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A mean-spirited and profoundly stupid film with disaster set pieces almost too big to ignore
2012 is Roland Emmerich's disaster movie to end all disaster movies. It is a melting pot of every disaster movie idea already imagined including his own. It doesn't promise the fate of the world hanging in the balance through global warming (The Day After Tomorrow, which this movie takes it's ending from) or alien invasion (Independence Day), but the unavoidable end of it. Period. But like all of Emmerich's movies he has taken a potentially thrilling, dramatically dire situation and turned it into a cheesy, popcorn, live-action cartoon where death and destruction stand along side 1D characters and terrible jokes.
Still - and I hate Emmerich for making me say this - 2012 is almost too huge a movie to dismiss. The images in it are at times awesome (buildings collapsing, entire cities falling into the ocean) and - more interesting are the political discussions the movie has about the end of the world. The sacrifices that must be made to save a few at the expense of the many. How governments might be doing the right thing by keeping it under wraps. The premise is a frightening one and not even Emmerich's Crayola touch can diminish it entirely. In short, the movie does effectively convey a vision of the end of the world.
It's also one of the more callous and mean-spirited disaster movies I've ever seen. When another movie would have humanity band together and face the threat, 2012's protagonist is all about me, me, me. It achieves the astonishing task of making John Cusack thoroughly unlikeable, even though the movie gives him kids to protect just so he doesn't look like the world's biggest coward. It's a bitter pill to swallow rooting for him to escape LA in a limo while millions plunge to their death around him (a sequence that would make a great ride at Universal Studios, by the way, it's visually awesome). It's an even more bitter pill to root for him saving his family at the sacrifice of humanity in the finale. Ejiofor as the hopeful Helmsley easily steps into the protagonist role and becomes the heart and head of the movie. Who steps up and really keeps the movie together is Oliver Platt as the White House Chief of Staff who carries out Helmsley's plan to preserve a semblance of government across the world as it ends. The race to keep that plan in place is actually kind of exciting and the debate about how secret to keep it vs humanity's right to fight for their own survival is also intriguing. I can't help but think 2012 could have been restructured for the better to be entirely about the political response to the end of the world and jettison Cusack's cheeseball, half-hearted fatherly redemption story entirely. The movie also makes a smart move in keeping under wraps the exact nature of the world's government's plan until then end, which makes for a fresh turn in the third act.
The movie is worth a look for it's astonishing larger than life special effects set pieces, but it is profoundly stupid and you may hate yourself in the morning. And may I say simply that the ending is ridiculous. It's hard to shake the populast jokes, the tacky visual gags and even the cruel streak of the movie. Emmerich would make a pretty good horror director based on some of deaths he inflicts on the innocent here. There are a few character deaths in the 3rd act that are unnecessary and completely heartless in a way that slaps an ugly stink on the entire movie. Odd choices given that so many of 2012's characters think that the goodness of humanity is what will shine through in a catastrophic crisis. In Emmerich's vision, it's selfishness that shines through. Period. Which maybe a valid point but creates a schizophrenic tone in a movie so otherwise desperate for us to cheer the heroes. If the world does come to an end, I'm sure not following Roland Emmerich to safety.
Harmless but brainless
Network: CW; Genre: Teen Drama; Content Rating: TV-PG (some language and suggested sex); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)
Part a star vehicle for the adorable Joanna Garcia ("Reba") and part an adaptation of Zoey Dean's book "How to Teach Filthy Rich Girls", "Privileged" as a bubbly, agreeable even addicting guilty pleasure. The show starts promising and then does all it can to let the air out of all the fun.
Garcia stars as highly-educated and seemingly unemployable college grad Megan who is presented with an opportunity of a lifetime. In exchange for tutoring Ann Archer's spoiled daughters, Sage (Ashley Newbrough) and Rose (Lucy Hale), she gets to live in a gorgeous Malibu mansion, drive a sports car, hang out with her best friend Charlie (Michael Cassidy) and get advice from the mansion's chef Marco (Allan Louis), who serves as the show's all-knowing advice-giver for Megan.
Starting with what I like about "Privileged", the greatness of casting Garcia in the role cannot be underplayed. Her personality and buoyancy floats in and carries the show. Megan is cute and intellectual, but also thick-headed, judgmental and self-absorbed. She is not a good person, but she sure thinks she is. It's a more complex character balance than you'd expect from a show like this. But the rest of the cast doesn't quite stack up. Sage and Rose are the Legally Brunette figures who like their designer labels and boy toys and use those things to craft their own success and naturally Megan succeeds in making them look a little bit deeper into what they want to be and do with their life. Archer is the usual hardass boss.
