Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Moment of Truth

The Moment of Truth, Fox’s new game show where people answer increasingly personal questions for a chance to make increasing amounts of money, is not the end of the world. It’s far too dull and far too shallow for that.

The lengths that people will go through to win money and/or be on television are well documented and this show is, sadly, no worse than many of the others where people are wiling to act the fool or reveal intimate details about themselves in front of millions of their fellow citizens.

After relentless hyping the show debuted Wednesday night after American Idol and it just sort of sat there without sparking any real interest (prurient or otherwise.) The game features answering up to 21 questions (culled from 50+ questions answered before the show while strapped to a lie detector) and moving forward as long as the answer given on the air is considered to match the veracity of the answer given while being examined by the lie detector.

It sounds more scandalous in theory than it turns out to be in reality. The show is filled with hokum…portentous music, supposedly “suspenseful” pauses before revealing if the answers are true, “candid” reaction shots from family members and friends onstage, oh-so-empathetic host (Mark L. Walberg...see above)…and while some of the questions are probing the contestants grin, grimace, and preen through the proceedings to the extent that you feel no connection to them. In the end, it all adds up to not much at all.

I will admit that morbid curiosity led me to watch the first episode but nothing I saw makes me all that interested in watching any others.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old Australian actor perhaps best known for his star-making turn in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, has died in Manhattan. He was found dead in his apartment (some reports cite possible drug causes.) Ledger is going to be seen as The Joker in the upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight (see below).

Breaking Bad

When we first meet Walter White he’s driving a Winnebago through the desert like a bat out of hell. He’s wearing a gas mask. He’s not wearing pants. In the seat next to him is an unconscious man who is also wearing a gas mask. Behind him two other men flop around lifelessly. And in the distance, there are sirens. In his panic, Walter gets the mobile home stuck in a ravine and he hops out, throws off the mask, and uses a camcorder to send a message to his family. Leaving his ID by the camera Walter, in an apron and jockey shorts, stands in the road pointing a big gun in the direction of the approaching sirens.

And then we flash back three weeks to find out how he got to that fateful juncture in his life.

This then is the way that Breaking Bad, an intriguing new series from American Movie Classics (AMC), begins.

Bryan Cranston (perhaps best known as Hal, the amorous, hapless Dad on Malcolm in the Middle) stars as Walter, a sad sack High School Chemistry teacher who has to work a second job in a car wash to try to make ends meet for his family. Walter’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) is loving (she celebrates his 50th birthday morning by writing out the number 50 is veggie bacon on top of his scrambled eggs) but disappointed with where they are financially and his son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) has cerebral palsy and a sarcastic tongue.

A dire medical diagnosis causes Walter to “wake up” (his words) and take his life into darker realms in order to try to make a more stable financial future for his wife and son in the shadow of his impending demise. The path Walter chooses is to apply his knowledge of chemistry to cook up high grade crystal meth in partnership with a former student of his, drug dealer Jesse (Aaron Paul). They use the aforementioned Winnebago as a rolling drug lab.

Breaking Bad blends drama and comedy to nice effect and it leaves you in the strange position of kinda rooting for a guy looking to make a fortune by making and selling illegal drugs. Cranston’s bravura performance…a potent combination of resignation, disappointment, and, after his life is given an impending end date, cunning, new purpose, and a new sense of fatalistic fearlessness…he’s wonderfully appealing in the role. The other actors have their moments (especially Paul, whose Jesse finds himself in the perplexing situation of being in partnership with a teacher who failed him) but the pilot is carried by Cranston.

Like Mad Men before it, Breaking Bad is another well-written, well-acted gem for AMC (which seems determined to break out of the box of just showing old movies) and I am really looking forward to seeing where this one will take us.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Duets...Friends and Legends

There are a few ways that pop stars who were popular in the 60’s or 70’s (or even 80’s) can make a bit of splash on the scene long after radio has relegated them to the oldies stations; one of them is to gather together some famous friends and fans and take a trip through the old songbook with a collection of duets.

Anne Murray’s voice is not as supple as it was 30 years ago (but then whose is?) but it still has beguiling warmth that caresses the lyrics and brings a smile to jaded ears. On this disc, Murray (aided and abetted by legendary producer Phil Ramone) and her friends (all women) remake some of her old hits to very fine effect.

