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The Revolution

The bad side of talk shows
When they announced the premiere of The Revolution and The Chew, they both sounded like they had potential. But after seeing both shows, I was reminded of the episode of Star Trek where the transporter split Captain Kirk into two different sides of his personality. The Chew was all of the fun parts of daytime talk shows: guest stars, cooking, games, food, entertaining, laughter, audience participation, etc. The Revolution, on the other hand, was every sad, pathetic, boring aspect of (newer) daytime talk: self-help, sad stories, "turning your life around," makeovers, and so on. It's not difficult to guess which one lasted, and which one was canceled within a year.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Trades in joy in favor of awe
As one would expect, this modern take on Roald Dahl's story benefits greatly from advances in special effects; the look of both the bleak town and the factory interior are spectacular. I feel a bit of "awe fatigue" at this point, though, since $200 million films routinely strive for surprising visuals (often to the detriment of more down-to-earth qualities) and there's only so many things we can be truly surprised by.

The most glaring shortcoming of this "Chocolate Factory" is the bizarre, off-putting performance of Johnny Depp. He is as badly miscast as Gene Wilder was in the earlier film (Willy Wonka was both very old and a dwarf), but Wilder was very likable. Depp is just strange.

This one isn't a musical, so I can't really criticize it for not having songs, but I will say this: it could use some songs (besides the Oompa-Loompa musical lectures). The "reimagined" children are disappointing (gum-chewing and TV-watching aren't interesting enough flaws anymore so now we get hyper-competitiveness and technological precocity in their place). Veruca Salt is still a spoiled rich girl, but now she's self-aware enough to be two-faced, instead of throwing tantrums. It all makes for a long, slow tour through the factory.

The Oompa-Loompas are better in some ways and not in others--their look and songs are different, but they're too "modern" and seem out of place. They also pull the punches--we're told before he's even gone that no harm will come to Augustus Gloop, despite his clearly deserving it. It's better that we're not sure (like in the 1970 version).

All in all, this Tim Burton Vision of Dahl's story is a big, fat disappointment. The best parts of the story (like when Charlie believes the 5th ticket has been found, then gets the double surprise of the revelation of the forgery and getting his own ticket) are almost entirely skipped here. It's as if Burton doesn't want us to enjoy the story. If so, he got his way (at least with me).

ABC Afterschool Specials: Sara's Summer of the Swans
Episode 1, Season 3

Probably about what you'd expect
I got this because I wanted to see what Reed Diamond was like as a child. With "classic" Afterschool Specials released on DVD, it was easy to get. The show was pretty much like I thought it'd be: earnest, low-key, with simple moral and minor tension. The lead character is an extremely annoying teenage girl (that is to say, pretty realistic), but the actress takes a while to find her footing. The appearance of The Brady Bunch's Peter and Jan was probably the big draw (his part is far more important than hers). After you get used to the amateurish acting (par for the course in these kind of shows), it's really not bad. The story avoids too much melodrama and the point it makes isn't anything too earth-shattering.

In case you were wondering--Reed was cute as a button, and very good for a younger child actor (better than many of the older actors), but there's really nothing too obvious which you can see and say "I recognize who that is!" I'd have to see more intervening performances to see a progression.


Slipshod but entertaining
This movie has an amateurish air to it, with more than its share of sloppy edits, plot dead-ends, and those little acting moments that take the viewer out of the story. The story and setting are so entertaining, however, that it manages to overcome its shortcomings and remain a memorable experience. The characters are realistic and fun, and the song choices are consistently good (especially "Turkey Lurkey Time" which is otherwise unavailable on film, far as I know). The original songs (from the people who brought you "Fame") are also good--occasionally terrific.

It's interesting to me that among a cast of newcomers and unknowns, the worst performances are from the adults--especially Don Dixon (Bert). The kids fare much better in general, and their musical performances are their real strengths (unsurprisingly). A surer hand on the direction and script could have tightened Camp up considerably, but even as messy as it is, it's still well worth seeing.

