Three underachieving high school seniors decide to throw a party to make a name for themselves. But as word of the event spreads, its starts to get out of control. The three try to salvage their lives while creating a legend.
Starring Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown.
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh.
Written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall.
Produced by Todd Phillips.
Genre: Teen Action Comedy Drama.
It is extremely refreshing to see a series where a courtroom, a hospital, or a crime scene are nowhere in sight. Networks don’t often take chances on a series without one of those popular and successful staples as its foundation. And let’s also get another thing straight – with the exception of the inclusion of songs and musical numbers, there is simply no comparison between Smash and Glee, the first being a serious drama and the latter a comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The good thing about Glee is that its success helped open the door to other shows interested in including music in its formats.
Smash takes us behind the scenes into the world of Broadway giving us views through the eyes of the struggling artist looking for that one break to fulfill their dreams; the creative team looking for inspiration in developing the next big thing along with its music and dance numbers; and the people who can write the checks to pay for it all. The characters involved through each of these views are interesting and engaging, and the talented cast does an excellent job bringing them to life. The musical numbers are richly produced and give a true sense of a Broadway stage while giving us an often-painful peek behind the curtain. But the thing that will keep viewers interested will be the personal dramas associated with all the characters. Based on the Pilot episode alone, Smash appears to be hitting all the right notes.
For some reason, I can’t get this little bit of meta filmmaking out of my mind. Maybe it’s because Jean-Claude Van Damme comes across as a real person in this tale of a just-past-his-prime C-list martial arts star getting caught up in a hostage situation while tying to get the money to pay his lawyer in a custody battle. Not only does it turn out that Van Damme can act, it turns out that he’s not afraid to let himself look less than heroic.
From the opening sequence, with Van Damme shooting a cheesy, low-budget thriller; to the ongoing problem of having to pay alimony and child support; to walking into a post office just as a robbery is taking place, Van Damme’s performance is both skilled and completely natural. [Maybe all it took for him to deliver a knockout performance was to be able to perform in his native language…]
Director Mabrouk El Mechrie shows great faith in Van Damme, using more close-ups than we’ve seen in any other of his films – and Van Damme responds beautifully. El Mechrie’s pacing is just a step ahead of being deliberate – not slow enough for the audience to get bored; not too fast to lose Van Damme’s finest work. Gast Waltzing’s score adds to film’s emotional impact without calling attention to itself.
The only part of this DVD release is the bonus features – two deleted scenes [though they are lengthy sequences]. I would have loved to hear a commentary track with Van Damme and Mabrouk El Mechri.
I don’t know who made the decision to back The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as Paramount’s most likely Oscar® candidate, and to shuffle The Soloist to the spring release schedule where it will undoubtedly get lost among the spring blockbusters, but they definitely backed the wrong metaphorical horse. The Soloist is a film of subtlety and intelligence and does not do something that most movies do: manufacture a happy ending.
Even though changes have been made to make the film a better story, The Soloist shines like the music of Beethoven, the particular favorite of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. [Jamie Foxx]. Ayers came to national prominence when he was discovered, by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez [Robert Downey Jr.], playing Beethoven’s music in the street. The column Mr. Lopez wrote garnered more attention than anything he’d ever written and sparked a huge amount of interest in Mr. Ayers, who had been a student at Julliard before succumbing to schizophrenia.
Rescue Me [FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.] chronicles the gradual self-destruction of New York firefighter Tommy Gavin [Denis Leary] ever since his cousin Jimmy [James McCaffery]died in action helping to evacuate the Twin Towers. As season five opens, Tommy has been sober for a year, an achievement that his cousin, Father Mickey [Robert John Burke], says warrants becoming a sponsor to newbie Derek [Anthony Perullo]. This comes on the heels of an announcement that a French journalist wants to interview the crew about how 9/11 affected them. And that’s barely scratching the surface of this season’s journey.
