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Chasing Classic Cars (2008)
Symbolic of the Trashed Economy
As each episode begins, we see a fast-moving montage of beautiful classic cars, body shop mechanics cutting and buffing metal, and the auctioneer banging his gavel, while Wayne Carini's voice-over explains that his job is to find the specific classic cars that are wanted by wealthy clients, restore and bring them up to showroom condition and then sell them on for a massive profit. We then see a half hour show in which none of that takes place.
The credit crunch appears to have turned this show's premise on its head. Now the client comes to Wayne,not to find and buy a classic car he or she covets, but to sell one they already own, presumably because they're feeling the pinch. The restoration part of the show - if any - does not take up very much of the running time. Often the whole of the second half of the show is spent at the auction. Carini is shown trying to sell gorgeous cars that have an impeccable pedigree and an appearance that looks like they rolled out of the factory yesterday, but will nevertheless fail to make the hoped-for reserve price and don't sell.
The show represents a fitting epitaph to the boom years of excess. Unemployed Britons reading this, note job opportunities beckon in America - every one of the auctioneers are posh-accented Englishmen.
Cougar Town (2009)
Friends grown up
So it's like five years on. Monica (Courtney Cox) moved to Florida, got married and then divorced from Joey (Brian van Holt), from whom she obtained a kid who could easily have been played by Joey's nephew from "Joey". Now she's found Chandler again (Josh Hopkins), maturer and sans one-liners after a breakup. Ross (Ian Gomez) lost his angst along with his hair, dropped Rachel and got married to Jordan from Scrubs. I don't say that because she's played by Christa Miller, I mean she's the exact. same. character. Phoebe (Busy Phillips) is as blonde and ditzy as ever, though she's transferred from being the eldest of the six to the youngest.
And, though swapping Florida sunshine for New York shady skyscrapers, everything is the same as before - 3 gals and 3 guys in various relationship combos are in and out of each others' houses and undergo various (now early middle-aged) life lessons. Oh, and forget about the title, the writers and cast have tried to. It should be "Friends II", with only one of the original actors, but frankly no worse for it.
Nighty Night (2004)
(The following review was originally published 20 Jan 2004 as the first review of this title to appear here. Deleted after a user request, it has been edited and re-submitted.)
"Nighty Night" details the life and loves of the most self-absorbed woman on earth, Jill Farrell, played by series creator Julia Davis. In the first scene she sits in the hospital with her husband Terry (the surprisingly normal Kevin Eldon) and they have just been told the test results. She bewails her fate, crying "Why does everything have to happen to *me*!" Her husband turns to her, comfortingly, and says, "Look love, it'll be OK. It's really not that bad. It is ME who's got the cancer!" In the second scene she is at a computer dating service. Not content with whoever they may come up with for Jill to go out with between hospital visits, she also sets her sights on neighbour Don, (Angus Deayton), a doctor whose wife, Cathy (Rebecca Front), is a victim of Multiple Sclerosis.
Davis has specialised in playing these kinds of women in recent years, most notably in Rob Brydon's "Human Remains" and Chris Morris's "Jam". Jill is all entirely her own work and she has really plumbed the depths of the human psyche to create a woman who cares for nothing and nobody but herself, to a psychotic degree. Instead of "Nighty Night" perhaps the programme should have been called "Nicely Nice", because it is people's niceness, or at least their desire that things remain nice, that allows Jill to get away with the most appalling insensitivity and self-regard.
The characterisation of Jill is perfectly done, as are the characterisations of the other people, from poor confused Terry (not realising that he isn't getting any visitors because Jill told everyone he'd already died), Don who is caring for Cathy, but obviously doesn't really "care" for her any more. Particularly brilliant is Rebecca Front's performance as Cathy, caught between dissatisfaction with her straying husband, outrage at Jill's antics but paralysed - not just physically - by her inability to make a fuss. These are fantastically well observed. Other characters, such as Stefan, Jill's putative blind date, and Linda the asthmatic girl in Jill's beauty salon who loves to massage feet, are more exaggerated but well performed.
