzels are making me thirsty!" George takes centerstage as he frantically tries to park cars outside Jerry's apartment, inadvertently screwing up filming of a Woody Allen movie.

• "The Pez Dispenser," Jan. 15, 1992 -- One of the funniest scene sequences of the entire series finds Jerry cracking silent jokes with his candy holder -- much to George's dismay. We also get a new entry in the "Seinfeld" Lexicon: "Hand," or, to have power and influence in a relationship.

• "The Fix-Up," Feb. 5, 1992 -- Winner of an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, Jerry and Elaine make the mistake of trying to set George up with a friend of Elaine's. Throw in a faulty batch of condoms provided by Kramer, and you've got a hilarious disaster waiting to happen.

• "The Boyfriend," Feb. 12, 1992 -- While this is commonly (and correctly) billed as the best one-hour "Seinfeld" episode, it is also one of the series' finest shows, period. Classic moments include Jerry's infatuation with New York Mets legend Keith Hernandez, a brilliant "JFK" spoof about "The Magic Loogie," and George running out of the bathroom shouting "Vandelay Industries! Say Vandelay!" -- with his pants around his ankles.

The scary thing is, all these came before the series even hit its stride.

'Seinfeld' director looks back on series

—Originally published 8.20.04

It stands to reason Tom Cherones would be sick of talking about "Seinfeld" by now.

After all, the series ended six years ago and it's been more than a decade since the veteran television director tried his hand at an episode of "the show about nothing."

Yet the 64-year-old Cherones is as excited as any of the show's millions of fans for the upcoming DVD release.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld announced earlier this month the first three seasons of his history-making sitcom will be released on the digital format Nov. 23 -- just in time to sell zillions of copies for the holidays. The seasons will be combined into one massive gift set that will include salt and pepper shakers from the on-screen gang's favorite hangout, Monk's. (The seasons will also be broken up and available in two separate packs.)

Cherones directed 80 of the series' first 86 episodes, essentially holding down the "Seinfeld" fort from 1989-1994. His resume includes some of the funniest and most famous entries in television history -- including "The Contest" (which provided the ubiquitous catch-phrase, "master of your domain"), "The Bubble Boy," "The Junior Mint" -- the list goes on and on.

Now semi-retired, Cherones spends much of his time relaxing at his lakeside home in Florence, Ore., with his wife, artist/novelist Joyce Keener. But he was pulled back into the "Sein"-fold this past year as production on the DVD sets picked up. He made a trip down to Los Angeles last November where, sitting on the studio's New York street lot, he provided a couple hours of interview footage; he then returned earlier this year to record several episode audio commentaries that will be used in the home videos.

"The quality of the DVD is going to be incredible," Cherones told the Aiken Standard during a phone interview this week. "It's going to be unlike anything you've seen before."

He said the DVD producers cut the footage directly from the original film, which will provide the clearest possible transfer to the digital format. The episodes will be preserved in their original 22 minutes, 30 seconds, not the truncated versions that appear in syndication (which he can't bear to watch).

As for the extras, Cherones doesn't know all the goodies, but he is particularly looking forward to the inclusion of deleted scenes -- many of which were painfully removed for the original run.

"We always shot way too much material," he said, usually about 29 minutes for each episode. "There are a lot of scenes that had to be dropped. I think some of that will be seen now. ... They're planning some surprises, but I don't know what they are. It's going to be kind of a treasure hunt, I'm told."

The director's favorite episodes of the set include "The Chinese Restaurant," seen as the prototype for the "show about nothing" idea, and "The Parking Garage," a variation on that theme. But "I don't think we did a bad show while I was there," he said.

Cherones grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he was good friends with Whit Gibbons, now an ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab. The two visit about once a year and Cherones was in Aiken just two years ago.

Cherones spent several years in public television but "Seinfeld" was his big break. He was brought in to direct the first four regular episodes that aired in the summer of 1990; when the show was picked up for a 13-episode run, Cherones stayed on as the series' primary director and producer. Seinfeld and Cherones parted ways after Season 5 wrapped in the spring of 1994 when the star overhauled his crew to "shake things up a little," the director said.

Cherones landed on his feet, though; after a stint with "Ellen," he moved to "NewsRadio" and directed that hit show for four years until it was canceled after star Phil Hartman was murdered in 1998.

Like most of those who had a part in "Seinfeld" at one point or another, Cherones was invited back to participate in the final episode, which aired May 14, 1998. (He didn't particularly like the finished product because the characters were "too harsh.") Even though NBC was waving millions of dollars in Seinfeld's direction, Cherones believes the comedian made the right choice in ending the show -- even if it was still a ratings champion.

"When we started the show, Jerry said when the writing isn't good anymore, that's when we'll quit. And that's what they did," he said. "Jerry was very committed to stopping when they ran out of good material.

"At that point, it was only about money. ... I think they felt the last season wasn't as good as they wanted it to be."

These days, Cherones only occasionally crosses paths with the "Seinfeld" cast. Last year when Seinfeld was in town, the director sent over a bouquet of cereal boxes on sticks; earlier this summer, he met with Jason Alexander (who played sidekick George Costanza) and discussed the possibility of directing an episode of Alexander's new sitcom, "Listen Up!"

"Seinfeld" will be linked to Cherones forever, though, and he doesn't mind a bit. He has a complete series collection on videotape (soon to be replaced by DVDs) and revisits them often -- typically so he can bring a few episodes with him for public speaking engagements.

"I find people are very interested in (the show) all over the country," he said.

He still retains an agent and is interested in trying his hand at a few episodes of the British comedy "The Office," but otherwise is quite content with his laid-back life of boating and gardening.

"I'm slowing way down on what I do and have the time to do other things," Cherones said. "We have a lot of fun these days."

Friday, August 13, 2004

Cruise, Foxx keep 'Collateral' interesting

—Originally published 8.13.04

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx both give excellent performances in director Michael Mann's new film, "Collateral," but the plot becomes so ludicrous by the end their edgy work is ultimately dulled.

Mann is no stranger to stretching the limits of believability; he did so in 1995 with "Heat," starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, one of the best crime thrillers of the past decade, maybe of all time. But Mann extends his hand a little too far here.

Foxx stars as Max, a sociable, efficient Los Angeles cab driver who surprisingly looks out for the best interests of his passengers rather than his meter. As the film opens, Max's first fare is Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a beautiful prosecutor preparing for a big case. After he drops her off, a well-dressed man (Cruise) walks out of her building and into Max's cab.

