Wednesday, August 16, 2006


I’m always entranced by marketing gimmicks, and NBC certainly needs one. Their poor ratings this summer, mirroring their poor ratings over the last year, have made it difficult for them to build much buzz for their new shows starting this fall. (If no one is watching their programs this summer, then no one will see all their promos for the new fall shows.)

So they came up with what I think is a neat idea: making pilot episodes for a couple of those new shows available through Netflix. A single DVD disk has the pilot episodes – and precious few extras – for Kidnapped (with Dana Delaney, Timothy Hutton, and Jeremy Sisto) and for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (with Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, and Steven Weber, among others).

Okay: it’s no surprise that I was planning to watch Studio 60, it being Aaron Sorkin’s new series. This pilot episode seems to be a good combination of his previous shows, Sports Night and The West Wing, and unlike a lot of new shows, appears to have the characters’ relationships fairly well developed and nailed down. Good writing, good potential for story lines, and I’m guessing it will be the better of the two series this year based on Saturday Night Live. I’m definitely looking forward to it, and to getting hooked on it.

Kidnapped looks like it could be pretty interesting, too: a season-long investigation into, and the (attempted) private recovery of, the child of a very wealthy family. A few concerns: how do they attract viewers who miss the first few episodes? How do they keep the interest and suspense up in the mid-season episodes, and not have them turn into Red-Herrings-of-the-Week? And what do they do at the end of the season? If they don’t get the child back, the series will jump the shark as fast as Lost or Twin Peaks did, and if they do, what happens next season? Kidnapping another member of the family? Or follow an entirely different kidnapping, thereby losing Delaney and Hutton from the series roster? My prediction is that this series will struggle to find its audience, and probably won’t be a great success. I could see it being cancelled mid-season; if it’s more successful, it could be renewed for a second season – but not a third.

Monday, August 14, 2006

If this was amusement, then I'm glad we stayed away from the Torture Park.

I had the day off on Friday. (Well, not so much "off" as "locked out." An unpaid day of vacation, so to speak. At my horrid job as contract attorney, Friday was Moving Day, as they're moving us from one warehouse where the air conditioner doesn't work especially well to another of about the same size - and cramming 50 percent more people in with us. But that's a tale for another time.)

One of the guys I work with has a part time job at the local amusement park (King's Dominion), doing training. (Funny how so many of us have part time jobs elsewhere. And yet - a tale for another time.) The good news is that, as an employee there, he gets a stack of complimentary tickets. So he invited a bunch of us to spend our mandatory day off riding roller coasters and whatnot.

Well, why not? Certainly, the cost was right. And it turns out that only one of our group had not yet been born the last time I went there, back in 1979.

A lot of things had changed since the last time I was there. Many, many new rides. A Water Park. Lots of movie-related things (not surprising, as the present owner is Paramount).

Probably the most important thing that has changed since my last visit? I discovered I'm not as fond of roller coasters as I once was.

Getting to the park, I realized that I wasn't interested in rides that turn me upside down, or in being suspended from something instead of riding in a car. If I look down between my feet and see ground way down there instead of floorboards, I'm not getting on it. And I really wasn't interested in 270 feet of free fall. (See photo above, taken with a telephoto lens - because you don't get that much detail with the naked eye.)

Fine. I could still ride traditional roller coasters, and did. Including the Rebel Yell, one which I recall riding the last time I was there and enjoying it. And I discovered to my horror that I no longer found being loosely strapped into a vehicle hurtling over a 100-foot high precipice down a 75- or 80-degree slope to be "fun."

Further experimentation revealed that other rides having the common thematic element of simulating dashing yourself against the ground from a great height and at a high rate of speed were also ones that I found to be somewhat less than entirely enjoyable.

Some rides were fun, to be sure, and the morning overcast kept the crowds down, so all in all, it was a pleasant way to spend the day. But I'm glad I had a complimentary ticket, instead of one I'd had to pay $40 or more for. (And the free ticket made it easier to put up with the other price gouging - $10 to park and $3.25 for a half-liter bottle of water, for instance.)

It might well be another 27 years before I go back.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mow, mow, mow the yard.

I mowed my front yard this past weekend, much to my neighbors’ delight. Not especially exciting, to be sure, other than for the fact that it hadn’t been mowed since before Memorial Day.

And not that it had grown all that much in two months. We’ve had lots of heat and very little rain, and the grass responded wisely by not growing. So other than the three weeds that thrived in the drought, there wasn’t much need for a session with the lawnmower. (Well, other than to give the neighbors one thing fewer to glare at me about.)

Forty-five minutes, two-thirds the volume of grass clippings of the previous mowing, and a bucket of perspiration later, I was done. With luck and a continued drought, I won’t have to do that again until Columbus Day.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Like popcorn with margarine and no salt.

It was a disappointing weekend of movies at the Cellar: Disappointing in that good books did not successfully make the transition to the big screen.

Perhaps it’s that we’ve been spoiled of late: The Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy were translated to cinema extremely well, with the story intact and the spirit alive. Movies where it was easy to believe in the new worlds created on the screen, and that the inhabitants truly lived and loved and died within them. Not so with the movies I watched this weekend.

One disappointment was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The special effects were excellent, the story seemed complete, and the characters’ speeches seemed to match what I recall from the book (although it’s probably been since junior high school – many, many years ago – that I last read the book). And Tilda Swinton as the White Witch brought a depth to her character that was utterly missing with all other characters in the movie. Other than her and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, all the characters – alive and animated – had the short range of emotion you would expect to see at a table reading on the first day of rehearsal. Everyone walked through their scenes by rote, bringing no sense of wonder to the land of Narnia and ultimately no soul to the film. A fine example of the observation that a movie needs more than special effects to be good.

A bigger disappointment was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The special effects were pretty good, although not great, and again, the story seemed to match my memory of the book. This time, though, putting the dialogue into the characters’ mouths worked poorly. The words matched what I recall of the characters’ speech in the book, but it just didn’t work at all well. The visuals, the poor acting, and the cumbersome dialog combined to put me to sleep three or four times during the movie, and at no time was any part of the movie compelling enough to make me want to go back and re-watch what I had slept through.

Perhaps it’s that Douglas Adams’ writing isn’t well-suited to a direct translation to the movies; that the scenes and images he creates play better in the reader’s imagination than they do when realized in a movie. A better adaptation of this book could be found in the computer game for the Commodore-64, and I’d happily recommend playing that to watching this movie.

Another book adaptation I’ve watched recently that wasn’t as good as I’d hoped was The Twelve Chairs, by Mel Brooks. One of his first movies, it had tantalizing glimpses of the humor that blossomed in his next few movies – Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety – but not enough of them to make it qualify as a good, funny movie. Maybe it’s that the underlying book from which the movie was adapted was intended as a biting satire of the Soviet system, and the movie takes its tone from that. Or maybe it’s just that Brooks was still feeling his way as a director. The movie often seems disjointed and without a coherent structure: it has too many plot twists and new scenes for no reason other than Brooks needed five more scenes before he could get to the movie’s end. It really felt as though I was watching a 90-minute version of the hoary old “Tiz Bottle” joke, albeit one without a Tiz Bottle. And yet, a Tiz Bottle joke told by the Mel Brooks who made The Producers would have been a good movie. This one didn’t quite reach that standard.

(Yes, I have liked some movies I've seen recently. Match Point, for one, although three quarters of the way through it, I wasn't sure. But by the end, I was.)