I could go into the way certain relationships undergo stress; or talk about the bar that Mike [Michael Lombardi] buys [and his adventures in attempting to decorate it]; or reveal the identity of the crew member who gets a devastating illness that relates back to 9/11. I could delve more deeply into the effect Genevieve Lazard [Karina Lombard], the French journalist, has on the crew – for good and/or ill.
Instead, I’ll simply say that Season Five of Rescue Me goes to places that it has never gone before – at least not in this kind of depth. In dealing with all the abovementioned arcs [and several more], the series is not just examining one man’s self-destruction [and, yes, even sober, Tommy is self-destructive], but digging deeper into one of the most salient questions that can be asked of anyone whose job puts them in harm’s way on a regular basis: just how crazy do you have to be to run into building that’s on fire? And how does affect your fellow crew members, your family?
Because the show is written [and I use the term loosely, here – no part of the show is immune to improvisation within a fixed basic plot] by so few people [Denis Leary, Peter Tolan, Mike Martineau and Evan Reilly], there is a unity of vision – and it’s execution – that is unique. They are no afraid to, for example, incorporate Daniel Sunjata’s beliefs that 9/11 was part of a government conspiracy into their ongoing story and really examining how that kind of thing would affect not only 62 Truck, but the entire fire department [not to mention civilians who see it on the internet, or TV].
While all of these things are going on, though, Tommy’s family is going through more changes. Janet [Andrea Roth] has a new boyfriend – a paraplegic named Dwight [Michael J. Fox]; his eldest daughter, Colleen [Natalie Distler] is dating someone from the house, and his younger daughter, Katie [Olivia Crocicchia], is in boarding school [and wants her parents to lie about who they are]. Then there’s Tommy’s attempts to cope with his father’s death…
Somehow, not only does the creative team keep all these arcs – and several more – in the air, they give each the amount of time it takes to do them justice. Since this season has a full twenty-two episode order, that’s crucial.
FX made the first nine episodes available for review purposes and there’s not a dud in the lot. In those first nine eps, nearly every cast member, regular and recurring, has sufficient quality time that they could all be considered Emmy nomination-worthy. Season Five of Rescue Me is a rarity – it’s even better than Season One. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.
The story of David’s conquest of the giant, Goliath, is timeless – the little guy defeating the much bigger guy because he isn’t taken seriously [and with the hand of God to guide him]. Of course, the rest of the story isn’t as well remembered because it can’t be boiled down into three words like “David and Goliath.” Once you get past the archetypal underdog tale, though, you find a rich story about how David rises from being a kid with a slingshot, to becoming King David – warrior, philosopher, musician and ruler.
Kings [NBC, Sundays, 8/7C] takes the story of David and translates it into a vaguely science-fictional alternate universe setting where it can be told as a contemporary drama. The result is American television’s first sci-fi/Biblical soap opera. It begins with King Linus Benjamin [Ian McShane] dedicating the newly completed capitol city of Shiloh – the story of how he became aware that God wanted him to become king and build the city is important. Shortly thereafter, war breaks out between Gilboa and its neighbor, Gath.
Tonight, Saving Grace [TNT, 10/9C], one of the more unusual cop shows returns – bringing Detective Grace Hanadarko [Holly Hunter] a new partner, Abby Charles [Christina Ricci in a three-episode arc] and Grace’s “last chance angel,” Earl [Leon Rippy], a seeming setback in his assignment to help Leon Cooley [Bokeem Woodbine].
Heart of a Cop introduces Abby, who makes a terrific first impression by being late on first day of a 28-day rotation. The day gets more complicated when a murder turns out to be the work of a serial killer. Then, to Earl’s consternation, Leon asks for his execution date to be moved up. Plus, a creepy crime scene fan may be the killer.