If this all sounds familiar to you, it felt that way to me too. "Privileged" can't just be a light guilty pleasure finding humor in girls and their toys in the lap of luxury. It can't just have fun in the sun with Megan, her romance with the neighbor stud Will (Brian Hallisay) who, of course, is in love with her and her BFF Charlie (Michael Cassidy), also in love with her, as I think "Privileged" would have played out best. Instead it settles into the type of relationship angst and familial melodrama you'd find in any old high school series or prime time soap. Megan's's backstabbing sister, her alcoholic father, her absentee mother who returns so Megan can give the "you can't just waltz back into my life and be my mother" speech. Rose and Sage date guys who aren't part of the societal uppercrust. One by one by one these story lines squeeze the fun out of the show, turning it into an empty melodrama where Meg does a lot of wining and crying about how "screwed up" her family is to anyone who will listen all based on a past we haven't seen and have no point of reference.
Had it had the commitment to go for the guilty pleasure brass ring "Privileged" could have filled a television void for light-weight, glassy-eyed guilty pleasure. Instead it's worse - a drama with the empty head of a guilty pleasure (the last thing I want is a show like this lecturing me about gay marriage). It can't think of any other way to fill the time than with anything but the most familiar family drama clichés and self-aggrandizing comedy that isn't at all funny.
* ½ / 4
A poorly written, hastily cast cash grab from MGM that doesn't extend, close out or do any justice to the series
Network: Direct to DVD movie; Genre: Comedy/Drama; Content Rating: R (profanity, dark comic violence, sexual content); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
For reference I'd recommend any reader of this briefly skip over to my review of the original Showtime series "Dead Like Me", where the show's freshness, originality, creativity and strong voice inspired me to a 5 out of 5 star rating. The direct-to-DVD feature "Dead Like Me: Life After Death" opens with a well-done, but redundant re-cap of the show's premise already captured so well in creator Bryan Fuller's movie-quality Pilot for those unfamiliar with the series. But then again, if you're unfamiliar with the show you wouldn't be interested in this movie.
Stunned at the unexpected loss of former team leader Rube (Mandy Patinkin contractually unable to be in the film), workman-like grim reapers Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth), Roxy (Jasmin Guy), Mason (Calum Blue) and Daisy Adair (Sarah Wynter replacing "24" sister Laura Harris who was hopefully off making the far better horror/comedy "Severance") are whisked off to a new life managed by unsavory new boss Cameron (Henry Ian Cusik, "Lost"). All seems great at first, limos take them to an upscale restaurant replacing Der Waffle house and Cameron quickly replaces their trademark post-it notes with blackberries, but Cameron plays fast and loose with the reaper code of conduct and the new "do-what-you-feel" attitude starts to have dire results. The first of which causes George to miss a reap which traps a teenage boy in a coma and brings George face to face with the boy's secret girlfriend: her sister, Reggie (Britt McKillip all grown up now).
Series episodes were structured like a wheel, centered around a theme with every character branching off as a sprocket to illustrate a different element of that theme (a la Sex and the City). "Life" is all over the place. One minute it's about George's reluctance to take reaping into the 21st century and her distrust of Cameron, then it launches off into a story that is essentially a rehash of the season one episode "Reapercussions" (which in 45 minutes covered this ground with more imagination). It throws in a random subplot involving Delores (Christine Welles, not her usual shiny self) giving her cat Murray a swan song only because the two are fan favorites.
"Life after Death" is a shallow, cynical cash grab from MGM with a hastily assembled cast and a script, by showrunner John Masius and co-writer Stephen Godchiux, that could have used several trips back to the writer's room. "Dead" heads will be disappointed all around by this venture. For starters all of the characters have been hollowed out and turned into one-note bits dispensing cringe-inducing one-liners, particularly Mason who is now just a goof. Georgia is no longer the antisocial, sardonic voice of a generation, but a protagonist, functioning in society, doing what's right as any protagonist does.
Surprisingly enough, much of "Life" belongs to McKillip. Suddenly thrust into the lead, the young actress does a fine job with it, it's that even in the series the entire Joy/Reggie storyline was an unnecessary, and poorly conceived trapdoor escape from the fantasy of the grim reaping story that seemed to move the show backwards. In the series it gave the show one tiny toe grounded in domestic drama, by expanding it in the movie, it very often swallows the production entirely in melodrama. I can see teenage girls crying and screaming at each other anywhere, but I can't see a bizarre Rube Goldberg series of events set in motion by a Graveling that leads to someone's death anywhere but "Dead Like Me".