Sporting frosted gray hair and a day-old beard, Cruise is Vincent, a business man who's working hard tonight; he has five meetings scheduled before a 6 a.m. flight, he tells Max, and there's a nice bonus for the cabbie if he can get Vincent all over L.A. and back to his plane on time.

Max, of course, has no idea Vincent's "meetings" involve bullets and blood. His first inclination comes when the body of a large man lands on top of his cab.

"I didn't kill him," Vincent tells Max coolly, "it was the bullets and the fall."

And thus Vincent is unmasked to the cabbie -- and the audience -- as a Jason Bourne-esque killer-for-hire who takes Max hostage in order to carry out the rest of his "meetings."

Unfortunately, only 20 minutes into the film, the plot is already starting to unravel. There is no way a cold, calculating killer like Vincent would allow himself to be driven around Los Angeles in a cab sporting a busted windshield and bloodstains. It seems more likely Vincent would have popped Max, found another cab and moved on. The script, from Stuart Beattie ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), makes a pathetic stab at explaining this strange decision through some existential psychobabble from Vincent; the real reason is simple, though -- without the busted glass, there would be no way to set up the police chase.

You see, both the FBI and the LAPD are looking for Vincent, albeit not very well. Mark Ruffalo, one of the best actors in Hollywood, is wasted here as a two-dimensional detective who spots the damaged cab and moves in to investigate. Mayhem ensues -- seemingly without any consequence, at least for Vincent. In one scene, he shoots up a nightclub in search of another victim with relatively no trouble, despite the fact cops and FBI agents are crawling all over the place.

As Vincent's hostage, Max is forced into more and more courageous situations, including one great scene where he has to face off with a drug lord, maturing right before our eyes. Unfortunately, by the end of the film he grows well beyond all plausible boundaries of adrenaline-induced heroics.

These plot complaints are overshadowed by the strength of the movie's performances and the technical beauty of Mann's skill as a filmmaker. Cruise is magnetic in his much-balley-hooed first turn as a through-and-through bad guy. An actor given to overstatement, he is refreshingly understated here. Cruise's natural charm and ability isn't gone, just channeled in a different way so we like Vincent despite ourselves.

Foxx does some stereotype shedding of his own. He certainly can no longer be considered simply a comedic actor after this performance. He also tones down his flamboyant nature to meet the demands of Mann's gritty world.

And speaking of, the director finds the perfect tone once more for the seedy -- yet fascinating -- underbelly of professional crime; "Collateral" seems to pick off right where "Heat" left off.

But, like "Heat," "Collateral" ultimately breaks down into the cliche of mano y mano bravado. Watching it happen, I wanted to tell the director, "Keep it toned down, Mann, and you'll have a great movie."

Mann apparently can't resist a good ol' fashioned gunfight, though, no matter how unbelievable. So, if you're going in that direction, it's better to have the gravitas of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro wielding the weaponry, instead of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise.

Grade: B

Shyamalan slips a little with 'The Village'

—Originally published 8.13.04

Bryce Dallas Howard's stunning film debut is the best part of spook-master M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, "The Village."

That's not exactly a good thing.

One of today's best filmmakers, Shyamalan doesn't quite hit his own water mark with this latest effort. "The Village" won't creep you out like 1999's "The Sixth Sense"; it won't make you jump as many times as 2002's "Signs"; the story isn't quite as engaging as 2000's "Unbreakable" and, worst of all, it probably won't lend itself to repeated viewings like all three of the aforementioned films.

It's not sharing secrets to say "The Village" has a twist -- that's a given with Shyamalan, whose had us seeing dead people, believing in superheroes and fearing an alien invasion. But this mind-bender, while good, won't send you running back to the box office for another ticket. Matter of fact, watching "The Village" again will probably seem rather boring, knowing where the story goes. Telling why would ruin the movie, though, and "The Village" is certainly worthwhile the first time around.

That leads us back to Howard, daughter of actor/director Ron Howard; she steals the entire show as Ivy Walker, a young blind woman who resides in the quite literal confines of Covington Woods, circa 1897. She lives in a secluded village of what looks to be only a few dozen people. The residents are cut off entirely from society because of "those we don't speak of" -- deadly creatures that roam the surrounding woods.

"We do not go into their woods, they do not come into our valley. It is a truce," Edward Walker (William Hurt), a village elder, tells schoolchildren early in the film. Trouble is, the creatures are getting restless -- they are entering the village unwarranted, leaving blood-red marks on doors and dead animals all around. The villagers don't know what to make of the unsolicited aggression, leading them to wonder if it's time to leave their peaceful community where money and crime are non-issues.

For all his success in scaring his audience, Shyamalan is just as good (if not better) at developing fully-realized characters and their relationships. His movies are really dramas with a few scares mixed in; it's because we care so much about the characters that the horror elements make such an impact on our psyche. Enter the blossoming love between Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a villager devoted to protecting Ivy and her family.

Shyamalan has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough (think Haley Joel Osment's Oscar-nominated turn as the haunted child from "Sixth Sense"); Howard is brilliant in her first major film role, bringing to life one of the best female characters in recent memory. She has strength, vulnerability and a certain intangible charm that draws you in immediately.

Phoenix deftly exudes the qualities of a Shyamalan leading man -- reserved, peaceful, not prone to unnecessary action. The two young stars are vibrant on screen. In a moving scene early on, Ivy stands in her open doorway, even as the monsters prowl about outside; with her hand outstretched, she waits for Lucius, her counterpart, to bring security to a blind woman frightened in the dark. She knows he will be there before the danger, no matter what stands between them.

Like his other films, Shyamalan draws superior performances from not just his leads, but the entire cast. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody plays Noah Percy, a mentally-disabled young man who does not fear the woods and roams in them regularly. Sigourney Weaver mutes her powerful presence to play Lucius' mother, Alice. And Hurt (also an Oscar-winner) is excellent as the stoic but troubled town elder.

There are twists aplenty as "The Village" unspools its tale, but the revelations ultimately lead to less, not more. You'll be asking questions long after the credits roll, but unlike Shyamalan's previous triumphs, the answers probably won't come with multiple viewings -- and that takes away a big chunk of the fun.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 23, 2004

Do movie goofs = gaffes or greatness? You decide

—Originally published 7.23.04

Want to ruin a favorite movie you think is just perfect? Go check out the "goofs" section at The Internet Movie Database. is one of the best sites on the Internet, in any category. It offers every possible answer to the ubiquitous movie-watching question: "What else has that guy been in?" and is an obsessive-compulsive movie fan's dream.