Kay O'Brien

Grey's Anatomy for the 1980s
CBS had high hopes for this series. It was a drama about a group of young doctors dealing with their cases, their superiors, and each other in a busy large-city hospital. Starring Patricia Kalember, late of the soap opera Loving and before the prime-time soap opera Sisters, as the title character, the show had a by then de rigeur multicultural cast thrown together and the usual mixture of serious and amusing cases-of-the-week. If the elements of the show felt slapped together and the characters seemed more like a sampler of types rather than a realistic group of people, well, it wasn't the first time....shows like this had worked in the past and would work in the future. In fact, the entire description of the show (except for the star) sound exactly like Grey's Anatomy in 2005--and that show's a smash. It helps to have a good timeslot, I guess. Kay O'Brien, on the other hand, was gone before Thanksgiving (and 3 episodes never saw the light of day).


The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree
Though the setting and the story are different, this sitcom is very much like its parent series (One on One) in terms of laugh count and quality. Both shows are far from great, but better than the average show of this type (light comedy aimed at urban and African-American audiences). There are some good laughs in every episode (though they could use more), and the plots aren't entirely predictable.

The show is also a bit more ambitious than most of the shows you'll see it compared to, because the cast and setting aren't entirely African-American. On the debit side, the two main characters are the most boring. I'm much more interested in Walt, Ace, and Candy than I am with Kevin and Tiffany, but the same can't be said for the writers (so far). I think at least part of the blame for that has to rest with the actors--Marques Houston is prone to over-reliance on cheap laughs from urban/hip-hop clichés, while Shannon Elizabeth's character is a walking, talking stereotype.

My advice (assuming the show lasts) is to use the other characters more, and get out of the shop more. I'd especially like to see more of the neighborhood.

Wilby Wonderful

The best thing this has going for it is the mood. The quiet evocation of a small island/town is pretty much dead on, with the slightly shabby businesses, people with small-scale ambitions, and hidden strings connecting everyone and everything. There are also some excellent performances, especially Sandra Oh, Rebecca Jenkins, and Callum Keith Rennie (for once showing his awkward, charming side rather than playing another psychopath).

There's both too much and too little going on, if that's possible. The various plot threads wander around before finally getting to what turns out to be the main plot. By that time, there have been a few too many scenes of people walking around while the soundtrack music plays. Some of the characters take too long to register, as well. The one who might be the most important, Dan Jarvis (the suicidal, soon-to-be-outed video store owner), never really registers at all--he never amounts to much of anything besides vague melancholy.

I don't blame the actors, really.....the ones we don't know well enough simply haven't had enough dialogue to let us know them. Fewer subplots and a little less wistful scenery montage would have helped the through-line considerably.

Put most simply, this has too much atmosphere to be a Plot Film and too much plot to be an Atmosphere Film. Not that it would ever have a chance to happen, but I think Wilby would have worked much better as a series.


Two things are missing
This misguided remake is missing two ingredients of the original: 1] The main character; and 2] Laughs. By casting Bea Arthur as the title character, and writing the character to gibe with her well-known-to-the-audience persona, they essentially had to eliminate the main character of the source material (Fawlty Towers). It could be said that the characters of Basil and Sybil Fawlty were combined to make Amanda--but if true....WHAT A STUPID MOVE! Since the primary conflict of FT was between Basil and Sybil, and whether she caught him "misbehaving," the only outlet for emulating that successful formula on Amanda's would have been for her to suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder.

I actually think Fawlty Towers itself is a tad overrated. I have loved watching many of the episodes, but from time to time, especially when watching more than one episode in succession, the frenetic pace and shouted dialog's gets to be too much. That said, Amanda's never even approaches the level of Fawlty Towers.


Numbthreers: Dumb title, decent show
I've liked the show so far, though I can see the Mathematics as a Crime-Solving Tool angle will get old pretty quick. I don't necessarily think that will be a crippling problem for this show, however, because it isn't a flat-out procedural like the CSIs are. It's really a more old-fashioned show than that, more like some of the dramas from the 70s and 80s. If Numbthreers were really another CSI clone, we wouldn't have all the back story about Charley and Don's mother's death, nor would their father be a regular character.