Speaking of the Gravelings, a certain surprise revelation regarding George and the Gravelings at the end of the 2nd season is disappointingly not addressed at all in "Life". From Mandy Patinkin's rock solid performance to Stewart Copeland's whimsical music to Laura Harris portraying a ditz like Daisy Adair with a perfect (and rare) steely-eyed determination that everything she says is right there are more things that I can count, big and small, from the show that are missing from this production.
Maybe the most dispiriting thing about "Life" is how unnecessary it feels. Given the chance to bring a loved TV series back from the dead for a last hurrah is a golden opportunity and should inspire the showrunners to swing for the fences. "Life" looks like a tired afterthought that forgot what it used to do so well in the first place. It makes no effort to close the series out with a bang or to extend the stories into exciting new territories. Although, it is kind of fun to see the show's informal theme song, "Boom Boom Ba", making another appearance. "Dead Like Me" fans deserve a whole lot better than "Life After Death".
* ½ / 4
A great movie and a great finale for a much-loved series. Do not miss it!
Direct-to-DVD movie; Genre: Sci-Fi, Animated Comedy; Content Rating: Unrated (contains adult content & animated violence); Available: DVD and Blu-Ray; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
After 4 hugely rewarding seasons on the Fox Network (not that they knew it) and 3 DVD movies, Matt Groening and David X Cohen's cancelled, cult sci-fi saga "Futurama" comes to a rollicking close with "Into the Wild Green Yonder". The movies were a reward for those who got slapped in the face by Fox's abrupt cancellation and were underwhelmed by the run's finale, "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings" in which the show micro-focused its entire story down to a love story between future fish-out-of-water Phillip J. Fry (Billy West) and one-eyed mutant space pilot Leela (Katy Segel). "Yonder" is the epic finale we've been waiting for and I'm thrilled to report it delivers.
As always, "Futurama's" focus is still its unique cast of characters and their conflicting motives, but "Yonder" is a bigger, funnier, more epic ending, worthy of the vast, detailed universe this series created. As a movie, it's the best of the 4 DVDs which says a lot given how highly I still regard "The Beast With A Billion Backs". Where "Beast" was an ambitious and sharp story it still felt disjointed and episodic, where "Yonder" is the first film to feel like a real theatrical release movie from start to finish. It's smoother, with a more complex story, than "The Simpsons Movie".
As with any "Futurama" story, it would be almost criminal to describe the plot: both because it is so delightfully convoluted in its accurate and liberal basis in science fact and sci-fi convention and I do not wish to spoil the numerous wonderful twists and turns herein. However, in the first few minutes events transpire that set our heroes on a collision course toward series end and saving the galaxy: Al Gore-style! Amy Wong's (Lauren Tom) dad is building a new casino on Mars, but his plans to put in a massive mini-golf park threaten the endangered species of the entire galaxy which raises the ire of eco-femenistas (led by radio genius Phil Hendrie in duel role as a female member of the show's Waterfall hippie family and her brother) as well as a secret society Fry gets involved with when an accident leaves him with the ability to read minds. Oh yeah, and Bender has an affair with the Don-Bot's wife.
Almost none of the action in "Yonder" takes place on Earth or at Planet Express. With Leela joining the femenists, Fry in a double-cross to save the universe and Bender dodging the mob and joining up with Zapp Brannigan (again West), the characters spend the movie away from or at odds with each other. Cohen and co-writer Ken Keeler have scripted a clever chess game where each story and each motive weaves together beautifully, all building to a finale that finds that perfect balance between being a thrilling sci-fi adventure and a satisfying character conflict for our 3 unlikely heroes.
"Yonder" is also the funniest movie of the 4 and at times more laugh-out-loud than the series. When Fry (now reading minds) and Bender (with the DonBot's lucky Robot's Foot - his own) go head to head in a high-stakes poker tournament the scene is one of the funniest and most cleverly constructed the show has ever done. "Yonder" has a lot of fun with Bender in this movie. Bender is the kind of anti-hero character that usually has his own story as it is hard to write him into helping the gang save the world in the primary story without cheating his character's nature. "Yonder" finds a perfect place for him. The movie also has a load of fun with the eco-femenists. Few shows make fun of women the way "Futurama" has the balls too with Cohen and Keeler's unique vision of male/female clichés turning "Yonder's" conflicts into a damn-near battle of the sexes. It's refreshing. The movie gets less riotous as the 3rd act comes and the stakes of the story are raised, but that's the case with any action/comedy.
