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+