There is no way to go into all the site offers here, because it would just take too long. Plus, I've been visiting for years and still feel like I haven't cracked the surface.

But the "goofs" are particularly fascinating.

One of the first goofs I ever caught was while watching the original "Star Wars" as a kid. During the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, the Jedi master has all sorts of special-effects trouble with his lightsaber. Until I checked IMDb, I had no idea there are so many other problems.

Take, for instance, what the site calls "the most famous Star Wars goof of all": I never noticed this, but apparently a stormtrooper knocks himself silly while walking under the partially-open door of the room where C-3PO and R2-D2 are hiding in the Death Star.

That is one of more than 70 goofs listed on the "Star Wars" page alone -- everything from the direction the wind blows in different takes to costuming troubles to crew members accidentally winding up in a shot is there for you to marvel or laugh at, or both.

It's really quite amazing to read. I've watched "Star Wars" more times than I can remember and haven't caught more than a handful of the problems listed at IMDb. Don't think I'm just picking on "Star Wars," either.

"The Big Lebowski," another favorite I've watched about 30 times, has 18 goofs listed -- I've caught almost none of them.

You want classics (well, I count "The Big Lebowski" as a classic, but you know what I mean)?

• "The Godfather," a personal favorite rated as IMDb's No. 1 movie of all time: 47 goofs.

• "Casablanca," an unquestionably great film: 18 goofs.

• How about "Citizen Kane," widely regarded as the best movie ever made: 17 goofs.

There is a double point here. First, no movie is perfect, no matter how wonderful or praiseworthy it may be. I never would have believed there were so many problems with "The Godfather" before checking that list. A truly great film moves beyond those minor flubs; a bad film drowns in them.

And second, these goofs don't actually ruin anything. The more minor problems listed, the greater the film must be because people must have watched it many, many times to find all this stuff.

In fact, I may print out the "Star Wars" list and check them off as I watch the movie for the umpteenth time. Sounds like just the right kind of game for an obsessive movie fan like me.

'I, Robot' nice to look at, hollow at its core

—Originally published 7.23.04

Box-office receipts say otherwise, but it's time for Will Smith to find himself a new summer character because he's been playing essentially the same one, oh, forever.

Smith's charming, smart-alecky personality has propped up many an average summer flick, but the act wears out quickly in his new movie, "I, Robot."

Directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") and "suggested" by the Isaac Asimov short-story collection (as the end credits tell us), "I, Robot" takes place in 2035, a time when cars drive themselves and don't run on gas, and three beers cost $46.50. The story follows Chicago cop Del Spooner (Smith), an anachronistic techno-phobe who sports leather and Converse All-Stars while struggling to convince the world it's too dependent on machines.

Spooner is a bit of a loose cannon, because everyone else seems to have no trouble with the notion of one robot for every five humans. The character should feel familiar, because it's different in name only from Smith's other moneymaking aliases, including Det. Mike Rowley ("Bad Boys"), Agent Jay ("Men in Black"), Capt. Jim West ("Wild Wild West") and Capt. Steve Hiller ("Independence Day"). Here Smith wisecracks at everything that moves -- humans, robots, cats, whatever -- yells and runs a lot, and little else.

The cop's radar is going full-throttle right from the start, as he's called to investigate the "suicide" of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), head of the robotics division for parent company USR. Spooner is convinced Lanning's best bot, Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), killed the doctor in direct violation of his programming. With the help of "robot psychiatrist" Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner spends the rest of the two-hour film trying -- against seemingly insurmountable odds and robots -- to prove his case and save the world from the machines (don't call him Neo).

For all of Smith's pre-release chatter about going "smart" for summer, there is only a marginal difference between "I, Robot" and his other warm-weather flicks, and this one isn't ultimately as satisfying as "Independence Day" or the first "Men in Black". The main question of the movie -- is artificial intelligence a good thing? -- is a good one to ponder, but this film doesn't slow down long enough to really consider it. Instead, the question is ultimately buried beneath an avalanche of vigilante heroics and special effects and then answered in a bit of corny dialogue right before the end.

Yet it's those effects -- as opposed to Big Willie Style -- that save "I, Robot" from the summer garbage bin. Produced by Weta Digital, the wizards behind "The Lord of the Rings," the metalheads and action sequences in "I, Robot" are spectacular, further distancing the New Zealand company from all its competitors -- this is what George Lucas' "Attack of the Clones" should have looked like.

Sonny is a wondrous creation, and even though we know he's computer-generated, the illusion of reality rarely falters. For those who don't care about little things like character development and dialogue, there are several action scenes of note, including Spooner and Calvin tracking Sonny amongst a field of his brethren, and a subterranean car chase in which Spooner's sleek Audi is attacked by a multitude of robots.

But the best action flicks are grounded in humanity and relatable characters; in that respect, Proyas' film never sniffs the territory covered so well by "The Terminator" two decades ago. It's cool to look at, but rarely thrilling.

For a movie that focuses heavily on robots' lack of human emotion, "I, Robot" has little heart of its own.

Grade: C+

Thursday, July 15, 2004

'Kill Bill' lives up to Tarantino's reputation

—Originally published 7.16.04

While they may tell one story, the two volumes of Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu revenge epic "Kill Bill" are entirely different. After watching "Vol. 2" (released in April and now in second-run theaters), it's nearly impossible to imagine cramming the two installments together into one movie -- although, viewing them back-to-back on DVD will be great.

It's equally difficult to pull them apart in terms of criticism, since they are so intimately linked. This story of a female assassin seeking to destroy her former employer's organization is literally split down the middle -- and neither is quite a complete movie standing on its own.

"Vol. 2" has a more traditional feel than last year's "Vol. 1," which was heavy on blood-and-guts samurai-sword-slashing extravagance but light on backstory. It's not until the second volume we really learn about The Bride (Uma Thurman), her nemesis Bill (David Carradine) and the events leading up to this clash of the titans.

Disclosing much about the film's story, though, would ruin the experience for you, so I'll restrain myself. Highlights include a wicked closed-quarters fight between The Bride and former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad colleague Elle (Daryl Hannah) and enthralling scenes of The Bride's early training from master Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu).

The carnage is toned down for "Vol. 2," but Tarantino's characteristic extreme violence from out of nowhere is still at full throttle. In fact, the pain and suffering dished out in this film actually makes more of an impact because our senses are not dulled by continual bloody punishment. Thus, when Bill's equally sadistic brother Budd (played to creepy fullness by Michael Madsen) buries The Bride alive, the scene is much more gripping than any of the lopped limbs from the first film.