This is a fun one, people. "Into the Wild Green Yonder" fires on all cylinders, deliver the kind of originality and imagination that only "Futurama" can. As funny and poignant as any episode of the series. Both a great movie and a great finale for this much loved series. Don't miss it.
* * * * / 4
Eleventh Hour (2008)
Amid the been-there-done-that feel "Hour" is still a nicely polished thriller
Network: CBS; Genre: Remake, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-PG; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: 1 Season
I wanted to dislike "Eleventh Hour". Yes, it is yet another US remake of a UK series, yet another CBS procedural drama produced by Jerry Bruckheimer where nerdy professionals spout scientific and medical jargon paired with an attractive female. It's been disheartening watching Bruckheimer's name go from being associated with loud, boisterous, flashy, trashy, action movies to being a television brand name for "CSI" and endless, lifeless CBS procedural clones. The Bruckheimer Executive Producer template is tried-and-true and "Eleventh Hour" gets run through that ringer. Take a UK series starring Patrick Stewart and Ashley Jensen, flattening out any potential substance to leave only the most basic tent-posts of the CBS formula standing and bingo: ratings gold. Yet with a little polish in the production and an ear for creating mild thrills, "Hour" is a little bit better than the "CSI"s of the world.
Rufus Sewell plays genius scientist Dr. Hood, who advises the FBI through the lens of physics, biology and chemistry, under the handling of partner Rachael Young (Marley Shelton). This often includes viruses and toxins that are on the verge of spreading into a fatal pandemic unless Hood can find the a) terrorists and malevolent corporations or b) accidental combination of common chemicals responsible. Sewell fits the scientist bill well. He's halfway commanding on screen and about as devoid of personality as any procedural drama nerd. Sewell, perfect cast as the personality-free amnesiac in "Dark City", stretches limited acting abilities to the max here. With no chemistry (but a welcome lack of a forced sexual undercurrent) with Sewell, a miscast Shelton is also stretched to the max. Albe it with a smaller reservoir.
But around these obstacles, the writers, show-runners and directors behind "Eleventh Hour" actually stitch together a reasonably entertaining, intellectually stimulating and kind of exciting thriller. The first thing I appreciate is the show's willingness to be topical, not shying away from bioterrorism and stories about anthrax - both natural and engineered. The show also finds a good balance between the chemistry jargon, making it relatable and the thriller elements. These elements all come together well in "Subway" where a group of American teenagers who have formed their own radical Islamic sleeper cell set off a virus in the subway system. A sequence where Young and fellow agent Felix (Omar Bensen Miller, also miscast) track the potential path of the virus carrier through the subway halls is crisply turned into an action scene of excitement.
The look, sound and feel of the show come together to make a polished visceral thriller and "Eleventh Hour" solid shallow entertainment.
* * ½ / 4
Touching Evil (2004)
Beautiful to look at, but suffocates under a relentlessly grim atmosphere
Network: USA; Genre: Remake, Crime/Mystery; Content Rating: TV-14 (violence, language, adult content); Available: Universal HD; Perspective: Contemporary (content rating: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: Series (1 season)
"Touching Evil" has got to be the bleakest and most depressing crime series since "Wire in the Blood". From executive producers Bruce Willis (who may have instilled the unorthodox cop element), the Hughes Brothers (looks like they gave it the stylish visual flair) and based on the UK series of the same name, "Evil" is a grim mood piece washed in blue hues, somber music and populated with characters full of grief and misery. You could argue that despite the numerous more light-hearted TV examples to the contrary, this is the way to do a series about murder and crime justice.
Jeffrey Donovan stars as David Creegan a former cop who was shot in the head, nearly died and is reinstated on the force in an elite crime-solving division (headed by desk jocky boss Zach Grenier) now without inhibitions. His partner, straight-man female cop Vera Farmiga is there to keep him in line. TV is always trying to find a way to infuse a unique character into the well-established formula of the self-contained crime series. From the aforementioned "Wire" (which "Evil" shares a lot of its style and tone with) to "Monk" to "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" to Fearless in "Boomtown" to the more recent medical mystery "House" and "Life". "Evil" lies smack in the middle of these shows. Despite the potential gimmick, "Evil's" Creegan doesn't have a drop the personality of any of the eccentric detectives of those shows. Which is problem one for "Touching Evil".
"Touching Evil" is a well made, well acted series. It's a ready-made star turn for Donovan. His quirks as Creegan are subtle, veiled in drama and constantly require him to live in past trauma instead of using it to move his life forward in an interesting way. It's a textbook good performance. The mood, the look, the complexity of the mysteries. The show is different enough in the genre to inspire a following; no doubt on several lists of great shows that were canceled before their time for its realistically downbeat endings.
