Saturday, September 29, 2007

It's the Fall TV Scorecard - Part One

It dawns on me that the new Fall TV season is in full swing as of this week, and I haven't taken the time to tell you what I think you should and should not be watching because, let's face it, my wife says I spend my entire life in front of the TV set as it is, so who better to listen to? So here, in no particular order, are my opinions of the new Fall series to date.

BACK TO YOU: Completely professional. Completely serviceable. Completely unoriginal. Leads Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and the always-wonderful Fred Willard do what they do best, but I can't escape the feeling that I've somehow seen it all before.

THE BIG BANG THEORY: Easily my favorite new sitcom of the season. I've liked pretty much everything creator Chuck Lorre has touched, and this is no exception. I saw the first version of the pilot last season, and the second version earlier this year. Strangely enough, the opening scene that aired as part of the first episode is the third version of that scene I've seen, and I think it works the best. The only change they made from the first pilot to the second that I really disagreed with was the exclusion of a female nerd character who I thought was a perfect mix with the other three leads, played by Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, and now Kaley Cuoco. I've read that Sara Gilbert will be joining the show in essentially that role and I have to admit I'm pleased. Besides, how can I hate any show where one of the lead characters is clearly a DC Comics fan? I'll be watching every week.

KITCHEN NIGHTMARES: Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a big fan of chef Gordon Ramsey's other series, Hell's Kitchen, so I was already inclined to root for him here. While I've enjoyed the first two episodes aired so far, I'm afraid that this series will quickly start to become repetitive. Whether they can find enough different kinds of nightmare restaurants to hold my interest remains to be seen.

REAPER: Is a hoot-and-a-half. The basic premise of a young slacker discovering on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the Devil before he was even conceived is great fun, and Ray Wise (whom I've loved ever since he played Dr. Alec Holland in the original Swamp Thing movie) plays a Devil who is both charming and suitably unctuous, and incredibly entertaining to watch. Tyler Labine makes a great loopy sidekick to our reluctant demon-hunting hero played by a wonderfully woebegone Bret Harrison. I hope the show is a hit.

CHUCK: Does to the world of espionage what Reaper does to the supernatural. Slacker Nerd Herder Chuck Bartowski, wonderfully played by Less Than Perfect's Zachery Levi, suddenly finds that he has all of the NSA's greatest secrets downloaded into his brain and both the NSA and CIA want that information. The writing is crisp, funny, and kind of touching, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes. Right now, Chuck is appointment TV for me.

LIFE: Okay, so LA detective Charlie Crews, played by Londoner Damien Lewis, is framed for a multiple murder and spends 12 years behind bars getting brutalized, until his attorney finally proves his innocence and gets Crews released from prison, where he receives a multi-million dollar settlement and his old job back as an apology. Now Crews is sort of a cross between Adrian Monk and Doctor Gregory House, using what he learned in the slammer to help him solve crimes, even as he constantly munches on the exotic fruit he was clearly denied while in stir. The show hasn't hooked me yet, but I'm willing to give it a few more episodes before I bail.

BIONIC WOMAN: Boy, has there been a new series more hyped this season? I think not. And, frankly, I think it needs all the help it can get. Yes, I know the show is a reimagining of the old '70's series, told with the same sort of dark and gritty style of the similarly-revamped Battlestar: Galactica, but does it have to be so relentlessly grim? Lighten up, people. Despite the fact that this show costars my old friend Miguel Ferrer, I'm not sure I'll be sticking with it much longer if it doesn't give me somebody to root for.

K-VILLE: Oh, please. Basically, policeman Anthony Anderson stays in New Orleans when all about him leave town because of the flooding. Now Anderson is teamed with a new cop transferred in from another city and played by Cole Hauser. Problem is, Hauser turns out to actually be an escaped con who was accidentally freed by and had his life turned around by Hurricane Katrina. Sure. That sort of thing happens all the time.It's unfortunate they chose the Big Easy as the location for this series, since the basic plot just doesn't hold water.

DIRTY SEXY MONEY: Truth to tell, I liked this one a whole lot more than I expected I would. It's one of those huge over-the-top black comedy Dallas-type soap operas with a really terrific cast, led by Peter Krause (of Sports Night and Six Feet Under fame), the always-exceptional Donald Sutherland, and Oscar-winner Jill Clayburgh. It may start to wear on me after a while, but for now I'll tune in every week to enjoy the ride.

