Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Household reviews of the White House takeover movies: a difference of opinons

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Back in 2013, the same movie came out twice in the theaters. Okay, not exactly the same, but basically the same. White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen were both about terrorist takeovers of the White House, in which one intrepid guy has to save the President and the country's honor. (This is hardly a novel plot, having also come up in season 7 of "24" and the Vince Flynn thriller "Transfer of Power.")

My favorite adult person in the world and I eventually got around to watching both of them on DVD, White House Down last year, and Olympus Has Fallen just recently. And while we have similar tastes in movies, we ended up disagreeing about which was the better of these dopplegangers.

[Spoilers for both flicks to follow]

Friday, July 24, 2015

Howard Stern's act

When "America's Got Talent" announced that shock jock Howard Stern would replace irascible but witty Piers Morgan as a judge back in 2012, I was a little skeptical. I haven't listened to his radio show, but I keep up enough on the entertainment industry to know about it. I had also heard that he is actually a decent guy in real life and that the radio act is more of a persona.

Well, I gave him a chance, and I'm glad I did, because he's been the judge with whom I agree most often about the talent acts.

But it was what he did on Tuesday night that really showed his decency and compassion. Cross-dressing comedian Scott Heierman, having made it past the audition stage with a strong performance, was now trying to get to the semi-finals. After a bit of relaxed pre-act banter with the judges, he launched into his comedy routine ...

... and immediately crashed, forgetting his lines.

It was hard to watch, and I wondered if he would get the dreaded X from one or more judges. But he didn't. Instead, the judges let him know that it was all right. Howard emphasized that he understood how sometimes one just blanks on stage, and he reminded Heierman that his audition round performance was so strong it seemed effortless. After Heierman left the stage, Howard got up from the judges' table, followed him, and gave him more encouragement.

You can see the entire act here.

I'm really impressed at Howard's empathy and compassion.

Fox's "Wayward Pines" - series review

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Fox's mini-series "Wayward Pines" just concluded its 10-episode run. Having read and enjoyed the trilogy ("Pines," "Wayward," and "The Last Town") that it was based on, I was pretty excited to hear that it had been greenlit for production back in 2013, presumably to air in 2014. For some reason, however, Fox kept the completed production on the shelf for an entire year.

The story is one of those "guy ends up in a strange little town that's cut off from the rest of the world and everyone is keeping a secret from him" ideas. Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, sent to find two missing colleagues, one of whom (Kate Ballenger, played by the always excellent Carla Gugino) is his adulterous lover. Based in Seattle, Burke heads to Boise to follow Ballenger's trail. All of a sudden his car gets hit by a truck and he wakes up in a hospital in Wayward Pines, a small town in Idaho.... The head nurse is quite creepy, the sheriff is even worse, and when Burke gets free he finds that he can't reach his wife, or his boss, or anyone he knows. When he calls the main Secret Service office in Seattle, an operator picks up, but he quickly figures out that she's an imposter of some sort. Meanwhile, back in Seattle, his wife is trying to reach him, but strangely, she doesn't get any of the messages that he's been leaving for her.

Even stranger is that the sympathetic bartender claims to have arrived in the town a year ago, which to her was 1999, whereas for Burke, a year ago was 2013(!).

To say any more is to give away the plot machinations of the show. Now, having read the book, I knew what the big conceit was, but for most of the series, the producers and writers changed enough details that it remained interesting for me, and indeed, I was able to watch with an eye toward seeing if they were playing fair with the audience (which the books did). It's very analogous to the movie The Sixth Sense, where if you know the secret and you go back to re-watch it, you'll see that it indeed fits together. No doubt that similarity is what led Sixth Sense director M. Night Shayamalan to take on an executive producer role for "Wayward Pines."

Mini-series or limited event series are sort of the new approach that the networks have been taking in the summer. I think this is in response to "Lost"-syndrome, where the ratings success of a serialized drama led the network to demand more and more seasons, outstripping the creative capacity of the production team. As a result, stories get stretched in unrealistic and contrived ways, to the detriment of everyone. (This is one reason Fox's "24" revival, "Live Another Day," was so good - by taking up only 12 episodes instead of 24, the writers didn't have to fill in time with ridiculous subplots like the infamous Kim Bauer/mountain lion encounter.)