My personal reaction to it was not an entertaining one. It employs one of my least favorite TV writing devises: the client based story, in which our leads are more often than not just a pathway to get into the lives of new characters we have never met before, will never meet again but are the episode's real story focus. "Evil" follows the tried-and-true format of using the clients to bring out some tacked on moment of reflection for Creegan or his partner. The characters are just figures to advance the crime story, which is the paramount concern of this show and many like it. There is nothing really fascinating about them, and they rarely have anything really interesting to say. Conversation that isn't about the case is almost non- existent. That's its style.
True, it's different than any other genre mystery on the air. It's a crime series that lacks shocking twists, big reveals and clever little bits of evidence to follow. Some will find it refreshing, I found it dull. It doesn't need a gimmick, but it does need something to pull me in. I want action, not inaction or reaction. Despite Creegan's supposed lack of inhibitions, he doesn't do much of anything eccentric, out-of-the-box or that anyone else would do. The show's premise quickly becomes wasted. When confronted with a child abductor, Creegan attempts some vigilante justice, yet his priorities always lie with doing the right thing, the measured thing, the predictable thing. And for that, I couldn't get into it. Sometimes, that's all there is. Despite its viciousness, "Evil" pulls off the feat of lulling the viewer into a disaffected sleep.
The show almost suffocates in a relentless atmosphere of tragic human insanity. The world is a dangerous place, where terrible things happen to good people and something is out to get you around every corner. It's not an easy show to watch each week and it's also not a particularly compelling one. Lots of grieving, crying parents and spouses herein. Bodies in trunks, kidnapped and murdered kids. The show wallows in itself. It's a slow burn of depression. I don't need or want all my TV shows happy-go-lucky, particularly my dramas. But I do want compelling thought provoking drama with meat and substance. There is something about "Evil" that always feels unsatisfying to me. "Wire in the Blood" which is a grim 2-hour watch gives us a satisfying payoff, even if that payoff is that the killer gets away or the victim dies. "Evil" doesn't feel punctuated. It just burns out. It curls up on the floor in the fetal position in defeat.
* * / 4
Co-Ed Confidential (2007)
Kitschy, funny, sexy and lacking any pretension to be anything more than it is
Network: Cinemax; Genre: Skinamax Comedy; Content Rating: TV-MA (for simulated sex, full frontal nudity, profanity); Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1- 4);
Seasons Reviewed: 3 seasons (aka Co-Ed Confidential, Co-Ed Confidential: Sophmores, Co-Ed Confidential: Spring Break)
Deep down in the bowls of television obscurity lies a little Cinemax After Dark series called "Co-Ed Confidential". Amongst the rest of the soft core, late night sex shows that have given Skinemax it's reputation, "Confidential" is a damn near mind-blowing creation. Half porn, half sitcom. It's the closest thing the network has ever come to a real show- and a fun one at that.
The thing about porn, is that the traditional standards and rules don't apply. As long as there are half-way decent sex scenes (which "Confidential" has plenty of) , it can get away with anything. Bad acting, terrible writing, hapless directing. "Confidential" appears to know this and has a lot of fun with it, resulting in acting and writing that is better than anything else in the genre.
"Confidential" is a take-off on the usual college fraternity comedy. The characters (with a largely rotating cast) are as minimalist as they should be, streamlined into one-note traits. Normally something I decry in a show, but the rules are different here and characters as deep as "the nerd", "the jock", "the party animal" are exactly what is required. It works because the performances are actually pretty good, in that they are perfectly in line with the material. James (Kevin Patrick) is the Van Wilder, the frat boy who has permanently set up shop at the Omega house and becomes the custodian of a group of incoming freshman who due to a wacky mix-up don't otherwise have residence. Residents include party girl Karen (Michelle Maylene), geek Larry (Bradley Joseph), Freddy (Andre Boyer) and Lisa (Sandra Luesse), whose trait as the virgin makes her a short-lived character despite being the best looking in the cast. The stories and drama center around ladies man James' on-again-off-again relationship with Ophelia (Hanna Harper), well played by both.