(Insert here the typical warning with any Tarantino film: If you don't want to view extreme acts of violence -- no matter how artfully or wittily filmed -- don't watch any of his movies. They can be disturbing.)

Pulling back on the violence allows the writer/director's beloved main characters -- and the actors who portray them -- to shine in "Vol. 2." Thurman and Carradine should both be considered for next year's Academy Awards with these performances, as their indelible turns create the usual Tarantino conundrum: These are really, really bad people whom you can't help but love on a character level. Don't look for any tidy moral to this story because, outside of a mother's love for her daughter, there really is no morality whatsoever.

Love him or hate him, though, nobody makes films like Quentin Tarantino (not that myriad wannabes haven't tried). His "Kill Bill" duology probably won't go down as a "landmark" piece like 1994's "Pulp Fiction," but that doesn't take anything away from these films; if you can stomach the violence, they comprise a stylish, thrilling, captivating tale.

More than a decade into his filmmaking career, this movie-clerk-turned-auteur hasn't lost a step.

Grade: A (for both parts and the whole)

Friday, July 09, 2004

'Spider-Man 2': Best comic-book adaptation ever

—Originally published 7.9.04

"Spider-Man 2" should be renamed "Peter Parker 2," and credit director Sam Raimi for summoning the guts to make such a notion possible.

This sequel not only surpasses the 2002 original, but flies past with web-slinging leaps and bounds. Raimi and his host of story contributors refuse to placate typical summer action-flick expectations; instead of sinking into the sequel mentality of everything's-gotta-be-bigger-and-badder-than-the-original, the director actually pulls back on the action to let his characters shine through.

Then, when we are fully involved with the human element of their stories, Raimi unleashes his true visual wizardry and we get payoff, after payoff, after payoff through the final half hour, including numerous special-effects shots that put "Spider-Man" to shame.

Tobey Maguire is even better this time around as Peter Parker, now in college struggling to balance school, work and, oh, by the way, fighting crime as his alter-ego, Spider-Man. When we last saw him, our hero had just graduated from high school, defeated the Green Goblin and told the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, the best comic-book damsel-in-distress since Kim Basinger in 1989's "Batman"), they couldn't be together. (She doesn't know he's Spidey, but Peter knows she never can or face imminent danger.)

The strain of balancing dual identities is becoming too much for Peter, though, manifested in powers that start to fail him. Making matters worse is the new baddie on the scene, Dr. Otto Octavius, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina ("Chocolat"). Octavius is working on a revolutionary new energy source called "fusion," but when a lab experiment goes wrong, he ends up fusing four metal arms to his body and nervous system. The appendages are imbibed with artificial intelligence and take over Octavius' brain, turning him into a madman who goes to whatever lengths necessary to complete his work.

Such grand designs require a good bit of cash, as you might expect, and it's during a bank robbery we get the first thrilling glimpse of the Ock-Spidey confrontation as they battle up the face of a clock tower -- with Peter's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) hanging, quite literally, in the balance.

Ock gets away and Spider-Man is implicated in the heist by Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, played by J.K. Simmons, who once again blows the doors off this boisterous role. Combine that with the announcement that Mary Jane is getting married to Jameson's son, and Petey-boy has had enough. Tired of being taken for granted and destroying relationships with loved ones, he gives up the role of superhero and returns to a "normal" life.

All of this character development takes time, and the film pays for it slightly with some slow moments in the middle. There are no cringe-inducing lines of note, however, which the first installment could not boast. And without the slow build, Raimi's masterwork could not reach the peaks it hits in the concluding act. Leaving the theater, I hadn't felt so good for a comic-book character since I first saw mild-mannered Clark Kent send the diner bully crashing into the pinball machine in "Superman II."

Speaking of, "Spider-Man 2" is the best comic-book movie adaptation of all time. It beats them all, including the fabulous "X2: X-Men United" and the first two Superman installments. Like the latter, this Spidey sequel reaches for (and grabs) the heart as much as the eyeballs. Raimi correctly realizes the great comic-book film truism: Anybody can don a fancy suit and zip around the silver screen, but it's what you do with the character once the super-duds come off and the civilian clothes come on that matters.

As a result, "Spider-Man 2" is the first movie I've seen this summer that I want to watch again -- and I do mean now.

Grade: A+

Sequels on an upswing

—Originally published on 7.9.04

Something must be amiss in Hollywood because there are way too many quality sequels at the cineplex these days.

In the last month and a half, we've seen "Shrek 2," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and now "Spider-Man 2." In my reviews, I'm running out of ways to say "so much better than the original."

Sequels have a bad reputation, and deservedly so. For a sampling of why, check out E! Online's list of the 10 worst "suck-wells" of all time. (Hint: No. 1 includes the most annoying character ever generated by a computer.)

Instead of focusing on negatives, though, let's deal with the positives (as much as possible, anyway). Just what does contribute to making a successful sequel?

• Planning -- While some may lambaste the "franchise" mentality of a film series as simply reusing brand-name characters to make a quick buck, there are several instances where committing to a succession of films yields incredible results. It can allow filmmakers the opportunity to flesh out backstories, create overarching themes and hone their craft over a number of years. Look no further than the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" franchises which, so far, have gotten much better with time. And there's always "The Lord of the Rings," but it's hard to consider those sequels, rather than one 10-hour movie cut into three parts.

• Continuity -- It is absolutely ESSENTIAL to bring back all the principle characters each time. Can you honestly imagine anyone other than Mike Myers voicing Shrek, anyone other than Tobey Maguire playing Spidey or anyone other than Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone? Just look what happened to the "Batman" franchise. An exception: James Bond, a truly serial character that lives separate from time and continuing plotlines.

• Innovation -- I don't want the same ol' thing every time. If I'm plunking down another eight bucks, there better be some new stuff to see. The best sequels, even though I know the characters well, still make my jaw drop. The bad ones, like "Bad Boys II," simply rehash tired material.

• Commitment -- It's easy to tell when actors are going through the motions just for the paycheck. Typically, this occurs when the original went big and the studio said, "Oh boy! Let's make another!" (I'm still not convinced "The Matrix" was meant to be more than just one film.)

• Leave 'em wanting more (but not too much) -- This only applies to the franchises, which typically use the current movie to set up the next installment. This is a delicate situation, though, because if the filmmakers spend too much time in this area, it feels like simple shilling. "Spider-Man 2" director Sam Raimi nailed it this time around, using just one brief scene to hint at things to come in 2007; "X2," on the other hand, spent several minutes setting up No. 3 (due in 2006), which was way too long.