The great fear for TV viewers like me is that a network will advertise a serialized drama as a limited series, but as soon as it gets strong ratings in the opening episodes, the network will reshape what should be the series finale into a season finale. The prime offender for this syndrome is, of course, CBS's "Under the Dome." We were promised that it would end after a season, and instead it ended in a cliffhanger. It's now on season 3, and the story makes less sense than ever.

With that in mind, I'll say that "Wayward Pines" does end. There's some possibility of a revival, as there was in the books, but it concludes the story.

It was really good for 9.5 episodes. The last 30 minutes, though, were pretty lame. I'm still processing how that makes me feel in retrospect about the series. It's not just that the ending differed from the books, although in comparison, the book ending was much better. It's that the TV series ending felt cheap and almost laughable.

I guess I would still recommend the series strongly to any one who didn't catch it during the first run. It was certainly compelling and would've been binge-worthy if I hadn't watched each episode on the night it aired.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Am I a TV savant?

My faculty assistant and I were chatting about TV shows earlier, and she remarked that I was a TV savant. (We're both fans of "Justified," but it impressed her that I was able to explain the easter egg about Carla Gugino's guest turn as a subtle nod to her too-short-lived series "Karen Sisco.")

However, in looking at the 2015 Emmy nominations, I feel like anything but a TV savant. Despite my prodigious TV watching, I've seen very few of the shows that were nominated, and some of them I know nothing about. It was nice to see Tatiana Maslany get noticed (FINALLY) for her fantastic work as multiple clones in "Orphan Black," but I stopped watching that early in season 2 after I got rid of cable.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

You, a desert island, a complete kitchen, and five foods ...

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Here's a thought experiment: you are stranded on a nice desert island that just happens to have an awesome kitchen full of enough equipment to turn any food ingredient into tasty snacks/meals. For example, tomatoes can be turned into ketchup, pizza sauce, or spaghetti sauce. (But if you want pizza or spaghetti, you would also need flour.)

You can five food ingredients from which to make your meals for the indefinite future. What five foods do you choose?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The end of "Justified," and the disappointing Elmore Leonard novel "Raylan"

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FX's underrated crime drama "Justified" ended earlier this year after six consistently good seasons. I streamed the first five seasons via Amazon Prime, and it was such a good show that I couldn't wait until next year for the last season to stream; I ended up buying the digital rights to season 6.

The showrunners and producers decided before the season that it would be the last one, which meant they were able to plan the end without having it forced on them, and without having to stretch to pad the episode count (ahem, "Lost"). The series finale was quite good, with a touch of melancholy and fitting ends for the major characters. I don't think it was quite as good as the finale for "The Shield," but that may be the best ever series finale.

Anyway, I found myself missing Raylan Givens, so when I saw that the Elmore Leonard novel "Raylan" was available at the library, I checked it out. Leonard was the author who created Givens as a secondary character in two novels, "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap," and then made him the star of the short story "Fire in the Hole," which became the pilot episode of the TV series.

Leonard had a string of gritty crime novels, many set in his hometown of Detroit, which was lean, dialogue-driven novels in which tough guys on both sides careened into one another with violent results. Before "Justified," he was probably best known for writing "Get Shorty" (on which the movie was based), but a whole bunch of his works have been filmed, including "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown," and the short-lived TV shows "Maximum Bob" and "Karen Sisco" (which starred Carla Gugino in the role that Jennifer Lopez played in "Out of Sight"; Gugino later appeared in "Justified" as a high ranking U.S. Marshal named Karen ------, last named never mentioned but clearly different from the name that Givens knew her by).

I knew from reviews that "Raylan" had not been well-received, but I was missing Givens so I went ahead and read it.

Boy, was I disappointed. It's basically three storylines told sequentially that draw from storylines in the TV series, though with some characters reworked. It's flat, fairly lifeless, and missing the crackling smart dialogue from the show. There is seriously only about one line in the entire book that jumps off the page as the kind of smart alecky thing Raylan Givens would say in his laidback drawl.

Most of the time I prefer books to the screen versions, but this was one of the rare exceptions.