Do You Believe in Second Chances? Finds Grace’s brother, Father John Handarko [Tom Irwin] trying to help Leon – but being more than a little bewildered by Leon’s response. Meanwhile, Grace’s niece, Sarah, is arrested at a scavenger party [the guests bring various drugs which are then put in a bowl and everyone takes something randomly from the bowl – it’s a kind of druggie’s Russian roulette], while her friend winds up in a coma. This episode features one of the most heartbreaking depictions of consequences I’ve ever seen.
In Take Me Somewhere, Earl, the investigation of the murder of a drug dealer bleeds over into another case – one with unexpected ties to the precinct. Meanwhile, Father John and Loretta [Laura San Giacomo] meet the mother of the woman whom Leon was convicted of killing; Earl produces an ancient hangover remedy, and we see that Grace is actually capable of having fun without any artificial stimulus. Oh, and there’s an unexpected revelation about Abby.
Besides having one of the two coolest theme songs on TV [the other being True Blood], Saving Grace has taken an especially odd premise and turned it into a powerful exploration of ethics, morality, self-destructiveness and [hopefully] redemption. The writing has become sharper and wittier as the cast have settled into their characters [or, in Hunter’s case, rode her character into the ground]. The show’s directors have framed the cast’s performances in episodes that are now individual jewels in a complicated setting.
With Saving Grace, a series that could have become a joke has become a genuinely unique show – and one of the best on TV.
When Bryan Cranston won the Emmy for Best Actor, last year, it came as a surprise to most of the Awards show’s audience. After all, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm had all the buzz for that series going for him. That and Cranston’s Breaking Bad role, chemistry teacher Walter White, being a guy who decides, upon learning that he has terminal lung cancer, decides to provide for his family by going into the crystal meth business. The DVD release of the truncated first season [seven episodes, down from nine, bcause3 of the writers’ strike] shows that Cranston was consistently amazing throughout – but also that the entirety of the show’s cast is just as remarkable.
Walt has a nuclear family – him and his pregnant wife, Skyler [Anna Gunn] and son Walter Jr. [R.J. Mitte], a high school student who has cerebral palsy [as does the actor who plays him] – and a brother in law who works for the DEA, Hank Schrader [Dean Norris]. Hank’s wife [Skyler’s sister], Marie [Betsy Brandt] rounds out the family. Walt’s partner in crime is Jesse Dupree [Aaron Paul], a high school dropout whom Walt failed in chemistry.
The series is a black comedy that follows Walt as, bit by bit, he goes down the wrong path as his disease worsens. At first he hides his disease from his family as he starts up his meth lab [making the purest stuff Jesse has ever seen], but he eventually tells Skyler and the rest of the family persuade him to take chemotherapy. Along the way, Walt is faced with increasingly difficult choices – like what to do with a couple of dealers who try to horn in on his and Jesse’s set up – and, invariably, makes the wrong choices [though always from a place of good intentions…].
Series creator Vince Gilligan has created a darkly comic series that more than lives up to its intriguing title [Gilligan says that it’s slang for “raising hell”]. Even as we wonder what the heck Walt is thinking as he goes down the path into his personal dark side, we can understand his motivation – and even sympathize. Like the blurb on the box says, “…Walt will stop at nothing to make sure his family is taken care after he’s gone, even if it means putting all their lives on the line.”
Features include: Deleted Scenes on every disc; Audio Commentaries by Gilligan and Cast for the Pilot and Crazy Handful of Nothin’; Making of Breaking Bad; Inside Breaking Bad; Vince Gilligan’s Photo Gallery; AMC Shootout: Interview With Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston and Mark Johnson, and Screen Tests.
Grade: Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season – A+
Well, sir… Lost [ABC, Wednesdays, 9/8C] is continuing on its roll!
Among other things, we learn that Locke [Terry O’Quinn] was born in March of 1956 – and that ties into Charles Widmore [Alan Dale] in a supremely unexpected manner. It also figures in explaining why Locke was visited by Richard Alpert [Nestor Carbonell] as a child. The more you learn about this show – the more answers you get – the more questions arise.