"Confidential" is refreshing and surprisingly funny, both intentionally and unintentionally (though I suspect the unintentional kitschy moments may be jokes on us). Watch the show and you're going to get a fun mix of not-so-subtle pop culture references, movie quotes and lines to the effect of "If we don't raise enough money to keep Double D's bar open, Dick Johnson will buy it and take over". From the fights with the stiff campus Dean to James' loud, wacky shirts to the natural improbability of all the sex scenes and the drama of Ophelia and James break-ups, "Confidential" is the type of show that acknowledges cliché and can only be enjoyed by those that can revel it its absurdity. I can't decide if this is a surprise or not given the state of most TV, but in its own charming slap-dash sort of way, "Co-Ed Confidential" is actually funnier than a lot of the lame sitcoms on network TV. Given how clinically over-sexed most network sitcoms are and given their inability to pay the sexual tension off- I'm willing to bet there are legions of shows that wish they were "Co-Ed Confidential". Plus, I'd put this show up against ANY of the endless National Lampoon or American Pie direct-to-DVD college movies.
My favorite episode of the series is "Rolling Royce" in which James' battle with Ophelia's fiancé Royce (Eric Aston) explodes in a class presidential election between the two in which James launched a "Vote with your C**k" campaign. Given that it aired in an election year, the sitcom/porn hybrid reached into a little political satire. I can honestly say I've never, ever, seen anything like that.
I've underplayed the soft-core aspect of the show, because frankly, that's actually not its strength. That's the surreal thing about it. Yet, the sex scenes in "Confidential" are actually fun. A stark contrast to the low-lit, melodramatic scenes you'll find in other shows which are limited to women finding their soul mates and making beautiful love to them while soft music croons over it. Oh please. Where fem-porn has taken over the soft-core genre, "Confidential" steps up to deliver for both genders. Yes, believe it or not, men actually watch soft-core porn too.
The soundtrack, in and out of the sex scenes, pops with punk, rock themes. I dare anyone not to watch the show and not rummage around the internet for a copy of "Better than Me", the show's ending theme.
Kitschy, funny, sexy, lacking any pretension to be anything more than it is, "Co-Ed Confidential" is a marriage of several familiar elements in a way that makes them all fresh and original again. I never thought I've be seeing a porn/sitcom hybrid. And even at that, what are the odds it will be as much pure fun as "Co-Ed Confidential". It's the first porn series strong enough with characters and story to deserve a mainstream DVD release. If you have Cinemax and aren't watching this show you're wasting your money.
* * * / 4
Spoiled girls and cheating boys: how do I loathe the, let me count the camera angles
Network: MTV; Genre: Reality/Drama; Content Rating: TV-PG (some language and suggested sex involving teens); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: 2 seasons
Any adult that voluntarily watches MTV's pseudo-reality series "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" is going to get exactly what they expect. The show hones in on its target demographic and gives them exactly what they want in a glitzy package. For me to sit here high and mighty and decry MTV for feeding the ego of a handful of Orange County families - taking a group of spoiled in-crowd teenagers and turning them into basic cable TV stars for being everything that has made their life so easy up until that moment - would be irrelevant to the show's audience and its cynical producers.
Those corporate stooges here are creator Liz Gateley and developer Adam Davolla. "Laguna Beach" is trash. But it's hyper-stylized trash. Cameras capture events with angles impossible to have taken all at once and show is shaped into a such-as-it-is narrative structure. And there in lies the rub and, you might argue, the evil genius on MTV's part. The show falls in a surreal valley for the viewer: to technically polished to be real, yet so frivolous, so lazy, about so little, that who in their right mind would go to the trouble to fake or script it.
Supposedly the seasons were shot over the course of 6 months, the people, situations and "drama" are real - as real as the real orange county (take that Josh Schwartz). The "drama" is all inconsequential relationship entanglements that the characters voluntarily bring upon themselves. Those characters - a group of barely distinguishable sun worshipers who continually swap partners amongst their own incestuous group, then gossip and cry about who is with who now. They do nothing in the world but sit in the hot tub, shop, party and gossip. The girl's vocabulary consists of saying everything is "cute" and the guys have almost no vocabulary at all struggling to grunt out monosyllabic expressions amid blank stares and silence. Aren't they cute? But even if the bubbliest teenage girl doesn't mind being pandered to, if they step back and look at it they might realize that "Laguna" violates law of inevitability # 1 for why reality shows don't work: real people are usually not very interesting and it doesn't matter how many times they go to Cabo, how many times their car stalls in the street, how many times they get cheated on, or how many beach bonfires they go to. Having been pampered their entire lives has prevented the "Laguna" gang from growing a sense of humor. The guy's idea of a practical joke is to dress up in a bear costume and crawl into a tent, or don ski masks and stalk outside a girl's poker party smearing fake blood on the window.