I'm particularly liking Krumholtz, who has turned out to be very different from what I would have expected. Most surprisingly of all, he turned out to be CUTE. He was a fairly stereotypically nerdy Jewish boy as a teenager, but the big-eyed, shaggy-haired socially awkward angelic genius role fits him like a glove. In another actor's hands, it would likely be pretty cloying, but Krumholtz underplays it nicely.

Rob Morrow and Judd Hirsch are more typical characters, with more workmanlike performances so far, but the chemistry between the three Eppeses is fine. The other characters will be developing as the show ages, so we'll see how they turn out.

As I said, I suspect they will have to leave aside the specific formula they've laid out for the show so far, because even if they manage to come up with dozens of plots which hinge on some permutation of mathematics, the theme is certain to quickly grow repetitive and even self-parodying before too long. Since they have supplied interesting characters, though, change-of-pace plots should be just as watchable as the ones done up to now.

Best Friends

A hilarious movie trying to break out
The "based on real life" story of what happens when a carefree cohabiting pair of screenwriters decide to get married, Best Friends is a funny movie constrained by an annoying third act. After marrying, they go on a whirlwind tour for each to meet the other's families. And what families they have! The two families (hers in Buffalo, his in Virginia) are both very different and about equally as funny. If they'd left it at that and not tried to get serious with a breakup and lots of arguing, Best Friends would have been an unqualified success (at least so far as quality is concerned).

They didn't, though. The third act is tedious (as they confront their differences) and it weighs down the rest of the film. It doesn't ruin it, however--I still recommend it, especially for people who like Burt and Goldie, who have chemistry.

Complete Savages

Compendium of clichés
Every boy/man comedy cliché you can think of is folded into this sitcom, but the "all-male" concept is its primary selling point. Like every "big family" show ever made, each child is a high-concept "type" rather than a person (though of course this can change if a show has enough time to mature). In the interest of comprehensiveness, however, Complete Savages probably has at least 3 or maybe 4 too many characters. Keith Carradine isn't the same-old sitcom dad and brings a freshness to an old formula. The Uncle Jimmy character could fall in a well and not noticeably change the show.

As for the boys, they're all different (too different to all come from the same family, but that's probably a little too meta for a modern sitcom to worry about) and each has potential in his own way, but I think there's simply too many to develop in a half-hour show. I think I would have dropped the two youngest and concentrated on the high-school crowd. Chris is too stupid and Sam is too nerdy, but Jack is a fairly well-drawn character. Given time, they'll all smooth out. Most important is that the situation be allowed to evolve if the show is to last longer than a season or two.

Center of the Universe

Not really bad so much as disappointingly average
Press coverage of this would have the average reader thinking this show is disastrously bad. This is unfair to the very strong cast. If anything, in fact, the cast is TOO strong. There's no reason in the world Ed Asner and Olympia Dukakis were hired to play the main character's parents--neither of their roles ever rise above standard sitcom clichés. The same is true for all of the regular cast. The situations, plots, and laugh lines might be more attractive if they didn't look so shopworn and threadbare next to the sterling cast list.

None of this means the show isn't watchable--it is. The network probably wonders why they're shelling out so much money for all those Emmy- and Oscar-winners, though, since a cast of nobodies would probably make just as good a show.

Greetings from Tucson

Soft in the middle
This sitcom about a mixed Hispanic/Caucasian, middle-class family living in Tucson suffers from ill-defined characters in the heart of the story. The main character, teenager David (Santos) shows potential, but his parents (Mechoso and Kreskoff) come off so far as bland and uninteresting. The sibling dynamic between David and sister Maria (Garcia) shows great promise, alternating between hurling vicious insults at each other and teaming up against their mutual foe (their father). The most interesting (and funniest) character is freeloading, thrice-divorced Uncle Ernesto (Vargas). In an unrelated but unfortunate coincidence, Santos looks remarkably like Ben Stiller at the beginning of "There's Something About Mary." A different haircut might alleviate the problem. Anyway, as the parents develop as characters, this could grow into a pretty good show.