KID NATION: Okay, I may be the only person in America who actually likes this show, but in fact I like it a lot. I'm a sucker for shows about inspiring kids, and this show is full of them. 14-year-old Michael, who always knows what to say to rally the other kids, 10-year-old Emilie, who barricades herself in with the chickens to protect them from dinnertime slaughter; tiny little 9-year-old Taylor, caught between overwhelming homesickness and the need to be one of the town's leaders. I just love this stuff and these kids' attitudes and look forward to seeing if they can actually make the ghost town they now call home work.

Okay, that's it for the new season so far. More reviews and my humble opinions next week.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Wickedly Wonderful

It seems my lovely wife Christine and I have been going to the theater a lot of late. Herewith my report...

Six weeks ago, we attended the season opener of Reprise!, a musical series of which I have spoken often here in the past. This season opened with On Your Toes, one of the lesser efforts by Rodgers and Hart, memorable only for the song There's a Small Hotel and for the mini-ballet Slaughter on 10th Avenue. Still, the Reprise! production was as charming as possible under the circumstances, with a wholly competent company led by Stephanie Powers (of Hart to Hart fame) and Dan Butler (Bulldog on Frasier). We had a fine old time and look forward to the revisionist Reprise! production of the legendary Damn Yankees this November. I'll fill you all in once we've seen it.

Three weeks ago, Christine and I and our dear friend Gillian Horvath went to see the Actors Equity special one night performance of William Finn's wonderful Falsettos, with Malcolm Gets (of Caroline in the City), Vicki Lewis (of Newsradio), and Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (now creative director of the aforementioned Reprise!) leading a talented cast. Although the performers were still on book for much of the production, we found the show to be funny, charming, and ultimately touchingly heartbreaking. Well worth our time.

Last week, Chris and I went to see the road company of Lerner and Loewe's classic Camelot at UCLA's Royce Hall. Lou Diamond Phillips has just stepped into the role of King Arthur, previously played on the road by the great Michael York, and while Phillips doesn't necessarily have the greatest voice in the world, he is certainly the best singer I have ever seen in the role. Christine was thrilled to finally see a show where she knew all the music. While the sets were clearly scaled down slightly for the road, the show remains one of the classics, and the cast was easily up to the task. If Camelot comes to your neck of the woods, it's an evening well worth your time.

Last night, however, was one of the best nights I have spent in the theater in many a moon, as Chris and I and our friend Emily Mayne went to the Pantages Theater to see Wicked! In a word, WOW! Now this is what a Broadway musical is supposed to be. The sets are spectacular. The songs are singable. The story is inventive, compelling, funny, and touching. And the performers bring the house down. The current production stars Eden Espinosa as Elphaba and Megan Hilty as Glinda, both of whom have performed the roles in the Broadway company, with the always-wonderful Carol Kane as Madame Morrible and the charming John Rubenstein as the Wizard. We laughed. We cried. We were heartbroken that it had to end. Christine, who is usually one of the toughest critics I know, absolutely loved the show, which should tell you a whole lot right there. Wicked will be playing in LA at least through next March. We absolutely intend to go see it at least once more. I strongly recommend you do the same. This show gets a resounding five claws up.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This is Supposed to be a Joke, Right?

As some of you may know, I live in the west San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles proper. About a half mile south of my house is Ventura Boulevard, one of the Valley's major thoroughfares. Until a few months ago, about a half mile east on Ventura stood one of the few Taco Bell fast food restaurants in the area. We have several Del Tacos around, but this was the only Taco Bell. Once every so often, I'd stop there for lunch, to try the latest Gordita (which somehow always sounded like a Japanese movie monster to me) or the newest Quesadilla or whatever. Three or four months back, I decided to stop by the Bell to grab a quick bite, only to discover it had gone out of business. This surprised me, since most fast food chains don't drop like flies much around here, especially when there aren't many others of the particular chain to be found locally.