The bear costume comedy genius: Stephen (Stephen Colletti), who is presented through the show and the eyes of LC (Lauren Conrad) and her friends as God's gift to women. They sit around for hours talking about this guy and with feet-sweeping one-liners like "You're a hottie with a body" how can they not. The other series "stud", particularly in season 2 is Jason, whose half of the conversation is consists of sitting in silence and answering questions with questions. My favorite is when he says he's mad at his girlfriend for the look on her face. She responds "How do I look?" and he goes "You tell me". His jerk tactics work like magic on every girl on the show. In season 2 their world revolves around him.
The star of the series is Kristin (Cavalleri) and arguably LC. Both of whom serve as narrators. Both are the poster children perpetuating MTV's narcissistic lifestyle. Kristin is the "player" of the group who gets away with it with a laugh and a smile from all her friends because she's a girl. Lauren plays the nice girl role that falls for all the jerks, knowing that they are jerks, and ends every first date in the hot tub. I'm all about anti-heroes, always have been. The kids of "Laguna" led by Kristin are prime examples but there is no way MTV had that in mind when stitching the show together. Instead of ironically mocking them, the show is a slobbering celebration of their life. But it's a life where the girls spend most of their time sitting around being victims to apathetic dudes with a reputation for cheating who then cheat on them. Giving Kristin and LC a complete pass for similar piggish behavior, the inevitable message shaped by "Laguna Beach" becomes simply: boys suck.
I'm going to have to admit total lack of comprehension with the show's storyline. The kids of "Laguna Beach" appear to graduate from high school and leave for college twice. The show has a morbid fascination to it, like watching a snake eat a rat or driving past a nasty head-on collision. But if you were able to read this review, you know this much.
The show might have worked by putting an ironic or satirical eye on their antics. But MTV wants these kids to be role models to melt the minds of a generation of girls so they will expect nothing more in their entertainment. Without giving away plot lines, Lauren does something completely random and out of character in the final few episodes that gives her a dramatic arc. It's almost as if she's making a play for a spin-off
* / 4
My Own Worst Enemy (2008)
Slater is terrific in this creative, crazy twist on the double agent spy series
Network: NBC; Genre: Action/Adventure; Content Rating: TV-14 (violence and some sexual content); Perspective: contemporary (star range: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)
Henry (Christian Slater) is an efficiency expert with a wife and two kids. He's such a nice guy, his life is so normal and ordinary that you just know he has to be a secret agent. He just doesn't know it. When called onto assignments, a secret government agency activates hardware in his brain that temporary wipes out Henry and loads in the personality of secret black ops badass assassin Edward. When returning Henry to his normal life false memories are implanted to explain any cuts or bruises. But we've got a problem. Henry/Edward is now broken. He starts snapping back and forth between personalities at random moments bringing Edward into Henry's home life and Henry for the first time into the high stakes world of Edward's.
I love this show. What a great idea. What a crisp and fun execution. What a deliciously entertaining series. "My Own Worst Enemy" is an imaginative shot in the arm for the spy series, putting a new spin on the classic double life storyline by keeping the agent himself in the dark, putting him at odds with (as the title so aptly describes) himself. I'm not even divulging my favorite little twist in the show, suffice to say it surprises from the beginning when the origin of the digital personality split is revealed.
Due to its at-home-on-cable complex premise, the show never caught fire with an audience and NBC is too cheap to keep it around until it could. That's a shame because had it been seen by more eyes this could have been a Kiefer Sutherland-level comeback for Christian Slater. Slater is terrific in dual role, playing both Henry and Edward with slightly different mannerisms and voices, fully vested in both the bumbling family man and the ruthless womanizing killer. Edward takes pleasure in sleeping with Henry's wife when he takes over but can't stand the domestic duties like buying his daughter a dress for the school dance. Henry freaks out when he wakes up in the bed of the company psychiatrist (Saffron Burrows) who Edward is sleeping with or in the field on a mission. None of this is played as cheesy, from Slater or in the show's unblinking treatment of material that goes along way to make material work that so easily could have fallen into camp.
The show also works, both on the home front stories and as an action series ride with Henry/Edward's cell phone recorder serving as a bridge by which the two personalities communicate (and threaten) each other. This is more than can be said for the more procedural, less cinematic spy thriller "the Unit", which still juggles domestic and black ops story lines awkwardly.