• Oh yeah, that little thing called STORY -- Just slapping our favorite characters back on the screen doesn't do it. Case in point, both "Star Wars" prequels, "The Godfather, Part III" and any number of good ideas gone bad. There needs to be something for the players to do -- other than make money for the production company.

Friday, June 25, 2004

'The Terminal'

—Originally published 6.25.04

Steven Spielberg plays it too safe to be my favorite director, but he is certainly the master of balancing artistic filmmaking with a mass-audience-pleasing product.

Never is this more evident than "The Terminal," a laugh-out-loud yet touching film that, like most Spielberg outings, wraps up a little too nicely.

Tom Hanks, the best mega-star actor in the business, is his usual brilliant self in the starring role as Victor Navorski, an Eastern European whose fictional home country undergoes a military coup during his trip across the Atlantic.

The uprising leaves Navorski without a country and, because of a loophole in our nation's laws, he is stuck in the neither-here-nor-there region of New York's JFK airport, better known as the International Transit Lounge.

The movie follows Navorski as he struggles to survive in the terminal -- a man with no country, no money and no English. He takes up residence in a section of the airport set for renovation, makes money doing odd jobs like returning carts and construction, and so on.

As if the odds against him aren't stacked high enough, Navorski also must endure Homeland Security Acting Field Commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). As a man who wants everything in his airport to be just so, Navorski is naturally a gigantic fly in the obsessive-compulsive ointment. Dixon goes to great lengths to get Navorski out of his way, using deception, intimidation, blackmail -- whatever it takes.

So we watch Navorski as he begins to cope with his surroundings -- learning to read by comparing his native New York City tourism guide with an English version, washing up in the men's restroom, trying to earn food money by retrieving carts and performing odd jobs.

Along the way he meets all sorts of odd characters who, although they have a place to call home, still seem as stranded in their lives as Navorski is in the terminal. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones, stunning as always, as a troubled United Airlines flight attendant whom Navorski befriends and eventually falls in love with during his year-long stay in the airport. There's also Enrique (Diego Luna), who stocks the planes with food but enlists Navorski in a plot to win the heart of an immigration officer. Or there's the illegal immigrant janitor hiding from the law in plain sight; he thinks Navorski is an undercover C.I.A. agent come to get him.

All of these supporting characters are well-developed; however, all we know about the stranded European is his desire to reach a certain hotel in New York City. As the movie unfolds, we learn the purpose for his trip to the Big Apple, but little else.

This lack of development is the film's greatest failure. Its two most prominent characters, Navorski and Dixon, are polar opposites, yet we have no idea why the European is so excessively nice and Dixon is so excessively cruel. I guess we're just supposed to accept this as a necessary source of conflict and move on, but it prevents "The Terminal" from becoming a truly great film.

The film sports Spielberg's trademark class, charm and fluidity and Hanks is a pleasure to watch, as always -- his mere presence elevates this movie from merely watchable to exceedingly entertaining. That is, of course, if you're able to enjoy "The Terminal" for what it is: A well-crafted piece of filmmaking with a big heart, lots of laughs and quality performances, but little lasting impact.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 18, 2004

Stay away from 'Stepford'

—Originally published 6.18.04

Neither funny or compelling, "The Stepford Wives" fails on almost every level.

I love a good dark comedy, but this is one of the dullest I've ever seen. When I check my watch more times than I laugh, you know things aren't going so well.

Nicole Kidman, an excellent dramatic actress, borders on pathetic in her "comedic" turn as Joanna Eberhard, a television executive fired in the opening minutes of the film for pushing the reality envelope a little too far. She suffers a nervous breakdown which leads her husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), to quit his job at the network and move the family out of the big city and into Stepford, Conn. -- apparently home to every suburban cliché known to man.

Stepford is populated by mediocre men with "perfect" wives -- a little too perfect, as it turns out. The women of Stepford have microchips implanted in their brains which transforms them into their husband's "dream wife": Beautiful, sex-crazed, keep-the-house-spotless types whose only job is catering to their mates' whims.

As a suburban kid with a homemaking mother, this movie turned me off completely. It takes the typical big-city attitude that a woman's only validation is through building a professional career. All of the Stepford wives were former big-shots: CEOs, judges, etc. Now, they're just housewives -- how horrible!

Call me old-fashioned if you want, but in a society where more and more kids come home from school to empty houses, women who sacrifice their own careers to stay home and raise their children should be celebrated, not vilified. And it's not just a gender thing -- I would gladly stay home with the kids, given the option and financial security.

"Stepford Wives" also delves deeply into the tired cliché of "looks aren't everything," but I find it hard to swallow such a message from a film starring Kidman. She is Hollywood's ultimate porcelain doll, with 18 thousand stylists prepping her every move; preaching to me about how men should look deeper than superficial beauty drips with hypocrisy here.

The only redeemable insights from "Stepford Wives" involve its portrayal of men. As a whole, we are, in fact, a disreputable bunch -- I don't understand why women put up with us at all, really. The men of Stepford are pathetic schlubs, jealous of their wives' successes to the point of mental illness. They hole up in a giant clubhouse and whittle away the hours smoking cigars and playing with remote control robots (besides their wives). Welcome to male paradise, ladies -- "Stepford Wives" pulls away the curtain.

The film features decent performances from Glenn Close, Bette Midler and the always-welcome Christopher Walken. But the script is so boring, the stereotypes so typical and the jokes so lame, the actors' talents are essentially squandered.

If you want a film that seriously examines a woman's struggle for a satisfying life, go rent "Far From Heaven." If you want a dark comedy that is funny and poignant in its examination of suburbia, watch "Pleasantville" again.

Either way, forget the "Wives."

Grade: D+

Friday, June 11, 2004

Blockbusters aren't what they used to be

—Originally published 6.11.04

"Shrek 2" earned $314.5 million in 19 days -- certainly an achievement worth noting. So is, I guess, the $128.4 million taken in by "The Day After Tomorrow" in 10 days, or last weekend's box-office winner, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which hit $93.7 million -- the third-best opening weekend ever.

It's easy to be dazzled by box-office receipts like these. I was surprised by "Shrek 2's" opening weekend of $108 million; the film is funny and well-done, sure, but I drastically underestimated how popular it would be with the general public. I was stunned, however, with its only slight drop over Memorial Day weekend, taking in another $95.6 million.

