Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saw IV

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Tobin Bell, Lyriq Bent, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis

Running Time: 95 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Two men awake in a grungy bathroom chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room with no memory of how they got there. Between them are a dead body, a gun and a cassette recorder. That kernel of an idea ended up providing the launching pad for three sequels and one of the most commercially successful horror franchises of all-time. From the opening minutes of the first Saw film in 2004 you knew you were seeing something special and how those men got there and what was on that tape recorder ended up being a lot smarter than many gave it credit for at the time. With every Halloween since came the promise of a new Saw film and so began a tradition.

It joins films such as Friday The 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street as one of the few successful horror franchises, but the truth is you could put the first three Saw films up against any of those films' first three and it would handily win. There's been very little drop-off in quality from the first to the third. thought the original was an ingenious suspense thriller. Its sequel, while overcrowded with too many characters, was still a worthy successor and featured a great performance by Tobin Bell as Jigsaw, the cancer-stricken killer who sets up deadly traps and games to force others to appreciate their lives.

The original's co-writer and director, James Wan had left the series, but his replacement Darren Lynn Bousman filmed a sequel that was better than anyone had a right to expect. Bousman was back for the third film, easily the most graphic and polarizing of the series. I thought it was an improvement over its predecessor, getting back to basics with a morality play that recalled the original. How it escaped an NC-17 rating has to be one of horror cinema's greatest mysteries. Each year the Saw films aren't screened for critics, which is very wise knowing their predisposed bias against the genre. Many of them have affixed their "torture porn" label on it, a few without ever viewing the films. Each one tends to end with a shocking twist that whets fans' appetites for a follow-up.

Those many fans, myself included, were left scratching their heads at the end of Saw III wondering how there could possibly be another film with the diabolical Jigsaw seemingly left for dead. It's a stretch even by horror movie standards. So, has Saw's ship finally sailed? Can this franchise survive without him? After viewing Saw IV I'm sorry to report that it doesn't look like it can. Ridiculously overplotted and containing an ending so disappointing it's almost offensive, this is by far the least successful film in the series and a sign it's time to call it quits. They missed their stop. I can't imagine anyone looking forward to a fifth installment after the slap in the face we get here.

Jigsaw a.k.a. John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is dead. That much is made clear in the film's opening minutes as we bear witness to his gruesome autopsy. His work, however, is far from done. In his stomach is a tape he ingested just before his death and on it are instructions for another game. This one involves Detective Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who's had to stand by hopelessly and witness the demise of Detectives Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) and Kerry (Dina Meyer) at the hands of Jigsaw. He's a man who's obsessed with doing the right thing and now that obsession will either become his best friend or worst enemy as Jigsaw leaves various tests for him around the city which will lead him to the location of two captured colleagues.

Hot on Rigg's trail are F.B.I agents Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkenis) who have discovered the body of Detective Kerry and have good reason to believe her death in the third film was carried out by someone other than Jigsaw or his deceased apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Clues lead them to John Kramer's ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) who provides shocking details of their past together as the clock ticks on Rigg's deadly game.

If you thought Saw II had a lot of characters that film looks like an intimate stage play compared to what we witness here. I don't think I've ever seen a horror film (or any film for that matter) feature as many cops as this does. It's as if they're shooting a remake of NYPD Blue. There were so many that at times it actually becomes difficult to tell them all apart. Not helping any was that they decided to cast three actors who look physically identical to one another in pivotal roles. If one wasn't a lawyer and didn't serve a separate function in the story I would have been totally lost. Yes, even John Kramer's attorney appears in this film.

It seemed like they wanted to jam as much as they could into this one out of fear that Jigsaw's absence would lead to a lack of tension and excitement. There are more ingenious traps than ever before and flashbacks that flash back to more flashbacks. There are clues, letters and tape recorders all over the place. A character in this film can't seem to enter a room without being confronted with Jigsaw's puppet, a tape recorder or a note. The amount of time and preparation (not to mention psychic ability) it would take to set up the game Detective Rigg endures here would probably cause Jigsaw to want to take his own life instead. I can't say I'm surprised he needed help with this one.

The plot is so complicated and involves so many characters it would take me a year to explain it. It's just too much. We even have the reappearance of a major character from a previous film, although their presence is completely superfluous and adds nothing to the story. All the characters in this film are just pawns in Jigsaw's game which would be fine if one of them didn't take center stage in the inexcusable ending. They also decide to tie up a loose end from the end of the third film, but in the most unsatisfactory way possible

This isn't to say Saw IV is a terrible film, but compared to the rest it's a huge step down. I don't have a single complaint about how Bausman directs it as he stays true to the effective visual aesthetic of the first three films. I won't even rate the gore level anymore since fans of the series are completely desensitized to it by now. It's exciting and holds your interest with the deadly traps and these are maybe the most depraved group of subjects we've had in any Saw film.

Bent gives a commanding lead performance but the real star of the movie, as usual, is Tobin Bell. John Kramer may be dead but he gets more screen time than ever as we find out through various flashbacks about his relationship with his ex-wife and a shocking event that helps explain how the troubled toymaker turned into Jigsaw. It's never bad to have the spotlight shine on a villain with this much complexity and it was by far the most fascinating element in this film. It got me thinking that maybe it wouldn't have been such a bad idea to have a prequel instead. With Jigsaw dead it becomes nearly impossible to care as much about these new traps and games. This character is the driving force behind the series.

The film's convoluted plot does actually tie together in the end (probably even better on a second viewing) and I'd be willing to forgive what a mess it is… if not for the ending. Without spoiling too much I'll say there's a "big reveal" involving someone we couldn't care less about. The twist isn't shocking, just lazy. All I'm going to say is that if someone's going to carry on Jigsaw's legacy we all know the only person it should be (Hint: He's a doctor with one foot). Had that been the reveal audiences would be gasping for air and the series could have continued with renewed vigor. I would have even accepted a twist that revealed Jigsaw to still be alive. Of course it would make no sense, but at least it wouldn't carry the massive disappointment this ending did and we'd look forward to a fifth film.

I also never expected to say this, but I really missed Shawnee Smith as Amanda. Her absence is really felt. At the end of the second film I complained at the prospect of having her take over the reins, but after this ending I'd do anything to have her back. We've never seemed further from that grungy bathroom with Dr. Gordon and Adam than we do now and watching this was like listening to a mediocre band try to cover one of your favorite songs. It just isn't the same.

For those who'd want to label this film "torture porn" I couldn't argue because the writing just isn't there this time. There are new screenwriters on board (Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) and it really, really shows. I hold them completely responsible. If anything this proves just how valuable to the character of Jigsaw and Tobin Bell's performance as him have been to the series. He may have been in the film in flashbacks but his physical presence was sorely missed. We need to know he's the one behind the curtain pulling the strings. With Saw IV we may have officially "jumped the shark." Just as Jigsaw has drawn his last breath, so too apparently, has this franchise.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mr. Brooks

Director: Bruce A. Evans Starring: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, William Hurt, Marg Helgenberger, Danielle Panabaker
Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

The devil is in the details. It's a phrase we hear often but I can't think of a more appropriate time to use it than in describing Mr. Brooks, easily one of the most bizarre, but fascinating films of this year. No, actually "bizarre" doesn't cover it. "Insane" is probably the better word. It reminds me how much I hate assigning movies star ratings. No star rating I could give this film would provide anyone with a better idea of what to expect going in, as it's an overcooked, overambitious spectacle you'll either love or detest with a passion.

Just look who's starring in it. Based on their track records I can't think of three actors more likely to send audiences fleeing from the theater than Kevin Costner, Demi Moore and Dane Cook. If you told me even one of those actors had starred in a movie that was somewhat decent I'd probably go into shock. That all three not only co-star in a really good one together, but two out of the three give great performances, may be cause to resuscitate me.