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

Better than "Rudolph"
This is the best of the Rankin-Bass animated holiday specials, much more entertaining than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is much better known. The songs are catchier, the invented story elements less silly and more pertinent, and the vocal performances more accomplished.

That's not to say it's perfect. The story is less silly than Rudolph, but it's still pretty silly in spots. Some of the appeal of this is a campy quality that applies to all of these shows. But the songs in this are catchy and memorable, much more so than the other shows. I think it's a shame that this has been relegated to minor cable showings while Rudolph still gets a network showcase every year.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Has a massive story problem
As musicals go, this one is pretty typical of its time: the musical numbers are claustrophobic and badly spaced. All of the good songs come near the beginning. Dolly is terrific, Burt adequate. Most of the rest of the cast are OK. The movie suffers most, however, from its plot. The problem is intrinsic, too, since the story is based on reality. And the problem is.....the entire thing is downhill. There's no rising action, climax, and denouément. Even those unfamiliar with the true story can tell that the ending will be a downer--it's pretty much revealed in the prologue narration. I was also annoyed by the tacky, tawdry displays of sexuality throughout. While I'm well aware of what goes on in a whorehouse, the ubiquitous lingerie and spread legs of the "girls" belie the lyrics of the songs and the dialogue as they describe "Miss Mona's." I don't know if the director felt compelled to titillate, or if he was afraid the audience might be fooled into thinking the place was a music school if the women didn't look and act slutty enough.

My Wife and Kids

Considerably less than the sum of its parts
I like Damon Wayans (a lot). I also like Tisha Campbell. I expected to really like this show, too. But despite the talent involved, My Wife And Kids is a large disappointment. The Family Sitcom is a limiting, oversaturated market even in the best of times. In our ironic era, it's also almost impossible to succeed in. This show doesn't even come close, however. It's as if they went out of their way to make it boring and unimaginative. The kids are nondescript, the laughs are sparse and undernourished, the plots are instantly forgettable. Now they've even added their own version of Urkel (though this kid is much more self-aware than Urkel). Because of the talent involved, the show is always watchable, but it's a lot like spending 20 bucks to get a frozen pizza: you might eat it, and even enjoy it--but you sure do feel gypped.

The Days

Weak center
This show isn't particularly unique or special, but with one major exception it's made up of solid and watchable elements. The weak spot is the main character, Coop. There's nothing about the character that isn't clichéd: he's a mumbly, whiny, "talented, sensitive," disaffected phlegmatic teen. Of course he's a writer whose output frames the action (even more irritatingly than usual). The actor is okay, I guess, but the character was dull decades ago, and the intervening examples have exacerbated its dullness. Plus this guy looks like his hair is eating his face. The sensitive "folky-alternative" music that overlays several scenes each episode is a more modern cliché, but no less annoying. Everything else is fine, especially the actors playing the parents.


Good example of its type
British comedies tend to fall into one of two main types: the quiet, introspective, usually romantic study and the farcical social satire. Settings, characters, and concepts vary but certain characteristics place the vast majority of shows into one of the two categories. Butterflies is perhaps the epitomé of the first type.

The scripts are very verbal, including long interior monologues by the main character Ria, a basically happy but unsettled housewife curious about what she might have missed out on when she embarked on a thoroughly conventional life. When she meets a successful but clumsy and emotionally accessible businessman (who makes his interest in her quite clear), she toys with the idea of finding out what the other path might have offered.

The acting and scripts are always on the money, which makes one's reaction to the show almost entirely a personal one: I was neither blown away by it nor turned off. My mother, on the other hand, adored this show. I think the degree to which one identifies with Ria's dilemma is the most important factor in determining one's reaction to Butterflies.

Connect with English

Don't let the title fool you
Though this series' title makes it sound like a language class, it's really an entertaining drama with just a small pedagogic element at the end of each episode. The story of a girl attending school, getting involved in the music industry, and dealing with friends, family, and two brothers with whom she might be falling in love, "Connect With English" was a surprise to me when I caught it late one night on PBS. They were showing several episodes in succession, and I found myself stuck watching all of them. I later caught some others during another marathon. A major feature of the show is the song "Dreamcatcher," which is a good song but is repeated several times--if you DON'T like the song, it grows tiresome.