Take Faraday’s mother… please! If you can find her… And just wait until you meet a certain member of Desmond’s family! And speaking of Faraday [Jeremy Davies], he gets to make a definitive statement – though not about the physics of the island [though he also gets to do some actual science stuff, too].
Latin. The dead language plays a role here, too. A small but pivotal part.
Locke’s tracking skills get a workout [see 1956]. We learn more about Faraday’s past [he seems like he’s come a long way from then, but with this show you never know]. Miles [Ken Leung] gets to use his special talent, though it doesn’t seem to help much. As for Charlotte [Rebecca Mader], I refer you back to her nosebleed in the season premiere. We even get a scene that suggests that Charles Widmore actually does care about his daughter, Penny [Sonya Walger]. Then there’s Charlie…
After screening three episodes of Lost, Season Five, I have to say that the pieces of the Cuse/Lindelof mosaic really are falling into place. As the season moves inexorably, but nimbly, towards its conclusion, you can kinda see the outlines within the Big Picture falling into place. Because You Left, The Lie and now, Jughead are all extremely well put together episodes. The scripts have been tight, well-paced and feature that odd mix of character and mythology that differentiates Lost from everything else on television. The direction has been, if anything, even crisper than in the past – these eps haven’t played like the three hours they’ve taken up in our schedules.
Finally, the cast of Lost continues to make us believe in these characters – all of whom are lost in one way or another and seeking to find themselves. It’s really only because of the well-developed characters that we can believe in the mythology of the show. If we didn’t care about Locke, we wouldn’t have been so worried when he faced the Smoke Monster in Season One. If we didn’t care about Faraday and Charlotte [and isn’t amazing how quickly we’ve taken to them?], we wouldn’t be worried about that nosebleed.
As long as the characters remain relatable, and the pace of the revelations [answers should soon begin to outnumber questions, judging by this week’s ep], then the show will continue to hold sway over those of us who still watch [whether in real time, or online, or whatever]. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of fun/drama/weirdness to come.
The winter premiere of The Closer [Mondays, TNT, 9/8C] is following a pretty hard act – it’s mid-season cliffhanger, and so we both learn the fate of Detective Sanchez [Raymond Cruz] and witness Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson’s [Kyra Sedgwick] reaction to Fritz’s marriage ultimatum. Even better, there’s an apparent case of suicide that coroner Dr. Morales [Jonathan Del Arco] won’t sign off on – and he’s extorting Deputy Chief Johnson into taking the case [or he’ll take it to another division, making her team look like idiots!].
The deceased is a recovering drug addict and con man who seems to have gone straight – though that doesn’t jive with the recollection of his ex-wife which is, in turns at odds with the experience [or at least testimony] of his pastor [church in a slating rink!] and cancer-suffering girlfriend. Add in the after effects of the cliff-hanger’s two-pronged dilemma – and the presence of Brenda’s parents [Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen], who are visiting for a few days before setting out on a Hawaiian cruise – and you’ve got all the ingredients for a truly odd mix of confusion, misdirection and pathos. The episode, Good Faith, is also notable for actually having scenes that do not require the presence of DC Strong.
Upcoming episodes feature a body found in the trunk of a car, and a suspected rapist/murderer whose lawyer has a track record of successfully defending sex offenders.
As usual, The Closer is written well enough to give us a few moments pause over each ep’s mystery, but it remains most notable for giving us a strong lead character that continues to grow as a person – and as a high-ranking member of the Los Angeles Police Department. Though this is Sedgwick’s show, there are moments for several members of her team as well as J.K. Simmons’ Assistant Chief Pope [who gets some really good stuff in the premiere].
All in all, The Closer hasn’t yet lost a step. It remains one of the best [and most watched] programs on cable television.
There was an overwhelming amount of great TV, this year [and, as you’ll see not too much later, an almost equally overwhelming amount of excessively bad TV]. Given the truly amazing amount of quality to be found between the networks and the various cable outlets, I’ve decided to list my favorite fifteen shows of the year.