At least once a week since then, I've driven by to see if anything had changed at the location, and about a month ago, I was thrilled to finally see a LEASED sign on the property. Something new was going in to replace the Taco Bell. I spent the next several weeks pondering the possibilities. We're already butt deep in McDonalds and Burger Kings and Wendy's and Jack-in-the-Boxes and Carl's, Jr. around here. Even In-n-Out Burger (the best fast food burger franchise in the country, bar none) has maxed out in the area, with one available within a couple of miles now in any direction. We've got all the Pizza Huts or Domino's or Little Caesar's or KFCs or Subways or Quizno's we'll ever need. What I was really hoping for was a Sonic Burger since the only Sonic in Southern California that I'm aware of currently is down by Disneyland, a 90 minute drive away. When I was in Metropolis, Illinois back in June for the annual Superman Celebration, I had brunch at their local Sonic Burger and fell in love with their Diet Cherry Limeade, my favorite drink and one I cannot find around here anywhere.

So you hope, right? You drive past the location every so often to watch the demolition and reconstruction and you wait for the big, bright banner to go up, announcing what's coming, and you hope it'll be a Sonic because you really have a Jones for those Diet Cherry Limeades and then one day the banner goes up as expected and you read it as you drive by and you almost drive your car straight into the nearest lamppost because you're so astonished by what you see.

COMING SOON, the banner reads, in bright green letters at least a foot high, ANOTHER STARBUCKS COFFEE DRIVE-THRU!

That's it? After all this anticipation? That's all I get? Another freaking Starbucks?

Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I dislike Starbucks (although, to be honest, I much prefer the Ice-Blended coffee drinks at the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf), it's just that there seems to be a Starbucks on almost every other street corner, interspersed with the aforementioned Coffee Beans. In fact, to add insult to caffinated injury here, were you to stand in front of the new Starbucks location on Ventura and hurl your no-fat, no-sugar, half-caf, no foam, Venti Mocha Frappachino with enough force, you would literally hit someone standing in front of another Starbucks diagonally across the street. They are that close together.

So what are we to assume here? That Southern Californians are too lazy to cross the street for a cup of coffee? That the City Planners have finally run out of new ideas completely? That some evil super-villain is doing this just to drive me crazy (admittedly a short trip)?

Truth to tell, I just don't know, and I honestly don't really care. I just mourn for my stillborn Sonic.

So can anybody tell me where I can get a decent Diet Cherry Limeade around here?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Hear the Train A-comin'...

Well, seeing as how I lambasted the original so cruelly a few blogs back, I thought it incumbent upon me to go check out the new incarnation of the movie 3:10 to Yuma, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard. For those who came in late, the original film, made 50 years ago, mind you, starred Glenn Ford (Pa Kent in the first Christopher Reeves' Superman film) as the roguish, charming, homicidal stagecoach robber Ben Wade and veteran character actor (and Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Johnny Eager) Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the desperate farmer who accepts $200 to escort the captured Wade to the town of Contention, where Wade is to be put on the title train to Yuma prison, where he will be properly tried and then pretty much promptly hung. The film is essentially a character study, as the two men come to understand and to some small degree respect one another, on the long trip to Contention. There is some action and gunplay along the way but the biggest problem with the story, as I've mentioned before, is that it has one of the most anticlimactic climaxes I've ever seen in a film. It's the kind of ending that has you leaving the theater shaking your head, wondering why you bothered to watch it all in the first place.

The new incarnation of Yuma stars Oscar winner and perennial bad boy Russell Crowe as Wade and Batman Begins' own Christian Bale as Evans, and each of them brings more of what the characters are to the roles than did the originals. Crowe's Wade is more roguish, more charming, and infinitely more homicidal than Ford's, while I've rarely seen a more woebegone farmer than Bale's Evans. I should also make mention of Ben Foster as Wade's right-hand man, Charlie Prince, a role assayed in the original by the late Richard Jaeckel. As Prince, Foster gives new meaning to the word psychopath. Generally excellent in a variety of supporting parts are Gretchen Mol, Peter Fonda, Alan Tudyk, and especially Logan Lerman as Evans' older son William.

There is a lot more action in this new incarnation of Yuma, though the film remains at its heart a study of two men of radically different moralities thrown into mortal conflict. The climax, which I found to be the single most disappointing part of the original, is much, much better here, though still not entirely satisfying. Over all, however, I'd have to give this film a solid three claws up.