This is not laugh-a-minute hysterical comedy by any means, but continues the uncomfortable black comedy trend hinted at by Steve Coogan's characters, and more wilfully pursued by Chris Morris and Rob Brydon (with all of whom Julia Davis has previously acted.)
How bad could a major city in England be, anyway...?
Unfortunately, presumably due to some kind of scheduling conflict, the camera crew for this travelogue of England's second city could not arrange to be present on the day Mr Savalas was actually in Birmingham (as he constantly states he was). It could be argued that filming the commotion and traffic snarl-ups inevitably caused by the presence amongst the Brummie population of the dome-pated Italian-suited TV and movie star, would have gotten in the way of the main purpose of showing Birmingham in its best light. On the other hand it might have been better to have risked the wholesale jamming up of the city centre, since showing Birmingham in its best, or even a good light, appears to have been simply not possible.
Following a rustic introduction demonstrating a surprising amount - even to British viewers - of picturesque olde worlde village life to be found in the West Midlands, we soon enter the concrete jungle of what Telly calls "My kinda town". A vista of tower blocks, embodying the Brutalist pinnacle of Britain's most notorious period of ugly architecture, is a view that "took my breath away" - a reaction that seems surprising, coming as it does from a native of New York City. Scene after scene of metropolitan squalor passes before the camera. No doubt with an eye on cinema-goers from the nearby area, most cars that can be seen in the first half are from British Leyland, the local manufacturer. (Later on sanity prevails and marginally more palatable Fords begin to dominate). One seemingly ubiquitous car is the legendary Austin Allegro, commonly held to be the worst car in British automotive history. At this time, Leyland cars practically came out of the factory with a layer of underfloor rust built in. The vehicles criss-crossing the flyovers and motorways consequently fail to impart anything other than a sense of failure and economic decay. A quick tour of the variety of old-style cottage industries still clinging on, begins promisingly enough, but as the factories shown are increasingly dilapidated, signs hanging off and paint flaking, even Telly is forced to concede that this subsection of British small industry is all soon to be swept away. No mention of the Thatcherite destruction of manufacturing, three million unemployed and an entire generation of British workers that would end up on the scrapheap, but one mustn't expect too much.
The production's attempts to showcase Birmingham's better points are scarcely able to take a step forward without following it with two steps back. Shots of a disco nightclub containing what passed in those days for stylish young people, (as might have been seen in a cinema commercial for the local Indian restaurant) is followed by an outdoors Over-40s dance competition which is better imagined than described. On occasion, the hopelessness of the task is acknowledged by touches of sly humour pointing up the sheer banality of the images being displayed. To be fair to Birmingham, documentary short producer Harold Baim had come to film in the heart of England in 1981, the very nadir of Britain's post-war decline. And the interest is constantly piqued by the utter contrast between the parochial mediocrity on the screen and the smooth-as-chocolate tones of the baldheaded sex god.
In the end, this film is a curio of British cinema history, a joke made up by a Pythonesque satirist done completely for real and with the straightest of faces.
The Village (2004)
A comment on many bad reviews.
This is not about how good or bad the movie is. This is about reviewer after reviewer effectively blaming M. Night Shyamalan for not providing the "scariest movie evah" promised by the advertising campaign.
People, do try to wise up. Films get made first, and then they get promoted, invariably by entirely different people. MNS made the film he wanted to make. It had elements of suspense and horror, and mystery, and historical drama. Some of those elements were excessively played up in the advertising campaign, but that advertising campaign did not even exist until the whole movie was already in the can.