Mike O'Malley really surprises as Edward's partner, Raymond, another agent in the program. The wife of his alias, Joe, has grown suspicious leading her further to the truth. O'Malley is unrecognizable as the ruthless Raymond. This guy would eviscerate his "Yes Dear" character without thinking twice. On the other side is Alfrie Woodward as the program's overseer, who after her jump the shark performance in season 2 of "Desperate Housewives" could not look more lost or uninterested with everything going on. Acting fireplug James Cromwell also appears as her gruff superior office a role Cromwell could do in his sleep.
Like "The Unit", "Enemy" isn't a "24"-level thrill ride. We never feel things won't work out for our heroes. The fun is in seeing how. What resourceful way will Henry keep to his core human principals while trying to dispatch an international terrorist? But the missions are nothing compared to the battle between the two men. That's where the show's imaginative playground is. How far will Edward go to push or even get rid of Henry? The action hits all the right notes here. This isn't serious spy stuff. It's pulpy Jason Bourne over-the-top movie spy stuff. Extremely entertaining spy stuff at that.
* * * ½ / 4
Dirty Sexy Money (2007)
Watchable but oddball mix of wish fulfillment guilty pleasure and straight cheesy soap opera
Network: ABC: Genre: Drama; Content Rating: TV-14 (for strong suggested sex); Available: DVD; Perspective: Contemporary (star range: 1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (2 seasons)
Despite starring in two cult classics now, "Sports Night" and "Six Feet Under", Peter Krause is something of an acting enigma - a likable leading man who can carry a series, but can't seem to get under the skin of a character. Giving another blank-faced performance, Krause offers nothing behind "Dirty Sexy Money's" lawyer Nick George that makes him a hard guy to root for.
Created by Craig Wright, "Dirty Sexy Money" is an oddball combination of a wish-fulfillment series and a straight-up prime-time cheesy soap opera. After a mysterious plane crash that claims the life of his father, Nick becomes the family lawyer of The Darlings - America's wealthiest and most powerful family whose eccentric members spend as much time on the front pages of the tabloids as they do brokering multi-billion dollar deals. There is no real life equivalent to The Darlings though I'm sure a few families think they are. Donald Sutherland effortlessly plays the scheming patriarchal figure of the dynasty Tripp, snarling just as he did in "Commander in Chief". We've also got Patrick (William Baldwin, with a "golly me?" look on his face the entire series) a budding politician, Karen (Natalie Zea, in various states of undress) daddies little girl and serial bride, Jeremy (Seth Gabel) as the loafing black sheep son and Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) a reverend who having toiled away for the family for years feels entitled to a little compensation and is never rewarded. Karen has a thing for Nick, Jeremy has a thing for Nick's wife (Zoe McLellan, with short "nice wife" TV hair). The constant scandals and ridiculous demands of the Darlings prove to be a strain on Nick's life and marriage.
"Money" is an agreeably watchable little bit of escapist TV. I can't help but wish that the antics of the Darlings would have been better played for class-warfare laughs, slyly mocking the rich and spoiled instead of the genuine attempt at drama the show milks. The show wants to have both side with the Darlings as one big caring family and show them as a ruthless business family in which Tripp manipulates everyone to jack up the stock price and sweeps scandals (up to and including accidental death) under the public eye's rug. It depicts them as double-edged coin: both a black hole of need that sucks up Nick's every waking moment and as an opportunity for him to live the good life, constantly being thrust into positions of wealth power and prominence that he doesn't quite earn at Tripp's arbitrary hand. Time and again Nick is the only one Tripp can "count on". The antics of the Darlings are dragged down a bit by a wholly unnecessary storyline involving the plane crash murder mystery of Nick's father.
Things really get crazy in season 2 when Blair Underwood and Lucy Liu come on board. Liu is a ruthless prosecutor going up against the family who has an affair with Jeremy. Underwood is Tripp's corporate arch enemy shown glowering over security cameras and involved in the most elaborate schemes s to bring down the Darlings. The Wyle Cyote to Tripp's Roadrunner, halfway between "Madea's Family Reunion" and a James Bond villain. It's the juiciest role on the series and Underwood appropriate chews through the scenery. Fitzgerald actually gives my favorite performances on the show. It is a role of frustrated, simmering anger whose arc involving his wife and son, paternal history and position as his father's suck-up is far more interesting than anything going on with Nick.
Taking us into a world of wealth and privilege with snarling villains, hot women, easy sex and lavish parties, "Money" fits the guilty pleasure bill quite well. The scandals are certainly more "Desperate Housewives" than "Nip/Tuck" if that's your thing. The show remains exactly the glossy guilty pleasure escapism that it wants to be. This type of escapism doesn't require it to be compelling or humorous or, really anything. While it makes it a forgettable and disposable series, "Money" certainly does that.
* * / 4