Truth to tell, though, as I sat there watching, there was only one real thought that kept rattling around inside my head:

"Y'know," I kept thinking, "What this film really needs is a catchy theme song."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just a Thought

An interesting observation as I grow older: as a rule these days, I find that I feel a lot less like a young Turk and a whole lot more like Turkish Taffy.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Aw, Shucks

Okay, so I e-mailed the legendary Stan Lee to inform him about the bizarre coincidence of my previous post, and within mere minutes, the living legend replied thusly...
Just goes to show -- great talents tend to congregate at the same place.
Positively makes one blush, it does. Yes indeed.

Oh, and for those of you wondering the next most obvious question regarding Stan and myself having lived in the same building, albeit a decade or so apart, namely did we live in the same apartment, sadly I have to say no. Stan makes mention of having an apartment that faced the rear of the building, while I have vivid memories of standing on the sidewalk in front of the building, shouting up to my mother, who was leaning out our apartment window, asking her for ice cream money, which she would then usually toss down to me, a dime tied carefully inside a handkerchief so it wouldn't get lost.

Wow, I haven't thought about that in decades. The memories this is all bringing back: running around on the Grand Concourse with my now-departed grandparents sitting on a bench nearby, keeping a watchful eye on me; my late, lamented Dad buying me one of the last issues of the original Plastic Man comics at the small candy shop across the street; all of us carefully staying out of the path of the great dinosaurs that still roamed the earth in those prehistoric days. God, was I ever really that young?

Okay, Wein, that's just about enough of that. Any second now, and I'm gonna start hearing Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing softly in the background.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Believe it or Not

This is one of those things which, if it wasn't true, nobody would believe it. I was just browsing through Mark Evanier's always-entertaining News From ME blog, which you can link to at the right side of this very page. Today, Mark linked to an interesting article from the Sunday New York Times Key Magazine, which includes a slide show photo gallery of all the places comic book legend Stan Lee, former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics and the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, the Uncanny X-Men, and, just to balance the scales, the Astonishing Ant-Man, has lived in his long and prolific life. Out of idle curiosity, I decided to check out the gallery and what I saw there absolutely floored me.

It's no secret that I spent my formative years growing up in Levittown, New York, or, as I like to call it, "The Cliche´City of the East". Remarkably, I'm not the only comics professional to hail from that illustrious post-war Long Island village. That lovely little suburb also gave us former Dark Horse and Batman editor Bob Shreck, Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, and Mr. Monster writer/artist Michael T. Gilbert, among several others. But, love Levittown though I might, it wasn't my first home.

No, from birth until I was seven-and-a-half and casually wandered out into the middle of the street one day, where only my father's quick reflexes saved me from being run over by a passing truck, thus deciding my family to move immediately to the suburbs, I lived in an apartment building in the New York City borough of The Bronx. The address was 1720 University Avenue, and, as I remember it, the place looked almost exactly like this.

The astonishing coincidence in all this? According to today's Times piece which can be linked to in its entirety by clicking here, Stan Lee lived in this exact same building just a decade or so before I did. Now what are the odds of that?

Sort of makes one wonder what future former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics is living there now, don't it?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A Quick Claws Up

And it goes as promised to faithful reader J. Kevin Carrier for correctly identifying the title of the previous post as a line from Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues. When Eugene Morris Jerome, played in the film by Matthew Broderick, gets off the bus in Biloxi, Mississippi, to begin his Army basic training, he mutters, "God, it's hot. It's Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't live in this hot." I loved the line and it's always stuck with me.

Here, in the real world, it looks like the heat wave has finally begun to break. It's only 81˚ right now and they don't expect it to break 90˚ for the rest of the week.

Of course, weathermen have been known to be wrong before.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tarzan Couldn't Live in This Hot

And a quick claws up to the first faithful reader who can tell us where the title of this post comes from.

Well, it was 115º on Saturday, 114º Sunday, 112º on Monday, and the last time I checked, the temperature was already at 94º today. You know it's too damned hot in Los Angeles when people are traveling to Death Valley to get away from the heat.

I'm just saying.