I get a headache just thinking about how much effort must have gone into writing a script you could argue approaches brilliance in its commitment and attention to detail. The film, which falls somewhere in between a deep psychological thriller and black comedy, also provides Costner with one of the best roles of his career. It's his most interesting, nuanced performance in years and continues his career resurgence that began with his great, understated supporting work in 2005's The Upside of Anger. The script tries to pack a little too much in but stands as further evidence that it's always better to risk failure swinging for the fences than just playing it safe. Mr. Brooks is a true original and one of the more entertaining serial killer films to come around in a long time.

Earl Brooks (Costner) is a successful business owner with a beautiful wife (Marg Helgenberger), a devoted but rebellious daughter (Danielle Panabaker) away at college and is being honored as "Man of the Year" by the Portland Chamber of Commerce. He's a pillar of the community and to those who know him he can do no wrong. But he harbors a terrible secret. An addiction. Mr. Brooks is a serial killer and he just can't help himself. Just as other addicts get their thrills from gambling, drinking or drugs, Brooks gets a rush from the kill. He knows it's wrong and he has to stop, but just can't because there's that voice inside telling him to go through with it. It'll be fun.

That voice is his sadistic alter-ego Marshall (William Hurt) and he seems frighteningly real, appearing at the most inopportune time to talk Brooks into restarting his run as the "thumbprint killer," after a two-year sabbatical. The night of his "Man of the Year" speech, he's back in action committing a grisly double murder, except this time the normally meticulous Brooks wasn't careful enough and he's spotted by nosy neighbor Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). Smith, who had an unhealthy habit of photographing his now murdered neighbors having sex, is armed with incriminating photos of that night and blackmails Mr. Brooks. But he doesn't want money. He wants Brooks to take him under his wing and show him how it's done. Together they'll commit a murder and Mr. Smith will have the learning experience of a lifetime. Brooks, not the least bit happy he has to babysit this goof, is obsessively pursued by tenacious police detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore).

Given enough sub-plots for 15 movies, she's a millionaire heiress going through an ugly divorce with a much younger man and was just taken off a big case involving another notorious serial killer. As she moves closer to discovering Brooks' identity, he struggles with another very messy situation at home with his daughter. Vowing to never kill again, Brooks must wrestle with his own demons and the lingering threat of being caught and exposed not only to the world, but most importantly, his family.

Bruce A. Evans' (who also directed) and Raynold Gideon's script for this film is so clever at times. There's no question it overreaches, but it's very rare you see a movie jam this much in and have it work so well. A big reason for that is how sharply written the title character is. Everything comes back to Mr. Brooks. We've seen plenty of serial killers onscreen before, but their psyche and motivations for murder were never played quite like this. By presenting murder as an addiction afflicting an otherwise likeable family man the movie opens up a ton of dramatic possibilities and nearly all of them are fully exploited.

What's so frightening and often times comical about the whole situation is that the gentle Mr. Brooks we see with his wife and daughter isn't all that different in demeanor from the cold-blooded "thumb print" killer. This would mark one of the few times Costner's infamous low-key, subdued presence helps a film immensely. Less is always more with Costner, an actor who was never flashy or painted with broad strokes. He's tried to be in the past and the results have been disastrous. In contrast, this is a role that suits his casual acting style and emphasizes his strengths. It's his best performance since 1993's A Perfect World.

In a great early scene we see Brooks leave his wife in bed to commit a murder and his obsessive attention to every physical detail concerning the set-up, execution and clean-up of the crime scene is fascinating. Criminologists always claim serial killers secretly want to be caught and are craving attention. For Brooks part of that may be true (especially when you evaluate his rare error at the crime scene), but mostly being caught represents his worst nightmare. While it would definitely end his murder spree he can't bare for his wife and daughter to know the truth because it would destroy them.

As Detective Atwood closes in, you can almost feel Brooks' control over the world he created for himself slipping and his alter-ego Marshall fearing for his existence. An event happens with his daughter during the course of the film (which I won't give away) that changes the way Brooks' looks at everything and forces him to do something that isn't necessarily unfamiliar, but just never presented itself in that particular context. The results are potentially life-altering for both himself, his family and his alter-ego.

The decision to have Brooks' addictive personality physically manifested onscreen is very effective, giving the film a Fight Club-like feel. That he's played by William Hurt, one of our creepiest and engaging supporting actors makes Marshall's presence that much more satisfying. I liked how Evans' and Gideon's script made Marshall smart, logical and contemplative instead of a loose cannon screaming at Brooks to kill people at every turn. Serial killers are careful and clever and this was one of the few scripts in what's become a very tired genre that accurately depicts that. The arguments Brooks and Marshall have throughout the film make sense and move the story forward, while at the same time reflect Brooks' conflicted state of mind.

While the Brooks' character is given first class treatment the same can't exactly be said for Moore's Detective Atwood. She's a little too busy with various sub-plots and story threads you're not sure will tie together by the end. Most of them do, but one doesn't. Yet, there are even flashes of brilliance with this character. How many movies have you seen where a hard-boiled cop just happens to be a millionaire? She doesn't even need the job, or any job for that matter. A lesser script would introduce her inherited wealth as a plot device for some kind of blackmail or extortion sub-plot. Not here. It instead is used to invest the character with more depth and psychologically deepen the cat-and-mouse relationship between her and the unknown killer she's pursuing. Mr. Brooks respects her and what she's doing, which just makes him more afraid. He may have finally met his match.

I can't lie and tell you this is one of Moore's best performances (she's kind of stiff) but at least she's finally taken the kind of strong lead role she usually excels at and should be playing at this stage of her career. Tough as it may be to believe, Dane Cook does really delivers here as Mr. Smith, channeling his annoying persona to a film's advantage for a change. Maybe not having the pressure of being a comedy lead reined him in, allowing him to finally fully inhabit a character. Watch the scene in the parking lot with Moore's detective trying to rattle him. Cook plays it just right. I can't say for sure another actor wouldn't have done better in the role, but he does a great job with it. Maybe if he tackled more interesting roles like this in the future he'd be known as a hard-working supporting actor instead of one of our most hated celebrities.

Will Detective Atwood capture Mr. Brooks or will Mr. Smith turn him in? Will his family find out who he really is? Can he give up a life of crime? Will he live? The movie answers all of these questions and the last half-hour of this film is impressive, somehow converging all (or at least most) of the storylines and sub-plots in a way that's not only surprising and exciting, but holds up very well logically. When the film ended I had a feeling I hadn't had in a while. I actually wanted to see a sequel. Given the movie's poor box office returns that doesn't seem likely, but if there ever is, the possibilities are endless.

Hopefully, the film's odd originality will give it a well deserved following on DVD and we'll get the next two films in the trilogy producer Costner had originally envisioned. Costner has taken a beating for years from critics and audiences for what essentially amounts to just two horrible choices (you know what they are), but overlook the fact that when he's on he's really on. It's great to finally have that Costner back, at least temporarily. There's a lot to laugh at during the overstuffed Mr. Brooks, but when you look beyond that you see a smart, original thriller that takes some big risks. Even if you hate it, you can't deny its guts.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Mighty Heart

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Denis O' Hare, Will Patton

Running Time: 108 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

With all the media outlets we're exposed to today, the line between "celebrity" and "actor" can get kind of blurry. No one knows this better than Angelina Jolie, who attempts to shed her celebrity skin by disappearing into the role of Mariane Pearl, widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart. She succeeds and delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Unfortunately it's trapped in a movie that takes a deadly serious issue and tip toes around it, refusing to take sides or ask any important questions. All it does is spin in circles hitting the same note again and again before reaching its inevitable conclusion.