I think they were shooting for Married...With Children territory with this one, but they forgot to make it funny. They also forgot to leave out the "heartwarming, uplifting" dollop of sentiment at the end. The combination of unfunny low humor and unconvincing schmaltz adds up to DON'T WATCH.

Andy Richter is too ironic-sarcastic to fit in with the predictable cute-popular vs. goofy-unpopular teen dichotomy, which is itself far too obvious to be interesting. It doesn't help that the actors playing the kids are marginal at best, and completely unbelievable as siblings. Rebecca Creskoff is a typical sitcom mom, very much like the character she played on Greetings From Tucson.


Pretty good spinoff of the film
This pilot for a series manages to capture pretty well the memorable tone of the 1996 film (leaving aside the extreme violence of the kidnapping plot). Edie Falco takes over the role of Chief Gunderson (played so memorably in the film by Frances McDormand), here investigating a local domestic crime. McDormand's Oscar-winning performance was so indelible, it's difficult to accept someone else playing the role, but Falco comes about as close as it is fair to expect. More detail about the town of Brainerd fleshes out the story, including Geoffrey Nauffts and Robert Joy as two brothers dealing with the death of their father. In a twist (which is understandable), this story has absolutely nothing to do with the city of Fargo. The original movie itself didn't have much to do with it, and was not filmed there; when they converted the story for a TV pilot, all ties to North Dakota's largest city were severed in favor of the wifty, oddball charm of Brainerd. It's easy to see how it might be a hard sell as a series, however, though it's nice to have a chance to see this pilot.

How I Got Into College

Sleeper comedy
Good light entertainment that never quite passed into the mainstream, despite featuring several performers who later became better-known: Anthony Edwards before he lost his hair and became a famous TV doc, Corey Parker before he became a caricature of himself, and Lara Flynn Boyle before she became a skeleton. A lightweight and quirky farce about the college admissions process, this bit of fluff also has a really nice heart, plus fun performances by Finn Carter as Edwards's true love and Chris Rydell as Parker's ultracool best friend.

Finders Keepers

Probably the funniest movie you haven't seen
Despite a fairly well-known cast, this one never made too many waves. I recommend you give it a try, however, in the interest of having a very good time. Even more mistaken identities, boomeranging cons, and wild coincidences that you ever thought you'd see punctuate this slambang farce, but the tone is so wifty and lighthearted you never lose faith. Great lead performances by O'Keefe, Gossett, and D'Angelo are teamed with great supporting performances by Dennehy, Lauter, and an early one by Jim Carrey. The funniest one of all, however, is David Wayne as the oldest conductor in America. Do yourself a favor and see this.

The Pallbearer

Delicate soufflé of comedy and melancholy
The tone of this film is really difficult to convey on paper. It manages to successfully capture the elusive appeal that David Schwimmer has from time to time; it's easy for his sad-sack personality to grow annoying and pathetic, but this script managed to walk that line. The scenes of embarrassment and shame never seem overdone or cheap, and serve the story well. I especially like the down-to-earth, realistic beauty that Gwyneth Paltrow always brings to a role; she never seems like a movie star playing a real person. Because of Schwimmer's brief tenure as a star with buzz, this was seen as a box office failure, but it was never the kind of movie likely to rake in huge bucks. For what it is, a small, thoughtful, offbeat romantic comedy, The Pallbearer is a winner.

It's All Relative

A Post-Gay comedy?
Despite its sometimes strident tone and a somewhat low laugh count, this show does represent a step forward in the treatment of homosexuality on television. That's because the gay couple isn't a meek, righteous victim of bigotry--they're just as bad as their counterpart. The confluence of the urbane, upscale gay couple with the blue-collar, old-fashioned Irish couple is often funny, and not always in the ways we might expect. I wish their children in the center of the story weren't so nondescript; with time, they might develop into something more than blandly sweet placeholders.

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