I'm not going to pass judgment here on how well MNS achieved what he set out to do, but it's patently obvious, if you sit and watch the movie with an open mind, that The Village is not a horror movie, it is a love story. Just because a movie isn't quite what you were led to believe it to have been, does not make it "the worst movie ever made". Comments like that are unjustly denigratory to a studiedly unemotional yet seething with undercurrents performance by Joaquin Phoenix, and the absolutely revelatory acting of Bryce Dallas Howard, who made Ivy Walker an unforgettably luminescent character.
Commander in Chief (2005)
Proof that a Republican can never occupy a Hollywood White House.
Here in Britain, abc1, the satellite television offshoot of Disney's ABC network, has been strongly pushing their new US drama success Commander in Chief for over a month. Though intrigued by a new show set in the White House, I couldn't help feeling that the trailers gave the impression that Geena Davis's principal source of conflict was that the Washington establishment was entirely made up of antediluvian chauvinist pigs. In the actual show, fortunately, it seems that the writers have actually worked a little harder than that, and provided sound-ish political reasons for the Vice President to step down just at the point where she might be called upon to step up, and not just the fact that she's a woman.
The style of this drama can perhaps be deduced from the rather implausible political situation depicted. Mackenzie Allen is an Independent (because there have been too many Democrat Presidents in the Hollywood White House, but heaven forbid we ever show a Republican to be heroic, or even a normal human being), but from references by Democrats to her being in a position to "help the Party" seems to indicate that she was a former Democrat, who had rejected party politics and then accepted the role of Veep to a Republican president. In the real world, the problem with allowing Allen to become the Chief Executive would not be that she would be unwilling to further the late President's radical conservative agenda, but that as an evident turncoat she'd be politically dead to both sides, a total pariah. Unlike The West Wing (comparisons are inevitable, I'm afraid) this kind of realpolitik simply doesn't come into the equation in Commander In Chief. But that is no bad thing, I hasten to point out. There is certainly no need for every show set in the White House to wallow in the dregs of real-world American politics at the expense of good character-driven drama. It is no secret that The West Wing has more or less lost its way in its final two seasons, with excessive dwelling on the appalling process of the typical US political campaign, a process likely to leave everybody looking less than a fully rounded moral human being.
Commander in Chief looks at things as more black and white and slightly larger than life, and certainly nobody could be larger than life than Donald Sutherland's Nathan Templeton, chief Nemesis to President Allen, the Republican Speaker of the House and former heir apparent. Sutherland plays one of those villains that almost makes you feel any time without him on screen is time wasted, but this feeling is certainly alleviated by Geena Davis herself as the eponymous C-in-C. One or other of these two is on screen nearly all the time, along with sterling support from the Matrix's Harry Lennix as Chief of Staff Jim Gardner, and Ever Carradine as the interesting new Press Secretary Kelly Ludlow, shown nervously finding her feet in front of the White House Press Corps wolf pack. Exec Producer Davis and creator Rod Lurie have done a great job of writing and casting the political characters, though less good a job with the First Family, who are the absolutely standard "perfect and beautiful family plays second fiddle to main character's career". Kyle Secor's characterisation of husband Rob Calloway (inevitably Ms. Allen kept her surname) fatally undermines his character's position of having been his wife's Chief of Staff when she was Vice President. So far Secor is playing the part as a total Washington naïf, as if he'd been told Rob was an advertising executive with an "interesting" wife, like Darrin Stephens from Bewitched.
It is perhaps a little early in the series run to criticise the plotting for being maybe a little bit too glib and easy. The first episode storyline concerned the rescue of a Nigerian adulteress condemned to stoning under Sharia law, to which the new President's reaction was to prepare military forces for a rescue mission. So far so impossible, but plausibly entertaining and heroic. But then she was shown bringing the Nigerian ambassador right into the Situation Room, and getting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to tell him every detail of their plan to invade their country and kidnap one of their citizens. The next thing we saw was the terrified girl (plus baby - right there in the cell with her) being dragged along the prison corridor - presumably to her precipitate execution - as the third act cliffhanger. As it transpired, of course, the Nigerian soldiers were simply handing the girl off to the Marines who had flown in to get her, but that didn't really excuse the script from having set up the impossible situation of any American leader breaking every security protocol there is, instantly demonstrating why such a thing would never happen, and then have the situation resolve inexplicably "happily" with the girl looking down at her forever-lost native land from an American helicopter.