While many may appreciate and respect the film for what it's trying to do, only masochists would find any enjoyment in watching it. It's dreary and depressing and the only reason to see it would to witness a rare onscreen depiction of a woman who stays strong and doesn't blink in the face of an unimaginable crisis. There's little doubt Mariane Pearl's ordeal was done justice with a respectful and inspirational portrayal. If only the same thing could be said for Daniel's.

In 2002, on the heels of the September 11th attacks, journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) was researching and reporting a story on possible Al Qaeda links in Pakistan. He ended up being duped, kidnapped by terrorists and beheaded, the evidence of which was gruesomely documented on videotape. The story sparked controversy all over the world, shining the spotlight not only on America's war on terrorism in a post 9/11 world, but the role of our mass media. This film is based on Mariane's self-penned memoir and follows the Pakistani and American governments' attempts to find out who was behind this and retrieve Danny.

A U.S. security specialist (played by Will Patton) is brought in and at times there are clashes and conflicts of interest with the Pakistani authorities (led by Irfan Khan). Wall Street Journal editor Paul Bussey (Denis O'Hare) also flies in to follow leads as Mariane is comforted by her friend and fellow journalist Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) There's a lot of red tape and some red herrings but throughout this horrific ordeal Mariane bravely keeps it together, at least until she understandably loses it when the final, indisputable news comes.

You may have noticed I've mentioned very little about Daniel Pearl himself and for good reason. With the exception of a few flashbacks briefly touching on the hours leading up to the kidnapping, he's hardly in the film at all. Its focus is completely on Mariane and director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome To Sarajevo) shoots the entire film as if it were a documentary, very similar to the shaky cam style Paul Greengrass employed on United 93. That was the right approach directorially as it keeps everything as restrained and tasteful as possible.

Also, like United 93, we know how this story ends but this film fails to contain the slightest bit of that film's impending sense of dread or suspense. It's a fine, respectful adaptation of Mariane Pearl's memoir and Jolie's performance is authentic and worthy of high praise but that's where the compliments end. On every other level this film has to be seen as a failure that doesn't do the serious, controversial nature of the story justice.

It's a rare occasions that I'm actually angered watching a motion picture, but this is one of them. If you, like me, find it incomprehensible that this can happen to a newspaper columnist employed by one of our country's largest and most respected publications, you probably want some answers. Good luck. You won't be getting any from this film. There's a point in the movie when Mariane is grilling an alleged source and he questions whether what Danny was doing should even be the business of a journalist.

As quickly as that important question is brought up, it's ignored. I don't know about you but whenever I hear about a reporter risking (and in this case losing) their life I ask that same question myself along with many others. Is this really worth it? Shouldn't someone be held accountable? It's important we know what's going on in the world and the dangers we face daily, but is it fair to ask reporters to risk their lives so we can? I'm not trying to turn this into a political or philosophical debate, but the movie should have. Daniel Pearl's story cannot be told accurately without it, even if the goal was to tell hers. But it's impossible to tell Mariane's without approaching this situation from every angle, including Danny's. When the film ended I could tell you only two things about Daniel Pearl:

1) He seemed like a nice guy.
2) He wore glasses.

We're given nothing. How did he feel about the assignment he was given? What was his relationship like with his wife? What made him want to become a reporter? I wanted to know more about this brave man, so I could be personally invested in the story. If we don't know the slightest thing about him it's impossible to care what happens to him or his wife. Analyzing Dan Futterman's performance as Danny would be pointless considering he's probably onscreen for a total of no more than 10 minutes.

Forgive me for saying this but the movie could have actually benefited from showing the tortuous experience he went through, as difficult as it may have been to watch. By not showing anything, the movie comes off timidly, as if they're sweeping the whole ordeal under the rug. No one accused United 93 of being exploitive because they depicted the events in the gruesome, realistic way they unfolded and did so objectively.

Even Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film many believe took things too far dramatically, had the guts to show what happened. I understand the need for the filmmakers to stay faithful to Mariane Pearl's source material and her wishes for the project but she and Jolie are likely to be the only two satisfied with this account. For everyone else it's a police procedural. And a giant bore.

While Jolie's performance is brilliant technically it's comparable to the sound of one hand clapping or a tree falling in the forest. It isn't the slightest bit interesting or exciting to watch because it seems to exist in a vacuum. And it's definitely not a "risky role," at least in the way it's presented in this film. Usually I refrain from commenting on an actor or actress' personal life unless I feel it directly pertains to their film choices or work onscreen. It does here. Jolie may have never been one of our best actresses but there was a time when she was at least an interesting talent to watch. Now it seems her selection of on screen roles have become just as boring as her off screen persona.

Maybe she feels great going home to Brad Pitt (who produced this movie) and all her adopted children knowing she's "saving the world" by tackling important projects. Good for her, but I'd much rather see her make entertaining movies again. After this and her role in last year's The Good Sheperd, all she's really succeeded at is putting audiences to sleep. I never thought I'd long for the days when Jolie was wearing vials of Billy Bob Thornton's blood and making out with her brother but I'm all for it if it means she'll lighten up a little in her film choices.

Audiences stayed far away from this film and I can't say they missed much, if anything. A story this important deserves a film that doesn't cut corners, that names names and points fingers. Ironically, by trying so hard not to offend they made the most offensive film they could have by not discussing the issue or showing what happened. I don't know whether it was out of fear of possible litigation or they just chickened out, but when you commit to tackling an issue like this you dive in head first or not at all. A Mighty Heart is a well-made public service announcement that plays it safe. If you want the Daniel Pearl story, keep waiting.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight, John Turturro

Running Time: 144 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

I remember reading an interview with Michael Bay a while back where he said he didn't feel the need to apologize for making movies aimed at 14-year-old boys. Well, at least the guy's honest. Transformers is the quintessential Michael Bay movie, almost as if all the elements of The Rock, Pearl Harbor and Armageddon were combined and the volume was blasted even higher. If you hated him as a director before, you'll have about 500 more reasons to by the time this film is over. If you've enjoyed all, or even most of his films, you'll leave a very satisfied customer. Overindulgence runs rampant like never before as Bay is at his absolute best, or worst, depending on how you want to look at it. Except the difference this time is that he actually seems like he's in on the joke.

This is one of those huge summer movies you need to experience on the big screen. An experience I unfortunately didn't have. In a way I'm glad I didn't because while it would have been infinitely more fun, I'd be so dazzled by the film's amazing visual effects that I'd probably be more likely to overlook its flaws. The small screen doesn't lie and no movie should be completely dependent on its visual effects (no matter how impressive they may be) to get the job done. It needs a good story and characters you care about. Much to my surprise, this film has that. It's not without some problems, but it's a landmark in that it's the first Bay directed film that succeeds in creating a sense of wonder.

It seems almost comical that fans of the 1980's Hasbro toy line and cartoon series would be so upset that Bay, who by his own admission is not a fan of Transformers, would be directing it. There a lot of whining about how the robots should look (pretty cool it turns out) and how faithful he'd be to the story. When it was over, I couldn't imagine anyone who grew up on Transformers being disappointed by what we get here as it perfectly captures the spirit of Hasbro's franchise. If anything, those fans should thank Bay for taking material so inherently silly and making a good movie out of it.

The film begins with a voice-over from Optimus Prime, the leader of the herioic Autobots, telling us of the battle between his robots and the evil Decepticons, over a powerful cube known as the Allspark. The Decepticons' leader, Megatron discovered the Allspark years ago, but became frozen in ice attempting to retrieve it. The cube, along with the frozen Megatron, now reside in the Hoover Dam and are being protected by a secret government agency known as Sector 7. The coordinates of the Allspark's location are imprinted on the eyeglasses of Captain Archibald Witwicky, who with his crew of Arctic explorers in 1897 accidently stumbled upon the frozen body of Megatron. Now theses eyeglasses are in the possession of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) who's trying to sell them on Ebay in hopes of earning enough money to buy a respectable first car. What he gets instead from his father is a crappy 1976 Chevy Camaro that won't get him very far in impressing school hottie Mikaela Banes (the appropriately named Megan Fox). Unbeknownst to Sam his new Camaro can transform into an Autobot named Bumblebee and he's been thrust into the middle of this epic battle. The Decepticons have landed on Earth, setting their sites on the cube, attacking a military base in Quitar and hacking into their computer system.