The last three weekends have the movie industry giddy with joy, but let's not lose our heads here. These are impressive figures, certainly, but we're not talking about my father's summer blockbusters.

When it comes to ranking the biggest hot-weather smashes of all time, numbers do lie.

You think "Shrek 2's" $300 million three-week haul is extraordinary? Try this figure on for size: $800 million.

That's the total for "Jaws" USA TODAY came up with two years ago in a piece that adjusted box-office numbers from previous summer blockbusters into current dollars. If it had been released in the 21st century instead of 1975, Steven Spielberg's $260 million breakout hit would have finished its run with a whopping $800 million.

And even that figure pales in comparison to 1939's "Gone With the Wind," which has an estimated adjusted gross of $1.2 BILLION, according to (The film's actual gross, which included several re-releases, was $198.6 million.)

The rest of Mojo's adjusted top 10 goes like this:

2. "Star Wars" (1977), $1.07 billion

3. "The Sound of Music" (1965), $858.8 million

4. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), $855.4 million

5. "The Ten Commandments" (1956), $789.9 million

6. "Titanic" (1997), $779.1 million (currently the actual box-office champ at $600.7 million)

7. "Jaws" (1975), $772.3 million

8. "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), $748.5 million

9. "The Exorcist" (1973), $666.7 million (scary, huh?)

10. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), $657.3 million

Don't be fooled into thinking something really special happens each time a box-office "record" falls (just wait for the frenzy that follows "Spider-Man 2's" opening weekend receipts when it hits June 30). All-time box-office figures grow less and less meaningful by the weekend; comparing films of the last 15 years with the rest of the lot is like comparing apples to oranges.

Of the 19 films in history that made $300 million or more in their initial runs, only one -- "E.T." -- came out before 1990. Of the 54 films that brought in more than $200 million, just 10 were released prior to 1990.

Much has changed about the way movies are brought to the public during the last 30 years. Compare, for example, "Jaws" with "Shrek 2": "Jaws" opened June 22, 1975, on 409 screens, while the "Shrek" sequel set a record by debuting last month on more than 4,100 screens. The Regal Exchange 20 in Augusta had six showings alone, running every half-hour all day long.

Combine availability with higher ticket prices and an intense, expansive marketing campaign for the Big Green Ogre, and "Shrek 2" was as close to a sure thing as there is in Hollywood. ( "Jaws" and "Shrek 2" do have at least one trait in common, however -- great word-of-mouth.)

This weekend the third installment in the "Harry Potter" series is also a lock to cross the $100 million mark, currently the industry's standard for "blockbuster" status. "Azkaban" will be the 306th film to reach the $100 million plateau; the Spidey sequel will certainly become No. 307. The latter are definitely blockbusters, but when two middling action flicks like "Van Helsing" and "Troy" qualify, too, it's time to up the ante.

Now if "Spider-Man 2" goes on to make a billion dollars, that would really be something.

-- Box office totals and release dates taken from The Internet Movie Database,, and Box Office Mojo,

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Darker 'Potter' yields brighter results

—Originally published 6.11.04

In an attempt at full disclosure, I am a Muggle through and through. I haven't read a single page from any of the five "Harry Potter" books, nor do I really care to.

Nevertheless, a movie based on a book should be able to stand on its own two legs (as in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"). I have now seen all three movies in the Potter series and the most recent "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is the first watchable installment.

The die-hards may grumble "Azkaban" leaves out too much of J.K. Rowling's text (from what I gather, there's A LOT missing), but for the five of us who haven't read these books, the dramatic changes in both look and feel from volumes 1 and 2 are welcome.

Credit all of this to new director Alfonso Cuaron, who takes Harry and his wizardly friends in a radical new direction. "Azkaban" is better than the first two films in the series combined; Christopher Columbus, who directed those movies, should never be allowed back into this universe.

Columbus seemed bereft of any style whatsoever as he tried to jam every tidbit of Rowling's novels into his movies. Instead of rushing from plot point to plot point, Cuaron burns away the background and allows scenes that make the cut to actually live and breathe. The story gets a little confusing at times, but I'll take that over Columbus' kitchen-sink mentality.

Maybe it's simply a maturation process, but the entire cast seems to have swallowed some magic acting pills or something. Just about everyone is better this time around, most notably a much older-looking Daniel Radcliffe in the title role and Emma Watson as his friendly companion Hermione Granger.

At the beginning of No. 3, we once again greet Harry, now 13 years old, in his Mugglish aunt and uncle's home where he's struggling to deal with life sans magic. Fed up with his legal guardians' overbearing behavior and downright cruelty, Harry leaves early for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry.

But before he arrives, he has a frightful encounter with the Dementers. These nasty creatures (reminiscent of the Black Riders from "The Lord of the Rings") are searching high and low for Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, in an excellent performance), an evil wizard accused in aiding the murder of Harry's parents. He recently escaped from Azkaban Prison and now he's out to finish the job and kill Harry.

Thus "Azkaban" slips into darker waters, and the film is all the better for it. The kids who started reading Harry Potter books several years ago should definitely be old enough to handle the scares by now, and the story's added dramatic weight makes this movie much more palatable for adults -- or anyone looking for a decent time at the movies.

The first two films in this series made scads of money and were wildly popular with children, but they still stunk. By comparison, "Azkaban" may look better to critics than it probably is. As a Muggle, I'm growing tired of what are apparently required scenes in each novel/film: Quidditch matches, school lessons and the bratty young wizard Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) being, well, bratty and getting away with it. Harry's friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is one of the most annoying characters I've ever seen, and if he says "bloody hell!" more than once in the next film, screenwriter Steve Kloves should also be banished from this world of wizardry.

Still, for at least one installment Cuaron brought this series out of the doldrums and it's a shame he isn't at the helm of No. 4, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," due in November 2005. Instead, we get Mike Newell, whose checkered history includes some goodies like "Donnie Brasco" and "Pushing Tin," but also bombs like last year's "Mona Lisa Smile." About the only director out there who could match Cuaron's mix of artistic vision and childlike sensibilities is Tim Burton, but I'd be surprised if he gets a shot at Nos. 5, 6 or 7.

Oh well, we'll always have "Azkaban."

Grade: B+

Friday, May 28, 2004

'Shrek 2'

—Originally published 5.28.04

It's hard to believe "Shrek" and "Shrek 2" are even related because the sequel far surpasses the original.

My major problem with 2001's "Shrek" is simple: It's a collection of pop-culture references cobbled into a story. The second is a compelling (if cliché) story that works in some ingenious pop-culture references.