It isn't all glib flagwaving, however. In fact, the pilot episode managed to be very bitingly witty about Hillary Clinton via the tart comments of the PA to the new First, uh, Spouse. On the other hand, it strikes me that concentrating on the youthful indiscretions of the First Family (teenage twins of each sex and a ten-year-old girl) almost made it seem natural that these would only be additional travails of a woman President, which of course is not the case. Scenes of conflict and resolution with the family including an all-too-brief argument with the passed-over for promotion husband, can draw unfortunate parallels with The Geena Davis Show, her recent short-lived sitcom. However, though she is once again playing a high-powered career woman - about as high powered as it is possible to get! - Davis thus far seems to have mercifully reined in the "kook", and is capable of bringing genuine power to the rôle.
Village of the Damned, Ship of Fools, call it what you will it was pretty funny.
For some reason no channel shows these Comedy Central Roasts - or any Roasts, for that matter - in the United Kingdom, which is a little surprising because all-out p*ss-taking as a form of expressing love and friendship is far more a British attribute than an American one, one would have thought. Except for one thing: in England we would happily take the mickey out of someone in public for faults of character, mannerisms, and the odd misjudgement, but in the American version there really are no holds barred. The most egregious public faux pas, the idiotic past relationships or marriages, the crimes committed - *nothing* is held to be out of bounds for the proper Roast. However, I can see that the Comedy Central Roasts generally concentrate on comedians, and after all, how much mischief can a comedian really get up to?
This one is different.
The Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a room full of people who have between them plumbed the depths of human behaviour in terms of drink, drugs and, most spectacularly, sex, and rip the sh*t out of each other for it. When you consider that this Roast is about Pamela Anderson, her ex-husband is Tommy Lee and her closest friend is Courtney Love, the sheer quantity of character flaws and devastating incidents that are up for grabs for all present to take fullest advantage of is almost beyond conception - from the quantity of flesh remaining in Pamela Anderson's silicon, to the amazement of Courtney Love's debut as a stand-up comedienne - not that she's funny, but that she's standing up. And the Big Three aren't the only ones to get the treatment. Eighty-two year old Bea Arthur got up on stage at one point and read a portion of Pamela's novel that involved, well, an act not legal in all 50 states, let's say, and for the remainder of the evening she had to sit and endure jokes about her having a penis.
Talk of the male organ does bring me to the down sides of the show - there were far too many references to Tommy Lee's apparently inordinately impressive equipment, and there certainly was a tendency on the part of all the Roasters to talk more about Lee and Love than about Anderson herself, certainly as the evening went on. And the other downside was that Pamela didn't do that great a job with her Riposte, which had some good lines that unfortunately died on the stage - although the audience and the participants were being so raucous that they simply may not have heard them properly.
Overall, a reasonably hilarious showcase of really, really offensive comedy. Watch it if you can, as long as you have a broad mind.
Sports Night (1998)
When I rewind the tape, I always have to wind a little bit more.
Finally, FINALLY, we, that is to say me and the other two people in the United Kingdom who are even aware of the newly launched abc1 satellite/cable channel, get to see Sports Night, the half hour comedy-drama that was too good to stay on the air on which the estimable Aaron Sorkin cut his writer-creator teeth before giving us the West Wing. The first time I saw The West Wing, I sat there afterwards with my mouth agape, and I said to myself, "My God, the sky is falling. The Americans now make better television than we do." I'm taping each episode of Sports Night so that I can wallow anew in wonderful, new (to me) outpourings of brilliance from the Sorkin typewriter. But if I pause or rewind the tape, because I have one of those antiquated video machines where the sound does not come straight back when you press Play, I'm always having to rewind just a little bit more. Because invariably I can see that in that brief silent period - not more than a second or two at most - the actor's lips are going like an express train, and, what is more to the point, I know that unlike just about any other programme I can think of, every syllable will be worth hearing.