If the plot I've just described for you seems like the stupidest idea for a movie you've ever read, you're not far off the mark. The film starts problematically, taking a good half hour to 40 minutes to get going and is bogged down early with too much military mumbo jumbo. It's only when the story shifts to Sam's purchase of the Camaro Bumblebee and his relationship with Mikaela that business starts to pick up. There's a great scene early in the film where Sam gives her a ride home and all his clumsy attempts to put the moves on her are interrupted by Bumblebee, who he soon discovers, has a mind all its own.

When Sam does begin to realize the mystery and importance behind this car we witness something awe inspiring, a designation we're not used to assigning a Bay picture. When the Autobots do transform it's an incredible visual effect that will have you scratching your head wondering how it could even be accomplished. I've become so desensitized to CGI and huge special effects these days that it's rare anything show up onscreen that leaves me with my mouth wide open. This did. And it didn't look the slightest bit fake.

What's even more remarkable is that Bay and his crew managed to make all of these robots visually unique and easily identifiable, each complete with very distinctive personalities. We get know Bumblebee, Optimus Prime (voiced magnificently by Peter Cullen), Jazz, Ironhide and Ratchet as well, if not better, than any of the human characters in the film. Sam attempting to hide the Autobots from his parents is one of the funniest and most enjoyable scenes of any movie this year. Surprisingly, there are a lot of funny moments and inside jokes in the script and nearly all of them work.

Unfortunately, the movie loses steam whenever the military storyline takes over and the soldiers (played by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) fail to register at all. The less said about Jon Voight's performance as the Secretary of Defense the better. If the American Film Institute ever pays tribute to him (and I'm sure they will) I wouldn't start it off with clips of him in Transformers. But what I always liked about Voight is he's not afraid to take silly parts in fun mainstream movies where he can let loose giving great bad performances. He knows what kind of movie he's in and makes the most of it. But even the weak military storyline does have a couple of redeeming qualities with an enjoyable sub-plot involving signal detection expert Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor) aiding the Department of Defense. When she enlists the help of her hacker friend (played by Anthony Anderson), the results are hysterical, as he doesn't have the slightest clue what he's gotten himself into. Also helping to lighten the mood is John Turturro's bizarre, over-the-top take on Agent Simmons, the leader of Sector 7. Turturro's no stranger to playing funny weirdos, but this guy ranks up there. The character could be out of a Farrelly Brothers movie, yet it somehow provides a nice distraction and works.

The one important factor likely be overlooked and underappreciated in the film is Shia LaBeouf's performance, which is the glue that holds this entire story together. He's been compared to a young Tom Hanks and that comparison is actually very valid. He has a natural likeability onscreen that makes you want to root for him and is one of the few young actors around capable of acting goofy without crossing that thin line into annoyance. He has the most thankless job you could wish on any performer, having to act with and against these huge special effects, probably while Bay was screaming in his face the entire time.

The physical demands of this part are also unmatched and I was sore and tired just watching him. Whatever you think of LaBeouf as an actor you have to give the kid credit for really throwing himself into this role. When Megan Fox first appears the film makes a jump from being aimed at 14-year-old boys to being aimed at the entire male species. I could talk about her performance (which is fine by the way) but I have a feeling no one expects me to do that. You instead expect me to talk about how she's possibly the hottest actress to appear onscreen in the past decade and it was nearly impossible for me to focus on anything but her. I won't do that though. I'll restrain myself.

This may mark the first time an effective human relationship is at the center of a Bay film and the viewer actually wants to take a journey with the characters. Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman's script, while not likely to be contending for screenplay honors at this year's Academy Awards, does have some depth to it and gives Bay the best material he's had to work with thus far in his career. It couldn't be easy working effective human characters into a full-length feature based on robot toys from the '80's and that difficult mission was accomplished rather creatively in this script.

The film's 144 minute running time flies by, but it's a shame Bay doesn't know when to say "when" during the visually amazing showdown at the end. It just seems to go on forever. This is a movie that could have really benefited from a couple of trims in the editing room, specifically in regards to the narrative exposition involving the military. Bay supposedly wanted that added to the script to beef up the film, which makes little sense considering it serves no purpose.

This is a very good movie that approaches greatness many times, but you have to wonder if Bay is even interested in making a great movie. We have other directors for that. It's clear he just wants to direct movies that are fun and rake in loads of money. It's easy to see why executive producer Steven Spielberg tapped him to helm it because no one (with maybe the exception of Spielberg himself) does a better job with this kind of material than Bay, whatever you may think of the guy. And I'm sorry, an endorsement from Spielberg counts for something in my book. Transformers is bombastic and empty-headed, but just about as much fun as you can hope to have watching a movie. When it was over I couldn't wait to see it again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Evan Almighty

Director: Tom Shadyac
Starring: Steve Carell, Morgan Freeman, Lauren Graham, John Goodman, Wanda Sykes, John Michael Higgins, Jonah Hill

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG

** (out of ****)

The two biggest laughs to be found in Evan Almighty are both unintentional. The first comes early when Jonah Hill appears a suit. I'm not sure why that's so funny, and it probably shouldn't be, but it is. The second comes at the very end when we find out where this film's $175 million dollar budget went with a special effects sequence so ridiculously large in scope it makes Titanic and The Lord of The Rings look like low budget indies in comparison. Kind of a sequel to Jim Carrey's 2003 comedy hit Bruce Almighty, this is a film that's just kind of there. It isn't spectacularly bad, but is poorly written and packs too much nonsense into its scant running time.

Kids may enjoy it as there are some lively performances and occasional laughs sprinkled about, but everyone else will be bored. It is a movie the entire family can watch together because it contains a good message, but one delivered so sloppily it's nearly impossible to get behind. That it comes from the same writer and director team that brought us the original is perplexing because the plot line has absolutely nothing to do with that film (which was no great shakes itself). Credit Carrey for being wise in sitting this one out. He's replaced by the very talented Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, TV's The Office) who provided the biggest laughs in the first film in his small role as anchorman Evan Baxter. His streak of winning comedies comes to a screaching halt here.

To say Carell's Baxter returns in this film wouldn't be completely accurate since the filmmakers have ignored the egotistical jerk he was in the first film and turned him into a caring family man who's just been elected to Congress. He packs up with his wife Joan (Lauren Graham) and three sons to Virginia, moving into a neighborhood that's literally in the middle of nowhere. It's very strange. There appears to be one street, one house (theirs), and no civilization for miles. Their house looks like it was just randomly dropped in the middle of a field, almost resembling the model home on Arrested Development. Just when Evan starts getting chummy with a political bigwig in Congressmen Long (John Goodman) God (Morgan Freeman, inexplicably back for more) shows up and instructs Evan to build an ark in preparation for a giant flood. Lumber start to show up at his house, animals flock to him, his facial hair grows at an uncontrollable rate, and for reasons unbeknownst to anyone but writer Steve Oedekerk, he goes insane.

All of this provides ample opportunity for Carell to show us what he's got and he doesn't disappoint. With his laid back charm and gift for physical comedy he can really carry a movie (even a bad one) and his performance prevents Evan Almighty from being a total disaster. Unfortunately though, his committed effort isn't enough to elevate the trite material. What laughs do exist are nearly all supplied by Wanda Sykes as Evan's secretary, as if Oedekirk sat down at his computer and made a concerted effort to give her every good line in the film. The story limps along at a snail's pace until about the last 30 minutes where it becomes minimally fun to see everyone's (particularly Sikes') reaction to Evan's sudden lifestyle change. Unfortunately we're also tortured by a manufactured marital crisis and a silly environmental subplot involving Goodman's evil Congressman so heavy-handed it could have been written by Al Gore.