And, unlike the original, it's hilarious.

"Shrek" may have won an Oscar for best animated film, but with the sequel, DreamWorks provides the first real challenger to Pixar for the true championship of computer-generated supremacy. "Shrek 2" is still not as good as most Disney/Pixar efforts, though, because I doubt it will be as laugh-out-loud funny for viewers 10 or 20 years from now when many won't get the cultural send-ups.

Mike Myers returns to voice Shrek, the ogre, and the story picks up essentially right on the heels of the first film. Shrek and new ogre-bride Fiona (Cameron Diaz), princess of Far Far Away, return from their honeymoon to Shrek's swamp home only to have wedded bliss interrupted by a call from the kingdom -- Fiona's parents, the King and Queen, want to throw the newlyweds a party.

You're about 10 minutes into the movie now and giving away much more would ruin what should be a joyful trip to the theater for children and adults alike. Suffice it to say, there wouldn't be a sequel without some kind of trouble for the big green couple, and they find plenty in what turns out to be a pretty typical (but extremely well-done) romantic comedy/fairy tale.

Everything about "Shrek 2" is better than the original, including the writing, plot and graphics. While it was everything I could do just to stay awake through "Shrek," the sequel had me really belly-laughing. The main culprit is a brilliant new character, the assassin Puss-in-Boots, a tiny cat dressed like Zorro and voiced by Antonio Banderas ("The Mask of Zorro"). The feline is flat-out hysterical, especially when arguing with Shrek's other (jealous) sidekick, Donkey (Eddie Murphy).

Credit screenwriter J. David Stern -- new to the Shrek team -- for these exchanges:

* Donkey to Puss-in-Boots: "The position of annoying talking animal has already been filled."

* And again: "If we need an expert on lickin' ourselves, we'll give you a call."

* Or, when Donkey collapses in a heap, Puss says to Shrek, "Hey, boss, let's shave him."

(Parents should know there are a couple scenes that require the PG rating, including a tangent reference to drugs -- which is hysterical, by the way -- and another scene in which one male character is forced to admit he wears women's underwear.)

Incredibly entertaining, "Shrek 2" is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and deservingly so (even if reactions were mixed on which was better, No. 1 or No. 2). The sequel is nearly flawless, but falls just short of the bar set by Pixar classics like "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.," and "Finding Nemo."

Any movie that ends with a Ricky Martin song is incapable of perfection.

Grade: B+

In memoriam: 'The West Wing'

—Originally published 5.28.04

In honor of Memorial Day, Bravo is running a fan-favorite marathon of "The West Wing" comprised of 10 episodes chosen by voters in an online poll.

I guarantee it will be a great 10 hours of television, because no matter what political background you come from, there's no denying "Wing" is one of the best series to ever hit the small screen. Matter of fact, it is now the standard by which all other presidential dramas are judged -- in television or the movies.

However, Monday will also be a reminder of how fast and far this Emmy-winning show has fallen since its surprise smash debut in 1999.

"The West Wing" was already on the downslide before series creator/producer/writer Aaron Sorkin left after the 2002-03 season, but this past year it quite literally fell off the table when John Wells, already an executive producer, took the reins permanently.

Wells is also executive producer of NBC's mega-hit "ER," and he drove that drama right into the ground with more and more outlandish plots and increasingly shrill characters. The same has happened to "Wing."

Sorkin is the David Mamet of television -- it's all about the dialogue. Wells has no such craft. Instead, he uses massive tragedies as a cheap substitute for carefully-constructed drama.

In the old days, "Wing" only needed an amendment or a committee vote to make an hour of television interesting. During the past year, however, the president's daughter was kidnapped, the White House went into lockdown (again) and one of the best supporting characters, Adm. Percy Fitzwallace, was killed in a Gaza bombing. In one year, mind you. Yeah, that all sounds very realistic.

I watched a grand total of four episodes this season. After the first two, when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was finally returned to office upon the recovery of his daughter, I realized the series is basically dead -- it just isn't the same, the most glaring omission being Sorkin's knack for dialogue. I came back for the last few and, while the lines were marginally better, the "Wells Effect" was still in play: The big "cliffhanger" left staffer Donna Moss (Janel Maloney) in an EMERGENCY ROOM of all things. How original.

Extravagant circumstances and poor writing aside, the characters themselves are another mark of new -- and poor -- leadership in the production room. Though I disagree with most of their politics, I still like the Bartlet staffers. Or, at least I did. Their most redeeming qualities -- a fundamental affection and respect for one another -- are seemingly gone now that Sorkin left the series. In the past, the arguments and debates were done in the correct spirit. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) could tell Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) she'd shove a pole up his butt during a verbal tussle, but then they'd walk to a party together like the friends they are. There was a definite separation of life and state.

Now, when they snipe at each other, it goes deep and has nothing to do with policy issues. I don't want to watch these characters I've come to love tear each other apart. They started doing that on "ER" years ago, and I turned the channel.

Other than Sorkin, "Wing's" biggest loss -- and probably the biggest reason for this turn toward negativism -- was Rob Lowe, a.k.a. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, during Season 4.

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is probably the show's heart and Josh probably its most prominent personality other than the president, but Sam brought the innocence and passion that made all of the others look better. His combination of humility, charm and strength were the necessary points of balance for a show filled with extremely high-strung characters.

Most dramas peak early and slowly decline (as opposed to sitcoms, which tend to look like a bell curve). "Wing" has fallen faster than most, but maybe only because it went higher than most. Sorkin, I guess, saw this coming and has been deemed right to want to end the show.

His legacy will be in plain sight Monday on Bravo. I had trouble picking out my favorites because I remember specific scenes rather than entire episodes. But, for the fun of it, I'll go with:

• "Celestial Navigation" (Season 1, Episode 15) -- Here Josh is stuck as a guest lecturer at a college forum while Sam and Communications Director Toby Ziegler try to get Judge Roberto Mendoza out of jail.

• "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (Two-hour Season 2 premiere) -- Yes, this assination attempt counts as an "event" episode, but it also showcases the love these staffers have for each other (or at least they used to) with the added bonus of a look back at the Bartlet for America campaign.

• "Noel" (Season 2, Episode 10) -- Told in flashback, this is probably my favorite episode of all, as Josh spends an entire day talking with a therapist. Whitford shines in this hour as Josh tries to sort out his problems following the near-fatal shooting a few months earlier.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Cosby: Still the man

—Originally published 5.21.04

Bill Cosby ranked No. 8 on Comedy Central's recent list of the "100 Greatest Standups of All Time," but he'll always be top dog in my book.