I'm so glad to finally be able to see this virtually unknown gem. Sorkin has left The West Wing and no doubt has followed the siren's call to the silver screen, but that is a waste. Aaron Sorkin is a man who has developed the art of Television to far greater heights than anyone could have imagined; it is his natural home and I hope we will see a great deal more of his work on the medium he made his own.
Boston Legal (2004)
Nothing like *my* real life.
One commentator has claimed that Boston Legal is "just like real life". What piffle. This show is nothing more nor less than the ultimate men's fantasy. And I'm a man - I should know! Boston Legal is set in a world where you not only make sexually suggestive remarks whenever you open your mouth, you actually get away with it. In this world, none of your female co-workers score less than 9.5, and you've slept with all of them in any case! One twist is that this sexual predator supreme is split into two characters - Alan Shore and Denny Crane. Crane has his strange quirks, like saying his own name constantly as a mantra, but essentially they are the same man at different stages of life. In the early episodes it even sounded a little like Spader was unconsciously doing an impersonation of Shatner.
William Shatner's participation in this show could easily be dismissed as self parody. But in fact Denny Crane is the best character he has played in decades. Denny Crane is almost the ultimate example of the "has-been" - always remembering past triumphs whether legal or sexual - and Shatner always imbues these lines with a fully realised sense of his own varied experiences. James Spader successfully adapts his standard sexually dysfunctional persona to the character of Alan Shore, although one can't help feeling that the man all the women find so irresistible is really the slimmer and more vulnerable Spader from his younger days. That's what sells it - that it's Spader we're seeing casting his spell, rather than that the Alan Shore we see is that attractive either physically or mentally.
As usual with David Kelley, the combination of extremely pulchritudinous people making incredibly smart conversation makes for unmissable television. But lets not hear any more about this being like "real life".
"Lad" culture transplanted to 1780s Venice.
If I were a budding TV writer, I'd change my name to Davies. First there was Andrew who produced a fascinating and quirky little series called A Very Peculiar Practice, and the next thing you know he is writing every single adaptation we see, not infrequently for both rival terrestrial UK channels at the same time. Now it appears to be the turn of Russell T., who parlayed his gay sex shockfest Queer As Folk into Bob and Rose, Doctor Who and now this irreverent and somewhat over the top examination of the life of the infamous lover, Giacomo Casanova.
It's funny, it's irreverent, it's very fast moving and it keeps you watching. Completely eschewing period-ese language, David Tennant portrays Casanova as a cheeky on-the-up spiv who in the 21st Century might well have put himself forward as a contestant for Big Brother. He is instantly likable. Laura Fraser is very strong as the "lost love" interest, Henriette.
Disappointingly the programme seems to regard Casanova's lovemaking prowess as a minor detail, relegating it in the opening episode to a montage of fully-clothed sex scenes that are little more than snapshots. This sense of holding back was compounded when Casanova ripped his new wife and former fake-Castrato-in-travéstie singer Bellino's dress open so that it gaped for the assembled crowd - but not for the camera! This apparent prudishness seems to go against the spirit of the remainder of the enterprise. Perhaps after the Jerry Springer débacle, the BBC is taking no chances.
Peter O'Toole, as the older Casanova explaining his life story to a girl of formerly high family who has fallen on hard times and is acting as his maidservant, performs his part with all the best elements of his enormous experience, both as an actor, and of his own scarcely stain-free life story. He is so remarkably vigorous, agile and attractive (at 73!), he reminds you why he nearly turned down his Life Achievement Oscar in the hopes, still, of one day "getting a real one".
A worthwhile little production for the fledgling BBC Three, much better than the scanty Alan Clark Diaries.