While it's always a pleasure seeing the underrated Goodman onscreen, it isn't one seeing him in a one-dimensional fathead role like this. Part of me wondered if he was cast as Congressman Chuck Long as some kind of an inside jab at his television portrayal of controversial Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long over a decade ago. That my thoughts actually shifted to this useless bit of information during the film can't be a good sign. Lauren Graham is a pretty and likeable actress who deserves a co-starring role in a big film like this and does what she can with the suffering wife character she's saddled with. There's a point in the third act where she just packs up the kids and leaves. Why? If I had to guess I'd say it's because Oedekirk had to create false crisis so she could go running back to into Evan's arms for our happy ending.

In addition to the film's blatantly transparent political agenda, it's also overtly religious, dropping references to Genesis 6:14 and preaching about random acts of kindness. That didn't bother me at all since it's rare a family movie actually sends a good message to children, but it calls unwanted attention to itself and feels like a big letdown since the first film had much more of an edge to it.

Religious beliefs notwithstanding, the only thing likely to offend anyone about this movie is how poorly thought out it was. That's never more obvious than in the huge CGI sequence at the end of the film, so overblown and fake looking it can't help but feel completely incongruous with not only every scene preceding it, but the movie's entire message. Evan Almighty has its heart in the right place and a quality film was buried under this material, but it just collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. It's proof that $175 million can buy you big special effects but a good script is priceless.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Reign Over Me

Director: Mike Binder
Starring: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Donald Sutherland, Robert Klein, Melinda Dillon, Mike Binder

Running Time: 124 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

For 124 minutes unpleasant memories of Click and Little Nicky disappear as Adam Sandler gives the best performance of his career and one of the best this year in Reign Over Me. It's the performance we've been hoping he could give his whole career, but doubted he had the capability of pulling off. Before I saw this movie a friend of mine described it to me as "scary." I wasn't sure how that word could possibly be attributed to any Adam Sandler movie but now after viewing it I see what he's talking about. All the Sandler mannerisms we've become accustomed to over the years are all mostly still there in this performance, except this time when they come out they're exploited for maximum dramatic effect instead of goofy comedy and the results are frightening, but brilliant.

I wish I could say writer/director Mike Binder's follow-up to his underrated 2005 film The Upside of Anger is as good the performance Sandler gives him here but that I can't. That's more of a compliment to his performance than a knock against the film, which on the whole is quite great and one of the better movies this year. I have a feeling this is one of those cases where the script probably doesn't read that well, but in the hands of the right actors and a very competent director the material is elevated. It isn't perfect running a bit long and piling on the melodrama at times (especially toward the end), but the strong performances and some intelligent writing manage to keep everything in check.

New York City dentist Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is going through the motions at home and work. He's uncommunicative with his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) who he thinks is denying him any freedom and at the office he's slapped with a wrongful sexual harassment suit by an attractive patient (Suffron Burrows) who propositions him oral sex, much to the disgust of his unsupportive colleagues. With no one to confide in about anything Alan inappropriately hounds a psychiatrist (Liv Tyler) who works in his building for life guidance.

Things start to change when he bumps into old college roommate Charlie Fineman (Sandler) riding the streets on his motorized scooter and plugged into his headphones. Seeing an opportunity to fill a void for himself Alan tries to befriend the eccentric Charlie, who's been living in a fantasy world after shutting himself off from everyone after the loss of his family in the September 11th attacks. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it's too painful for Charlie to bring himself to remember he even had a family, effectively distracting himself with his vinyl record collection, never ending kitchen remodeling and video games.

Charlie refuses to speak to or acknowledge his in-laws (Robert Klein and Melinda Dillon) and his attorney and former best friend (played by Binder) can't get through to him at all. The only one who seems able to is Alan since his knowledge of Charlie and his life is essentially limited to the time they spent together in college. He didn't know Charlie's wife and daughters and presumably won't ask questions, so it's safe. Alan knows what happened though and as their friendship grows deeper it's an issue that's bound to come up. With this new friend, Alan is finally able to let go and have fun but Charlie's mental illness hangs over their friendship like a dark cloud and he's eventually faced with the difficult choice of whether he should get him help or remain an enabler like everyone else.

I'm sure I echo the feelings of many when I say the prospect of seeing an Adam Sandler 9/11 drama didn't exactly have me bursting with anticipation and excitement, but this isn't about September 11th. It's about how we felt, or didn't feel afterwards. This isn't World Trade Center or United 93. You could replace the event with any tragedy and we'd essentially have the same story. It's about this man trying to cope with his own grief and the friend who helps him do it. If September 11th can be replaced by any other tragedy in this film the question is: "Why didn't Binder just replace it?" Only he can answer that question and it isn't my place to judge the moral agenda of the filmmaker, just the film. I can only tell you how it's handled and leave it up you whether you want to see something like this.

You may think that tragedy should not be invoked under any circumstances in any film as a plot device and I can't say I'd blame you for it, especially when it's not completely necessary. That this detail adds an extra undercurrent of drama may make you uncomfortable, like the tragedy is being exploited. All I can say is that I won't look a gift horse in the mouth and just be relieved that Binder treats this emotional situation with the realism and intelligence it deserves. If he didn't there's no doubt we'd have an offensive disaster on our hands. You can tell as a writer he did the research of how a traumatic event of this magnitude would affect someone and he didn't cut any corners doing it.

What Binder really manages to capture well is the feeling of being around someone so unpredictable and unhinged you're never quite sure how to act around them or what will be the next thing to set them off. That's taken to the absolute extreme with Sandler's Charlie Fineman and the result is some very intense and uncomfortable scenes. One, in Alan's office, is almost too difficult to watch for its realism. There's always this sense that Charlie's on the cusp of his breaking moment for well over an hour, but we have mixed feelings on whether we ever want it to come. If he breaks, it may help. Or, it just may make things worse.

What's most impressive about Sandler's performance are the subtle hints he gives that there was once a normal guy underneath all this odd, anti-social behavior. The best scenes of the film involve the two just goofing around and having fun. Charlie's daily rituals of record collecting and playing his Shadow of the Colossus video game become Alan's as he finds a way to escape the doldrums of his daily existence. Don Cheadle is one of the best actors working today and his performance here, while not as flashy as Sandler's, is just as important a contribution. He's an expert at playing ordinary men caught in huge moral quandaries and the chemistry he shares with Sandler is what drives the film forward and helps it stay afloat in more problematic sections. It isn't easy to know the right notes to hit or how to react in playing opposite a performance as huge as Sandler's. Cheadle, as always, delivers without ever drawing unneeded attention to himself. He's an actor's actor if there ever was one and this film is yet another notch in his belt of great performances.

Alan's wife, which could have easily been written or played as a nagging hag (think Thandie Newton's character in the Pursuit of Happyness) isn't. She's just concerned about the well being of her husband and Pinkett Smith's seemingly effortless work keeps the character real even when her behavior threatens to cross that line. Their marriage never seems unhappy, but rather just stifling for Alan. A scene where she confronts him about his true motivation for befriending Charlie, and what it means for them, is a keeper.