I had the great fortune to see the legendary comic last weekend in Asheville, N.C., and he was worth the drive and the money twice over.

I don't have much experience with standup comedians -- matter of fact, last weekend was the first time I saw one in person -- but they fascinate me nonetheless.

I would encourage everyone to rent/buy "Comedian," a documentary about the genre released in 2002. Filmmaker Christian Charles went on a quest to discover "the story of a joke," because it's really hard to be funny -- there's a science and method to comics' madness, which I've grown to appreciate since watching this film.

"Comedian" focuses primarily on Jerry Seinfeld -- another of my favorites -- after he discarded the primary act that led to his superstardom. (His final performance of these jokes is captured on 1998's "I'm Telling You for the Last Time," also a must.) Charles follows Seinfeld through the rigors of constructing a new set, starting from a few minutes at New York comedy clubs on through to bigger venues and longer shows.

At the same time, Charles follows a younger little-known comic, Orny Adams, as he tries to build his own reputation in the unflinching business.

It's a great movie and a fascinating subject. I mention it here, though, because my man Cos makes a cameo, as he and Jerry discuss the business backstage before a show. Bill is referred to reverentially by not only Seinfeld (No. 12 on Comedy Central's list, by the way), but Chris Rock, as well (who snagged the fifth spot).

During one scene, you see Rock and Seinfeld chatting in a bar somewhere and Cosby comes up. Rock tells Seinfeld he went to see the legend recently and Cosby had all new material from the time before. It makes Rock feel like a fraud, the comic admits. The scene effectively displays Cosby's greatness, and he doesn't tell a single joke on-camera. Apparently, he can do in no time what it takes other comics a lifetime to build.

Cosby must obviously love doing standup, because at 66, I'm sure he is financially set for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to stay out on the road, much less write new material.

Sunday night he could have easily tread water on past successes. As a kid, I used to listen to his old comedy albums all the time (which I now I listen to them all the time on CD). If he had gone through "Buck, Buck," "Revenge" or "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With," I would have left the auditorium without a complaint.

I don't know if Cosby was doing brand-new material Sunday night or not, but it certainly wasn't from anything I'd heard before. He prefaced his set by saying he's been married 40 years, and no one told him anything he could use before his nuptials. He was there to help people like me -- young married men.

Only somebody who's been around as long as Cosby could get away with wearing a T-shirt, sweatpants and sandals (with socks, no less!) onstage. But within minutes of hitting the spotlight, Cosby's appearance was long forgotten.

What followed was an hour and a half of absolute hilarity. My sides were hurting a half-hour in and I had trouble using the binoculars because they shook too much with my laughter. My favorite thing about Cosby is he doesn't tell jokes -- there are few recognizable punch-lines in the traditional sense, just funny story after funny story. That's what separates him from so many others, and what keeps him fresh for every generation -- there were people older than my parents and younger than my youngest brother at the show Sunday night, and they were all laughing.

He ended the night, though, with an encore of sorts and a send-up to us lifelong fans. The last five minutes of his show were spent talking about the dentist, one of his all-time great bits from the album/video "Himself."

If your only exposure to Cosby is from his NBC sitcom (not that the show isn't funny), go buy a few of his CDs. Then judge for yourself if he's not deserving of No. 1.


—Originally published 5.21.04

"Troy" was relatively well-received by critics, which surprised me. Getting ready for last week's box-office champion, I expected to read similar scathing remarks as seen the week before regarding "Van Helsing."

But, like others, I was pleasantly surprised -- if not ultimately satisfied -- by the trek into ancient Greece.

"Troy" is a movie I'll probably never watch again, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth seeing. It has too many flaws to be considered a "great" epic (much as it strives to be one), but director Wolfgang Petersen gives an admirable attempt at what is probably impossible -- transferring Homer's "The Iliad" onto the silver screen.

Golden-haired and bronze-skinned Brad Pitt is buffed out to the max for his starring role as legendary Greek warrior Achilles, who (in this version, anyway) reticently fights to retrieve Helen (Diane Kruger) from the loving embrace of womanizing Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom).

Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") and screenwriter David Benioff ("25th Hour") portray their main character -- accurately or not -- along the lines of other epic heroes of recent cinema history; like Mel Gibson's William Wallace from "Braveheart" and Russell Crowe's Maximus from "Gladiator," Achilles is disillusioned with his life of combat and would seemingly like nothing more than to settle down in peace.

However, he has that nagging problem of all Greek heroes -- hubris. Achilles' pride proves to be his downfall, as an overpowering desire to be "remembered through the ages" spurs him to battle (this dilemma is pounded into us over and over and over again).

Pitt's best performances come from quirky, rascally characters like Tyler Durden in "Fight Club," Mickey O'Neil in "Snatch" and Rusty Ryan from "Ocean's Eleven." Achilles is definitely not of that ilk, and Pitt struggles to hit the high notes required of a god-like warrior. (The script doesn't do him any favors, though, with cringe-inducing lines like, "Immortality! Take it! It's yours!")

Pitt handles the intimate scenes much better. His climactic one-on-one battle with Paris' brother, Hector (played brilliantly by Eric Bana), provides the best scene of the film, followed closely by Achilles' interaction with captured Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne) and Trojan King Priam (Peter O'Toole). Thankfully, Pitt spends the last third of this nearly three-hour monstrosity in a more subdued tone and thus saves "Troy."

There are plenty of battles, but none of it seems particularly interesting. We've seen this before -- and at higher quality -- in "The Lord of the Rings." For a scenario that launched a thousand ships, it's the close fighting between Achilles and his foes that really provides a spark. Unfortunately, these are few and far between.

The movie's real Achilles' heel, though, is the script, as Roger Ebert so correctly assessed in his review. For the dialogue in ancient epics to work, the screenwriter must commit to one style of speech -- typically archaic, if you're seeking Oscar gold. Sure, lines from movies like "Lord of the Rings" and "Gladiator" can come off stilted at times, but they're not as noticeable so long as everybody is talking that way.

In "Troy," however, you have the typical "epic speech" butting right up next to Agamemnon -- leader of the Greek army played by Brian Cox -- cracking wise like it's 1999 A.D. The incongruity just doesn't work.

So what, then, are we left with? Essentially a typical Hollywood war movie with some romance to draw in the ladies (complete with Brad Pitt's bare chest and nearly bare butt). Not exactly groundbreaking, but not exactly bad, either -- at least for the final hour.

Grade: B-