Murray’s creamy voice blends sweetly with her still potent contemporaries including the great Dusty Springfield (a charming take on “I Just Fall in Love Again”), the always-amazing Emmylou Harris (the sweetly plaintive “Another Pot o’ Tea”), Olivia Newton-John (the lovely, bittersweet “Cotton Jenny”), and Carole King (the wistful “Time Don’t Run Out on Me”).

She also holds her own with younger singers: Shelby Lynne (the feisty “You Won’t See Me”), Martina McBride (a grand take on “Danny’s Song”), the Indigo Girls (the hopeful “A Little Good News”), the ever-remarkable k.d. lang (a very beguiling version of “A Love Song”), Amy Grant (a luminous “Could I Have This Dance”), Sarah Brightman (a neat remake of Murray’s first big hit “Snowbird”), Shania Twain (“You Needed Me”), Celine Dion (a charming live duet on “When I Fall in Love”...see below), Celtic Woman (“Song for the Mira”), Nelly Furtado (“Daydream Believer”), Jann Arden (“Somebody’s Always Saying Goodbye”), Dawn Langstroth (who is Murray’s daughter, on a lovely spin through “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do”), and Isabelle Boulay (on a stately French version of “If Ever I See You Again”).

17 fine duets… as comfortable and soothing as a warm summer’s day…coming together to make a very fine CD.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

American Idol 7

It’s back.... It’s been a mixed bag for American Idol alumni over the past year…some have had extraordinary success on the charts (Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood), one became an Oscar winner (Jennifer Hudson), another made a big splash on Broadway (Fantasia) while, on the other hand, others have had relatively tepid sales of their newest CDs (Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Katherine McPhee, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, Blake Lewis with Studdard, McPhee, and Hicks all losing their major label contracts)…but with the ongoing writers’ strike crippling television production, the return of the show itself is a godsend for both fans and the Fox TV network.

Idol began its 7th cycle with “been there, done that” efficiency…Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Ryan Seacrest (see above) could phone in their opening round comments and expressions now (and in the 2-hour season premiere that’s basically what they did)…and the early episode parade of would be William Hungs is also extremely familiar (though, that said, the two Star Wars geeks…um, I mean “fans”… and the guy who sang the song about stalking were especially sad and disturbing…is being on TV really so important to some people that they are willing to willfully make themselves the butt of jokes in front of millions of viewers? Apparently so…)

Some of the people who got the “Welcome to Hollywood!” shout showed promise but, as usual, most of the folks who make the final cut before fans start voting will probably not get much (if any) screen time until the Hollywood round begins in earnest.

Idol remains a television juggernaut despite a mildly disappointing 6th season (producers swear that this cycle there will be less emphasis on mentors and guest performers and more emphasis on the contestants which is a good thing) and with the strike it seems poised to be an bigger player on the small screen this year (even if no one picks up the mantle of Sanjaya :-)

Once they get through the freak show rounds, things will doubtlessly pick up and Idol will carry us through the spring in an entertaining fashion.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cashmere Mafia

I don’t know if Cashmere Mafia executive producer Darren Star cares if people think of the new show as Sex and the City (another production of his) with more high-powered jobs and less nudity but in any case that’s what it is.

Mafia is fast-paced (sometimes the cuts are quick enough to give a guy whiplash), often amusing, soapy, and full of fabulous clothes being worn by consistently good looking folks who always ready with a sharp bon mot. The leads…Lucy Liu, Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto, and Bonnie Somerville…are all in fine fettle in their roles.

Two episodes in (I think that ABC has seven in the can) and the subplots are flying fast and furiously (one of the principals has a cheating husband, another is exploring lesbianism, another has gotten the job of her dreams but lost her fiancée in the process, while the fourth is juggling a demanding career, demanding kids, demanding nannies, and a husband who feels neglected) but these ladies with their hectic, demanding work lives still manage to find time to lunch together (sort of like the way the Sex ladies always managed to find time to go clubbing together.)

And it’s all good. In these writing strike hobbled times, Mafia is frothy and fun…everything a good prime time soap should be…and a reasonably entertaining alternative to the glut of “reality” shows hurtling down the pike.