Liv Tyler probably wouldn't be anyone's first choice to play a psychiatrist but the movie wisely acknowledges and plays with that notion presenting the character as somewhat thrown by the situation she's been put in. I liked that she knew how not to push Charlie too far and the quiet way Tyler conveyed it. The movie risks descending into theatricality with a courtroom showdown late in the film, but really, it would be an issue whether or not this man is mentally fit to be out on his own. The film may not answer that question definitively, but Donald Sutherland has a good cameo as a grouchy old judge intelligent enough to see something everyone else is missing. I don't even know what to make of the bizarre sub-plot involving Alan's sexual harassment accuser and am perplexed why she's not only still around at the end of the film, but an active participant in this story. That was either a really clever or incredibly stupid decision on Binder's part. I still can't make up my mind which.

Music plays a huge role in the film as the soundtrack choices of Bruce Springsteen, The Who (whose Love Reign O'er Me provides the inspiration for the film's title), The Pretenders, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger reflect the music on Charlie's ipod. Some may think Binder's use of it in the film is manipulative, but it isn't. Honestly, how many times have you buried yourself in your ipod to escape all your problems? I know I do it every day. This is a severe depiction, but for good reason. If anyone was dealt the blow this man has they'd never take off those headphones and with no real life anymore this music is all he has left. It becomes Charlie's sanctuary from his loss and a shield against uncomfotable encounters with those who want to remind him of it.

Binder also gives us one of the best depictions of New York City I've ever seen in a film. Rather than overdoing it with grand, sweeping shots, he just lets the characters take us on their journey through the sidewalks and streets. He just places the camera with them and lets the city do all the talking. There are plenty of movies shot in New York but most of them are done in such a way that you don't even feel like it is. It may as well be Toronto or a studio backlot in California. Whether or not you believe New York really is "the greatest city in the world" (I don't) this is one of the few movies that can actually make a case for it and Mayor Mike Bloomberg owes Binder and cinematographer Russ Alsobrook a thank you note.

Resembling a young Bob Dylan with his shaggy hair and scruffy unkempt appearance, this is Sandler's finest hour. Actually, he so closely resembles Dylan in appearance that it got me thinking it's a shame we already have an upcoming Dylan biopic on its way because Sandler would have been perfect for the role. After this I'm actually convinced he would have the dramatic chops to effectively pull that off. It would be nice if he got some awards recognition for his work here but unfortunately the rest of his acting resume is so low brow it would take nothing just short of a miracle for that to happen.

We've also seen that the Academy doesn't respond to favorably to movies dealing directly or indirectly with the events of 9/11. Anyone, who like me, grew up as a fan of the Sandler comedies of the 90's you're in for a real treat. He understandably has many detractors who find him irritating but they'll even have to be impressed with what he pulls off in this one.

It's unfortunate Sandler has lately found himself in the same type-casting quandary as Jim Carrey. Audiences complain they play the same role over and over but when they try to stretch and give good performances in dramatic films that aren't as easily accessible their fans want no part of it. I hope the lackluster response to this very affecting film doesn't dissuade Sandler from taking more risks in the future. Whatever direction he chooses to go, Sandler proves here that he can bring the goods, making Reign Over Me an emotionally draining, but ultimately very satisfying experience

Monday, October 8, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Director: Tim Story
Starring: Ioan Gruffold, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chilkis, Julian McMahon, Doug Jones, Kerry Washington, Andre Braugher

Running Time: 92 min.

Rating: PG

* (out of ****)

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
is a superhero movie for the entire famiy. If everyone in your entire family is under five years of age. I'm sure what alternate universe we're living in where critics and audiences consider this film an "improvement" over the original, which I actually somewhat enjoyed. That they do make me worry just how bad they thought the first film was. I thought 2005's Fantastic Four, while far from perfect, was at least fun and executed its origin story well. No doubt hearing the many complaints from audiences across the country the filmmakers decided to take everything that worked well in the original film and eliminate it, while magnifying the elements that didn't times a hundred.

Audiences complained Jessica Alba's Sue Storm wasn't developed enough so we get more of her. Wrong move. They complained about Julian McMahon's performance as Dr. Doom (which was fine) so we get far less of him. Another mistake. They take the superpowers that the four possess, which provided wonder in the first film, and make a joke out of them, torturing us for nearly an hour with stupid human tricks. There isn't a single character (human or computer generated) in this film to care about and the only reason it was made was to sell a lot of toys and video games. It's easily the worst film I've had the displeasure of viewing so far in 2007 and one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Would anyone like it? The only two groups I think would find any value in it are very young children (in diapers perhaps) and hardcore comic and superhero fans who are so happy to see The Fantastic Four onscreen that any film would suffice, regardless of quality. For me it was just a very long and painful 92 minutes I'll never get back.

This sequel picks up pretty much right where the original left off as with the impending nuptials of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffold) and Sue Storm (Alba). That celebratory mood, however, is halted by the arrival of the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones), who brings about massive climactic changes in preparation for his planet-eating master Galactus, who's preparing Earth as his next big dish. With the Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chilkis) at their sides they attempt to stop the surfer and save the planet, all while dealing with the resurrected Victor Von Doom (McMahon), who's convinced the military he's their only hope. To say the reintroduction of Doom into the series is clumsily written and poorly executed would be the understatement of the year.

That Doom has been resurrected after his obvious demise at the end of the first film is fine, especially in the context of the superhero universe, where death is never final. It was necessary he come back and I don't have a problem with it at all. What is a problem is how they decide to do it. They actually have him working with The Fantastic Four and after just a couple of eye rolls they don't really seem to have any major issues with it. To even ask the audience (or the characters for that matter) to buy for one second that this guy could believably co-exist on the same side as them is beyond stretching it. Doesn't the military have any idea what this guy has done? And no, that isn't a stupid question to ask in a movie like this. I'm sick of giving lousy screenwriters a pass because it's a "comic book movie" aimed at kids, like that absolves them from constructing a story with even just a shred of intelligence.

This mistake would be an even bigger deal if Dr. Doom had any screen time at all. Since McMahon's performance was "so awful" in the original the filmmakers decided it would be a good idea to have him appear in the film for a total of about 10 minutes with only two of them spent in the Dr. Doom costume. What's so funny about this is in those few minutes McMahon still manages to give a better performance than anyone else in this mess of a film. At least he knows what he's there to do, which is more than can be said for the other actors. Unfortunately for him he's stepped into a circus where the first 45 minutes of the film are spent watching the Fantastic Four show off their abilities and tell jokes.

We watch Mr. Fantastic stretch his arms on the dance floor (haha) and see the look on the face of a horrified airline passenger who's been seated next to Ben Grimm. Every scene seems to end with a punch line (let's call it a "zinger") where the actor turns to look at the camera as if waiting for approval that the joke they told was funny. All we needed was a blow horn and canned laughter and it would have been the Fantastic Four variety show. And of course, we're given the obligatory scene of Sue Storm realizing she's naked in front of a large crowd. Get it? She was invisible and now she's not! How embarrassing! Since the first film was essentially an origin story, there was an initial sense of surprise and wonder when the group first discovered their powers. Now that's long gone and there's nothing left for them to do but goof around and show off.

All the performances in the movie are terrible, but if I had to pick the worst it would easily be Alba's. There's no doubt she looks the part of Sue Storm and wears the costume incredibly well, but her acting is cringe-worthy, even judged in the context of a film this crappy. There have been rumors circulating for a while now that she can't act and she goes out of her way here to confirm them. When she's surprised she opens her eyes really wide, when she's angry she pouts, and when she's putting up her invisible force field she looks like she's suffering from the most painful constipation in Marvel history. In 2005 she was nominated for a Razzie for worst actress for Fantastic Four. She lost. Let's hope that injustice isn't repeated next year.

Gruffold, who was decent in the first film, sleepwalks through this one, and proves himself more worthy of the title Mr. Bland than Mr. Fantastic. Chris Evans reaches heights of annoyance previously thought unattainable with his take on the cocky, show boating Human Torch, while Chilkis is relegated to goofy sidekick duty. Supposedly, the Silver Surfer (which combines the vocal performance of Laurence Fishburne, the movements of Doug Jones and some CGI) is remarkably faithful to the comics. That's great, but I watch movies to lose myself in the story and characters not see a Playstation 2 game. The ending of the film is a disaster, literally and figuratively, as director Tim Story forces the audience to tap out from exhaustion with his computer generated nonsense.

In the summer of 2003 the adaptation of Marvel's, Hulk, came to the big screen accompanied with much hype and fan fare. It was widely panned by critics and audiences for being "too serious" and "artsy." While laced with problems and far from perfect, I realize now that Ang Lee took the right approach to that material. I'd rather have a director fail caring about the story and taking it too seriously than insulting the intelligence of the audience and making a big joke out of the material. Sadder still, The Fantastic Four are interesting characters (at least on the page) and so much could have been done with them outside of using their likeness to sell Happy Meals.

When the film ended I was actually overcome with a feeling of excitement. Excitement at a potential writers strike, which would mean films as bad as this couldn't be made anytime soon. Excitement also at the prospect of seeking out the 1994 Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie that never saw the light of day, so I can officially tell everyone it's better than this. But I'm most excited about the movie I'm seeing next, whatever it is, because I know it'll probably seem like a masterpiece after what I've just witnessed.

Earlier in the year I reviewed another Marvel film, Ghost Rider, calling it one of the worst of the year. It was, but even that was better than this. I didn't think it was possible, but this actually has me looking forward to Spider-Man 3 because I know it at least can't possibly reach the pathetic depths of those two films. If someone asked me what I thought the biggest problems with today's movies are I'd hand them over a copy of Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer and just wish them luck.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Fall TV Rundown

It's that time of the year again. When the television networks pollute the airwaves with 50,000 shows and, if we're lucky, maybe two of them will stick. Last year the big winner, surprisingly, was NBC with two critical hits (30 Rock and Friday Night Lights) that lived to see a second season and one monster critical and commercial hit (Heroes) that pretty much rescued the network. I forced myself to watch nearly every new show in preparation for this blog, which in some cases was pure torture. This was also made all the more difficult by the fact my DVR only works when it feels like it. On the bright side, the networks' offerings for Fall '07 are slightly better than usual. Most of the news shows are covered here as well as my thoughts on their chances of success (which I define as just living to see the end of this season). If a show's missing it's likely because I didn't watch it or it didn't debut yet.

Chuck (Monday, 8:00-9:00 pm NBC)
From O.C. creator Josh Schwartz comes this action-comedy about a geek who gets government secret intelligence downloaded to his brain. While this premise isn't nearly as clever as NBC seems to think it is and the pilot had some rough patches, the second episode started to show some promise. Zachary Levi is likeable enough as the lead and co-star Yvonne Strzechowski (pronounce that) looks more like a super model than a super spy, but it's difficult to make heads or tails out of what it's trying to do. It's really unlike any other program out there, which could be good or bad. Still, I'm pulling for this to make it if for no other reason than that the rest of the country can catch up with me and finally realize just how beautiful and talented an actress Sarah Lancaster is. She plays Chuck's sister.
Verdict: This is a tough call because the show is just so bizarre. I'm betting it'll probably make it since this isn't a tough time slot and NBC has been showing rare signs of patience these last couple of seasons. They have a lot riding on this one. Rachel Bilson has an upcoming guest starring role, which should do something for ratings, even if Lancaster and Bilson appearing together on the same show may cause me to lapse into full cardiac arrest.
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The Big Bang Theory (Monday, 8:30-9:00 pm CBS)
A hot blonde (playe by Caley Kuoco) moves in next door to two nerds as Monday geek night continues. I will give this show credit for keeping its premise simple in a year where every network seems to want to overcomplicate things. It has its funny moments but it isn't exactly a show I'd run home and tell my friends about. Then again, neither is any other sitcom on CBS's lineup.
Verdict: CBS has a special gift of somehow getting tons of viewers to watch whatever crappy sitcom they throw on (i.e. Two and a Half Men). This will be no exception and slide right in.

K-Ville (Monday, 9:00-10:00 pm FOX)
Two cops (played by Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser) are mismatched partners in post-Katrina New Orleans in this "gritty crime drama." While the show really benefits from an interesting setting and its actors, it doesn't benefit from its jarring hand held camera work (a minor complaint). Unfortunately, I'm so sick of crime shows that even if this were the greatest in the history of television I probably couldn't recommend it.
Verdict: Haha. Are you kidding me? It's up against Heroes. FOX could run MASH in this time slot and it wouldn't draw any viewers.

Journeyman (Monday, 10:00-11:00 pm NBC)
You know what? This show is actually very good. It takes a simple premise (guy can travel back in time) and executes it well. I like how it doesn't dwell on the details of how he can time travel, but rather the lives he affects. It reminded me of Quantum Leap in that respect, which is high praise. The pilot was good, but the second episode could almost be considered great. Kevin McKidd (who uncannily resembles Daniel Craig) is very good in the lead.
Verdict: Any show that follows Heroes is in a no-win situation where they're bound to see massive viewer drop off. I love time travel shows, but America has always seemed to hate them. Hopefully this makes it because it's better than 90 percent of the other new shows this season. If not, NBC still deserves credit for programming this night really well. It's probably the best night of television on any of the networks. If they fail, it's not for lack of trying.

Cavemen (Tuesday 8:00-8:30 pm ABC)
Just as bad as you feared is the best way to describe this mess. I actually find the Geico caveman commercials amusing in small doses and if the actual premise of a caveman trying to fit into society was fully exploited for laughs this could have worked. Unfortunately, the writers seem to think that just the fact that these guys are cavemen is funny. It isn't. I could be wrong, but it doesn't even look like they cast the guy who was in the commercials, which was a huge mistake since his deadpan line delivery is really why the whole joke worked to begin with. I'd rather see a show starring the Geico adult Cabbage Patch Kid instead. Now that's funny.
Verdict: If you're curious how bad this is, catch it while you can, because it may gone by next week. Once again, ABC proves their complete ineptness at developing comedies. Amazingly, the show that follows it at 8:30, Carpoolers, starring Jerry O' Connell, is FAR WORSE.
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Reaper (Tuesday, 9:00-10:00 pm CW)
While I'm not head over heels in love with this as much as everyone else seems to be (I'm just tired of the supernatural) it's definitely one of the best new shows of the season. No criticisms here. Affable, goofy young man realizes his parents sold his soul to the Devil at birth. Unlike most of the other new shows this year, when this pilot ended I realized I actually cared what would happen next with these characters. It was a feeling that this show actually had a future and would take me interesting places. That Kevin Smith directed that episode probably helped. Bret Harrison (who starred on Fox's unjustly cancelled The Loop) gets strong support from Ray Wise as Satan and Tyler Labine as his live wire best friend.
Verdict: CW doesn't have much of a choice here. They've built their whole network around two shows this year and this is one of them. They also seem committed to giving it the time it needs to build an audience. Plus, really, what else do they have? On this network it only needs a couple of million viewers to be successful and that's what it'll get. Unfortunately, promos for the show have made it look like a clone of NBC's Chuck (with the Devil instead of the government), which it isn't at all.
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Back To You (Wednesday, 8:00-8:30 pm FOX)
Kelsey Grammer is a gifted comic actor. I don't know much about Patricia Heaton but I've heard she's really talented. Having said that, this is probably THE SINGLE WORST NEW SHOW OF THE SEASON. I can handle it not being funny, but what I can't handle is how painfully dated it is. It belongs on NBC's 1987 Fall TV schedule and that it's actually gotten favorable reviews from major critical outlets across the country really scares me. Here's something scarier: An executive was likely paid millions of dollars to pitch this show about bickering ex-lovers reunited as television anchors. How can they not realize how stupid this idea is, no matter whom they get to star in it? It's really amazing to think this comes from the same network that just a couple of years ago aired the most ground breaking comedy in the history of American television, Arrested Development. This show also accomplishes a near impossible feat: It makes Fred Willard unfunny.
Verdict: If it's still on the air by the time you read this I'll be shocked.

Pushing Daisies (Wednesday, 8:00-9:00 pm ABC)
What an awesome show. Fantasy, comedy and fairy tale are mixed perfectly in this show from Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld. It stars Lee Pace as a pie maker who can bring back the dead with one touch and send them back to the grave if he touches them again. Things get complicated when he resurrects his murdered childhood crush (played by Anna Friel). It stands as a rare example of voice-over narration actually benefiting the storytelling on a television show instead of distracting us. It feels like it belongs on HBO or Showtime instead of ABC. They really hit the jackpot here. It's also great to see Chi McBride finally land on a quality show after what must be his 7,000th attempt in the past 5 years. This is by far the best pilot I've seen and the different directions they can take this show are limitless with its clever premise. Here's hoping they don't screw it up. Perhaps the only show on here I can guarantee I will watch again.
Verdict: Whether this makes it or not the fact remains that ABC really hit one out of the park and they should be congratulated for showing a spark of intelligence for a change. That it's up against Back To You on Fox should help its chances considerably but I just have this awful feeling it won't make it. It's too good and too inventive. We know what happens to shows like that.
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Bionic Woman (Wednesday, 9:00-10:00 pm NBC)
I knew this show was in trouble the second I saw Miguel Ferrer in it, who's appeared in more cancelled shows and jumped the shark more times than Ted McGinley. Continuing the tv trend this year of casting foreign actors in lead American roles, British actress Michelle Ryan stars in this update of the cheesy 1976 show. It's less cheesy, but from the pilot I watched, a whole lot more boring. It's interesting to note that Battlestar Gallactica's Katee Sackoff, (who plays the bionic villain) blows Ryan away in terms of screen presence and it's clear they made a mistake not casting her in the title role. For weeks, promos have been promising (threatening?) Isaiah Washington will be joining the show. Last night that happened. Hopefully, everyone in the cast is straight for their sakes. Sadly, his presence can only help this show. I'll give it time, but will NBC?
Verdict: As expected, this got strong ratings initially, but unless things get infinitely more exciting and interesting there's no way this will make it to the end of the season. I will give NBC credit though. These past two years they've been making strides and have at least been trying new things.

Private Practice (Wednesday 9:00-10:00 pm ABC)
ABC gets two hits that skew female then all of the sudden their entire schedule turns into Lifetime's. It's puzzling why they'd be interested in eliminating their entire male audience (lost=""> notwithstanding), but now they've taken the necessary steps toward eliminating what's left of their female audience as well. It's never enough of a good thing for greedy ABC as they continue to milk the cash cow that is Grey's Anatomy, which if you think about it, really has no spin-off potential at all. NBC is spinning off Heroes (and I'm still not sure that's a great idea), but at least that show has a deep mythology from which you can draw. Grey's is just a soap set in a hospital. This wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but to put that in perspective, I was expecting the worst television show of all time. Hilariously, its "A-List" cast consists almost entirely of cast-offs from other failed ABC shows.
Verdict: This will make it to the end of the season. Guaranteed. That's because ABC will keep giving excuses how they're "giving it time to grow" because they don't want to have egg all over their faces when it bombs. It'll limp its way to the finish line this spring, not living to see another second season.

Gossip Girl (Wednesday 9:00-10:00 pm CW)
I realize I'm not in the target audience for this show but I have to say that for who it's aimed for (teen girls) and what it's trying to do, it's an unqualified success. This is the other show this season that has O.C. creator Josh Schwartz's fingerprints on it and the best way to describe it is The O.C. transplanted in New York City. It won't come anywhere close to reaching the heights of that show, but I can see it having legs for this network. All this has to do is be a silly guilty pleasure no one admits to watching and it's done its job. So far, so good. Between this and Chuck, we'll finally find out if Schwartz was a one-hit wonder. So far I'm leaning towards no.
Verdict: A very likely hit. Or at least the closest the CW can have to one.
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Life (Wednesday 10:00-11:00 pm NBC)
If you've ever wondered what would happen if Dr. House became a cop then this is the show for you. Damien Lewis plays an officer back on the beat after 12 years of wrongful imprisonment. Sharing the crown for worst titled show of the new season with Chuck, this is actually an interesting take on a very, very familiar genre and plays more like a quirky character study than a crime show. Still, as great as Lewis is in the role it is at its core a police procedural and we really don't need another one of those. This show is about ten thousand times better than its lead-in, Bionic Woman but I have a feeling viewers won't want to hang around and give it a chance. It's somewhat engaging though.
Verdict: NBC is asking the world here. They put in very little promotional effort for this and are testing viewers' patience if they think anyone can even make it through Bionic Woman to watch it. It's also competing against a stronger show on another network in this timeslot. I've heard rumors they're already thinking of canceling it after it failed to draw anyone in this week. This may be the very first show to bite the dust, which is a shame because it's actually pretty good. I can think of many more on here that deserve to get the axe first.

Dirty Sexy Money (Wednesday 10:00-11:00 pm ABC)
Another unfortunately titled show that surprisingly is pretty damn good and could be categorized as compulsively watchable. I wouldn't call it appointment viewing every week but it's one of the few new shows that really stand a chance here. Six Feet Under's Peter Krause stars as Nick, the idealistic family lawyer for the wealthy, but very eccentric Darling family of New York City, headed by patriarch Donald Sutherland. It may be kind of a train wreck, but it was one of those train wrecks you can't take your eyes off of. The performances help an otherwise uninspired premise. Jill Clayburgh, Billy Baldwin and the underrated Samarie Armstrong co-star.
Verdict: It will handily deliver a sound thrashing to NBC's Life immediately and knock it off the air. I can see this show doing well, at least initially, but its future may depend on how strong a lead-in Private Practice ends up being. Since ABC is unlikely to admit defeat on either and this is a wimpy time slot, expect this show to stick around.
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Here's The Final Score Card:
The Best: Pushing Daisies, Reaper, Journeyman, Gossip Girl
The Worst: Back To You, Cavemen, Carpoolers, Bionic Woman, Private Practice

Some Other Favorites:
Heroes (Monday, 9:00-10:00 pm NBC) The second half of its freshman season was wildly uneven and the finale left a lot to be desired, but it looks to be off to a strong start so far. With new revelations and cast members I can only see it getting better as the season wears on.

Friday Night Lights (Friday, 9:00-10:00 NBC) Well, on the bright side NBC brought it back. Unfortunately, this Friday timeslot is a death sentence. I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Watch it. Please.

Survivor (Thursday, 8:00-9:00 pm CBS) This show's still good. No, I'm kidding it isn't and I can't think of any good reason to watch it anymore. Its premiere a couple of weeks ago justifiably garnered the lowest ratings in the shows history. I don't know how much more of this I can take to be honest. I promised myself I'd watch 30 Rock this year so I may do that instead. I also need to watch The Office, which I've seen only a couple of times.

Damages (Tuesday, 10:00-11:00 FX) If you haven't been watching this show don't bother doing it now because you won't understand what the hell is going on. I've been watching it religiously and sometimes I'm not sure what's going on. If you've seen this you know how good it is and if Glenn Close (literally "the boss from hell") and Ted Danson (as an embezzling, philandering, coke-snorting billionaire) are not onstage accepting Emmys next year I'll be very upset. And I'm not even a fan of legal shows. FX proves itself to once again be the go-to network for the best original series' on television.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sunday, 10:00-10:30 pm HBO) I don't get HBO anymore so I can't watch it. I'll have to live vicariously through everyone else until Season 7 comes out on DVD. It's killing me.